William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

A Homily Based on Mark 4:36-41

This sermon was preached on June 23, 2024, and was part of a livestream that can be viewed here.

Good morning, Christ Church! It’s good to be with you for worship today and to get to preach and lead the service while the staff is away on their Guatemala mission trip. 

For anyone I don’t know, my name is Bill Walker, and I used to serve as the Director of Vocation here at Christ Church. I now lead a campus ministry organization at UT called Hill House, where we also talk about vocation with students. In addition, we host dinners, discussions and lectures on a variety of topics that are confronting Christian students at a University like UT, and try to resource them for the integration of faith and their education. For example, this Fall we’re doing a series on “Faith & Reason,” and there may be opportunity at least once or twice for Christ Church to participate as well.

Last weekend, on Sunday evening, many of you were part of Father Matt Dampier’s installation service as the new rector of Christ Church, which I attended as well. And I did so gladly, but I didn’t come with an expectation necessarily to be so moved by it. I guess I thought, this is an important but mostly formal inaugural induction ceremony of some kind. But wow, I found it to be much more than that.

Of course the backyard party afterward with everybody was fun, but the service itself especially was quite touching and challenging in many ways. And I won’t mention everything that could be remembered, but several things in particular stood out from Bishop Todd’s sermon that speak prophetically and pastorally not just to Father Matt, but to our church in particular, and to Christian in our time in general.

The passage that he most drew from was Joshua 1:7-9. That fairly famous and almost cliche coffee mug or Christian t-shirt verse: 

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. DO not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” 

Bishop Todd commented that another way to understand the sense of the Hebrew phrase for “be strong and courageous” is, “do not be alarmed.” Why? Bishop Todd further commented: Because you are in the care of another. You are in the care of another. Do not be alarmed. Be strong and courageous. Because you are in the care of another. 

Let’s pray. Oh God, as Christ Church, and as your followers, we do wish to be people of strength and courage who are not afraid and who are easily alarmed by the many threats and challenges we may face. Teach us, Lord Jesus, to trust you, and guide us into truth through your word this morning we pray, Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Recently I read as part of a book club I’m in The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle for the book is, “How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.” 

Now, I know I just quoted Bishop Todd and Scripture basically saying, “do not be alarmed.” And yet, admittedly, this book is trying to sound an alarm – but for good reason, I think. And the alarm is being sounded for reasons that many of us probably already recognize. But research and the evidence in the book confirms even more what some have feared, which is that, indeed, our smart phones and screens are doing something harmful to all of us, but especially to our young people. Our smart phones and screens already have done harm, unfortunately. 

Now, that’s a very serious topic that deserves our attention, but that’s not what I want to focus on this morning. Rather, another part of this book, The Anxious Generation, takes time to diagnose our current cultural moment a bit more. Not just the technological and virtual features of it, but other things as well. And this builds on to a previous book by Haidt called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. 

See, the thesis of Haidt’s The Anxious Generation could be summarized this way: “parents have underprotected their kids in the virtual world and overprotected them in the real world.” And this needs to be reversed. 

Isn’t that interesting? Because it’s not something that we might all immediately recognize. The underprotection in the virtual world, sure, but overprotection in the real world – that’s perhaps less obvious, and where I think I think we and I have some more learning to do. 

The basis for this claim of overprotection is that kids, by and large, especially between the ages of say three and ten, very much need what Haidt refers to as “free play.” And free play is characterized by a few things: regular experience of relatively unsupervised, relatively unstructured, and relatively risky play and activity with other children – preferably of different ages, and preferably outdoors. 

As soon as you hear that, if you’re like me, you’re thinking, oh yeah, of course that’s what they need. It’s almost like I knew that already. But for a variety of reasons, we’ve taken more and more of this play time and free time away from kids in the last few decades. 

And so this isn’t just about smart phones. Actually this trend of decreasing free play, Haidt argues, started largely in the 80s and 90s. And there are many reasons he gives for this. I’m not going to list all of them, but it has to do with things like families having fewer children, not trusting or knowing their neighbors as much, a lot more undue focus on kids’ achievements, grades, college readiness, and so on. 

It’s worth mentioning, and you can probably tell that this doesn’t describe everyone’s situation, but more so the majority middle and upper-middle class demographic. But it is a major trend.

And Haidt’s point here is obviously not to say that we shouldn’t be very watchful and careful when it comes to our kids’ safety. There are all kinds of appropriate and wise measures that should be taken to protect young people and all people. This is not a call away from that responsibility.

We live in a sinful and broken world where very bad and awful things happen all the time. The problem is, we hear about so many of these bad things all the time. We hear about bad things, and know about bad things, much more than people in the past – because of our technology, our news, our information. And because bad news does sell, and it’s addicting. 

Bad news is addicting because it’s hardwired into human psychology to be alert to threats. To be alarmed. It’s how we have survived in many ways over millennia – by being aware of and avoiding danger. 

Haidt gives this addiction a name for our own time. He calls it “safetyism.” Here is a definition:

“Safetyism refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people are unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”

Does this sound familiar to us? Does it describe our culture? I think so. Not everyone. But it is a major trend that we’re seeing and we’re experiencing. 

Hopefully it’s not too soon to use this example, but it seems like COVID really did illustrate this as well as anything. There were necessary and good safety measures put in place, especially when we had such little information. Protecting the most vulnerable was a proper and good concern. But in some instances, people and institutions really might have taken things too far. 

“Be safe”, “Stay safe,” almost become the new standard greeting used in conversations and salutations. Which again, is not all bad. And there were reckless responses to COVID, and many people did die. So it’s not easy. There’s a balance here. 

But I think you get my point. Safety is one of our absolute highest values and even what you could call an addiction or an idol, for many in our culture

If the goal of human life were simply to survive, and be safe, then this might be ok. But we all know that life is about much more than that. Certainly the Christian life is. And we can’t live in a state of constant fear and alarm. 

Maybe you’ve heard this cited before about commands in the Bible, of which there are many, and of course we know the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes. But what is the most frequent command in all of Scripture? It’s something like, “Do not be afraid.” “Fear not.” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” “Do not worry.” “Be anxious about nothing.” And on and on I could go. All of these commands fall back on one single principle. “Have faith, for you are in the care of another.”  

Look, we all know, the world is not safe. It’s not a safe place. It’s somewhat safe in this part of the world than in other places. It’s probably safer here than in Ukraine, Sudan, Gaza…

But we’re not.. We’re not that safe either. There’s clearly a strong correlation between cancer and living in advanced industrial societies like ours. Much of the food that we eat and the air that we breathe is less safe than it used to be. From heart disease to car accidents, there are many dangers. And yes, there are steps you can take to eat better and drive more safely or drive less, and those are good things to do. But we absolutely cannot ensure our safety or the safety of those we love. 

So what really is the lesson that Jesus is giving here, and that God would have us head when it comes to fear and anxiety and safety and insecurity. And faith? How exactly are we supposed to be strong and courageous in a dangerous world? I mean, the disciples had Jesus himself in their boat, and they were still very afraid. I’m sure I would have been too.  

And you know, unfortunately, the answer does not appear to be: if you’re in a storm, cry out to Jesus, and he will calm it down. He will rescue you. That is of course what happens in this story. But it’s not often what happens in our stories. Sometimes the storm persists. Sometimes the storm gets worse. Sometimes it even overwhelms and overtakes us or our friends. Our loved ones. So no, I don’t think the takeaway is that Jesus is merely our rescue boat. 

There was one more thing that Bishop Todd promised to Father Matt last week that is worth mentioning here. He said, and I’m paraphrasing: “Matt, if there’s one thing I wish for you, it’s that you would look back on your time as rector at Christ Church, hopefully many years from now, and be able to say that, you were companioned by God. And that there was a strength and a courage that was available and that you enjoyed, but that it was not yours. It was from another.” 

So I think that’s the first truth here. First, Jesus is with us in the storm. He has been in every storm that any of us or anyone else has experienced. And he is closer to us than we are to ourselves in our own storms. 

And secondly, Jesus is more powerful than any storm. He has power over the storm. He will outlast the storm. He has outlasted the storm. One that bore the consequences of all the storms we’ve caused or been cast into. So yes, we too can outlast any storm. 

I turned forty this week. And I mention this because any birthday, any aging milestone, even any anniversaryit has the potential to of course prompt reflection, and reflection that is based on gratitude. And truly that is where most of my reflection has been directed. It’s directed toward that for which I am grateful in my life. 

But there’s another part of the reflection that points to places in my life and heart where I do not yet fully trust and reflect Christ to others, you know? And where I want to. But I think there’s still some fear in me. Fear of failure, fear of not having enough, fear of the disapproval of others. 

I would have liked to be able to say that by age forty, I have overcome these fears. But in truth, they are still there, however small or big sometimes. 

And that’s where this story challenges me the most. Because it’s one thing to try to trust that Jesus is ultimately going to rescue us and calm the story. And that is comforting. It is part of our faith to hold to that. But I think even more profound than what Jesus offers to us, is what Jesus can offer to others and to the world through us when we trust him, and when we live with deep, abiding trust in him. 

When we live with a confidence that Jesus is with us and more powerful than whatever circumstances we are facing – when we are unalarmed in the face of threats and insecurities – we invite and we empower others to live with that same confidence. And then you begin to imagine what is possible when a whole community does that together. The good news that can get proclaimed with that sort of love and peace and care for God’s justice and purposes in the world. It’s astounding, and it’s what we’re being called into through the story to us this morning. 

And while Jesus is the source of our faith amid the storms, he’s also the model for our faith. He too had to put full trust in the care of his heavenly Fand walk by faith as fully human. And he did this for us for our own inspiration and instruction.

So let me leave you with this question: Are there any places in your own life where inordinate fear is holding you back and keeping you from the life of flourishing that God wants and has for you? Has fear grown too powerful? 

Imagine Jesus asking you the question, “Why are you afraid?” And let yourself feel safe enough to give an honest answer. And then, consider how you might respond to the invitation to redirect your faith toward the one who is always with you in every storm and stronger than any storm. 

I want to close be simply reading the words of Jesus from elsewhere in the gospel:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”– John 16:33

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Revelation 21-22: Our Hope for “The Healing of the Nations” — Love Alone is Credible

This sermon was preached at Christ Church Austin on Oct. 23, 2022. You can find the video recording here of the service, with the sermon from minutes 22:50-45:30.

There’s an intriguing phrase spray painted on the back side of Christ’s Church’s building here on the southeast corner facing Cenote the coffee shop. Some of you may have noticed it. It’s one of those graffiti tags that’s very tasteful and that you can find elsewhere around the city. There are pictures of it online, particularly in the downtown and Central Austin area. 

But here’s what it says, if you haven’t seen it: 

“The only magic I believe in is love.”

Now, we didn’t write this there, but we also haven’t covered over it or tried to wash it off. It’s just there. 

And I think there’s something to what this statement is getting at. Even if it’s also meant to probably criticize much of Christianity and organized religion, or even belief in the supernatural altogether — there’s also a way in which it’s making quite the claim and confession to believe in love. To believe in love. 

One of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century and who has influenced me is someone by the name of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who is a Swiss-German Catholic figure. And he wrote way too many books. He was one of the prolific theologians in church history. 

But he wrote one book that was something like a concise summary of his thought, of all his other works even. And it has the title, Love Alone is Credible. And Balthasar was a thinker who went to great lengths to explain what he meant by love, biblical Christian love that we can only know in Christ, and yet, that title, Love Alone is Credible, kind of like to spray painted quote on the building, has this provocation to it, and I think that was intentional. It’s an invitation to take claim of love, and of love’s reality, love’s possibility, to take it quite seriously. Because it can’t be taken for granted. Or it ought not to be. 

Because to believe in love in this world, is no small thing, is it. It’s a big thing. It’s a very difficult thing to trust in something like love in this life. And all the more so if what we’re talking about isn’t merely love between two people — whether that’s romantic love, or brotherly-sisterly love, or familiar love — but love that is part of something bigger than us, something universal, love that has its origin in a transcendent source. Love that’s part of a bigger story.   

Indeed, I think the audacious claim of the book of Revelation, and of much of the Bible, is precisely this: that final judgment, final justice, final truth, is finally, based in love. A love that is stronger and more lasting than sin, and death, and suffering. To believe in that kind of love is a big deal. Yes, all of hope, all of our courage, all of our longings, depend on it, and find their end point in it. 

And yet again I say, it is no small thing, in fact, it is a very difficult thing, to believe in this kind of love, to believe in this kind of God, and this kind of ultimate goal of history. It was hard for the early church to believe too — they suffered and sacrificed a great deal, and had tremendous pressure to assimilate to the culture around them — but it’s hard for us as well, even if in a different way.

The philosopher Charles Taylor in his famous work, A Secular Age, talks about the way that the “conditions of belief”not just the beliefs themselves, or what people believe about God — but how we believe, and how we believe about God is what has also changed. Not just what we believe about God. So much so that, everything feels contestable, not just God. Belief in anything big, anything permanent, anything transcendent or supernatural, feel especially fragile and tentative — constantly at risk. 

A popularizer of some of Charles Taylor’s work, says it this way: 

“The secular age is a level paying field. We’re all trying to make sense of where we are, even why we are, and it’s not easy for any of us.” — James K.A. Smith, How (not) to be Secular

Now, you may not feel that way. It’s unlikely that everyone in this room can completely identify with that statement. And some of it depends on age, cultural background, and so on. But I do think it’s fairly clear that more and more people feel this way about their beliefs in general — even Christians, and it’s something that I believe we can and should be honest about, even in our worship, and even in our following of Jesus. 

I know that I feel this way. I’ve been a Christian as long as I can remember, and I’ve never really had what I would call, necessarily, a crisis of faith, necessarily. And yet, this description resonates with me. I feel the doubt and the force of an outlook that assumes the future is unknown. The future is uncertain, undetermined, and up for grabs. That outlook feels like it’s the default sometimes for me. 

Because Revelation 21-22, that was read a moment ago, is about the future. That’s the big idea. It’s telling us about the future, in a way. It’s telling us about where we’re going. What’s our end game. 

I’m more comfortable, and I doubt I’m alone in this, I’m more comfortable thinking about the past and the present. I’m more comfortable and more confident theologically, in thinking about the past and the present, than I am about the future. The future is scary. The future does seem unknowable. The future does feel contestable. 

Have you noticed some of the trends in pop culture over the past couple of decades around this question of the future? It’s not totally new, people have always wondered, right? But there’s an increased fascination these days, pretty obviously. 

The number of movies, novels, video games, and now even real attempts through artificial intelligence or space travel to confront a future where earth is either left behind or taken over robots, aliens, zombies…

It’s dystopian rather than utopian vision of things usually. And this a new trend as well. We used to be more utopian. But now it’s more dystopian.

And I don’t mean to paint a rose-colored picture of the past. There were many things about the past that were not good. But the outlook was more hopeful even admit the great struggles — the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, for instance. Think about the figures of Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King, Jr., and what he represented. The Civil Rights movement was a movement rooted in hopefulness about the future, but also hopefulness about humanity. That seems absent today, or at least very thin.

As a parent of three young children, I think about this a lot, as I know many of you do too. What kind of future awaits them? 

It’s not uncommon today for adults, and even married adults, to seriously question whether they should plan or try to have children, because to them, the future looks so bleak. Or, others calculate the number of children they should have —assuming they have any control over that — based on what we estimate the planet can sustain, given the trajectory of the current population.

But despite our pessimism, despite our cynicism, we’re a people, y’all, humanity that is, we’re a people bent toward utopia. We can’t avoid it. We long for it. So that even our dystopian imagination — fantasies, novels — are an attempt, in many ways, to cope with the disillusionment of the unrealized hopes and dreams of the utopian future we once thought possible. 

It’s like, as a society, we’re a people in Lament — collectively. We’re grieving and we’re processing the loss of a vision for a better world. And we’re not dealing with it well very well. It’s not pretty. We’re in a state of despair. 

But what’s the answer to this? Do we just need to swing back to the other end of the pendulum and become glass half-full instead of glass-half empty people? Do we simply shake off our negativity and return to the days of confidence, optimism, and positive thinking about the future?

No, I don’t think so. Because we’re tried that already. It was called modernity, and it placed trust in ourselves — in human progress and achievement. Whether through economics, science, technology, or a political system, this Eurocentric outlook did not finally deliver the hope and the future that we thought it would.

The gospel reading for today from Luke 18 reveals the problems with this approach. Like the Pharisee standing confidently before God, he was basing his optimism on his own ability to carry out good deeds. The tax collector, on the other hand, knew that his only chance was total reliance on God’s goodness and mercy.

So what is the picture and the alternative vision that Revelation 21-22 gives us of this future that depends entirely on God? 

At the end of Ch. 21, it says:

“…the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”

In Ch. 22, it goes on to describe the river of the water of life flowing down the middle of the great street of the heavenly city. This river nourishes trees of life that bear twelve crops fruit, yielding every month — not once a year, not twice a year, or even four times a year — every month. [this one can be hard for post-industrial folks to relate to, but think about what this is saying to the farmer in antiquity, the poor, the peasant, or any small-scale agrarian society!]

And then the leaves of this tree or these two trees of life are for the healing of the nations… (22:2).

I haven’t been able to go very long without thinking about Uvalde school shooting since it happened, until just a couple weeks ago when a similarly horrific happened in a daycare center in Thailand. And I don’t need to recount the details here. But the event was unthinkable. 24 children killed. 12 adults. The perpetrator was a parent of one of the children at the daycare. 

Isaiah 60 says… 

2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.

3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.

5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy…

[It concludes]  The Lord will be your light, and your days of sorrow will end.

The slain lamb who is now crowned victorious and seated on the thrown, derives his authority not only from God on high, but from the depths to which he was willing to go. From the separation, foment, and rejection that he experienced, and from the vengeance that he refused to exact. 

Nothing else makes sense, y’all. This is the only answer. There’s not another story. There’s not another religious truth out there. There’s not another political program, philosophy, or self-help practice, that can hold a candle to this kind of hope. It’s our only hope. 

The slain lamb is on the throne. That is a future, that is our goal, that’s where we’re going. It has to be true. The victorious slain lamb is the only one who can heal the nations, the only one who can restore and mend. The only one who can hold our suffering and loss, and finally show that it wasn’t in vain. 

You know, sometimes Christians get criticized for pie in the sky faith. For being too other worldly in their belief. And sometimes this criticism is fair. 

What did Karl Marx say? Religion is the opium of the people. It pacifies and suppress anger and what would otherwise be uprising and resistance to exploitation and so on. 

Howard Thurman once spoke out against this criticism. He said that, rather than pacifying, the African American spirituals, for example, gave hope and endurance that even the cruelest condition couldn’t crush. 

That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience….Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world… for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”

Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology

So yes, we hold fast to this hope. We cling to it desperately. We believe in it even when our belief is weak and tepid and beat up. We believe nonetheless. 

And this belief sustains us. It holds us. It energizes and animates are faith and our practice of following Jesus in a world that doubts. 

Nothing else is credible save the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

We remember and pray and sing those words from Psalm 84:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord Almighty!

My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God….Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere…

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Sermon on Faith, Wealth and Business

[The audio for this sermon can be heard here, and the video of the whole service is available on YouTube.]

July 10, 2022: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Luke 10:25-37

Recently I got to spend most of the week between Sundays at Seattle Pacific University’s Center for Faithful Business. I had a research fellowship to spend time at their library, and they have a really unique collection of books on Faith and Business. And I’ll say more about what we did for that week in a moment.

But also there’s this longstanding gathering that’s been happening for years now at Christ Church called the Faith & Business lunch. And we’re on a break for the summer, and I don’t know what it will look like in the Fall exactly yet, but regardless, this has been an important part of my work as the Director of Vocation and of the Vocation Initiative these last three years. 

And so the subject of Faith & Business and Faith & Work is especially on my mind, and the Deuteronomy passage for today begins by talking about God’s promise to bless the Israelites with abundant prosperity in all of their undertakings — in their farming and raising of livestock, and raising children, basically their whole economy life and livelihood — which you could call that their business. It’s not only their business, but it certainly includes business. At least by ancient Middle Eastern standards. 

Like most churches, we have many members of our congregation working in the marketplace in various capacities. Business itself is the biggest area of employment in our society — and in the world — in terms of both the percentage of people in the labor force and just on the basis of overall economic value that is created by businesses.

And even if you don’t own a business or work for a company, or a corporation of some kind, you are part of the marketplace. As a consumer, at the very least, but often more than that. If you work in government, a non-profit, or even if you’re just the manager of a household budget — even an individual budget – you are a participant and agent of commerce and of exchange that is contributing to and being affected by business, by money, by the economy, by the marketplace.

And God cares about that. God cares about that a lot. God cares about all of it, and how we as the body of Christ, we as the church, as followers of Jesus, spend our money and interact with people in and through the marketplace – in and through business. Every purchase – every decision — can have spiritual and theological weight.

And we see this — this blessing of and concern for economic and commercial activity — in Deuteronomy chapter 30! 

So that’s where we’re going to turn for a moment.  Let’s pray.

Duet 30:9-10

30:9 and the LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors,

30:10 when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Now there may be something about this verse might make us feel a little uncomfortable. It has that sound of a touch of the health and wealth, or prosperity gospel, as though to say that if we just do what God asks, we’ll get what we want.

But the prospect of abundant prosperity is tempered significantly by verse 10. The promised blessing is for those who obey the voice of the Lord and keep the commandments. Verse 10 calls the people to continually return to the Lord with their heart and mind, a deliberate reference to the Shema prayer in Deuteronomy 6 that commands the people to love the Lord with all of one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Which implies as well the love of neighbor as oneself. Jesus ties this command inextricably to the the love of God when asked in Luke 10 what the greatest commandment is. And then we’re given the example in that same chapter of the Good Samaritan as a standard for what this means — someone who gives very sacrificially and at great risk to himself for the sake of a stranger.

And so, for someone who is trying to justify themselves, like this teacher of the law — right, he wants to know, am I off the hook since I’ve so obedient — Jesus provides no justification, does he, for anything conspicuous consumption, chasing after wealth in a world that experiences poverty and pain. You just don’t get any of that here. 

And this parable is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all that Jesus has to say about wealth and prosperity:

E.g., Jesus in Luke 6:24-25

“But woe to you who are rich,

for you have already received your comfort.

Woe to you who are well fed now,

for you will go hungry.”

Or later in Luke 18, with the exchange between Jesus and the rich young ruler. When the man went away sad after Jesus instructed him to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor, 

24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Ok, but this rich young ruler is a lot like the teacher of the law in Luke 10 who asks, who Is my neighbor? He’s not asking, “how do I seek the Lord with all of my heart?”  No, he’s asking, something like, what is the minimum I need to do to get God off my back. To go on with my life the way I want. 

So while there is great tension throughout the Bible between warnings about wealth and blessings in the form of wealth, there seems to also be consistency when it comes to God’s concern about our hearts. Just as in Deuteronomy 30, when God says, I will bless you as you seek me, and draw near to me, and love me, and obey me. 

Just one more biblical reference that helps us here. With this whole subject of wealth and obedience, and how that relationship works, the story of Job comes to mind. Job had all of this prosperity in spades — livestock, agricultural produce, a large family, a big household business, essentially, with many people probably working for him. And God was pleased with Job in the story, in the midst of his abundance. God recognized that Job was a righteous man and he was wealthy. 

And despite the counsel from his friends, nothing he did led to his later misfortune. It wasn’t tied to his deeds or to any unfaithfulness.  

As part of our orientation into my research trip to the Center for Faithful Business, we spent about a month leading up to it having a weekly hour-long seminar in which we read and discussed several things, including a book that told the story of a particular company called Service Master.

Service Master started as a janitorial service company that provided cleaning and home and commercial property maintenance services of all kinds. And then it grew over several decades, went public, and acquired a number of other brands and companies in the service sector that are still around and that you would recognize — lawn care, pest control companies, home warranty and appliance services, these kind of things.

But what’s so interesting about Service Master is really two things: It’s four values, and its growth and success over such a longer period of time. Very few public companies if any have had as long of a stretch as Service Master did in the latter half of the 20th Century of growth in profit year after year.    

And here were their values:  

    1. Honoring God in all we do (not used for the basis of exclusion! The opposite, in fact… never a test to see if someone was Christian. They also left this open to interpretation for folks who were not Christian. When they did business in Japan, for example, they changed the object to honor the truth, which was friendlier to that religious context) 
    2. Developing people
    3. Growing profitably 
    4. Pursuing excellence

One of the CEOs of Service Master, Bill Pollard, would give his employees, his managers and other executives — all those in leadership — a set of blocks and balance beam, like a seesaw almost. I tried to make an illustration of this in my powerpoint but then I just went with an image.

The honor God block is the only one that’s shaped differently, and it’s the fulcrum or pivot point on which the balance beam rests. The other three blocks are the other three objectives: develop people, pursue excellence, and grow profitably. 

But what you find when you try to lay the three pieces out and balance them is that they constantly slide and move, and it’s very hard to keep the beam from tipping to one side or the other. And that was Pollard’s point — it takes constant work to assess and adjust and return to the values and objectives of the company to make sure that all four of these pieces are in the right place. 

And the key to the four objectives for Service Master, according to Pollard, is that the first two objectives: Honor God and Develop People, were end objectives, end goals. In other words, they were the purpose and aim of the whole enterprise. To pursue excellence and grow profitably, those were still important components, but they were means to the end — not ends in themselves. 

This essentially meant that the company was at least committed in principle to never treating people as means or objects. They were always to be treated as subjects. That is to say, they were seen as made in God’s image and loved by God, and treated as such. All people. Customers and clients, yes, but also employees at every level, suppliers, the broader community that’s affected by the business that’s done — all stakeholders, not just the shareholders, are considered in how the business is conducted. And profit is not the purpose. It’s just the tool. 

In other words, people can never be your means to a profitable end. And to put a finer point on it: People shouldn’t be your means to a profitable end. Neither should they be your means to the end of some other good mission or purpose. 

One of the most memorable things I ever heard in seminary was from an Old Testament professor who taught the course where we read the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, including of course Deuteronomy, and he said the most common problem he sees with young pastors going out into leadership of churches after finishing their divinity degrees is that can easily start caring more about preaching, programs, and growth than they care about actually loving their people. 

Bill Pollard said something similar about his leadership of the Service Master company: He said when you give employees a higher purpose to work for than merely getting the job done or getting their paycheck, it’s very helpful and motivating. But if you’re only giving this a purpose or mission to work for so that they’ll help you achieve your goals more than theirs, then they can tell, and it’s not going to work. 

So for Service Master, the objective for developing people was not merely to get them to be better at doing what you needed them to. It was actually to see them fulfilling and living into their God-given potential and uniqueness, even if that took them away from the company or led them somewhere you’d prefer them not to go. 

Most of us probably know the name John D. Rockefeller, the very wealthy and successful oil business tycoon and founder of the Standard Oil Company in the 19th Century US, etc. He was the first multibillionaire, you could say, in today’s dollar value also a great philanthropist and did many good things with his money. I recently read, though, that when some of his workers was asked about all of this, and what they thought of him, they replied they wished he would have paid them a higher wage for their labor.

This lesson applies to all of us. How are we treating people? As a means or an end? You may not be trying to maximize shareholder value, but we all have different self-interested aims. How do others factor into this for you?

Households and even churches, as organizations, function in much the same way. There’s certain things we’re trying to accomplish. It’s so easy to slip into treating people as means, objects, instruments. Business or not. 

And I take this to be a key takeaway lesson from the Good Samaritan too. The Priest and the Levi are going about their business. They didn’t want to be inconvenienced. Helping him would have gotten in the way of their plans. Or it might have also broken some kind of purity law — which of the commandments are the greatest?! That was the question that was being asked by this teacher of the law, and this parable answer him on several levels.

So this is the question we can ask ourselves: in your work, in your business, in all of your undertakings, how do you see people? Do you see them as God’s image bearers? Do you see their dignity and their unsurpassable worth? Because that’s how God sees them. And that’s how God sees you and me. 

So in your work, and in your business — and in everything you do— may the Lord delight in abundantly prospering your every endeavor, as you seek the Lord and turn to him, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Amen. 

Palm Sunday Sermon: The Triumphal Entry (Luke 19:28-48)

[The video for this worship service and sermon can be found here.]

I was at the airport recently and noticed a couple of magazines fairly prominently displayed that had cover articles about Jesus, which I thought was a little bit surprising. But then again, this was close to Easter, and there are still millions of Christians in this country, so it makes sense from a marketing perspective at least. One was Life Magazine, and the other, National Geographic.

Both articles were the feature stories, and they were special additions — you can see them here — looking at the life of Jesus, his importance, historically, as one of the influential individuals who has ever lived, and specifically even the events leading to his death, according to the gospels. And both accounts were more or less faithful. The National Geographic piece in particular was very well written and researched. 

In fact, in reading these two stories — I bought both magazines — I was deeply moved and drawn into these portraits of Jesus. Because they were compelling, and I found my faith strengthened by them. 

Which is interesting, because neither of these magazine’s are written from a faith-based point of view. Neither of them assumed any believe in God or Jesus as the Son of God. And yet, when it comes to the details of the life of Jesus and the gospel records, there was little question at all about 1) the truth of many of these events, and the respect and reverence that is due him in the story, for how he conducted himself, and how he suffered and was willing to suffer. Why is that?

So I want to explore this for a minute and ask, what is that we notice about Jesus that is so attractive here? And yet, that is also so hard to actually believe? 

And I want to suggest two primary observations: one, Jesus is boldly confrontational! He’s not afraid of conflict. He’s courageous. He’s full of conviction and clarity of calling. And yet, just as much… while confrontational, he’s also compassionate and tenderhearted! He’s humble. And as it is says in Philippians 2, he’s obedient and submissive to God’s will, even to the point of death on a cross.

Earlier on in the gospel stories, Jesus doesn’t want people to spread the word about him. Biblical scholars call this the messianic secret. So for example, when Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead in Luke 8, he told everyone there not to say anything about what they saw. Why? Because it wasn’t his time yet! He still had things to say and do before the Passover, and before the authorities succeeded in their plots against him. 

In the chapters and days leading up to Passover and his turn toward Jerusalem, though, this changes. It’s like he starts saying, bring it on. He’s happy for people to talk about him and hear more about who he really is, because political tension needs to be built up. He is in control of this whole process. He’s confronting the political and religious leaders on his terms, not theirs — and in his timing, not theirs.

And when he enters Jerusalem, it’s already a highly charged and volatile environment due to the significance of Passovers remembrance of liberation from slavery in Egypt. There are probably tens of thousands more people than usual in maybe a 50,000 person town. It’s kind of like being in Austin during ACL or South by Southwest! Hundreds of thousands of people to our couple of million. So it’s big scene, it’s a bit stressful, chaotic, rowdy… and security is on high alert. 

So the stage is set, and Jesus takes advantage of it. In fact, he really steals the show. Only he does so in a way that no one would have expected. He’s riding in a colt — other gospels say donkey or foal — either way, the meaning is the same. It’s not a war horse. 

The custom for a truly imperial or royal procession would have been for someone like Herod or Pilate or Caesar or whoever to ride into the town on a stallion — some magnificent animal with an army escort and heavily outfitted brigade of soldiers to signify conquest and victory from the battlefield. This great expression of worldly power, saying, look at me! A celebration of successful violence and killing — forced subjection of another people.

Jesus’s procession receives a similar treatment by the crowds — palm branches, cloaks, indicated royalty and honor and so forth — but none of the actual prowess and weaponry of a military procession. That’s not the way the Kingdom of God breaks in. 

It’s not coercive. It does not seek to harm anyone or force itself, but it does still pose a threat. It’s subversive. Because it exposes the current power structures for they are. Oppressive, fragile, impermanent. Fear-based. Manufactured.

Because remember, Jesus is still claiming to be King here. He’s not denying it. He lets the people say it! And when the Pharisees ask him to rebuke them, he refuses. And what does he say? “I tell you, if these were to be silent, the very stones would cry out.”

It’s kind of like Jujutsu! I have a friend who’s gotten really into Jiu-jitsu, and he has his whole family doing it now, so I’ve been curious about it, and I’m aware of its uniqueness in the world of hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. Here’s how Jiu-Jitsu is defined:

“Jū” can be translated as “gentle, soft, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding”, and “jutsu” can be translated as “art or technique”. “Jujutsu” thus has the meaning of “yielding-art”, as its core philosophy is to manipulate the opponent’s force against themself rather than confronting it with one’s own force. These techniques were developed around the principle of using an attacker’s energy against him, rather than directly opposing it.

And I especially appreciate the artful aspect and reflex of this strategy, because it really does describe what Jesus seems to be doing here. When he comes into town on the colt, it’s street theater. It’s performative.

He’s orchestrating a dramatic re-depiction of who the real King is in the story. It’s political satire — a parody and counter narrative to the prevailing storyline of the day. Who is Lord? Jesus or Ceasar? The people give their answer, which is the true one, whether they understand the implications of that truth or not. 

And so the meaning of Palm Sunday begins to become clear to us. Caesar’s kingdom, the empire of Rome, rules by fear with threats of violence, demanding submission. God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, rules by faith with a promise of peace, inspiring joy.

You see because again, while yes, Jesus is boldly confrontational, contending for justice, claiming his rightful seat on the throne, we see as well that he’s humble and tenderhearted, submissive and obedient to the Father’s will. 

He’s gentle. He’s lowly…. As Tim Keller said once in a sermon: “Jesus was the most humble man, but he was by no means modest.”

So his humility isn’t modest or timid. It’s strong and courageous.This kind of bold humility is very rare, isn’t it! These two things don’t tend to go together. Most of us are prone to one or the other. It’s fight or flight:

We’re afraid of conflict and avoid it. We run away from it. Or we’d rather downplay it and sweep it under the rug. 

Or, maybe we’re not afraid of it, and we even like it, but we go into it with hostility and condemnation. This is cancel culture, call-out culture. 

Jesus somehow manages to do neither. He faces conflict, and engages in it, but he does so with grace and truth, with boldness and tenderness together. 

After the triumphal entry, in the next couple verses, it tells us that 

41 And when [Jesus] drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes… Luke 19:41-42

And then he goes on to predict their pending judgment… 

Jesus is agonizing, mourning, and deeply distraught. Because he loves Jerusalem and everyone in it! He’s brokenhearted that so many of his very people have rejected the Kingdom he has come to bring them. Sure, some of them just laid down some cloaks, or waved Palm branches, as it tells us in John’s gospel. But they still don’t get it. And as the story unfolds just a few short days later, some of these same people demand that Barrabbas the insurrectionist be released instead of Jesus.

And this is where we begin to see ourselves in the story most clearly. For we too have laid down our cloaks and waived our palm branches for Jesus — we attracted to his boldness and power, his willingness to stand up for something and confront the hypocrisy of the authorities!

But then the invitation comes. Will you pick up your cross and follow me? Will you deny yourself and trust that this really is the way? Many times, like the crowd, we too choose Barrabbas a few days later. 

Because trusting in God’s kind of peace, and God’s kind of security is hard, isn’t it? Standing for the the things Jesus and his Kingdom is costly, scary, lonely. The peace and protection, the peace and security of the world is appealing!

This Holy Week friends, I want to pose a question. We’ve called this year’s Lent a graceful one, and really, it always should be. But as we approach Maundy Thursday and Good Friday this week, may you carefully consider: Which peace and security are you trusting in and standing up for? Is it God’s, or is the world’s?

If it’s the world’s:

  1. Maybe it’s money. Money’s a big one. It has a hold on many of us.
  2. Maybe it’s power and control. Or maybe it’s politics, which is closely related. Maybe some of us need to ask, have a made a god of my country or my political ideology? Do I see the log in my neighbors eye before the spec in my own when I disagree with them? 
  3. Or maybe it’s the approval of others. 

These tend to be the big three: money, power, people. Some would add pleasure as a fourth (food, sex, other sensual gratifications). What is lording over you? Where is your heart? Redirect it this morning. Confess and repent, and let us remember Paul’s words:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 


John 1 Sermon: The Incarnation and Empathy

Good morning, Christ Church! Happy Ninth Day of Christmas, and Happy new year! It is 2022, and that is kind of amazing. 

My five year old son Liam is really into figuring how old people are. It’s kind of like his way of ranking himself and others among everyone else. So of course one day in the car he asks me, while we’re driving to preschool, “Daddy, is God the oldest person in the world?” And I say, “yes bud, God is the oldest, because God has always existed.” To which Liam responds, during Advent since we’ve been talking about Christmas, “but not Jesus, right, because Jesus was born, so he’s not the oldest?” I have a terminal degree in theology, but I was not fully prepared for that conversation 🙂

But I replied with something like, “well, you’re right, Jesus was born, but he also existed before his birth actually.” Liam goes, “What? That doesn’t make any sense, Daddy.” 

And I said, yeah, it’s a little mysterious and can be confusing, but that’s what we believe, and that’s what we’re told in the Bible. I went on to make some other attempts at explaining how to understand the incarnation, that I think were unsuccessful, and within minutes I’m pretty sure Liam was bored and on to the next topic, like cars, whales, how far Antartica is, etc.

But this really struck me, because it is mysterious, and can be hard to believe if we’re honest about it. The incarnation is a strange doctrine — it’s a very bold claim, and yet it stands at the very center of our faith. Indeed, arguably, everything about Christianity hinges upon it:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him not any thing made that was made.” — John 1:1-3

And this is not the only place in the New Testament where we see this. Much the same thing is stated by Paul in Colossians, which is thought to be written several decades earlier than the Gospel of John: 

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. — Col 1:15-17

In modern times, even for the past couple hundred years, more and more people have doubted this claim or judged it untenable. Or, more recently, the belief might be tolerated, but only if it’s not held exclusively. I can Jesus is God, you can believe that someone else is God, no one is God, we’re all God — anything you want! — as long as it doesn’t infringe upon our individual rights to pursue truth and believe as we are led. 

And increasingly, today, even if we could make a persuasive argument for the incarnation — and I believe we can, by faith, believe reasonably in Jesus’s divinity — it’s not blind faith, in other words, and it’s very clear from the historical record that the earliest Christians recognized Jesus’s divinity and worshipped him — but even if we can build a case for this, that they were right to believe this, I’m not sure that’s enough to lead anyone to relationship with God or to want to be a Christian.

And I think Jesus’s own life bears this out as well. He doesn’t merely go around telling people he’s God incarnate, right? He doesn’t deny it, and at times he does proclaim it! But what is he mainly doing? It seems that Jesus is primarily concerned with showing people who God is and what it would mean if he really is the Son of God, if he really is, the second person of the Trinity, a full member of the Godhead.

So if the Incarnation is true, what does it mean? What’s the significance? And what does it tell us about God? God’s purpose? What does it tell us about us and our purpose? This is what I want to explore this morning.

If Jesus is God, if the incarnation is true, then:

    1. God is with us (John 1:14)
    2. his wisdom will not be recognized or received (John 1:9-11)
    3. the incarnation is God’s ongoing plan for the salvation of the world (John 1:12)

Let’s pray:

O Christ, as we seek greater understanding of and guidance from the mystery of your incarnation, may your way and truth and life become increasingly evident. Guard us from error, and lead us on your everlasting path and light. In your holy name we pray, amen. 

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” — John 1:14

1. So first, if Jesus is God, then God is the great empathizer. God puts himself into our shoes. This is the essence of empathy. 

Studies have been done recently showing that, as a society, empathy is on the decline in the United States. For instance, one study found a steep decline in empathy among young people from 1979 to 2009 (Dr. Sara Konrath et. al., associate professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University, and director of an Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research, https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/empathy-narcissism). This probably isn’t surprising to us having lived through the recent years of political charged and polarized rhetoric around covid, race, and many other things. We’ve seen the empathy deficit on full display. 

Or maybe you’ve heard the phrase used, “compassion fatigue.” This is related, and touches on the same idea. We’re overexposed to the suffering of others, we too are suffering, though, many of us, and it’s overwhelming, overstimulating, we shut down, we shut out, we grow numb. All the more so if we ourselves are struggling just to stay afloat amid the stresses of modern life. 

And empathy is different from mere sympathy. Many of us associate sympathy with empathy or think of them synonymously. But while empathy is a skill that can bring people together and make people feel included, sympathy —sympathy — sympathy is merely feeling sorry for, you might say. It can sometimes lead to compassion or empathy, but more often it actually tends to be patronizing. It’s the kind of feeling that produces short-term charities of exchange.

As one psychologist puts it, “empathy, on the other hand, is a choice, a vulnerable one.”

And I think this vulnerability aspect, which involves giving up some control, is part of why we’re increasingly hesitate to practice empathy. It’s costly to us.

For the past two years, many of us have felt exhausted – like we have no more energy to care. 

But even as we struggle to empathize with others, we experience less empathy extended to us as well. We ourselves need and desire empathy as much as ever, and we’re finding it in short supply. Without experiencing that others know us, or are able to, we’re left feeling alone — at times, despairingly so. It’s a bleak place to be and can lead to feelings of emptiness and despondency.

The writer of Hebrews puts it this way:

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Hebrews 4:15

In this ultimate act of empathy, Christ enters not only into solidarity with our weaknesses and our experience of temptation, though, but also our suffering. 

Remember that famous Philippians hymn from chapter two of Paul’s letter: 

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! — Phil 2:5-8

So to believe in the incarnation is to also believe that God in Christ has not only entered into our weakness first hand, but also that God has willingly subjected himself to suffering, to victimization from injustice, to misunderstanding, feelings of loneliness, fatigue, even rejection — all of which are emotions and experiences that otherwise put us on the defensive and make us less willing to trust and listen to each other. But in Jesus, these experiences are endured at the deepest level, survived, and overcome. He passes through them, and extends us his compassion on the other side. 

But if Jesus is God, then we have this advocate, this fellow sufferer who understands us, who has walked and is walking with us. The great empathizer.

I recently listened to the audio version of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, while traveling for a day over Christmas. It was a gift from a parishioner to some of us on staff. And I had read the story before — most of us know it — but to listen to it again afresh this time, for whatever reason, was especially powerful for me. 

I was struck particularly by the journey that Ebeneezer Scrooge goes on in the story, led by the three Christmas Spirits of past, present and future, to show him how he had deviated slowly but surely so far from a place of being able to empathize with the needs of others and specifically the needs of the poor and their children. 

Dickens wrote the story in the context of the early days of the industrial revolution in England, and this was a dark time for many working class folks. Before child labor law, before any kind of regulations on factory workplace conditions, before minimum wage, etc. People were getting sick, lower-class kids were basically slaves, and some were even starving or freezing. 

But Scrooge has lost the ability to care about any of this because of his love for money in his business dealings. Over the course of the story, though, as he is forced to look back at his life and see it from the perspective of others, and to experience again some of his own difficulties

His heart starts to grow warm again, and he experiences a complete transformation. His conversion is to deep, Christlike empathy. When he wakes up from his visit by the spirits, here’s what he says:

“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

And this made me wonder what it was exactly that changed Scrooge so dramatically, from someone who despised both Christmas and people, to someone who could love both so passionately?

One answer to that is, is that Scrooge is made to feel again — that is, he empathizes — he has pathos with others. 

The social psychologist, C. Daniel Batson, who has researched empathy for decades, argues that while the term can now refer to multiple concepts, in especially means actually feeling as another does; imagining how one would feel or think in another’s place; feeling distress at another’s suffering; feeling for another’s suffering… close to the word compassion.

Jesus himself is described as having this same kind of feeling and experience in several places in the gospels, where he is moved in his gut with compassion for someone in their suffering. 

One commentator on the story of A Christmas Carol, a friend of Christ Church and professor at Fuller Seminary, Mark Roberts, says this:

“Throughout Ebenezer Scrooge’s momentous night with the three spirits, he frequently felt pain: the pain of having been a lonely boy, the pain of his broken engagement, the pain of suffering children, the pain of his own wasted life. This pain was essential to Scrooge’s transformation in a number of ways. For one thing, it warmed his frozen heart, helping him to feel things had had not felt for ages. Yet pain also caused Scrooge to desire a different life, a life filled with the joys of living.” — Mark D. Roberts

So Scrooge’s transformation is brought about by: 

  • This interruption and breaking into his ordinary experience
  • Revisiting his own pain and truly facing/encountering the pain of others
  • And, it especially comes through his encounter with children in his memories and visions, specifically the child Tiny Tim and the precarious situation of him and his family, the Cratchets 

2. Secondly, though, if Jesus is God, then as the source of all wisdom, through Jesus, the wisdom of God has been made known. But this wisdom was not recognized or received by most.

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:9-11

We see this as well in 1 Corinthians:

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. — 1 Cor. 1:20-25

What Paul describes here is very much still at play in our own time. There are those who, knowingly or unknowingly, reject or don’t recognize Jesus because they expect something or someone else. They’re looking for a different kind of Messiah. They have their own idea of who the Messiah should be. Their own interpretation. To them, just as to many people today, Christ is a stumbling block. 

Or, there are those who, like the Greeks, and because of their worldview, do not expect a Messiah at all. The idea of a Christ is seen as either unnecessary or impossible. This is the view that is most prevalent today. An incarnate God is unnecessary, because sin is not the problem. Ignorance might be, but not sin. 

Or, many people today think God is an unknowable hypothesis, and that the material, physical universe is all there is. There is nothing supernatural, so how could be there be an incarnation…

But even many of those who are open to the supernatural or to God prefer to pursue wisdom for their salvation. This is what the Greeks were most known for. And wisdom is a good thing! But God’s wisdom isn’t the kind of wisdom that we can come to know on our own — through philosophy, science or any other form human reasoning. God’s wisdom is seen as foolishness. 

For all of these groups, the wisdom and way of Christ is foolishness. 

3. And finally, if Jesus is God, then the incarnation is God’s on-going plan for the salvation of the world.

12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. — John 1:12

Another way of saying this is the following:

“God became man that man might become God,” church father Athanasius (ca 298–373), On the Incarnation.

Here Athanasius is essentially talking about this ancient Christian theological idea of theosis — God becoming human so that we might become divine. 

And he wasn’t the only or first to say this. St. Irenaeus, two centuries earlier, stated that God had “become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”

Even Augustine, who’s usually associated more with the Western tradition, agreed:

“But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God’ [referring to John 1:12]. If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.”

Jesus himself says elsewhere, later in the Gospel of John, something very similar:

18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. John 17:18-19

Y’all know that the word sanctify means to make holy, set apart, consecrate — it also means to heal from sin’s adverse effects; to make whole. This is what we long for, and this is what we’re for. It’s also what Jesus came for. 

Most of us, if we have a Protestant and evangelical background, or even by virtue of our Western culture, associate salvation in Christian faith, with the death of Jesus, and maybe even the resurrection of Jesus, but probably not so much the incarnation of Jesus — exception insofar as it led to his death and resurrection. 

Many early Christian leaders and thinkers believed that it was the incarnation itself that was the key to our salvation. That by the incarnation of the eternal logos, Christ, we are rescued from death. 

Some of you are probably familiar with the atonement theory called christus victor, and there’s lots of biblical for this. Where the defeat of death and Satan are chief accomplishments of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. 

The resurrection, then, is simply the natural consequence of what was already accomplished at the birth of Jesus, with God fully taking on human nature while at the same time remaining God. The truth of the two natures unified in one person but not confused, and neither one overcoming the other.

This is not to replace our other understandings of the atonement, but to enrich them and expand upon them for a fuller picture of all that God intends to accomplish through his mission of redemption… 

Some of you may have seen where Google creates a video each year at the end of the year, and they’ve been doing this for about ten years, that highlights and builds a theme around what people have most uniquely searched each year. And for 2021, very appropriately, the theme that emerged is healing.

It’s worth watching the video if you just search for it. There’s some things included of course that we probably wouldn’t all celebrate, but mostly it’s this very moving, heart-warming and raw depiction of the good of much of 2021. And I don’t know if anyone knows this, Youtube comment sections don’t tend to be a very encouraging place to look to get feedback — it can get pretty dark and ugly — but this video has like all positive comments and likes and from different languages from all over the world. It’s pretty amazing. 

But I share this only to make the point that, people are crying out for healing. They long for it, and we’ve collectively felt the need and hunger for it in the past year maybe more than in any year in recent memory. So it’s a beautiful thing in a way to see people acknowledge and enter in together to some brokenness, vulnerability and even hope.  

Jesus says, in some of his final words in the gospel of John:

“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” — John 20:21b

The church as the extension of the incarnation into time and space and the rest of the world throughout history — God’s hands and feet! 

Christ Has No Body,” St. Teresa of Avila

Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world
Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are His body
Christ has no body now on earth but yours

Now, it’s possible to take this idea too far, and we have to careful not to do so. We are not Christ — we are sinners still, and we fail often to be the body, to be the hands and feet of Christ to the world. And God is not dependent on us fro accomplishing his mission in the world. 

Still, there’s something real and very true about the church as the continuation of the embodiment, that is, the incarnation, of God’s love through Christ and by the power of Holy Spirit, alive and expanding in the world and participation in God’s mission. 

We are called to be empathizers with others! Embodiers of deep wisdom. Extending the incarnation and witnessing to God’s work of salvation through Christ. This is our mission. May it be so. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Called to Culture Making

Genesis 1

26 Then God said, “Let us make man[h] in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Matthew 13:31-33

31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

[The video of this worship service and sermon can be found here.]

Good morning, Christ Church! Today is the first Sunday in a series that Fr. Cliff introduced last week on living “for the sake of others and being a church “for the sake of others.”

We do this through our vocation, through proclamation (locally and globally), demonstration (personal and social holiness), in our locations — in the neighborhoods and communities and workplaces in which we find ourselves.  

And this week, we’re talking about how we live for the sake of others vocationally — through our work and through our common, every day life. 

Let me pray. Oh God, may we hear your Word this morning amid these many words, and may the light of your truth and your call on us to be part of renewal for creation shine through and be made clear, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen. 

Writing about this first passage we heard today from Genesis 1, Christian apologist Nancy Pearcey puts it this way in her book Total Truth:

“In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply,” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells gus that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations — nothing less.” — Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth

Notice in this quote, she uses the phrase “cultural mandate” to describe all of these things — both in terms of what we do with the social world we live, and how we steward the natural world. The Hebrew word translated “subdue” in verse 28 (Hebrew kabash) can be understood to mean, “make the earth useful for the benefit and enjoyment of human beings.” 

What Pearcy is saying here is, yes we are called to be colaborers and coworkers with God, but because of our divine image-bearing status, we are also called to be co-creators with God, the original Creator. Co-makers. Co-cultivaters. Another way to put it is to say, we are called to be culture makers. We are called to the work of culture making. 

Now this term already probably needs some clarification. Because when we hear the word “culture” in the context of Christianity, it immediately raises big question about maybe the culture wars, and politics, and secular culture vs. evangelical or Christian subculture, the Religious Right, the moral majority, etc. 

Ok, and what we’re talking about today isn’t completely unrelated to all of that. But it’s different. Culture making here isn’t so much in reference to culture in the macro, “culture war” sense of the term. We’re more so talking about culture at micro level and in the way we actually shape it.

We do get shaped by culture ourselves too, and I’ll so more about that, but as individuals, we can shape culture, and that’s the kind of culture we’re talking about today. 

And there are some really technical, abstract academic definitions of culture out there as well.  But I want to use a definition that goes something like this — and this isn’t original to me, is more like I’m weaving together a few different sources here, including conversations with people at Christ Church:

“Culture is what we do with the natural world. It’s what we make of material things, and the meaning and purpose that is given to them in the process.”

As early as Genesis 4, we see three big areas of vocation and culture-making arise from the descendants of Cain:

20 Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. 22 Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. 

Now, it isn’t immediately clear why these three great crafts or trades are listed here, and the commentaries I’ve consulted don’t all agree, but it’s still significant and seems safe to at minimum say that Genesis is giving an account of the origin of human culture to some degree here. So we can identity at least three major cultural and vocational domains here:

  1. Food (agriculture and livestock)
  2. Industry (craftsmanship, tools and handiwork)
  3. The Arts (music)

There are of course many other categories of culture, work and vocation that emerge throughout Scripture and civilization, but I’m going to take these three as representative and reflect just a bit on each one.

So first, Food:

One of the best illustrations or examples that I’ve heard Crouch and others give to explain what culture can be seen in the difference between an egg and an omelet. The egg is a product of nature, right — comes from the chicken. It’s the raw material of a biological process. But what do we do with eggs? We cook them. And in the case of an omelet, we cook them in a very particular way. 

No other creator, other than a human being, would be creative and skilled enough with tools and culinary arts to do this, I don’t think. 

Food in general, for this matter, how it’s prepared, with what ingredients and recipes, even the presentation fo the food itself has significance leaves all kinds of room for creative possibility and variety and taste. But it doesn’t stop with the omelet! It’s what the omelet or any other prepared food further enables:

In his book, Culture Care, Makoto Fujimura, says that 

[Culture Care] leads to generative work and a generative culture. We turn wheat into bread—and bread into community. We turn grapes into wine—and wine into occasions for joyful [celebration]. We turn minerals into paints—and paints into works that lift the heart or stir the spirit. We turn ideas and experiences into imaginative worlds for sheer enjoyment and to expand the scope of our empathy.

The Faith & Art ministry at Christ Church in its monthly gathering a couple years ago actually read this book together, and I got to be part of that as I was just coming on staff at Christ Church. And this is one of the quotes that I highlighted when I first read it. Culture care, and culture making, is simply, the kind of attention we give, and the significance we assign to what we do by how we do it. 

Secondly, there is industry:

This work of culture care touches on every arena of our lives. It’s especially important in the business world and in organizational leadership. Executives, managers and supervisors all want to know how to create a culture in their work environments that brings the best out of their employees and serves their company or institutional mission. 

There’s a video that I watched recently that touched on this, and we’ll share it on our Instagram page later today. It’s an interview with one of our own parishioners, Emily Padula, in a film series produced by another member of Christ Church as well. And in this clip, Emily talks about her role as an executive of a large hospital and how she handles that leadership and management responsibility. She talks about how people that she oversees are affected by the culture that she as a leader cultivates… [watch it here.]

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and most of us, myself included, probably don’t plan to give too much thought to the significance of it. But the holiday itself, and day off that many of us will get, is the result of painstaking efforts by those who’ve gone before us who usually weren’t the leaders, executives or managers. Rather, they were the laborers, the employees of manufacturing plant, teachers, farm workers, machine operators, groundskeepers, technicians, service industry professionals and the like. 

These blue collar, working class folks — many of them women, some of them immigrants and even children — were the advocates and organizers who gave us the 40-hour work week, required overtime pay, weekends off, restrictions on child labor, protection against various kinds of exploitation and unsafe working conditions. Their demonstration and activism, particular at the turn of the 20th Century and thereafter, had long-lasting. Culture-making influence. Not from the top-down, but the bottom-up, as a grassroots movement that changed the tide of public opinion, and thereby, law and policy and finally, culture. 

And what is more, this change wasn’t easily achieved. It wasn’t given away. Those with power didn’t just say, oh yeah sure  🙂 We’d love to pay you more for less work!

And we all know, not every culture is good or even neutral. In fact, most of the time, even the best culture is compromised and marred by sin. And some culture is downright unhealthy and even toxic. 

Just going back to the beginning of Genesis — two chapters after our passage for today in Genesis 3, and we hear the story of how humans get to this point. 

One way of understanding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Even is this very question about culture making: What kind of culture will human beings make? How will we lead and organize structure and systems of society? How will we run companies? Will we trust and follow and submit to wise and holy God whose character perfectly distinguishes good and evil, or will we try to grasp and discern that difference, that knowledge of good and evil for ourselves, and attempt to live autonomously — by our own rules? 

Alright, now we come to the third category of the Arts, and specifically music as an example:

One of the most prominent human expressions of culture that we can all appreciate and relate to is music. And Christians have had an interesting relationship with music over time. There was a time in certain periods of church history where singing wasn’t allowed or considered part of worship — or there have been big debates of whether instruments should be allowed, and which ones…

I grew up in the Baptist church and, while I didn’t really experience this kind of prohibition first hand, I definitely heard the jokes about Baptists and not allowing dancing. Or, I still remember when I got my hands on DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album. If you didn’t grow up in the 90s or if you weren’t part of evangelical Christian culture in the US at that time then you might know what I’m talking about, and that’s ok. But DC Talk the band, had a way, especially with their song Jesus Freak in particular, of sounding a lot like some of big rock bands at the time — maybe most notably, Nirvana. And I can remember my mom having some discomfort with me listening to this Jesus Freak song because it sounded so much like “Smells like Teen Spirit.” 

Because music is powerful; music is intoxicating. It can take hold of us in such a strong way. It penetrates to the core of our emotional being. It tugs at our hearts and desires. And so what we do with music is tremendously important, because it’s such a culture-making, culture-shaping force. 

This summer, the Christ Church staff read a book together by one of the canon theologians of our diocese, Esau McCauley. It was called Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. And there’s a particular passage from the book toward the beginning where McCauley talks about the culture of his own upbringing and youth, and the struggle between the good and the bad influences the cultures had on him:

“I knew the Lord and the culture. Both engaged in an endless battle for my affections. I loved hip hop because sometimes it felt as if only the rappers truly understood what it was like to experience . . . Black life in the South . . . But I also loved my mother’s Gospel music because it filled me with hope, and it connected me to something old and immovable. If hip hop tended toward nihilism and utilitarian ethics (the game is the game so we do what we must to survive), then my mother’s music, rooted in biblical texts and ideas, offered a vision of something bigger and wider. The struggle I speak of is not merely between two genres of music . . . I am speaking of the ways in which the Christian tradition fights for and makes room for hope in a world that tempts us toward despair.”

Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley

McCaulley says, “I know the Lord and the culture. Both engaged in an endless battle for my affections.” Notice the language of “affections.” And the title of Emily’s video clip I mentioned a moment ago was “Affected by Culture.” 

The use of the word affections here alludes to the way that culture taps into our deepest longings. This is what culture-making is about and why its a key part of living out our vocations and being a church for the sake of others. There’s a battle going on for our hearts, for our desires. 

McCauley states at the end of the quote: “I am speaking of the ways in which the Christian tradition fights for and makes room for hope in a world that tempts us toward despair.”

So while again we’re not talking about the culture wars, there is still a fight to speak of that’s going on in the vocation that Christians have to culture making. It’s a fight  for our allegiance. What is it we love and are chasing after most? What are we worshipping? Our cultural artifacts, how we do things, and what we make, points to that.

Deuteronomy 6:4–9 in the Old Testament is known by its first Hebrew words as the Shema Israel, and for the purpose of understanding the practice and art of culture-making all the better, I want to read it because it bears testimony to how much the Hebrew people had to fight to make their love of the one God real in their lives:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

As Andy Crouch puts it,

“Here we find all the essential elements of enduring culture: artifacts and patterns of life, external discussion and internal reflection, personal commitment and multigenerational transmission. This text, as taught by Jesus, also gives us the best compact definition…of what it is to be a human person. A person is a complex interrelation of heart, soul, mind, and strength, designed for love. We combine heart (not just emotion in the modern sentimental sense, but the Hebrew sense of affective will—choices made to achieve one’s desire), soul (the capacity for depth or fullness of self), mind (the capacity for cognition and reflection), and strength (the capacity for embodied action). This heart-soul-mind-strength reality of personhood is at its best when it is oriented toward loving God and, as Jesus emphasizes, loving neighbor. To care for culture, then, is to care for those cultural patterns, artifacts, and institutions that most fully allow human persons to express their love for God and neighbor. — Andy Crouch

As Christians, we must make culture — Because culture is getting made all the time around us, and it will make us. So we have to proactively make it. And again, this is not a fear-based instruction. And this isn’t about what’s happening in secular, post-modern culture at large, as much as it is about what’s happening in your daily life, in your environments, your neighborhoods, communities, workplaces, homes, and in our church. Culture is constantly working to bend our hearts in a certain direction, so we must attend to that, and we must cultivate that toward God.  

Turning now to a few final, practical points, let’s look briefly at the gospel passage for today: 

Matthew 13:31-33

31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

I feel that the work of culture making can seem a little bit overwhelming at times. Just thinking about all the inundation we receive on a regular basis, from media, from pressures at work and in the home — just messages, forces that are vying for our attention and battling for hearts.  

But Jesus is giving us a mustard seed strategy. Not a grandiose, top-down, grasp for power or control — not a culture war. The Creator of the cosmos can handle the really big stuff. We start with the mustard seeds. We start small — in the language of Deuteronomy, we bind, we fix, we write! 

You know, maybe not a coffee cup or a t-shirt necessarily with a verse on it. We’ve done that before. And you know, it’s ok. But how else can we make culture or fasten ourselves to cultural practices that bend our hearts toward the love of God and others? We’re creative, we’re imaginative! Maybe take a minute today or this week and come up with some things. Because everything has culture.

Your home, your neighborhood, your conversations with friends, your school if you’re in school, your workplace of course even your emails and your social media presence has a culture to it! And our church has a culture. 

And we don’t have to be CEO’s to make culture. You don’t have to be especially creative or artistically gifted. You also don’t have to have significant social influence or a big public platform.

And, you don’t have to make culture alone. In fact, you shouldn’t! We need community in this effort. Small groups have culture and make culture. Just into one at Christ Church.

The Fuller Formation Cohort starts in two weeks. This is the last week to sign up. We talk about vocation and culture making in very small groups — 3-5 people — it’s deep, mustard seed work, where you get challenged by people who are different from you and have your best interest in mine, and where you are blessed, encouraged and in commissioned in your vocation and how to integrate your faith with the rest of your life. 

And lastly, we’re not alone in this because the Spirit of Christ goes before us in the task of culture making, most of all!  He releases us from the guilt and power of sin by restoring us to our true humanity, or divine image-bearing status. He takes us back to our original intent and gives us a new heart in the process. A heart for co-creating and co-making with God. Co-cultivating. 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Let’s pray. 

A Theology of Globalization

This is a presentation I gave recently for Church of the Cross here in Austin as part of their “Theology of…” series this Spring.

I’ve also included a kind note from Nick Comiskey, Associate Rector at COTC, that went out to the congregation before the event below.

One of my last pre-pandemic memories took place at Hill House, the Christian study center at UT. I crammed into a small, enclosed room (remember those days?) with under and post-graduate students to hear a lecture by Dr. William (“Bill”) Walker. Bill’s talk was on theology and the drug war. He started with an explanation of the drug war itself with ample illustrations from popculture (my love language). Things got really interesting, however, when Bill explored how the Christian understanding of salvation might relate to the rampant violence and impunity occurring on both sides of the border throughout the conflict.

He asked hard questions: What good news does the Christian faith offer to people suffering as a result of the drug war? How can communities of faith in Texas love their southern neighbors with sensitivity and courage?

Three aspects of Bill’s talk left a deep impression on me. First, the tone. Bill started by acknowledging that part of what it means to be a Christian and reflect on social crises like the drug war is to acknowledge the Church’s imperfect attempts (or outright refusals) to advance God’s justice and righteousness in society. His voice was chastened and prayerful, not triumphant.

Second, he was hopeful. Beginning with the premise that Christians have theological reasons for attending to the voices on the margins of society, he maintained that the kingdom of God is a source of transcendent ant material hope. Despite the checkered history of the Church, the Christian faith offers resources to imagine and work for the righting of the world’s wrongs.

Finally, he discussed very practical ways for local congregations to join God’s work of justice and reconciliation.

As the staff discussed potential speakers for our Theology Of…Christian education series this spring, Bill immediately came to mind. I am especially pleased how the first two offerings – the Theology of Globalization in January and the Theology of Immigiration in February – cohere. I am praying God uses these presentations to increase our neighborliness and hope.

A Book Review of A Theology of the Drug War

This book review of A Theology of the Drug War recently appeared in Princeton Theological Seminary’s Theology Today peer-reviewed journal:


Here’s a summary quote from the review by Filipe Maia, Assistant Professor at Boston University’s School of Theology:

William A. Walker III’s, A Theology of the Drug War, offers a theological response to the drug war waged along the US–Mexico border. Walker is a lecturer in theology and ethics at Baylor University and director of vocation at Christ Church in Austin, Texas.

A Theology of the Drug War should be considered an important advancement in liberation theologies due to its attention to the drug war as a site that amalgamates myriad oppressive forces. The book contributes to ongoing dialogues that seek to tease out political implications of theological aesthetics, especially in von Balthasar’s work… As a work addressing a pressing contemporary issue, the book is a valuable resource to theology students, researchers, and church audiences interested in liberation theologies, critical engagements with globalization, drug-related conflicts, and US–Mexico relations…

A Labor Day Sermon

This is the transcript of a sermon I preached on Labor Day of 2020. The audio of just the sermon and video and of the message and worship service can also be accessed here.

Good morning, Christ Church! It’s great to be with you today in worship and to get to share with you all on this Labor Day weekend. 

It is in fact deliberate that I’m speaking to you on the Sunday of Labor Day. For those of you who I may not know — maybe you’re new to Christ Church in the last six months — my name is Bill Walker, and I’m the director of Vocation, and I’ve been in this role for a little over a year. 

And of course, one of the things that probably comes to mind when you think of the word vocation is work, which is what I want to talk about today. 

Now, vocation is more than simply our work. Sometimes our calling from God might have more to do with a primary relationship in our life —with our spouse, with our children, or even to church or some way that we are called to serve outside of work. 

But work is still a major facet of our vocation and of what it means to be called, and most of us will spend about 1/3 of our lives working. So it’s very important to reflect on a theology of work and how our work is part of God’s mission in the world and the story that God is still writing with us in it. 

Labor Day itself has its history in the commemoration of labor rights established in this country — laws and policies that protect workers from exploitation. It’s dedicated to the American labor movement and the social and economic achievements of American workers — particularly working class and blue collar folks in their collective efforts toward industrial progress and ingenuity, as well as efforts to hold their employers accountable for fair compensation.

And while Labor Day as a holiday does primarily have to do with actual paid labor and employed work, we also acknowledge that much of our most important and meaningful work that we do in life is often not work we get paid for! From parenting and homemaking to volunteering and serving in our communities in various ways.

And what a unique and challenging time to be talking about work in the year 2020 and in time of COVID-19! The sheer extent of disruption and complication of work for so many people is hard to quantify. Obviously, not everyone has been impacted in the same way, and some much more than others, but the effect overall has been an enormous one that is still be felt and countless ways — not least among the hospitality industry, commercial real estate, retail, transportation, all those working with younger children in the home, and the list could go on. 

There are 11.5 million fewer jobs now than before the pandemic. 28 million workers — one in five — currently drawing unemployment benefits.

And for many people —not all, but for many — work has only gotten more tedious and burdensome, despite the fact that many of us having been working from home. Just ask a working parent with young children in the home, a young adult who lives alone and works from home, and there are others. 

And even for those of us who maybe haven’t been as affected by COVID, and those who may believe strongly and feel very confident that you’re doing the work you were made for and that God has called you to — even you are by no means exempt from the frustrations and pains that come along with work. 

And it’s in light of this reality of the toil of work in general and the destabilization by COVID in particular, that it seems appropriate to hear the words from the teacher in Ecclesiastes! Which can seem like such a gloomy passage, on the one hand, that despairs about the nature of work, but maybe it’s also comfort, on the other hand, to those for whom work has indeed been hard and you can hear the Bible’s acknowledgement of that!

Made to Work

But before diving into this issue of the toil of work, I think it’s important to state upfront some of the theological truths about that we hold to as Christians that are clear from the whole story of Scripture about work as well. And unsurprisingly, it begins with the beginning, and in Genesis 1:

  1. Made to be co-creators
  2. Given the responsibility of stewardship 
  3. This was the original plan 
  4. So our work has intrinsic value (this is what Dorothy Sayers meant, I think, in her famous essay, “Why Work,” when she said the best work is the kind that serves the work! The blessing to others is a byproduct, but the world itself is done for its own sake — for the love and devotion to the craft, art and skill of the work as such.)

We see right away in the creation story that God makes us in his image, in God’s likeness, that we may rule or have dominion— the “cultural mandate,” it’s sometimes called. And the main thing to recognize here I think is that just as God is a creator and an orderer, so too have we been made to create or order things. Not to create out of nothing, but to create, make, and organize/administrate things with the material that God has given us and in the times and places that we live. 

Secondly, we are stewards of creation! We have responsibility to care for and productively participate in the cultivation of civilization and human flourishing through our labor (in everything from gardening to carpentry!)

Third, this work was given to us before the Fall. Work is part of the original plan! 

And fourthly, therefore, assuming it contributes to the common good in some way —however small! — it has intrinsic value. It isn’t just a means to an end. It is worthwhile in and of itself — whatever it does or does not produce. 

But sin enters the picture in Genesis 3, and this is what is coming through in much of the passage from Ecclesiastes today: the extent to which work is burdensome, tiring, tedious and even can feel meaningless! 

22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? — Ecclesiastes 2:22-25

The teacher’s words echo a Genesis 3 world of “painful toil”, ”thorns and thistles,” that the ground will produce, and “by the sweat of your brow,” that you will eat, etc. No longer is it the Genesis 1-2 world of “working” and “keeping” the garden…

Consequences of the Fall 

  1. Sin enters the picture, and we turn away from God. We worship the creation rather than the creator. We make other gods, or we try to become our own gods. We look to work rather than God to get things like pleasure, identity, significance and security — through wealth, power, influence, etc. 
  2. One of the consequences of sin is not only broken relationships with God and each other, but also with our work. 
  3. Sin distorts our understanding of the purpose of work. It becomes an idol, it becomes futile, tedious, discouraging, burdensome… unfulfilling.

Getu’s story

A couple weeks ago for the Faith & Business lunch, we invited a guest who was only known to a few of us, and I didn’t know him. His name is Getu Bantayehu. And Getu is a real estate developer and lender in the D.C area.

Some of you were part of the meeting and have already heard the story, but most of you weren’t, and so I’m going to tell it to you. He was born in Ethiopia but came to the U.S. later in life for school.

In the interview we did with him, Getu shared that… Education and Money were the two great gods/idols he was tempted to put above everything else because he saw them as the key to his security.

For a while he thought Education would get him there, but then he realized the people who cared most about education already had enough money, and the people who didn’t have enough money yet were only pursuing their education in order to get more money. So he thought he’d better do the same, and he wasn’t in the right major!

He chased these things until he grew exhausted and then met Christ. And then he thought, now I guess I’ll go into the “ministry.” This lasted about a year 🙂 Then he realized that wasn’t his calling at all! And a mentor said to him around that time, why don’t you just go back to what you were doing, since you were good at it, and do it differently? And so he did. 

But Getu admitted that while he wanted to believe his work would be clearly more Christ-honoring now, it didn’t always feel that way. Sometimes it feels pretty lonely, and not very meaningful. In fact, much of it is morally ambiguous, he explained. The development ventures he backs tend to be in historically under-resourced areas that are gentrifying, much like the East Side of Austin. It’s complicated, good in some ways but arguably harmful in other respects. It’s a mixed bag to say the least. 

But what he does try to do now is…Love everyone around him, his family and not work too much/too hard! To show more grace, patience and understanding. He’s not necessarily driven to maximize profit at every turn. He isn’t governed by his natural instinct. By God’s grace, he pursues a higher order, striving to live on earth as it is in heaven.

Getu’s testimony and experience highlights the tension many of us live in as well when it comes to work, between doing what we have to do to make ends meet and take care of those we love, on the one hand, and finding the cracks and the opportunities to be generous and sacrificially caring for others, on the other hand.

When I was an undergraduate student at Baylor, I worked as a supplemental instructor for a History of Economics class. This was the class where we read the great moral philosophers and modern political theorists of the Enlightenment and beyond. We studied people like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. 

And Smith is most known for being the father of modern economics and capitalism. He talked about the extent to which self-interest and competition function like an invisible hand that guides the economy into growth and innovation with limited government interference. 

But something Smith is less known for that he also wrote about is moral philosophy. He says this is another one of his great works, The Theory of Moral Sentiment:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” ― Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

This is where we get a glimpse of Smith’s own theology, where he shows an awareness that, because we’re made in God’s image, and even though we’re selfish and sinful, there’s a divine spark in us that hasn’t grown entirely dim. It may be dormant, but the light of the gospel can reignite it. 

Smith never imagines that capitalism would work without the influence of virtuous and rightly morally sentient beings guiding and correcting it. 

Think about those of us who might need some kind of medication on a regular basis. Now, for the corporations, doctors and researchers who worked to develop this particular prescription and medication, I doubt any of us are under the illusion that they all do it entirely for altruistic motives and reasons. No! But I also don’t think that they don’t care about helping people at all! It’s both/and, and that’s ok. We’re grateful for their work.

Paul speaks to this somewhat in several places where he talks about the effort he made not to be a burden to anyone support his ministry, explaining that he worked with his hands to support himself. He also states in 2 Thessalonians 3 that the person who can work but refuses to should not eat! So the Bible acknowledges that practical level and essential need of work as well.

But as Christians, our ability to live in the kingdom as if it’s a present reality here and now goes beyond mere moral sentiment. Our mission is an explicit one that has to do with redemption and restoration, not just good influence. We read in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians the following:


17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

So what does this gospel truth enable us to do when it comes to our work? Well, at a minimum, it empowers us. And it empowers us to do something that most people are unable to in our culture right now. And this is just one way of putting it, but I like howSteven Garber put it last year when he spoke to our church at the parish retreat, talking about vocation. 

He talked about how we as Christian are specifically called and given the grace to both fully know the world, and fully love the world. And this is not easy to do. In fact, most of the time, we don’t fully know the world. We only see it how we want to. How we’re inclined to. And if we do fully know it — see it for what it truly is — we tend to grow cynical, bitter and resentful, making us unable to love. 

A couple of weeks ago, I lost a mentor and teacher who was very dear to me. Dr. Min was someone who was able to fully know the world while also loving the world (Steve Garber). He loved his work, and he had an amazing job in some respects as a professor, but he also served and supported his students far beyond what was ever expected of him. This is what he’s remembered for. It was the unexpected work that he did for others, and the way he put students even before his own scholarship and writing projects that made such an impression on me and others.

I had the chance to share virtually at his memorial service yesterday, and that’s what I said about him. And I mention Dr. Min, because I think he reminds me of the potential we have in our work to be what Steve Garber has called “sacramental signposts” of the Kingdom and the way the world will someday be — of the future we have in God that our work anticipates.

Dallas Willard has said that “the glory of our future is the continuing creativity of our work in the life of God.” 

The call in our work is to respond to the creative impulse God gives us toward that moral sentiment, to perform work that like God we hope to be able to “call good.” (Creation). And beyond this, even in the frustration and vexation of COVID and many other challenges and difficulties that we might face, the Spirit empowers us to act as ambassadors of Christ, the righteousness of God, and of ministers of reconciliation in the world, knowing that this good work will continue in a glorious future in the coming kingdom. Amen.

Here is a Labor Day Prayer I came across recently as well:

Prayer for the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

Lord God, Master of the Vineyard,

How wonderful that you have invited us
who labor by the sweat of our brow
to be workers in the vineyard
and assist your work
to shape the world around us.

As we seek to respond to this call,
make us attentive to those who seek work
but cannot find it.

Help us listen to the struggles of those
who work hard to provide for their families
but still have trouble making ends meet.

Open our eyes to the struggles of those exploited
and help us speak for just wages and safe conditions,
the freedom to organize, and time for renewal.
For work was made for humankind
and not humankind for work.

Let it not be a vehicle for exploitation
but a radiant expression of our human dignity.

Give all who labor listening hearts
that we may pause from our work
to receive your gift of rest.

Fill us with your Holy Spirit
that you might work through us to let your justice reign.


(United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Called to be Whole and Holy: Anger in the Sermon on the Mount

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached at Christ Church Austin on Feb. 15. Here is the audio.

As you all know if you’ve been with us, we’ve been talking about vocation again in the new year– specifically our common vocation as Christians, and how we are all called to not only particular areas of work in our lives as part of God’s mission in the world – but also in general to wholeness and holiness as disciples of Jesus Christ, loving God and loving others in all that we do.

And we’ve been looking at Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, primarily chapter 5. As Father Matt talked about last week, we see that Jesus is telling his disciples – telling us – that we’re salt and light, that we’re a city on a hill! This is what we’re supposed to be. This is who we are. Not abolishing but fulfilling the original intent of the Law. Reflecting God’s character!

And holiness is attractive, it’s evangelistic, it’s compelling. It’s good for us.

I’ve had the chance recently to be part of two different Fuller Cohort retreats with folks from Christ Church. Many of you have heard us talking about this. Fuller Cohorts are one of the main ways that we’re inviting everyone in our church into a dedicated season of vocational and spiritual formation – for one year in a group of about 20 other people and in several small groups, learning new faith practices together and discerning vocation in a community and retreat setting. We’re doing this both with people in our church and with others in the city who are part of other churches as part of our desire to serve and invite others into this beyond just our congregation.

And something we talk about in the Fuller Cohorts is that the most common setback in the journey of discipleship isn’t actually knowing whatto do – it isn’t knowingour calling or vocation exactly– this is often what we are tempted to focus on the most – but rather, the more common setback is actually just being able todowhat God is already calling us to do! Indeed, though sometimes we might lack clarity, we even more often lack the conviction, the courage, or the commitment we need to do what God has asked.

Now, of course we care a lot about vocational discernment and discovering what God is calling us to do in our lives – how we’re gifted, equipped, unique…. And especially as it relates to understanding and appreciating that God cares about all areas, every arena of our lives, and that our daily work is the primary place we’re called to live on mission for God!

But even more important than this, even more primary in our lives as disciples, I think we should say – and even more difficult— is the call to wholeness and holiness, and actually living that out. Doing what God has commanded us to do in loving God and others. It’s easier to know than it is to do. At least, it is for many of us – certainly for me it is!

Because if we ask, for instance, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why is there unhappiness? Why is there so much anger? Why is there so much infidelity? Why is there so much dishonesty/deception? These problems that Jesus talks about in the gospel reading today…

Is there anger, lust/greed or deceit in the world because we don’t know our true vocations? Or because we don’t have our dream jobs or ideal life circumstances? Well, I think that plays a role, and is perhaps partly to blame….

But no, ultimately, that’s not the main reason!No, it isn’t for lack of information about what to do or even how to do it. Rather,we simply are not able to do what God has commanded and called us to because it’s very hard! And we’re prone, we’re predisposed, we’re just incapable of fulfilling God’s law.

In fact one of the most common way we seek to be fulfilled in America, at least for a certain segment of the population, is by pursuing a dream job, career or image of yourself. You know that saying, “Do what you love!” Pursue your passions! If it were only that simple! If it were only that easy…

A friend in the church sent me a quote this week from Eugene Peterson that touched on this very point:

“Having a good job doesn’t mean that we’ll do it well. Having the right role doesn’t guarantee righteousness. Saul, for example, had good work to do, yet he — as Israel’s first king — failed at his job. We can’t look to our job, our positions, for righteousness… Jobs are important. Things need to be done. But no job is perfectly suited for carrying out God’s purposes. The key to living vocationally — that is, being “God-called,” Spirit-annointed — isn’t getting the right job or career but doing kingdom work in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.” — Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall

Peterson is talking about the call to wholeness here– to an integrated life. One in which the chief goal isn’t the right outward appearance, title, job or image, but rather the same character of holiness in every area of our lives, whether at work, at home, or in the community or church.

And in Matthew 5:21-37, Jesus is talking about three big things that get in the way of our wholeness, our wholeness, our integratedness – our love of God and our love of neighbor: Specifically, 1) anger, 2) lust and 3) dishonesty. And I want to spend time primarily on anger today.

 “Anger and contempt are twin scourges of the earth. Mingled with greed and sexual lust, these bitter emotions form the poisonous brew in which human existence stands suspended. Few people ever get free of them in this life, and for most of us even old age does not bring relief.” Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 150

If you think about it, is there is anything more human and more pervasive than sex and violence? There’s little wonder that these are the two things that are repeatedly cited as the areas of our greatest problems in life by the media.

Every age, and every era, has its own set of problems and sins. We are not any more sinful today as a human race than we were fifty or a hundred years ago, believe it or not. No, we were just as sinful then as we are now.

However, there are still particular ways that our sin tends to manifest itself that are perhaps more noticeable now than in previous time periods.And it seems to me that there are a few key ways we could characterize our current cultural climate if we’re just looking at our society here in North America: We are angry. We are lustful. We are dishonest.


21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Now, Jesus is not saying that it’s wrong to get mad about some things! In fact, Jesus himself elsewhere models an appropriate righteous indignation toward injustice and hypocrisy.

Indeed, even in this very passage, it seems, Jesus is surely expressing anger particularly at those in the next section who were divorcing their wives for illegitimate reason and because of the lust in their hearts that they had toward other women. Women could almost never divorce men. It was always the other way around, and there were many cases of men taking advantage of this and leaving their wives tremendously vulnerable, disgraced and consigning them to lives of shame or even prostitution. And I think it’s safe to say that Jesus was justifiably mad about this.

But the kind of anger that Jesus is calling sinful here is different. These words, “Raca,” and “You fool,” are expressions that belittles someone and calls for their elimination. To say a person is dead to you, essentially. That you judge them to be worthless. It’s a demeaning, dismissing and dehumanizing statement. It comes from place of contempt and is similar to a feeling of hatred that we might have toward someone.

And it’s a big deal if anger gets a foothold. So much so that Jesus goes on to say, first go and be reconciled! Before you worship. You can’t have right relationship with God when you haven’t done everything you can to have right relationship with your neighbor, your brother or sister. These teachings are not just for individual behavior or relationship with God. These are the social standards of the Kingdom of God. On earth as it is in heaven.

So yes, some of us might really struggle with anger and hatred toward someone, and if so, this calls for repentance and reconciliation. But I also want to suggest that one of the ways anger manifests itself in our time,while it can be like I’ve just described it, more often is in a subtler fashion that’s not always easy to trace. So while we may not necessarily harbor hatred toward one individual or another, but may nonetheless be holding on to anger and letting it fester in other ways that are potentially just as destructive.

Many of us carry a supply of anger around with them.Henry David Thoreau called this a “quiet desperation” that many people just live with. In our time, it might show itself in something as minor as road rage, or maybe just in response to Austin Marathon detours and traffic!

But it could also be something as serious as a mass shooting, of which our country has the highest rate of any other in the world by far…

“Angry people live in angry bodies.” Bessel A. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

Oliver Burkeman, Age of Rage (The Guardian, May 11, 2019):

We’ve built a world that’s very good at generating causes for anger, but not very good at giving us anything constructive to do with it. We live in denser settlements, and thus more frequently have gripes with people who are complete strangers, which means there’s no pre-existing relationship to discuss and process. [I can’t talk to you after you cut me off in traffic!]

We face big, systemic forces that feel very threatening– automation, globalization, etc.–  but that offer few ways for individual people or communities to turn their anger into change.

Social media is unsurprisingly one of the best example of this.

The algorithms of the attention economy relentlessly expose us to enraging stories and opinions, for the [simple] reason that anger spreads more virally than other emotions– so you’re more likely to click, like, share and stay glued to Twitter or Facebook when you’re furious…online, the diet of outrage can be customized precisely to include whatever drives you, personally, up the wall. It’s not so much that social media platforms are full of bigoted trolls and [extremists] with [ignorant] opinions, but rather that, however many there really are, the platforms are designed to ensure you can’t avoid the ones who infuriate you the most…


At the same time, however, the targets of online anger are much more likely to be beyond the reach of productive conversation,either because they’re large and vaguely defined constituencies[, or because it’s someone we know but only maintain a virtual relationship with..]

And the ego, our sinful nature, seems to find its energy precisely by having something to oppose!

So what are we supposed to do with all of this? Well, there are all kinds of self-help, anger management and I’m sure techniques and tactics that you’ve heard or could read about, and some of them are probably quite useful. But as Christians whose common identity and calling is based on Christ’s adoption of us and loving sacrifice for our sake, I think the first thing is to remember what God has already done about all of this.

One of the things that’s helpful to remember when it comes to anger is how much Jesus took on not merely the sin of the world on the cross in generalbut also anger, lust, and deceit in particular.

When we look at the cross, one of the things that we’re seeing is, yes — God’s extravagant love of us, and yes we see God’s judgment on our sin –but we also see the tragic and horrific outcome of the human cycle of anger, and rivaly, and blame itself, that leads to the murder of an innocent and righteous man. Jesus’s death shows the bankruptcy of all human justice systems, all failed attempts on our part to be righteous judges of each other. Yes, the Roman system was particularly cruel, but our modern systems have brokenness and darkness in them as well.

The Romans, like many empires and civilizations before them, devised a mechanism that they thought would periodically diffuse rebellion and uprising by publicly shaming, blaming, torturing and killing someone for whatever problem their society happened to be facing– whatever was threatening their sense of security in the world at the time. t’s really a distraction tactic, and it only works for a little while before you have to get angry, blame and execute somebody else. Violence only temporarily suppresses the mob.

But what God does is expose us all for what we truly are. A human race universally infected with the virus of anger and violence, and none of us is innocent. No merehuman sacrifice can take away the sins of the world, no scapegoat can possibly carry the weight of all of humanity’s anger and suffering. But God can. And Christ does – in his human and divine nature. Only he can represent all of us. Only he can stand in our place and remove the stain of our self-righteous anger.

The one true victim who really is innocent is also the one who has the power to forgive us for our sins and our anger. And this same Savior tells us to forgive as we have been forgiven. The source of our patience, our long suffering and our own ability to extend mercy to those who anger us is not found within ourselves but is Christ himself. He enables us to resist anger, to resist bitterness and resist resentfulness. His Spirit softens our hearts towards even our enemies.

That God does not condemn us for our violence against Christ which we ourselves commit – that’s the all-sufficient cooling agent we need to put anger aside.

Living into our common vocation to holiness and wholeness draws entirely on this deep well that puts out any and every fire. It reminds us that none of us is important enough to hold a grudge, to remain unforgiving toward someone, or to feel scandalized or offended for too long.

Now it’s important to recognize that there are situations that some of you are in that probably that feel like the exception to this. You’ve been truly hurt and harmed in a way that you never should have been. Forgiveness perhaps feels impossible, and anger never seems to go away. If that’s where you find yourself, know that God is patience with you as well. And that Christ was and is present to your sufferings. Your sufferings were also his sufferings on the cross.

So what I’d like to do to close is to invite you all to take a minute in prayer to simply make room for the Spirit to speak and reveal anything to you– especially concerning whether there’s any anger – or lust, or deceit – in your heart. So I’ll leave a moment of silence now before praying.

Oh God of peace, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love! We rest in our identity in you as your beloved. We long to simply enter into our blessedness and enjoy your presence.

But indeed, we confess that we have anger against our neighbors. We have lust and deceit in our heart, and we want to be rid of these things. Oh God will you sooth our hearts with your comforting and gentle words. Take away our frustration. Release us from contempt, resentment, bitterness and even irritation.

Chase out any anger that resides in us. Lord we know that your perfect sacrifice for our sake takes away the sin and anger and lust and lies of the world.

When we feel angry due to unmet expectations. When pressure and conflict make us feel surrounded, remind us that I am surrounded by your presence.  When you are with us, there is no need to win or prove ourselves or be right. Please remove our anger towards others and replace it with trust in your provision and care.

We know that satisfaction can only be found in you. Melt any judgment or unforgiveness that might have a place in us, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

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