All sermons given by the Priest-in-Charge, the Rev’d Dante A. Tavolaro, unless otherwise indicated.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (2 May 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Public Domain
For nearly three months a group of us have gathered week by week to read the latest book written by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, titled Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times. Through this study Bishop Curry has guided us to think more deeply about the way of love. His words have pushed and challenged our assumptions about what it means to love, how we are called to be in relationship with one another, and why we must hold on to this most magnificent force pulsing through the universe.
At the heart of Bishop Curry’s book, and in fact at the heart of his entire ministry, is the phrase, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”
This phrase is more than a catchy tagline, it is a deep theological position on the very nature of God. In this phrase, Bishop Curry translates the words we hear this morning in our epistle, into something that the modern ear can comprehend. Set free from the sometimes tongue tying nature of the First Letter of John, this phrase grounds us in the way, the truth, and the life revealed in Jesus.
John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1) Why is Bishop Curry’s phrase so true? Why can he profess, “if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God?” He can do so, because God is love.
In writing this letter, John might have said, instead of “God is love,” that God is power, or God is order, or even God is goodness. All of these things sound good, there is something appealing about them.
Through our insecurity and longing for protection, it is natural to yearn for a God who can control nature and prevent sickness; who, with the snap of a finger, can make all the pain and suffering of life disappear. How many of us have cried out, “How long, O Lord? How long,” as we fervently wish and pray for God to magically fix the problems that face our communities, the violence erupting around the country, the plague of the coronavirus which still wreaks havoc around the globe.
In a world of moral confusion, we might find ourselves wishing for a God who lays down the law with complete clarity and holds everyone accountable, catching the deceitful and rewarding the faithful.
In our hunger to possess, we might imagine a God of prosperity, one who promises to make us rich if we follow and obey a few rules: A God who acts like a genie, granting our every wish.
No matter what we might desire, John does not write that God is power, order, goodness, or anything else. John is clear, “God is love.” And as such, all things begin in love, flow from love, are perfected through love, and return to love. This is true for the entire created order, for everything, including humanity, that God has brought into existence.
Love is not a concept known abstractly, it is an action lived concretely. John tells us that human love is always derivative of God’s love, for “we love because [God] first loved us.” (2) In this relationship of abiding and steadfast love we are called to love others the way God has loved us. Modeling the way we love on how God loves.
We discover this way, this truth, by looking to Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, through whom and in whom authentic life and genuine love for God and others becomes possible. We know how to live this way of life by following the way Jesus lived his earthly life.
As we witness Jesus’ ministry we learn that love means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, standing in solidarity with those who are oppressed, speaking up for the forgotten and voiceless, searching out for those tossed aside and relegated to the margins. Love is the guiding principle behind the promises made at our Baptism.
By modeling our lives on Jesus’ we learn that there is no place in the Kingdom of God for those who nurse grudges, seek revenge, assume intellectual superiority, or are careless with the feelings of others. Scripture makes clear that only the merciful are sure of mercy, only the forgiving are sure of forgiveness, only the loving heart lives in the love of God. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (3) It is only by abiding in Jesus that we can accomplish these things. It is only by abiding in Jesus that we can truly love.
The vineyard imagery of our Gospel passage emphasizes the relational nature of the way of love.
Each part of the vineyard is integral to the whole. This parable reminds us that no one part is greater than any other. We, the branches, cannot exist without being connected to the vine. In other words, no one can go it alone.
This passage also reminds us of our proper place and role in the community. When Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he is telling us that we are not the focus, we are not the initiators of the community, we are not the sources of life and growth.
If you have ever watched a vine grow, then you know there is nothing neat or orderly about it. The branches intertwine. It becomes nearly impossible to separate out one branch from another. It becomes nearly impossible to remove one branch without causing harm to another. This is what it means to be part of a community. We are the glorious, imperfect, messy, tangle of branches that lean on one another, grow with one another, are intertwined together, relying on one another for our very survival.
The vine anchoring our community is love. The vine which is the source of our very existence is God.
The permeating message of that great and new commandment to love one another as God has loved us, is that which prevents the Church from being an inward-turned, self-focused social club, and keeps us grounded in the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is that love which we abide in that roots us in community, relationship, and action as we participate in the ongoing work of God in the world.
If we allow ourselves to be the full recipients of God’s love, to be the people God has created us to be, then the power of that love will eradicate all the fear we have of everything and everyone in the world around us. When we allow this perfect love to cast out our fear, we witness the Kingdom of God breaking in. This is exactly what happens in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.
Philip has experienced the transformative power of God’s love and has responded by dedicating his life to sharing and spreading that love to the ends of the world. Philip is so filled with the love of God that he has no reason to fear, and every reason to trust.
So when God says to Philip, “Get up and go,” (4) get up and go to unexpected and maybe even unwelcome places, Philip gets going.
This journey, this wilderness road, Philip is setting out on will take him to a place he never intended to go, and will require him to enter into relationship with someone he would never have met otherwise. In this story we witness the power of God’s love lived out in action; we see someone experience the full, unfiltered love of God for the first time.
There is a second character who is just as important as Philip in this story. For someone who is unnamed, we actually know a lot about this Ethiopian Eunuch. He was a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was in charge of her entire treasury. He was on his way home from worshipping in Jerusalem, riding in his chariot, whilst reading the prophet Isaiah.
The fact that this man was an Ethiopian, tells us that he was a foreigner; a person of color different from those around him. The fact that this man is a eunuch, tells us that he is considered a sexual outcast and minority. It tells us that following the Deuteronomic laws, the laws contained in the Book of Deuteronomy, he would not have been allowed to be a full member of the worshiping community in Jerusalem or elsewhere. The fact that he is a eunuch and a court official, tells us that he is the perfect servant because he does not present a threat to the purity of the royal bloodline. It tells us that his body can be used to move through gendered spaces in a way that others cannot. As a royal official and a person with enough means to have his own copy of the prophet Isaiah, we know that he would have been accused of having the wrong type of job; having allegiance to the wrong master.
Literally every detail about the Ethiopian Eunuch tells us that the dominant culture of his day, the institutions of secular and sacred authority, labeled him as other – as a person on the margins. Not worthy of full inclusion. Not worthy of his full personhood. Not worthy of the full measure of God’s love.
When Philip arrives on that wilderness road, God’s love is being made incarnate through his actions. God, through Philip, is chasing after the Ethiopian, desiring to enter into a relationship of love.
When the Ethiopian Eunuch invites Philip to get into his chariot and explain the prophecies of Isaiah to him a small crack is opened in the cultural wall that divides these two men. What we see in this story, is the same thing we see time and time again in Scripture, all God needs to work miracles is just a small crack to break through.
The pivotal moment in this encounter is when the Ethiopian Eunuch musters up enough courage to ask Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (5) The language of this question is not to be overlooked. The Ethiopian does not say, “Can you baptize me?” Or “Will you baptize me?” He says, “What is to prevent me.”
This person, because of every marker of his identity has been cast aside and left out. He has lived a life where his personhood, his identity, has prevented him from everything. He wants to know what will it be this time that prevents him from joining the community.
Thanks be to God that in that moment Philip listened not to the shouts of the world, but to the whisperings of the Spirit.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing is to prevent this man from being baptized. The Scriptural account leaves Philip speechless, but his actions speak volumes. The chariot stops. They go to the water. Philip baptizes the Ethiopian. Philip is snatched away by the Holy Spirit, and the Ethiopian goes home rejoicing that he is finally and fully claimed as the beloved child of God that he is.
That, my friends, is what love, godly and holy love, looks like in action.
When we allow the power of God’s love to transform us, to bring us to places we do not wish to go, to direct us into relationships with people we may not wish to encounter, love becomes incarnate. In concrete actions of witness, inclusion, and blessing, love becomes incarnate. In God’s unfailing grasp on each and every person, as the barriers of fear that divide us come crashing down, love becomes incarnate.
French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote about how the world was changed when humanity discovered and harnessed the power of fire. He writes about all the amazing things that became possible by harnessing that power. He goes on to write, “someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” (6)
When Philip harnessed the power love, the Ethiopian Eunuch discovered fire. We are called to share in the work of God’s faithful people in harnessing the power of love. For when we do, when we claim the love of God, when we abide in that love, we too will discover fire, and the world will be changed once more.
(1) 1 John 4:7-8, NRSV.
(2) 1 John 4:19, NRSV.
(3) John 15:4, NRSV.
(4) Acts 8:26, NRSV.
(5) Acts 8:36, NRSV.
(6) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Quotes. BrainyQuote.com, BrainyMedia Inc, 2021. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/pierre_teilhard_de_chardi_114239, accessed April 30, 2021.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (25 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Today is affectionately known as Good Shepherd Sunday. A title that sparks the imagination in a way that the Fourth Sunday of Easter might not be able to. As the name suggests, on this Sunday, every year, the Gospel passage draws our attention to the image of Jesus as our good shepherd. Though, for what it is worth, in our three year lectionary cycle, this is the only year when we actually hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd.”
When I think of Good Shepherd Sunday, when I recall the images I saw and the stories I heard growing up in the church, I find myself drifting to those soft and sweet images of a storybook shepherd walking through a lush field, tending to those cuddly, cloud-like sheep roaming the hillside on a quiet, sunny afternoon.
Without any effort, as my thoughts continue to drift, I am transported back to my time visiting the Irish and Scottish countryside where I saw nothing but sheep for miles. By the way, sheep are not the most generous audience for a brunch of high school students playing Danny Boy, but that is another story for another time.
I wonder if you have any of these, or similar images in mind as you think about Good Shepherd Sunday.
When we imagine this day in such a fashion, when we place this passage in the context of our reminiscing, we might be led to believe that as long as we follow Jesus, we can enjoy a lovely afternoon, eat our fill, and not worry about any of the cares or occupations of this life.
As much as that makes for wonderful cartoons, storybooks, and other delights for our imaginations, I am sorry to say that I do not think that is really what this day is all about. The Scripture readings appointed for today contain a call to action, a declaration of our identity, a reminder of the life of discipleship, and a warning about what lies ahead when we take this call, this declaration, this reminder seriously.
While I know there is a bit more wildlife here in the Northwest corner of the state, we are not likely to encounter large flocks of sheep accompanied by their shepherd in our daily lives. The closest I have been to discovering the realities of sheep-herding is watching the BBC historical farm series on YouTube. While many of us have encountered a few sheep here and there in our lives, I imagine the concept of being a sheepherder is a foreign one to most of us.
The life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky, marginal outcast work. Shepherds were rough around the edges. They were not welcome in “polite society.”
For Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd,” would have been an affront to the religious elite and the well educated of his day. It was a scandalous thing to claim. It would be like Jesus saying today, “:I am the good undocumented migrant worker.”
John’s audience understands this. They know exactly what a shepherd is, and what everyone thought and believed about them. They understood immediately that Jesus was aligning himself with dangerous work carried out by those seen as outcast at best, and those relegated to sub-human status at worst.
As we think about the fullness of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, this is exactly how we should describe him. Jesus hung out on the margins, associated with people that could do nothing for him, befriended those ignored by society, all while breaking the rules and customs of his day to do it. Jesus’ ministry, like the world of a shepherd, was dangerous, risky, marginal, outcast kind of work.
In the first three weeks of Eastertide, we spent time lingering with the disciples, locked away in that upper room. We saw them gripped with fear, we watched their terror turn to joy when they gazed upon the sacred wounds of Jesus’ resurrected body, we heard Jesus open the words of Scripture to them so they could understand the fullness of God’s promise, and we shared in the commission as witnesses to all that has been seen.
We are called, just like the disciples, to be witnesses to what we have seen. We are called to unite our ministries, our lives, with that of the disciples – with the adventures and amazing deeds recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. We are called to claim our identity as followers of Jesus, to make incarnate the dangerous, risky, marginal, outcast kind of ministry in this time and place, to embody that love in whatever vocations God has placed on our hearts.
The Good Shepherd seeks out the lost, those in need of being rescued, those who are forgotten, those who are in need of restoration and healing. The question is, are we willing to step beyond whatever comforts we have grown accustomed to, to go and do likewise?
Building on Jesus’ articulation of his identity as the Good Shepherd, in all that that identity means, we are offered a glimpse of the larger implication of the Good News of God as told by John the Evangelist.
Our Epistle today comes from the First Letter of John. It is likely that this letter was written after the Gospel, by the same author, for a community that knew and loved the Gospel. In many ways this letter reads like an elaboration of the Gospel for those who desired to understand its significance for new times and circumstances.
Take for example the penultimate verse we hear today, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (1) This verse is a stunningly succinct summary of the two great themes of John’s Gospel: that we should believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that we should love on another as he has loved us. This verse is John’s Gospel translated for the NRTV – the New Revised Twitter Version.
That is what we are witnesses to, this is what discipleship is all about: believing in the power of the name of Jesus, and through the power of that name loving each and every person as the beloved child of God that they are. It is about bringing that love to the world, and witnessing to the life-giving, liberation power of God.
If we needed any further reminder so soon after Holy Week, today’s Epistle and Gospel make it abundantly clear that the foundation for that great and new commandment to love rests in Jesus’ own decision to love even unto death. For “the good sheep lays down his life for the sheep.” (2) For “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (3) This is the heart, the very crux of our call as disciples. It is this radical love that empowers the dangerous, risky, marginal, outcast way of life every follower of Jesus is called to: love so strong that we are willing to lay down our lives for our neighbors, just as Jesus laid down his life for us.
It is unlikely that any of us will be called to literally lay down our lives for others and become martyrs for our faith. Therefore we must discern what it means for us to lay down our lives. I wonder what it means for you, wherever you are on your journey of faith, to give up your life out of love.
When we risk our own personal image, when we risk our power and privilege to stand in solidarity with those suffering from hatred, violence, injustice, and oppression we lay down our lives. When we stand in solidarity with those being crushed and killed by the sin of white supremacy we lay down our lives. When we stand against Anti-Asian and Pacific Islander violence and scapegoating of one peoples for the plague and pestilence of the coronavirus pandemic we lay down our lives. When we stand up for those being gunned down in our streets, in our houses of worship, in our places of employment and entertainment, we lay down our lives.
When we prioritize the collective good over individual freedom, when we give up the completely normal human impulse to live for ourselves and allow God to reorient our desires, we lay down our lives. When we give to others, sharing what we have with those who go without, we lay down our lives.
Each and every day, in ways great and small, in our actions and in our decisions we have the opportunity to claim our high calling, to give of ourselves, to let go of old ways so that new life might emerge. In other words, each and every day, we have the opportunity to live our our baptismal vows.
We follow the Good Shepherd all the way to that hill of Calvary that we might be fed by the cruciform light of love that radiates from the cross.
If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then that makes us the sheep. On this Sunday we are invited to reflect on the question: who is it that we follow? Do we follow the shepherd of power, greed, and consumerism? Or do we follow the shepherd of compassion and humble loving service?
If you are anything like me, the honest answer to that question is both/and.
The gift offered to us in God’s grace is that no matter where we are, no matter how far we have been scatted by the wolf that comes by day or by night, God always comes searching for us. God always calls out to us. For God is not some hired hand that goes running at the first sign of trouble. God is the shepherd of our souls who will never leave us comfortless or abandon us to the powers of the grave.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter shifts our attention from those post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to God’s work in the world, and our relationship with Christ. Through the story of the Good Shepherd, the evangelist makes clear to us what the work of God is to be.
This is a powerful image for us who hunger for connection and community in a society that often looks out for number one. In this time of pandemic, as we have struggled through moments of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness, the Good Shepherd responds to our deepest yearning, offering an alternative to our fears.
As we emerge into the new life offered before us, both in the resurrection and in whatever post-pandemic normal is to be, we have the opportunity once more to open our hearts and our lives to the transformative power of God’s love. To be communities and peoples empowered to witness to the love and grace of God in our midst. To make incarnate the love and grace we have witnessed to a broken and hurting world.
For those of you on vestry or who have been attending our School for Discipleship classes, you might have noticed that I have repeatedly used one particular prayer to begin our gatherings. In truth, it is one of my goals, that by the time my ministry here comes to an end, everyone will have internalized my all-time favorite prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. It is that collect which ends the Solemn Collects on Good Friday, which concludes the Litany for Ordinations, and is the collect for the reading from Zephaniah, the gathering of God’s people, during the Liturgy of the Word for the Great Vigil of Easter. It is the prayer that goes like this:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (4)
If you ask me, though I might be a bit biased, this prayer captures well the work of Jesus the Good Shepherd. This prayer captures what happens when we believe in the dangerous, risky, marginal, outcast work of God. This is what happens when we believe in the power of the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. This is what happens when we love one another as God has commanded us; when w abide in God, and God abides in us through that same Spirit which moved over the very waters of creation.
Beloved of God, always remember, that through all the length of days God’s goodness faileth never. May we always sing God’s praise as we follow wherever the Good Shepherd leads.
(1) 1 John 3:23, NRSV.
(2) John 10:11, NRSV.
(3) 1 John 3:16, NRSV.
(4) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 280, 291, 515, 528, 540.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (18 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “Appearance While the Apostles are at Table”, (1308-1311), Public Domain
As we journey through these early days of Eastertide, not surprisingly, our attention focuses on the resurrection appearances of Jesus. After journeying through the season of Lent, after walking intentionally through the final days of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, we linger over these resurrection accounts, savoring the glory of the risen Lord. We dig in to the post-resurrection experience in such a way that three weeks in and we are still telling the story of that first Easter.
Today, we hear Luke’s account of the post-resurrection appearance we heard last week from John’s Gospel. Sadly, however, there is no mention of our patron blessed Thomas. Once more we hear that Jesus appears among the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” Once more we hear of the disciples terror at the sudden appearance of Jesus.
The disciples do not yet comprehend. Lost in grief and fear they try to make sense of what they see. The only logical conclusion or explanation they can come up with is that Jesus must be a ghost.
The disciples reaction is understandable. Who amongst us would not be overcome by fear? The disciples are gathered together, immersed in chaos and confusion. Fear, frustration, guilt, grief, doubt, anxiety, suspicion, distrust, restlessness, despondency, and terror swirl around them. Then, in the midst of their escalating alarm, out of nowhere, Jesus appears. I am pretty sure in the sitcom version of this story, at least one person is so overwhelm that they pass out.
None of this comes as a surprise to Jesus. Jesus knows his disciples, he understands human reactions and the inability of humanity to comprehend the divine power of God. The resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples, offers them peace, and says, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (1) Jesus effectively says to his friends, “Relax, take a breath, why are you freaking out?”
In this moment, Jesus meets the disciples exactly where they are. Once again Jesus offers them exactly what is needed in that moment. By inviting them to touch and see his hands and his feet, his wounds and scars; by asking for food, and eating some fish, he encourages them to move beyond where they are in that moment, to where God intends for them to go next.
There is something wonderful about Jesus revealing the nature of his resurrected self to the disciples by asking for a snack. If I did not know better, I would think that Jesus is Italian.
In asking for something so basic, something so essential to life, Jesus shows the disciples what resurrection is all about. In the resurrection, Jesus is not a ghost as the disciples first thought; nor is he some reanimated corpse. In case there is any confusion, Jesus is not a zombie. Neither is Jesus like Lazarus – a corpse brought back to life. After being called out of the tomb by Jesus, after being raised from the dead, Lazarus lives once more, and he will die again.
In the resurrection, Jesus’ human body is raised to a new life. Jesus will never die again. Jesus has gone through death and come out the other side into that life of eternal glory. In this new life, Jesus’ mortal body is changed. So much so that in both John and Luke’s account of this post-resurrection experience, the disciples are not able to recognize their beloved teacher and friend; they are not able to recognize their Messiah.
The only thing that allows them to see, the only thing that allows them to move from terror to joy, are the wounds of Jesus. By gazing upon Jesus’ hands and feet, by being invited to touch and see, the disciples are transformed.
Lingering over the events of that first Easter Day as we do each year invites us to contemplate the most important element of our life of faith: Christ crucified and raised from the dead. This articulation of Jesus’ identity, the naming of God’s saving work, is the very core of who we are. While there is an abundance of opportunities to share in this proclamation in our liturgies and prayer, we can never let these words lose even a modicum of power and profundity.
In the resurrection, Jesus does not lose the marks of his suffering and death. His body bears the tokens of his passion for all eternity. Abiding in the presence of our wounded and risen Lord, proclaiming Christ crucified and raised from the dead, is a reminder to us that it is through suffering and death that we come to resurrected life. It is only by following the way of Jesus that we arrive at the glorious promise of God; only by knowing that Good Friday and Easter Day are a unified gift of God’s saving grace.
There is no person who captures better the importance of Christ retaining his wounds, and the implications of those scars for us, then Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory was a 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople and theologian of the Early Church. Gregory is also known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers, for those of you looking to tuck random bits of information away that might help in playing Jeopardy or doing a crossword puzzle. Gregory’s writings are foundational to our theology today, particularly our theology of the Trinity.
In one of Gregory’s letters he writes, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” (2) That which is not assumed is not healed, is not redeemed. What Gregory is saying, is that all that Jesus endured, all that he bears, those wounds and scars, are necessary for our salvation. For in Jesus’ wounds, in Jesus’ scars, our wounds and scars are healed. The pain which we bear is united to the triune Godhead and redeemed.
It is this promise that allows us to journey forward amidst the chaos and confusion, amidst the pain, suffering, and death, trusting that death is not the end. This is our hope, this is the very promise of God. The way of the cross is the way of abundant life – it is the way to new and eternal life.
Once the disciples come to realize who it is that is standing in their midst, Jesus begins to open their minds to understand in a new way all that Jesus taught them. They are now in a place where they can understand the Scriptures more fully, they can put together the pieces of prophecy having witnessed them fulfilled. Having their eyes open, being able to see the new life of God, Jesus commissions them as witnesses. Locked away in that upper room, seeds are planted, new ministries are instituted, that will come to fruition on Pentecost.
On that first Easter Day the disciples are set free from their fear, released from the bondage of death, enlighten to the Word of God, and set out to tell the world of all that they have seen and experienced. They are to share the love of God with the world, offering hope to those they meet, bringing healing to those in need, preaching and teaching along the way. Their journey as witnesses is captured in what we know as the Acts of the Apostles.
We get a glimpse of this witness in today’s lesson from Acts as we hear a sermon from Peter.
Peter and John were going to the temple to pray. As they were walking they encounter a man who has been lame since birth. Every day this man would be carried in and laid at the gate of the Temple known as the Beautiful Gate where he would ask for alms. When Peter and John encounter this man, Peter looks at him and says, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (3) The man gets up and starts walking, and leaping, and praising God.
As the formerly lame man is offering his joyous praise, a crowd starts to gather. They are utterly astonished. It is at this moment that we enter the story today, at this point, Peter starts preaching.
Sadly this sermon is one of the texts that has all too often been misappropriated to malign, persecute, and kill millions of Jewish people. Peter was not being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. In fact all anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic thought is contrary to Scripture.
In this moment, Peter is not a Christian missionary seeking the conversion of others. Peter is speaking to his own community. Peter is offering a reflection to his fellow Jews, using their traditions, using their Scriptures, using what they know and believe to reveal how God is at work in their midst. Peter is witnessing just as Jesus commanded in that upper room on that first Easter night.
As we continue our journey through Eastertide we will continue to watch the disciples declare what they have seen to the world. They will witness to the power of Jesus’ name and lives will be changed. Just as Jesus did for the disciples on that night, we too will revisit the words of Scripture, trusting that God will open our minds that we might understand – that we might hear the Word of God in ways we have been unable to before.
But before we get to that witness, before we are sent out to tell the world of what we have seen, we return once more to that upper room.
Today we take the first step into a new life for this community as we resume in-person worship. Not including our service at ECC last fall, this is the first time the household of God has gathered at St. Thomas Church to pray together in 13 months. It has been a long and difficult journey, one in which we have known pain, suffering, and even death. Things now are not as they once were. As many far wiser than I have said, we can never go back to what was. But we can step forward into the new day that is dawning.
Where we find ourselves now, is not unlike where the disciples found themselves on that Easter night. That night they discovered joy and the proclamation that new life was possible, nay new life was promised. They also had no idea what was about to happen. They were in a transitional moment waiting to discover what their new normal would be. They entered that time filled with joy, released from their fear, trusting that God would be with them every step of the way. Trusting that God never asks us to go where God has not gone before.
We are currently holding together two realities. On the one hand the pandemic is not over. Cases are on the rise her in Rhode Island and across the country. We still need to careful and take all necessary precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, especially in group setting such as this. Even those of us who are vaccinated still need to take precautions as a way to show love and care for those awaiting their turn. On the other hand we are also beginning to emerge from pandemic life. With each week more people are becoming eligible for vaccination. Slowly things are starting to open up again. New life is unfolding before our eyes, even if it was momentarily cover by some lovely New England springtime snow.
We join the disciples in this transitional moment, seeking the hope and healing offered to us as Jesus meets us where we are be that here in the parish hall, at home, or anywhere else. Jesus comes to us offering peace, opening our hearts and minds to the Word of God, commissioning us to be witnessed to what we have seen.
No matter where we are in this moment, no matter the emotions we experience this day, may we find our healing, our hope, and our joy as we gaze upon our wounded and risen Lord. May we be witnesses to the power of God, that others might come to know the wonders we have been privileged to see.
(1) Luke 24:38, NRSV.
(3) Acts 3:6, NRSV.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (11 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” from The Maestra Altarpiece, Duccio, (1308-13011), Public Domain
The Maesta Altarpiece-The Incredulity of st.Thomas. Duccio.
The doors of the house were locked for they were afraid.
As we gather on this Second Sunday of Easter, our Gospel passage takes us back to that first Easter. We return to the evening of that first day of the week. We return to the fear, uncertainty, and grief of those first post-resurrection hours. We return to discover the disciples on the cusp of beginning the next phase of their journey.
We have before us the emotions and experiences of the disciples. We hear the same Gospel passage this day that we hear every Second Sunday of Easter. But this year, as was also true last year, these words may connect with us in a different way. Maybe that Scriptural meditation practice of imagining yourself in the story is easier now than you ever remember it being. After all, we have spent much of this past year locked away in rooms of our own, wrestling with fear, uncertainty, and grief.
But the thing is, we are not the disciples of two millennia ago. Unlike them, we know the end of the story. We know what they are about to experience. We know that Easter happened. We know the truth of the resurrected glory of God.
While we have the privilege of hindsight, that does not mean everything is perfect or clear to us now. In many ways the raw emotions of those first disciples are real to us all these years later. There is a way our present reality allows us to tap into the depths of the Easter story in a way beyond our grasp in pre-pandemic days.
Last week we heard about the women going to the tomb while it was still dark. Scripture tells us they were afraid. They were wracked with grief, going to carry about burial rituals and customs. There was a heaviness to those early hours of the first day of the week.
Where we enter the story today, the evening of that first day, the same emotional weight remains. It is just hours after the women arrived at the tomb. It was not long ago that Mary Magdalene rushed to tell them the body of Jesus was missing. It was not long ago that Peter and the other disciple raced to see the empty tomb for themselves.
As night descends where we do find the disciples? Not out to dinner, not out celebrating. They are locked in a room for they were afraid. Thankfully for them, and for us, they do not linger in that place for long.
Half way into the first sentence of this passage, things being to change. John tells us, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” (1) Just as Mary Magdalene saw the risen Lord that morning, now it is the disciples’ turn. But there is a difference in what allows the disciples to see. Jesus does not call them by name, as he did for Mary. Jesus offers them something else to behold.
Did you notice what led the disciples to rejoice? It was not the majestic rays of sunlight. It was not the sound of the trumpet. It was not Jesus doing his best Beyoncé impression as she struts onto the stage her hair blowing gloriously behind her. What brought them comfort. What allowed them to rejoice, was Jesus’ wounds: the marks in his hands and his side.
We, the Church, are a people who follow a wounded and risen Lord. We are a people who have the resurrected Jesus to comfort and guide us, who reminds us of the eternal promise of God that we will survive no matter what. We will survive because death has been destroyed. We will survive because Christ rose victorious from the dead, shattering the very gates of hell. We will survive because God has redeemed us as set us free. Just as the disciples did on that Easter night, we too rejoice.
This last year has brought significant suffering. We have known death in this time as millions of people around the world have died as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to all our beloved who have died for other reasons. We have watched cases surge, hospitals reach capacity, and have worried about the health and safety of our neighbors, friends, family, and ourselves. We have experienced loss of employment, economic distress, lack of access to basic human needs. We have endured the further political polarization of our nation, and have had our eyes opened to the violence of systemic oppression, white supremacy, and racism. We have lived through this long separation from each other and what we have always known.
In the midst of this suffering and pain there is hope and comfort in the image of our wounded and risen Lord. God knows intimately the pain and burden and struggle of this life. The resurrection does not erase that. As Jesus bears those sacred scars it is an image of love for those who suffer. For it is a physical, ever-present reminder that God is in the midst of our suffering. While there are no easy answers, while there is no snap of the fingers to make it all magically better, there is hope in the persistent and constant love of God even in the darkest moments of life. I know I take comfort in the image of the wounded and risen Lord because I see my scars in his.
Jesus comes to the disciples, he comes to us, in these moments of fear and uncertainty and speaks those words of greeting, “Peace be with you.”(2) As we gather this day let us hear this greeting. Let us see the marks on Christ’s body, and rejoice knowing that we too have seen the Lord. We have seen the Lord who breaks down barriers, who comes to us offering hope in the midst of despair.
To say the least, things, in this moment, are less than ideal for the disciples. They must be wondering what happens next.
There is a witness in today’s Gospel passage who shows us the way of discipleship for times such as these. It is not Peter. It is not the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loves. It is none other than our beloved patron, blessed Thomas. It is wonderful, courageous, Thomas who teaches us what it means to be the Church no matter what situation we find ourselves in.
You have heard me say this before, and I will say this every chance I get, labeling our patron as “doubting Thomas” is not only an inaccurate portrayal of who he was, it diminishes the profound power of his voice.
While all the Gospels mention Thomas, it is only John who records his words. Three times Thomas speaks, and they all lead to this moment.
First comes Thomas’ declaration in the story of the raising of Lazarus.
In that story, Jesus receives word that his dear friend Lazarus has died. Jesus wants to go back to Judea to see Lazarus, but the disciples beg him not to go. They plead, saying the religious authorities there were just trying to kill you. After Jesus tells them why they must go, it is Thomas who speaks up. It is Thomas who says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (3)
This declaration from Thomas are words of devotion and dedication. They are words every disciple must claim as their own. In this moment, Thomas is the one who steps up to say the difficult thing.
Next comes Thomas’ question about the promises of God.
During the Last Supper, on what we now call Maundy Thursday, after washing his disciples’ feet, after instituting the Eucharist, after giving the disciples a new commandment to love one another, Jesus tries to reassure them – offering them comfort in the promises of God. On that night Jesus says, “Do not let you hearts be trouble. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? . . . and you know the way to the place where I am going.” (4)
I have to imagine, in that moment, all of the disciples were confused. They had to have been wondering what in the world Jesus was talking about. I wonder if any of them thought, “I have no idea what Jesus is saying, but I do not want to look foolish. I do not want to admit I lack some knowledge or insight.” In the midst of the silence, Thomas speaks.
Thomas is brave and bold and courageous enough to admit that he does not have the answer. It is Thomas who paves the way for Jesus to utter one of the most, if not the most, profound statements about himself. Thomas asks, “‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know they way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’” (5)
Thomas gives us a witness that it is okay to ask questions. Thomas gives us a witness to speak up and risk being seen as foolish. It is okay to not have all the answers. For when we dare to claim the voice inside us, our own questions might just lead to divine revelations.
In a declaration and in a question, Thomas demonstrates the need for disciples to commit themselves fully to the way of God, to be willing to give of their lives for the sake of the Gospel, and the need to always seek after God, desiring to grow in the knowledge and love of God.
Before we enter that upper room, we are invited to claim Thomas’ words as our own. We are invited to do what might seem foolish to the world to learn something more about God.
Finally, we hear Thomas’ profession of longing and desire.
You can almost hear the emotion, the pain and agony in his words. Thomas arrives back in that room to encounter his friends, no longer afraid but rejoicing. Imagine the frenetic energy in that room; the wave of emotions that hit Thomas when he walks through the door. Imagine what it must have been like to hear your companions say, “We have seen the Lord,” and know you have missed out. Talk about FOMO!
It is easy to image that Thomas must have wondered if he missed his one chance to see the glories of the risen Lord.
But then, a week later, Jesus appears again.
Thomas does not need to say a word. God knows Thomas’ deepest longings. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds; to know God though the intimacy of touch.
All Thomas needs is the invitation. According to the Scriptural record, Thomas never actually touches Jesus. Upon receiving the invitation Thomas declares, “May Lord and my God!” (6)
I wonder if Thomas had tears in his eyes. I wonder if his voice shook as he said the five most powerful words he will utter in his life. I wonder if he felt that self-emptying sigh leave his body only to be filled again by the very Spirit and breath of God.
As we come to this day we hear Jesus say, “peace be with you.” As we come to this day we receive the invitation to a more intimate relationship with God. As we come to this day God meets us just where we are, offering whatever necessary so that we might believe.
These are our words. This is our story. This is how we be the Church in this, and every moment.
We commit our lives to the way of discipleship, gladly accepting the privilege of being able to sacrifice for the good of the world. We dare to dwell a place of unknowing. We persist in asking questions, especially when they might make us look foolish. We allow our desire and longing to be in relationship with God to overtake every fiber of our being. We refuse to give in, to stop searching and seeking until we receive the divine invitation. We boldly profess my Lord and my God. We set out to embody the witness of our patron.
Just as was true for the disciples in today’s Gospel passage, we are on the cusp of the next phase of our journey. God willing, and no surge or new plague befalling us, today will be our last Sunday of only having virtual worship. Next Sunday, April 18, in-person worship will resume. This step is awash with a plethora of emotions: excitement, grief, wondering, longing, and maybe even a bit of fear and anxiety too. It is safe to say what we will do next Sunday is less than ideal. I know it falls short of the expression of worship we crave.
Just as Jesus appears to the disciples in their less than ideal circumstances, Jesus will be present to us in our time as well. God comes to us, exactly where we are, offering us the exact invitation we need, just like God did for blessed Thomas.
The wounded and risen Lord comes to us even now, lifting all of our experiences, all of our scars, raising them from the dead in the fullness of resurrection glory. As we take the next step on our journey, with the eyes of our hearts open, we will have the opportunity to meet Jesus in the rooms we find ourselves in. We will be able to rejoice with Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and Thomas, for we too will see the Lord.
(1) John 20:19-20, NRSV.
(2) John 20:19, NRSV.
(3)John 11:16, NRSV.
(4) John 14:1-2,4, NRSV.
(5)John 14:5-6, NRSV.
(6) John 20:28, NRSV.
Sermon for Easter Day (4 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Easter Day is a day of great expectations. Filled with preconceived notions and the desires of our imaginations, it is a time unlike any other.
We wear our Easter best, maybe even something new and special for the first time. We expect it to be a gloriously, picturesque, sunny morning. There are the hopes and demands for the perfect Easter portrait. We expect a packed church, glorious hymns, the fragrance of fresh flowers filling the air – hopefully not sending our allergies into overdrive. After church we go off for the traditional Easter brunch, or dinner, or egg hunt all with their own set of expectations, pressures, and ideals.
We put so much pressure on this day, that there are moments when I wonder, do we set ourselves up for disappointment when all does not go perfectly. Those times when we are so rushed getting ready that we are left feeling frustrated when we do not look as we think we should. Those times when the weather is cold, or cloudy, or raining, or, because we are in New England, when it snows. Those times when the pictures are a disaster. Not to mention all that can go wrong with meals, or the seemingly inevitable tears that come during the egg hunt. I wonder if you have ever had things go so wrong that you felt that Easter was ruined.
Then came Easter 2020, the first pandemic Easter; and now this year our second separated from one another. Once more we are prevented from keeping this day in the fullness we desire. Stripped of our expectations, the fullness of our rituals and traditions, we are left with the story. And maybe, just maybe, with the forced centrality of Scripture, we might discover this royal feast of feasts has a power far surpassing anything we have come to expect.
Easter begins in the dark.
Matthew’s resurrection account tells us, “the first day of the week was dawning.” Mark tells us that it was “very early.” Luke’s account begins, “at early dawn.” And today John tells us, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.” (1) That first Easter morn was filled with darkness and the hushed glow of the dawning light.
Easter beings as a funeral procession. When the women, in this case Mary Magdalene, arrive at the tomb it was to carry out the rituals of burial. No shouts of alleluia were made, no triumphant proclamations of the glories of the resurrection; only sadness, grief, the raw emotions that come as a result of death. Easter begins with the closest of Jesus’ companions wrapped with fear, believing that the Messiah was dead.
Easter beings with shock.
Mary Magdalene arrives in the garden, she approaches Jesus’ tomb, and she sees that the massive stone has been rolled away. Shock, horror, disbelief consume her. Upon seeing this sight she rushes back. She runs to where Peter and the disciples are to tell them the terrible news that someone has taken the body of Jesus.
Peter and the other disciple, the beloved disciple whom Jesus loved, do not believe what Mary has said – they could not believe it. So they race to the tomb. This is a perfectly Peter moment, that most impulsive of all disciples, running to the tomb to see for himself what has happened. We are told that the other disciple, beats Peter to the tomb, but while the other disciple hesitates to go in, bending down to look first, Peter, when he arrives, goes directly into the tomb.
The details contained in John’s Gospel about this scene are fascinating. Peter and the other disciple carry out their explorations in silence: they act but the do not speak. They hear Mary’s words, and they run to see. They arrive and look around, but say nothing of is found. It seems that they come to believe that Jesus’ body has indeed been stolen. John tells us, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went it, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (2) After reaching this conclusion, what do these two men do? They go home. They remain silent.
Mary Magdalene is the only disciple who speaks that morning. She tells the others what has happened. As the two men return home, John tells us that Mary was outside the tomb weeping. The visceral emotions overtaking her. It is Mary who sees, not just the empty tomb, not just the burial cloths lying where the body once was, she sees angles sitting there and she speaks to them.
Then she turns around and sees Jesus, but she does not recognize him. The tears obscure her view, her certainty as to what has happens blocks her from truly seeing. Jesus asks her why she is weeping, she begs him who she thinks is a gardener, to tell her where the body of her beloved Lord is. This supposed worker calls out her name, “Mary!” Her eyes are opened, she can now see. “Rabbouni,” she responds. She recognizes her teacher, her Lord.
In the light of the new dawn Mary sees, and the passage ends with her back with the other disciples making a second announcement. It is Mary who makes the first proclamation of Easter when she says, “I have seen the Lord.”
Easter begins with the proclamation of a woman: someone seen by society as not to be believed, someone suspect, someone on the margins.
Easter begins with shattered expectations, defying what was possible, changing the entire cosmos from what has ever been known before.
As that first Easter morning unfolds things are not magically resolved. Mary Magdalene’s second announcement is not met with the disciples saying, “Alright, cool. Jesus has been resurrected. Life is good.” We hear the response next Sunday, but I will give you a preview, the disciples are locked in a room filled with fear and terror. They do not yet believe. They have not yet know. They have not yet seen.
Easter begins in the dark, and it does not magically fix everything to be instantaneously idilic.
The revelation of Easter happens slowly. We will hear the power of the resurrection as we journey through the great 50 days of Eastertide. Over the course of these next weeks the power of the resurrection will be unveiled.
On Friday, Esau McCaulley published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled, “The Unsettling Power of Easter.” He shared what Easter was like for him as a child. When describing a particular experience he said:
That Sunday introduced me to the two Easters that struggle alongside each other. One is linked closely to the celebration of spring and the possibility of new beginnings. It is the show that can be church on Easter. The other deals with the disturbing prospect that God is present with us. His power breaks out and unsettles the world. (3)
McCaulley draws our attention to the fullness of what it is we do this day. We have the privilege of knowing what Mary Magdalene and the other disciples have yet to discover. We know the end of the story. We know resurrection glory.
We know this day is all about newness of life, about the power of hope against all odds. This is the day that brings new possibilities, new beginnings, new life. This all happens, not magically, simply or easily, this happens because the power of God unsettles and disrupts the world.
Striped of our expectations, unable to carry out our beloved traditions, we are left to contemplate the earth shattering, cosmos changing, life disrupting power of God. Unable to do that which we have always done, we are left to see that our world, our present reality, is not so different from that of Mary, Peter, and the others.
Writer Debie Thomas captures well the state of our world this day. She writes:
More significantly, when we chant our “Alleluias” and proclaim that “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!” we’ll do so in the shadow of the 2.7 million beloveds we’ve lost worldwide to Covid-19. In the United States, we will celebrate the empty tomb in the wake of two, still-raw mass shootings; chaos at our southern border; mass unemployment and food insecurity; a deepening crisis of pandemic-induced loneliness, depression, and anxiety; and the ongoing scourge of racial tension, violence, and injustice in our streets and institutions. (4)
We might not be locked in the upper room, but we know fear, we know pain, we know death. We may very well, like those disciples find ourselves wondering, what has happened? Where is God?
Maybe this morning we need to be where the disciples are. Maybe we need to hear Mary’s announcement, for we are not able to speak ourselves. Maybe we need to hear that at least there is someone out there who can proclaim, “I have seen the Lord.” If that is where you are this day, know you are in good company. There is nothing wrong with coming to this day speechless. There is nothing wrong with needing someone else to make the declaration, because what you witness in the world is just too much to comprehend.
As we continue hearing John recount the saving deeds of God, as we linger with the details of this day we will discover that God comes to us in our doubt and fear. God comes to us in the midst of our grief and anxiety. God offers us what we need to believe. If you are not there yet, hang on, God is coming.
Maybe this morning you find yourself in Mary’s place. You have wept. You have endured shock and the pain of grief. You have asked, you have begged, and you have seen the Lord. If that is where you are this day, you too are in good company. If that is where you are, do not hesitate to proclaim to the world what it is that you have experienced – what it is that you have seen.
You do not need all the answers, or a perfectly coherent theological argument of the miraculous workings of God that humanity has been attempting to articulate for 2000 years; all you need to do is tell what you know – tell what you have seen. Or as that old hymn goes, “if you cannot pray like Peter, and you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, who died to save us all.”
Living on this side of the resurrection, we are called to tell the story of our lives. Not the picture perfect story we wish were true, but the real story we live day in and day out. The story that knows joy and sadness, life and death, triumph and tragedy. The story that has experienced the angelic chorus at the birth of a baby; the story that dwells on the hillside listening to sermons and parables; the story that travels through cities and towns casting out demons and curing the sick; the story that goes to a wedding and turns water into wine; the story that enters the holy city of Jerusalem accompanied by shouts of Hosanna, that journeys over palm branches strewn along the way; the story that gathers for an intimate dinner with friends, washes feet, and gives a new commandment to love one another; the story that ascends the holy mountain and hangs on a tree; the story that rests in a tomb, descends to the dead; the story that bursts forth, defying human expectation, offering life in the midst of death.
This is our story. That God entered into human history, experiencing the fullness of our lives, and showed us what it truly means to live. That God shows us sometimes death is required for something new to emerge. That letting go of what once was, invites the possibility of new beginnings.
No matter what kind of morning this is for you, if the day meets your expectations or not; if you are able to gather with friends and family or if you are alone; if you are able to make the proclamation of the risen Lord, or if you sit silently in shock overcome with emotions; there is room for you in the story, there is a place for you in the wonders of this day.
This might not be the Easter we wanted, but maybe it is the Easter we need: one that invites us into the story, that fills our senses with the Word of God, that allows for the revelations of Eastertide to be unveiled to us slowly, that invites us to come and see, to be transformed from darkness to light, from death to life.
Easter begins in love, love that that turns our night to day.
(1) John 20:1, NRSV.
(2) John 20:8-9, NRSV.
(3) Esau McCaulley, “The Unsettling Power of Easter,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/opinion/easter-celebration.html April 2, 2021.
(4) Debie Thomas, “Slow Easter,” Journey with Jesus, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2966 March 28, 2021.
Sermon for The Great Vigil of Easter (3 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Beloved of God, we have arrived.
We have walked that long and winding road to Jerusalem. We have come through this most demanding of weeks. The journey is over. Our fasts have ended. Jesus has been raised from the dead, Alleluia!
Beloved of God, this is the night we have been waiting for.
This is the night, when God brought the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin and restored to grace and holiness of life. This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell. (1) Oh what a night it has been.
But this night is different. This proclamation of Easter is not like the one we make tomorrow morning. Tonight we gather in the dark, with only a few candles to guide us on our way. Tonight we are immersed in the paschal drama of God. What we do this night, is the most intense liturgical celebration in our life together. There are reasons why St. John of Damascus referred to this night as the queen of all liturgies.
But this night is also different for another reason. For the second year we mark this night in a way unlike anything we have ever known before; that is with the exception of how we kept this night last year. The realities of this Coronatide still require us to be physically distanced from one another – precautions and restrictions prevent us from gathering together this night.
The darkness we encounter today feels different. It is not accompanied by the excited murmurings of the crowd as we gather on the lawn to kindle the new fire of Easter. We do not feel the energy grow as we process, following the Pascal Candle into the parish hall, we do not feel the drops of holy water sprinkled over us as we renew our baptismal vows. This night the darkness is pushed aside by whatever candles we have before us at home: it is pushed aside by the glow of screens.
While we might be limited to virtual worship, what we do this night is no less demanding, no less important.
We still light candles, we still proclaim our thanks to God for the privilege of following the light of Christ. We still held the light of Christ as we prayed that ancient prayer, the Exsultet.
After joining our voices with the great company of the Church, we sat and we listened. Members of the community shared in recounting the saving deeds of God in history. Through the marvels of technology the story of salvation was told, it was proclaimed, not just here at 1 Smith Avenue, but from households around the state.
As the Church has been doing for centuries, we have been reminded of the connection between all that God has ever done, with what God does this night. With what God continues to do in our midst.
We traced this journey that we might understand the long line of the people of God that we are incorporated into. We do not stand alone as people of faith. Hearing the stories of God’s people through history reminds us that we are not the first generation to face plague and violence. We are not the first generation unable to gather in person to keep this sacred feast. We are not the first generation that has wondered how long, Oh Lord, how long. We are not the first to ask if these bones can live. We do not stand alone, we have the strength of the whole household of God, that was, that is, and that is to come, to support us as we journey on.
We rely on the strength, the support and prayers of that Great Cloud of Witnesses, to carry out the ministries God has placed on our hearts in this time and place. By virtue of our baptism we have been incorporated into the priesthood of all believers. We have committed ourselves, and continually recommit ourselves, to carry out the vocations God has given us, to participate in God’s work in the world.
As we came to the end of telling this history, we prayed “O God of unchangeable power and eternal light.” (2) We prayed that we might see that which had grown old is being made new. And that newness, was proclaimed as we announced Easter with those words, “Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.” (3)
So here we are, the darkness vanquished, gathered virtually, united by our prayers, connected by the love of God, on this most holy night.
Holy Week invites us to see God, to see humanity, to see ourselves more fully. This night has the ability to overwhelm our senses for there is so much to see. Through the multitude of visions, all that we witness this night, can be captured by that Greek word metanoia.
This night we witness and embody that great reorientation of humanity back towards God. We witness first hand God turning the world on its head, returning it to the way it was meant to be from the very beginning of creation. For death has been destroyed once and for all. Christ has broken down the gates of hell, rising victoriously, bringing each and every person who has ever lived into the fullness of God’s kingdom and glory. This is why we rejoice this night. For we see the fulfillment of the promise of our salvation.
We rejoice because God has taken the very worst that humanity can do, God has taken the cross, and transformed that means of shameful death into the most glorious, loving, powerful, means of life for the entirety of creation.
But sometimes, life does not find itself working out as neatly as our liturgical calendar makes it seem. This is always true, but it is particularly poignant in this time of pandemic.
Over the last few days, we have been invited to explore the depths of our experience, to examine our interior lives, to consider how we have loved others, and how we have failed to love. We have confronted realities of betrayal, and the pain of grief. We have been challenged to be vulnerable and honest about our brokenness, and we have been invited to name the times we have caused others to suffer. We have been forced to wait, siting on what might feel like shaky ground, recognizing that we are not in control, trusting that God is at work even in those place where we cannot see.
Maybe on this night of great rejoicing, you still find yourself in those depths. Maybe you are still experiencing the pain, anger, and grief of these last days. Sometimes the journey from Good Friday to Easter takes a bit longer than anticipated. If you are struggling to rejoice this night, know you are not alone.
Tonight we hear the resurrection account from Mark’s Gospel. Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. Their journey to the tomb was not the first grand Easter procession: there were no trumpets, or choirs, or decked out people in their Easter finest. These women were not celebrating, they were mourning. They were attempting to salvage some dignity by carrying out their funeral rituals.
While we, as the Church, are quick to romanticize the glories of that morning, the first Easter dawn began in darkness, filled with doubt and despair. It began with fear, bewilderment, and pain. That dawn brought these women the numb duty of last respects and that aching, inconsolable emptiness that comes from crushed hopes and dreams. In their minds, everything was over. The discipleship journey had come to an abrupt halt. Jesus was dead.
If you find yourself in a place that makes it hard to rejoice this night, you are not alone. These women stand with you, and the will wait with you for as long as it takes, until the stone is rolled away.
Thankfully we know, and hopefully we can trust, that the sealed tomb is not the end of the story.
As the women approach the tomb they are discussing amongst themselves how they are going to roll that massive stone away. They wonder who will help them. When they arrive they discover, the stone has already been moved. Immediately they know that something is up.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, robed in white, who, in few words, tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead and they are to follow him to Galilee.
What happens next, is for me, the most captivating part of this story.
The final verse of today’s Gospel passage, is not just the final verse of this story, it is the final verse of the original version of the Gospel of Mark. The verses that follow are later additions that, according to scholars, are an attempt to pretty up, to clean up, Mark’s Gospel with a more “suitable” ending.
Here’s the verse, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” (4)
They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
That’s all Mark wrote.
Mark’s resurrection tradition offers no visions of glory or triumph. It leave us only with a God who hears our brokenhearted cries before the stone of doubt and disbelief.
The genius of Mark’s original ending, the genius of this incomplete, or rather this seemingly incomplete ending, is that it demands a response.
Mark leave us not with a neat resolution but with an ultimatum. Who will tell this good news? For is not only the women who know what happened – we know too. If we wish the story of discipleship to continue, we cannot remain spectators to the good news of God. We must pick up the story. We must proclaim the Gospel. We must share what we have witnessed not only on this night, but what we witness tomorrow morning – no matter what kind of dawn it is for us.
Jesus has been raised; he is not here. But where has he gone?
Mark refuses to show us. If we truly wish to see Jesus, we too much follow him to Galilee. Jesus has gone ahead of the Church. And so it is our task, should we choose to accept it, to join him along the way. To begin the next phase of our journey.
As we come to this night, should we be bursting with joy and gladly rejoicing, or if we are struggling to climb up from the depths, let us remember what we have seen in these last three days: that there is no place beyond God’s reach, no place where God will not find us, nothing is immune to God’s love. God will come to us wherever we are, even in those places of pain, anger, and grief, even in the darkness of a sealed tomb, even to the heart of death when we feel abandoned and that hope is lost. God will stop at nothing to come to us. God will stop at nothing to love us. God will stop at nothing to redeem us and set us free.
This is why we rejoice this night.
God has been raised from the dead. God has plumbed the depths with us. God has embraced us. God has invited each and everyone of us to come and follow.
Beloved of God we have finally arrived to this holy night that gives us hope that no matter what terror or darkness might befall us, God is bursting through – bringing to light that which was in darkness – bringing to life that which was dead. So go ye faithful out into all the world and raise the strain of triumphant gladness.
Beloved of God, how blessed indeed in this night.
(1) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 287.
(2) Ibid., 291.
(3) Ibid., 294.
(4) Mark 16:8, NRSV.
Sermon for Holy Saturday (3 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Anastasis, 11th century fresco from he Church of the Holy Savior in Khora, Istanbul. Public Domain
We are coming to the end of the most important days in our liturgical life. The Triduum Sacrum, the three holy days that span from Maundy Thursday to the Great Vigil of Easter, is almost over. We have mere hours left of our annual pilgrimage. Tonight we will make that first proclamation of Easter.
At the heart of these days is an unveiling. The true and full nature of God, of humanity, of ourselves is shown to us as we journey with Jesus through the final days of his earthly life. As Delores Dufner writes in the words for the hymn “Three holy days enfold us now” these days are about “the myst’ry hid from ages past is here revealed in word and sign.” (1)
As we have read the stories, as we have prayed ancient prayers, the mystery of God has been revealed to us. Each day with its own particular revelation. As we come to this morning, we must ask ourselves what do we see today?
This day, it seems to me, invites a level and type of discomfort that is unknown through the rest of this sacred time. For this is the day that everything stops. Jesus is dead. His body rests in a tomb.
Jesus, the divine Son of God, has died a human death on the cross, and now as the next day dawns the reality of what has happened begins to set in. We hear nothing this day of Peter, James, or John those disciples who were closest to Jesus. I wonder if their absence is the result of being frozen in place, unable to move, shattered by the grief of the death of their beloved rabbi – the one they believed to be the Messiah.
Matthew tells us that Joseph of Arimathea, that rich man who was also a follower of Jesus, tends to Jesus’ body. Wrapping Jesus in a clean linen cloth, laying him in a tomb in which no body has ever been laid before. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are there, sitting, watching. It is night, the Sabbath has begun, they cannot yet tend to the death rituals of their tradition, so they wait.
There is a stillness that comes with this day. As Jesus is in the tomb it is as if the whole of creation holds its breath. Watching, waiting, wondering what is going to happen next.
Watching and waiting, abiding in the doubt and uncertainty, emerging into the reality of grief is a place of great unsettlement. It is uncomfortable. It can feel as if there is no stable ground beneath our feet. There is often a temptation for us to want to rush through this process, to get to whatever is going to happen next as soon as possible. We long and crave for stability that seems all too absent in these transitional times. But this day, like grief, cannot be rushed. The Sabbath must be observed.
Not everyone in the story is content with waiting. “The next day,” Matthew tells us, “the chief priests and the Pharisees gather before Pilate and say, ‘Sir, we remember what that imposter said.’” (2) They recount to Pilate Jesus’ foretelling of his resurrection. They are worried that one of Jesus’ disciples will steal Jesus’ body. They are afraid that something will happen that will make it appear as if Jesus was raised from the dead and then “the last deception would be worse than the first.” (3)
These religious leaders, in their continued attempt to get things under control, want Pilate to secure the tomb to make sure that nothing nefarious happens. They believe with military protection, they can get to the third day without incident. Then they will be able to move on, and this movement will fade away as the others which came before.
The chief priest and the Pharisees go out to the tomb, with a guard of soldiers to make it as secure as they can. They go and “made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.” (4) I wonder what they thought as they walked out of the garden that Saturday morning. I wonder if they felt confident that all was now settled. I wonder if they were anxious about what would happen next. I wonder if they too held their breath, with nothing left to do but watch and wait.
If everyone and everything in all of creation are holding their breath, waiting and wondering as to what is going to happen next, this begs the question; what is there to see, what is to be revealed to us this day?
Sometimes, God acts, where human eyes cannot see.
In the Apostles’ Creed, which we have been saying each Sunday as we pray Morning Prayer for our virtual worship, there is a line that draws our attention to what happens between Jesus’ death and his resurrection. In the Creed we say Jesus, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.” (5)
The tradition teaches us that Jesus does not rest in that new tomb hewn out of stone. While the collective breath of the world is being held, while everything appears to be still, God is at work.
In what is known as the harrowing of hell, Jesus descends to the place of the dead, he breaks down the gates of Hades, and pulls out everyone who has gone before. There are fabulous an amazing icons of this moment: beautiful and profound glimpses, windows, into the divine. Icons where Jesus stands triumphant over the shattered gates of hell, pulling out Adam and Eve and all others held in the bondage of death. The entirety of human history is caught up in the saving work of God.
As the world waits, as creation watches, God is a work. Jesus goes to that place of the forgotten, the place where hope has vanished, and declares that there is no place where God does not reign, no place where God’s loving, victorious triumph does not stand. In God’s liberating power, hope is restored. All those held captive by the grip of death will rise with Jesus out of the depths into newness of life in the resurrection.
All this happens where human eyes cannot see.
All this happens while things were supposedly secured.
All this happens when human logic says death is the end.
I wonder if that is the main reason for the discomfort of this day. We, like the chief priests and Pharisees, might think that we have things secured. We might think that we are in control. But this day shows us that God is capable of far more than we can dare imagine. God acts in ways that defy human understanding. God does that which was previously thought to be impossible.
Moments of transition, of moving into new realities, of facing the unknown can be incredibly unsettling. We might discover ourselves getting restless, growing tired and weary of the watching and waiting.
I wonder if part of the challenge for us this day is that is forces us to be patient. To recognize that things happen in God’s time, not our time. To accept that, while the world has allowed us to grow increasingly dependent on instant gratification, there are still things worth waiting for.
In the stillness and quiet of this day, there is much for us to see. But only if we stop, take a breath, and listen.
Holy Saturday invites us to settle into the spiritual practice of waiting – the spiritual discipline of patience. It invites us to trust that when we feel forgotten and alone, when situations seem beyond redemption, when all hope seems lost, God is still at work. This day reminds us that God will stop at nothing to go to the places we are; that no one and no place is beyond God’s reach.
Jesus comes to us in the darkness, in the silence: Jesus comes to us even in the midst of death.
This day invites us to watch and pray. This day invites us to see that we can trust that God will stop at nothing to save us. This day invites us into the stillness, so that we might see God’s greatest work yet.
(1) Delores Dufner, OSB, Wonder, Love, and Praise, Hymn 731, verse 2.
(2) Matthew 27:62-63, NRSV.
(3) Matthew 27:64, NRSV.
(4) Matthew 27:66, NRSV.
(5) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 96.
Sermon for Good Friday (2 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Diego Velázquez, “Christ on the Cross” 1632, Madrid, Prado Museum, Public Domain
Many years ago I came across a quote that always comes to mind as this day draws near. “Good Friday,” the quote begins, “is a day for all Christians to approach with trembling, but none more than those called to preach.” While this certainly strikes just a modicum of uneasiness into the heart of this preacher, I think the sentiment holds true for us all. This is a day we should all approach with trembling and uneasiness. This is the day when we come before the Crucified Lord. The day we witness the very worst that humanity has to offer. Today is the day that darkness wins . . . or so it seems.
Now let us be honest for a moment.
We all know the end of the story, we know what happens next, what we will celebrate tomorrow night and Sunday morning. We do not hide, pretending that we are those first disciples overcome by fear. After all, I am sure I am not the only one who has begun making their preparations for Easter dinner, and the flowers which will adorn our retable for Easter have already arrived. Still we cannot gloss over or skip this day. For we can only get to the glories of the resurrection, by walking through Good Friday.
We know all too well the pain associated with this day. For we experience the darkness of Good Friday far more than we care to admit: in broken promises, lost hopes, unanswered prayers, severed relationships, grief, and death. Over the course of the last year, as we face this global pandemic, we have witnessed this darkness over and over again.
Given all that we have endured, we might feel tempted to skip over this day, claiming we have been there, done that; but we skip this day at our own peril. We need this day, for it is on this day that we see and experience the presence of God in the midst of the very worst that humanity can do. In this day we receive the reassurance and solace that the abiding presence of God is always with us even in the midst of the most acute suffering imaginable – even in those moments when we feel abandoned by God.
We arrive at this day, approaching with trembling uneasiness, to stand before the cross with all that we know and with all that we are. We enter into the darkness, and we wait.
Before I went to seminary I served a parish that had a pre-school, and part of my ministry was to lead a weekly chapel service for the students. Very quickly I learned that children have a way of asking seemingly simple, yet remarkably challenging questions. One Holy Week, as I finished reading the story of the crucifixion, one child asked, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
As I struggled to find the words, to answer a question I was not sure that I even had an answer to, I looked at our children’s bible to see if it could help me come up with something to say that might resemble an answer. These are the words that I found, “You see, they didn’t understand. It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there. It was love.”
The answer to that two millennia old question, “why did Jesus have to die?” is a single word: love. And not just any kind of love, but a never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever kind of love.
Jesus dies on the cross to save us from ourselves, to save us from sin and death, to restore us to wholeness and right relationship with God. Jesus dies, because God so loved the world.
But what does this say to us on this side of the resurrection? How are we to approach this day? These answers require a closer look at John’s passion narrative.
There are a few ways that John’s passion is different than the narratives found in the three synoptic gospels. John goes to great lengths to describe the religious-political dynamics surrounding the execution of Jesus. In fact, John makes clear that Jesus was killed for political reasons.
The title “king” is repeatedly used to describe Jesus: “Here is your king,” and “the king of the Jews.” As king, Jesus is always in control of what happens. At the time of his arrest he goes out to meet and question those who are there to apprehend him. He is even so bold as to direct the authorities as to how they should treat him and his disciples. Jesus makes a declaration to Pilate about the realities of Pilate’s power in relationship to the power of God. Jesus carries the cross by himself, he does not fall, he does not experience the mocking and shame portrayed in the other passion narratives. He even determines when his mission is “finished” and it is time for him to lay down his life.
In John’s account, Jesus is not put to death for the charge of blasphemy. He is executed in a brutal and gruesome manner reserved for criminals and enemies of the state. Jesus is killed because he dared to challenge the status quo of the day. He is killed because he offered the world a new kind of power. A power not based on monetary riches or military might, but power based on justice and reconciliation. Power rooted in humble and loving service. For people who knew nothing but fear of empire, nothing but poverty, oppression, persecution, and marginalization, Jesus offered an entirely new reality that promised life. That was terrifying for the powers that be.
We hear that Caiaphas, the high priest, persuaded the Sanhedrin that Jesus should be put to death. He, and the others in positions of authority, were afraid that if Jesus’ followers became too large, if he become too powerful, then his followers might start an uprising to implement the kingdom life Jesus’ proclaimed – they feared the people would start actually living the teachings of Jesus. And if that happened, the military might of the entire Roman Empire would reign down on them all.
Caiaphas convinces the Sanhedrin to sacrifice the life of one Jewish man to save the entire Jewish nation.
There is a particular danger to John’s narrative that requires our attention. John’s constant use of “the Jews” has led Christians for centuries to believe that “the Jews” killed Jesus. I know I have said this before, and I will say it every chance I get. “The Jews” did not kill Jesus. Let me say that again. “The Jews” did not kill Jesus. But that has not stopped centuries of anti-Semitism, oppression, persecution, violence, and genocide against our Jewish neighbors.
The Jewish community has been the scapegoat for a reality that many wish to ignore. For it is far easier to blame another group of people than it is to face the consequences of our own actions.
The Crucifixion of Jesus is the fruit of human sinfulness, something we all share in, not something that can be blamed on any one person or group of people.
We humans crucified Jesus. We refused to believe in the kingdom of God. We chose the ways of the world. We ignored the homeless and the hungry. We insight hatred against the vulnerable and fear of those who differ from us. We have become obsessed with violence, insistent on greed, entangled with white supremacy, and defiled this fragile earth, our island home. In other words, Good Friday is the chief exemplar of a pattern of sinful behavior that has existed for the entirety of human history.
This is why Jesus dies. Not because of the Jews, but for the collective sins of humanity. Jesus dies to offer us the opportunity to be forgiven for our sins, to be forgiven for the way we participate in systems of power and oppression, to be the assurance of our life and our salvation.
Just as is true for this entire week, this day invites us to see the world, our lives, to see God more fully. This is a time of unveiling, of drawing our attention to that which we might otherwise miss, if not desire to ignore all together.
As we stop this day and enter into this most solemn occasion with the fullness of our experiences – the fullness of this moment in history – we see our brokenness reflected in the brokenness of Christ’s body, we see our sinfulness reflected in the collective sins of humanity.
We hold together the ways we have been hurt and the ways we hurt others. We are called to be honest with ourselves, with each other, and with God for the ways we have supported the oppressive systems of privilege and violence in our world, while at the same time being called to be honest and vulnerable about our own pain and scars.
For while Jesus died for the collective sins of humanity, Jesus also died standing with the marginalized and the outcast. Jesus died to bring healing to those who are broken and hurting. Jesus stands in solidity with all those who suffer like him.
No matter what our brokenness is – be it physical brokenness a the hands of others or emotional brokenness by our own self-deprecation – Jesus chooses to suffer with us out of an incomprehensible love for us. He suffers so that we might be released from our brokenness and bondage, be made whole, restored to right relationship with God, and empower us to continue participating in the mission of God each and every day of our lives.
This is what the crucifixion means for us on this side of the resurrection. Jesus is glorified on the cross so that our brokenness might be redeemed, so that all of us who enjoy power and privilege in this life might strive to breakdown the systems of violence and oppression around us.
This day offers us the invitation to come before the cross and lay our burdens down. To leave at the foot of the cross all the things of which we are guilty, to lay bare all the places of brokenness in need of the healing power of God’s love. We let go of all the things that separate us from wholeness and the fullness of life God promises to us all. We bring all these things, and we leave them at the cross, that Christ might lift those things up as he is lifted up.
In the moments before he died, Jesus instituted a new community when he commanded his mother and beloved disciple to behold each other. We, through the cruciform love of God which radiates from the cross, have been initiated into this new community of love. We have been invited to see and behold ourselves and our neighbors as beloved. We have been charged to continue the mission inaugurated by God.
As we go forth from the cross today let us be strengthen, empowered, and inspired to be people who make incarnate the reconciling love of God in the world.
As we let go of those things which weigh us down, as we allow God to take up our burdens, we are called to pick up the cross, to pick up this most radical gift, and share its healing powers with the world. The one thing this world of our needs desperately is the restorative, redeeming, love of the cross we stand before this day.
This is not the day that darkness wins. This is the day that love wins – that love triumphs – the day which makes possible everything that is about to unfold.
(1) Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Location 10944). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(2) Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name (Michigan: Zonderkidz, 2007), 304.
Sermon for Maundy Thursday (1 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Duccio di Buoninsegna, Washing of the Feet and the Last Supper, painting of Altar of Siena Cathedral in 14th century, Public domain
The hour has come.
The hour has come as we learn from the first verse of the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” (1)
Jesus, who is always in control in John’s Gospel, knows that the time has come for his earthly life and ministry to end. And so on that ordinary night, a night before the festival of the Passover, in the midst of an ordinary dinner, Jesus does something absolutely extraordinary.
The hour has come for us. We have finally arrived at these most sacred and important days in our life of faith: the Triduum Sacrum, the three holy days which span from Maundy Thursday through the Great Vigil of Easter. We have been journeying for 40 days, journeying for this entire year to arrive once more at these days. So on this ordinary Thursday, in the midst of usual and ordinary tasks . . . Okay maybe this is not the most ordinary of times, but still, we stop what we are doing – the normal and new normal, the not so notable things that fill our days, to reflect on something extraordinary.
On that night Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his waist, knelt down, filled a bowl with water, and washed the disciples feet. The Lord, the one who fulfills that which was spoken by the prophets, the long awaited Messiah, stoops down and washes the dirt, the grime, the muck off the disciples feet.
It was scandalous and shocking. Peter is absolutely beside himself, he cannot believe what is going on. Jesus, what are you doing?!
I have to think if I were there that night, I would have the same response as Peter. Jesus, you’re coming no where near my feet.
That is one of the things I love about this passage. You see I understand Peter, and fully relate to him. I do not understand what Jesus is doing. Jesus is supposed to be the King, the long awaited Messiah, the one who is going to liberate the people from the oppression of the Roman Empire. There is part of me that wants to see Jesus fulfill the disciples Messianic expectations: to see Jesus mighty and powerful like a great military leader. Acting like Caesar and Herod. Acting like royalty. But he does not conform to our desires and exceptions. We see Jesus, fulfilling his vocation as the Son of God. We see Jesus, demonstrating the way we are called to live.
In the act of kneeling down and washing feet, Jesus shows us what power and authority in the Kingdom of God are all about. Jesus takes the role of servant, and not just any role, but the lowliest of them all. In the midst of the shock and scandal of Jesus washing feet, we learn that God’s glory, God’s power, is revealed not in conquest and domination, but in acts of humble loving service. We see Jesus for who he truly is, and we see something extraordinary.
Maundy Thursday invites us to share in those loving acts of humble service. There is something incredibly intimate about the act of foot washing. We see this in what Jesus does with his disciples, and many of us have experienced it in our own lives. In that moment, we come forward as a community, putting forth all of our insecurity, our vulnerability, our awkwardness and uncomfortableness, to be held. To allow for the tender, loving care of God to be offered to us through our neighbors.
There is a powerful witness and gift in this act. That openness, that vulnerability to cast aside all the masks, all the barriers, we put between us and each other, but more importantly those things we put between us and God. The things we try to hide from God, because we are ashamed, or we fear they will somehow be more than God can handle, or maybe even make God love us less than before. This day is a day to risk being vulnerable, to strip those layers away, and show the true vulnerability of ourselves. Opening those places of shame, those places of insecurity, those places of fear, that they might be healed by the loving, tender care of God.
Simple things, ordinary acts, washing, become an extraordinary glimpse at the kingdom of God breaking forth before our very eyes.
Traditionally, on this day we remember another ordinary thing used for God’s extraordinary purposes. For on the night before he suffered, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, the Eucharist. Ordinary everyday things of bread and wine, miraculously transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ – the very presence of God to be held in our hands.
St. Augustine once preached that as we stare on those gifts of bread and wine on the altar, as we partake and are nourished by those elements of bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ, we in fact become the Body and Blood of Christ ourselves.
I know I am not the only one in our parish who enjoys baking, and I am sure some of you tried your hand at baking bread during this past year. Augustine uses the baking process to help open the hearts and minds of his listeners to the transformation that awaits. He said:
One bread; what is this one bread? The one body which we, being many, are. Remember that bread is not made from one grain, but from many. When you were being exorcised, it’s as though you were being ground. When you were being baptized it’s as though you were mixed into dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it’s as though you were baked. Be what you can see, and receive what you are. (2)
Be what you can see, and receive what you are.
This day understands those words more than any other. For this day we get a real and tangible glimpse of what it means to be the Body and Blood of Christ in the world. We learn and we experience that to be the Body and Blood of Christ is to love one another as God has loved us. To hold each other, to offer that tender and loving care to each and every person we meet.
Of all the days of this Coronatide, this might be the hardest for us to observe virtually. This day, the liturgy we typically observe, is one of our most embodied experiences: washing feet, celebrating the Eucharist, stripping the altar. Physical acts that require us not only to gather together, but that demand closeness – acts that demand intimacy.
There is a particular grief in observing these days a second time during the pandemic. I wonder if I am the only one who gets a lump in their throat, a knot in their stomach, to think it has been nearly 13 months since receiving the Eucharist. This Eucharistic fast has left me starving – and hopefully it has not rendered my hangry.
Once more we find ourselves relying on the power of the Word of God, the sacramental nature of the Scripture, to convey for us the presence of God in this moment. If blessed Augustine were here today maybe instead of “Be what you can see, and receive what you are,” he might say, “Be what you can hear, and receive what you are.”
Once more we feast on the living Word of God for our nourishment, for our transformation. For while we might not be able to gather together in person to observe our ancient rituals, we are no less required to observe the ancient command of God.
Over the last year, I have heard many say that we have been keeping one long Lent. Some have even said we have been keeping a year long and counting Good Friday. But it struck me this week, throughout the course of the last year we have been living the entity of the liturgical calendar in deeper ways than we might have ever experienced them before.
There have been times of stripping away, reorientation, discovering what is truly important, committing ourselves to new practices of restoration, practices that are life-giving and good for our souls. There have been times when we have discovered what Lent is all about.
There have been times of waiting, times of expectation and preparation. Times that remind us of the season of Advent.
There have been times when good news has been announced, when we have been called to celebrate and rejoice. Times that remind us of the call of holy days like Christmas and Epiphany.
There have been dark days, days we have been reminded of the pain and hurt we cause one another. Days we are reminded of how we have failed to care for those in greatest need. Days when the realities of death and grief overwhelm our senses. Days where we share the cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Days that connect us with the raw emotion of Good Friday.
And there have been times when new life has emerged, when the light of day has broken through the darkness of night. Times when the hope we thought we lost rises once more, days that remind us the Kingdom of God prevails over darkness and death, days when we experience the power of the resurrection.
No single holy day or liturgical season can capture the fullness of this last year. However, it seems to me there is a day that stands no matter what plague, pestilence, or famine strikes the world; one day that endures war and violence, peace and stability. One day, that is the model for every single day of our lives: pre-pandemic, pandemic, and post-pandemic alike. That day, is today.
This year we have been reminded of our daily call to love our neighbors. We have heard and heeded the call to make difficult decisions, to make sacrifices for the health and safety of those neighbors known and unknown to us. Our fasts from social gatherings, special events, in-person worship have been fasts motivated by love.
While we are not able to tenderly hold and wash each other’s feet this day, we have lovingly and tenderly held each other in the past year. In phone calls and video chats. In running errands and getting supplies for those who are at home. In taking socially distanced walks. In finding creative ways to continue outreach ministries. In being present with one another, however has been safe and possible, listening, praying, letting down our guards, being vulnerable, sharing tears together.
This day is called Maundy from the Latin word Mandatum meaning “command.” Jesus says to us this day, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (3) This is our command, this is our mandate.
In the past year, we have had to dig deep, we have discovered depths of love previously unimaginable. We have lived, and lived fully, this command. We have been, we are, and we will continue to obverse this mandate. We have been, we are, and we will continue to live in such ways that the world will know we are Jesus’ disciples.
As we stop and reflect on ordinary things, which when used for God’s purposes become extraordinary, we see just how profound and powerful Jesus our Messiah and Redeemer actually is. No matter the restrictions or openness of our daily lives in any given moment, we are always called to love our neighbor – we are always called to be the Body and Blood of Christ in the world.
May the tender loving care of God strengthen us in these days ahead, that as we walk this path, these three holy days, we may go forth to love the world as Jesus loves us.
Malcolm Guite, is a poet, priest, and singer-songwriter in the Church of England. In his book Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year Guite includes this sonnet for Maundy Thursday:
Here is the source of every sacrament,
The all-transforming presence of the Lord,
Replenishing our every element,
Remaking us in his creative Word.
For here the earth herself gives bread and wine,
The air delights to bear his Spirit’s speech,
The fire dances where the candles shine,
The waters cleanse us with his gentle touch.
And here he shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray him, though it is the night,
He meets us here and loves us into light. (4)
This day, no matter where we are, no matter the circumstances of the present moment, no matter what emotions fill our souls, no matter the restrictions we wish were lifted, Jesus meets us here and loves us into light.
(1) John 13:1, NRSV.
(2) Augustine, Sermon 272, https://stanselminstitute.org/files/Augustine,%20Sermon%20272.pdf
(3) John 13:#4-35, NRSV.
(4) Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, ”Holy Week: 5 Maundy Thursday.” p. 36.
Sermon for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (28 March 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Eastern Orthodox fresco in Nativity of the Theotokos Church, Bitola, Republic of North Macedonia. Public Domain
In recent weeks I have been spending a lot of time with our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. Now to be clear, I do not mean that he and I have been hanging out on my front porch reminiscing about life, ministry, and the secrets of the universe. For the last month and a half, a group of us have been reading his book Love is the Way: Holding onto Hope in Troubling Times. Because of our parish study my week is punctuated by the words and wisdom of Bishop Curry: reading in preparation for class, engaging our group discussions, searching for and listening to sermons to share at the end of each session. Throughout it all there has been a singular common thread – Jesus.
I know . . . please feel free to insert Captain Obvious joke here.
All joking aside, there is something important in the way Bishop Curry grounds Jesus at the core of his preaching and teaching. All too often, we constrain Jesus in a very particular narrowly defined way. There are images and vignettes from Jesus’ life we turn to again and again for comfort and consolation, and there are images we choose to ignore – things that make us uncomfortable. It is a very human thing to cast God in our image, assuming – maybe even demanding – that God acts on our terms. But that is not the way things work. God is not made in our imagine, we are made in God’s image.
Bishop Curry, in his writings, sermons and interviews, calls our attention to who Jesus truly is. He regularly invites us to consider the fullness of Jesus’ identity. He encourages us to hold lightly the images of God we treasure, that are easy to connect with, and he pushes us to look more closely at the images that make us uncomfortable, the ones that are far more demanding.
In a recent interview the Rev’d Scott Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement, asked Bishop Curry what his hope is for The Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry responding by saying this:
I think we are in the process of reclaiming Jesus, and the fullness of Jesus. That reclaiming, the part that we have missed, is the teachings of Jesus. I had a parishioner who said everybody loves Christmas Jesus, but nobody wants to talk about Sermon on the Mount Jesus, much less the Crucified Jesus. The reality is it’s the whole thing, it is the Son of God, God incarnate in Jesus the Christ. No question about that, but the Jesus who went up the mountain and taught them blessed are the poor in Spirit. The Jesus who told the parable of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son. That Jesus who said Love is the whole thing God is concerned about. It is the Supreme Court of God. Love. That is it. On these love of God love of neighbor hang all the laws and prophets. That is a stupendous statement. (1)
Bishop Curry’s primary focus is getting us to step beyond the easy, sentimental images, so that we might truly listen to the teachings of Jesus. That we might follow the way of love that God walks before us.
Today and in the week ahead, we have the opportunity to have our vision adjusted; to step beyond the comfortable to discover the depths of God’s love.
This week the donkey we discover is not nestled gently in a pile of hay, but carries Jesus into Jerusalem for his countercultural triumphant entry. This week we do not discover kings bringing gifts and paying homage, but rulers seeking the death of him who challenges their power and authority. This week we discover that the wood of the new born Messiah’s crib has become the wood of the Cross on which our Savior is hung. This week we discover not the brith of a child, but the birth of a new world order in which death is destroyed once and for all.
When we think about this day, Palm Sunday, we might imagine gathering on the church lawn, getting our palm fronds, and joining processions whilst singing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” As we keep this tradition we see Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem: we see Jesus on a donkey, with the crowd shouting “Hosanna!” as they spread their cloaks and leafy branches along the road in front of him.
This allows us to see Jesus in a very particular light. Over the years I have heard many describe the experience as joyous and festive; I’ve seen children laugh and skip as they join the chorus. A truly wonderful sight. Yet deeper examination reveals this is more than some happy-go-lucky arrival into town. Here Jesus is revealed as a countercultural revolutionary.
In this procession into Jerusalem, Jesus makes a bold statement about the powers of this world. He takes things that would be traditionally associated with grand military processions and makes a mockery of them.
As one commentator notes, “Jesus is turning imperial notions of power and rule on their head. His theater is a humorous piece of political satire.” (2) Jesus rides through the adoring crowd, receiving the shouts of praise typically reserved for earthly rulers. He comes as one who does not lord his authority over others, but leads through acts of humble loving service. Jesus rejects the pomp, power, wealth, and domination of the ruling powers, and comes instead to stand in solidarity with those who are poor, sick, with the marginalized and oppressed. Jesus comes not as a mighty warrior, but as one who is vulnerable and refuses to rely on violence. Jesus’ calculated actions unmask and challenge the dominant social order under the guise of festivity.
We might be tempted to put Jesus into a particular role that always affirms our behaviors and positions, but on Palm Sunday we must see Jesus in his fullness. We must see the way he unmasks the delusions of dominant culture, and recognize the ways he unmasks those same delusions in our own lives. This week invites us to see what needs to be unmasked in our own lives individually and as a community.
This unmasking is only part of what we are invited to see today.
Did you know, that “Palm Sunday” is not the full title of this day? The Book of Common Prayer names this day, “Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” This title brings together the two things we do this day; sometimes referred to as the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion. While we might associate the Passion with Good Friday it has been a central feature to what happens the Sunday before Easter since at least the eleventh century.
The emphasis on the Passion, at times the sole focus of this day, for there were times when there was no mention of palms and Jesus’ ride into the city, reveals to us one of the most important images of Jesus – the one we most often wish to skip over and ignore.
In a way unlike any other part of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, the Passion comes with a power great enough to disrupt the entirety of our lives and transform our hearts.
What we witness in the passion puts everything else in perspective. The cross makes sense of all that Jesus has taught. The cross teaches us what it means to be disciples. The cross is the ultimate example of the Supreme Court of God – to use Bishop Curry’s imagery.
American religious sister Margaret Farley, theologian, ethicists, and member of the order of the Sisters of Mercy, writes about what it is we come to understand as we consider the passion of Jesus. She writes:
We come to understand, for example, that our call is not merely to bear our own cross, endure our own crucifixion, as Jesus bore his. The cross of Jesus, we believe, signifies the suffering of all human persons – that burden that Jesus identified with and took upon himself. Insofar as this is true, Christians are called to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer across time and space. And while the cross signified every form of human suffering (sickness, tragic accident, aging, and diminishment), there are certain kinds of suffering that are central to its meaning. Given the context and nature of the final sufferings of Jesus, there is little doubt that the centrally signified form of suffering is suffering that is consequence of injustice – the kind of suffering that does not have to be; that cries out for an end not in death but in change. (3)
Dr. Farley articulates what it is we are called to see. Jesus standing in solidarity with all who suffer. When we look upon Jesus hanging from that tree we are called to see Jesus lifting up the wounds and scars of humanity. While we see our brokenness in the brokenness of our Redeemer, we are called to see more than our individual hurt.
Jesus lifts up the suffering from the hands of injustice – the suffering that does not have to be. The suffering that comes from our culture’s obsession with violence, insistence on greed, companionship with racism, entanglement with white supremacy, with the destruction of this fragile earth our island home.
Just as Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem forces us into unmasking the realities of the dominant narratives of society we have claimed as our own, Jesus’ passion forces us to see the way we have caused others to suffer. The ways we accept how dominant culture privileges a small group at the expense of others. The way we can use others – in great and small ways – for our own personal benefit. The way our silence at injustice makes us complicit in the oppression of our neighbors.
To use Bishop Curry’s imagery: Christmas Jesus makes us feel warm and comforted accompanied by hallmark images and beloved carols. Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites us to live in new ways, governing our lives by the revelations of his teaching and preaching. And the Crucified Jesus demands that we hold ourselves accountable for all the ways we make other suffers, he opens our eyes to the ways we ignore the suffering of others, and invites us to embrace those outstretched arms recognizing that redemption is always possible – that violence and death do not have to be the end of our stories – that something far more powerful is at work in the world if we only have eyes to see.
We need to keep the passion before us for without it nothing else is possible – Easter only comes after Good Friday. It is the passion that reveals who Jesus truly is, the love of God incarnate.
Dr. Farley goes on to write, “The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is, rather, that a relationship holds. There is a love stronger than death, that can withstand whatever the forces of evil do against it, and that can hold suffering even as it struggles to alleviate it.” (4)
What we are invited to see this week is love – love that empowers a relationship to hold, love that transforms humanity to reach new heights, love that destroys death.
As we enter into Holy Week we do not reenact historic events, pretending we do not know the end of the story, but we experience the unification of time – past, present, and future coming together through the eternal saving acts of God.
This week is our chance to glimpse who Jesus truly is. It is our chance to glimpse the Kingdom of God in its fullness. This week is our chance to get a taste of the eternal life and victory promised to us. This week we join a two millennia old tradition of pilgrims walking the way of Jesus – joining with those who have committed themselves to this experience during times of peace and stability as well as times of plague and persecution.
Ready or not, just as we are, in this particular moment in our lives, we have entered into Holy Week. I pray that we will not give in to the temptations of frustration, grief, and exhaustion of these pandemic days and miss the opportunity before us to see Jesus for who he truly is. I pray we will, once more, commit to walking this road. For if we give ourselves over to these days, entering into them fully, I assure you that we will experience death and resurrection, we will experience the newness of life offered to us, we will be transformed into the Easter people God created us to be – the people the world desperately needs us to be, people who understand that death is not the end.
This week, if we dare to look, we will recognize how much we still have to learn, how much there is still to understand, about who Jesus is. Edith Williams, in her poem “Jesus, so lowly,” captures the lessons we must learn as we gaze upon our Savior in these days. I close with her poem.
Jesus, so lowly, child of the earth: christen my wholly, bring me new birth.
Jesus, so lonely, weary and sad; teach me that only love maketh glad.
Jesus, so broken, silent and pale; be this the token, love will not fail.
Jesus, victorious, mighty and free; teach me how glorious death is to be.
(2) Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 5624-5625). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(3)Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 6402-6408). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(4) Ibid., 1.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (21 March 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
The Gentiles Ask to See Jesus (Les gentils demandent à voir Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain
It is amazing the places we can hear the Gospel preached, if we only have ears to hear.
In this past year, almost every Sunday afternoon, and occasionally on Thursday nights, I tune in to Facebook live to watch a program put on by some friends. They call themselves the “ladies” of The View and on Sundays they do Drag Brunch Live and on Thursday they do a primetime special. Over the last year they have found ways to transform their art to meet the realities of pandemic life: They have found ways to bring light and joy to people, not only around the state, but around the world, as we navigate these difficult and sometimes dark days.
This past Thursday, I tuned in to catch the end of their program. I noticed they were being a bit more serious than I have grown accustomed to seeing them. As I watched I realized that they were reflecting on what they have learned over the course of the last year.
As things shut down they lost the ability to perform in the way they had always known. Two members of the trio lost their jobs. The third is in health care and has witnessed first hand what this pandemic has wrought and the amazing effort of our front line workers. They named the pain and grief of all those who mourn the loss of loved ones. Then each of them, in their own way, spoke of how this time has been transformative. Amidst the loss, pain, and grief they have discovered what and who is truly important in their lives. Liberated from the routine of what was they discovered new things and new opportunities. The discernment coming out of the grief of loss has yielded new career paths, new connections, new relationships, new ways of making a difference in the community. They shared that it was only after letting go of what was, that they could discovered something new.
I am so grateful for these friends and all they have done, and continue to do, throughout this time. If I am being honest I think there have been moments when they have preached far better in this season of Coronatide than most clergy across the Church – myself included. On Thursday night, between jokes, teasing one another, and enjoying a good time, Jacqueline DiMera, Haley Star, LaDiva Jonz, and their special guest Viza D. Klein preached one powerful sermon.
This morning as we hear the words of John’s Gospel we are given two important images for us to contemplate – two images for us to reflect on, enter into, to hold as we continue our journey in this time of transition. We are on the cusp of entering into Holy Week – next Sunday is Palm Sunday. We are also on the cusp of emerging out of this pandemic- entering back into a world that, God willing and nothing catastrophic happening next, will start to feel like something we recognize as normal. The change will not happen over night, but there is hope ahead. This Gospel passage can help us in our discernment as we prepare to emerge into the newness of life coming with the dawn of that glorious Easter morn.
Today is all about desire and transformation.
At the outset of this passage we hear about some Greeks at a festival. This exchange happens in Jerusalem. The festival is Passover. These Greeks, are Gentiles visiting the city for its traditional religious festivities. While they are there, they approach Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (1) John does not give us any details about those who approach Philip. As author Debie Thomas writes, “The Gospel doesn’t tell us how many Gentiles come seeking Jesus, or why they’re interested in him. Are they curious about his message and his parables? Are they chasing spectacle — hoping to see a rumored miracle-worker walk on water or heal a blind man? Maybe they’re skeptics or troublemakers, looking to pick a fight with the controversial Messiah. Or maybe they’re just bored and seeking a distraction. We don’t know.” (2)
But what we do know is this. They do not ask if Jesus is around, they do not inquire if he is available for a chat. They approach Philip and express their desire. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
The lack of detail in this encounter is a gift to us. If John told us that they desired to see Jesus because of some otherworldly conversion moment they had experienced, we might feel indicted or unworthy by our lack of such a moment. If John told us they wanted to see Jesus because they were angry and wanted to bring harm of some kind, we might be tempted to ignore them and place ourselves in a position of superiority. Without the constraints of a narrowly defined motivation, we can place ourselves fully into the position of these seekers. We can begin to wonder some things about ourselves.
Void of detail, we can look at these Greeks, without shame for ourselves or judgment on them, and ask the question, “what is it that we desire?” We can ask, “what is it that we wish to see?”
Times of transition, such as the one we are in, are ripe for this sort of discernment. In fact, this is what Lent is all about: honest reflection on where we are, naming truthfully the realities of our lives, discerning if this is the course we wish to stay on. Lent, through those practices named for us on Ash Wednesday – practices of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s holy Word – allows us to see where we are now, imagine where we wish to be, and reset our course to get there. Lent is about that Greek word metanoia, about turning around, about recalibrating our minds and desires to align with the desires of God.
If the invitation of Lent was not sufficient for us to enter into this discernment, this pandemic time has certainly come with its own invitation. Just as my friends reflected in their program on Thursday night, all of us have learned things about our lives. We have discovered who and what truly matters, we have been able to take stock, to slow down, and to see if things are going as we truly want them to. For us as people of faith, this time of pandemic has reminded us of what this life of discipleship is all about – making difficult decisions, making sacrifices, giving things up for the health and safety of our neighbors. This time of pandemic has invited us to dig deep and discover what God calls us to when God says, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In these weeks we have seen Jesus teach and heal, we have seen him get angry and call people to account. We have been, and will continue, to witness him walk that long road into Jerusalem that leads directly to the cross. We are the recipients of an abundance of images of Jesus. If we, like those who approach Philip, wish to see Jesus what is it that we hope to see? Jesus the healer? Jesus the teacher? Jesus the troublemaker? Jesus the flipper of tables? Or, to paraphrase our Presiding Bishop, do we wish to see Christmas Jesus? How about Sermon on the Mount Jesus? Is anyone interested in Good Friday Jesus?
We are being invited to open our eyes and see Jesus for who he truly is – our joyous, welcoming, loving, teaching, healing, exorcising, demanding, sacrificing, liberating, fully human and fully divine, Son of God, our Savior, our Redeemer, our Messiah.
Our faith invites us to be honest with ourselves. Do we wish to see Jesus? Are we ready to see Jesus for who he truly is? If we do not have that desire, if we are not ready, we need not be ashamed. For God meets us where we are – ready and waiting for whatever step we need to take next.
In these days let us ask ourselves what is it that we desire? Who and what do we wish to see? What steps do we need to take next, in what ways are we in need of transformation and reorientation, so that we too can say we wish to see Jesus – and see him as he is, not as we wish for him to be?
John does not stop at desire. The passage continues with Jesus foretelling what those who follow are about to see.
Upon hearing the news of these seekers from Andrew and Philip Jesus say, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless again of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (3)
Once more Jesus is trying to tell his disciples what his mission is all about. He is trying to tell them what is about to happen.
They have been watching and waiting and journeying together and the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry has come, the hour has arrived. On the heals of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus answers Andrew and Philip with a jarring proverb about grains of wheat.
These grains must in a sense die to what they are so that they might be transformed. Unless the grain of wheat falls, it will remain alone and fruitless. But if it falls, new life emerges. So it is for humanity, Jesus says. We must in a sense die, that we too might be transformed. We must let go of our lives as we have always known them, let go of any selfish ambition that puts ourselves above all else, willing to make sacrifices that we might discover what and who is truly important in our lives. We let go of old ways of being in the world so that we might discover what it means to truly live. This is Baptismal life – dying to old ways, emerging out of those abundant waters, taking on new life that we might discover the who we are truly called to be.
This is exactly what Jesus does throughout his ministry: with the ultimate example being that which the disciples, and the whole world, is about to see when Jesus is lifted up on the cross.
Today’s passage concludes, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (4)
God has come to judge the world, to shine a light on the realities we do not see and those we wish we did not see. This judgment is rooted in love – it is judgment that seeks not to destroy, but to heal – to purify and perfect. To strip away all that is life-destroying so that that which is live-giving might reign. This is judgement that comes with outstretch arms, that draws us deeper into relationship with God, deeper into the heart of love. This is judgment that reveals the laws of God’s love that have been written on our hearts.
This is the vision before us, this is what is being revealed in our midst, at this very moment. This is the foundation for our discernment.
Beloved of God, what is it that you desire? What is it that you wish to see?
As we continue in these final days of Lent and enter into Holy Week; as we begin to imagine life beyond this pandemic; as restrictions begin to ease, as increasing numbers of individuals are vaccinated; let us hold these questions as guideposts for our discernment:
Do we wish to see Jesus – seeking God’s presence, guidance, and companionship along the way?
Do we desire something from Jesus, peace, security, safety, health, immunity, ease, comfort – seeking transaction over relationship?
Do we seek confrontation with God – looking for the opportunity to let out all of our frustration and anger; to express our unrestrained lament, to give voice to our disappointment, sorrow, and grief for the ways Jesus is not who we want him to be?
Are we bewildered by the question of these Greek seekers – having shelved our spiritual lives, allowing our faith to recede to the recesses of our minds and attentions; letting the flames of our desire for God fizzle and become extinguished?
What grains in our lives, individually and as a community, need to fall to the ground so that something new might emerge?
What have we learned about ourselves during this time? What have we had to let go of? What new things have we discovered? What do we know now about who and what is truly important to us that we were not aware of a year ago?
As we journey together let us turn over the answers to God, trusting that no matter where we are on our journey of faith – no matter the answers to the questions we ask – God draws us to God’s self, Jesus lifts us to himself as he is lifted up for the world.
It is my hope and prayer that as we continue together we might be brave and bold enough to name our desires honestly before God. It is my hope and prayer that as we emerge into the new reality being laid bare before us we, like Jacquline, Haley, LaDiva, and Viza, might discover all the ways we have grown in this time, discover that which has been revealed to us as truly important, discover that we are being formed and shaped into who we need to be for whatever comes next.
Beloved of God, the hour has come. Trusting in the loving-kindness of God, I hope you will join me in being excited to see what God has in store for us next.
(1) John 12:21, NRSV.
(3) John 12:23-25, NRSV.
(4) John 12:31-32, NRSV.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (14 March 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
The Brazen Serpent (1618-1620), Anthony Van Dyck, Museo de Prado, Public Domain
By an act not of their own choosing, the people were no longer able to live as they once were. They were sent out, leaving behind everything they knew, forced to abandon their routines and the way things were. The people entered into a time of wandering and liminality. It was a time of change and transition, with no clear end in sight. They set out having no idea when they would arrive.
The journey was long and arduous, the people had to sacrifice much. They were exhausted, frustrated, and probably fearful too. Out of those emotions they became impatient. They started to speak out and against their leaders. They began to rebel and complain. As this started the leadership tried to make accommodations. They tried to satisfied the cravings of the people. But nothing could satisfy them for long. All the people wanted was to go back to the way things were. What they soon discovered was that their anger, their impatience, their rebellious actions only led to more harm, pain, suffering, and death. Finally the people recognized that this was not sustainable, and they began to change their ways.
I am sure you all know exactly what I am talking. I am sure you have figure out which people I am referring to. Obviously I am talking about the Israelites and their saga which is recounted for us in the Book of Numbers.
The people of Israel had been in slavery – held in bondage in Egypt. God, with the help of his servant Moses, liberated God’s people from their oppressive and life stifling reality. After God freed the people of Israel, they journeyed for forty years in the wilderness. They were wandering in a barren and deserted place. As they traveled God was with them, guiding and guarding them. Caring and providing for them. God led them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.
This wilderness journey was incredibly difficult. It was a time that invited, or maybe it is better to say forced, them to confront difficult realities about themselves. Old patterns and practices, old ways of being in the world, needed to be let go of so new patterns and practices could emerge. As we know change is not always easy, especially when the impetus is not of our own will. Most of all the people needed to learn to trust and rely on God.
While facing the difficultly and exhaustion of their wilderness journey the people became impatient. They started to complain. Because they were weary and frustrated, not at all sure where they were going or if their leader Moses knew what he was doing; because they were sure they were about to die, dissension grew amongst the people. They started to complain and rebel against Moses.
They complained against Moses because they had no water, so God instructed Moses to take his staff, strike a rock, and water was provided for the people. They complained that they had nothing to eat, so God rained down manna upon them. After they grew tired of eating the manna, the bread from heaven, they complained that they had no meat, so God gave them quails.
Along the way God was shaping and transforming the people. Preparing them for their entrance into the promise land. Showing them that they can rely on God, believe in God, trust in God, at all times – and especially when things seems bleak and death seems to be a forgone conclusion.
Eventually the rebellious complaints of the people come to a head, and the last complaint is the worst of all. This is the complaint we hear today.
This complaint, however, is not like the murmurings that have come before. This time, the people speak against God. As Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “complaining about Moses and Aaron is one thing. Complaining about God is something else altogether. Their complaint is absurd as well as seditious.” (1)
The people cry out, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (2) Despite the fact that God has been caring for the people and protecting them. Despite the fact that God has satisfied their needs with water, manna, and quails the people lose patience. They are unable to be grateful to God for all that God has done for them. They lose their faith and trust in God. While God has liberated them, they wish to give up their new life giving reality, and go back to slavery in Egypt. After their rebellious behavior, poisonous serpents appear among the people. Many die after being bitten by these serpents.
The appearance of the serpents can bring us into some very sticky territory. We might be tempted to place judgment upon God or to label God as wrathful. For me the importance of the appearance of the serpents is not why God does it, for we can never fully know the mind of God, but how the people of Israel interpret their appearance.
The people of Israel understand the serpents to be God’s punishment for their rebellion. When they come to this realization they go to Moses and say, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” (3)
As we hear this story deep in the season of Lent it forces us to confront what might arguably be the topic we wish most to avoid. That sin, that speaking against God, that rebelling from the way of God, should receive judgment. As much as we wish to avoid the subject, we know that our actions have consequences. Yet we might be filled with fear to imagine that God is the one dolling out the punishments – after all the idea of “sinners in the hands of an angry God” looms large in our collective imagination.
The fact that this lesson does not end with people dying because of these serpents should give us hope. The people recognize that they have sinned, and they repent. They go to Moses, confess their sins, and seek forgiveness. As soon as the people repent of their ways, God instructs Moses to construct a statue of the serpent, made of bronze, upon which the people will gaze and live. God offers that which will bring healing and restoration to the people.
I wonder, if we might feel some solidarity with the people of Israel. For we are in the midst of a wilderness journey, not of our own choosing, that has unsettled our lives in ways we never could have imagined. This is our second Lent during this pandemic. While there is hope that we will soon begin to emerge into something that looks like normal we are not quite there yet.
During this past year we have known immense amounts of grief. We have complained about the conditions, we have done our best to find things to satisfy our cravings, but temporary solutions only last for so long. Many of us struggle with the temptation to act and make decisions based on our frustrations and impatience. Just like the people of Israel, we know how hard wilderness can be. And just like the people of Israel, this time is exposing things in us that must come to light.
As the wilderness exposes these things, we are invited to allow ourselves to be transformed. To allow God to train us, to shape and mold us, into who God has called us to be. In this process, each and every one of us, will discover there are things we need to repent of. Ways we have lashed out at others when emotions run high. Ways we have acted out of frustration and fear. Ways we have caused pain both intentionally and unintentionally. Not only will we discover this individually, we will also discover this collectively. The ways we have built systems that fail to hear the voices of all people. They way we have prioritized the health, safety, and well being of some at the expense of others.
As hard as this exposure is, as difficult as it is to name the ways we have fallen short and sinned against God and our neighbor, we can do so knowing that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and mercy. Or as the Psalmist puts it, “Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; they were afflicted because of their sins. They abhorred all manner of food and drew near to death’s door. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” (4)
We can be confident in the confession of our sins, because we know that God desires not the death of sinners, but that all will turn to God and be saved. We can be confident in our confession, because God’s judgment is rooted in love seeking to purify and perfect us, not to punish.
Time and time again God, out of deep love for humanity, liberates us from slavery. God asks us to trust, to believe, that the way God calls us to will draw us away from that which will bring death and destruction. God knows our rebellious behavior leads nowhere good. God desires that we have life so intensely, that God sends his son into the world.
We hear this morning in John’s Gospel that what God did for the people of Israel in ages past, God does for all of humanity now. Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus makes the connection between his life, ministry, and the saving acts accomplished through his death, to the saving acts of God in history. As with everything else in Jesus’ ministry, no longer is this salvific message just for one particular people. The saving power of God is made available to all. And why is this you ask? Because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (5) The Son of Man will be lifted up, Jesus will reign from the cross, to prevent God’s beloved children from perishing in the despair of death.
Our Scripture readings today draw our attention, focus our gaze upwards. That which saved the people of Israel in the wilderness, that which saved all of humanity in Jerusalem is lifted up before us.
We are in the latter half of this Lenten journey – only two weeks away from entering into Holy Week. Now is the time for us to pay attention to where we gaze. We are being invited to look up. To reorient ourselves towards the hope coming across the horizon.
As we shift our focus, before we get to the hope of dawn, we must stare into that which we most fear. God transforms the terrors of this world, and uses them for God’s purpose. That which once brought terror and death – in this case serpents and crosses – now brings healing and restoration.
In reflecting on today’s lessons, author Debie Thomas, in a blog post titled “Looking Up,” comments on the death of Jesus and what we are called to see as we look up. She writes:
So why did Jesus die? He died because he unflinchingly fulfilled the will of God. He died because he exposed the ungracious sham at the heart of all human kingdoms, holding up a mirror that shocked his contemporaries and still shocks us at the deepest levels of our imaginations. In other words, he unveiled the poison, he showed us the snake, he revealed what our human kingdoms, left to themselves, will always become unless God in God’s mercy delivers us. In the cross, we are forced to see what our refusal to love, our indifference to suffering, our craving for violence, our resistance to change, our hatred of difference, our addiction to judgment, and our fear of the Other must wreak. When the Son of Man is lifted up, we see with chilling and desperate clarity our need for a God who will take our most horrific instruments of death, and transform them, at great cost, for the purposes of resurrection. (6)
As we continue this wilderness journey of Lent in the time of pandemic, let us allow ourselves to be lifted up. Let us release our rebellious tendencies, turning over our lives to God, trusting in the lovingkindness of God. As the writer to the Ephesians declares in today’s epistle: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us . . . made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.”(7)
May this wilderness journey allow us to confess our sins, amend our lives, and recognize that God takes that which was once the source of pain, destruction, and death and transforms it into a means of abundant and everlasting life.
(1) Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 3769-3771). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(2) Numbers 21:5, NRSV.
(3) Numbers 21:7, NRSV.
(4) Psalm 107:17-19, BCP.
(5) John 3:16, NRSV.
(7) Ephesians 2:4-6, NRSV.
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent (7 March 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, El Greco, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Public Domain
There is a great tradition and practice in the church of having a rule of life: a set of guiding principles and practices that structure our days and inform the decisions we make. It is a framework by which we can approach any situation for help in our discernment about how we are called to move forward.
These rules shift and change as we journey through the various stages of life. Throughout my own life I have benefitted greatly from taking time to regularly evaluate how I live, discern how God is calling me to be in the world, and crafting a rule suitable to my station. While things change there are pillars that always stay the same.
Rules of life are not just for clergy or those who have professed their lives to religious communities. Whether we recognize it or not, we all have a rule of life. Even if you are hearing about this for the first time, I am certain that you have one. Maybe you think of it as your ethos, or your standards, or your convictions. No matter the terminology, this is the scaffolding upon which we build our lives.
Communities haves rules of life as well, such as the Rule of St. Benedict. In the early sixth century, St. Benedict of Nursia wrote a book of precepts for monks living communally under the authority of the abbot. These precepts were the framework for how the community would live together: how they would structure their days, how responsibilities would be divided, how they would respond when conflict arose.
As is true with individual rules of life, communities have them even if they have never thought about it before. As a parish we think about who we are as a community, what are the ideals important to us, how we have covenanted to live with one another, and use those insights to guide our prayer and reflection in making decisions, in discerning how God is calling us in each moment.
The rules of life we have, either as individuals or as a community, are held within a broader standard of living. For we as individuals and as a parish do not stand in isolation. We are part of a global community of faith, that traces its roots back over the course of millennia. Our faith lays before us the bedrock of our rules of life upon which we build the particularities for our time and place.
The lessons we hear today help us understand the foundation we build our lives upon, and invite us to reflect on if it is time for us to adjust the framework we have been using.
From the Book of Exodus this morning we hear the Ten Commandments. Now I am sure all of you could easily name the each of the ten commandments. We do have, after all, the ultimate cliff-notes in cinematic form staring Charlton Heston. All joking aside, we do not have to memorize them: they are easily accessible in Scripture or in The Book of Common Prayer. What is important is to learn the commandments and the theology they convey. For these words spoken by God are the foundation for our rules of life.
These commandments are separated into two categories or two tablets. The first five focus our attention on God and how we are to live in relation to God. We are to worship God and God alone, we are not to make idols for ourselves, we refrain from taking the Lord’s name in vain, we keep the sabbath, we honor our father and mother – recognizing we do not come this way alone, but stand on the shoulders of the generations who have gone before. All of these are directed at our individual relationships with God. This relationship is the primary, unchanging, pillar of our rules of life. Everything else stems from this relationship.
The remaining group of commandments focus our attention on how we live with those around us. They forbid murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting. They draw our attention to the belovedness of our neighbor, and how we honor their personhood as a child of God. These commandments outline the basic expectations for our behavior, and protect us from running out of bounds, falling into patterns that will destroy us, and lead us into self-inflicted chaos.
These commandments give us the framework for how we are called to live our lives. We build up the community by speaking truthfully; we recognizes the image of God in every person; we speak and act in ways that invite praise and thanks to God, not supporting and sustaining cycles of anger and cynicism. As we see the value, worth, and dignity in our neighbor, as we recognize the abundance of love God has for them; we are able to see ourselves in that same light, in that same love.
This vision for a way of life given to Moses, describes how the covenant between God and Israel is to be ordered. This is the same covenant we heard established with Abraham and Sarah last week. This is a covenant rooted in God’s abiding love for humanity. For this covenant, this way of life, is established after God has displayed a passionate love for God’s people: shown through liberating them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt and feeding them with bread from heaven in the wilderness. God has liberated God’s people. God has fed God’s people. Now God invites them to live into that freedom, that fullness, with this rule of life rooted in that covenant established with our ancestor Abraham.
If we ever find ourselves struggling to remember these foundational tenants of how we are called to live, Jesus offers us this summation, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (1)
As followers of Jesus, we have the privilege of looking to his example to see what it looks like to live out the principles of this covenanted relationship with God. The ten commandments, the way Jesus lives, these words spoken by God, are as it says elsewhere in Scripture, “a lanterned to [our] feet and a light upon [our] path.” (2)
They guide us as we journey in our life before God, with our neighbors. They are not about a strict code of rules to earn God’s favor or to avoid being punished. They are that which illuminates our path to dwelling in the freedom that God intends for each and every one of us.
Sometimes, as we walk this path of true freedom in God, we have a tendency to stray. We become distracted by all the shiny objects of this world. We struggle to resist the temptation of money and power. We struggle with feelings of envy, jealousy, and maybe even revenge at those who have caused us harm. And sometimes, we even stray with the very best of intentions – thinking that what we are doing is actually in service to God. It is this temptation, that Jesus encounters in the temple.
Jesus arrives at the temple and discovers that people are selling animals for sacrifices, they are exchanging roman currency for temple coins. John tells us that Jesus does not respond kindly to this saying: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Farther’s house a marketplace!’” (3) Clearly Jesus is angry, he acts here in a way unlike anything we have see before.
This is one of those rare stories that we find is all four Gospels, and there are some important differences between the way the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell this story and the way John tells it. There are two particular things of note: First is the timing.
For the Synoptic gospels this happens towards the end of the evangelists’ accounts. It is Holy Week, Jesus has just made is triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But for John, this comes at the beginning of the story, right after the wedding at Cana – the location of Jesus’ first miracle.
Following that miraculous event in Cana the disciples saw Jesus’ glory and believe in him, and now John is telling where that glory will lead. From the beginning John goes deep into revealing the identity of Jesus, but that revelation is not clear to all.
As we hear Jesus’ words about the temple in this passage, we can understand what Jesus is saying, because we know the end of the story. But the disciples are not there yet. They will not understand until later, until after the resurrection.
Sometimes we do not, we cannot, understand the full meaning of what is going on while we are in the midst of the action. Sometimes that reflection requires distance. As I hear the end of this Gospel passage, I cannot help but wonder what message are we receiving now that we do not yet fully understand. What message awaits us as we travel the road ahead?
It is okay to not have all of the answers in every moment. This path we follow, our rules of life, are for a lifetime – changing and shifting as God is revealed to us along the way. It is important for us to stay open, trusting God is still speaking – that God is not done with us yet.
John’s telling of the cleansing of the temple also differs from the other Gospels is what Jesus actually says in that iconic line. Now there might be a slight word variation between Matthew, Mark, and Luke but effectively all of them write, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” (4)
John on the other hand renders Jesus’ words, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” (5) Whereas Jesus’ rebuke in the Synoptics is about justice, about people being taken advantage of as they have come to fulfill their religious duties, John paints a different picture.
The activities that Jesus witnesses in the temple, the selling of animals and exchanging of coins, were for the benefit of pilgrims coming to the temple. These things were necessary. But as one commentator notes, “entering the temple, Jesus discovered how deceiving appearances can be.” (6)
On the surface it appears that things are as they should be, but closer inspection reveals that in the midst of carrying out the business of the temple, those there forgot their purpose. In trying to have what was needed for temple life, things were taken too far, and the whole court was transformed into a market place. Some scholars note that this court, was the Court of the Gentiles, the only place in the temple that Gentiles were allow to be and pray. In the course of carrying out temple business, those once included become excluded, prevented from being in that space.
Sometimes, while we are doing our best to carry out our responsibilities as faithfully as possible, things start to shift. Gradually the ways of the world start to invade our sacred space, and over time we might even forget the true reason why we started doing things in the first place. As we consider the framework for our life and ministry it is important for us to hear Jesus calling out to us, questioning, maybe even rebuking our practices and behaviors.
As we consider our rules of life, it is important to ask: Where have we strayed and lost focus of why we started doing something? In what ways have we rationalized behaviors and practices that it would be best for us to let go of? How are we being called in this moment to shift, to adjust our frameworks, and be set right.
The Lenten season invites us to stop, to look around, to notice where we are, and see how we need to reorient ourselves back to the path illumined for us by the love of God.
The reason that God gives God’s people commandments, the reason that Jesus is angered and calls out the people in the temple turned market place, is not because God is wrathful and seeks to punish us. God acts in love. God desires that we live fully into who God has created us to be, that we dive into the freedom God has set before us. This is God’s way of saying to humanity, “Trust me, all these other things are not good for you.” That trust is the strength which grounds our lives.
As we hear these words of God, as we hear the Word of God, let us remember that we can trust God. Trust that God will not abandon us to face the perils of this world alone, trust that God will never lead us astray, trust that if we stay true to the way God calls us to live, we will experience a way of life beyond our wildest imaginings.
Our rules of life, the way we are called to live, might seem a bit crazy, maybe even a bit foolish to the outside observer. But as Paul writes in today’s Epistle, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (7) Rooted in relationship with God, nourished by the love of God, upheld by trust in God, let us be crazy enough to take on God’s foolishness and God’s weakness as our rule of life. For through what the world sees as foolish, what the world sees as weakness, what the world sees as death – we know is the the saving power of God.
(1) Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV.
(2) Psalm 119:105, BCP.
(3) John 2:15-16, NRSV.
(4) Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48.
(5) John 2:16, NRSV.
(6) Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 3544-3545). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(7) 1 Corinthians 1:25, NRSV.
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (28 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
James Tissot (1836-1902), Rétire-toi, Satan (Get Thee Behind Me, Satan), 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain
A group of us are gathering together on Thursdays to read the latest book written by our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times. By the way, if you have not yet joined, please know you are most welcome to do so. This past week we considered chapter 3, “Making Do and Making New.”
In one section of this chapter Bishop Curry lifts up the importance of making do. He writes:
Making do is not the same as giving up or giving in to the status quo. It’s a way of figuring out how to both survive and thrive. Making do is like the potter and the clay in the Bible. The Bible describes this way of engaging life and existence as nothing less than the creative work of God expressed in humanity . . . Making do is about molding and making, taking what is old, what is given, what is, and making something new. It’s about taking an old reality and creating a new possibility. (1)
Framing making do as a recipe, Bishop Curry goes on to say that this recipe has three ingredients: tradition, imagination, and God. He writes that tradition is the, “treasure chest of wisdom gleaned from human beings who have dared . . . to walk with God.” (2) Imagination he says, “can move from the given reality to a creative possibility.” (3) And of that third and most important ingredient he writes, “When God – that loving benevolence behind creation, whose judgment supersedes all else – is factored into the reality of life and living, something changes for the good.” (4)
This is what is required for making do and making new: tradition, imagination, and God. The treasure chest of wisdom of those how have walked this road before us, the openness to seeing the possibility ahead, and God who does in fact make all things new.
Between the Lenten season and this particular moment in history, we are in a time that is all about making do and making new. Beloved of God we have been given the ingredients, the recipe is before us, all we have to do is get in the kitchen and start cooking. As we pull out our pots and pans we can look to Scripture for inspiration and guidance from those a bit more seasoned than we are.
We hear this morning of that great ancestor of the faith – Abraham. This is a powerful portion of the Abraham saga, for this is the episode in which he receives that name. As our story opens, he is still Abram.
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old,” Genesis tells us, “the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’” (5) From the outset it is time to set imagination at work. Here Abram is, ninety-nine years old, and God is saying “I will make you exceedingly numerous.” When was the last time you knew anyone who was 99 years of age becoming exceedingly numerous?
But the thing is, this is not the first time that God makes this promise to Abram. This is the third time God pronounces this covenant. It happens the first time when Abram is 75, then again when he is 86, and now at 99. For 24 years God has been enunciating this promise; for 24 years Abram has been waiting.
There is a reason Sarah laughs while she eavesdrops on the conversation between Abraham and the three angelic visitors. As Paul puts it in today’s epistle Abraham was so old, his body “was already good as dead.” (6) And yet, they remained faithful to God for these near two and a half decades – a vision of the faithfulness they will have for the rest of their good long lives. When Abraham breathes his last he will have reached one hundred and seventy-five years of age. (7)
Things are about to change for Abram and Sarai. God defying all human expectation, is about to make good on God’s promise. As a sign of this promise, of the Covenant God establishes with Abram, God gives him a new name. No longer is he to be known as Abram, which means exalted father or ancestor, he is now to be called Abraham, meaning father or ancestor of a multitude. God gives him this new name, signifying his new role and purpose in the world. His name becomes the promise itself.
Not only does Abraham get a new name, so does Sarai – now to be known as Sarah. While her name does not have the same meaning assigned as Abraham, by renaming her as well God claims Sarah as a full part of this new covenanted relationship between God and God’s people.
The full Abraham saga is a colorful one; Abraham and Sarah are far from perfect. But what they lack in perfection, they make up for in faithfulness. In their faithfulness hope and imagination are allowed to thrive, not suffocated by the rubric of human logic. The reality of their old age, was transformed into the creative possibility of God.
These faithful ancestors anchor us in the tradition of faithfulness in the midst of uncertainty and impossibility. They anchor us in the truth that nothing is impossible for God. They keep us in the tradition that opens our minds to what untold horizon God is about to reveal.
In a time of uncertainty such as this, when hope and optimism are cradled in the fragility of their newness, when danger lurks in the guise of virus variants, we look to tradition. We look to Abraham and Sarah and see that God makes a way out of no way. That through faithfulness, through trust in the promise of God, making do becomes making new.
In Abraham and Sarah we see tradition and imagination met with the equation changing, life altering power of God. That equation changing, life altering power is in full force in today’s Gospel – and this episode is no laughing matter.
This is arguably one of the most difficult Gospel passages we encounter. It contains an earth shattering rebuke, and Jesus’ declaration, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8)
To fully understand the startling nature of these word we need to take a step back, and remind ourselves of what just happened. These are the four verses that precede what we hear today:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (9)
Immediately after that encounter Jesus begins to teach those with him something new, something that changes the equation of life completely.
Peter’s articulation of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is a powerful moment: the first time this title enters into the story. Instead of a some glorious revelatory moment, with clouds opening and the chorus of angelic voices singing out, Jesus sternly orders their silence. Instead of reveling in triumphant glory, the tone shifts, and another first occurs. The first time Jesus foretells his fate.
Moments after Peter declares Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus says to his followers that he is going to suffer, be rejected, killed, and after three days rise again. I do not know about you, but if I were to imagine myself in this story, I am fairly confident that the whole rising again thing, would have been lost to the sheer terror of those first word.
This is not how things are supposed to go. When Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah he has a very particular vision in mind. The Messiah is a royal figure coming to destroy the oppressive empire and reverse the fortunes of Israel. As the Messiah, Jesus is supposed to usher in an era of liberation from the tyranny of Rome, claiming his rightful place on the throne of David. Instead of affirming what they have always believed to be true, Jesus gives them a new understanding.
There is no subtlety, just life altering clarity. In case anyone gets the wrong idea, thinking they can control the work of God in the world, that Jesus can be forced into operating within human expectations and understandings, Jesus makes himself clear. In response to Peter’s rebuke, Jesus turns towards the disciples and shouts, “Get behind me, Satan!” (10)
Jesus has just shattered every Messianic expectation, and any delusion that disciples can control what happens next.
To make matter worse, Jesus does not just say that he will be hated, suffer, rejected, and killed. Jesus says, if you really want to be my disciples, the same must happen to you. Disciples must be willing to meet the same fate. This must have been shocking if not devastating to those followers, for the word “cross” is far more loaded for them than it is for us.
Today we laud the cross. We have hymns like “Lift high the cross.” We keep festival days like Holy Cross day. We carry crosses of gold and brass. We wear them around our necks. In first century Palestine there is nothing glorious about the cross.
The cross was a tool of execution used by the empire, reserved for those who question the power of Caesar. It was reserved for those who have loyalty to anything or anyone one other than state and emperor. This was a death for enemies of the state. When Jesus tells them to take up their cross, this is what they hear. The terrifying image they have witnessed countless times is what Jesus is calling them to now. This is not optional, but required.
The God factor changes everything they thought they knew about the Messiah, discipleship, and what it means to follow. This is making do in a way never before conceived.
This begs the questions, how do we, not faced with deadly persecution for our faith, take up our cross?
While there is indeed plenty of good in the world, we do not have to look hard or long to see a world that is troubled and confused, scarred by acts of evil and greed, filled with an obsession for violence. It is into this world that we are called to carry our cross – we are called to make do and make new.
Our call to follow means looking at the suffering, despair, and grief of the world and carry our cross directly into the heart of that pain. We are to seek out the core of despair and do whatever is in our power to alleviate even a modicum of that suffering. We must be willing to sacrifice ourselves, to let go of our privilege, to give up some of our so called freedoms so that others can be set free.
We are called to do what Jesus did: willing to suffer, be rejected so that we can stand in solidarity with those who are rejected today, those who are cast out and tossed aside. We carry our cross, the ultimate sign of love, to wherever we find pain.
We live in an age that has coopted this most powerful articulation of discipleship. One the one hand this call has become so trivialized that we use it to describe any minor inconvenience we face. And on the other, this has become a dangerous weapon to delay, if not out right stop, the work of justice for people of color, women, LGBT individuals, and all others on the margins of society. This passage has been employed to tell those longing for liberation that they must wait, that enduring unending suffering, rejection, and oppression is what God destined for them. It is time to reclaim this passage for what it truly is: that which brings the ingredients of tradition, imagination, and God together.
In the midst of the magnitude of hearing these words in context we can face Jesus’ articulation of discipleship and say, “Yes Lord, I will follow,” because we know what comes next.
We can say yes because we stand in the depths of tradition: walking the same road traveled by those in that great cloud of witnesses. We can say yes, because we have gleaned the treasured wisdom of all those who have dared to follow God.
We can say yes because our imaginations have been illuminated by the resurrection morn that comes across the horizon of our hopes and dreams. We have stared into the depths of the empty tomb, gazed upon the risen Lord, proclaimed Christ is alive, we have seen the prize. We have the same imagination as Abraham and Sarah, one that lets us know God always defies human expectations, doing that which is seemingly impossible.
We can say yes because we have been invited into the most intimate and amazing relationship there has even been and ever will be – relationship with God.
Taking up our cross, in the true fullness of what that means, is how we make do in this moment: in the face of war, natural disasters, poverty, supremacy of every kind, and a global health pandemic that is not done with us yet.
Our Lenten journey is one that equips us to make do and make new: refocusing our attention on the ingredients that matter, and getting rid of the ones that spoil the recipe.
On Good Friday, we will offer a prayer that captures what making do and making new is all about. While we are still a ways off from that solemn day, I offer this prayer as strength for the journey.
Let us pray:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (11)
(1) Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times, p.55-56.
(2) Ibid., 59.
(3) Ibid., 60.
(4) Ibid., 60-61.
(5) Genesis 17:1-12, NRSV.
(6) Romans 4:19, NRSV.
(7) Genesis 25:7, NRSV.
(8) Mark 8:34, NRSV.
(9) Mark 8:27-31, NRSV.
(10) Mark 8:33, NRSV.
(11) The Book of Common Prayer, p.280.
Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (21 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoy, 1872. Public Domain
I wonder if you have ever played one of those word association games. Those activities where you have to respond with the very first thing that comes to mind after a particular word or phrase is said. For example, someone says “snow” and you immediately respond “wonderful,” or someone says “sun” and you say “burn.” I wonder what would happen, what words we would come up with, if we played a liturgical word association game right now.
Now I know this is virtual church, but that does not mean we can’t still have some fun. So let’s give it a try. In a moment, when I give you the word, go ahead and say back to your screen the first thing that comes to mind. For those of you watching through Facebook, after you shout it out, be bold, and put your response in the comment section for this video. Are you ready?
Take a deep breath in, deep breath out, and clear your mind. Remember the first answer is the best answer, the crazier the better. Here we go. The word: Lent.
I hope you were just talking back to the screen, and I really hope some of you will share those words in the comment section.
I believe it is important to never ask a congregation to do something I am not willing to do myself so here is my answer. Whenever I think of Lent, I instinctively think about wilderness. I wonder if anyone else had the same thought.
The reason I cannot help but think about the wilderness when I think of Lent, is because every year, on the First Sunday in Lent, we follow Jesus directly into the wilderness. Each year the evangelists tell us about Jesus’ sojourn and confrontation with temptation.
Today we hear Mark’s telling of this experience. As with everything else in Mark’s Gospel the details are few. What takes Matthew 11 verses and Luke 13, only takes Mark two: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (1)
Mark’s brevity does not render this passage devoid of meaning, rather it provides a broader entry for us to engage. Not restricted to specific temptations, we can take an expansive view of this scene.
Location in Scripture is about more than just geography. Location has meaning. Last week, for example, when we heard the story of the transfiguration, we were up on the mountain top with Jesus, Peter, James, and John. (2) The setting of that story was not merely to paint a narrative picture, a backdrop to inspire artistic imagination. Mountains in Scripture are where God is revealed. Like in the story of Moses and burning bush which happens as Moses is keeping his father-in-law’s flock on Mount Horeb. (3)
When Mark tells us that Jesus was in the wilderness that location signifies something as well. The wilderness, just like the desert, or even a deserted place, are locations commonly associated with the spiritual life.
Time in the wilderness is not about self-care or cultivating the proper work/life balance. When we think of wilderness we should not imagine a lovely retreat center tucked away in the trees somewhere; a time to relax and reconnect with creation. That is important, to be sure, but that is not what the scriptural wilderness location is about. Jesus is not off on some sort of camping vacation having a little me time.
The wilderness, the desert, is a dangerous place that lays bare the realities of the spirit. To go out into the wilderness, to step away from whatever else is going on, to leave behind the comforts of life, established routines, to steps away from crowds and community, is to enter an incredibly vulnerable and honest place. Most often, it is a place not eagerly sought after.
Mark does not write, “After his baptism, Jesus was feeling great, and looking to get away to do some reflecting.” As one commentator observed, “Jesus didn’t schedule a National Geographic expedition, or plan a desert marathon to improve his cardiovascular fitness.” (4) Mark tells us that after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (5) Jesus did not choose this wilderness time, he was sent there. The Spirit of God drove him, compelled him, forced him to go into that desolate, wild, and unsafe place.
Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, harkens back to another wilderness episode; another sojourn not made by choice – Israel’s forty years in the desert.
Following the Exodus story, the people of God journeyed for 40 years on their way to the promise land. This journey takes as long as it does, because of the lack of faith of the people of Israel. As soon as they began their journey the whole company of people complain against Moses, saying they were better off in Egypt as slaves. In the book of Numbers, we hear the people lament, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish, we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (6)
All they could focus their minds on, was what used to be. They struggled to be in that liminal space of the desert. This was not an ideal time, nor was it always a holy or prayerful experience. There was significant suffering, beyond missing fish, cucumbers, and garlic. While the people of God could not see it in the moment, tradition looks back to see this as a time of deep intimacy between God and Israel. The desert exposed the dependence God’s people have on God in an indisputable way.
We do not know what Jesus discovered in the wilderness, what truths were laid bare. In Mark’s account, we only know that Jesus was tempted by Satan, with the wild beats, and was waited on by angels. In these few words scholar see a battle between good and evil. Satan and the wild beasts seek to draw Jesus away from the path set before him, away from his vocation as Beloved of God. Jesus resists that temptation as the angels care for him. We discover through this story, that in the wilderness temptation must be confronted; and can only be overcome by the very grace of God.
The wilderness, the desert, deserted places, are connected to the spiritual life because they are places of clarity: free from distractions, void of excuses to refuse to see the truth being told. They are barren, lonely, dangerous places we are called to out of necessity, not by choice. Where as God is revealed on mountain tops, humanity is revealed in the wilderness.
Our tradition of Lent, this 40 day liturgical season (remember Sundays do not count, they are in Lent not of Lent) is a wilderness season. During this time we are led by the Spirit to strip away all distractions. We are called to honestly examine our lives, to name the ways we have succumb to temptation, strayed from the path, neglected our vocation as Beloved of God. This is a time to step beyond the what we have always known, into that space of transformation.
This is no ordinary Lent. This is yet another Lent in a time of pandemic. It might feel like the Lenten season of 2020 never ended. We might even find ourselves facing the temptation to resist the call of Lent this year.
Let me be so bold as to suggest that Lent is precisely what we need in this moment. Like those Scriptural wilderness times from which our Lenten tradition is drawn, these are dangerous and deadly times. This is a wilderness time where truths are being laid bare, where opportunities of clarity are unfolding, if only we are willing to be driven out, letting go of the tight grasp that clings to the way we have always done things.
In this wilderness our humanity is being revealed. We have discovered that some are depressed and lonely, struggling to maintain health and safety. Some are struggling to keep peace in their households; conflict, pain, even violence escalating at staggering rates. Some are finding new ways to connect with others, new ways to serve and care for neighbors. Some are discovering the deep inequity of our national life: the death sentence poverty can be when health care is tied to employment; the systemic violence of white supremacy as the murder of black and brown bodies unfolds on social media; the danger of alternative realities which reject fact and scientific inquiry. As is always true in biblical wilderness, our wilderness has revealed how profoundly dependent we are on God.
We have been driven into this place for a purpose. We may not know what that purpose is yet, we are certainly not here by choice, but perhaps this Lenten season will help provide the needed clarity for our lives individually and collectively. We can open ourselves, stripping away the barriers, freeing ourselves of distraction, trusting that as God guided the people of Israel, as the angels waited on Jesus, we too will be met by the loving care of God.
Wilderness seasons do not last forever. Storms come to an end, water recedes giving way to dry ground. We hear from Genesis the ending of one such season and the beginning of something new. God makes a covenant with Noah and his sons, sealing it with the image of that bow in the clouds. That great sign of the new relationship with God and God’s people, the promise they can move forward together.
Jesus comes out of the wilderness ready to get to work. Mark tells us that Jesus is in Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. (7)
Jesus emerges from the wilderness, triumphant over the temptations of Satan, confirmed in his vocation and identity as the Beloved of God, and now he begins the work before him: calling disciples, casting out demons, healing the sick, challenging the status quo, inviting people to let go of what was, dream of what is to come, and share in the building of the Kingdom of God. From time to time, Jesus will go back to those deserted places, listening, discerning, preparing for whatever comes next.
In this Lenten season, as we sit with Jesus in the wilderness, let us not resist where the Spirit is driving us. Let us accept the call of Lent to enter into a time of penitence and confession; to practice giving alms; fasting, denying worldly temptations and cravings. Let us remove those things which prevent us from disciplines of prayer and study of God’s word. Let us embrace the silence, listening for the voice of God. Listening for the invitation, listening for the promise that we can move forward together.
Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk, in his book Thoughts in Solitude, offers what is now known as the Merton Prayer. It is for discernment when the future is uncertain. He writes:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (8)
I think it would do us well to take Merton’s words as our own.
We do not know what lies ahead for us. But in time, we will emerge from the wilderness. This pandemic will come to an end. Things will go back to something that feels like normal, but things will never be the same. We have been brought to this place for a reason. May our Lenten journey guide our discernment to discover why we are here, and where we are being called to go next.
Turning our lives towards God, acknowledging that without God we can do nothing, accepting our utter dependence on God, let us journey on without fear, trusting that God will never leave us to face the perils of this age alone.
(1) Mark 1:12-13, NRSV.
(2) Mark 9:2-9, NRSV.
(3) Exodus 3, NRSV.
(5) Mark 1:12, NRSV.
(6) Numbers 11:4b-5, NRSV.
(7) Mark 1:14b-15, NRSV.
(8) Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Part II.II.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday (17 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Trail marker, Roger Williams Park, Providence, RI. Photo taken by The Rev’d Dante A. Tavolaro, 19 February 2018.
A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend who also happens to be a priest. As we talked the question was asked, “So how do we do Ash Wednesday without ashes?”
This is one of those days that is deeply rooted in ritual, that requires us to be together; that requires us to be close to one another. It is a day that requires us to do that which crosses the boundaries of protocols set to keep us safe during this time of pandemic. So the question remained what do we do to keep Ash Wednesday during a time of pandemic.
More than any other time in our liturgical life during this pandemic, this is the day that I have not wanted to think about. I did not want to contemplate another Lent in Coronatide. To be honest, as colleagues have called to talk and share ideas, there were even been moments where I flat out refused to do so. It was all just too much. The grief was too strong.
But here we are.
Like it or not we are entering the season of Lent, approaching the first anniversary of our suspension of in person worship, contemplating another season kept with all pandemic restrictions.
So, how do we do Ash Wednesday without ashes? Can we even do Ash Wednesday without ashes?
Well, obviously, we are still doing Ash Wednesday. And maybe, as has been true at other moments, there is a gift and opportunity to keeping this day in the way we are forced to this year.
Sometimes we can become so focused on the rituals, the actions themselves, that we forget the meaning and reasons behind them. We can become so focused on going through the motions that we forget why we started doing them in the first place. And it turns out we have put all our focus and attention on the part of the liturgy that is completely optional. The imposition of ashes is not a required part of what we do this day. So if the ashes are not what Ash Wednesday is all about, then what is?
Church of England priest, theologian, and artist Maggie Dawn, in her book Giving it up: Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, writes this in her reflection for Ash Wednesday:
Lent is in part about the recognition of our own humanity, but the words ‘dust to dust’ put us squarely in the same territory as a funeral service. They can seem a dour and punishing declaration of sinfulness, making it hard to see the overriding sense of redemption that the gospel should always carry. Acknowledging both the sinful nature of humanity and our own particular flaws may be essential if we’re to escape the arrogance that makes the human heart leaden and ugly, but there’s a fine line between that an an over-emphasis on sinfulness, which so easily transforms the lightness of the gospel into the straitjacket of religiosity . . . I think, though, that a lightness does emerge from the process of facing down our own demons. When we look our mortality in the face, the inevitability of our own death asks of us, ‘What are you going to do with the life you have? (1)
The ashes we bear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a sign that points to our mortality. The fact that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. I do not think this year, we need to be reminded of the ever present fact of our mortality.
We are in the midst of a devastating global health pandemic. While numbers are trending in the right direction, and the vaccination roll out continues offering hope for the future, more than 480,000 people have died from COVID in this country alone. Two of those dead were beloved members of this community. Every day the pandemic forces to confront the mortality of our friends, family, and fellow community members – we are forced to confront our own mortality. Smudging ashes made from last year’s palms will not invite us to think of anything we are not already aware of.
What this day does, no matter the year, is invite us not only to remember our mortality, but to consider the question “What are you going to do with the life you have?”
We keep this day year in and year out not to check off a box of ritual obligations, but to make a right beginning for the Lenten journey we are about to embark on.
Today is a solemn day rooted in invitation and promise, rooted in hope and mercy. This day sets the tone for the rest of this holy season.
If you have ever been hiking you might be familiar with the signs at the head of a trail. They often contain maps of the route you are about to set out on, they offer descriptions of the terrain that lies ahead, they may even offer advise, pointers, or helpful tips to remember along the journey.
Ash Wednesday is the marker at the beginning of the Lenten trail. This day is that reassuring sign, letting us know what it so come, offering helpful tips before we set out to climb that holy hill. Today gives us the advantage of knowing that at the end of this long, sometimes difficult path, we will discover God reveled to us in a very unique and particular way that is only seen at Calvary.
In a few moments I will have the privilege of inviting us to begin this journey with these words:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer. (2)
These are the tasks, the guides, the work of Lent. These things, each in their own way, invite us to strip away all that separates us from the love of God. Each of these things invites us to let go of all that we cling to that is not life giving.
St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “you have made us for yourself [O Lord], and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (3) Blessed Augustine was keenly aware that each and every person has a God shaped hole in their heart. Places that can only be filled by God. No matter how hard we try, no matter the amounts of money we amass, no matter the quantity of our possessions, no matter the vast expanse of our power, nothing else will ever fill that void. Until we yield to the power of God, and the need for God to fill that place in us, we will remain restless.
The work of Lent, the work we are invited to now, is the work of clearing out all the things we have tried to substitute for God. We follow in the footsteps of Christ and seek that self-emptying posture, that we might become vessels for God to fill with light, mercy, and love. This is the aim of those spiritual practices the Prayer Book enumerates.
Lent is not some liturgical equivalent of a self-help book. It is not about getting a boost on the new diet we have wanted to try, or getting a jump start on our spring cleaning. Lent is about preparing ourselves to be set free from all that holds us captive by the abundant, unceasing, incomprehensible love of God.
As Maggie Dawn goes on to write:
Pausing to contemplate our mortality on Ash Wednesday is not for the sake of making us bleak, but to startle us into an awareness of the gift of life. We’re neither perfect nor immortal: we are merely and yet wonderfully human, and we need to know who we are in our imperfections as well as our gifts in order to live every day as if it counts for something. The call to repentance isn’t supposed to leave us dour or morbidly obsessed with our failing. Instead, it’s a call to turn away decisively from what keeps us from God, alienates us from other people and stops us from living well. (4)
This is how we keep Ash Wednesday without the ashes. Being mindful of our mortality, we focus on how we live our lives going forward – knowing tomorrow is never promised. We focus on making a right beginning, recognizing that we have strayed from the path God has set before us, and reorienting ourselves back to the trail God invite us to walk.
The Gospel passage appointed for this day, is one that we hear every year. In non-pandemic years, I think the passage appointed for this solemn occasion is humorously ironic. On the day we mark our foreheads with ashes, we hear Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” Insert classic, “of all the passages, in all of scripture” joke here.
This year, instead of getting lost in the juxtaposition of our liturgical practices and the surface level understanding of Jesus’ warnings, we can look for something deeper in what Jesus has to say.
I do not think that Jesus really has a problem with public ministry and professions of faith. After all, this is Jesus who tells the disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. This is Jesus who works miracles, heals the sick, casts out demons in very public places. This is Jesus, who says just a few chapters from now, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”(5) And, by the way, the words we hear today, are taken from the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.
I am not just trying to create some sort of job security or ensure the future or our liturgical tradition. This is not some sort of smoke and mirrors justification to keep doing what we do. Given all that we know of Jesus, all the Scripture tells us, it seems to me that Jesus is not warning us about carrying out public ministry and acts of faith in general, but rather we are being warned about the reasons we carry out such things.
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them . . . So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. . . And whenever you prayer, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others . . . And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. (6)
We are called to pray, to proclaim the good news of God, to be generous to those in need, but we are not to do those things to make ourselves look good. We are not to do those things so that others say, “look how holy they are, look how pious they are, look how generous they are.” We are to do these things, and every else in the entirety of our lives, for the glory of God. We pray and proclaim the good news of God so that other might know something of how God is present and active in our midst. We are generous as a response to the generosity of God. We are to love and act the very same way that God loves and acts.
At the heart of this day, at the core of this season, is the profession and proclamation that try as we might, we are not God, and that without God we can do nothing. We are mortal, formed of the earth and to earth we shall return.
But that does not mean we are without hope. For we can face our mortality, we can let go of any fear, because we know the end of the story. We know what awaits us at the end of the journey. We know the glories of the resurrection. We know there is another way: the way of hope, the way of love, the way of God that leads to eternal and everlasting life in the kingdom which shall not pass away.
It is time for us to make a right beginning. To take up once more the work of Lent. This is how we keep Ash Wednesday without the ashes. This is how we embarked on another Lenten pilgrimage during this time of pandemic.
One of the guide posts I cling to every year as we journey through Lent are the words of Hymn 145, “Now quit your care”, written by Percy Dearmer. I share these words with you, hoping they help guide us on the road ahead:
Now quit your care and anxious fear and worry; for schemes are vain and fretting brings no gain. Lent calls to prayer, to trust and dedication; God brings new beauty nigh; reply, reply, reply with love to love most high; reply, reply, reply with love to love most high.
To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes, or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal; but to be led to where God’s glory flashes, his beauty to come near. Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear; Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear.
For is not this the fast that I have chosen? (The prophet spoke) To shatter every yoke, of wickedness the grievous bands to loosen, oppression put to flight, to fight, to fight, to fight till every wrong’s set right. to fight, to fight, to fight till every wrong’s set right.
For righteousness and peace will show their faces to those who feed the hungry in their need, and wrongs redress, who build the old waste places, and in the darkness shine. Divine, divine, divine it is when all combine! Divine, divine, divine it is when all combine!
Then shall your light break forth as doth the morning; your health shall spring, the friends you make shall bring God’s glory bright, your way through life adorning; and love shall be the prize. Arise, arise, arise! and make a paradise! Arise, arise, arise! and make a paradise! (7)
(1) Maggi Dawn, Giving it up: Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, p. 13
(2) The Book of Common Prayer, p.265
(3) St. Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1.
(4) Dawn, Giving it up, p. 15
(5) Matthew 10:27, NRSV.
(6) Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, NRSV.
(7) The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 145, words by Percy Dearmer (1867-1936).
Sermon for the Sunday after the Epiphany (14 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Pietro Perugino: Collegio del Cambio (Trasfigurazione), 1496-1500. Public Domain
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. It is a day sometimes referred to as Transfiguration Sunday. A titled given due to the fact that on this Sunday, every year, we hear the story of the transfiguration. But I fear we do ourselves a disservice by exchanging the title given by The Book of Common Prayer, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, for this more colloquial title.
You see, Transfiguration is a day already on the Church calendar. The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ is a holy day and it falls on August 6th. When we call today Transfiguration Sunday we risk conflating these two days, diminishing the opportunity to hear how God is speaking to us in this moment. For this Sunday is about more than giving us the opportunity to celebrate the Transfiguration every six months instead of once a year.
The difference between today and that holy day sixth months from now is more than a matter of semantics. The substance of this difference is encapsulated in the collects of the day for these two occasions.
Hear the words of the collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration:
O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (1)
This is a beautiful prayer, with fabulous poetic language. I love that phrase, “your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening.” This prayer draws our attention to the resplendent majesty of the revelation of God on that mountain top. The glory of God revealed to the disciples, revealed to us, as we behold our King in his beauty – the unmatched beauty of God.
As wonderful as that prayer is, as meet and right it is to praise the glory of God, that is not the prayer we have today. I know we just prayed these words a moment ago, but hear them once more:
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (2)
There it is. There is the difference between what we do this day and what we do on that holy day in August. There is the difference between the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Last Sunday after the Epiphany.
Today there is no talk of raiment white and glistening, no King in his beauty. In the middle of that prayer after we acknowledge the radiance of God, before we get to that part where we are changed from glory to glory, we have to go through the cross.
We have come to the end of the season that stretches from the Feast of the Epiphany until the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Over the course of these last several weeks we have been hearing about how God is manifest is the world: how God is revealed in our midst. This season began back on January 6, just over a month ago, as we recalled the journey of those travels from a far off and distant land coming to pay homage to the new born king.
In the course of a week we go from infancy to adulthood. On the first Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. That day where Jesus stands on the banks of the Jordan River, is immersed into the living waters of Baptism by John, and begins his ministry. In that inaugural event, which we actually hear again next Sunday, as Jesus comes up out of the waters the heavens are torn open and a voice declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (3)
This revelatory moment, this epiphany, proclaims Jesus’ identity, and displays the interconnectedness of that identity with Baptism. Identity questions constitute the theological core of Mark’s Gospel. These questions are central to the good news which Mark tells: Who is Jesus? Who are we? Who does Jesus say that we are? Who do we say that Jesus is?
Throughout this season, week after week, story after story, as we hear God made manifest, the foundations of identity are being laid. Identities of disciples as we heard the call stories of Philip, Nathanael, Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Identity rooted in preaching, teaching, and healing as Jesus taught in the synagogue on the sabbath, cast an unclean spirit out of a man, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, and began his public ministry of healing and casting out demons. This journey of manifestation, of revelation, brings us to today; always concluding with this story of yet another marvelous epiphany, as the identity of Jesus is revealed in a new way.
In this Gospel passage, just before Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the high mountain, there is a brief narrative note. The passage begins, “six days later.” Those three words draw us back to what came before.
Six days earlier, after healing a blind man, Jesus travels with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. As they are walking along Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They answer: John the Baptist, Elijah, some other prophet. Then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” To this Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” (4)
Peter names the identity of Jesus, and that identification is followed by the first of three passion predictions in Mark. Moments later Jesus says to his disciples, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (5) Jesus’ identity cannot be separated from what is to come.
By the way, after that passion prediction, Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him, to which Jesus responds with that memorable line, “Get behind me Satan!” (6)
So here we are, six days after that, up on a mountain top with Jesus, Peter, James, and John. While they are there, Jesus is transfigured, they behold his raiment white and glistening. There is something other worldly, something beyond the capabilities of humanity, in Jesus’ appearance. Not only that, Elijah and Moses are there as well: connecting Jesus’ identity to the great lineage of the Jewish tradition. Moses, the liberator – the one God calls to lead God’s people out of bondage in Egypt. Elijah, who we heard about in our first lesson. Elijah, who does not die but is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind in a chariot of fire. Elijah, that one of whom it was believed, that his coming again would signal the dawn of the Messiah.
Here Jesus is transfigured, with these pillars of the faith beside him, revealing that he truly is the Messiah. What an awesome sight; and I do not mean awesome in the contemporary use of the word. What an amazingly daunting, inspiring, fear provoking sight.
Peter, always that first one to jump in, responds to this sight by saying, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (7) Peter does not want to come down off the mountain. He wants to remain there, showered in the glory of God, removed from what happens at the foot of the mountain. As he makes this suggestion, “a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (8) And with that, things were as they once were. Moses and Elijah are gone. They were alone on the mountain with Jesus.
This is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that a voice from heaven speaks. This time, that voice is directed at the disciples. That voice declares to them that their rabbi, their teacher, is the Son of God; and they are commanded to listen to him. There are numerous occasions in Mark’s Gospel when the disciples, especially Peter, try to control and manipulate Jesus. They want Jesus to fit into their understanding and expectations of the Messiah. They want him to forget about this whole suffering and dying thing. No matter how hard they try, nothing can stop what is coming next. All they can do is listen to him.
We do not get to stay on the mountain top, basking in the glow of Jesus’ transfigured glory. Jesus’ identity requires that he comes down from the mountain, sets his face towards Jerusalem, and begins that long walk that leads to the cross. Our identity requires that we listen to him. For it is from that place, atop that other hill, that Jesus’ identity is revealed again. It is from that place where we are changed into his likeness, where we are changed from glory to glory.
It seems to me that we hear this story today and on every Last Sunday after the Epiphany because it is time for us to come down from the mountain and begin the next phase of our journey as well.
Today as we behold the glory of the transfigured Lord we are not allowed even a modicum of delusion that glory can be separated from suffering – that resurrection can come without the crucifixion; Easter without Good Friday. Today we are reminded to listen to all the things we are about to hear.
It can be easy to listen to Jesus when he is preaching marvelous things, casting out demons, and healing the sick. It is easy when our Scripture lessons are filled with inspiring words that lift us up and bring us joy – those passages we might find ourselves quoting, or that might make good fodder for a bumper sticker. But in the weeks ahead we are going to hear some things that are a bit more challenging. We are going to hear rebukes, we will witness Jesus get angry, we will hear of the death and suffering that is to come. We might just find that in the weeks ahead, instead of being inspired by miracles, we are called up short. For when we hear Jesus rebuking those around him, we can hear him rebuking us as well. We can hear the ways we have fallen short, the ways we have not lived into our potential, the ways we sin – all those things, those barriers, we put between ourselves and others, between ourselves and God. We are on the cusp of entering into that season that invites us to face this reality head on.
The season of Lent invites us to repentance and self-examination. It invites us to prayer, fasting, and study. It invites us to be honest with ourselves and name those things we might not be particularly proud of – those barriers we have set up along the way, those times we have refused to let the love of God into our lives.
We take on this work of examination and repentance, we seek to amend our ways, not because we have to appease an angry and wrathful God set on punishing us into oblivion. We do this so that we might be who God has created us to be. That we might experience the fullness of all that God intends for us.
Lent is not about beating ourselves up; Lent is about love. Love that seeks to transform us, love that seeks to transfigure our lives that we might live more fully into all the covenants and promises we have made with ourselves, with each other, and with God.
Lent is going to require hard work and difficult things from us. If we get to Easter and the only sense of relief we have is that relief which exclaims, “Yay! I get to eat chocolate again!”then we have missed something – we have squandered the opportunities of this season.
The relief we should feel on Easter is the relief that we have made the journey. We have examined those things we might be ashamed of, we have named those things we wish were different, we have honestly and intentionally looked at all the barriers we have set up in our lives; and we have laid those burdens down, laid them at the foot of the cross. We have placed them in the hands of God, that God might redeem them, transform them, and set us free. That is the relief of Easter; the relief we have when we have been liberated from the shackles of sin, the burden and weight we cling to. The relief is basking in the cruciform glow of the cross, the emptiness of the tomb, and hearing God say to us “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
As we come to this day, let us not get stuck on the mountain top. Let us be brave enough to come down from the mountain, no longer frozen in the terror of amazement. Let us march on, following the path that has been illuminated by the transfigured glory of the Lord. As we set out on this journey we have no reason to be afraid of. This is a well-worn path; worn by the foot steps of Jesus, paved with the love of God.
Just as Jesus’ identity is revealed in Baptism and rooted in the cross, so is our identity. As we stand beholding the the light of God’s countenance may we be strengthened for the road ahead – to make it to that place of the cross, for it is from there that we too will be transfigured. It is from there that we will be changed into Jesus’ likeness from glory to glory.
(1) The Book of Common Prayer (1979) p. 243.
(2) Ibid., p. 217.
(3) Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(4) Mark 8:27-30, NRSV.
(5) Mark 8:31, NRSV.
(6) Mark 8:33, NRSV.
(7) Mark 9:5, NRSV.
(8) Mark 9:7, NRSV.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (7 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Healing Peter’s mother-in-law by John Bridges, 19th century. Public Domain
Jesus “came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” (1)
This is one of those passages for which it is meet and right for all male identified preachers to approach with caution. For far too long Scripture passages like this one have been used to promote the sexist belief that the woman’s place is in the kitchen. For far too long preachers and teachers have used passages like this one to say the proper role of women is to serve men. After all Peter’s mother-in-law, upon being healed by Jesus, gets up and begins to serve Jesus and those four fishermen turned disciples: Simon, who will later be called Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
This poor interpretation, this dangerous interpretation, is rooted in the shortcomings of the English language and the pervasive sinfulness of the patriarchy – the system that places men in the position of power and authority over women who, must assume the subservient role; the system that lauds masculinity as the pinnacle of achievement and femininity as something to avoid if not outright degraded.
This reading of the Gospel is rooted in the profound misunderstanding of the word “serve.” The Greek here, the word being translated as “serve” is diakoneín – sometimes rendered as diakonía which means “service.” I wonder if those Greek words sound at all familiar?
Now when this word diakoneín is used outside of the New Testament it carries an undignified meaning. For the Greeks service was undignified. The goal was to be served not to serve. But as with so many other things, Jesus takes human understandings, turns them upside down, a gives to us a new definition.
In the Gospel, actually in all of the New Testament diakoneín is something to be exalted, it is connected and related to love of God. Jesus, in redefining this word, does not present a hypothetical definition plucked out of obscurity; a contrarian view simply to be countercultural. Jesus points to his own life and ministry. As we will hear later on in Mark’s Gospel, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (2) In redefining diakoneín from the secular Greek understanding to a new Gospel understanding, Jesus institutes a new pattern for human behavior and relationship, which leads to those acts of humble loving service – acts of waiting on tables and washing feet – acts which Jesus commanded us to do when calling us to love our neighbors.
There is nothing subservient, demeaning, or degrading about what Simon’s mother-in-law does after being healing. What she does is the most exalted behavior, the most Christ-like way of being in the world. In response to receiving the healing power of God in her life, she immediately goes forth to extend that same service to those around her.
I wonder if any of this, these traits and attributes, these calls to service rooted in love of God, love of neighbor sound familiar? I wonder if your brain is searching for the English word which is related to that Greek word diakoníen? I wonder if you have been thinking about the word, the role, the ministry of deacon.
Simon’s mother-in-law, this woman whose name we sadly do not know, responses to God’s love, responses to God’s presence in her life, by taking on the role and ministry of a deacon. And I pity the person foolish enough to say there is anything demeaning about diaconal ministry.
This ministry, this way of life, is not reserved solely for Simon’s mother-in-law, or St. Stephen, a deacon and the first martyr of the Church, or those individuals we know today who have been called to the specific vocation and role of Deacon. Nor is this way of life reserved for the ordained more broadly: for to be a Bishop you have to be ordained a Priest first, and to be ordained a Priest you have to be ordained a Deacon first. Or to quote a popular saying in the Church, “Once a Deacon, always a Deacon.”
This call to diakoneín is the call of every person who claims to be a follower of Jesus; every one of us who takes on the identity of Christian; every one of us who shares in the life of the baptized, who has been washed in those same baptismal water from which Jesus emerged when the heavens were torn opened and God declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (3) Simply put, there is not one of us who is called to anything less than lives of humble and loving service, live following the very example of Jesus, lives actively responding to the presence of God in our lives.
As the ministry of Jesus unfolds, as the Gospel goes on to tell the story, diakoneín begins to expand from the table service exemplified by Simon’s mother-in-law. This idea, this way of life, broadens to included every kind of sacrificial activity on behalf of others. It is another way to describe the freedom we have in Christ, the freedom we experience as we take on lives of service, the freedom we experience when we sacrifice for the sake of others. This is exactly what we heard about last week in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. This is exactly what Jesus’ life and ministry is all about, a ministry that will require him to walk that long and winding road to the hill of Calvary. This humble, loving service is the very foundation of our salvation.
Anyone looking down upon this call to servanthood, anyone exploiting those who serve, anyone thinking they are above these so called “menial tasks” is dancing on the doorstep of blaspheme.
This first healing story in Mark’s Gospel follows on the heals of Jesus’ first exorcism (which we heard as the Gospel passage last Sunday). These two miraculous occasions serve as a preview of what is to come.
Whereas Jesus’ inaugural act happened earlier in the day in a very public place, in the synagogue on the Sabbath, this healing happens in the privacy and safety of Simon’s home. Later on in the passage we hear that Jesus begins his public healings “that evening, at sundown;” in other words when the Sabbath is over. As community organizer and theologian Ched Myers writes, “His action implies that there might be something controversial about openly healing on the Sabbath.” (4) Indeed there is something very controversial about Jesus’ work of healing on the Sabbath. For it is after such a public healing, that the religious authorities will begin to conspire together against Jesus. (5)
What we heard last Sunday, that exorcism Jesus preformed in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, and what we hear this Sunday, come together to amplify the subversive and dangerous nature of Jesus’ ministry.
This new thing God is going to shake the very foundations of the established order. Jesus will come head to head with the establishment of his day. For whenever established systems of power are threatened, those who hold that power will go to any lengths necessary to maintain it.
Jesus dares to heal people in a way that goes against what had been deemed proper. He dares to heal when people need it, not delaying until society says it is appropriate to do so. It is that boldness, that commitment to fulfilling the will of God for God’s people, that God’s people might be healed and made whole, that insistence on recognizing the worth and dignity of everyone, especially those whom society marginalized, it is for daring to proclaim in his preaching and teaching and healings (which should be understood together and cannot be separated from each other) it is for this that the powers of this world determine that Jesus must be destroyed.
While the authorities are threatened by Jesus, there is a clear longing for what he has to offer the world. Mark tells us, “that evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city gathered around the door.” (6) Crowds are seeking after Jesus. There is a longing to experience God’s ability to restore people to wholeness.
This is a deeply profound theological statement. This is about more than curing a few illnesses and casting out a couple of demons. The longing and desires of the crowd represents the longing of all of humanity to be made whole, to be reincorporated into the community, the longing to be set free.
Conventional wisdom of Jesus’ day spoke of illness as God’s punishment for sin. Even the disciples held to this understanding. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus heals a men who has been blind since birth, the disciples want to know, “who sinned, this man or his parents.” (7) But Jesus does not see things that way. Illness, infirmity, being differently abled is not some sort of divine punishment.
The act of healing is an opportunity for restoration; reclaiming that which has been broken or lost. Often people were excluded from the community due to their illness. Exiled because they were deemed “unclean.” The healing that Jesus brings, is one that allows those who have been cast off to be brought back into the life of the community.
More broadly speaking, each and every person stands in need of the healing power of God. These healing stories are a reminder to us that God seeks to make us whole, whatever that means for each particular individual. God waits for us to open ourselves up to receive the gift of God’s love that we might live into the fullness of who God has created us to be.
At the outset of his public ministry, we learn that Jesus will not shy from broken bodies or demonic spirits. Jesus is not afraid to reach out and touch humanity to heal us and make us whole. Jesus is there waiting to take us by the hand, lifting us up, just like Simon’s mother-in-law.
The restoration of Jesus’ ministry is not simply for the benefit of individuals live. God is about the work of healing the systems and structures of society as well.
Every time Jesus casts out a demon, every time he heals someone who is sick, he is casting out the demons and illnesses of society. Illness for day laborers was a life threatening thing. Just as is true today, in Jesus’ time illness and disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty. Without work laborers, and their families, would have been subject to near instant impoverishment. Healing illness is not just about a person’s physical health, it is about healing the inequities of a socio-economic system.
The same principle is true of casting out demons. When we hear stories of exorcisms preformed by Jesus, like what we heard last Sunday, we should not get lost in trying to prove the believability of these stories or impose contemporary understandings of mental health on Biblical narratives. When we hear these stories, particularly in Mark’s Gospel, we should look for the deeper socio-political context. Mark is not presenting a biographical, historically accurate, scientific narrative of Jesus’ life; Mark is painting a theological portrait of what happens when God stoops to humanity in the incarnation.
Jesus comes to cast out the demons that plague society. Systems of violence, oppression, and inequity. I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr’s 1967 speak “The Three Evils of Society,” where Dr. King names the evils of militarism, economic exploitation, and racism that plague society. These are the demons that Jesus seeks to destroy. These are the demons we are called to name and cast out so that all people might be liberated – that all God’s beloved children might be loved, honored, and cherish.
What Jesus does for one; Jesus intends for us all. Healing, wholeness, liberation from the demons of this world.
Jesus says to Peter, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Nothing will stop God from accomplishing God’s purposes on earth. No matter how hard Peter, and the other disciples try to control Jesus’ movements, there is nothing they – or anyone else – can do to stop the work of God.
God is on the move. The loving, liberating, life-giving power of God is unfolding before the eyes of the disciples, just as it is unfolding before our eyes here and now. Let us show the world the power of God’s love in our lives. Let us claim our ministry of diakoneín. Let us recognize the new thing God is doing in our midst, the societal demons God is casting out, the systems of oppression being torn down, and share in the work of God in this time and place.
(1) Mark 1:31, NRSV.
(2) Mark 10:45, NRSV.
(3) Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(4) Ched Myers, ”Say to this Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p.15
(5) Mark 3:1-6, NRSV.
(6) Mark 1:32-33, NRSV.
(7) John 9:2, NRSV.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (31 January 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Eleventh century fresco of the Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum. Public Domain
There is a collect in the service of Morning Prayer that I am particularly fond of. In the scheme I follow for selecting collects, it is a prayer appointed for use on Tuesday mornings. Over the past few months, I have found this prayer shifting closer to the heart of my prayer life – no longer reserved for Tuesdays alone. For me, the words of this prayer echo the deep need associated with this season of our life together. The prayer is titled “A Collect for Peace.” The Rite II version of this prayer is found on page 99 of The Book of Common Prayer; and for those who prefer Rite I, you can find it on page 57. Hear the words of the Rite II version of this prayer:
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (1)
I treasure the way this prayer declares God as the author of peace; I value the cry for defense; I am reassured by the call for us to place our trust in God; and most of all, I am thankful for the clarity of the way of life expressed in this prayer when we say, “to serve you is perfect freedom.”
The word freedom is a powerful one in our secular culture. It is arguably at the very core of the identity of our nation. Freedom, some might say, is synonymous with America. Defined as, “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint;”(2) freedom can be understood as a license to do, within reason, whatever we want, whenever ever we want, without fear of consequences. Great anger arises when people feel their freedom is being impinged upon, and we have seen the lengths people will go to in that fury.
I say all this to provide a baseline for how freedom is commonly understood in our current United States context. I say this to demonstrate just how radical this prayer for peace is, in light of the contemporary cultural understanding.
The freedom this prayer highlights, the freedom of our Christian faith, is not a freedom that says I can do whatever I want, whenever I feel like doing it. It is a freedom that comes from sacrificing of ourselves for the benefit of others. It is the freedom that comes from turning our lives over to God, accepting God’s invitation to break the shackles of sin that bind us. The perfect freedom we are called to in this prayer is that which is articulated in those words from Matthew’s Gospel:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.(3)
The way of life for us as followers of Jesus is one where we say our yokes fit well. We only understand true freedom when we believe that our lives do not belong to us, they belong to God.
When we accept this call, this sacred trust, we can begin to recognize that our lives are intricately connected with that of our neighbor. So much so, that we are responsible for one another. This is exactly the point that Paul is making in today’s epistle.
We hear this morning from the First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes, “Now concerning food scarified to idols,” (4) and then goes on to talk about meat. Now before you start to worry, Paul is not advocating that everyone become a vegetarian. Paul is advocating that the people of the Church in Corinth change their behavior out of care and concern for their neighbors. Paul is concerned about the division in the community that is centered around the consumption of meat.
The social life of the upper classes in Corinth revolved around frequent feasts, banquets, celebrations, and public events held in dining spaces of temples. The well-to-do patronized the meat markets connected with the temples both for meat used at these parties and in their own homes.
For those Christians in this category they knew that there was no issue for them in eating this meat. They know that there is only one God, one Lord. So to eat meat sacrificed to these co called gods and lords was not an issue, for they had the knowledge that no such gods and lords existed. Eating this food was not a risk or a potential stumbling block to them in their faith. But as Paul warns, “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (5)
The members of this social class were not the only people of the community. There was another group. These individuals were not financially privileged and were often less educated. They did not have the means to eat meat at home. Many of them converted to Christianity from the very groups sacrificing meat to idols – the meat the wealthy would purchase for themselves. For these members of the community, eating meat associated with the temples threatened their faith. They did not have have the knowledge that allowed the others the freedom to consume this meat without worry. Their new faith was fragile, vulnerable to the temptation of returning to the groups they just left behind. So eating meat sacrificed to the gods they recently followed was too great a risk.
Paul reminds them that food has nothing to do with salvation and it will not bring us close to God. Now where I come from those are fighting words, but to the larger point Paul is exactly right.
What matters is that we live our lives in a way that invites others to follow, that helps others live faithfully. What matters is that we do not do anything that might cause another person harm. What matters is that we are willing to sacrifice what we perceive as our freedom for the health, safety, and well-being of our neighbor. What matters is that we love our neighbor.
Knowledge does not build up community, only love does that. In this spirit, Paul advises those certain in their knowledge, those who eat meat, to consider the other members of the community who do not possess that same certainty. For the well-being of the community, for the benefit of their neighbor, they should stop eating meat.
There are times when every Christian must accept the call to yield and sacrifice for the benefit of others. Paul is clear: to cause another person to stumble is a sin against Christ. “Therefore,” the passage concludes, “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” (6) Paul understood the perfect freedom that comes from service to God.
This same freedom is at the heart of Jesus’ miracle that we hear in today’s Gospel.
This episode is Jesus’ inaugural public appearance in Mark. He has just been out on the docks calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and now they move from the margins to the heart of the social order – the holy time and space of a synagogue on the Sabbath.
Almost immediately in this passage conflict is revealed. Mark tells us, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (7) A clear distinction is being made between Jesus and the scribes on whose tuff he stands. This conflict is not just for this moment, but is the essential conflict throughout all of Mark’s Gospel. The conflict between the new thing God is doing and the established order.
Before I say another word, I want to make something very clear. All too often Christians can fall into the trap of anti-semitism when considering the ways that Jesus clashes with the Jewish authorities of his day. The scribes and the Pharisees should not be understand and the “bad guys” of the Gospel. These religious leaders were doing everything they could to carry out and continue the traditions that had been passed on to them. The scribes and the Pharisees and the other religious leaders of the Jewish community were doing exactly what I, and every other priest, have been called to do. To honor the traditions we have inherited, to abide by the rules we have vowed to obey, to pass along that which has been entrusted to us. The new teaching of Jesus is indeed different from what the people are accustomed to, but in no way is that comparison meant to indict Judaism as a whole.
The fact that Jesus’ healing miracle – the exorcism of the unclean spirit – is sandwiched between the astounded claims of Jesus’ teaching, clues us in to an intentional frame that Mark is placing around this story. To focus solely on the healing narrative, misses the profound political impact of the passage.
Miracles, healings, exorcisms were all fairly common in this era. These acts alone would not make Jesus stand out or apart from any other healer. Mark goes to great lengths to deter us from seeing Jesus as a mere popular magician. Mark frequently has Jesus discouraging people from fixating upon the acts of healing, and at times Jesus directly exhorts his disciples, and by implication the reader, to look into the deeper meaning of the action. In this instance, Mark’s frame, is where our focus should be placed.
Theologian Ched Myers, in his book “Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, writes of how Mark’s frame draws us in to this story. He writes, and I quote,
Who is the “we” on whose behalf the demon speaks? The function of Mark’s framing device suggests that the demon’s voice represent the voice of the scribal class whose “space” Jesus is invading. The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where scribes exercise the authority to teach the Torah. This “spirit” personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses. (8)
This is not a healing story for the sake of exhibiting the healing power of God. This story, is part of Mark setting the stage, building the narrative of what Jesus’ kingdom campaign is all about. Whereas the normative function of healings and miracle-workers was to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. The healing in this passage, and every healing story Mark describes, are about more than healing the infirmities of individuals: They are about healing the infirmities and sin of the oppressive nature of the entire social order. (9)
Jesus’ ministry is about inviting people into a way of freedom that can only be achieved when the whole of society is reordered; and that can only be achieved when individuals and communities are willing to give up their power for the benefit of others; are willing to sacrifice for the well-being of those on the margins; are willing to claim love as the founding principle of our lives.
These days we hear a lot of question along the lines of “what will it take for us to get back to normal.” There is no going back to the ways things were. The world is different. We are different. But there is a way to go forward.
As the waters of chaos swell around us, in this time of deep division, when COVID safety protocols become markers of political partisanship, when raising concern about marginalized members of society is met with hateful backlash, when some will go to any length necessary, with little regard for the common good, to have their personal agendas fulfilled and their power solidified, we are called to follow a different way. We are called to see others as God seem them. We are called to love as God loves. We are called, at times, to sacrifice what we feel entitled to so that we might experience a depth of freedom beyond our wildest imaginings and deepest comprehension.
We are a community that posses the knowledge of God’s love. We are a community that posses the knowledge that we need God, not that God needs us. So let us claim our freedom. Let us turn our lives fully over to God. Let us serve God with all that we are and all that we have, with absolutely every fiber of our being.
Let us pray.
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.
(1) The Book of Common Prayer p. 99
(2) Google Search, Oxford Languages Dictionary
(3) Matthew 1:28-30, NRSV.
(4) 1 Corinthians 8:1, NRSV.
(5) 1 Corinthians 8:9, NRSV.
(6) 1 Corinthians 8:13, NRSV.
(7) Mark 1:22, NRSV.
(8) Ched Myers, ”Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p.14.
(9) Ibid., 14.
Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (24 January 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Calling of Peter and Andrew by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311. Public domain
As a Church we often talk about good news. We think about the good news of our lives, the good news of our community, and most importantly the good news of God. In fact, our 2021 Stewardship Campaign was rooted in the Good News of St. Thomas Church. We have highlighted through this campaign that no matter what is unfolding around us we are always Good News people. As an aside, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to say if you have not already made a pledge for this year, I hope you will prayerfully consider doing so.
Once again good new is at the heart of our worship. Today’s Gospel passage from Mark is all about good news. Now in fairness, all Gospel passages are about good news, as that is actually what the word Gospel means. But today, we do not hear some generic good news, we hear Jesus’ definition of what good news is. Mark tells us, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’” (1)
What a densely packed saying from Jesus. It is fitting that Mark would render unto us such a rich, powerful statement. Mark is the briefest of all Gospels, significantly shorter than the work of the other three Evangelists. This means that for Mark there are no throw away words. Every verse, every phrase must carry significant meaning, for Mark has much to say, and not much time to say it.
That phrase, that pronouncement of good news that Jesus gives is one we could break down word by word, we could preach sermon upon sermon, write book upon book, but I would rather not give you reason to change the channel or start scrolling to the next worship service you can find here on Facebook, so I will avoid the temptation at hand.
But there are some things that warrant our attention. Jesus’ words here can be separated into two components: words about the kingdom of God and words about our response.
The first half of what Jesus says is this, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” The Greek that gets translated as “come near” is slightly ambiguous. There are different meanings and understandings we could assume.
We could understand “come near” as in time. We could hear these words as that which was from long ago, that which has been long anticipated is near at hand: it is just days, or hours, or even minutes away.
We could understand “come near” in terms of geography or location. We could hear these words as saying the kingdom of God is close by: it has broken forth in Providence, Johnston, in Chepachet, the kingdom of God is at the door step of Greenville.
We could understand “come near” in terms of accessibility. We could hear these words saying that which we have hoped for, longed for, prayer for is within our grasp.
As we come to the end of Mark’s prologue, as we hear these words with which Mark sets the stage for everything that follows, it is important for us to hold these understandings lightly and together. For the fullness of Mark’s narrative brings together these strands of time, location, and accessibility.
The second half of Jesus’ words are all about how we respond to the good news – to the kingdom which has come near. Jesus tells us to do two things: repent and believe.
Repent is a word with a complicated past. When we hear the word repent we might immediately think about repenting of sins, seeking forgiveness, that act of confession be it corporate or private. When we hear it, we might call to mind televangelists shouting for people to repent, using it as a way to control and manipulate behavior. If you are anything like me, you might see in your minds eye the ending of the 1985 cinematic classic “Clue” where the undercover FBI agent stands at the door warning that the souls of the dinner guests are in peril.
As colorful as those images might be, that is not what Jesus is talking. That is not what biblical repentance is all about. Biblical repentance is about reorienting ourselves. It is about turning around, it is about changing our minds focusing them back on God. Biblical repentance is all about the Greek word Metanoia – the transformation of our lives, giving ourselves over to God once more.
When Jesus says we need to repent, he might as well be saying. “Hey friends, something amazing is happening, you have to turn around and look. You have to reorient yourself so you can see what God is doing in the world around you.” When we reorient ourselves, when we turn ourselves towards that kingdom view, we can actually believe that the realization of the kingdom of God is possible.
Mark uses the word “kingdom” very intentionally. He could have written: the reign of God, or the order of God, or even the way God meant for things to be from the beginning has come near. But instead he wrote the kingdom of God, and in so doing he was informing his readers that what God is doing is different than what earthly kings and rulers are doing. Mark was making clear that the ways of the kings of the earth, how they governed and led their people, is not how God leads and governors God’s people. God’s kingdom is illumined by the dream that God has for all of creation – For God governs in peace and justice and mercy and love; not greed, hatred, and lust for power.
When we reorient ourselves towards this kingdom life we reorient ourselves to say that the peace and love and justice of God, the reign and rule of the kingdom of God, might happen here and now. That is what Jesus is calling us to in these first words he utters in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is saying, God is doing something new, turn around, pay attention, trust and believe that what you have been told is unfolding before your very eyes.
In the verses leading up to this declaration from Jesus amazing things are happen. Mark is building an intense narrative – things are moving fast. Mark begins by saying “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (2) Then he immediately moves into retelling the words of the prophet Isaiah, that great prophecy of the coming Messiah. Then we meet John the Baptist, he preaches, he baptizes, he baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, Jesus sees the heavens open and God declares to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (3) Jesus goes off into the wilderness for forty days, mirroring what the people of Israel did for forty years. John is arrested. Jesus comes out of the wilderness, makes this declaration . . . and then just when we expect something huge to happen there is a major narrative let down. After all of that Jesus goes and hangs out on the docks.
Jesus is walking along the sea of Galilee and he calls his first disciples: he calls four ordinary fishermen to follow him.
The call of these disciples is, for us, pretty miraculous. Mark, the Evangelist of few words, gives barely any detail to this scene leaving us with an incredibly clear message. Jesus sees them, Jesus calls them, they get up and go. There must have been something particularly amazing that they saw in Jesus to inspire them to leave their trade, their families, their social standing behind to follow a complete and total stranger. Think about it. Can you imagine any circumstance by which you would give everything up to follow some random person who showed up at your place of employment saying, “follow me”? That is a miraculous banner of faith, to drop everything you have ever known to go and do something new – something unknown.
This is not the only noteworthy detail about this call story. As Mark’s original audience would have know, but what we might not necessarily realize, the fact that these four are working as fishermen, and are not already disciples of a rabbi, means that they did not make the cut.
In this time young Jewish men would approach their local rabbi to say, “rabbi I want to be your disciple, I want to follow you to learn from you.” The rabbi would decide if the person would be a good fit and if they deserved an invitation to follow. If they made that first cut they would go and study with the rabbi. Along the way there would be test after test after test until only the best of the best of the best remained. Then these few would go off and become rabbis themselves. So the fact that Jesus finds Peter and Andrew, James and John out on the docks means that they were not deemed worthy. They were not the best of the best of the best. It means they did not make the cut. I do not know about you, but for me that is a great source of comfort.
God does not go after those the world deems the best of the best of the best, God calls those who were left out, those who were cast aside, those labeled as unworthy. God follows God’s standards, standards which proclaim that all people are worthy, all people are beloved, especially those the world looks down upon. So if God can call these four fishermen, then God can call you and God can call me. God seeks after each and everyone of us to do great and profound things in God’s name because the truth of the matter is, there is nothing special about John, about James, about Andrew, and Peter – the one with the keys to the kingdom, the rock upon which Jesus will build the church, the one who makes that glorious confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (4) – well there is nothing special about him either.
Jesus, in starting this new movement, in recruiting his first followers after making this declaration of the kingdom of God, goes to people the world least expects. He goes to those who we might think are the worst poster children there could be. They have no power, no authority, and yet God, in God’s grace uses them to do amazing things. Just like them, God can, and does, do amazing things through our lives.
Here, as Mark sets up all that will follow, we hear what the good news is, and we hear who is called to the ministry of sharing that good news with the world: people who have every reason to doubt, people who have every reason to think they are not good enough; it is a call for ordinary people, people like you and me.
When Jesus calls this disciples, he is speaking to the core of their identity. This discipleship adventure is not some task for your to do list, it is a way of life. As such, because they are fishermen, Jesus calls them to fish. Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (5) I will use the fullness of who you are, the completeness of your identity, all of your gifts, to work marvels for the kingdom of God that has come near.
When we hear this call story, we can hear Jesus calling us to use our gifts. So the engineer among us can hear Jesus calling, “Follow me and build my people.” The teacher can hear, “Follow me and instruct my disciples.” The nurse can hear, “Follow me and restore my people to health.” The dancer, “Follow me and dance in the Spirit.” The artist, “Follow me and paint with all the colors of creation.” To each and everyone of us, “follow me in the fullness of who you are, with everything that you have and participate in proclaiming the good news with me.”
There is great need for good news in our world. Our nation mourns the more than 417,000 individuals who have died from COVID-19. While a new presidential administration begins, we are still a deeply divided nation where partisan politics threatens the collective good. The sin of racism and white supremacy rages on. In recent days we have seen this come close to home, as young people from this town spray painted racist and heterosexist graffiti along the Stillwater Scenic Walkway.
God is calling us to respond to this moment. To believe that the kingdom of God has come near. To believe that life giving and liberating transformation is possible. Jesus is no longer on the docks, he is walking down Putnam Pike.
So let us be like the people of Nineveh, who heard the prophecy from Jonah, changed their ways, and believed God. Let us heed the words of blessed Paul, that the appointed hour has grown short, to live as if God’s promises will be fulfilled any moment.
We do not need to wait for someone else, someone who the worlds deems more important or special to come along and make things better. Each and everyone of us has been called by God. Each and every one of us has a role to play in participating in God’s work in the world.
If anything made Peter, Andrew, James, and John special, it is that they immediately said yes to God.
The kingdom of God has come near, it is already and not yet. We only receive glimpses of what is to come. But when we say yes to God, when we take that first step on the discipleship adventure, the journey of a life time, in the moment of that yes the kingdom of God is fully realized.
As the household of God in this place, let us step together. Not waiting for another time, not waiting for other people to do the work instead, but claiming the call God has placed before us. Let us say yes to God, and behold the kingdom realized in us.
(1) Mark 1:14-15, NRSV.
(2) Mark 1:1, NRSV.
(3) Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(4) Matthew 16:16, NRSV.
(5) Mark 1:17, NRSV.
Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (17 January 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. Public Domain
This weekend our nation celebrates the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: a man of profound faith, deep passion, a martyr for the cause of justice, righteousness, and love.
It seems that Dr. King’s legacy is often reduced to a single quote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (1) All too often we skip over the rest of that speech, we skip over everything else that Dr. King said, and focus on the idilic outcome of the dream. Today, some use Dr. King’s legacy to criticize those naming the injustices of our nation; saying that calling for accountability will only bring further division. When we invoke Dr. King’s words today as a way of erasing racial identity, we erase the profound depths of his dream – a dream still yet to be realized.
At the beginning of that iconic speech Dr. King said:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” (2)
Nearly three score years later, that check has not been fully cashed. There is still work to be done to ensure that all truly means all. Just like Dr. King articulated on that August day in 1963 we should not and cannot be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Dr. King often spoke about what would happen when his dream was realized – he told of the Beloved Community. On the occasion of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses, he said:
the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.” (3)
This is what we are striving for, the building of the Beloved Community – building of a world in which exuberant gladness will reign, where love will triumph, where miracles will fill hearts of humanity, where God’s victory will finally be know in full. This is our call.
We are in the season after the Epiphany. In these weeks we experience the revelation of the true nature of Jesus, the Son born of Mary, that baby from Bethlehem.
Last Sunday we heard of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. When the heavens were torn open as God declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (4) As the manifestation of God is made known to us, as these epiphanies happen, we are invited into the story. We are called to follow, claimed as beloved our selves.
We hear this morning of Jesus calling his disciples, specifically Philip and Nathanael.
John tells us that Jesus decided to go to Galilee, and once there “he found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (5) From the very outset of this passage we can see John’s foundational theme, that, contrary to all human expectations, God’s eternal Word, incarnate in the person of Jesus, is made available to humanity. God is made available to us, God is made known to us, because God has decided. Throughout the entirety of this Gospel, Jesus is always in control, directing and guiding all of the action. Our call to follow Jesus does not happen carelessly, by happenstance, or as an after thought. God decided to come to us. God found us.
After being found by Jesus, Philip in turns finds Nathanael and shares the revelation with him. John tells us, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’” (6)
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Come and see. What perfect words for the life of discipleship. Come and see.
Now Nathanael’s skepticism is understandable. Nazareth was seen as some two-bit town. It was economically dependent on the nearby city of Sepphoris, and Hebrew Scripture never mentions it, thus taking it out of consideration as the home of the promised Messiah. Given what Nathanael knows about Nazareth, not only is he certain that the Messiah cannot be from there, he is not convinced that anything good can come out of that place.
How many times have we been skeptical about something – filled with disbelief, writing off any possibility or potential because of our preconceived notions? I wonder if there have been times in your life where a situation has presented itself and you found yourself responding, “Can anything good come out of that?”
Hopefully in those moments you had someone like Philip by your side saying, “Come and see.” For how many times have we been grateful, experiencing a change of heart, discovering we actually like that which we assumed we would not? How many times have our assumed dissatisfactions been turned into something good when we only open our eyes to see?
When Philip invited Nathanael to come and see, he was also inviting him to come and be seen.
As Nathanael approached Jesus, Jesus exclaims, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (7) Nathanael is surprised by Jesus’ comments. How can Jesus know anything about him, they have never met or interacted before. “Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” (8) Nathanael is astounded by this revelation. He is blown away that Jesus could actually see him, that Jesus could truly know who he is.
When we accept the invitation to come and see, we are also accepting the invitation to be seen; for when we stand before God our true identity is revealed.
Jesus’ call of Philip and Nathanael is not so much a call to mission as it is an invitation to an epiphany. In this passage they are not told to go out and preach, to heal the sick, or to proclaim the Good News. They are invited to see and be seen.
The passage ends with Jesus revealing to Nathanael what will be shown to him along the path of discipleship. After Nathanael’s proclamation that Jesus is “the Son of God,” Jesus replies, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these . . . very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (9)
Come and see. Come and see God made manifest in our very midst.
Sometimes it might be a bit more difficult to discern God’s invitation – to hear God calling.
In our lesson today we hear of the call of Samuel, the young boy ministering to the Lord under the priest Eli.
One night Samuel hears someone call his name. So he gets up and runs to the priest. He hears his name and responds without hesitation. He presents himself to Eli, but it was not Eli who called him. So he goes back to lie down again. This happens a second and a third time. It is only after the third time that Eli understands what is going on. This time he tells Samuel to, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” (10)
Once more God calls, Samuel responds the way Eli instructs him to, and God shares a message that will “make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” (11) God entrusts Samuel with an important, difficult warning for Eli. The next morning, at Eli’s request, Samuel shares with him everything that God told him. Thus begins Samuel’s vocation as a prophet.
I wonder if sometimes it is so hard for us to hear God calling because we have written off the possibility: after all “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (12) Maybe we have shut God out with our preconceived notions, that say God no longer acts the way God once did – that there are no more signs and wonders; voices from heaven, burning bushes, and angels appearing.
But what if we could let go of all we think we know, let go of our certainty, and stand on the brink of all that has yet to be revealed to us. I wonder what we might hear then.
Samuel’s prophetic ministry begins with a candid reflection of the failures of Eli and his sons. Scripture tells us, “the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priest of the people . . . Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.” (13) Eli’s sons, the young men who were supposed to take over for Eli, would steal from the offerings brought to the temple, they would threaten those who tired to stop them. When Eli heard of this behavior, he talked to his sons but was not able to get them to change their ways.
This new beginning, this transition of priestly leadership away from Eli, happens not because of evil acts committed by Eli, but because of Eli’s aversion to act; because of his failure to discipline his scoundrel sons for their corruption.
Let us hear this first prophecy from Samuel as a warning to us as well. For we will be held accountable for the things done and the things left undone: for our actions and are aversion to action. We must call out corrupt behavior when we see it. For to stand idly by, to choose silence and inaction, is to become complicit ourselves.
These call stories invite us come and see, to stop and listen, to step out into the unknown that we might be truly seen for the fullness of who we are – who God has created us to be. They invite us to claim our high calling as bearers of the Gospel.
There is so much that is unknown about these days. We do now know when we will be able to gather together again for in person worship, we do not know when we will be able to resume our favorite pastimes and actives, we do not know what lies ahead for our nation during this tumultuous time. Just like Nathanael, we might find ourselves asking, “Can anything good come out of this?”
We standing looking out on an uncertain future. There is much for us to discern about what happens next in our lives, this community, and our nation. It seems to me that the witness of Dr. King, might offer us a guide for how we move forward together.
Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community, his dream, is the hoped for destination – the conclusion of the struggle before us. In his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King describes the foundational tenets, the six principles of nonviolence, that guide the path toward becoming the Beloved Community.
Hear the words of these principles:
Principle One: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
Principle Two: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.
Principle Three: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.
Principle Four: Nonviolence holds that suffering for a cause can educate and transform people and societies. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering for a cause is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
Principle Five: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish, and creative.
Principle Six: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice. (14)
Dr. King called the people of this nation to build the Beloved Community, becoming a people called by God to live by love, rejecting violence, and opposing injustice. Just as God has called generations past, God calls us now. Let us always be about the work of God in this place – being a community that lives by love, sharing in the humble and loving service of Jesus. Let us not be silent, but proclaim the message that has been given to us for this very moment.
Can anything good come out of this time? I do not know, but I am grateful that we get to discover the answer together.
(2) Ibid., 1.
(4)Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(5) John 1:43, NRSV.
(6) John 1:45-46, NRSV.
(7) John 1:47, NRSV.
(8) John 1:48, NRSV.
(9) John 1:50-51, NRSV.
(10) 1 Samuel 3:10, NRSV.
(11) 1 Samuel 3:11, NRSV.
(12) 1 Samuel 3:1, NRSV.
(13) 1 Samuel 2:12-13, 17, NRSV.
Sermon for The First Sunday after the Epiphany (10 January 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Baptism of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci, 1470-1480, Public Domain
At the outset of the pandemic, like many others, I found myself saying that, particularly for those of us who remain healthy, have access to adequate health care and resources, and are not faced with the death of loved ones, there is an opportunity not to be missed. This time has afforded us the opportunity to evaluate our lives: to take stock of all the things we have prioritized, the way we behave in the world, to discover who we really are. Without the limitations of our usually hectic schedules we can seek out God in ways previously unavailable to us.
Little did we know what was actually on the horizon.
These last ten months have been a reckoning of sorts. Staying home has enabled us to see what is truly happening in our collective, national life. No longer rushing about, keeping a frenetic pace, our excuses of distraction have been eliminated and we are forced to see the landscape before us.
Almost immediately this pandemic forced us to witness the inequities of our health care system. We saw food insecurity soar as those with financial means stockpiled and hoarded food leaving bare shelves for those with limited resources. We witnessed the most vulnerable amongst us having the few securities at their disposal cut away. Jobs were lost, access was denied, and hope seemed a distant luxury. Each time we thought things were getting better, each time we set a date for things to go back to normal, the finish line was pushed farther and farther away.
Then on May 25 we witnessed the horrific murder of Mr. George Perry Floyd Jr. The last moments of his life captured on a smart phone camera: the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck suffocating the life out of him.
In every state and through the world, people began protesting against the excessive use of force and tactics of police brutality. Eyes were opened to the evils of white supremacy and the sin of racism. For the first time, it seemed that the people of the United States were ready to begin a conversation about race and seek after the work of justice and anti-racism.
The summer witnessed more murders, more protests, more violence. Many of us began, and continued, the work of educating ourselves. Learning our history, discovering our implicit biases, discerning who God is calling us to be in this time and place. I still cannot fully articulate the emotion and depth of gratitude I have for the fact that on my second day as your Priest-In-Charge, thanks to a phone call I received on my first day, our vestry committed to the work of racial reconciliation in this community. Committed in a new way to seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.
As all this was unfolding the coronavirus pandemic was ravaging our world. On June 1, we kept A National Day of Mourning and Lament for the more than 100,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in this country. As the vaccine rollout continues, today more than 370,000 people have died – with Black and Brown communities being disproportionally affected.
And this says nothing of the experience of the 2020 Presidential Election. For months we watched political partisanship tear at the fabric of our communities, whilst being encouraged to treat those who disagree with us not as fellow citizens but as enemies.
Storms, natural disasters, lock downs placing us in unprecedented and extraordinary times, watching and waiting to see what happens next. These last months have shown us who we really are as a nation. The phrase 20/20 vision will never be the same.
Then came the holidays. Due to restrictions from the pandemic many of our beloved traditions were not able to happen. We did not gather here in this place to worship together, we were not able to host parties, and share meals with friends and family. There is grief in all that could not be.
But just as has been true with our life together, there is a gift, an opportunity, for us in having to keep Christmastide, the Epiphany, and these Sundays after the Epiphany differently this year. The pandemic has stripped away all the sentimental, nostalgic, sometimes even superficial trappings of these holy days, leaving us with the raw reality, and honest reflection of what it is that we celebrate.
Christmas Day fell on a Friday, thus bringing to light the eternal connection of the incarnation and the crucifixion: revealing that the wood of the crib becomes the wood of the cross.
We heard the soaring rhetoric of the prologue of John’s Gospel, revealing the power of the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us. The omnipotent, the almighty, stooped to take on humanity that we might know God more fully; be redeemed from all that holds us captive; and be transformed into who we were created to be. We beheld the formerly unknowable God, which no human being could gaze upon and live. We rejoiced that the Messiah has come to us in a helpless, vulnerable, tiny baby.
On the tenth day of Christmas, the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, we heard the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. That text of terror, the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents; as Herod, that insecure and terrified ruler, did whatever was necessary to retain his power – even going so far as to order the murder of a generation of young children.
Stripped of the distractions of the season this past Christmastide displayed for us the true reflection of our faith. That God comes into the world to set us free. That a single birth would lead to our redemption. But that is not a simple or easy thing, nor is it a gift the world readily received. That sweet little Jesus boy would grow up to live a life of humble and loving service that leads directly to the cross. The Gospel stories appointed and the holy days that fall during Christmastide remind us in a devastating way that the world Jesus is born into is not unlike our own: where violence is praised and insecure rulers will go to whatever lengths necessary to maintain their power.
What was true then, is still true today. The empires of this world, the forces of evil and wickedness and death, will stop at nothing to destroy that which is good, holy, which brings light and life, that which is of God.
What was revealed then, is also revealed now. Nothing will stop God. There is no darkness powerful enough to quench even the smallest amount of light.
On January 6th the Church celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. That day when we remember those travelers from a distant land who followed a star to Bethlehem. The wise men, set out not knowing where they were going but trusting that something life changing awaited them at their destination.
The word “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning “showing,” “appearance,” “revelation,” or “manifestation.” This feast day and the season that follows celebrates God coming into the world not just for one particular people, but for all people. The manifestation of God breaks forth into the world saying, no matter who you are, no matter where you are in your journey, you are welcome in the household of God.
The Feast of the Epiphany is the day when we, the Gentiles, are incorporated into the saving work of God in the world. To paraphrase the poet Malcom Guite, it is the day we are given the courage that gives our questioning hearts a voice to seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice. (1)
God’s manifestation was not the only thing revealed to us on January 6th.
Through the afternoon and into the evening we watched a deadly attack Capitol Hill, acts of domestic terrorism that claimed the lives of five individuals. Images were broadcast of an angry mob, fueled by lies, some even carrying symbols of the Christian faith, attempting to tear the very fabric of our democracy. We were shown just how at odds the state of our nation is from God’s intentions for us. What was made manifest in Washington could not be more different than what is made manifest in God.
This was yet another example of how our world is not radically different than the world into which Jesus was born. Jesus’ earthly life was bookended by political leaders doing whatever necessary to maintain power and control. Insecure and terrified rules intent on inspiring violence, destruction, and even death to keep their power alive.
No matter how hard some have tried, in the early hours of January 7th, Congress resumed the constitutionally mandated work of our nation. And if congress can persevere in the midst of destruction, how much more will God?
All of this brings us to today. The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord.
Mark’s telling of Jesus’ baptism provides the indispensable context for everything that follows. God’s dramatic announcement makes clear that through the life and ministry of Jesus, the world encounters the incarnate intentions of God. It all beings in baptism.
From this moment, after this day, the message of God will spread throughout all the world. The healings, miracles, the works of resplendent glory, the teaching and preaching all start here.
When Jesus steps into the River Jordan the entirety of human history, the entire work of God, is united in a single moment. It is in those waters that John proclaims the baptism of repentance. It is in those waters that the great prophet Elijah ends his ministry and passes his mantle to Elisha, it is through those waters that the Israelites travels out of slavery and into freedom, it is through those waters that the whole of creation comes into existence – birthed out of chaos.
The saving act of God in the world, the whole of salvation history, comes together in the moment of baptism. All that God has done, and continues to do, is revealed in the person of Jesus.
When Jesus steps into those baptismal waters, when John submerges him into the river, when Jesus comes up out of the waters the world is different. The heavens are torn apart and God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (2)
Who this person is, who that baby born in Bethlehem will grow up to be, is not just some good guy or great teacher. He is not just another rabbi. This man is the divine Son of God. This man is God. This revelation, this showing, this manifestation, this Epiphany happens in the waters of baptism.
We need this revelation to happen in these waters because it is Jesus’ baptism that gives our baptisms meaning.
Our ministries begin as the baptismal waters still drip from our bodies. As we emerge from those mighty waters we are sent forth to heal, to preach, to teach, to care for those in need, to be about the work of setting right all that has gone wrong.
If we were not in the midst of a pandemic, and able to gather together in person, today would be sprinkled with those waters, renewing our Baptism Covenant: to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowing, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. (3)
This baptismal life, these vows we have taken, looks squarely at the darkness, sin, evil, and death of this world and says you will not win – you will not destroy us – we shall overcome. For we stand with the company of the household of God.
We know this way is not easy. We are called to follow the road that Jesus walked: the road that will confront the powers of this world, that will challenge the status quo, that will infuriate some and terrify others. It is the way that will make Jesus take that long walk through Jerusalem to the hill of Calvary.
These waters we share in will cost us something, they will demand much from us – they will demand all from us. We can face these waters because, in the beginning, when God, including the Word incarnate in Jesus, spoke creation into being, when the Spirit, the very breath of God moved over the waters of creation breathing life out of chaos, God pronounced it good. Because when Jesus came out of those waters God proclaimed, “You are may Son, the Beloved” Because through our own baptism, God claims us as God’s children, God names us beloved. We can face these waters, because God has gone before; leading the way that does not end at the cross, but goes on to the tomb, to the resurrection, to redemption, and eternal life with God.
Poet W. H. Auden, in his poem “Leap Before You Look” written in December 1940, captures what we are called to do as we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord and approach these might waters once more.
In the first stanza of this poem, Auden writes:
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap. (4)
This life is not about dipping our toes into the water – it is about diving in head first. It is about taking the risk, not knowing what lies ahead, trusting that God will see us through.
These first few days of 2021 have made clear that when the clock struck midnight on New Years’ Eve things did not magically get better. These last 10 months have revealed to us some hard, even terrifying truths about our life together and who we really are. Today we have the opportunity to leap into the waters of baptism: to stand with Jesus at the hinge between a troubled past and an unprecedented glorious future. It is okay for us to go forward and face whatever comes, no matter how daunting and dangerous it seems, because we do not go alone. We go together. We go with God.
It is time for us to decide who we will be and what we will make manifest in the world. It is time for us to leap.
(1) Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, “The magi,” Kindle Location 656.
(2) Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(3) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304-305.
Sermon for The Second Sunday after Christmas Day (3 January 2021). The Scripture readings (Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23) can be found here
Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1879, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Public Domain
We do not have to search long or hard to find difficult or bad news these days. The last 10 months have been so overwhelming that people have created 2020 bingo games, wrote musical parodies, produced comedy sketches to manage the weight of this time. One local store even sold 2020 dumpster fire ornaments for Christmas. Over the course of the last year we have witnessed devastating wild fires, a global health pandemic, police brutality, and acts of terror great and small. We are not strangers to images from around the world of men, women, and children being oppressed, starved, and rejected as they are subjected to brutal regimes, and seek places of safety outside the boarders of their home countries. We watch as people around the world fall victim to acts of unimaginable terror. Many of us have altered our practices of news consumption as the bombardment of bad news is just too much.
As all this goes on around us, we are in the midst of celebrating the 12 days of Christmas. Today is the 10th day of Christmas, but maybe you knew that already from seeing the ten lords a-leaping down your street. For these last 10 days we have surrounded ourselves with beloved carols, been captivated by images of angels and shepherds, found ways either in person or over video calls to share time with friends and family, and have proclaimed with great joy that Jesus – the Christ child – has come among us.
I do not know about you, but in the midst of these celebrations, there have been moments when I have been able to forget and ignore all together the problems that face us. I am aware of the privilege I have that allows me to camp out in my apartment, block out the world around me, and keep these twelve days in many of the ways I typically do.
Yet, we are not able to block out the pain of the world for long. This morning we hear a biblical text of terror that snaps us back into reality.
The Gospel passage we hear from Matthew this morning is commonly referred to as “The Flight into Egypt.” It is the story of Mary and Joseph leaving Bethlehem and going to Egypt because Herod is out to destroy Jesus. Then, when Herod is dead, they begin their journey back only to be told that their home country is not yet safe, and so the Holy Family goes to Nazareth. The way the lectionary gives us this text, the way this story is often taught in Sunday school, is as a very matter-of-fact itinerary that forces us to focus on the seeming heroic nature of Mary and Joseph. Taking this passage on its own, it seems that we hear this for the sole purpose of proving that Jesus is the promised Messiah. In these eight verses we hear twice that what is happening to the Holy Family is happening so that what was spoken by and through the prophets might be fulfilled. With this understanding, we can simply check the box that proves the messianic nature of Jesus, in light of Jewish tradition, and move on. But that is not the whole story.
The passage that the lectionary assigns for today, actually skips over three verses. These verses drastically change the tone and experience of this story and give us a very different image of the life and times of Jesus. In these omitted verses Matthew writes:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ (1)
In what the lectionary gives us, we hear in passing that Herod was out to destroy Jesus, but in these verses we hear the true horrific and violent nature of Herod’s actions. We hear the work of an insecure and terrified ruler who desperately wants to retain his power – so much so that he will go to any length necessary to destroy any possible or perceived threat against him.
When we put these three verses back into the passage we heard this morning, a fuller experience of reality is revealed. No longer is this simply a fulfillment quotation, no longer is it used to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophet’s message, no longer is it just explaining how the Holy Family ends up in Nazareth, it is not a text of terror in which the saving nature of God is revealed.
Jesus was born into a very difficult and dangerous world: a world torn apart by violence and strife, where violence ruled the day, and rulers do whatever they want no matter the cost to human life. In a devastating way, the world into which Jesus is born is not unlike our own.
Like Herod, dictators and rulers around the world use violence and fear to maintain their power. Just as the Holy Family fled, so do unknown numbers of families flee today in hopes that they might find a safe place to hide – that they might find a safe place to live our their lives in peace. As a result, for the last few years we have been witnessing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. As millions of people are fleeing around the world shrouded in terror we are witnessing the darkness of humanity.
This is why these omitted verses are so important: they speak to those whom Jesus came to serve: the lost, the poor, and the oppressed; they speak to the world Jesus came to save. Matthew does not present a sentimental infancy narrative. There are no shepherds, no angels singing, there is no manger scene with a babe wrapped in bands of cloth. Matthew presents the birth of the Savior in the midst of the turbulence of a very violent history.
Matthew dares to see things as they are and still affirms that God is working even in the worst that humanity can do.
In the omitted verses, Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”(2) In doing so, Matthew is recalling the great matriarch Rachel and her reaction to the Babylonians overtaking Jerusalem and marching families off into exile. Rachel’s weeping, Rachel’s lament, signifies a key turning point in Jeremiah when the prophet shifts from declaring God’s judgment to declaring God’s promise of hope and redemption. This shift is what we hear in our lesson from Jeremiah this morning.
We hear the prophet Jeremiah proclaim God’s promise that, “with weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,”(3) and “then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”(4) From the lamentation of Rachel, from the darkest days of Israel’s history, God promises to redeem them. Matthew, by using these words from Jeremiah is clear; this redemption of God has come in the person of Jesus.
Through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of this new born baby, weeping will be turned into shorts of joy, sorrow will be turned to gladness, and darkness will be turned to light. Through Jesus the world will be turned upside down, which is really right side up again. No wonder why Herod was so afraid.
We celebrate these twelve days of Christmas because through the birth of the Messiah, through the birth of Jesus, the end of the violence and vicious cycle of our world has been made flesh. It is through the promises of God in Christ that we know light will over come darkness. It is through the incarnation that God takes on human flesh so that human flesh, the whole of humanity, might be redeemed.
There is plenty of darkness around us, but the light that enlightens everything has come. I know many have longed for the arrival of this new year, but let us remember that the year 2021 is not our Savior. Let us not set ourselves up for greater disappointment when this year is not able to live up to our expectations. Let us remember where our salvation and redemption truly lies.
This passage from Matthew’s Gospel not only shows a truer reflection of the reality of God, it also demonstrates a broader expression of the capabilities of humanity. In the actions of Joseph we see the potential for humanity to be compassionate, trusting, and obedient to the word of God. In the actions of Herod we see the ability to be oblivious to grace and we witness the power that fear yields both in individuals an in systems of military and political power.
These actions, and every action in this passage, are predicated by commands. Mary and Jospeh flee to Egypt because an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and commanded him to go. The slaughter of the innocents happens because Herod commands it out of fear. The Holy Family comes out of Egypt and settles in Nazareth because the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. These images of humanity, combined with the commands to actions, have a significant message for us today.
When we allow fear, anger, and hatred to shut out God’s grace from our lives, when we follow not the commands of God, but the commands of systems of violence and oppression, then we make incarnate the worst of humanity. But if we are courageous enough to follow the commands of God, if we are strong enough to live lives that proclaim the Good News of God in word and deed, then we make incarnate the best that humanity can be. When we do this we become reflections of how we were created to be – reflections of the very image of God.
Thomas Troeger, retired preaching professor at Yale Divinity School, reflects on today’s Gospel passage through the lens of a crèche. He writes:
It is the custom in most homes and churches that set up manger scenes to take them down after Christmas and store them until the season returns the next year. Matthew’s account of the Holy Family’s trials suggests that this is wrong. Perhaps we should put away the shepherds (Luke) because they returned to their fields, and put away the magi because they returned to their distant home, but we should keep out Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Just the three of them, all alone, facing the terrors of a brutal despot. No visitors. No sheltering barn. No cuddly looking sheep. No friendly oxen. Then we should move the Holy Family to another location in our church or our home. Perhaps to a window looking out on the larger world, the world where there is still violence and repression and terror, and where there are refugees fleeing, needing protection, human beings in whom the Christ is crying to us for protection.
In this reflection Troeger captures our call in this Gospel passage. We, like Joseph, are to listen to the commands of God and protect those in greatest need. We are to reach out and care for those whom Jesus came to serve: the lost, the poor, the oppressed, the scared, the hungry, and the refugee. We live in a world that can be incredibly dark and scary, but the light that ends all darkness – the life that ends all pain, suffering, and death – has come into the world.
In a few days our celebrations of Christmastide will come to an end. Christmas lights will be taken down, trees will be undecorated, and carols will so unsung until next year. But we have the opportunity, maybe even the responsibility, to keep the Holy Family present in our midst as a sign of hope and light for the world – as a reminder of our call as people of God in this time and place.
God asks us, implores us, begs us, God commands us to make that hope, to make that light, known to all the world.
(1) Matthew 2:16-18, NRSV.
(2) Jeremiah 31:15, NRSV.
(3) Jeremiah 31:9, NRSV.
(4) Jeremiah 31:13, NRSV.
Sermon for The First Sunday after Christmas Day (27 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
In February 1923, during a speech given to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, Rudyard Kipling uttered what is now one of his most famous quotations. On that occasion he said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” (1) These words were spoken at the beginning of his speech to show the persuasive effect words can have. He goes on to say:
Not only do words infect, ergotise, narcotise, and paralyse, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain, very much as madder mixed with a stag’s food at the Zoo colours the growth of the animal’s antlers. Moreover, in the case of the human animal, that acquired tint, or taint, is transmissible. (2)
Kipling, in these words, is describing the ability of a person to use words to change the way another person thinks and feels; to influence that person to do or feel things that are not typical for them – just as drugs would do. Some have speculated that Kipling was thinking about Europe and the rise of the Nazi party when he wrote these words. No matter his influence, one thing history has taught us is this – Kipling was right: words are, of course, the most powerful drug ever used by humanity.
Despite the abundance of words we encounter on a daily basis – in television, radio, books, magazines, blogs, Facebook, texts, emails, letters, and so on and so forth – despite this over saturation, words have overwhelming power.
Throughout history people have used words to spark revolutions, to craft nations into existence, to emancipate peoples from the shackles of slavery. Words have also been used to strike fear into the hearts of millions, to cast doubt on systems of government, to scapegoat people, to command individuals to carry out heinous acts of genocide and holocaust. As the saying goes, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
Even things we say without much thought carry great meaning. Think about the phrase “Merry Christmas.”
How many times have you heard and said these words in recent days? How many more times in the days to come? For us as Christians, these words mean something particular to us. These words embody for us the joy, hope, and holiness of the incarnation. The phrase itself is a shortened form of “Christ mass” as in the celebration of the Eucharist for the feast of the Nativity of our Lord. Even though there are other things we could say to convey the same meaning, “Joyful Christmas,” “Holy Christmas, ” “Blessed Christmas,” or any other variation, we stick with “Merry Christmas” as if these words themselves have been canonized. It has become so important for expressing what this season means that these words have in a sense become holy themselves. But what happens when these words are taken and used for other things?
Sometimes when words are twisted, when the meaning is changed, they become even more powerful: they can even attempt to erase the original meaning and intent. “Merry Christmas” is a phase that has been taken over, not by Churches and faithful worshipers, but by commercialism and consumerism. See how the words “Merry” and “Christmas” change when used in a commercial advertisement. “Make Christmas more merry. One day sale at fill-in-the-blank department store.” Make Christmas merrier by purchasing more things. By participating in the myth that we do not have enough – that our own personhood is defined by what we have. The “Merry Christmas” uttered in shopping malls means something rather different than the “Merry Christmas” we are greeted with in sacred spaces.
Words matter, for they are the most powerful drug used by humanity.
This morning in the prologue to John’s Gospel we hear of another word, or more accurately, we hear of the Word. John writes:
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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (3)
These magnificent words from the prologue to John’s Gospel remind us of the magnitude of God’s initiative in the incarnation. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (4) Eugene Peterson, in his biblical paraphrase The Message, writes that the Word, “moved into the neighborhood.” The Word – the most powerful of all words – comes to be amongst us. The Word comes to dwell with us not to destroy or punish, but to restore us to life. To bring us back to the heart of what we have been called to. This Word above all words, moves in next door, to change the way we act, the way we think, what we feel, how we understand the very meaning of life.
The almighty, eternal, omnipotent God stoops to put on human flesh. The very author of all creation, everything that has ever been and will ever be, becomes incarnate, taking on tangible, vulnerable, humanity. God comes among us to heal us, to bring light where there is darkness, to bring wholeness where there is brokenness. The Word comes to transform the entirety of creation.
This is what we celebrate in Christmastide, this is what “Merry Christmas” is meant to convey. That God, that Love incarnate, comes among us – that the Word has moved into the neighborhood.
John tells us that, “in the beginning was the Word.” In the beginning there was God and the Word together – creating, forming, molding the entirety of creation into being. In the beginning there is God’s love toward the world that God creates, and God’s plan for that creation. In the beginning there is an image of humanity that dwells in the realms of justice, peace, freedom, and love. From the very beginning, all of creation is imbued with the Word and Wisdom of God.
But this is not the beginning. We do not live in a realm of justice, peace, freedom, and love. We live in a world ravaged by war and poverty; where this fragile earth of island home is exploited; where people are treated as objects; where a global health pandemic has cost us more than we could have ever imaged. It is as if a shadow has been cast over the beauty of creation: over the wonders of justice, peace, and freedom – the wonders of love and praise. It is as if the world has forgotten that most amazing Word.
But what if things could be different?
In today’s Gospel passage, we not only hear about the Word, we also hear of the one who prepares the way. Just when you thought we were done with Advent until next year, our quintessential Advent character has returned. Today we hear once more of John the Baptist.
John, that man sent from God, that voice crying out in the wilderness, the man who witnessed to the Word, returns to us in these early days of Christmastide. Maybe we should see this as an invitation to consider John as something more than the voice of Advent. Maybe things could be different, if we all tried to be more like John.
We hear that John “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” (5) If we desire things to be different, we must begin by asking our selves, what do we testify to? What do our lives, our witness, lead others to believe in? Do we speak empty words, or do we proclaim the true Word which has been made known to us? For how we live our lives, what words we use matters – especially if we claim the word Christian for our identity.
Throughout history people have used Christianity to point towards something other than the Truth and Light of God. Christianity has been manipulated to speak something other than the Word. The faith we have inherited has been used as a tool of violence. It has been used to justify slavery, subjugate women, oppress LGBT people, cast aside those who are considered social outcasts, and demonize those unwilling to conform their lives to a societally approved normative narrative. Throughout time – and still today – the Word is twisted and exploited to suit political gains. The light and truth that is the Word is changed to bring darkness and falsehood. This most amazing Word is used to erase that which was made incarnate: light, peace, grace, truth, and love.
We are called to witness in the same way John did. John testified to the truth of the Word. John called out anyone who refused to see the work of God in the world. John put everything on the line to make sure that as many people as possible knew the light that was coming into the world.
If we want things to be different, then we must ask ourselves: what word do we intend to speak? Will we speak like John or will we speak like those who seek personal gain from the gift of God in the incarnation?
Speaking this Word is not always easy. We might find ourselves feeling inadequate and not up to the task. For sometimes our faith requires us to act, to speak, before we fully feel or understand that which we have been called to do.
Each and everyone of us is created in the image and likeness of God. All of us, and all of creation for that matter, have come into being through the Word. From the very beginning of creation we have been infused with the Word – the Truth, the Light, the Wisdom of God. No matter how dark the world seems, no matter how much we might struggle, we contain within our very beings the ability to proclaim the Word. We contain deep within our souls the light, which casts out all darkness. We are heirs of God’s promise, and as such God will always give us the Word we need.
So when we hear the world altering the meaning of the Word, trying to use the power of the Word in dangerous ways, it is our responsibility to join our voices with the heavenly host, to join our voices with the great cloud of witnesses which surround us, to join our voices with John the Baptist and testify to the truth of the Word we have experienced and known.
This is the most central claim of our faith. God became one of us, that we might know God more fully. That we might come to know and be transformed by God’s nature and God’s love. As that great Early Church theologian Athanaisus put it – the divine becomes human so that the human can become divine. God humbles God’s self to be born of a virgin taking on human flesh, so that we can be redeemed.
This is the gift we are given in the incarnation; the gift of God’s love freely given. There is nothing we have done or could ever do to merit or earn God’s love. It is through this love incarnate that everything is changed and made new. The only response we can make to God’s unfathomable love is to love God in return. To live our lives according to that love.
God comes among us to share in the fullness of our lives, God comes to share our stories, to join our lives with God’s that we might be strengthened and sustained to continually speak the Word. That we might, as much as our feeble selves can handle, participate in the building of the Kingdom of God – that we might bear the light and truth of the incarnation in our lives; and pass along the light of Christ to the deepest and darkest corners of the world. That we might speak the Word into the silence.
Rudyard Kipling was right, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” We have been given the gift of the most powerful Word of all eternity. We have seen and experienced the transformative power of the Word of God in our lives and in this community. We have been taught how to speak this Word – this gift freely given to us through God’s abundant generosity.
This morning we prayed, “Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shire forth in our lives.” (6) This day, and every day, may it be so.
(2) Ibid., 1.
(3) John 1:1-5, NRSV.
(4) John 1:14, NRSV.
(5) John 1:7, NRSV.
(6) The Book of Common Prayer p. 213.
Sermon for The Nativity of our Lord: Christmas Day (25 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
A few years ago a friend invited me to his home for dinner during the Twelve Days of Christmas. At one point in the evening, I heard something on his Christmas playlist that caught my attention. I recognized the tune, but the words were in German so I could not be certain. After a few moments of puzzlement I looked at my friend and said, “Is this ‘O sacred head, sore wounded’?” I was totally baffled, this was the last person I would expect to have a liturgically confused playlist with Holy Week hymns slipping in amongst Christmas carols.
With a playful smirk on his face my friend responded, “No . . . this is Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.” After a moment of enjoying the perplexed look on my face he went on to say, “and this Chorale happens to have the same tune as ‘O sacred head.’”
My friend and I then proceeded to have a theological reflection on this chorale and what it means to be reminded of Holy Week as we celebrate the incarnation.
In recent days I have not been able to stop thinking about Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and that powerful theological statement of hearing “O sacred head, sore wounded” in a cantata meant for Christmas Day. This connection has everything to do with the fact that today is Friday.
I wonder if you heard anything, as we prayed the collects a few moments ago, that surprised you? I wonder if you heard words or themes that you did not anticipate hearing on Christmas Day?
As is probably not surprising, there is a system to help choose the three collects used at the end of Morning Prayer. The first is the Collect of the Day. So today, in what I am sure will be a mind blowing revelation, we used one of the collects for Christmas Day. The other two collects were chosen because they are the ones used on Fridays. It is because of these two collects that I have found myself humming “O sacred head, sore wounded” and thinking about that Bach chorale.
Here is what we prayed a moment ago:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen. (1)
And, we also prayed this:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (2)
So here it is, the Nativity of our Lord, and our prayers draw us nearer to the cross of Christ.
It might seem at best an odd thing, or at worst an off-putting liturgical choice, to use these prayers, but the more time I spend with the Scripture readings appointed for this day, the more I think that maybe – just maybe – we should use these prayers every year no matter what day of the week Christmas Day happens to fall on.
The Book of Isaiah, with its poetry and prose, has the ability to speak to the complexity of human emotions. This book spans several generations, it recounts the life of the people of God during a time when they were unable to live into the promises they made with God, it recounts the generations God’s people spent in exile, and it recounts their restoration and return home. As each movement unfolds the emotional experience is carried forth influencing whatever comes next. Because of this, it is often the case that in passages which speak to the darkness, glimmers of light break through; and, in passages of joy the backdrop of despair can be seen, if only we have eyes to see and hears to hear.
Today’s reading is no different.
It is hard to miss the sheer exuberance of this passage, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” (3)
The prophet is proclaiming that peace is coming. God is being faithful to God’s promises, and will restore God’s people. The victory of God is about to be made known before the eyes of all the nations. It seems the prophet can barely contain the excitement.
While there is great joy in these words, it is set in the midst of long held despair. The prophet is speaking here to an Israelite audience living at the end of the Babylonian exile. This is a nation that has witnessed and lived with the stories of the destruction of that great city Jerusalem. The peace that the prophet announces, the peace we hear of this morning, is the announcement that God is about to restore the people of Israel to their own country – they are about to go home.
Knowing all this, the prophet cries out: “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem.”
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem. The city that has crumbled under foreign occupation can now rejoice. The people are returning home, God has redeemed Jerusalem, the city will be restored, the community will be made whole. So the prophet calls on this people standing in the midst of rubble, amidst broken dreams, disappointments, and shattered lives to break forth together – as a community – with songs of praise to God. For God has come to set them free. God has come to liberate them. God has come to redeem them. God has come.
The Gospel passage appointed for Christmas Day is radically different than the passage we heard last night on Christmas Eve. This passage is stripped of all the images we have come to associate with Christmas. John’s prologue says nothing about crèches and shepherds; there is no babe wrapped in bands of cloth; there is no Angel announcing good news, or heavenly hosts singing “Glory to God.” This morning all distractions have been erased. This morning, John tell us that Jesus is Word and Life. John tells us that there is darkness and that the Word will be rejected by some – the Word will be rejected by his own people. In the midst of joy we hear that back drop of pain and rejection.
We have come to believe and know, that this Word comes in the midst of our darkness and light, in the midst of our pain and joy. To be among us: To be one of us. So this morning, we come together into the presence of our Lord and Savior, wherever we might be, bringing all the particulars of our lives – our hurt, our pain, our joy, our gladness, our hopes, our dreams, our love. We do so trusting that God takes on all of these things: God participates fully in the drama of humanity that we might be made new. For God has come to set us free. God has come to liberate us. God has come to redeem us. God has come, so “break forth together into singing you ruins of Jerusalem,” for the Word has been made flesh.
Isaiah and John both show the complexities of humanity – that joy and sadness, despair and hope, life and death, are linked together. But it is in today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that makes explicit the connection between the incarnation and crucifixion, the link between Christmas and Holy Week.
The author from the Letter to the Hebrews writes:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.(4)
Like a stunning display of fireworks, the author creates a collage of claims about the Son. He is heir, creator, reflection, exact imprint, sustainer, purifier, superior, and most excellent. In these words the author is articulating, to the best of the writer’s ability, the fullness of who the Son is that has come into the world.
The Son is present at the very beginning of creation and will be present until the end of time. The Son is present as the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. At the incarnation, the Son enters into history uniting everything that has happened with everything that is to come. Christmas Day therefore takes on cosmic and redemptive significance.
In the incarnation, in the brith of Jesus, creation and redemption are fused together. The Word through whom all things came into being, and without whom not one thing came into being, takes on human flesh and thus the Son becomes our Savior. The birth of the Son marks the beginning of our rebirth – the beginning of our redemption. For God has come to set us free. God has come to liberate us. God has come to redeem us. God has come, so “break forth together into singing you ruins of Jerusalem,” for our King and Savior has come near.
As we enter into the Twelve Days of Christmas, as we rejoice and celebrate the season of Christmastide, we cannot pretend we are experiencing this miraculous event for the first time. We cannot pretend we are bystanders in Bethlehem watching a birth, traveling with shepherds, dazzled by the heavenly hosts singing “Glory!” We know what this babe born for us has come to do. We know how his earthly journey will end. We know that our King reigns from a tree. As we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord we are also celebrating his passion and our redemption.
Liturgical scholar Nathan Mitchell captures the heart of what it is we endeavor to do this day as a community that has pledged itself to be in relationship with the incarnate and living God. He writes:
What the parish celebrates during this season is not primarily a birthday, but the beginning of a decisive new phase in the tempestuous history of God’s hunger for human companions. The social concerns of the season are thus rooted in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign: the renunciation of patterns that oppress others (holding, climbing, commanding) and the formation of a new human community that voluntarily embraces those renunciations. It is an adult Christ that the community encounters during the Advent and Christmas cycles of Sundays and feasts: a Risen Lord who invites sinful people to become church. Christmas does not ask us to pretend we were back in Bethlehem, kneeling before a crib; it asks us to recognize that the wood of the crib became the wood of the cross.
As we rejoice in the gift of the Incarnation let us remember that our hope in this new beginning is illuminated by the light that comes into the world, beams brightly from the cross, and points the way to the glories of the Risen Lord – the one who came, the one who comes, the one who will always come to set us free. Therefore, my friends, let us break forth together into singing for the Word was made flesh and dwells among us.
(1) The Book of Common Prayer p. 99
(2) Ibid., 101.
(3) Isaiah 52:7, NRSV.
(4) Hebrews 1:1-4, NRSV.
Sermon for The Nativity of our Lord: Christmas Eve (24 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
Master of Vyšší Brod, Mistr Vyšebrodský, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
There are great debates about the traditions for this season. It seems that people feel more passionately about how Christmastide is kept than they do about any other time of year. Intense debates commence as people advocate for their way of doing things, and great pontificating is on display as people present their case for why their favorite fill-in-the-blank item or category is the greatest of all time. One such contested ranking, one debate of immense significance, is what is the greatest Christmas movie of all time.
Some might cast their ballot for A Christmas Story or It’s A Wonderful Life or the Fred Astaire narrated Santa Clause Is Comin’ to Town. Others might look to more contemporary blockbusters like Love Actually, Elf, Home Alone, or Jingle All the Way. All of those are excellent candidates . . . and . . . I am sorry to say they are all the wrong answer.
Clearly, the greatest Christmas movie of all time is the brilliant 1965 cinematic icon A Charlie Brown Christmas. This is a purely scientific perspective and has nothing to do with my personal feelings towards this film . . . okay . . . I happen to really love this movie. I even have the peanuts Nativity Set and a talking Linus doll dressed as a shepherd.
There are many reasons why I believe this is a classic, truly one of the greats, but there is one scene that I love more than any other. It is the scene that my talking Linus doll quotes.
The gang is in the auditorium, Charlie Brown presents his Christmas tree to his friends, and they all burst out laughing. After nearly everyone walks away, Charlie Brown says to Linus, “I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.” He then shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”
“Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Linus replies. After asking for the appropriate stage lighting, Linus then proceeds to share the meaning of Christmas. He says:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not:
At this point Linus intentionally drops his security blanket before going on to say
for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Linus then picks up his blanket off the ground, walks towards Charlie Brown and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
It does not matter how many times I see this movie or watch clips of this scene on YouTube, I am continually astounded to hear Linus recite the King James Version of the Gospel passage we read this night. I am continually moved to hear Linus preach the Gospel.
At long last our Advent journey has ended, and we have arrived at the feast of the Nativity of our Lord. It is finally Christmas.
And it might feel more accurate to say “is it finally Christmas?” I know, for some amongst us, it does not feel very much like Christmas at all.
So many of our beloved traditions are not possible this year: We are not gathered together in this place singing carols, telling the story, watching children put the crèche figures in place. We are not attending parties, hosting dinners, gathering with friends and family to celebrate. Some of us will even find ourselves home alone during these days of Christmastide. Over in the UK headlines for the last few days have declared “Christmas Canceled” as new pandemic restrictions are put in place.
I have heard it suggested that we should delay Christmas, and keep it whenever it is safe for us to gather together and observe all our traditions – so it can feel like Christmas.
As I read the headlines, scroll through social media posts, listen to people commenting on what Christmas is “supposed to be,” I cannot help but call to mind that wise shepherd Linus, offering a message of what Christmas is really all about.
The Gospel passage appointed for Christmas Eve is what Christmas cards are made of. It is from Luke’s Gospel that we hear of angels and shepherds, mangers and bands of cloth. No other Gospel has a nativity narrative that translates into crèches and the images in our minds when we think of the birth of Jesus.
Over the years, because of this picture perfect portrayal we have in our collective imagination, we have built up this night on the pedestal of nostalgia and expectation. We remember all the Christmas Eves of the past. We remember being in pageants. We have come to expect so much of this night because it is what movies are made of. We want the same idyllic sense that floods greeting card aisles selling boxes of the ideal Christmas.
But is that really what Christmas is all about? I wonder if there is actually something dangerous about approaching this night in such a way.
If this is what Christmas is all about, where does that leave the people who have lost loved ones, who have received difficult diagnoses, who wonder if this will be their last Christmas together with beloved friends and family?
If this is what Christmas is all about, where does that leave us when we find ourselves celebrating Christmas in the midst of this global health pandemic – forced to sacrifice so many of the things that make it feel like Christmas.
If this is what Christmas is all about, maybe we have created something that leaves many people feeling as if they do not belong at our celebrations, because they are in a difficult place, or because things are not perfect in their lives, or because they cannot manufacture the prerequisite joy.
If this is what Christmas is all about, then maybe we should cancel it.
I truly believe that God is present and active in every situation, in every place, and in every moment in time. That for all of eternity God is bestowing humanity with God’s grace, love, and mercy. I know that God is present with us in this time of pandemic, and maybe one way God is present to us now, is by inviting us to think differently about our answers to Charlie Brown’s question, “isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
For as another Christmas movie reminds us in the lesson learned by the Grinch: Christmas doesn’t come from a store, it isn’t about presents, or food, it is about much much more.
Now do not get me wrong, I love the traditions that come with this season: singing carols, visiting with friends, exchanging gifts, and the fabulous cooking and baking of these days. As wonderful as all these things are, they are the externals of this season. They are not ultimately what this sacred feast is all about. Behind the delicious smells wafting through the air, the melodies of carols ringing in our ears, the festive decorations on display is a deeper story, something so profound that it changed the course of human history.
The way Luke the Evangelist tells the story of the birth of Jesus helps remind us of what Christmas is all about. For, as with everything else in Luke’s writings, this is about the great reversal and restoration of life.
Luke begins by placing the birth of Jesus in a particular moment in history. “In those days,” we hear, “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (1) These are the powerful rulers of the day. Luke etches their memory in the record of history, to be remembered henceforth and forever more. These details are not just random facts, they remind us that Jesus was born into a particular time and place.
As we continue reading this passage, we discover that these men, and all they represent, do not play staring roles in the Nativity pageant that is unfolding for the very first time.
We hear next of Mary and Joseph. Mary that young woman, great with child. Joseph her husband-to-be, brave enough to honor their relationship and accept Mary’s pregnancy. This couple could not be more removed from the sources of power and authority and might – they could not be more distant from Emperor Augustus and Quirinius. And yet, they are the ones chosen by God to bring God into the world. They are the ones chosen to help bring God’s gift of hope, and the fulfillment of God’s promises into human history.
As Luke continues to tell of Jesus’ birth the characters become even more removed from places of earthly power and might. For you cannot get much farther away from governors and emperors than shepherds.
Shepherds lived on the literal and figurative edges of society. They were deemed men of questionable morals and ill repute. Yet it is to these that the Angel of the Lord appears. The shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night are the first to hear the Good News of the Savior’s birth. The have the privileged place of knowledge and experience.
Then there is the Angel. The messenger announcing this glorious occasion. Just as we heard on Sunday with the story of the Annunciation, the Angel says once more, “Do not be afraid.” The Angel begins these earth shattering, life changing messages, with words of comfort. Something unbelievable is happening, God is acting, and you have nothing to fear.
That’s why Linus intentionally drops his blanket during that scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas. God is coming into the world, so we can let go of our fear. We no longer need objects of security for with God we have no reason to be afraid.
When God enters into human history, when God humbles God’s self to take on humanity – to become fully human and fully divine, when God is born of Mary, humanity is turned upside down, which is really right side up again. For the almighty, omnipotent God comes and breaks into this world not as an emperor or governor, not as the rich, powerful, and famous, but as a defenseless, tiny, baby. With this single birth, the words of Mary’s song – the Magnificat – come to life.
God comes into the world to set us free from any fear or anxiety we have. God comes into the world to remove all the masks and barriers we set up that separate us from each other, from ourselves, from creation, that separate us from God. God comes into the world to free us from sin and even death itself.
God comes into the world to cast down the might from their thrones, to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, to send the rich empty away. God comes to liberate us, God comes to bring life, God comes to show us how to truly live.
From the moment Jesus is born, he lives and experiences the fullness of humanity. He witnesses pain and suffering and illness, he experiences joy and happiness, he builds intimate relationships with friends, he experiences the deep grief of death. In the full experience of human life, Jesus shows us what it means to be fully human: to love fully, to live the abundant life of God.
This is what Christmas is all about: for unto us is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
The true gift of this season is that Christmas comes no matter what. Christmas comes each year not through our efforts, not because of anything we do or do not do, not because life feels Christmasy. Christmas does not come because of presents, and carols, and dinner parties. Christmas comes because of what God does. Christmas comes because of the gift God has given us – the abundant love of God to humanity. Love incarnate in the person of Jesus.
The gift that matters most this night is the gift that defies our comprehension and shatters every expectation we have. For this holy night God came down, put on human flesh, entering into human history in the most humbling way possible – a way that is nothing short of scandalous to the world, and maybe even a little uncomfortable for us too. For the once unknowable, untouchable God who no human could look upon directly and live, can now be seen, and touched, and held, and known.
In a season unlike any other in our lives, we find ourselves celebrating the most singular night in all of history. Maybe the grace of this moment is that we can stop, hit the reset button, and remind ourselves what Christmas is truly about. Maybe this is the year to begin new traditions, new experiences, new ways to remember the profound story behind all the trappings of the season.
My friends, do not be afraid, for see this day we have been brought Good News of great joy for all the world: for to us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Do not be afraid. God has come amongst us. God has shown us a still more excellent way. God has set us free.
And that, is what Christmas is all about.
(1) Luke 2:1-2, NRSV.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (20 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
The Annunciation (circa 1472) by Leonardo da Vinci from the Uffizi collection. Public Domain
A couple of days ago I received a text message from a friend of the parish. They were writing to ask a question that is going around the neighborhood: Why are the bells of St. Thomas not playing Christmas music?
As I read the message a smile crept across my face. I chuckled, wondering how many of our neighbors think the lack of seasonal tintinnabulation has to do with the new priest not fully knowing what he is doing. Like how it took him about a month to figure out how to adjust the bells for the time change that came with the end of daylight savings time.
After enjoying that amusing speculation I wrote back, “because it’s not Christmas yet,” and went on to explain that the shift will be made on Christmas Eve and carols will ring out for the twelve days of Christmas.
This was yet another reminder for me, of the stories that we find ourselves between. While Jesus has been out in the town creche for a few weeks, currently covered with snow and certainly suffering from frost bite, the stories we have been telling as of late paint a different picture.
Throughout the first three weeks of Advent we heard some rather intense, not so meek and mild, Gospel passages. We heard about the Son of Man coming out of the heavens with clouds descending, in great and glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead. We spent two weeks with John the Baptist as our constant companion. John, that wilderness man, clothed in camels hair, snacking on wild honey and locusts, calling us to repent – calling us to turn back towards God. We have been with John on the banks of the Jordan River as he has proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We have witnessed him fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, “prepare the way of the Lord.” In all of this we have been invited, or maybe it is better to say commanded, to prepare for the glorious promise of God that will be revealed at the second coming of Christ.
As we mark the Fourth Sunday of Advent, as we celebrate the final Sunday of this liturgical season, the story we tell here begins to catch up with the story that has been swirling around us since the day after Thanksgiving when halls were decked and the melody of carols began to dance through the air.
We begin our Nativity journey with that beloved story, that iconic image, that muse for artistic spirits; we begin with the Annunciation.
Luke tells us, “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (1)
In majestic glory, the angel Gabriel from heaven came, announcing unto Mary that she will convince and bear a Son, Jesus the holy child of God.
Now I want you to be honest, how many of you were relieved when I began reading today’s Gospel passage? How many of you were elated to discover that we have made the shift from focusing on the second coming of Jesus in glory to his first coming as a babe born in Bethlehem all those centuries ago?
Do not worry, it is okay to be excited. There is something powerful about these stories. Our yearly telling of the birth of our Savior provides needed balm for weary souls.
As we seek comfort in these familiar words, let us not lose sight of how they speak to us afresh each year. But before we get to Mary, let’s talk about David.
Today’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture is taken from the Second Book of Samuel. This passage tells of how King David wants to build a house for God. We hear David recognizing the differences between his dwelling place and the dwelling place of God when he says, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” (2) In David’s mind if he has a house, then so should God.
There has been speculation about David’s motivation here. Some wonder if David seeks to build God a house for the honor and glory of God, in response to the great things God has done for David; while others wonder if he has this desire so that he will forever be remembered as the king who built a fitting dwelling for God. Whatever his intentions, God rejects David’s plan.
The word of the Lord comes to the prophet Nathan, and Nathan is given a message for David, “Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I bought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”(3) This message is a reminder to David that God has been and will continue to be on the move with God’s people.
Since God delivered God’s people out of bondage and slavery in Egypt, God has been on the move. The Ark of the Covenant, is described in the Book of Exodus as containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is understood that this wooden chest, covered in gold, contains the very presence of God. So as the Ark of the Covenant journeys with God’s people, God’s very presence journeys as well – traveling with the people, guiding and guarding them through the wilderness.
From the time of the Exodus to the reign of King David when the people were not on the move, a tent was set up for the Ark to dwell in. God does not seek to be tied down to one place, confined to one building – no matter how glamorous it might be. God’s dwelling is one that is always ready to pick up and move as God’s children are marching on.
God’s rejection of David’s plan to keep God situated in one place, is also a statement about the relational dynamics between God and David. Having won peace and stability with God’s help, David is determined to do something for God in return. This rejection is a reminder that God is principally the provider rather than the recipient. God is in control, not David. For “thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth . . . Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house . . . Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”(4) God has brought David to this place, and rather than David building a house for God, God will build a house for David – though this house will not be built with cedar, but with many generations. Thus the throne of David is established. God’s promise is made.
God will not be contained by human creations, and God will not be restrained by human expectations. God continues to be on the move, this time breaking into a particular moment in history, shattering human understanding once more.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”(5)
The Angel Gabriel brings to Mary the message that the eternal God, the author and source of all creation, is about enter into human history by taking on the limitations and frailty of human flesh. God the omnipotent, God who no human can gaze upon directly and live, is about to enter into the world in a way that can be seen, and touched, and known. Gabriel tells Mary that she will be the one to birth God into the world. This poor, young, unwed woman – this person who could not be farther from the sources of power and authority and might in the first century world – is to be the God bearer. Talk about shattering expectations.
God is on the move, God cannot be contained, God is doing the unexpected. No matter how hard we try, no matter what houses we think we might build, nothing we do will stop God from coming to us in unexpected, incomprehensible, mind-blow ways. God cannot be domesticated or controlled by humanity.
For as long as people have been in relationship with God, some have claimed to know the very mind of God. But as we read from the Book of Isaiah, “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”(6) When we think we know God’s mind, God acts in a way that upends our assumptions.
When the people expected a great and powerful military leader, God came into the world as a defenseless baby. When the people expected God to take up the throne of David, giving rest from their enemies once more, God comes to reign from a tree. When military might was expected, God showed up in humble loving service. When the people thought God was dead, they discovered an empty tomb that shattered the darkness of death once and for all.
As we have been watching and waiting and preparing these last several weeks, have we been expecting the same familiar things to keep happening? We know the story of the Annunciation, but are we expecting God to continue speaking in the same familiar ways?
The Fourth Sunday of Advent invites us to open ourselves in heart and mind and body to the voice of God breaking in to this particular moment in history. This Sunday invites us to prepare for the unexpected move God is about to make.
As we hear these stories we are invited to consider who we are in relationship to God and God’s work in the world. Mary is clearly caught off guard by God’s word to her. She ponders “how can this be?” and then she responds in the only way that is consistent with who she actually is. When God calls us, do we respond in ways that are consistent with our vocations, with who we actually are?
Have we written off the possibility that God might be calling us to particular vocations and ministries? Have we written off the possibility that God might be calling us to be God bearers in the world? Have we resigned ourselves to thinking that God only speaks to other people, in other more prestigious places?
The Annunciation challenges us to reorient our expectations and assumptions about God. For if God can call a poor, young unwed woman in some out-of-the way place, than God can call us here in Greenville too.
God breaks into particular moments in history to do that which is beyond our comprehension, to do that which human understanding labels impossible. But we must always remember that “nothing will be impossible with God.”(7)
For the last nine months we have been living through unexpected and unprecedented times. We have been living in time between what once was and what will be. This year our celebrations of the Nativity of our Lord will be different. Maybe there is a blessing in that. Maybe by being forced to do things we have not done before, our eyes and our hearts will be opened afresh to what new this God is doing in our midst right now. God is breaking into this particular moment in history, most likely in ways we cannot even begin to understand or imagine.
The season of Advent might be coming to an end giving way to Christmastide, but we must remain vigilant in the work of watching and waiting. We must prepare ourselves for God to do the unexpected in our lives. Since we do not yet know what God is doing, we prepare by making ourselves ready to say yes to whatever God asks of us, just as Mary did. We must build houses for God, not ones made of cedar, but ones made in our very lives – mansions prepared in our very beings for Christ to dwell. We must transform our souls and bodies to be living tents carrying God on the move with God’s people.
The light is growing stronger. God is breaking in. Our King and Savior draweth nigh. It is almost Christmas. Let us prepare the next chapter of our story. Let us prepare our song to ring out through our lives and into our community.
(1) Luke 1:26-28, NRSV.
(2) 2 Samuel 7:2, NRSV.
(3) 2 Samuel 7:5-6, NRSV.
(4) 2 Samuel 7:8-9, 11, 16, NRSV.
(5) Luke 1:26-30, NRSV.
(6) Isaiah 55:8-9, NRSV.
(7) Luke 1:37, NRSV.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (13 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
Brooklyn Museum – Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens) – James Tissot. Public Domain
There is something different about today.
Can you feel it?
Advent begins in the dark. Two weeks ago we set out on our Advent journey lighting a single candle. The darkness was pushed aside by a solitary flame. As the weeks have gone by, the light has grown stronger. Today we light the third candle on our Advent Wreath. The darkness is being pushed aside even further as the light increases. The light which enlightens everyone and everything is coming into the world. Our King and Savior draweth nigh!
As the light continues to grow, the themes of Advent begin to shift. Today we do not hear any apocalyptic visions, there is no call for repentance. Today we hear about the one who is coming. Today we rejoice.
We return today to the banks of the Jordan, and for a second week we find our companionship with John.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”(1)
When we think about this man John, we might find ourselves tempted to call to mind everything that we know about him from all of Scripture. We might recall the description we heard last week from Mark’s Gospel of a wilderness man clothed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We might recall that scene from Luke’s Gospel when John rebukes the religious leaders with that great insult, “You brood of vipers!”(2) We might recall Matthew’s account of the Baptism of our Lord, when John, right after baptizing Jesus, witnessed the heaven’s open and heard the voice of God declare, “this is my Son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased.”(3)
Maybe we think about when Mary visits Elizabeth, both of them pregnant, and John leaps in his mother’s womb when he senses Jesus near by. Or maybe we think of the end of John’s life. When he sat in prison wondering, seeking confirmation, desiring certainty that the one he committed his life to is in fact the promised Messiah of God. When we hear of this man sent from God, whose name was John, maybe we think about the guy who begins by crying out in the wilderness and does not stop crying, even when it will cost him his life.
All of these stories and images give us a rich picture of this man. But through the intricacies of these strands woven together, we might miss something hiding in plain sight.
While it might be tempting to refer to this man, the first human we encounter in John’s Gospel, as “John the Baptist,” that is not the narrative that John the Evangelist is trying to tell. John the Evangelist’s understanding of this man John’s unique vocation as a holy human, “sent by God” to bear witness to the Word and to point to the Light, is different than the other Evangelists. In this Gospel, John is not introduced by family name or place of origin. He is not principally a baptizer, a prophet, an exhorter, or even a messenger from God. He is a witness.
John’s role as a witness, is to recognize the true light when it appears, and to call attention to it so that others may recognize it and believe – that others might recognize it, trust it, and commit themselves to the light. John is the star witness in this Gospel’s prolonged trial about the person and nature of Jesus.
John’s witness, makes the religious authorities nervous. Today we hear, “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’”(4) It is important to note that when John’s Gospel refers to “the Jews,” be it here or in the Passion Narrative, he is not talking about the entirety of the Jewish people. This Gospel uses the phrase “the Jews” to describe the religious authorities.
So it is the religious authorities who are concerned about this man baptizing people in the river Jordan for they have no idea who he is. The authorities send some priests and Levites to go and interrogate him. They ask, “Who are you?” They want to know who he is, where he came from, and by what authority he does what does. Effectively they are saying who do you think you are stepping in on our religious territory?
What a fabulously loaded, complicated question. Three words, nine letters, yields one of the most difficult questions of life. John’s answer is brilliant because he knows exactly who he is and exactly who he is not.
We hear this morning, “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’”(5)
John is clear. He is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, nor is he the prophet. As we listen to this exchange you can feel the blood pressure of the priests and Levites increasing, you can hear their frustration growing. After all of John’s noes they say to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”(6)
John answers them, using the words from Isaiah which we heard last week. He says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”(7) John knows who he is. He is a witness. Everything he does points beyond himself. Nothing is for his own glory. He has given the entirety of his life to serving the one who is coming after him.
This whole exchange begins with that one question, “who are you?”
It seems to me, that is the perfect question for us to consider during the season of Advent. As we dwell in this time between the first coming and second coming of God; as we dwell between the stories we tell as a community of faith and the stories the world tells; as we dwell between the already and the not yet; we must ask “who are we?”
John is a man sent by God to witness in history to Jesus who was present with God at creation and who will be the eternal presence of God within history. John testifies to what was, what is, and what will always be. John understands, and he wants the authorities to understand, that his actions are only preparatory in relation to the one whose identity they actually seek, but will not acknowledge. This is who John is. This is his answer.
Smack in the middle of Advent we are invited to consider who we are? These verses remind us of our identity and our role as witnesses who must share in the testimony of John. We too must testify to God’s abiding presence in this moment in history. We too must bear witness to Jesus who was present at the moment everything came into existence and who will be present until the completion of time. We must confess who we are not and proclaim the One who is. As we testify to the light, to the Word made flesh, to the One who is to come, we must embody the light which casts out the darkness so that our very lives become a beacon to the life and power and love of God.
The light of God which reflects from our lives is a manifestation of deep joy – the joy of Advent. The joy of this season is not an emotion. It is something more than the joy which lights up store displays and greeting cards. It is more than mere sentimentality and nostalgia. This joy we know from the light that is coming into the world is the very foundation of our lives. It is rooted in the promise that God is with us, that God loves us, that God dares to claim us as God’s own. It is joy rooted in God’s promise that God’s love will sustain us in the most difficult of times. This is the Good News of God that allows us to celebrate God coming amongst us even as we mourn all that afflicts us, even in the midst of a global health pandemic.
This is why St. Paul can say to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”(8)
God is faithful. God always fulfills God’s promises. So let us rejoice. The light is growing stronger, the darkness is being pushed aside. Our King and Savior draweth nigh.
How do we witness today? If John was out by the Jordan River baptizing people, are we supposed to be out at the Blackstone?
We are called to situate our witness in the realities of this moment in history. So our witness happens on social media. Social media platforms are often harshly criticized as places of division, pain, and conflict. But these platforms are tools, and it us who decide how these tools will be used. So instead of amplifying voices of pain, and conflict, and strife, let us witness in the digital realm to the power of God we have known in our lives. Jesus said preach the Gospel to the ends of the world, and these days our world includes the virtual realm. Go witness there.
Our witness happens in how we respond to this pandemic. The way of discipleship is rooted in sacrifice. So we witness to the One who comes, who’s path leads directly to the Cross, by wearing masks and social distancing. We witness to the depths of love we are called to make incarnate when we willingly make sacrifices in our own lives for the protection, health, and safety of others. We witness by worshipping virtually, staying home, not mixing households, limiting our travel, by taking advantage of curbside pick up, and doing what we can to support local businesses and community organizations. We witness by making the difficult sacrifices now so that more people will stay heathy and survive this pandemic.
Jesus beings his public ministry in Luke’s Gospel by worshipping in the synagogue. While he is there he stood up to read, and the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Jesus unrolls the scroll and reads the very words from Isaiah that we hear this morning: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(9) This is what we are witnesses to. This is the work our lives are to point to. This is what we preparing for – the liberation and restoration of humanity; the liberation and restoration of the entirety of creation. So let us rejoice!
We do all of these things. We witness right now, in this very moment, because of who we are. We, like John, are witnesses.
Earlier this week, Bishop Rob Wright, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta posted the following status on Facebook, “John The Baptist is not the wild religious zealot some in the church have made him out to be. John is the faithful believer most of us are afraid to be.” It is time for us to stop being afraid.
John knew exactly how to answer the question “who are you?” During this season of Advent we must ask: “who are we?” “Who do we hope to be?” And “who are we becoming?” The way we answer these questions is just as important as the way John answered his.
There is something different about today.
Can you feel it?
More importantly, will you witness to it?
(1) John 1:6, NRSV.
(2) Luke 3:7, NRSV.
(3) Matthew 3:17, NRSV.
(4) John 1:19, NRSV.
(5) John 1:19-21, NRSV.
(6) John 1:22, NRSV.
(7) John 1:23, NRSV.
(8) 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NRSV.
(9) Isaiah 61:1-2, NRSV.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (6 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
St. John the Baptist Preaching, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Mattia Preti (1613-1699). Public Domain
How we tell stories matter.
Have you ever had the experience of telling a story, or hearing someone tell a story, and in the middle of a sentence someone interrupts by saying, “You’re not telling it right?!”
If your experience is anything like mine, that interruption is not calm and gentle, there is no timid, “umm excuse me, but I think you might be mistaken.” The interruption bursts forth with emotion, maybe even accompanied by wild gesticulation. The interrupter must stop the storyteller immediately in order that the “true” version of events can be told. After all, how a story begins is incredibly important, it sets the foundation for everything that follows.
This time of year, more than any other, I find myself thinking a lot about how stories are told, and what stories are told.
In early December we find ourselves located between two different stories. Stories that are rooted in divergent ideas and experiences.
We are located between an ending and a beginning. Outside these walls the countdown to the end of 2020 has begun. Programs, and emails, and specials are coming out under the banner of wrapping up 2020 or 2020 the year in review. As the world around us brings the year to a close, here we have already begun our new year. Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, the second week of a new liturgical year. We have already turned that calendar page setting out emboldened by the hope that is coming.
We are located between light and darkness. Outside these walls, Christmas has exploded. If your neighborhood is anything like mine, then the day after Thanksgiving the darkness was eradicated by thousands of twinkling lights, by light up inflatable Santas and snowmen. But here, Advent begins in the dark. Last week we lit a single candle on our Advent wreath. Today we light a second, and slowly week by week the darkness is pushed aside to make room for the light that is coming into the world.
We are located between frenzy and stillness. Outside these walls, even with all the restrictions of our pandemic pause, shopping centers are buzzing with activity. Here, we slow down and listen for God in the stillness of the morning. Beyond these walls people blast Jingle Bell Rock and Dominic the Donkey (which is, in my humble opinion, a significantly under-valued Christmas song). Here, well this year virtually, we listen to “Lo! he comes with clouds descending” and “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying”.
We are located between two stories; left to hold together the tension of these competing narratives.
The stories we tell, how they begin, matters: for that is what sets everything in motion.
The Gospels are no different. Each one begins in a particular way, laying the foundation for that evangelist’s telling of the story of the good news of God.
Matthew begins with genealogy and the birth of Jesus. Luke begins by foretelling the birth of John the Baptist. John begins with soaring rhetoric to articulate the very beginning of time. And Mark . . . well Mark interrupts all those beloved beginnings to get right to the point.
Here we find no angels announcing unto Mary, no shepherds in the field watching their flocks by night, no manger filled with animals, no babe wrapped in bands of cloth. Mark begins with the prophets.
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark begins thus:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’” (1)
Mark’s telling of the good news of God is rooted in the history of the people. He recalls the words of that great prophet Isaiah, bringing to mind the oppression that the people of God faced whilst in exile. He draws upon the memory of God’s saving work in history to offer hope for his audience suffering from the oppression of the Roman occupation. Mark draws a line between what the people of God experienced in ages past, and connects it to the present moment. Mark locates the good news of Jesus Christ between what was and what is, while keeping his gaze on what is to come.
Our first reading, from the Book of Isaiah puts these words into context.
What Mark quotes comes from what is arguably the most beloved section of the Book of Isaiah, if not in the entirety of the Old Testament or even all of Scripture.
This section of Isaiah has the Israelites living in exile in Babylon. These famous words are the announcement that the end of their exile is near for the day of deliverance is dawning. The prophet announces the word of the Lord that provides comfort and encouragement to hang on just a little longer for home is not far away.
The message of these words is good news about God’s promise of redemption for a people who have lived in exile for 150 years. The opening verses of this reading serve as the hinge between what was and what is to come. In the first section of the Book of Isaiah, the Israelites did not live into their covenanted relationship with God. They turned from God, they sinned, and because of that they must face God’s judgment – they must be held accountable for their actions.
What we hear today, the beginning of this new section in Isaiah, the very same words that Mark quotes, speak to what the judgement of God is all about. God’s judgement always serves the more encompassing purpose of God’s forgiveness and redemption. As we hear these words, we cannot forget what comes before. We cannot separate God’s grace and forgiveness, God’s restoration and redemption, from God’s judgement on human sin. To do so renders God’s grace and forgiveness cheap and renders God’s judgment on sin sheer retribution. And there is nothing cheap about God.
The people of God have faced God’s judgement, and now they receive God’s forgiveness. They are on the cusp of redemption, the cusp of returning home.
This is the foundation Mark sets by beginning his story with these words from Isaiah.
Then, without a hint of transition, John the Baptist makes his entrance onto the Markan stage.
Here comes this curious man right out of the desert, wearing animal skins, eating insects, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Let’s be honest, John is one of those biblical figures we still do not know what to do with. After two thousand years, he stands there, gaunt and unruly, utterly out of sync with his age, our age, and every age in-between. There is a reason why John is left out of every Advent calendar ever created – who wants to open the daily window and see an alarming man shouting “repent!” as they grab their piece of chocolate?
While Mark’s telling of John’s entrance is unlike any other, all four Gospels agree that there is no gospel story without John the Baptist at the opening. For John is located in the tension between what is and what is to come.
Mark’s quick pivot from the prophet Isaiah to John is not the result of sloppy story telling. Those opening versus link John to the message of the prophets. Mark is laying the foundation that John is the new Elijah.
We read about Elijah in both the First and Second Book of Kings. Elijah, that great prophet, who calls the people to account for abandoning their faith in God. It is from Elijah that we learn that God is found in the still small voice – in the sound of sheer silence. When we come to the end of Elijah’s story, we learn that he does not die. Instead he is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.
The Jewish expectation for the coming of the Messiah focuses around the figure of Elijah: for when Elijah returns, that will be the sign that the promised Messiah of God is coming.
In the beginning of his Gospel, Mark pairs the words of Isaiah with an oracle from the prophet Malachi. For Malachi declares, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” (2) This oracle is about the return of Elijah at the day of the Lord’s coming. By pairing this verse from Malachi and the prophecy of Isaiah together, Mark is making the connection, telling the story in such a way, that his readers will understand what this wild man John is all about. John, the one who behaves just as Elijah did, is the voice crying out in the wilderness, he is the messenger preparing the way, thus the one who comes after is indeed the promised Messiah of God.
How we tell stories matter.
The beginning of Mark’s Gospel sets out to tell a story that God is not done with us yet. What God did for our ancestors, God will do for us, and even more so – it is what God will do for every generation until the end of time.
There is urgency in Mark’s message, there is no time to dwell in the sweetness of the manger, because his community was suffering. They needed to know that a new day is dawning, that things are changing now.
Mark’s birth narrative, is not about a baby, but about a new world order in which paths will be made straight, valleys will be lifted up, mountains and hills will be laid low, rough places made plain, where the afflicted will be comforted and the comfortable will be afflicted. This is the way being prepared, this is where we are headed. It all begins with John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Just as you will not find John on any Advent calendar, you will not find seasonal greeting cards branded with the word “repentance.” But just as John is the quintessential Advent character, repentance is a quintessential Advent word.
Repentance is not about beating our breasts and shouting “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” It is not about tormenting ourselves through self-deprecating rants for all the ways we have sinned and fallen short.
The Greek word which gets translated as “repentance” is “metanoia.” While repentance means sincere regret or remorse, metanoia means to change one’s mind. Metanoia is about turning around and conversion of life.
So this repentance that John is proclaiming is an invitation to transformation, to change course, to reorient our lives back towards God. Advent, with these quintessential characters and words, invites us to honestly name before God all that is not as it should be. It invites us to lift up the brokenness and suffering, trusting that God is coming to heal and redeem us. Advent stands in the tradition of the prophets naming the injustices of our world, offering comfort from God to the people, expecting that God has acted, is acting, and will always continue to act as we await the promised day of God.
Metanoia is like God interrupting the stories of our lives to say, “you’re not telling it right!” and then proceeding to redirect us back to the truth.
We are located between two stories. One that is filled with light and inflatable snowmen, and one that is demanding, rigorous, and requires self-examination and vulnerability. One story is being used to distract us from all that this year has been, and one story seeks to comfort us with the assurance that even now, God comes to us in the fullness of our lives, just as God entered into human history two millennia ago.
I understand the desire to seek distractions and cheer. For many this year has been hard. This year has been radically different than we hoped. But in a few weeks when the lights come down, and the radio stations go back to their usually scheduled programs, and the trees are tossed to the curbs things will not magically be better.
While the promise of vaccines being available soon is encouraging, we have been warned that the next three months will be the worst and hardest of the pandemic. As of this morning, according to The New York Times, we have the highest per capita rate of COVID cases in the country. We are averaging over 1000 new cases a day. It seems to me that we do not need distractions right now, we need Advent. We need the hope that God is present in the fullness of our lives. That God is with us as we worship virtually, that God is present as we socially distance and isolate from one another, that God is present with the sick and dying in our hospitals and our newly opened field hospitals in Cranston and Providence.
How we tell our stories matter.
And the story we have to tell in this moment, is that God is coming to set the world aright. God is coming to heal what is fractured and broken, to relieve misery, to give rest to the weary. God is coming to offer us the greatest gift of all, abundant and everlasting life with God. Not even death will stand in God’s way of welcoming us into the joys of what has been prepared for us.
We might be more comfortable with the story being told beyond our walls. The trimmings of secular Christmas might be more attractive than a wilderness man snacking on locusts. But, if I might be so bold, I wonder if the signs of the times are trying to interrupt us, shouting that we are not telling the story the right way. Maybe what the world needs now is a deeper, longer lasting, hard wearing story. We have something worth proclaiming, a story worth telling, if the people flocked to John the Baptist from the countryside and the city, why should we think they will not flock to us as well.
This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is our story.
(1) Mark 1:1-3, NRSV.
(2) Malachi 3:1, NRSV.
Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (29 November 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
Greek icon of Second Coming, c. 1700, Public Domain
As I scrolled through my social media feeds over the last few days, I have noticed that as soon as the plates were cleared from Thanksgiving tables the Christmas trees went up. Last week I found myself driving behind people with fresh cut tress atop their cars days before Thanksgiving. I have seen friends who are self proclaimed “Advent police” already putting up their decorations. All this falls under the rubric, “because it is 2020 and you have to take joy wherever you can get it.”
I totally understand. This year for some, maybe even many, joy is hard to come by. I know this holiday season has not been and will not be as it once was. Many of our beloved traditions are not possible this year. Many of us have just experienced Thanksgiving dinners in quiet homes not surrounded by family and friends due to the pandemic. I am all in favor of claiming joy wherever and whenever we can find it. So if putting your decorations up now, if blasting Christmas radio stations, if watching Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf, Love Actually, and Die Hard on repeat is what you and your household need to find joy then go for it.
And . . . because we are both/and not either/or people . . . and . . . I wonder if by placing our focus on starting Christmastide now we miss an opportunity to hear God speaking to us in this moment. I wonder if this year, what we really need, right this very minute, is to keep Advent.
The season of Advent is often characterized as a season of preparation. If you polled 100 people who have heard of Advent before, I would hazard a guess that 98, maybe even 99, of them would say that it is the season of preparation for Christmas. But this season is more than just four weeks of turning up the volume on Christmas cheer. After this Sunday, the next two weeks will tell of John the Baptist coming and preaching repentance. It is only on the 4th and final Sunday of Advent that we hear the announcement of the birth of Jesus.
The latin word from which “Advent” is derived means “coming.” In this season we prepare for the Lord to come amongst us. We prepare for the glorious feast of the Incarnation on Christmas, and we prepare for the second coming of God on the day of judgement.
A moment ago, we prayed the Collect of the Day, that prayer which collects the themes for the day. Today we prayed this:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (1)
This collect was written for the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. For nearly 500 years Anglicans have been praying this prayer, it has set the tone for the entire season that follows. From 1662 until the introduction of the current Prayer Book in 1979, this collect was prayed every day through the entire season. Every day, for the whole of Advent, people prayed that God might imbue us with God’s grace that we might cast away the works of darkness, that we might be clothed and protected with the light of God, that following in the footsteps of him who came to us in great humility we might share in the glorious resurrection of God. As another Advent prayer puts it, that we might, without shame or fear, stand before the judgement seat of God. Advent is about more than preparing for Christmas. It is also about preparing ourselves for the coming of the Son of Man in all majesty and glory.
Today we hear from the 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel. This chapter is often refereed to as “the little apocalypse” and it is situated between the Sermon on the Mount and the Passion Narrative. The apocalyptic genre while common, is not easily understood. Many try to use these writings to foretell a specific and exact moment. These passages can be used as a tool of manipulation and fear. When we hear things like, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” (2) we might be inspired to do whatever necessary to not be left behind. But this cosmic imagery is not meant to terrify and control us through fear. Cosmic imagery, in apocalyptic writing, is used to describe that which is indescribable.
Mark’s audience would have understood exactly what this imagery was all about. You see Mark is lifting this apocalyptic scenario from the Book of Daniel, which lifts from a previous era of oppression under the Babylonian empire. Each in own their way reaching to the past to create a framework for the present moment.
The basic message of apocalyptic visions, like what we hear from Mark today, is this: The rebellion against the reign of God is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. Things will get worse before they get better. But hang on just a little longer, because just when you are sure you cannot endure, God will intervene to turn the world right side up.
Each and every generation takes these visions of the indescribable, and recycles them to the situation of the present. The point is not to predict specific events in the future, but rather to understand God’s mighty acts in the past as a framework for understanding how to respond now. They provide hope and reassurance. For as it was true in ages past, so it will be true again. When it feels like all is lost, when it feels like we cannot endure any longer, God will intervene.
We do not know when, maybe “in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,”(3) maybe a week from now, maybe next month, maybe next year, only God knows when – all we can do is keep awake.
We wait not as if we are journeying through a predictable countdown to a date circled on a calendar, but with the longing and expectation and uncertainty of those who waited for the first coming of God all those centuries ago. By focusing our attention on the return of the Son of Man here, at the beginning of Advent, we wait in the same way those who lived before Jesus was born waited, not knowing the day nor the hour, but always ready at a moment’s notice.
As we deck our halls and string our lights waiting for Christmas, let us also keep awake and prepare our lives for the coming of the Son of Man. By keeping awake and being alert, by living our lives in accord with him who came to visit us in great humility – with him who has already come, and died, and been raised, we will not only be prepared for the future coming of God, but we might even experience some of what is to come now.
God is coming again. We do not wait in vain.
When Jesus returns, he will come as judge. But the judgment of God is not unadulterated wrathful punishment that is the stuff of horror movies or taken from the pages of Dante’s Inferno. God judges us not to destroy us, but perfect us. We are tried just as silver is tried, being purified of everything that prevents us from living into the fullness of who we are; everything that has clouded how we were made in creation. We can stand before the judgement seat of God without shame or fear, because when we stand on that day all the false layers and masks will be stripped away. When the Son of Man comes with the clouds the world we will be purified as well. Jesus is the judge who destroys the oppressive power of evil, sin, and death. He judges us whilst bearing the scars of his Passion in his resurrected flesh, and he seeks to redeem us and our scars as well. God judges in love, so that we can follow Jesus to the place that has been prepared for us.
The apocalyptic imagery we hear today is not meant to scare us, it is meant to comfort us. It is the reminder that no matter how bleak things might seem, no matter how bad things get, God is coming to make all things new. It is up to us to hold on, to keep awake, to prepare for that great and glorious day. Christmas is not a distraction from the present moment. The once and future coming of God is not a distraction from the loss and pain and suffering and anxiety and death of the present moment, it is the answer to it.
Advent helps us settle into the unknown. Advent prepares us to explore the depths of darkness. Advent equips us to wait trusting that what we experience now will come to an end. Advent offers refuge from the sentimentality that is a source of pain for many struggling through the secular season. Advent welcomes everyone in, even those, especially those, who feel the world has forgotten them.
Advent begins in the dark, and it is not a season for the faint of heart. It requires courage to look into the heart of darkness, especially when we are afraid we might see ourselves there. For as Isaiah says in today’s reading, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”(4) Isaiah recognizes that we have not always lived in ways that accord with the will of God for our lives. Advent is a time when we cry out to the words of Isaiah, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider, we are all you people.”(5) Advent is the season when we remember who we truly are.
Advent prepares us for that authentically hopeful Christmas spirit, the one that does not look away from darkness, but directly into it; the one that does not look away from death, but shouts into the tomb “unbind him and let him go.”
Advent begins in the dark, and slowly as we journey through this season, as we face darkness and death and things unknown, light is revealed: the forerunner cries out from the wilderness, the way is prepared, an angel makes a world altering announcement. We prepare our hearts and our minds and our souls and the fullness of our lives to receive the coming of Christ – not as some calendar holiday, but as the very completion of existence.
On this First Sunday of Advent, as we set out on our preparations, this is the announcement we bring: God will come, and God’s justice will prevail. God will come, and God will destroy every evil and pain in all its forms. God will come, and all will be made well.
We live in the time between. In the time between the first coming of Christ, that babe born in a manger stall, and second coming of Christ, when God will come to judge the quick and the dead. Advent contains for us the crucial balance of the now and the not yet that our faith requires; the already and the not yet of the kingdom of God. Advent is more than just another liturgical season, it is a microcosm of what the entirety of Christian life is all about.
We need Advent this year, because we need, the world needs, the joy and hope that will far out last the smell of our greenery and the twinkling of lights.
The moment we are in now feels a lot like Advent. We are between what we once knew, and what we hope is coming. For the last several months and for the next several months we watch and wait hoping to be set free from this “new normal.” We look out on a nation ravaged and divided by a global health pandemic, violent white supremacy, and bitter partisan politics. Each person searching for that one thing to place their hope upon. Whatever earthly thing we might cling to: politicians, court rulings, laws, policies, vaccines; deep down we know these are not the answer.
For all of those things, they too will pass away, and we will be left searching for something else temporal to cling to. The world as we know it is coming to an end, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. R.E.M. got it right, “it’s the end of the world as we know it.” Something new is coming, and we will be fine. We wait in joyful hope and expectation for the once and future coming of God to set us free from everything that plagues us.
As we enter this season of Advent, hang your lights, bake your cookies, do whatever is meet and right for your household. Then sit with an advent wreath, light a candle, read Scripture, pray. Be not afraid to look directly into the darkness and uncertainty, the pain and suffering, the depths of your own being. Be honest with where you are right now, and trust that God is there.
Trust God to hold us in God’s almighty hands of love. Trust God to guide us through the wilderness and protect us through the storm. Trust that God will see us through the pandemic, this white supremacy and racism, this time of division and strife. Trust that God is very much present in this time between, even when it feels like God is absent. Trust that God is coming to gather us to God’s self.
Keep awake. Watch. Wait. For lo he comes, with clouds descending. God will tear open the heavens, come down, right every wrong, setting us free from all that holds us captive, ushering us into the kingdom God has prepared for all God’s beloved children.
Today we begin our journey again. Not just into this season of Advent, but the journey of being Advent people. People who faithfully carry out the work of God in this time between. People who are ready to greet the Son of Man at a moments notice.
(1) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 159.
(2) Mark 13:24-25, NRSV.
(3) Mark 13:35b, NRSV.
(4) Isaiah 64:6, NRSV.
(5) Isaiah 64:8-9, NRSV.
Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost (22 November 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
One of my favorite people from American political history is Harvey Milk. Some might recognize that name because of the 2008 award winning film “Milk” staring Sean Penn. For those not familiar with Milk’s story, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 making him the first openly gay elected official in the history of California. Milk was assassinated after 11 months in office on November 27, 1978. He was 48 years old.
A few months before his death, on June 25, Milk gave a speech on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, that is now known as “The Hope Speech.” Milk concluded his remarks with these words:
The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only the gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up . . . . and you and you and you, you have to give people hope. (1)
Milk was seeking to inspire those gathered that while it might seem like people have given up, while it might seem like the nation has given up, a few people can make a difference. A few people doing the right thing, can offer hope to every person who feels forgotten. A few people can open the door of possibility to everyone. A few people can become a beacon of hope for the nation and even the world.
I have been thinking a lot about this speech in recent days. For as the seasons change, as the days grow colder and the nights grow longer; it seems the flame of hope has dimmed with the daylight hours. In the midst of all the stresses and pressures and restrictions and uncertainties of this moment we might find it hard to hold onto hope.
Harvey Milk was right. Without hope people will give up. So the question is where do we find hope? Where do we find hope for a better world, for a better tomorrow, for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great? Where do we find hope that we can pass along to all the us’es of the world?
To paraphrase the words of Hymn 665, “all [our] hope on God is founded.” Our hope rests not in the powers and principalities of this world; not in politicians and political candidates; not in possessions and creations of humanity; but in God. And this hope, will never let us down.
Our hope is not just some emotion or aspiration. Hope for us is a way of life and it is our calling. As the author from the Letter to the Ephesians writes in today’s epistle, “so that, with the eyes of your heart enlighten, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” (2)
The hope to which we have been called is the promise of the reign of God.
Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The Book of Common Prayer calls this day the Last Sunday after Pentecost. It is the liturgical equivalent of New Years’ Eve. This week bridges the long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost and the coming of Advent. The hinge which aids us in making this seasonal transition, the thing that the Scripture readings calls our attention to is the reign of God – the Kingship of Jesus.
We can enter into the hope to which we have been called because of the great power, because of the reign God.
The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that after being raised from the dead, Jesus now sits upon the throne at the right hand of God. As the King of glory, “all things [are] under his feet.” (3) As King, Jesus reigns over absolutely everything that ever was, that is, and that will ever be.
The key to understanding the hope to which we have been called, is understanding who Jesus is as monarch. And no, binge watching the new season of “The Crown” on Netflix is not going to help you understand who Jesus is as King . . . trust me I’ve tried. The only similarity that Jesus has to earthly monarchs is the expectation of complete obedience.
To understand who Jesus is as King, we must look at his path to the throne. Before Jesus sits on the heavenly throne, before Jesus ascended into heaven, before Jesus is raised on the third day, before Jesus is buried in the tomb, Jesus dies.
The second person of the Trinity, the Divine Son of God, Jesus willingly dies for us on the cross, subjecting himself to shame, humiliation, pain, suffering, hatred, and the very worst that humanity has to offer. Jesus’ path to the throne, is not won by military might or political coup, it is the path of taking on the form of a servant, the act of self-emptying, living in complete obedience to God. That which is the opposite of everything earthly kings stand for is the very thing that achieves the greatest victory of all. For when Jesus, our King, dies on the cross, when Jesus, our Messiah, is raised from the dead, the power of death is obliterated and abolished once and for all.
Through the waters of Baptism we have been marked as Christ’s own for ever. Through the waters of Baptism we have been claimed as subjects of God. Through the waters of Baptism we share in God’s victory over death. This is our hope.
We must pledge our loyalty to the “crown of glory that never fades away” (4) As God’s loyal subjects we are called to live our lives following the path set by Jesus’ earthly ministry. We must walk that way of love, that demands everything of us, and promises even more.
Today’s Gospel offers a glimpse of how we are to live as we walk the path of God.
What we hear today is the only account of judgment that is contained in the entirety of the New Testament. Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” (5)
As the passage continues we are told what rubric is used to sort out the sheep from the goats. Jesus goes on to say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (6) What sets the sheep and the goats apart is how they treat those in need.
What I find most interesting about this passage is what comes next: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?’” (7) Those declared righteous, the sheep, are surprised by what is said. They have no idea Jesus is talking about. Jesus answers their question, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (8)
The righteous did not set out to care for others because it would win them favor with God. They did not set out thinking that if they check all the right boxes they will earn their place at the right hand of the Son of Man at his coming in great glory. They set out to live their lives by doing the right thing. They followed the way of love. They recognized that every person no matter their station or circumstance is deserving of love, care, and compassion.
The passage from Matthew continues with the account of judgement for the goats. The Son of Man “will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” (9) The goats did not care for the “least of these,” the goats did not serve Jesus. Their sins of omission, those things left undone, lead to harsh judgment. For their lack of action they are excluded from eternal life. They must absorb terrifying words that chill the heart.
We do not know why the goats neglect to care for those in need. No excuses or attempted justifications are offered. There is no verbal maneuvering to absolve them from failing to see Christ in those for whom justice, and care, and access have been denied.
This passage should set us on edge. These words should call us to attention. For neither the sheep nor the goats knew what was going on. The sheep were astonished to find out they were serving Christ, and the goats were astonished to discovered they had failed to do so. As theologian Fleming Rutledge writes:
The coming of Jesus Christ as judge of the world calls every single person’s existence into question. There is no human merit anywhere to bail us out. We cannot rely on any known good deeds; the complete astonishment of the redeemed and the shattered confidence of the condemned are clear evidence of this. The works of mercy done by those on the right hand were spontaneous acts performed without any thought of reward. They do not even remember doing them. (10)
The point of this passage is to remind us that the judgment of God is not about totaling up one’s good deeds. It is not about making sure we give enough money, host enough fundraisers, donate enough pounds of food, provide enough bags of clothing, make enough pastoral visits to have the scales of judgement tip in our favor so that we are sorted with the sheep instead of the goats. The passage is about living in such a manner that serves Christ always, even when we do not realize we are doing so.
All that we do should be for the glory of God, not our own glory. All that we do should be in service of God, not service of ourselves. The way we are called to follow is not about us, it is about God.
This Gospel passage sets before us the way we are to live until Jesus comes again in glory. We are to be awake, preparing for his return. We do this by caring for those in need. For in serving them, we are serving Christ himself. We do this by looking into the face of someone who is hungry, thirsty, sick, or imprisoned and recognize we are looking at the face of Jesus – for Jesus, for the Divine, is in each and every person. We do this by giving of our earthly treasure, and making a pledge to the parish. We take a portion of the blessings we have been given and commit them back to God – offering them to the Church for the benefit of mission and ministry. We do this by giving freely and generously of all that we are and all that we have in response to the awe and wonder, the amazement and gratitude, in thanksgiving for all that God has done and continues to do for us.
When the Son of Man comes in his majestic glory, surrounded be the whole hosts of heaven, to separate the sheep from the goats, he will say to those at his right hand, for whom the kingdom has been prepared, “Come for there was a pandemic and you wore a mask, practiced social distancing, and only spent time in-person with members of your own household. For there was violent white supremacy and you educated yourself on implicit bias, spoke out when friends and family made racist jokes, practiced antiracism, and stood with those struggling to breath. For there was national division and you advocated for truth and justice, refused to degrade those of differing political opinion and affiliation, and worked for a still more perfect union.”
How we live matters. Not because of a reward that awaits us, not because we fear some perceived wrathful image of God, but because how we live makes a difference. How we care for those in need, how we set an example by living lives of humble loving service, how we show up as Christ’s hands and feet in the world can be the difference for someone struggling to hold on to hope and giving up.
We are the inheritors of an amazing promise, a promise won for us by Jesus our King, a promise that enables us to hold onto hope no matter what. It is our task to live in such a way that this hope is passed along to all the us’es of the world. You and you and us, we have to give people hope.
(2) Ephesians 1:17-18b, NRSV.
(3) Ephesians 1:22, NRSV.
(4) 1 Peter 5:4, NRSV.
(5) Matthew 25:31-33, NRSV.
(6) Matthew 25:34-36, NRSV.
(7) Matthew 25:37, NRSV.
(8) Matthew 25:40, NRSV.
(9) Matthew 25:41-43, NRSV.
(10) Rutledge, Fleming. Advent (p. 234). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.
Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (8 November 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
We are living in a moment, and what a moment it is.
Between the pandemic and politics there has been an intensity to these days that is unlike nearly any other moment in our nation’s history.
We have watched this pandemic surge across the globe. We have been filled with anxiety as the days march on. Then when it seemed as if we had turned a corner, when we thought we could breathe a bit deeper, relax the tension in our shoulders, the numbers started to soar. Be it nationally or locally not a day goes by where there is not a headline that tells of a new daily record.
We know grief because of this pandemic. We grieve for our neighbors who have died: our more than 1.2 million neighbors around the globe, our more than 237,000 neighbors around the country, our 1224 neighbors here in Rhode Island.
There is also the uncertainty and fear for the increasing number of people who test positive for COVID-19. Will they recover, and what does that look like in the short term and in lasting consequences? Our grief continues in the face of all the others losses we endure: canceled plans, friends and family who go unvisited, celebratory occasions that have been postponed, the inability to gather together as community, and the anticipatory grief of recognizing that Thanksgiving and Christmas will not be celebrated in the ways we have grown accustomed.
As we struggle to hold on in the midst of this pandemic, for nearly as many months we have been on a political rollercoaster that has left scholars stymied. For months we have been subjected, and at times even succumb ourselves, to divisive and hateful rhetorical. We have stopped seeing each other as fellow citizens, and started treating one another as enemies. Instead of listening and learning from those who stand across the political, ideological, and theological divide from us we have been filled with anger and hatred. We have dimmed our vision from seeing the belovedness of God in our neighbor, we attempt to extinguish the spark of the Divine in all living creatures, so that our consciences are alleviated from any and all guilt resulting from our sinfulness.
What a time this has been.
As I stand before you this day, wondering what awaits us in the days, weeks, and months ahead, there is one conviction I hold that grows stronger by the moment. I believe with every fiber of my being, in spite of everything that swirls arounds, that there is Good News.
No matter what the headlines say, no matter the debates that rage on, no matter the daily statistical reports, there has been, there is, and there will always be Good News. For there was Good News even on that darkest of days – Good Friday. On that day that saw the absolute worst that humanity had to offer, on that day that darkness cover the whole land. Good News won that day – for at that hour the cruciform light of God shattered every darkness, even the darkness of death.
There is Good News for us today and every day because we have a Savior who has set us free. A Savior whose name is not President Trump, whose name is not President-Elect Biden, but whose name is the sweetest name of all – Jesus. There is Good News for us today and everyday because God, not mortals, is in control. There is Good News for us today and everyday because our true citizenship is not of this world, but resides in the Kingdom of God, the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem. All our hope on God is founded, and that is why we can believe the Good News no matter what headlines, and pundits, and grief tries to tell us.
Friends, no matter where you stand on the response to the pandemic, your emotional response to the election results, today we must rejoice for we are people of the Good News of God. No matter what happens next, God is in control.
Around us there are glimpses of what is possible. In recent days as national attention has focused on a few vote counting locations and the protests around them, stories have started to pop up about what is happening inside those well watched walls. Poll workers, Republicans and Democrats, have started to let down their guards. They have started to stop seeing each other of oppositional political operatives, and have begun to see each other through the lens of their humanity. Relationships are being formed, new bonds of friendship are being established.
Yesterday at our Diocesan Special Convention, Bishop Knisely drew our attention to glimpses of Good News closer to home. He raised up our resilience: the way we have worked, and struggled, and toiled to discover new ways of being the Church; in our devotion to continuing the worship of God; in our willingness to try new things and take risks for the sake of the Gospel; in our dedication to caring for our neighbors; even in our willingness to be a bit silly and offer distractions of joy. Good News is all around us if we dare to open our eyes.
No matter what lies ahead, if you only remember one thing I say, let it be this: there has been, there is, and there will always be Good News. That is the very promise of God.
As we traverse the stony road of this moment our task is to be prepared for whatever comes next.
“The kingdom of heaven,” we hear from Matthew today, “will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps” (Matthew 25:1-4, NRSV).
Today we hear the parable of the ten bridesmaids. We hear of five wise and five foolish waiting for the bridegroom to come. As the parable unfolds the bridegroom is delayed. The hour is late and the bridesmaids start to fall asleep. But then, at midnight, the announcement is made. The waiting is over, they can see the bridegroom coming. The bridesmaids awake from their slumber, and get themselves together so they can go with the bridegroom to the wedding banquet. As they trim their lamps the five foolish bridesmaids discover they are out of oil, so they go off to buy more. In so doing, they miss the arrival of the bridegroom and the door was shut on the wedding banquet.
We are still in the long stretch of the Sundays after Pentecost, but this is an Advent story.
This is about watching and waiting and making ourselves ready for the once and future coming of God. This section of Matthew’s Gospel, is all about orienting our attention towards the triumph of God in the second coming of Christ. This is a section crying out to us, “people get ready!” God is at work making things right. The bridegroom might be delayed, but the bridegroom is coming.
We, the Church, are those bridesmaids awaiting the coming of the bridegroom. We must decide if we will wait wisely or if we will wait foolishly.
The arrival of the bridegroom is intended to signal the beginning of the feast: There will be unbridled joy, feasting beyond comprehension, a party to end all parties. As the wait begins, the air is filled with effervescent energy like those nervous butterflies that linger in our stomachs. But the longer we wait, the more our energy goes flat, the more doubt and worry come to the forefront of our minds. Waiting is hard. Waiting can be dispiriting. When we wait too long, we might be tempted to give up hope feeling as if we have been stood up. But our faith allows us to never hope in vain.
The promise that the bridegroom comes, the promise that the Lord will come, sustains us in our waiting. It keeps us going through the night even as we sleep, because God always fulfills God’s promises.
Though it is hard, we continue to wait. God understands our weaknesses, our frailty, God never asks for perpetual alertness. God does not ask us to literally stay awake henceforth and forever more. That would turn us in to a bunch of over exhausted zombies with the inability to actually carry out our ministries. What God asks of us is to be prepared, to come with reverses just in case, to store up what we need as we await the day of God’s coming.
We must think about what it means for us to be ready. It might not be Advent yet, but we are always an Advent church – we are always about the work of making ourselves ready for the coming of God.
Like the bridesmaids we do not know when the bridegroom will come. We do not know how long this journey will last, nor do we know when the Kingdom of God will break forth in fullness. But we know the day will come when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NRSV).
There is arguably no prophet with a stronger voice for justice than Amos. Throughout the book which bears his name, Amos is unrelenting and uncompromising in his indictment of those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7, NRSV) and those who deny the dignity and personhood of others. Amos is brilliant with his use of rhetoric to get his message to the people, and he does not shy away from the prophetic role of warning of the coming judgment of God. As The Rev’d Dr. Carolyn J. Sharp writes in her book Old Testament Prophets for Today, “Amos is a terrifying prophet of judgement whose uncompromising call to spiritual integrity leaves his audience no place to hide” (Carolyn J. Sharp, Old Testament Prophets for Today, p. 34).
The prophecy that Amos declares today is the promise that God’s righteousness is coming, and we better look out if we refuse to seek the Lord and abandon living with integrity.
God’s justice will one day roll down, not like a gentle flowing stream through peaceful and serene woods, but like a flash flood. God’s justice is a perpetual, unstoppable, flood of righteousness that will sweep away every callous indifference to poverty, every narcissistic act, every mark of injustice, every lie and falsehood, every stroke of violence against them whole of the created order. The day is coming when God will make all things right.
As we awaiting the coming of the bridegroom, as we awaiting the flood waters of God, as we await the end of this pandemic and political cycles that seem to never end, we must get ready. It is our role, our task, to keep our lamps burning, to figure out how to ride the tide of God’s righteousness and share in the work that will “move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.”
We are in a moment, a moment that is filled with Good News if we dare to believe it.
In a moment, for our postlude, Jean will play Hymn 607 “O God of every nation.” I offer you the words of this hymn as our prayer of preparation to follow God into that great and eternal banquet:
O God of every nation, of every race and land,
redeem the whole creation with your almighty hand;
where hate and fear divide us and bitter threats are hurled,
in love and mercy guide us and heal our strife-torn world.
From search for wealth and power and scorn of truth and right,
from trust in bombs that shower destruction through the night,
from pride of race and nation and blindness to your way,
deliver every nation, eternal God, we pray!
Lord, strengthen all who labor that we may find release
from fear of rattling saber, from dread of war’s increase;
when hope and courage falter, your still small voice be heard;
with faith that none can alter, your servants undergird.
Keep bright in us the vision of days when war shall cease,
when hatred and division give way to love and peace,
till dawns the morning glorious when truth and justice reign
and Christ shall rule victorious o’er all the world’s domain.
Sermon for All Saints’ Day (1 November 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
From My Book of the Church’s Year by Enid M. Chadwick http://anglicanhistory.org/children/chadwick_year/Pages/40.html
Growing up I sang in the children’s choir at the parish my family attended. One of the most prominent memories I have from this time was the song we would sing each and every All Saints’ Sunday. Maybe you have heard it. It begins something like this, “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew” (The Hymn 1982, Hymn 293). There we were lined up in front of the church in our bright red robes, looking oh so adorable. Then in the middle part of each verse when different types of saints are named, we would hold up little cartoon images on popsicle sticks as we sang the words corresponding to the images. This was a carefully choreographed moment to make sure that the visuals lined up with the words. After all it would be embarrassing if you held up someone slain by a fierce wild beast when you were supposed to be holding up a queen.
As fond as I am of this memory, from where I stand today, I fear that by reducing Hymn 293 to something children’s choirs sing once a year allows us to focus more on the cute factor than the story being told. It enables us to reduce the saints of God to cartoon characters dancing around to a catchy tune.
The words of this hymn are nothing to make light of. They are a serious proclamation of the life of discipleship, and a prayer that God would help us follow in the footsteps of the saints in all virtuous and godly living.
It is meet and right that we sing a song of the saints of God. It is a good and joyful thing to remember and celebrate the ministries of those who stand in that great cloud of witnesses. It is absolutely necessary for us to follow in their footsteps attempting to live our lives as exemplars of the faith as well.
So who are these saints of God, these patient, brave, and true individuals who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord the loved and knew?
One was a doctor, like St. Luke the Evangelist. Tradition tells us that blessed Luke was a physician. His telling of salvation history focuses prominently on healing and expanding the understanding of who is deemed worthy of inclusion. Luke’s Gospel prominently features the role of women and people on the margins. The very first people to hear of the birth of Jesus are the shepherds, those living figuratively and literally on the margins of society. Luke’s story reminds us that we are called to the work of healing. That healing work is not just about curing illnesses, it is about healing the bonds of affection that have been broken between us, it is about healing the divisions in our communities, it is about working for the healing and wholeness of those who have been excluded by virtue of their identity.
One was a Queen, like blessed Margaret of Scotland. Margaret was discouraged by the lack of seriousness people had for their faith. So she set out to renew the commitment to faith in Scotland. She insisted on the observance of Lent, and that on the Lord’s day people devoted themselves only to prayer. Her devotion was not only about a life of prayer, she founded schools, hospitals, and orphanages, and she used her influence to improve the quality of life for the most isolated people. She and her husband even rebuilt the monastery on the island of Iona. Margaret’s witness reminds us of the need to have prayer and devotion to God at the center of our lives. Her life is a testament to what happens when we allow that prayer to transform us. Following her example may we use whatever power and privilege we have to improve the quality of life for those around us.
One was a soldier, like blessed Martin of Tours. Martin was a member of the Roman army, and the story goes that one day he was approached by a poor man who asked for alms in the name of Christ. Martin, drew his sword, cut off part of his military cloak and gave it to the beggar. The next night, Jesus appeared to Martin half clothed in his cloak. Martin goes on to become a monk and much to his dismay is elected Bishop of Tours in the year 372. Martin was not the most popular amongst his fellow bishops, because of his advocacy work to cease any violence in the name of Christ, and because he was always a staunch defender of those in need. The life of blessed Martin of Tours reminds us of the need to stand up to empires of oppression, to lay down the sword, and to always remember Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40, NRSV).
One was a priest . . . okay lots of people on the calendar of saints are clergy. There’s George Herbert and Florence Li Tim-Oi, there’s John Mason Neale and Thomas Cranmer, to name a few. There is one person, with a local connection, I think we should include in this category. You see he never was actually ordained, but he was a seminarian. Jonathan Myrick Daniels was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire. He was a student at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During his time as a seminarian Daniels work at Christ Church in Providence, Rhode Island. On March of 1965, Daniels heard the call of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to go to Selma, Alabama and help secure the right to vote for all citizens. Daniels would end up taking a leave of absence from seminary to go work in Alabama, having the conviction of his calling deepened by the the words of the Magnificat he heard each day at Evening Prayer. On August 14, 1965 Daniels and others had been released from jail and were walking to a general store. When they arrived they were greeted by a man with a gun. Daniels pulled sixteen-year old Ruby Sales out of the way, and in doing so was shot and killed.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels is not some person from a far off time and place. He spent most of his life living in New England, he worked in Rhode Island, and there are still people around today who knew him. Daniels reminds us of the cost of discipleship, he reminds us to make no peace with oppression; he reminds that we are called to give everything for the sake of the Gospel. And I cannot help but think of him as we are in the final days of voting in this current election cycle. If you have not voted yet, please do. Too many people died securing that right and responsibly for us to ignore it.
I could go on and on about the saints. The Church has a calendar full of them. These stories are just snapshots of the lives we celebrate today; glimpses into the life that we profess we desire when we sing, “I mean to be one too.” Maybe some day we will find ways in our liturgical life here at St. Thomas to keep these saint days throughout the year so we can be inspired to be more like them.
All Saints’ Day is the day we remember the valiant deeds of those who are the exemplars of our faith. This day is about those who gave absolutely everything, the entirety of their beings, their hearts, minds, souls, and sometimes their final breath to follow Jesus and proclaim the Gospel in word and deed.
Tomorrow, on All Souls’ Day, we will remember the blessed dead of our own lives, but today we must hold fast to saints of the Church. As we celebrate them today let us be reminded of our destiny and unity in the body of Christ which cannot be destroyed, not even by death.
From the Book of Revelation, we hear the story of those who have come out of the great ordeal. We hear, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9, NRSV). Just as they professed with their lives, now they proclaim in one voice “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10, NRSV)! After the struggles and trials and tribulations of this life, they now rejoice for all eternity sounding the throne of God. The work of their lives was a preparation for this very moment. Finally they have received their reward, and rest in that place where “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of live, and God will wipe away ever tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17, NRSV).
The promise they now enjoy, is one that is prepared for us as well. This is the assurance to enable us to withstand all that this world will throw at us; to preserve when the forces of wickedness do everything to try to stop the work God in our midst. We too have the opportunity to dwell around the throne of God when the hour comes because we are children of God.
Today’s epistle reminds us to stop and look and pay attention to God’s abiding presence in our lives: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1, NRSV). We have been claimed as God’s, we are heirs of the promise. Through Baptism we are marked as Christ’s own for ever, we are united with all those who have gone before; through Baptism we share in the death and resurrection of Christ, and are commissioned to follow the example of the saints from ages past. We do not know what will happen next, we do not know what lies ahead for us on our journey of faith, but “what we do know is this: when [God] is revealed, we will be like [God]” (1 John 3:2, NRSV).
We are called to be saints. That is the journey set before us, the mission we have been given, as children of God. Jesus’ inaugural sermon, which we hear Matthew’s version of today, might give us a hint to what saintly living is like.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus claims that the poor, the mournful, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the peaceful, and the persecuted are blessed. They are the ones whose lives are aligned with the heart and character of God. They are the ones who will enter heaven, experience comfort, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, and be called children of God. This is what God declares as normative. But, you and I know this is not what is seen as normative around us.
We live in a world where the loudest, strongest, wealthiest, and most privileged people prey on the less fortunate. We live in a world where greed and selfishness pay big time, while meekness, mercy, and mournfulness earn little more than contempt. We live in a world where securing my own ease and comfort is my right – no matter the impact on anyone else.
Jesus’ inaugural sermon announces that his ministry is going to topple and overturn the way things are and bring about a new normal. The establishment of this new normal is the work of God and God’s people in every time and place.
All the saints on the Church’s calendar participated in the transformational work of the Gospel. They did whatever they could to make the Kingdom of God more real than it was the day before. They used their power to help establish God’s new normal. That is what we are called to do. We are called to make God’s normal, the normal of our lives.
Let us therefore be like blessed Luke and work for the healing of the world. Let us be like blessed Margaret and capture a zeal for our faith. Let us be like blessed Martin and put down the weapons of war. Let us be like blessed Jonathan and stand up for justice in the face of violence and oppression, let us make sure everyone has the opportunity to make their voice heard, that everyone is treated as the beloved child of God that they are.
I wonder what our lives, and the lives of the world around us, would be like if we started thinking of Hymn 293, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” as a commissioning instead of a good hymn for children’s choirs. The world is filled with saints today, the question is, do we really mean to be one too?
Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (25 October 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
“What is love? / Oh baby, don’t hurt me / Don’t hurt me / no more” (Haddaway, “What is Love?”, 1993). The 1993 smash hit by Trinidadian-German Eurodance artist Haddaway tells in a few words the story of gut-wrenching heartache. Amidst the upbeat tempo and repetitive refrain, the artist tells of the pain when love is freely offered, yet not reciprocated. Haddaway does not answer the question that titles this song; though, a picture is painted that love requires us to be vulnerable and exposes us to the possibility of anguish and suffering.
Now that this ear worm is firmly planted in my head and maybe in yours too, let us consider that profound question which titles the song: What is love?
Discerning the nature of love is one of the most important quests we embark on as human beings. Love is one of the necessary pillars of our lives. But what exactly is it?
I can think of no word in the English language that we have reduced, deflated, and ruined more than the word love. Take a moment and think of all the times and ways this word gets used. “I love this TV show,” “I love ice cream,” “I love cozying up with a good book,” “I love you,” and so on and so forth. Do we really mean love, when we say all these things? As much as we might enjoy a good book or a delicious meal, do we really feel the same way about them as we do about our families chosen and biological? Should we really be using the same word upon which “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40, NRSV) to describe our fondness for a television program?
How do we define love?
If you are the Oxford English Dictionary you define it as “senes relating to affection and attachment” or as “a feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone, typically arising from a recognition of attractive qualities, from natural affinity, or from sympathy and manifesting itself in concern for the other’s welfare and pleasure in his or her presence” (https://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/110566).
I do not know about you, but as fond as I am of the OED, that definition does not do anything for me. I feel like I know more about love from watching the movie The Princess Bride and hearing Miracle Max, played by Billy Crystal, say, “True love is the greatest thing in the world – except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.”
The world around us defines love in so many and varied ways that it can be used to describe our feelings about anything and everything. Our faith on the other hand, is a bit more disciplined when it comes to the concept of love.
We hear in Matthew’s Gospel another test question for Jesus. This is a further attempt to trap Jesus as the saga to build a case against him continues to unfold in these early days of Holy Week. Matthew tells us that having heard that the Sadducees were unsuccessful in trapping Jesus, the Pharisees gather together to see if they can be more successful. So “one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest’” (Matthew 22:35-36, NRSV).
This lawyer is asking Jesus to pick just one law out of the more than 600 laws contained in the Torah. He is asking Jesus a question with significantly more consequence than when a child asks a parent, “which child is the favorite.” I imagine members of the crowd wondering how he could even begin to answer this question. How do you pick just one law as the greatest?
As his answer, Jesus quotes Judaism’s most fundamental, ancient, and widely recited bible passage taken from the book of Deuteronomy. Jesus answers with the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your [mind]” (Deuteronomy 6:5, NRSV). Jesus declares this is the first and greatest commandment.
Not allowing himself to be manipulated or tricked Jesus adds to what he says. He does not just offer one commandment, he offers two. Jesus goes on to say, “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:39-40, NRSV). This second commandant Jesus quotes, is not something he pulled out of thin air. He pairs the Shema with a quote from the Book of Leviticus. When asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus answers by summarizing the entirety of the law. Jesus does not pick one answer, he picks them all.
In this exchange at the end of Jesus’ earthly life, Matthew takes us back to the very beginning of his teaching ministry. In the midst of what is arguably the most beloved sermon of all time, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17, NRSV). In Jesus’ response to this last question he not only summarizes the law, he summarizes what his ministry and mission is all about: Love God; love your neighbor. Everything that matters in the entirety of this world, hangs on these two commandments. Everything that matters hangs on this one single word: love.
It seems to me that if everything in the world hangs on love, than maybe we need to expand our vocabulary a bit and come up with other words to describe our affections and passion for food and popular culture.
Shaped as we are by our contemporary society, we tend to think of love as a feeling. Blogger Debie Thomas describes this feeling as, “a spontaneous and free-flowing feeling that arises out of our own enjoyment, our own sense of kinship and affinity” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “The Greatest Commandments,” https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2792). But that is not how Jesus defines love. Jesus defines love as a commandment, the greatest commandment, and last time I checked, we cannot manufacture feelings on command.
Love is not a matter of personal affinity, feeling, or preference. Love is about obedience to the one we call “Lord.” Love is not a feeling. Love is a way of life.
If Jesus’ answer to today’s question is the recapitulation of his ministry, than we can look back on his example to see what love as a way of life is all about. Biblical love, Jesus’ love, is about being vulnerable, it is about trust, it is about breaking down barriers and margins. It takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation. Love means going to places and interacting with people that society tells us to ignore and avoid. Love means being willing to give of ourselves for the safety and wellbeing of others – even if that comes at a great cost to us and our privilege. Love requires urgency and action. It requires that we practice and cultivate a depth of compassion that’s gut-punching. The love upon which hangs all the law and the prophets requires that we train ourselves to hunger for justice so fiercely that we rearrange our lives in order to purse it.
We are called to love the way God loves: indiscriminately, unabashedly, and with absolutely every fiber of our being. We are to love God with all that we have and all that we are, and we are to love our neighbors the exact same way.
This morning, paired with this lesson on the greatest commandment from Matthew, we hear from the Book of Leviticus the very words that Jesus quotes.
Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus, is the climax chapter of the book. It is the one most often quoted and read (Torah Commentary, 889). This is a section all about the holiness of life. But this holiness is not about individuals, it is addressed to the entire community of Israel. This is not personal, it is communal.
These are instructions for how a community is to live together. These are instructions about how God’s people are to live in response to their relationship with God. Notice the number of times in today’s passage humanity’s call is connected to God: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy,” “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, NRSV). Everything the community is to do is done out of obedience to God, it is all rooted in love of God, it is this response to God’s love and generosity towards us. We live in this way because God requires it of us. Or to put in the words of one of the prophets, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV).
What is love? As St. Paul writes, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, NRSV). By the way, despite its popularity at weddings, these words are not about the love shared between two people. These words, much like the words from Leviticus, describe how a community established upon the love of God is to live together.
Love is the very nature of God. Love is the way that Jesus trod. Love is the way we are invited to follow.
Love, true love, is the greatest thing in the whole word. Jesus tells us the summation of the entirety of the law mere days before he demonstrates what love looks like in action. For the way of love that Jesus walks ahead of us, is way that forces us to confront the very worst of humanity. The way of love goes directly to the heart of Good Friday.
On that most solemn of days God takes the very worst that humanity can do, God takes a means of shameful death, and transforms it into the most amazing source of life for the entirety of creation. As Jesus hangs on the cross, the cruciform light of love covers the whole world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16. NRSV).
That, my friends, is the very definition of love, and we are called to do likewise. We are called to nothing less than to love the way that God loves. For our lives are to be a mirror of the love we have received from God, a mirror reflection love out on the world.
My personal hero and greatest influence for ministry, George Herbert, that great 16th-17th century English priest and poet, captures rather profoundly the nature of divine love in his poem “Love (III)” which also happens to be the text for one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Five Mystical Songs.”
Love bade we welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d anything.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
There is absolutely nothing we can to do, no merit great enough, to earn God’s love. Some might even argue that we, in our sinfulness, are not deserving of God’s love. Sometimes we might even wonder if we are worthy of it: for love bade us welcome, yet our souls drew back. But the beauty, the power, the grace of God’s love, is that God takes our hand, God smiles at our reluctance and any sense of unworthiness we have, and says none of that matters. God draws near to us and says please accept this most ultimate gift, the gift of my love.
When we are commanded to love God with all our mind, soul, and strength; when we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves; we are commanded to love like this: to love God and our neighbor no matter the cost. There is nothing sentimental about this love. This is not some fleeting feeling, it is the firm foundation upon which we stand.
Jesus has answered all of the questions set before him, now it is time for us to submit our answers. How will we live in accordance with the greatest commandment? How will we love God and our neighbor today?
Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (18 October 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
The Tribute Money (c. 1610-1615) by Peter Paul Rubens, Legion of Honor, San Francisco. Public Domain.
If upon hearing today’s Gospel passage you were hoping to find biblical warrant and precedent to not pay your taxes, I have some bad news for you. I am sorry to say that when you go to pay your taxes next year, you cannot claim the Bible as some massive exemption to get out of paying your tax bill.
In truth, the heart of this passage, has little to do with our connection to political and governmental entities. The lesson in this passage, what we are supposed to take away, is this: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, NRSV). Even more specifically, it is important that we focus in on the second half of that quote. For what matters most, is that we give to God the things that are God’s.
Obviously this begs the question – what things are God’s? How do we distinguish God’s things from the things of others – say, for instance, just off the top of my head – the things that are the emperor’s. Well here is a hint, the answer to that questions requires that we look back – that we look way back.
But before we get to the answer, we have to look at the question.
For the last several weeks we have been hearing Matthew’s account of the early events of Holy Week. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he has cleansed the temple, and has told three parables of judgement illustrating that the religious leaders have failed to see the new thing God is doing in their midst.
To say that the religious leaders are less than thrilled with what Jesus has been up to, would be an understatement. Matthew makes clear throughout the three parables of judgment, the parables we have heard over the last three weeks, that the religious authorities desire to arrest Jesus. After the second parable Matthew tells us, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (Matthew 22:45-46, NRSV). But, after a third parable of judgment, the religious leaders have had enough. We enter the story today by hearing, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” (Matthew 22:15, NRSV).
Matthew sets up for us that anything else these religious leaders ask should be viewed through the lens of their nefarious intent. This next stretch of engagement between Jesus and the religious authorities is often described by scholars as “controversy dialogues.” In these exchanges the dialogue partners vie for honor through conversational combat. As one commentary puts it, “These exchanges are more than mere dialogues; they are duels: the speakers thrust, deflect, counter-thrust. This is a war of words” (https://yalebiblestudy.org/courses/the-gospel-of-matthew/lessons/stories-of-the-end-study-guide/). In this verbal skirmish Jesus begins with a defensive posture.
In setting up their question, the Pharisees address Jesus with mocking, insincere, “compliments.” They are attempting to use flattery to trick him. They attempt to use one of his own techniques and favorite questions against him. They ask, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (22:16-17).
In a not so surprising turn of events, Jesus does not fall for their trap. Jesus knows their intentions are sinister. Their very identity tips their hand.
While little is known about the Herodians, their name suggests that they were a secular political party that supported the rule of Herod the Great. One commentary points out that they were, “supporters of Herod and his successors as puppet kings, appointed by Rome” (The Cambridge Annotated Study Bible). These were pro-Roman supporters with approval of the empire. The Pharisees, on the other hand, have a bit more complicated relationship with the Roman empire. They resented the Roman occupation, but accepted it as a necessary evil. They advocated for submission to Roman rule as long as that did not interfere with their religious practices. So bottom line, these two groups come together, with varying degrees of pro-Roman support. Jesus would have known all this, thus allowing him to see right through their trickery.
As this verbal skirmish goes on, Jesus answers the questions of the Pharisees and the Herodians on his own terms. He asks for the coin used to pay the tax, and one is provided. This Roman currency bears the image and title of the emperor, as the crowd easily identifies.
Then, Jesus offers an ambiguous “both-and” sort of answer: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (22:21). As Debie Thomas writes, “How typical of Jesus – not only to respond to a challenge with an even greater challenge, but to insist that the relationship between faith and politics is too complex to reduce to platitude – or tweets.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “What belongs to God” https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2787).
So there, in all its ambiguous glory, is Jesus’ answer to the question presented him today. He does not give a simple yes or no answer to the question of taxation. And, it is important to note what Jesus does not say. He does not say that there are two distinct realms, one secular and one religious, that require equal respect and fidelity from us.
What Jesus says is far more complicated than that. The coin is already the emperor’s, so give it to him. We must also give to God that which is already God’s. Jesus’ answer begs a much harder question: What belongs to God?
Earlier in this sermon, I offered a hint as to the answer to this question. I said that we have to look back, way back, to find the answer. I wonder if you have figured it out what I was referring to?
I wonder if these words sound familiar: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, NRSV). Or how about these, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26, NRSV).
From the very beginning of Scripture, from the literal first words of the Bible, it is clear that everything belongs to God. In the creation account recalled in the first chapter of Genesis we are told that humanity is created in the image of God. So if a coin which bears the likeness of the emperor belongs to the emperor, than each and every human being belongs to God for we bear God’s likeness.
God has stamped us, and all of creation, from the very beginning. By virtue of our Baptism we have been “marked as Christ’s own for ever” (BCP p.308). Therefore, if we are to give to God the things that are God’s we must give God everything. We owe God the entirety of ourselves. We cannot indulge the fantasy that somehow we can divide the secular from the sacred. We cannot separate Caesar’s realm from God’s realm when everything – without exception – belongs to God. For “we believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen” (Nicene Creed, BCP p. 358).
Giving God the things which are God’s requires that we offer God unparalleled devotion for we have been commanded to love God will all our heart, and soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37, NRSV). Or, in the words of my favorite Eucharistic prayer, “here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee” (The Book of Common Prayer, 336). We owe God nothing less than the absolute fullness and totality of who we are.
The Scriptural record supports the supremacy of God over all else.
Today we hear the psalmist declare, “As for the gods of the nations, they are but idols; but it is the Lord who made the heavens” (Psalm 96:5, BCP). And from the Book of Isaiah we hear, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:4-6, NRSV).
There is no power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth that surpasses the power of God. There is one Lord, one God, besides whom there is no other.
So let us give God the glory. Let us “Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; ascribe to the Lord honor and power” (Psalm 96:7, BCP).
But besides worshipping “the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 96:9, BCP), what does it mean to give to God the things which are God’s? How do we bear forth God’s image while our families, communities, and churches splinter over political and cultural differences that seem unbridgeable? How do we live into the all-encompassing reign of God while a scorched-earth, ideology-driven, “the end justifies the means” divisiveness reigns within American Christendom?
We must recognize that we are to see all people as beloved Children of God. We must recognize that all people are loved and claimed by God and we must treat them accordingly. We must “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and love our neighbors as ourselves (The Book of Common Prayer, 305). We must love as God loves. Extending care and compassion to all. That means we cannot demonize, vilify, or hate those who are different from us. It seems that every day we are assaulted by images of hate, and there is no lack of encouragement to have disdain for those who disagree with us on the political, theological, ideological, and every other divide. As a nation we are divided, anguished, bruised, and broken. We are in the midst of a bitter time, and seem to be on the brink of existential crisis. We give to God the things that are God’s, by not succumbing to the hate filled temptation around us. We give to God the things that are God’s, by making God’s love incarnate in our time.
This is what it looks like to offer God the entirety of ourselves right now. We wear masks and practice social distancing. We offer care, support, and compassion to the sick, the friendless, and the needy. We find pandemic appropriate ways to carry out our outreach ministries. We check in on others and offer to help shoulder the burdens of life so no one has to carry the weight alone. We give of our resources – our time, talent, and treasure – to our parish and to ministries and organizations that support the work of God in the world. We educate ourselves and fully participate in the civic life of our communities and our nation. We vote faithfully and get souls to the polls. We actively engage in anti-racist work and the dismantling of white supremacy. We demand justice for those to whom justice has long been denied. We pray without ceasing, we unabashedly proclaim the Good News of God, and we present ourselves fully to God always listening and discerning to what God is calling us to do in this time and place. We give God that which is God’s when we claim our God given identity and live as who we truly are – bearers of God’s image, bearers of God’s light in a dark and hurting world.
Jesus’ declaration today not only demands much from us, it also offers a word of comfort. If everything belongs to God, then everything is under God’s authority. That means that the challenges of this pandemic, this election season, the economic uncertainty, the rampant bigotry, hatred, violence, racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, cisgenderism and transphobia, classism, and ableism will not have the last word. The rulers of this world, the powers and principalities of the kingdom of earth, will pass away. One day God’s love will reign supreme. One day the Kingdom of God will be fully released.
Until that day, let us hold fast to the love of God. Until that day, let us persevere in resisting evil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness. Until that day, let us faithfully commit ourselves once more to giving all that we have and all that we are to God.
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (11 October 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
Parable of the Great Banquet by Brunswick Monogrammist (circa 1525), location: National Museum, Warsaw. Public Domain.
For the past two Sundays we have been sitting with Jesus in the final days of his earthly life. Beginning two weeks ago, we heard the encounter Jesus had with the religious leaders, with the chief priests and the elders of the people, on the day we now call Monday in Holy Week. In this encounter the religious establishment challenges Jesus on the source of his authority. They want to know who gave him the power to do all that he is doing. They want to know who does he think he is, challenging the status quo and upsetting the delicate balance of, “we’ve always done it this way.”
So the leaders ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority” (Matthew21:23, NRSV)? The leaders are effectively asking, “Who do you think you are?” All that we have heard two weeks ago, last week, and today begins with this question. This a very loaded question, meant to trap Jesus and fuel the fire of the case mounting against him. For the people asking this question will be the same people who find Jesus guilty and sentence him to death.
Instead of answering the question about authority, Jesus poses a question of his own. He asks the religious leaders about John the Baptist, and if John’s ministry has come from God or humanity. In the same way the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus, this question sets them up. From where they sit there is no right answer, so instead they hedge their bets and feign ignorance. Jesus then replies, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Matthew 21:27b, NRSV).
In other times in the Gospel narrative Jesus uses moments such as this as occasions of evangelism. But here, maybe recognizing the hour has come, Jesus chooses words of judgment instead. He immediately launches into three parables, one right after the other.
After the second parable, the one we heard last Sunday, the religious leaders pick up on what Jesus is doing. After the second parable it all starts to click, and they realize Jesus is speaking about them.
In these parables, Jesus is pronouncing judgment on those who question the authority of God. Jesus is pronouncing judgment on those who refuse to see the new thing God is doing in the world. Jesus is pronouncing judgment on those who have claimed power and authority over others, on those who have demonized people on the margins and fringes of society, on those who claim a false sense of moral superiority over their neighbors. Those whom Jesus pronounces judgment upon, will have to sit back and watch all those they have labeled as outsiders, all those they have labeled as unworthy, enter the Kingdom of God ahead of them.
Today’s Gospel passage begins, “Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables” (Matthew 22:1, NRSV). I wonder if those who have followed Jesus into Jerusalem and hear him say, “The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (Matthew 22:2, NRSV), think to themselves, “here it comes, Jesus is really going to give it to them now.”
We would be wise to always be mindful of those moments when we find ourselves thinking such thoughts. For as this parable of the wedding banquet makes clear, no one gets off the hook easy with Jesus.
New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, in the introduction to her book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi talks about the power of parables for us today. She writes:
What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge. Our reaction to them should be one of resistance rather than acceptance. For our own comfort, we may want to foreclose the meaning rather than allow the parable to open into multiple interpretations. We are probably more comfortable proclaiming a creed than prompting a conversation or pursuing a call.
Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, “I really like that” or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough (Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne 2014), 3).
I often find myself wondering, to use Levine’s words, if we listen well enough to Jesus’ parables. I wonder if we open ourselves to these teachings in a way that allows them to become more than beloved stories to adorn children’s bibles. I wonder what happens when we approach this parable – the parable of the wedding banquet – with eyes, and ears, and minds, and hearts wide open.
In this parable, the king gives a wedding banquet for his son. When the preparations have been made, and all is ready, the king sends his slaves out to gather those who have been invited, but they do not come. A second time the king sends out his slaves, giving them a message to tell the invited guests, but they still do not come. Some guests go off indifferent to the invitation, and others capture the slaves, brutally mistreat them, and kill them. Just like in the parable of the wicked tenants the messengers in this parable are violently rejected, but whereas in the previous parable the judgment for those actions is merely predicted, here it is part of the story.
The king is enraged by the behavior of the invited guests, and therefore sends his army to destroy their city. There are some who say this part of the story is a latter addition. But as Douglas R. A. Hare points out, “the narrative makes more sense if they are omitted. How bizarre to conduct a war while the roasted oxen wait to be eaten” (Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretations: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 251)! While this seems to be an odd narrative note, and does not make sense in the story, it is part of the allegorical nature of these parables. It is part of the message that there are consequences for rejecting the messages of God.
As much as we might wish to soften this parable, as much as we might be tempted to gloss over this part of the story and skip to the end, we cannot do that. This is a harsh, hyperbolic story, steeped in violence. There is a danger of trying to smooth out the ragged edges of what Jesus has to say.
For centuries in an attempt to sanitize this message, and make it more palatable for Christians to hear, we have neatly put all of the characters in boxes that fit our agendas. As Debie Thomas writes of this interpretive strategy:
There is no question about it; this is a convenient interpretation. For us, I mean. No discomfort or affliction to speak of – just one heck of a party. What could be better? The snobs who renege on their RSVPs get their comeuppance – they die – but we who have the good sense to say “yes” to the king end up snug and cosy in his palace, feasting on wine and caviar while the world burns. (Debie Thomas, “The God Who Isn’t.” Journey with Jesus. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2777.
It is a dangerous thing for us to view all of these parables in a way that makes the Jewish leadership the villains and the followers of Jesus the heroes. It is dangerous because that attitude has lead to centuries of anti-Semitism, of violence against the Jewish community, all in the name of Christ.
We cannot become comfortable and complacent with these parables of judgment for lives are indeed on the line both in this life and the life to come. It is not our place to judge others, that power belongs to God and God along. For if we start condemning others, how are we behaving any differently than the behavior Jesus condemns in these stories. When we start consigning people to enteral punishment and damnation we are attempting to usurp God’s power, claiming it as our own, and blinding ourselves to how God is actually working in the world.
We cannot skip over the violence in this parable, because of all the violence and hatred Christianity has birthed into the world from generations of interpretive softening of this text and others like it.
If we are tempted to become too comfortable with our inherited interpretations, if we are tempted to share in the violent judgment of declaring who the invited guests represent, then this final installment of the Monday in Holy Week trilogy of parables has a message for those of us sitting comfortably at the wedding banquet.
While not the original guest list, the wedding hall is finally filled. The king is walking around seeing all the people there, and he notices one guest improperly dressed. The king says to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe” (Matthew 22:12, NRSV)? The man was speechless. “Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:13-14, NRSV).
This is a reminder to all who follow Jesus that we are by no means exempt from the judgment that fell on those who rejected Jesus and the gospel. This warning comes lest we get too comfortable with seeing the judgment of others as our justification. Following Jesus is about more than just saying the right things and showing up occasionally. Following Jesus is about living our lives in a very particular way – it is about conforming our lives to the teachings of Jesus.
Instead of seeing this parable as some sort of transfer of status from the Jewish community to the followers of Jesus, we should see this as a lesson about the age to come. The required garment is not about messing up on party dress code – it is not showing up in a suit when black tie was required, the required garment is righteousness – it is how we live our lives. The man who is cast out of the banquet is cast out because he accepted the invitation but refused to conform his life to the gospel.
There are consequences for our actions, and no one is exempt from the judgment of God. We must therefore be mindful of what we have clothed ourselves with. Are we clothed with Christ, or with the world? For what we put on, determines our place at the table.
This banquet imagery representing the fullness of God’s kingdom, representing the age to come, is also found in our reading from Isaiah and in the Psalm appointed for today. The prophet Isaiah declares, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-ages wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6, NRSV). At this amazingly stunning and sumptuous banquet God will fulfill God’s promises, “he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:7-8, NRSV).
Then we hear the Psalmist say, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Psalm 23:5-6, BCP). This most beloved Psalm reminds us of the banquet that awaits, that allows us to trust there is nothing for us to fear for God is with us to comfort, and guide, and protect us.
The comfort and promises afforded us in these readings assure us that we have nothing to fear, especially in death, as God is with us always. It is for this reason that these two lessons are appointed for the use at funerals. What that liturgy and our faith remind us, is that as we have been united to Christ in our Baptism and share in his death we will also share in his resurrection as well – “for to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended” (The Book of Common Prayer, “Preface: Commemoration of the Dead II,” 382).
If we are intentional about how we clothe ourselves, if we put on Christ, if we hold on to that garment of righteousness, if we persevere through the difficult task of fighting our human impulses and desires, if we refuse to wear the garments of this world, then by the gift offered to us in God’s grace, we will dine at the wedding banquet. If we “keep on doing the things that [we] have learned and received and heard and seen” (Philippians 4:9, NRSV) through the prophets, apostles, martyrs, and all those who stand in that great cloud of witness who have gone before, then we will be prepared for the heavenly feast of God. We will be on that mountain top where “sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting” (The Book of Common Prayer, “The Commendation,” 499).
Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (4 October 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
If we were not currently in the midst of a pandemic, and were able to gather together in person, today would be a day of particular note. During the 10 o’clock service this morning our voices of prayer would be amplified by barks and meows and chirps of praise. Today would be that one day a year where our animal companions great and small would have the opportunity to join us for worship. For today we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, that late 12th century – early 13th century Italian monk and patron saint of animals.
Francis’ reputation is well deserved as he had a robust theology of creation. In the few writings we have of Francis’ we learn that he believed that all living things – plants, animals, humans – were meant to be in relationship with one another and in relationship with God. In his writing known as “Canticle of brother Sun and sister Moon,” Francis makes clear that the way creation praises God best is by living fully into who God has created it to be. Francis whole heartedly believed that we praise God best when we are being the authentic and full versions of our selves. God is best praised when dogs be the best dogs they can be, and cats the best cats they can be, and horses the best horses they can be, and fish the best fish they can be, and us the best people we can be. God is best praised when we recognize our interconnectedness with all of creation and live in harmony together.
This is why on this day, in non-pandemic times, we gather with our furry and not so furry friends to recognize and celebrate the relationship between creation and humanity and pledge to care for and support each other.
In one biography of Francis, it is written, “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated” (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006, p. 404). It seems to me this is because it is easy for us to love our pets, but far more challenging to follow the full example of blessed Francis.
Francis grew up in the aristocratic class in Italy. He had everything, all that he could desire, the best that money could buy. His early years were spent in harmless revelry and fruitless attempts to win military glory. As he got older, Francis began to notice the people living in poverty around him. The encounters he had with beggars and lepers heightened his awareness and planted seeds of conversion.
One day Francis was sitting in the local church, a building that was literally crumbling, and he heard a voice – a voice he understood to be God’s. The voiced called out to him, “Francis, fix my church.” Francis heard these words and took them literally. He went off to his father’s warehouse, took a massive bundle of silk, sold it, and used the proceeds from the sale to fix the church. What an amazing response to the call of God.
Francis’ father was less than thrilled with his son’s generosity. The two end up in an intense argument in the middle of town. Here is where those seeds of conversion planted by witnessing the suffering of others come to harvest.
The story goes that Francis, when confronted by his father, disowns his family, throws his purse at his father’s feet, and even takes off all of his clothes and throws them at his father before walking away completely naked. Francis strips everything away, quite literally, that put a barrier between him and God.
From that moment of conversion, Francis goes on to found an order of Friars to live a life of extreme poverty focused on caring for everyone society places on the margins. He cared for the poor. He cared for the lepers – he bandaged their wounds, ate with them, kissed them. He does what no one else is willing to do.
In time, the monastic order grows and expands, they start to get a bit too fancy for Francis’ taste, they start to actually own things, and few are willing to live the life of extreme poverty that Francis tried to cultivate in the community. So Francis leaves the order and goes on to live this call to strip away everything for the sake of the Gospel.
Francis travels to Jerusalem in the midst of the crusades to try to bring about peace. He built relationships with the Muslim community, they came to trust him and admire him for his dedication to his faith. He got them to agree to a ceasefire. But unfortunately, Francis could not get the Christians to do the same.
In every aspect of his life, beginning with that conversion moment on the street, Francis takes bold and daring action to embody what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Francis lives fully into who God has created and called him to be.
I do not think anyone would suggest that what Francis did, how he lived his life, was easy. I do not know about you, but I am not getting on a plane anytime soon to try to single handedly broker a peace deal in the Middle East; nor am I keen on the idea of selling all my possessions and living in extreme poverty. As much as I want to say, well that is why Francis is a saint and I am not, the scripture appointed for today makes clear that is not a distinction worth holding on to.
The lessons we hear this morning are the lessons appointed for this Sunday, not the lessons appointed for the feast of St. Francis. Even so, these lessons compliment Francis’ life rather well.
The model we witness in Francis’ life, the words we hear from Paul in his letter to the Philippians, and the image of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, remind us that if we truly want to be in that most intimate relationship with God, then we have to set aside everything else.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is using an important rhetorical devise to make his point. To modern ears it sounds like Paul is bragging or being arrogant, but that is not what he is doing. In the minds of first century hearers, Paul’s personal story authenticated his message and gave his voice authority. They would have heard his passion, and recognized that he knows what he is talking about because he has lived it.
Paul achieved great status in his life prior to his conversion – he was in a place of great privilege. After enumerating his accomplishments he goes on to say, “yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8, NRSV).
Paul articulates here, what Francis literally did in the street with his father. Paul casts off every achievement he had, every marker of privilege he was given, because those amount to nothing, they do not even begin to compare to the treasurer that is relationship with God.
When we celebrate people like blessed Francis. When we place statues of him in our yards, or take his feast day as an occasion to give thanks for our animal companions, we must also hold on to the fullness of Francis’ life and witness. We must refuse to look a way from Francis’ embodiment of Paul’s words to the Philippians. Because what Paul and Francis have in common is this: The very foundation of their lives, the cornerstones upon which their identities are built, is Jesus.
In today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, we hear another parable – the parable of the wicked tenants. This is the second parable in a set of three that rebuke the chief priests, the elders of the people, and the Pharisees for not recognizing the new thing God is doing in their midst.
At the end of the parable Jesus asks this question, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants” (Matthew 21:40, NRSV)? The religious leaders answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Matthew 21:41, NRSV).
Jesus goes on, using Scripture they will undoubtedly know, though he asks if they have read it, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Matthew 21:42, NRSV). The leaders get exactly what Jesus has said. They realize he is speaking about them – that they are the wicked tenants. Jesus is clear. Those who do not recognize the new thing God is doing, those who reject God’s work in the world, will miss out on the amazing benefits of being participants in the vineyard – participants in the kingdom of God.
Building upon the first parable in this set, Jesus declares that status means nothings, that authority bestowed by humanity does not compare to the authority of God. As the chief priests, and the elders of the people, and the Pharisees build their case against Jesus; Jesus builds his case that when you refuse to see the new thing God is doing, when you reject the invitation to conversion of life, then you must prepare to face the consequences.
As the beloved hymn, and postlude for today, reminds us, “Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone” (The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 518 v. 1). When we build our lives upon the foundation of God. When we rid ourselves of every barrier, when we forsake the privilege society places upon us, when we count as loss the achievements we think we have earned ourselves, we recognize that the true calling, the true prize, the true thing worth striving for, is the wholly gratuitous gift of relationship with God and the unimaginable life that follows.
In this moment in our life together, we need a whole lot more Francis’ in our midst. And, as nice as it would be, I am not talking about selling some possession to donate the funds needed to restore our building. Though, I will not object if someone does.
We live in an age where society tells us that we must have the new and latest things, where it is a grave faux pas to be caught with last seasons fashion trends or anything short of the latest generation technology. Greed is lauded as a virtue instead of the sin we know it to be. When the world says more, Francis reminds us of our call to less.
Our world is plagued by a global health pandemic. In the United States alone over 7.3 million people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, members of our own community have tested positive. Each day the death toll rises, precious lives lost, as we pray – as we hope – that those currently fighting will not be added to that number. Francis reminds us that it is our duty to care for the sick, the friendless, and the needy. Francis reminds us, that it is our responsibility to care for those in need – especially the ones society casts off. We must constantly be discerning and acting how God is calling us in this moment to do what others refuse to do, making sure that our neighbors in need have the food and medical care and access they need not only to survive but to thrive.
We all suffer from our national sin of white supremacy and systemic racism and violence. Francis risked his own life to travel to a distant land to try to broker peace. We do not need to go far to be brokers of peace and justice ourselves. If we truly want all lives to matter, and I believe that they do, then we have some very serious work ahead to make all truly mean all. People of color are in crisis in our nation – they bear the scars and wounds of centuries of justice denied. How can we say all lives matter when there is no justice for Breonna Taylor and so many whose names are unknown to us? Let us be imitator of Francis, let us be imitator of Christ, and go stand side by side with those fighting for their lives – let us use our privilege in a way that benefits those who do not look, and think, and act, and believe like us.
The favorite part of Francis’ story is his love for creation. I wonder what Francis would say about humanity’s relationship with creation today? Be it those examples of inhumane factory farming to the blatant disregard for this fragile earth our island home. The extreme storms and unrelenting wildfires cry out to us as we teeter on the brink of ecological catastrophe. What do our actions say about the value we place on our relationship with creation? How do our actions prohibit the creation from being the best it can be? How do our actions stifle and silence the prayers and praise of God?
I wonder what the world, what our nation, what our communities would look like if St. Francis was not only the most popular and admired saint, but the most imitated as well?
The seeds of our conversion have been planted, and it is time for them to be harvested. It is my prayer that individually and collectively we can all be a bit more like Francis. That we will take up our role as workers in the vineyard of God. I do not have all the answers about how we do this, but I trust that together we can discern God’s call for our community.
Our patron, blessed Thomas, once inquired of Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way” (John 14:5, NRSV)? To this Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, NRSV).
This, my friends, is our cornerstone. This is what we must build our lives upon. This is the Lord’s doing. May it be amazing in our eyes.
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (27 September 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
One of the things that really grinds my gears is when people get written off, labeled as outsiders, deemed unworthy of respect and love because of where they live, what they believe, who they love, or how they understand the world working around them. It drives me nuts to hear people summarily dismissed because of things like living in a part of the state the is deemed too conservative or too liberal, or for holding particular liturgical and theological points of view – people dismissed for being in an opposite place from the one doing the dismissing.
We see this constantly in our civic arena. I have a hard time thinking of any major political leader, regardless of party, this is standing on a platform of ideas and a model of governance, instead of one built upon the “we are not them” argument.
We see this in the ways we talk about the communities in our state. In my own life I have come to recognize that I describe where I live differently depending on whom I am speaking to. For some I have no problem saying, I live off of Camp Street in Providence, while for others I know it is safer to say I live off of Hope Street. It is true that I live between those two streets, and I know there are some who will take me more seriously if they think I live at the top of the hill as opposed to the bottom.
Similarly, our parish sits in a region of the state that some dismiss without even getting the chance to know it. All because northwest Rhode Island leans more to the conservative side of the political spectrum. This is not okay, and I know I am not alone in being angered by the way our communities get written off.
Unfortunately, we see this too in the Church. Too quickly we write each other off for where we stand on the liturgical and theological spectrum. Too often I have been dismissed as a “traditionalist” who spends too much time reading early church theology, and too often I have done the same to those who occupy a different place in our Anglican heritage.
As humanity we do a really good job of labeling who is in and who is out. As humanity we do a really good job of determining who is in the know, and who is clueless. And isn’t it interesting that the people who are in, the people in the know, are always the people who agree with us?
We are really good at being human – about creating narratives that put ourselves in superior places over those who disagree with us. Thanks be to God, that we have God to open our eyes to a more expansive world view. One way this happens is through questions.
We hear God asking questions of the Prophets, and Prophets questioning God back. We hear God’s people crying out why, and God asking why in return. The disciples are constantly asking questions. Our own parish patron, is brilliant at it. Throughout John’s Gospel blessed Thomas asks the questions no one else is brave enough to ask, questions that often lead to Jesus revealing something powerful about himself.
Jesus too is no stranger to questions. Jesus is constantly asking questions of those around him. And unlike the questions that we are most likely to ask, Jesus’ questions are seldom about right answers. Jesus’ questions are about calling his followers and his hearers to be transformed. The Gospel passage we have this morning is a prime example of this.
Matthew tells us that Jesus has entered the temple. This is not just any casual trip to the temple. This arrival happens right after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – this is after the day we now call Palm Sunday.
Upon Jesus’ arrival, after the coats and palms are scattered on the road before him, after the shouts of Hosanna, a few things happen. First, Jesus cleanses the temple. Jesus goes into the temple and turns over the tables of the money changers. Jesus declares, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13, NRSV). After this, on the evening of that Palm Sunday, Jesus heads out to Bethany the village of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, to spend the night. The next morning, on the day we now call the Monday in Holy Week, Jesus heads back to the city. On his way he see a fig tree but discovers that nothing is on it, and he curses the tree. The fig tree instantly withers and dies.
So when Jesus enters the temple that morning, the chief priest and the elders of the people, knowing all that has transpired in the last twenty-four hours say to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority” (Matthew 21:23, NRSV)? This is the question that opens our Gospel passage today. But let’s be clear there is a very particular motivation behind this question. This is not one of those times where someone is amazed and transformed by something Jesus has done, so much so that they want to know who he is so they can follow him and become his disciple. This is a question meant to trap Jesus. This is an ominous question as it is posed by the very people who will constitute the court that will sentence him to death.
As these leaders build a case against Jesus they want to know the nature of the authority he has, and they want to know if it comes from God, Satan, or if it comes from himself. This is an exercise in legitimacy. This is an exercise meant to maintain the authority of the leaders, and trap this country rabbi, stopping him in his tracks.
Jesus does not fall for it. Not only does he refuse to take the bait, he does not seize this as an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. As Douglass R. A. Hare writes, “The hour is too late for evangelism” (Hare, Interpretations: Matthew, p.246). The case against Jesus is being built, the next time they encounter each other will be at Jesus’ trial, so Jesus uses three parables to pronounce judgment against these leaders. We hear one of those parables today, and we will hear the others in the weeks ahead.
The parable we hear this morning, the parable of the two sons, is only found in Matthew’s Gospel. In it Jesus asks: “‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first’” (Matthew 21:28-31a, NRSV).
It appears that the chief priests and the elders of the people answer this question fairly easily. Obviously the one who did the will of their father is the one who actually went out and did the work regardless of what they said. It is clear saying is not the same as doing.
Then, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him”(Matthew 21:31b-32, NRSV).
Jesus makes clear – actions speak louder than words. It does not matter if you say all the right things, it matters what you do, it matters how you live.
These questions that Jesus asks are meant to make his hearers then and now stop and think. Are we quick to say one thing and then do the other? Are we quick to say things that appease, and then turn around and do something else? Or are we quick to change our minds and do what is asked of us?
According to this parable, those who are seemingly “in the know” are not the ones who are doing the will of God. The question at the heart of the story does not seem centered on what is the will of God, but on the deeper question of who belongs in God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ words after the parable sound incredibly harsh to the chief priests and the elders of the people because according to the worldview they have constructed they should be the first to enter the kingdom of God, and those others – those tax collectors and prostitutes – should be left out. But Jesus declares that those the leaders deem as outsiders are the true insiders. They are the ones that recognized God’s work in the world, they are the one’s that followed. They are the ones who recognized their need, and ran after God. They are the ones who flocked to the wilderness and repented in the waters of baptism that John prepared to make way for the coming Messiah of God.
These leaders – these chief priests and elders of the people – saw all this happen. They saw and heard of everything John did and Jesus was doing, and still refused to change their minds. They were set in their ways, closed off to transformation, and therefore they will watch those at the bottom of their hierarchical creation enter God’s kingdom ahead of them.
We would be wise to heed this warning. We would be wise to pay attention to the distortions of the hierarchies we create that determine who is in and who is out, and look instead for those who are leading the way in running towards God. Who are the leaders showing what it means to name the needs, the brokenness, the helplessness we all have that can only be restored by the loving embrace of God? We would be wise to recognize that the ones we have cast aside because of where they live, who they vote for, or what and how they believe might be entering the kingdom of God before us.
The question Jesus asks us today is, “having seen all this, are you willing to change your mind?” Jesus asks us, “are you willing to be transformed, to give up your understandings of who is worthy, and right, and deserving and take on my understandings as your own?”
In his letter to the Philippians Paul writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5, NRSV). Paul is writing about the true source of authority and power. One of the radical ideas that Paul sets fourth, one that the secular and religious authorities found objectionable, is that the source of power comes from God, not from the principalities of this world. Paul reminds us that Jesus takes the powers structures of this world, Jesus takes the hierarchies we create and turns them on their head.
True power comes from how we treat one another. True power comes from how we live into the work we have been given to do. True power comes from our willingness to put our own egos aside and live in full service to others.
This passage from Philippians contains a brilliant hymn that conveys the central paradox of Christianity and our life of discipleship – that humility leads to exaltation. Paul writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11, NRSV).
Where does our power and authority come from? It comes from stepping away the false authority and power that we have claimed for ourselves at the expense of others. It comes from taking on the humility of the Messiah who came into this world “not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28, NRSV). It comes from recognizing that there is only one authority and hierarchy that matters – God’s. The authority and power that focuses on setting people free, that is rooted in love and recognizes that each and every person is a beloved child of God. The hierarchy that places God is the position of power and all of us on the level plain below.
Jesus followed the course that was set before him. He lived fully into his vocation as the Messiah with integrity and authenticity, and we are called to do the same.
Jesus asks, “are you willing to be transformed?” Are we willing to give up our twisted constructions of value and power that always seem to place us in more lauded positions than our neighbors? Are we willing to empty ourselves, so that God might fill us entirely?
As the prelude for today’s service, Jean played Hymn 435 “At the Name of Jesus.” As we go forth pondering the questions Jesus asks of us, let us hear the words of this hymn and claim them as our own:
At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him King of glory now;
’tis the Father’s pleasure we should call him Lord,
who from the beginning was the mighty word.
Humbled for a season to receive a Name
from the lips of sinners, unto whom he came,
faithfully he bore it spotless to the last,
brought it back victorious, when from death he passed;
bore it up triumphant, with it’s human light,
through all ranks of creatures, to the central height,
to the throne of Godhead, to the Father’s breast;
filled it with the glory of that perfect rest.
Name him, Christians name him, with love strong as death,
name with awe and wonder and with bated breath;
he is God the Savior, he is Christ the Lord,
ever to be worshiped, trusted and adored.
In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue
all that is not holy, all that is not true;
crown him as your Captain in temptation’s hour;
let his will enfold you in its light and power.
Christians, this Lord Jesus shall return again,
with his Father’s glory o’er the earth to reign;
for all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow,
and our hearts confess him king of glory now. (Caroline Maria Noel, The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 435).
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20 September 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
Parable of the workers in the vineyard from the Codex Aureus Epternacensis. Public Domain.
One of the most neglected parts of our worship – be it Morning Prayer or the Celebration of the Eucharist – is the Collect of the Day.
The Collect of the Day is that short prayer that collects all the themes of the day. It is that prayer that captures the heart of what the day’s Scripture lessons have to teach us. When we celebrate the Eucharist, the collect of day comes at the very beginning of the service – tuning our ears for what to pay attention to. When we gather for Morning Prayer as we do today, the Collect of the Day comes at the very end of the service. It gives us that token to hang on to as we set out to meet the week ahead.
The collect appointed for today is a much needed guidepost for our time. Hear these words again:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 234).
This collect dates back the fifth century, and is from one of the oldest surviving liturgical books of the Western Church. It reflects the tumultuous times of the barbarian invasions of Rome (Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 192). It was written in a time of great uncertainty, of immense anxiety; where people were surrounded by death and destruction. It was written in a time when the civic and social structures were collapsing – that time we now refer to as the fall of the Roman Empire.
I wonder if any of those descriptions, resonate for you and the times we find ourselves living in today?
While we might not be facing Germanic tribes and the Huns invading our shores, we have our own challenges to face.
We are in the midst of a global health pandemic. For six months we have been living with various restrictions and limitations as we work together to fight the coronavirus and protect our communities from COVID-19. We have sacrificed much, there is plenty to grieve, and we have no idea when this will end and we can return to the way things were back in late February, early March. There is indeed great uncertainty and immense anxiety for it has been a century since our nation has faced pandemic conditions such as these. As articles from the Spanish Influenza tell us, second waves are possible if not likely, and when we stray from our vigilance, when we move too quickly as if this is all over, there are deadly consequences. We to know death and destruction in our time from this pandemic as the national death toll approaches 200,000 people and globally over 950,000.
That is not the only reason why we know death and destruction these days. It seems not a week goes by without learning another name of a person of color who has died at the hands of police. The #SayTheirName list continues to grow. We have watched peaceful protests turn violent and buildings destroyed, as the flames of justice are kindled around us.
And there is still more.
We face the uncertainty of the economic fallout from the pandemic. We have seen businesses and restaurants close, religious institutions and non-profits struggling to continue their work and ministry, and without federal orders banning evictions for most people we would already be in the midst of a housing crisis beyond comprehension – a crisis that can only be kept at bay for so long without significant, dare I say radical, action.
And if all that were not enough, we are now a mere 43 days away from the November general election. We are witnessing astounding division in our civic life. No matter the outcome of the election, commentary after commentary speak of the increasing fragile nature of our democracy. Option pieces come out daily wondering if we are at the breaking point. We have a system that is already stretched and strained, and now with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg we must also contend with a vacancy on the most important judicial bench in this country.
We might not be dealing with the invasions Rome faced in the fifth century, but my goodness we have more than a few things on our plate these days.
I do not know about you, but today I need this collect. I need this reminder to keep my eyes on things heavenly. I need the assurance that the ways of this world will not last forever. I need to know that the promises of God will be realized. I need help holding on to hope so that I can continue carrying on doing the work God has given me to do. I would hazard a guess, that in this, I am not alone.
As I said, the collect of the day collects the themes of the lessons. To put things in social media terms, it takes all that we hear and turns it into something just barely longer than a tweet. So when we turn our attention back to the Scripture passages, we are able to dig a bit deeper into how God is calling us to live in this moment.
Our lesson from Hebrew Scriptures finds the prophet Jonah in one of the lesser known parts of his story. Most of us will know Jonah as that person who tried to run away from God’s call and ended up in the belly of a massive fish. Once there, Jonah spends three days and three nights inside the fish, until he prayed to God for deliverance, at which point God speaks to the fish, and the fish spewed Jonah out upon the dry land (Jonah 1:1-2:10, NRSV).
Once Jonah is on the dry land, God calls him a second time. He has learned his lesson, so he does not run from God. This time he sets out and goes to Nineveh to proclaim the message God has given him. Scripture tells us that as Jonah entered the city, “he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4, NRSV). One might expect that the people of Nineveh might have some feelings about this proclamation that tend towards the more critical, less positive end of the spectrum. But in fact, the people of Nineveh, including the King listen. They believed in God, and immediately began to repent of their ways. The King made a proclamation which concluded in these words, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:8b-8, NRSV).
As we have heard from other parts of Scripture, that is exactly what God requires of us and desires for us – that we might turn towards God and live.
This is where we pick up Jonah’s story. God sees what the people of Nineveh do, and God changes God’s mind, and does not bring calamity on them.
Jonah should be thrilled that the people actually listen to him. But instead he is so angry that God did not destroy them that he wishes to die. Instead of rejoicing, he starts to camp out hoping that God will change God’s mind and that he will see that great city destroyed.
Now it is time for Jonah to be given a message, and we hear of the creation and destruction of this bush. When Jonah sees this bush has been destroyed he again cries out, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3b).
Here in the final verses of the Book of Jonah, God has the last word. God says to Jonah if you are concerned about this bush which came and went in a night, should I not be concerned about the people of Nineveh? God emphasizes God’s sovereignty over all of creation. This is not about what humanity deserves, it is about what we need – compassion.
This story is a reminder to us of God’s steadfast mercy and loving kindness, of how God is always quick to forgive when we repent and return towards God – even though we will fall short again. This story is a reminder to us that revenge is never the answer, mercy always wins.
We do not need to be anxious about earthly things, and can love things heavenly because we are in relationship with God whose compassion knows no bounds.
God’s mercy and generosity towards humanity is on full display in the parable we hear from Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1, NRSV). The landowner goes out and hires laborers at the start of the day and agrees to pay them, “whatever is right” (Matthew 20:4, NRSV). The laborers agree and they go into the vineyard. The landowner then does the same things at noon and three o’clock in the afternoon. At five o’clock the landowner went back out and found others standing around, because no one hired them. To them the landowner says go and work.
At the end of the day, all the laborers are brought in to be paid and this is where things get interesting. “When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage” (Matthew 20:9, NRSV). Upon seeing this, the people hired earlier start getting excited. By human logic, if the people who worked for about an hour got the wage usually given for a whole day’s work, then the people who actually worked the whole day deserved ten times more. But when those hired first stepped forward to be paid, they too received the usual daily wage and they were not happy about it.
They grumble at the landowner, they feel they have been given an unfair deal. The landowner says in reply, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13b-15, NRSV).
This parable is yet another reminder to us that God’s values and standards of justice are foreign to human standards. This parable picks up that consistent message presented throughout the entirety of Scripture that God’s people are to live according to these standards instead of the ones presented by the world around us.
In telling this parable, Jesus reminds us that is does not matter when you start following the ways of God. It does not matter if you were the first out into the vineyard or the last, all will be inheritors of the promised glory of God. What truly matters is the gift of being called to the service of the Lord.
We do not need to be anxious about earthly things, and can love things heavenly because God extends that invitation for inclusion in God’s vineyard as many times as it takes us to accept it. God does not give up on us.
Beloved of God, one of the greatest dangers in times of anxiety, uncertainty, conflict and strife is loosing sight of our privilege – the privilege of being called as laborers into the vineyard, the privilege of being called the people of God, the privilege – as St. Paul reminds us in today’s epistle – “not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1:29, NRSV).
The work of the vineyard is hard, it asks much of us, and at times comes with a hefty price tag. The world tries to do everything it can to stop the work of God. It tries to tempt us away from heavenly things, to focus on earthly things. Unlike the world, with its three strikes rule, God offers us unlimited mercy, unlimited grace, unlimited love. The promise of God is always there for us. God is always there for us, most especially when we face turbulent times be it from invasion, global health pandemic, the sin of white supremacy, or election cycles.
We do not need to be anxious about earthly things, and can love things heavenly because we have been given the greatest gift of all – the gift of God’s love, the gift of being God’s people.
The task before us in this and every age, is to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27, NRSV). The task before us is to extend the same mercy to others that God extends to us, to extend that same generosity, and most importantly to extend the divine love of God to each and every person.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of blessed memory, once said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Those are words that collect for us what this life of faith is all about.
We are to fight for the Gospel, we are to go forth as laborers in the vineyard of God, we are to faithfully carry out the work and ministry God has placed on out hearts. And we are to do all of this rooted in God’s love, we do all of this in such a way that invites all to labor with us – that extends God’s invitation to the ends of the world.
Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (13 September 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
One of the great privileges of my seminary career, was going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, England. The senior class pilgrimage is that climactic moment during the final semester. During our pilgrimage we took a day trip from Canterbury to Coventry. It was a four and half maybe five hour bus ride away. We knew, or at least hoped, that all that time on the bus would be worth it. Coventry, England, as we quickly discovered, is indeed a very special place worthy of a few hours in a cramped bus.
One night in November 1940, Coventry was bombed. Like much of the city, the great Cathedral was devastated. The day after the bombing the Provost of Cathedral was walking amidst the ruins, amidst the broken glass and burning timbers, surveying the scene. After some time, he called out to one of the people with him and said, “Write the words ‘Father forgive’ on the east wall of the cathedral.” Write the words “Father forgive” above where the altar once stood.
The people with him were confused. They asked him, “Do you mean, ‘Father forgive them’?” Forgive them for what they have done to us? The Provost said no, “Father forgive” for we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness. “Father forgive” because we all fall short of the glory of God.
From that posture of profound faith, the Provost avoided the temptations of anger and revenge, and stayed true to the call of the Christian faith – the call to forgive no matter what. From his witness in that place, something amazing has emerged out of Coventry: a ministry of healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness, that is quite literally transforming the world. It all began with two words, “Father Forgive.”
Today those words have been carved into the stones of the cathedral ruins, they have been painted over in gold, so that the moment you step through what would have been the great west doors of the cathedral your eyes are drawn to them. Those words preside over that space in such a way that no one can miss them.
That witness is the Church at its best. That is what the Church is all about, and that is the charge we receive through this portion of Matthew’s Gospel.
The 18th Chapter of Matthew is all about what it means to live faithfully together. It is about what it means collectively to be the church and not just individual follower of Jesus.
The Gospel passage we heard last Sunday and the passage we hear today make up two-thirds of this chapter, and their core is forgiveness. These two passages inform one another, and must be heard together.
The passage appointed for last Sunday, focuses on what happens when there is conflict in the community. It is all about what happens when one person harms another. First the individual who has been harmed, approaches the one who has harmed them to see if reconciliation is possible. If the one doing the harm does not repent, then the matter is brought before a few other members of the community. Still if the offending member does not acknowledge their sin, then the matter is brought before the whole community. If that doesn’t work, Matthew makes clear, that the one who will not acknowledge their wrongdoing, the one who refuses to seek forgiveness, the one who refuses to atone for their sins, will face severe consequence.
From that exchange, Peter asks the question that begins what we hear today, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times” (Matthew 18:21, NRSV)? This is such a human question. Peter is trying to work out that arithmetic of forgiveness. Peter is trying to figure out when he can stop forgiving. He wants to know if he really has to forgive someone over, and over, and over again.
To Peter’s human question, Jesus gives a divine answer: “Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:22, NRSV). This response could also be translated, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” What the people hearing this exchange, what the people reading Matthew’s words would have understood is that Jesus is not pushing back the forgiveness countdown numbers. These numbers would have signified that Jesus tells Peter, you must forgive an infinite number of times. Jesus tells Peter, there is to be no limit to the amount of times you are willing to forgive others. Jesus is inviting Peter to embody the divine forgiveness of God. For just as many times that God forgives us, we are called to forgive others.
This is a tall order, and no simple task. To drive the point home, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant. This is a parable filled with hyperbole, and it is meant to shock and startle the listener.
At the outset of the parable we learn there is a servant who owes the king an outrageous sum of money. It is a sum so vast that it would be nearly impossible for him, his children, or his children’s children to actually repay.
This servant is summoned before the king who is demanding immediate repayment. The king is harsh and declares that unless he is paid, the servant, his family, and all his possessions will be sold off so repayment can be made. In the face of this threat, the servant begs for forgiveness. He “fell on his knees before [the king] saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:26-27, NRSV). Just as quickly as the king was willing to punish, he is quick to forgive. And the servant goes off on his way set free from that debt.
Now, you might think that if you are the receipt of that sort of abundant grace and forgiveness, you might act a bit differently in the future. It might transform how you see others and behave in the world. But, that is not the case here.
The first servant comes across another servant who owes him money – a rather meager sum. The first servant is merciless. He grabs the other by the throat and demands immediate repayment. The second, struck by fear, begs for mercy and forgiveness. And what does this first servant do in response? Does he extend the same forgiveness that was extended to him? No. He has the man thrown into prison until he can pay the debt.
Word gets back to the king, and he is furious. He once more summons that first servant, and lets out his anger. He calls him out for not extending the same mercy that was shown to him, and he has him sent off “to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt” (Matthew 18:34b, NRSV). He has him tortured for what will amount to the rest of his life.
This is shocking and startling and maybe even leaves us a bit uncomfortable. Hearing the words, “so my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35, NRSV) might just leave us wondering, is this what is going to happen to me if I refuse to forgive?
While this might not be the literal punishment for us if we refuse to forgive, we should be very clear that there are severe consequences for the unforgiving.
The forgiveness we hear about throughout this section of Matthew’s Gospel is not about some surface level, sentimental kind of forgiveness where we shrug the offense off and say, “don’t worry about it, it will be better next time.” This is deep stuff. This is hard stuff. This is costly stuff.
I do not know about you, but this leaves me with a few concerns and questions.
To pick up on what Peter asks, if someone is harming you, is someone is abusing you, if someone is hurting you, do you really have to go on forgiving them? Is that not just letting the behavior go on unexcused? This passage makes clear the answer to that first question is yes. Yes we are called to go on forgiving that person. But the answer to the second question is no. This is where last week’s passage and this week’s passage come together. It is the responsibility of the community to hold one another accountable for our actions. As the one who has been harmed forgives, it is the role of the community to hold the offered accountable so their behavior does not continue unchecked. It is the role of the community to make sure that one is not allowed to continue causing harm, and it might just be the role of the community to remove that one from amongst them.
When we have been harmed we have to forgive; for that forgiveness is as much for us as it is for the other person. When we allow those wounds from that hurt to go unresolved, when we allow that un-forgiveness to remain, we end up doing more harm to ourselves. We become bitter, we become angry, we become closed off. Most importantly we allow that other person to maintain that hold over us, to retain power over us. The power of that deep and true forgiveness is that is sets us all free. It sets the offender free, and is sets the one harmed free as well. For when we release ourselves from that burden, from the shackles of our pain, deep healing can actually begin.
This is about are collective calling to be the Church. Standing together, standing up for one another, holding each other accountable, and making space so that true forgiveness and healing can happen. We stand together supporting one another, helping one another seek this life of forgiveness – seeking this life of healing and restoration.
In the course of this healing work, we might be tempted to use some popular societal phases to make things seem better during this healing process.
Maybe you have heard, or even said yourself, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or, “God does not give you more than you can handle,” or, “this is all part of God’s plan.”
We must be very careful with the words we say. In our attempt to make things better, we might actually make things worse.
In today’s passage from Genesis, we find Jospeh speaking with his brothers after the death of their father. These are the same brothers who plotted to murder him, but instead fold him off to slavery. On the surface it might seem that Jospeh is using one of those societal phrases. Joseph says to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20, NRSV). It sounds like Jospeh is saying to his brothers, “don’t worry about it, it’s all part of God’s plan.”
After hearing these words we might be tempted to think that God caused this to happen. We might be tempted to think that we can interpret God’s will in the world. It is a very dangerous thing for us to declare that we know the ways of God. As is declared in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NRSV). We do not know why God acts the way God does. But Scripture also reminds us that God’s desire is that we all should be saved, that we should all return to God, and rejoice in God’s love. As it says in what was appointed last week from the Book of Ezekiel, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11, NRSV).
I cannot tell you for certain that God did not cause Joseph’s brother to send him into slavery. But I know that when we write off pain and tragedy as part of God’s plan we do a whole lot more harm than good. So maybe instead of being so quick, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” or “it’s all part of God’s plan” or whatever else, we should point to what we do know that God does. We should point out that God is very much in the midst of our pain. We should point out that throughout the course of human history God takes what is evil, takes that which was intended for destruction and reshapes it into something that is meant for redemption.
The most profound example of this is when God takes the means of a shameful and humiliating death, when God take the very worst that humanity can do, when God take Cross and turns it into a means of life and redemption for all. This is what it means to be the Church. To forgive and to love.
In the midst of all the extremes that surround us: extreme violence, hatred, oppression, racism, partisan divides that bring our civic life to a halt. In the midst of all this we are called to be extreme ourselves – extreme in love, extreme in mercy, extreme in forgiveness. We are to be extreme so that we might help turn this world turn from the nightmare it often is to the dream that God intends.
As we think about the work and ministry set before us, we must recognize that in our speaking, in our listening, in our prayer and reflection, in our action we have a choice to make. We can be overcome by the temptations of the world to shut people out, to be taken over by anger, to be taken over by the temptation for revenge, or we can live the forgiveness of God. While it is the harder choice, we are called to have no limit to our forgiveness. We are called individually and collectively to say, “Father forgive.”
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (6 September 2020).
The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
James Tissot, The Exhortation of the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894), The Brooklyn Museum.
I wonder if you have ever said or heard someone comment, “this would be great if it weren’t for that,” of course substituting “this” and “that” for descriptive markers of the specific context. For example, “school would be great if it weren’t for the students,” or “camp would be great if it weren’t for the campers,” or “this job would be great if it weren’t for the customers.” Though I’m sure no one has ever utter the phrase, “church would be great if it weren’t for the people.”
All of these phrases articulate that emotional response to the complexities of being in community. People are complicated, they do not always act as we think they should, they do things they might come to regret, relationships can be really tricky, and all of that makes being in community, at times, really hard.
While there may be moments where we become frustrated or aggravated to the point where we find ourselves wishing that the students, campers, customers, or even parishioners were not there, we all know deep down that if the people were not there our beloved communities, our schools, and camps, and congregations would cease to exist. For what is a school without students, camp without campers, or church without the people?
This means that we have to figure out how to be in community together, how to be in relationship with one another. We have to figure out how to maintain those bonds of affection when it is easy to be together, and more importantly, when we struggle to stay connected. We all have to put in the hard work of restoring relationships when we hurt one another, reconciling after conflict, and renewing our commitment to continue to grow together. For if we fail to come together in the midst of adversity, things will begin to fall apart and that could prove disastrous for our relationships with one another.
There is a misconception that to be a Christian means always getting along with other people: that being a Christian means never arguing or fighting with our neighbors. While we are Christians, we are also human. And human beings, no matter what their faith tradition, hurt each other. We all sin. All of us have times when we act in a way contrary to how we know we should behave. What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving these issues.
When someone hurts us, when they sin against us, the world has a very clear way of responding. We are to get back at them. We are to get even, and then go a bit further. We are to respond in retaliation. When someone hurts us, we might be inclined write them off, and never interact with them again. We are to respond by dissolving the relationship. When someone does something wrong, society tells us they must be punished.
But today, in what we hear from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that is not how we are to behave. The prime motivation for us is never punishment but alway reconciliation. So here Jesus clearly articulates a way of responding to conflict in our communities where restoration, not retaliation, is the goal.
When one member inflicts harm on another, the person who has been hurt is to go and take it up with the offending member. Jesus says, “if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matthew 18:15, NRSV). Jesus tells us that when we are hurt, we are to go to the other person and try to reconcile and restore the relationship. We do this privately, not slandering the other person. The aim it to protect the dignity of all those involved. To be clear, the reconciliation that is possible happens where there is repentance and forgiveness. The person who caused the harm must acknowledge their sin and repent of it. The interaction must be more than that trite societal phrase forgive and forget. Unless there is true acknowledgment of the harm, reconciliation and restoration is impossible.
If the person refuses to listen, then more members of the community get involved. One or two others join in the conversation. The small group works together to see if restoration of relationship is possible. If that does not work the whole church is made aware of the situation. This is a reminder to us that this is not just about individuals, but conflict between members impacts the whole community. At this point if the offender refuses to listen, then they are removed from the community. Someone who causes harm, who refuses to acknowledge their sin, who will not repent, is not allow to stay and continue to inflict harm on the community.
The consequences of failed reconciliation are so severe, because Jesus is talking about behavior that will destroy communities. Therefore when we entered into this process of accountability we must do so seriously and prayerfully, for much is on the line. At the end of this passage Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathering in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, NRSV). Every step along the way, Jesus is present in these conversations. It is because of the sustaining power of the presence of our risen Lord, that our communities, that the Church of God, will survive the strains imposed by human failure (Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretations: Matthew (John Knox Press, 2009), 215).
It is up to each and every member of a community to ensure that all are living the ways of God. We are all accountable to and for each other.
The conversation that God has with Ezekiel in today’s passage from Hebrew Scripture adds to this idea of collective responsibility, and an invitation to forsake the trap of individualism.
God says to Ezekiel, “whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand” (Ezekiel 33:7b-8, NRSV). God says to Ezekiel, if you do not share my word, if you do not look out for others, if you do not call their attention to their wicked behavior, and they perish because of it, you are responsible. God makes clear that Ezekiel will only be saved if he shares the word of God and warns the wicked. Ezekiel will only be saved by showing care for the community.
After the warning to Ezekiel, God gives him a message to share. The people of Israel have transgressed, they have sinned, they have turned away from God. All of this weighs heavily upon them and they have cried out wondering how they can live. God tells Ezekiel, “Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11, NRSV).
The message from God is this: If the house of Israel turns back towards the ways of God, they shall live. If not, they shall die. But, God is clear. God takes no delight in the death of the wicked. God’s desire is for all of God’s people to have life and have it more abundantly.
Just like Ezekiel, just like the process outlined by Jesus, we are to call out to those straying from the path of God and encourage them to turn back. To repent and return to the Lord. To reconcile ourselves to God and each other. My friends, this is the mission of the Church, and I mean that literally. In our catechism, found in the back of The Book of Common Prayer the mission of the Church is described this way, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (The Book of Common Prayer, 855). It is our mission to constantly be working for the reconciliation of all people, and sometimes that means having these really hard and difficult conversations in the midst of pain and conflict.
By the way, lest we loose sight of this, we must always be mindful that sometimes we are the ones who need to be called out. Sometimes we are the ones who stray. Sometimes we are the ones in danger of being cast out of the community. There is not one amongst us who has not hurt someone else, there is not one amongst us who does not stand in need of repentance. For we are all human, we all sin, we all fall short of the glory of God.
Each and everyone of us must let go of the world’s focus on individualism. By virtue of our relationship together we must be concerned with and for each other. For we are all members of the one body, we cannot say to anyone that you do not matter, that you are not needed, every part of the body is need, and if one member suffers, all suffer together with it, to paraphrase St. Paul from the First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:12-26, NRSV).
Being in community is hard work. But the reason we continue to labor together, can all be boiled down to one word – Love. As St. Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans, all of the commandments are summed up in these words, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9, NRSV).
We fulfill the law, we fulfill the words of the prophets, we fulfill the Gospel mandates and the very intention of all creation when we love one another. Therefore “let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” (Romans 13:12, NRSV) let us “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Romans 13:14, NRSV) let us bathe in the very love of God that Jesus makes incarnate in the world.
It is important for us to be honest about the difficultly of being in community. It is important that we prepare ourselves for difficult conversations, and recognize it is possible we will get hurt along the way. Conflict is inevitable, but what makes us Christian is how we respond when conflict and hurt and pain come about. We must be clear that those who continually harm members without repentance, without genuinely working towards reconciliation, may no longer be able to stay in the community. That sort of bullying cannot go unchecked in Christian communities.
That being said, the doors of our communities are never shut forever.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel passage, of the one who refuses to listen, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17, NRSV). It seems to me, that Jesus is saying two things here. In addition to that person no longer being part of the community, Jesus is also saying redemption is always possible. Time and time again throughout the Gospels, Jesus welcomes the Gentile and the tax collector. Jesus is continually reaching out offering the gift of God’s transformative love. If the one who has been removed from the community is able to have a change of heart, there is the possibility of regaining that one to the household of God.
It seems that Matthew is on to this hope as well. Today’s passage is sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep and the unforgiving debtor – it is framed by stories that demonstrate God’s desired that the sinner be saved not condemned (Hare, Interpretations, 214). When the time comes for us to do this hard work of reconciliation in community we can do so knowing that God’s desire is the salvation of all. That the ultimate gift of God’s love is that redemption is always possible. We can journey through the heartache and pain of human sinfulness trusting that if there is hope for that sinner over there, there is hope for you and me, sinners as well.
As we go forth continuing to grow as a community let us take up the words of the psalmist as our own. Let us pray that God teaches us the way of God’s statues that we might keep them to the end. Let us pray that God gives us understanding that we might keep God’s laws with our whole hearts. Let us pray that God makes us go in the paths of God’s commandments. Let us pray that God inclines our hearts to God’s decrees, that through our longing and in God’s righteousness, God will always preserve our lives.
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (30 August 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
Image by Raheel Shakeel from Pixabay
Everything changed in a moment. Four simple words meant things would never go back to the way they were before.
Matthew begins today’s passage with these words: “From that time on.” That narrative note is the hinge on which everything moves. For in the scene that unfolds today we begin to shift from Jesus’ Galilean ministry to his passion. From this time on everything will be about preparing for the cross.
The conversation we drop in on today, is the second half of the Gospel passage that was appointed for last Sunday (Matthew 16:13-20). While gathered together Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They tell him, John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Jesus then wants to know what his closest companions have to say. So he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” To this Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” To Jesus’ question Simon Peter makes that profound confession of faith. For that proclamation Jesus blessed him, gives him the name Peter, and declares that he is the rock on which the Church will be built.
In the first half of this transition moment, Peter’s confession is part of a divine revelation. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is proclaimed. But what exactly does that mean? What does Peter think he is actually saying in his confession?
Peter and the other disciples have clear expectations of what the Messiah will do. They have heard the words of the prophets, they know the tradition that has been handed down, they have a deep longing for the promises of God to finally be fulfilled. The Messianic image they had was of a great and powerful warrior. The Messiah was supposed to come and restore the Jewish kingdom by overthrowing oppressive empires. The Messiah was supposed to gather people together, raise up an army, conquer the occupying powers of Rome, and then claim his rightful seat upon the throne of David.
With this understanding in mind, after making his confession of faith, I wonder if Peter assumed that what came next would be preparing for this ultimate battle for liberation. I wonder if Peter assumed that from that time on, Jesus would be training them as warriors, telling them to sharpen their swords because it is time to go. But instead, “from that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering . . . and be killed.”
It is completely understandable that Peter does a double take. He believes he knows what the Messiah will do, Jesus affirms that he is in fact the Messiah, so therefore, since A+B=C, Jesus must be about to defeat the mighty Roman army and claim the throne for himself. This is the moment generations have been waiting for. For anything else to happen would be anathema.
When Jesus says he will suffer and die, all the hopes of the disciples come crashing down. From their perspective there was no future in a Messiah who dies. So Peter, who has just been given this new role and authority, steps in and declares that Jesus’ suffering and death must be prevented, “God for bit it, Lord,” Peter cries out, “This must never happen to you.” From where Peter, and the rest of the disciples sit, if Jesus suffers and dies then how can he really be the Messiah?
It might be worthwhile for us to pause here. To sit with Peter and the disciples in the shock and grief of Jesus’ passion prediction. They have spent their whole lives waiting, hoping, dreaming, for this moment, and in a breath they are told that it will not be so. Those hopes and dreams and expectations will not be filled in the way they think they should be. I wonder if there is grieving we need to do for dashed dreams, eviscerated expectations, and hopes unfulfilled? I wonder if we need to name the difficulties, challenges, and heart breaks of life and ministry?
It is through the gift of our faith, through the privilege of knowing the end of the story, that we can persist through whatever pain or grief we carry. Not pretending as if it does not exist, nor forgetting it was ever there, but growing through it, allowing God to guide us through, and being transformed along the way.
It this moment, however, Peter does not get the space to pause. His rebuke of Jesus, his trying to control how God will work in the world, is met with an intense rebuke of its own. Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Earlier in the conversation, what we heard last week, Peter gets it profoundly right, and here just a few moments later he gets it spectacularly wrong. He goes from being the rock upon which the church is built, to the rock which is the obstacle to Jesus’ vocation as Messiah.
It might be worthwhile for us to pause here, and consider the times when we have been stumbling blocks. It might be good for us to recognize that from time to time, in our desire to control God and have things go our way, that we created unnecessary obstacles for God’s work to happen in the world – we have made it more difficult for others to carry out their ministries. There might just be times when we need to hear Jesus say to us, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The second part of that rebuke is what we really need to pay attention to. Peter’s reaction is based upon the ways of this world, in this case the understanding that the only way to prevail is by military might. In calling him out, Jesus is saying to Peter, stop thinking the way the world thinks and start thinking the way God thinks.
The rest of what Jesus says in this passage are words to recalibrate the minds of the disciples so they can start setting their minds on the things of God: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
It is necessary for us to stop here, for we need to be recalibrated by these words as well.
I think it is a real shame that the phase “it’s your cross to bear” and the plethora of variations thereof are so casually used in our cultural vernacular. Too often at the first sign of inconvenience or annoyance, when there is something we really do not want to do, we pull out this phrase as a way of saying, “get over it,” “you’ve got no choice” or, “we all have things to do that are not pleasant and we’d rather avoid.” That is not what Jesus is saying here. The crucifixion is not some small inconvenience for Jesus. Taking up our cross is not about a slight momentary affliction, it is about choosing to die so that we might truly live.
Twentieth-century German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship writes about the costly nature of following Jesus and what it actually means to take up the cross. He writes:
If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the Gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering. . . this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ . . . The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world . . . As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p.88-89).
Taking up our crosses is about setting our minds on heavenly things. It is willingly choosing to forsake the ways of this world in order to live by the way of God. It means accepting whatever rejection or suffering might come as a result.
This is exactly what we have been talking about during our book study of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. This past week in considering chapter 3 we talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and his willingness, though not eagerness, to sacrifice his life for the furthering of the Gospel. He accepted the call to suffer shame and rejection and violence so that God’s people might be liberated from oppression.
The cross is a sign of hope, the source of courage and strength. In it all those who suffer at the hards of oppressive ruling powers, can see their own suffering, their own wounds and scars, their own bodies. There is solidarity in the Cross of Christ. The cross is the most profound and amazing source of love, it is God’s “No” to the world’s obsession with violence and power. It as the ultimate sign of liberation, for in the work God accomplishes on the cross the greatest enemy of humanity, death, is destroyed once and for all. As James Cone writes about Martin Luther King, “The cross protected King from the paralyzing fear of death, giving him the courage to fight for racial justice, no matter the cost” (Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p.82-83). We take up our crosses, not counting the cost, but joyfully accepting our role in the work of God in the world.
We have been called to no less a task than the disciples, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and all those who surround us in that great cloud of witnesses.
If we are truly to claim the mantle of disciple then we too must be willing to sacrifice, to suffer shame and rejection, to deny ourselves. To be clear we are not called to suffering for the sake of suffering. Denying ourselves is not about self-abnegation or self-deprecation. It does not mean submitting ourselves to others in a way that deny’s our own personhood. This is not encouragement to stay in abusive relationships under a false banner of “sacrifice.”
This is a call to subordinate our will to God’s. It is giving up everything to follow the way of God. It is the process of self-emptying so that God can fill us entirely.
In a commentary about this Gospel passage, writter Debie Thomas wonders what it means for us to deny ourselves in our current national and global context. She writes:
Right now, I am asking myself these questions in the context of a global pandemic that shows no signs of letting up. I am asking in the context of police brutality, white supremacy, racial injustice, and gross economic inequality. I am asking in the context of global warming, mass extinction, droughts, and heat waves. I am asking in the context of fires destroying forests and towns . . . so the question becomes this: where do I locate myself amidst these crosses? What am I willing to lose in these times? What do I stand to gain? (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2733)
There is so much in our contemporary culture that encourages us to avoid suffering and death at all costs. Our society is more like the misguided Peter, than it is like Jesus. I cannot help but wonder what rebuke Jesus would offer to the world today in the face of violence, greed, poor environmental stewardship, and the notions of personal liberty over collective responsibility.
To take up our cross means to stand in the midst of the world’s suffering. We are called to more than occasionally glancing in the direction of pain, or simply catching it on the evening news. Jesus calls us to dwell there. To identify with those who are aching, weeping, screaming, and dying. We are called to sacrifice our comfort until everyone is able to share in it as well. We need to ask ourselves where do we stand in the midst of all these crosses?
Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. From here on out everything is about preparing his disciples for what Jesus will face and for the crosses they will have to bear as well. From this time on, everything in our lives should be focused there as well. The cost for everyone will be different, some will be called to sacrifice more than others, but the call is the same. We must die to the ways of this world, we must give up the false promises and expectations of the kingdom of humanity, so that we might live the ways of the kingdom of God – so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.