Sermon for Proper 11, Year A: Subtraction

It might help to read the scriptures before you read the sermon, although if I put them here, my word count is bigger. 😛

In researching for this sermon today, I accidentally came across something profound in a novel called Quantum Lens, by Douglas Richards. I have two free book aggregators that comes to me through e-mail every day, and though it is not on sale anymore, it is worth every penny ($6.99). As an aside, because I’ve gotten so many books for free, my Kindle is breaking under the “weight” of everything I haven’t read….. But the lines I came across that struck me so deeply are these, and I’ll have to paraphrase:

Character 1: How many colors are in the rainbow?
Character 2: Seven, but with combinations, infinite possibilities.
C1: What color do you get when you look at all of them together?
C2: White.
C1: Right. Water is blue not because of addition. Water is blue because of subtraction. The water is not blue because it was made that way, but because the water subtracts everything but blue. What if God is the same way? God is not God because of addition, but because of subtraction? That God is all infinite possibilities and creates by subtracting pieces of God’s self breaking open?

In another part of the book, my mind was absolutely blown. One of the characters says that on the first day of creation, Genesis says, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Ok, so we’re there. It’s one of the most famous passages in all of scripture… and here’s where it gets interesting.

The sun and the moon and the stars weren’t created until the fourth day.

What if, without knowing it, quantum physics is explained in Biblical terms by the 3rd verse of the first chapter of the first book in the Bible… God separating light matter from dark in a concept not truly understood even today… Again, God working through subtraction and not addition.

God dividing themself rather than multiplying.

When you think of scripture in this way, we are all subtractions of God… tiny pieces of divinity flung throughout the world, no matter what kind of deity to which you identify. Eastern, Western, it’s all the same. What changes is the way we subtract from God willingly. If God has many names, they also have none. There is no separation from God, because you are a piece of them, cut of the same cloth:

If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.

If I say, surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,

Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.

Psalms 139: 7-11

What would Christianity look like if we all saw ourselves in this way? What if we threw out the idea of the grandfather in the sky and all realized that God themself is within us, and not without? How would that change theology as we know it? Not for the people that study it every day, but for the people who think they are worthless, or friendless, or needy, or insecure, or all of the things we tell ourselves in our moments of weakness

What would it look like to know for sure that you are not a multiplication of God, but a subtraction? That God themself is in the beating of your heart, divinity you do not have to seek anywhere but in your own heart? What would it look like if all of God’s subtractions stopped subtracting from each other, because as a human race, we are all the same pieces?

What if we were able to subtract negativity, toxicity, war-mongering, famine… all the horrible things that humans do to one another because we do not realize that we are literally hurting ourselves? If everyone on earth is a subtraction of God, we are all literally the same person, with enough difference to make things interesting. We lash out in fear, but what if we were all able to turn that fear on its ear and reach out in the knowledge that when we treat each other unfairly, or engender anger and fear in others, we are only using a knife to cut our own hearts?

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Letter in the Spirit of Paul to the Romans

Who hopes for what is seen?

If we are to believe in this letter, we have a lot of work to do. “Paul” is urging us to set our own creation free. Chapter 8, from which this excerpt is taken, deals with the problem of righteousness and entitlement… that being saved in hope does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want without consequences. His ambition in this letter is to show that the Jews of his time practiced their faith by strict adherence to the law, and to him, there was no way on earth this was possible, or even probable. What speaks to “Paul” is spiritual submission, the act of doing the right thing because the law did not always line up morally.

Jesus freed us from all Talmudic law, which is the basis for the new church that “Paul” is trying to create. In effect, he wants to subtract Christians from the legal bondage that the Jews have created, to be able to follow their own hearts and minds. Reading between the lines, “Paul” is calling out all the Jews who live to the letter of the law and yet, have no spirituality at all…. but he’s trying to fix it. He is trying to show the Romans that they are not a church of their own, but part of a larger body, all subtracted from the same being.

There is also self-motivation as well as mobilization. “Paul” was eager to preach in Spain as the West opened up, and he knew that establishing Rome as a base of operations was his best bet. He laid his heart bare, establishing his theology, because he knew that his “reviews” from Rome would be mixed based upon his reputation without even knowing him…. because who hopes for what is seen? He was trying to hope for something bigger than the churches he knew well (to paraphrase Wm. Barclay).

In order to do this, he establishes that we must be responsible for our own well-being and that of others. Not to be claimed, but to own the claim we already have. “Paul” calls us the first fruits of the spirit, just sitting there, waiting.

What are we waiting for if God has already subtracted a piece of themself into us, so that we may further the message of the Christ on our own? If “Paul” was reaching beyond the hope that was already established, what is stopping us? What is stopping us from reaching out to the poor, friendless, needy, insecure, or otherwise hurt in a world that sometimes knocks us flat? What is stopping us from subtracting pain? What is stopping us from subtracting fear? What is stopping us from subtracting unity?

Glory is not about to be revealed to us. It is already here. What are we waiting for?


There’s No Present Like the Time

My new alarm clock is the bomb diggity. I love how the sound fills the room, and the fact that I can use it as a speaker phone as long as I have my iPhone or iPad attached by Bluetooth. In fact, as long as my iPad is connected to Wi-Fi, everything that goes to my phone goes to it automatically. For some people, this would be a dealbreaker. For me, it makes it where if I leave one or the other upstairs, I do not have to make a mad dash from the porch to my room trying to catch the phone before it stops ringing. The only thing that I need to change about it is how it wakes me up. I have it set to FM radio, because I used to like to wake up to NPR. Now I realize that with the amount of sleeping medication I take, NPR doesn’t cut through my dreams easily enough to actually wake up when it goes off. Sometimes, I am alert enough to catch it on the first try. Some days, I’m just not. The soothing voices of the commentators are more likely to make me sleep deeper. 🙂

I should change my alarm clock to Bluetooth and set it to the same ring my phone makes. There is no snooze button on that. With my ringtone, I tend to shake awake immediately (another gift from my father passed on genetically) because I don’t know who’s on the other end of the line. It’s a gift because pastors often get very serious calls in the middle of the night, and the last thing my father wanted in a parishioner’s time of need was for people to think that they woke him up. They had enough to worry about, you know?

I feel the same way. I do not want any of my parishioners to apologize for waking me up as if it’s inconvenience to take their call in the middle of the night when their son has just died. I come from a long line of jobs where I’ve said, “this is Leslie Lanagan, how may I help you?” Being a pastor is not really that different, except the calls you take are rarely scheduling an appointment at 3:00 AM. If someone calls in the middle of the night, it’s never something good.

Someone has died, someone has been rushed to the emergency room, someone has been arrested, someone needs to go to the bedside and administer last prayers. In the Methodist church, there are no true “last rites,” but in the hours of someone passing away, they need their pastor more than ever…. or perhaps the family is Methodist now, but they come from a church where there *are* last rites and want them to be administered anyway. When that happens, you don’t want the chaplain on duty. You want the person that has been the everpresentlovingkindness that you’ve been every Sunday since they started attending.

The phrase “there’s no present like the time” comes from a jeweler’s commercial whose name I now forget, but it sticks with me all the time.  There are other commercials that stick out almost as clearly, like when PBS came up with “the channel that changes you.” That first one, tho……

What better present could you give anyone but your time? I am at the space in my life where I do not need more material things. I have pared down to the basic essentials. If you want to give me a gift, the best thing you could offer is cooking for me or taking me out to dinner just to look at you, face to face… perhaps reaching across the table to touch my hand or afterward, giving me a sincere hug and kiss on the cheek. Pri-Diddy had to reschedule from Tuesday to Friday, so my anticipation of seeing her has had a chance to build. She is not giving me anything but her presence, but it is worth more than anything she could give. I hope she feels the same way about me, because Prianka is one of the people who has crossed over into that friend in which I can confide anything without judgment. Like Bryn and Argo, we’ve not been afraid to delve into the deepest parts of ourselves in order to move forward. Though Pri-Diddy is younger, she has this way about her that makes me think she was an Indigo child, wise beyond her years. My guru in a tiny body, born in the same hospital where Mother Theresa worked in Calcutta. She shows me YouTube videos of the gurus she likes, and is impressed that I worked at the Graduate School of Social Work at the same time Brene Brown attended. But, of course, then she was not Brene Brown, Trademark. She was just one of the students in which I had to help with her computer problems, just like everyone else running to complete a paper.

I take pride in her success, not because I was the one that got her through grad school, but because I take pride in all of “my students” that have gone on to do great things. Also, because I helped the administration as well, the director said that I had an open invitation to attend. WOW it was a big mistake to leave for Alexandria, but I learned lessons that couldn’t have been learned any other way. I was young and STUPID in love with my girlfriend, and there was no way I wanted her to move without me. Although looking back at my life, I should have let her. I got really sick with depression being A) far from home and missing school and 2) not having the right medicines so that I went from a little bit depressed to completely batshit crazy in no time at all. Although, truth be told, I did not miss class as much as I missed working at UH. My bosses were kind and supportive in a way that I haven’t had since… except for Randy, who tried to take me under his wing and I couldn’t lean into that pure, white, professional love because of the hurricane swirling at home.

I did find a church, though, and that helped mightily. Kathleen and I both loved it, and invested to the point that we helped install the tile labyrinth in the floor and Kathleen joined Brian’s “Make Your Own Stained Glass” class. It turned out beautifully, and it hung in our bathroom window so it could get the most sun.

In the end, though, it did not help my depression enough, and after 18 months in Alexandria, we’d both had enough of each other. We stopped giving each other the present of time. Kathleen joined a softball team and when I went to support her, she made a point of touching men intimately, like brushing their hair out of their faces a little too slowly right in front of me so she could make it clear that her intentions with me were over. We broke up in August or September, and by October she’d met the man she was going to marry.

It gutted me like a fish, and my dad came to our townhouse when Kathleen wasn’t home and just said, “leave all the furniture, get the small things you want to take, and let’s go home.” He did all the driving as we pushed through from DC to Houston, drinking coffee and listening to Tony Robbins, whom I’ve come to love.

I don’t care what you think of him. In my need, what he gave me was priceless, which is the ability to build myself up. The thing he said that gave me the most pause is that sometimes we are frozen with the paralysis of analysis, and that sums me up to a great degree. Although, there was another truly great line that I carry with me as well, which is that we learn more when we’re pondering rather than partying.

That has been true for me in the breakup with Dana as well. We did a lot of partying when we should have been pondering, and that was a theme we carried through our relationship a lot. It was so much easier to get along on a best friend/partying/sex level than it ever was to truly connect with each other down to our souls. When I started to peel back my own layers, and this is solely my opinion, she wasn’t ready to peel back hers. It may not be her story, but it is mine. The deeper I delved into myself, the more I wanted to know about her. We were handfasted in a truly shitty club in terms of our childhood, and I wanted to know every detail, some of which she could talk about, and some she couldn’t because she didn’t know the answers herself.

It was at that time we began to pull away from each other, because I didn’t act the same. In fact, she made the point of telling me that my eyes didn’t look like home anymore, and even though I excused myself to go to bed not to up the ante, it was a direct shot into my soul, an arrow I have not extracted and won’t for a long time. I didn’t want to know why she felt that way. I just went to bed and cried myself to sleep, trying to self-soothe and tell myself I was worthy of love, even if it wasn’t hers.

I gave thanks for our separate bedrooms, because even though we were still married and dedicated to each other, we had different processes in terms of trying to fall asleep. Many people thought that was the beginning of the end, and told me so. I told them to shut that down, because it actually made our relationship better. We liked having our own huge amounts of space in the house, and room for our electronics on the other side of the bed. It seems crazy, but it worked. Having the space to spread out made us sleep better and because of it, fights didn’t seem so important the next day. Besides, at the end of the day we were too tired for sex, anyway, so the naughty neighbor complex was probably the best thing ever, in my opinion, anyway. For us, there was something intimate about looking at each other, holding each other, falling in love and connecting in sunlight and energy rather than the part of the day where we just needed rest. We gave each other the present of our time when we were the most jazzed to see each other, and not when we were out of it with exhaustion.

One of the other reasons we liked separate bedrooms is that I tended to write to you at night, and I didn’t want to interrupt her sleep with the sound of my fingers clacking on the keys. At the time, I had a 17-inch Mac desktop in my room, and it was “my place” to wind down. On the other hand, it gave me too much privacy with Argo, where Dana wouldn’t read what I’d sent until the next day and couldn’t do anything about the fact that I was “over the line, Smokey. Mark it zero…….” I’d give anything to take that back, the ways in which I sent Argo things I shouldn’t, thinking I was brave and crazy and trying to push her away all in one breath. I loved her mind, AND I wanted to continue being married. Those two things battled in my brain to such an enormous degree that I told Argo it was getting harder and harder to look at myself in the mirror anymore. In love on the ground and “in love” in the cloud made it where I truly felt shame, deep and abiding. I could no longer give myself the gift of my own time, because if Dana didn’t want to be with me, it was nothing compared to how bad I didn’t want to be with me, either.

The difference is that Dana had a choice to leave me, and I didn’t. I had to sit with my pain and confusion and work it the fuck out. I had to dig myself out of the hole I’d dug, and it was deep enough to compare it to burying a body.

It was at about that time I saw a link to an article on Facebook that I read about a woman who saw an empty grave at a cemetery and jumped into it, laying down on the bare earth. She talked about feeling death, feeling where she would go when she died, and how it made her less afraid of dealing with her own problems because she dug herself out of the earth physically, which changed her mindset completely. She’d laid there long enough to really see what was important and what was not, and arose a different person than the one she was when she’d just lay there, alone in her own thoughts and shortcomings.

In that article, she gave me the present of her time, which allowed me to look at things much more deeply than I ever had before. I started to forgive myself. I started to feel my own worth. I started to realize what was important to me and what wasn’t.

The most important thing, to me, became mending my relationship with Argo because I’d intentionally caused her to run away, treated her like crap so she would. I made my narrative so angry, when in reality it would have meant more to me than anything in the world to have the present of her time, if only for a few minutes.

In her last missive, she used words like probably and maybe rather than always and never, tears running down my face in astonishment because Good Friday had become Easter once again. Even if nothing ever happens in the future, because we both want peace without and within, I stood speechless in front of her, laid bare by her grace. It took her time to write that e-mail, a present of time so great that it is the e-mail I keep in my Kindle case and lean on it when I feel unworthy and unloved.

I walk taller with our resolution and the future doesn’t matter. What matters is that in my need for peace, she gave it to me with her whole heart. In the moment, it felt like a sacrAMENt, a blessing to move forward with grace and mercy for others. There is nothing so sacred to me than passing those presents along.

My invitation to you is to think about this: there’s no time like the present to make the present your time. What are you going to do with it? What relationships are you going to heal? What present of time are you going to give yourself?