Don’t look back, don’t look ahead, look around: A Sermon for Advent 1A, 2020

Advent 1       

November 29, 2020

Here we are, beginning the season of Advent, observing it in ways none of us has ever done before, looking ahead to a Christmas season that will be equally unsettling in the compromises we will have to make because of the pandemic’s continued presence among us. Our joy and excitement are tempered by fear, exhaustion, and the ongoing sense of isolation—from our church, our friends and loved ones, from the rituals that have offered us such great comfort and to which we look forward each year at this time.

It’s enough to make us want to cry with the prophet, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and make the mountains shake!” We want deliverance from all of this; we look for solutions—vaccines, political leadership, magic bullets, that will remove all of our hardship and anxiety, and return things to normal.

In our present circumstances, the themes of Advent, as expressed in today’s gospel reading may provide less comfort and consolation, than increase our anxiety and exhaustion. In our struggles, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the situations in which the gospels were written; in this case, Mark in particular.

The first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, and the cycle of our readings switches. This year, we will be reading from the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree was the first of the gospels to be written. And it was written in difficult circumstances indeed. Around the year 70, so about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The gospel reflects the challenges those 40 years presented. During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly announced the coming of God’s reign, and proclaimed that he would soon return in majesty to usher in that reign of justice and peace. But 40 years had passed and Jesus’ followers saw no signs of that coming. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this delay constituted something of a crisis of faith for the early Christian community.

Another factor was emerging as the gospel was written. In 66 ce, Jewish revolutionaries had taken up arms against the Roman occupation. Early successes had led to Rome’s vicious crackdown. We don’t know whether Mark was written immediately before, or in the immediate aftermath of Rome’s re-conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple, but we know that this turn of events created crisis both for the emergent Christian community and for Judaism. 

The destruction of the temple was catastrophic for Judaism of the day. I used to say to my students that we couldn’t imagine what it meant emotionally, psychologically, and religiously to the Jews of the day. But now, I think we may have some sense of the significance of that cataclysmic event. Having been prevented from public worship, from gathering in this familiar place regularly, we have been forced to reimagine, reinvent our worship and our common life. And we have had to do that in the midst of our frustration and anger that we are not able to gather, that the old rituals and spaces are unavailable. We have spent a great deal of our time and energy in lament, mourning, and anger; looking back to the past, rather than forward into the uncertain future.

It’s in this context, to this moment, that Mark is writing his gospel. In this context, in this moment, we are beginning once again to observe Advent. Mark speaks to us, now, in our context, in this moment. We may be looking back to the past, to Advents and Christmases of years past, wishing we could easily recreate them without worry or concern for our safety. We might even, as so many are doing, observe them this year as we have in the past, throwing caution to the wind and endangering ourselves, our loved ones, our community. Our we might put everything on hiatus, put our lives and our celebrations on hold for a safer time. We can see all of those responses hinted at in the gospel reading. 

But there’s something else.

At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:

Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, (Mk13:35)

Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.

What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.

But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans. 

But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God. 

For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified. 

We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. We live in a time when many of our fellow Christians, many of our denominational institutions are more concerned about individual rights than the wellbeing of the wider community, the flourishing of all people. And in their demand for rights and power, they cause suffering and pain, they threaten the lives and health of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate. 

But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty. Remembering that Jesus died on the cross teaches us to seek his presence in the midst of suffering, weakness, and vulnerability.

For us in this season, let us not look back, nor look forward. Let us look around, keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence. Let us be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days. May we share the good news of Christ’s coming, of his presence, and may we help others recognize and know his presence in the midst of their anxiety, fear, and longing.

Jesus, John Wayne, and Christ the King

 In her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne, Kristine Kobes Du Mez writes about the transformation of American Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as it became indistinguishable from conservative white, masculine, nationalistic politics. While her focus is on evangelicalism, the story affects of all of American Christianity, in that the consumer culture we inhabit shapes us indelibly. She uses the actor John Wayne as a symbol of that transformation, showing how American evangelical Christians reimagined Jesus in light of Wayne’s iconic portrayal of the lone American fighting against evil in defense of the American way of life.

Such imagery may be profoundly alien to us. When was the last time you watched Wayne’s iconic Green Berets—his full-throttled defense of US involvement in Viet Nam? Perhaps you have seen The Searchers or The Sands of Iwo Jima. But for most of us, John Wayne and the characters he played in the movies are faded relics of a long-forgotten past. Still, Kobes De Mez reveals that the images continue to shape our worldview and Christianity and those of other Americans in profound and disturbing ways. His elevation of the lone individual fighting for truth and the American way, battling enemies who were usually not white; the emphasis on redemptive violence, the praise of dominant masculinity against passive femininity, all of these themes continue to resonate in our culture and in American Christianity.

The conflation of Jesus and John Wayne may seem an absurdity, laughable, idolatry. It may seem a distortion, even a heretical misinterpretation of the one who died on the cross, offering love to the world, preaching on behalf of the poor, the powerless, the hungry. But there is imagery in our scripture, liturgy, and theology that evokes themes of imperial power. 

Which brings us to today, the observance of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. When we hear those words, it’s hard not to conjure up images of Jesus reigning in majesty, his head adorned with a crown, wearing imperial purple. All of those symbols are derived from the imperial imagery of the Roman Empire and medieval kingship. And while we may imagine a pax Christiana, or a pax Romana, in which the empire rules benevolently, peacefully, over a harmonious world, such tranquility always requires vigilant borders, suppression of dissent, overwhelming military power.

This commemoration of Christ the King, or of the Reign of Christ, as it’s often called these days, is a product of the political conflicts of the last century. It was proclaimed by the pope in 1925, a few years after the devastation of World War I, and in the face of the rising tide of Fascism in western Europe. It was an attempt to remind Christians to put our trust not in the kings or presidents, the forces of nationalism or the powers of this earth, but in the one who reigns in majesty in heaven.

Observing this theme today in the midst of our own political and constitutional crisis, with the threat of authoritarianism and the subversion of the democratic process, seems especially appropriate. And the gospel reading cuts to the very heart of our experience right now.

With today’s reading, we are at the end of our reading of Matthew’s gospel. It is also the final public teaching of Jesus in the gospel. The rest of the gospel is taken up with the events of the last supper, the crucifixion, and resurrection. In some ways, it resembles the parables we’ve been hearing the past few weeks; there’s judgment, there’s separation of good and evil, there’s condemnation. But the similarities end there. While it’s often referred to as a parable, it’s not. It’s more a description of the last judgment than a parable.

The ubiquity of the themes from this story in contemporary progressive Christianity are unfortunate, because it is usually reduced to a set of ethical imperatives—to care for the least of these, the poor, the hungry, the naked, prisoners. What’s overlooked in that perspective is that such actions are not humanitarian; they are sacramental. They take place in response to, and in the presence of Christ. But they are sacramental in a very interesting way, because they are unconsciously sacramental. That is to say, those performing the sacramental acts of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, do not know they are performing sacramental acts, they are performing those acts out of mercy and love, to Christ and to their fellow humans, not knowing that as they perform them, Christ is present.

To bring it back to the day’s theme, reading this text in the context of the Reign of Christ is a powerful witness to the sort of king Christ is, to the nature of the reign of Christ. It is the very subversion of human notions of kingship and power. It is unspoken, unseen, unrecognized. It is present in the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society, in prisons and nursing homes where COVID is raging uncontrollably, on streets where the homeless sleep, in the lines that appear when our food pantry is open. It is present on our borders, in refugee camps, and facilities where immigrants are being held, in the cages where children live.

Think for a moment about all of those places—places we don’t want to think about, or see, or visit. Think about how most of those places, especially prisons and nursing homes, are occupied by people we don’t want to see or know.

There, among the most vulnerable, the weakest, the ignored, there Christ reigns. There, Christ is. And we are called, not only to reach out, to offer food, clothing, and shelter, to be present there. We are called to see Christ there, to recognize his presence, to serve him there.   It is our calling to remind our culture of who Christ is, where Christ is, even when the culture wants to see Christ very differently, as a white, violent, powerful warrior hero.

In these dark days, in the midst of our fear and anxiety, as we struggle to make sense of what’s happening, to hold out hope for the future, following Jesus means to follow him there, where he reigns, and where he is present, in prisons, in nursing homes. And even when it is impossible to do so, as it is now, in these circumstances, it is our calling to bear witness to Christ’s presence in those places, among the victims of violence and oppression, the poor, the hungry, and the naked. We are called to challenge the powers of this world who ignore and prolong the suffering of the least of these. We are called to show even to them, the powerful, the wealthy, the uncaring, to make known to them Christ’s presence where they would least expect it and least recognize it. May we have the courage to witness and to show mercy. 

Praying in anxious times

On November 8, 2016 I was beginning a retreat at the Monastery of the Society of St. John the Divine in Cambridge, MA. When I scheduled it, I had no idea that it was Election Day but it turned out that I would rather have been nowhere else as the results came in and the election of Donald Trump as President became clear. I wrote about those days in a blog post

Prayer continues to sustain me. We began saying Morning Prayer regularly via zoom and facebook at the beginning of the pandemic. While the Daily Office is something that I as a priest am familiar with and even expected to pray daily, I have found new strength and sustenance in it over the last seven months. Saying it with others enhances its meaning. 

… I found hope and inspiration in those stone walls, in the chanting of the Daily Office, in the community created in silence and in the brothers’ hospitality. The silence of last week gave me space to pray and to think. As the week went on, the importance of prayer, the centrality of prayer, became more obvious. To reach not for my own words but for the church’s words; to say and chant psalms that were written 2500 years ago; for the doubts and fears, the faith and trust of an author so unlike myself, who lived in a world imaginably different from, for his words to speak for and to me, to speak of and to God; was comfort and consolation in this difficult and anxious. To rediscover the power of prayer, and especially of a community at prayer, was just what I needed. …

These last days before the election are an especially anxious time. Wherever we find ourselves on the political spectrum, most of us sense the importance of this election. We are afraid. We are afraid for the future of the nation and the world. The pandemic is growing; we fear for our jobs, our families and futures. Some of us are afraid that what we take to be fundamental rights will be stripped from us. Some may fear that their marriages will be declared null and void. In the midst of all the fear and anxiety, we lose sleep, lash out in anger, and find ourselves unable to focus. The relationships that should sustain us at times like these, our families and friends, our fellow members of the body of Christ, are strained by isolation and the inadequacy of virtual gatherings and conversations in establishing deep connection.

 If there were no pandemic, I would make sure the church was open throughout the day on Tuesday and Wednesday for people to come into that familiar and beautiful space, to experience the beauty of holiness, and to pray. Instead, we will offer Morning Prayer at 9:00 am both days as we have done throughout the pandemic. We will also offer Noonday Prayer both days at 12 noon, and Compline at 9:00 pm on Tuesday. I invite you to join us via zoom or facebook for any or all of these opportunities.

Other opportunities for prayer include the prayer service livestreamed from the National Cathedral at 2 pm (CDT): Holding on to Hope.

In addition, there are a number of appropriate prayers offered by the Episcopal Church or in the Book of Common Prayer:

A Collect for Elections (from the Episcopal Office of Government Affairs)

Almighty God, you have promised to hear what we ask in the name of your Son. Watch over our country now and in the days ahead, guide our leaders and all who will vote, guide them in all knowledge and truth and make your ways known among all people. In the passion of debate give them a quiet spirit; in the complexities of the issues give them courageous hearts. Accept and fulfill our petitions, we pray, not as we ask in our ignorance, nor as we deserve in our sinfulness, but as you know and love us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Collect For the Nation (BCP pg. 207)

Lord God Almighty, who has made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for Social Justice (BCP pg. 823)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect For an Election (BCP pg. 822)

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States (or of this community) in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The End of an Era: The departure of the men’s shelter from Grace

The End of an Era. What is God’s call for Grace Church now?

The news reports this week made public what had been clear to many of us since the beginning of the pandemic. The men’s homeless shelter that has been at Grace since 1984-5 will have a new permanent home funded by the City of Madison and Dane County. While the announced location fell through today, the City and County remain committed to finding a new, permanent location.

When the lockdown began in mid-March, Porchlight the agency operating the shelter, the city, and the county scrambled to find a suitable alternative. On March 30, shelter operations were moved to the Warner Park Community Center on the north side. The close quarters of Grace and the overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First Methodist simply couldn’t provide adequate space for social distancing and for the health and sanitation protocols that were necessary to prevent widespread infection. Within a few weeks, it became clear that the space at Warner Park was much better suited for shelter operations and in spite of the transportation challenges, both staff and guests preferred the new facility.

As time went on and the pandemic continued, the possibility that shelter operations could return to the downtown churches became more and more unlikely. The city began seeking alternative locations for a permanent shelter and we at Grace began thinking about a future without the shelter. The announcement this week brought this period of uncertainty to an end.

There’s an enormous irony here. I have been at Grace since 2009 and for much of that time, my ministry has involved work with homeless people and around advocacy. Some years before I arrived, efforts to find a new location foundered on neighborhood opposition and political apathy. In the early 2010s, it took several years and several failed attempts to find a suitable location for a day resource center; a process that culminated with the opening of the Beacon in October, 2018.

At Grace, we had begun talking about the need for a new shelter. After extensive renovations funded by Epic in 2010, the shelter again was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Beyond that, the small size of the facility, its minimal accessibility to people with mobility issues, the fact that guests were forced to wait in the elements before entry, were ongoing problems that no amount of money could solve. For several years, we had conversations internally and approached downtown partners, city and county staff, and elected officials about the inadequacy of the current facility and the need for others to step up and take responsibility for solving the problem.

Our conversations were always cordial and supportive but they were also inconclusive. The former mayor asked us when we entered his office, “What’s your deadline?” Everyone agreed that a new shelter was desperately needed; but no one seemed willing to expend the political capital, or the time and energy to see it through. Finally, we began to work on our own. With the help of an outside consultant, we gathered a group of advocates, elected officials, and downtown stakeholders to begin the process of working toward a new shelter. The group had its first meeting in November 2019. In March 2020, the pandemic arrived in Madison.

The pandemic accomplished what we couldn’t. It demonstrated the inadequacy of the facility and raised to the level of emergency the urgency of developing an alternative. I’m enormously grateful to local governments, to the mayor and County Executive, to alders and supervisors, to county, and especially to city staff who have been working on this. A process I anticipated would take at least five years has reached a first, important milestone in a little over six months.

This does mark the end of an era. We received notice a few weeks ago that Porchlight would be terminating its lease as of the end of 2020. A relationship that has continued for thirty-five years with Porchlight and its predecessor agencies is coming to an end. Our identity as the church with the shelter is also coming to an end. Even as we celebrate the new beginning and look forward to a new purpose-built facility, we also take great pride in those people whose vision first welcomed the shelter to Grace, and the volunteers who supported it over the decades—the thousands who prepared and served meals over the years. For us at Grace, homeless ministry became part of our core identity; it attracted members and it shaped us as a congregation. We did more than welcome homeless people to the shelter; we welcomed them to our services and to our fellowship activities.

The shelter’s departure comes at a time of crisis in Madison’s downtown. The pandemic and protests have transformed our neighborhood. The downtown with its many restaurants, shops, the vibrant arts community, all have been devastated over the last six months. Despair and fear are palpable as one walks the empty sidewalks. 

Grace Church has been a presence on Capitol Square for over 175 years; our building dates from 1858. We have seen a lot over that time and the square has seen enormous change. This is a time of great uncertainty as we don’t know what life will look life after the pandemic. We don’t know whether many of the changes we have seen will be permanent. But as we look into that uncertain future and ponder what Grace’s identity and mission might be in the years to come, we must respond faithfully and creatively to the opportunities that present themselves. The departure of the shelter frees us to imagine new possibilities for our spaces and to explore new ways of connecting with our neighbors, including homeless people who will continue to live among us downtown.

Coincidentally, I had organized a meeting for tonight of our mission/outreach committee and our newly re-formed Master Plan Steering Committee, to begin a conversation about future ministry and mission at Grace and how our space might contribute that work. The public announcement of a new location underscores the importance of these conversations.

Maybe we’re the wicked tenants: A Sermon for Proper 22A

Proper22A

October 4, 2020

We’ve been spending a lot of time in vineyards recently. This is the third Sunday in a row that we’ve heard Jesus tell a parable set in a vineyard. Two weeks ago, we heard the story of the laborers in the vineyard. Last week, the story of the of the father who asked his two sons to go to the vineyard. 

Speaking of vineyards…

Quite apart from the parables we are hearing, I’m thinking of the 17 vineyards in Napa and Sonoma that have been damaged by the Glass Fire, and the many more that are under threat—a stark reminder of our failure as human beings to be good stewards of the creation with which God entrusted us.

Today, yet another vineyard parable, but a particularly challenging one for us as 21stcentury Christians. The challenge is not in figuring out what it means. That’s pretty clear from the context, as Jesus’ listeners, the chief priests and the pharisees, got the point immediately.

The chief priests and pharisees knew that Jesus was talking about them. We, as readers, are likely to think the same thing, that Jesus is talking about the chief priests and pharisees. Or worse, to conform to nearly two thousand years of Christian interpretation of this parable that interprets it as an allegory. In this reading, the landowner is God; the vineyard is the world, or Israel, or the Promised Land. The tenants are the Jews; the slaves the prophets sent by God to urge the Jews back to faithfulness, and of course, the son sent at the last is Jesus who was executed by the Jews. That’s a deeply problematic interpretation, one with fateful consequences for the Jewish people, and in an age when we see a resurgence of Anti-Semitism, it is an interpretation we should resist and problematize.

One way of doing that is to resist the temptation to leave the parable’s interpretation in the first century, but to let it challenge us, to place ourselves in the role of the listener, not the reader. What might it mean if Jesus is directing the parable at us and at our context?

I would like to go back to the reading from Isaiah, “the song of the vineyard” because clearly this image of Israel as God’s vineyard undergirds the parable. 

As I think about the world in which we live today, the world we are passing on to the next generations, I think about all of the ways we have been poor stewards of the all that we have been given. The climate catastrophe that we’ve know was coming and is now here; the pandemic that has killed more than 200000 in this nation, thrown millions out of work, increased inequities, and now finally, has struck at the top of our political system, the racism and white supremacy that threat our nation, I wonder who the wicked tenants are.

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard: 

My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill. 

He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines; 

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it; 

he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And, then, at the end:

he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed; 

righteousness,
but heard a cry!

            God expected justice, but saw bloodshed, righteousness, but heard a cry.

            We should hear the indictment in Isaiah and in Matthew, as an indictment of us, not of some other group that we wish to demonize.

            It’s a hard message because even when we feel like we are the victims of injustice, that it is our views, or ourselves that are marginalized, and demonized, it is so easy to turn that language back on others, to respond in kind. But the tenants in the parable were not just protecting their own interests, they were operating as if it all were a zero-sum game. And in God’s economy, it’s never that, it’s never a zero-sum game.

            Think again about the parable, about the landowner, and about the song of the vineyard. Think about the generous, loving actions of God in Isaiah 5. All of the hard work, the care taken, to clear the land, build a wall and watchtower, plant the grapes. In the parable, similar effort. In the parable, after all that work, the landowner goes off and lets it to tenants. But when they don’t pay up, he doesn’t just evict them and find new tenants; he tries again and again to get a response from them. Finally, he sends his son, his beloved son, thinking that they wouldn’t harm him, that they would respect him.

            So, I ask again, what do we know about the landowner? He’s creative, generous, and patient. Given all that, what will he do next? The answer given in the gospel reading is an answer from the perspective of a dog-eat-dog worldview. I get mine. I get yours, too, unless you are stronger than me. We could translate the story very easily into our own economy and world

But are those the values of the reign of God? Is that what Jesus preached? What does Jesus teach in Matthew? The Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy, if someone asks you for a cloak, give him your coat as well. 

How might we answer the question: What would the landowner do, from this set of values, trying to live out the values of the Reign of God? We might want to look at it from the perspective of the landowner, to imagine what we might, or ought to do, in a similar situation. But I’m not sure that’s the appropriate angle to take.

I think that on one level, the question Jesus asks challenges us to reconsider how we think about God. Can we imagine a God whose grace and mercy extend to the unimaginable, beyond our wildest dreams? Can we imagine a God so creative, so patient as the landowner in the parable? A God who has made us stewards of a lovely and bountiful vineyard, and asks us to give back to God, what is owed, and to be as generous to others as God has been generous to us? 

We know that we are loved of God. We know that God has given us so very much. What would it be like to approach the world, our relationships with others, our stance in these difficult times, with an openness to sharing as generously of ourselves and what we’ve been given, as God shares generously with us? What would it be like to recognize and confess all the ways we have squandered all that God has given us, sought to keep it as our own, protected our interests at the expense of others?                                    

By whose authority? A Sermon for Proper 21A, September 27, 2020

Proper21A

September 27, 2020

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

That’s the question the chief priests and elders asked Jesus in today’s gospel reading. It’s also a question that is very appropriate in our own context as we watch the assaults on democracy in our divided nation and continued protests over the apparent unbridled power of police to kill African Americans with impunity and celebrations for those who attack and kill protestors. 

By what authority? The context for this scripture is absolutely essential to understand what’s going on here. Today’s reading takes place the day after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He followed that display of royal symbolism by going to the temple and staging a violent demonstration—turning over the tables of the moneychangers and expelling all those who were buying and selling things there. The next day he returns to the temple, and upon his arrival is confronted by the guys in charge. Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of it resonate with you?

“By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?”

In a similar situation, we might ask, “What right do you have?” 

I don’t think it’s a legitimate question. I think they mean to put Jesus in his place, to remind him where he is, where they are, and where they are standing. It’s coming from a place of privilege and power, and it’s meant to stop the disturbances, to quiet things down, to shut Jesus up.

But he isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t back down. He responds, as he so often does, with a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” 

It’s quite a risky thing to ask, from Jesus’ perspective. To put it another way, he might be asking, “Was John the Baptist’s ministry, his preaching of repentance, his baptizing in the wilderness, was all that right, did that come from God, or was it his own personal invention?” A risky question, because John had been executed by Herod. For Jesus is not just asking a question about the source of John’s authority, he is also aligning himself with John’s ministry—aligning himself with a prophet who was executed because he was a truth-teller and challenged Herod, calling him out for his immorality, venality, and corruption. 

The gospels tell us that “all Jerusalem went out to see and listen to John” but we can be certain that the temple authorities were not big fans of his, that they perceived him as a threat to their power and wealth.

Unlike John, he preached against immorality, greed, and corruption from the wilderness, Jesus has brought his message to the heart of Jerusalem, to the very heart of Judaism. By overturning the tables of money-changers, Jesus is bringing John’s message of repentance and God’s coming reign to the temple and to the temple elite.

For us, in this moment, the significance of Jesus’ actions, the significance of this question asked of Jesus, and the question Jesus asks in reply, may seem obvious. We may think it has to do with a conflict between Jesus and Judaism, or more narrowly between Jesus and a religious establishment that refused to acknowledge him as the Messiah. We may want to project it forward into the controversies and division of our own time and see it as a question to be asked of political leaders or police officers with whom we disagree, or to be asked of protesters who have taken to the streets. But I think any of those strategies are inclined to leave us off the hook, to let us avoid the uncomfortable question about Jesus’ authority that is being asked of us, and of exploring the nature and extent of his authority in our lives and in our world.

If we reflect on those questions, we might find ourselves in a position of question our own perspectives, the way we have appealed to Jesus’ authority to support our own arguments and positions. Instead, I wonder if we might learn something from the reading from Philippians.

Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus… Paul is addressing life in Christian community, in the first instance he is writing to the small group of Christians in the city of Philippi, urging them to resolve their conflicts, to deepen their relationships with each other. He tells them to imitate Christ and then, in language that soars like poetry and has inspired Christian theology and liturgy for nearly 2000 years, he writes:

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.

While there is much one could say about this, and let’s be honest, it includes language that we might find troubling or problematic, like slavery… I would like only to focus on what I think is Paul’s main point, that Christ emptied himself, did not himself grasp for power or prestige, did not demand his “rights” but emptied himself, becoming human in obedience to God. 

It’s a mystery that is beyond our comprehension, though we have tried to make sense of it for two thousand years—Christ’s love, his humbling himself, his self-giving. I’m not sure it’s something we can actually emulate or imitate, notwithstanding Paul’s admonition. Instead, it stands before us, not as model, but as gift—God’s gift of grace. And if there is a mind that we have in Christ, to see in Christ’s actions a new possibility for our own and for human existence in the world, a possibility of self-giving love, that offers love’s gift to the world. It’s a witness, a way of life that is desperately needed, especially in these dark days. And to circle back to the question that began this homily, to see Jesus’ authority, not in his divinity or his ability to work miracles, but in the self-giving love that brought him to the cross, raised him from the dead, and brings us hope.

Forgiveness and Mercy: A Sermon for Proper 19A, September 13, 2020

Proper19A

September 13, 2020

The familiar words come easily, unthinkingly off our tongues and lips. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others.” In the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” In another widely-known version, it’s “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” 

Earlier in the liturgy, we ask God’s forgiveness more directly, though in most instances, no more consciously, “For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us…”

Forgiveness is one of those concepts that is central to our experience of the Christian faith, and central to our lives as human beings bound up in relationships with other people. It’s also something we may struggle with in our personal lives, as we may struggle with forgiving ourselves for not living up to our ideals or expectations. If we can’t forgive ourselves, or others, we can’t move on; we can’t open ourselves to hope, or to change. 

Forgiveness is hard. We know that. Like Peter, we are prone to wonder whether there are limits beyond which we need not forgive, and whether there are things that can’t be forgiven. There’s the spectacle, or demand, for forgiveness. We see that when grieving family members forgive a murderer. And in prominent, public cases, those rituals of forgiveness often help us avoid or forget the absolute horror of the crime, and the hatred or evil that led to it, as in the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Forgiveness is hard—but there’s a sense that we may expect others, God, public victims, to forgive quickly and easily, to bring closure, as is said, to move on.

There’s something of an irony that today’s gospel reading comes so close to 9/11, when we remember the events of September 11, 2001. My social media feeds were full of memes and images with the motto “Never Forget.” But we do forget, or want to, what the events of that day unleashed; nineteen years of war now, countless lives lost or irreparably harmed; our nation changed forever by the fear and anger; by militarization, torture and a breakdown of our judicial system.

 In today’s gospel, Peter asks a question that we might understand to be a follow-up to last week’s reading about how to resolve conflict in Christian community. Peter wonders how far the need to forgive goes—do we have to forgive a fellow believer seven times? Seven is a good number with lots of biblical resonances—seven days in the week, for example and we could imagine ourselves asking that question. After all, how often does someone get a second or third or fourth chance in life? Seven times seems quite magnanimous.

Peter is thinking in terms of a calculus of forgiveness, something we often do. Jesus’ response may seem to be in keeping with that calculus, but of course 70 times is on a completely different magnitude.

Continuing, Jesus tells the parable of an indebted slave. And here the calculus breaks down completely. It may be that he has become enslaved because of his debt. His master, the king, demands payment. It’s a stupendously large debt—10000 talents; a talent is roughly 6000 denarii, a denarius, the daily wages of a laborer. So one talent is upwards of 20 years of work. That’s an inconceivable amount, a debt that couldn’t be repaid, but 6000 talents? 

The story continues. The slave pleads with his master. In doing so, he exhibits what we now call magical thinking: “Have patience with me, and I will repay everything.” A debt so large that we can’t imagine how big it is or how it was incurred, and a slave saying, “be patient, I’ll repay it.” But the master relents, having pity for him, and forgave his debt. 

But then the slave, who had been the recipient of such great mercy and forgiveness, sees a slave who owes him 100 denarii, no small sum of course for either of them, and when he can’t repay, throws him in prison. When the first

slave’s master hears what happens, he becomes as angry as he had been merciful, handing the slave over to be tortured until he could repay—which of course means that he would be tortured for the rest of his life. Jesus, or Matthew, concludes, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

It’s so easy to draw a line back from the reference to “my heavenly Father” to the king in the parable to conclude that if we don’t forgive from our hearts, we will burn in hell for eternity. But I’m not sure that interpretation is particularly helpful for us. Let’s pause for a minute and reflect on the first slave’s experience. He begged forgiveness for an unimaginably large debt and received forgiveness and mercy equal to that debt. What might that feel like? In the realm of economics, when we hear about the 100000s of thousands of dollars in debt that students rack up in pursuit of college or professional degrees, and the likelihood that much of that debt can never be repaid, what might it be like to suddenly have that debt forgiven?

Or medical debt… Have you heard about the churches that are buying medical debt for pennies on the dollar and freeing people from the money they owe hospitals? Debt incurred through no fault of your own

To be free of that debt, after having lived under its burden for years or decades, what might that feel like? 

Wouldn’t you want simply to enjoy the freedom of forgiveness? And perhaps be able to share that feeling of freedom with others, at no or little cost to yourself? 

We are forgiven. God’s grace and mercy extend beyond our capacity to imagine or calculate. Many of us have experienced that forgiveness; many of us have had our lives transformed by that forgiveness. To extend that to others, to offer that freedom and joy to people weighed down with the burdens of sin and debt, and like God, to ask nothing in return.

In a few minutes, when I say the words of institution over the elements, as I raise the cup, I will say, “This is my blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus said those words to his disciples on the night that he would be betrayed, abandoned, and denied by them. He said those words, knowing what would happen, what they would do. He says them to us, knowing that we will fall short, that we will sin, that we will fail to love God and our neighbor adequately, when we don’t forgive our neighbor, our loved one, or our friend. But those words remind us that God never fails, that God is present, loving, forgiving, inviting us to receive mercy, and to extend mercy to others.

Getting behind Jesus: A Homily for Proper 17A, August 30, 2020

I was struck yesterday morning while sitting on my porch with just a touch of Fall in the air, that in normal years, this would have been the first weekend of college football. Nothing is quite the same, is it.

Some other impressions from the week:

The horrific shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, shot seven times in the back, paralyzed, lying in his hospital bed, handcuffed.

The 17-year old boy strutting down the street after gunning down protestors, unchallenged by police.

A politician’s speech, quoting the letter to the Hebrews and the Apostle Paul, replacing references to Jesus Christ with Old Glory, the American flag.

The sordid end of a prominent Evangelical’s university presidency.

And finally, on Friday, an article in the New York Times about alumni from Harvard Divinity School, my alma mater, who are marketing themselves as Divinity or Spiritual consultants in the corporate world. Perhaps you can imagine the outrage on social media.

What, if anything do these images have in common? Perhaps nothing at all, but perhaps they are evidence of the extent to which we as Americans, as Christians have lost our way.

It’s appropriate, I think that just now in our lectionary cycle we are at that pivotal point in the story of Jesus. Last week, the great confession of Peter in the shadow of empire and of Hellenistic religion: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

And just after that, Jesus begins to lay out just what it means that he is the anointed one, the Christ, the Son of God. To be the Messiah means that he will go to Jerusalem, be arrested, executed for the crimes of insurrection and revolution, and on the third day, be raised from the dead.

And Peter’s response? “This must never happen to you!”

This is one of those key moments in the gospels, crucial to understanding Jesus but crucial also to understanding the gospel writers portray him, his mission, and the disciples’ response to him.

Matthew is following Mark’s chronology closely here. There are a series of three exchanges between Jesus and his disciples, three times that Jesus makes a prediction that he is going to Jerusalem, that he will be crucified, and raised from the dead. Each of those three predictions is followed by an incident, like this one with Peter, that makes clear the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, that their ideas about him, and what will happen in Jerusalem are radically different. In response to their objections, Jesus then explains to them what it really means to follow him: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Two observations. First, when Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, he’s telling him to follow him, disciples are to follow behind their teachers. Yes, it’s a rebuke but it’s also a reminder to Peter where he belongs. To draw on imagery in the gospel itself, while earlier, after Peter’s great confession, Jesus had called him the rock on which he would build the church, now Peter has become a stumbling block.

Second, when we hear language of taking up one’s cross, or bearing a cross, it’s likely we think about burdens of one sort or another, personal struggles with which we have to deal. In the Roman world, “taking up one’s cross” meant only one thing. You were on your way to your place of execution.

In many ways our own reaction to Jesus’ words are much like Peter’s. We don’t want them to mean what they say literally, that following Jesus, becoming his disciples, means suffering and pain. We come to Jesus to find healing, to take away our suffering. And we think that on the cross, Jesus made everything Ok. But it’s not that simple. The gospels make clear that Jesus went to Jerusalem to confront the religious and imperial establishment, to initiate God’s reign, to transform the world. It’s also clear that he knew what would happen—that in Jerusalem, he would be arrested and executed, that he would die, as so many others did before and after him, crushed by the weight of imperial oppression. But he also knew that wouldn’t be the end.

His predictions of his coming crucifixion didn’t end with his death, for his death opened up the way to new life, his resurrection and the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace.

As we consider getting behind and following Jesus, we may wonder about the road ahead, we may wonder about the world around us. We see the deaths, again and again, of African Americans to police violence and to white supremacy, we see the suffering caused by COVID and the half-hearted response to it. We see the ravages of hurricanes and wildfires, intensified by climate change caused by our own greed. We see the drumbeat of hatred all around us, and a Christianity that either cozies up to power or seems ineffective to offer an alternative. We may want to escape into a spiritualism that denies any connection between our faith and the injustices and evils of this world.

But the journey on which Jesus is traveling is not a journey into escapism, fear or despair. It is a journey into the heart of the world as it is, with all of its struggles, suffering, and injustice. The journey ends, not at the foot of the cross but at the emptyw tomb, where we experience the joy of resurrection, and the possibility of a world made new by the transforming power of God’s justice and love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confessing Christ in the Shadow of Empire: A Homily for Proper 16A, August 23, 2020

Last week, Jesus was in the territory of Tyre and Sidon. Those cities were originally Phoenician, on the coast of the Mediterranean, north of Judea and northeast of Galilee, Jesus’ homeland. It was not only foreign territory; its inhabitants were not religiously Jewish. Now, he inland from the coast to Caesarea Philippi. It’s still a good distance north of Galilee. More importantly, it was a significant religious and political site.

In Caesarea, there was a sanctuary to the Greek God Pan. A spring inside a cave was one of the sources of the Jordan River. As is so often the case, the site had been a religious shrine for centuries. In fact before being renamed Caesarea in honor of the Emperor, its name was Panion, in honor of the Greek god. Caesarea’s history was bound up both with the Roman Empire and with their clients in the region, Herod and his family. In Jesus’ day, the territory was controlled by Philipp, Herod the Great’s son. Caesarea was a city that Augustus had given to Herod and Herod had rebuilt. When Philipp succeeded his father, he continued the building spree and renamed the city Caesarea Philippi, in honor of his imperial patron and himself. Like all such cities in the Roman Empire, it was a projection of Roman power and culture. It was both symbol of that power and a central node of power. Troops headquartered there were responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, events that would have been in the living memory of the first readers of Matthew’s gospel.

It was here that Jesus asked these two questions—“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Those of us who are familiar with the story, familiar with the Christian tradition, know a little bit of how this story has been interpreted in the history of Christianity. It is a founding text for notions of papal supremacy, and the power of the institutional church. “On this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” As you probably know, one of the most common symbols of the papacy are the papal tiara above two crossed keys.

But I’m not interested in that tradition of interpretation. Rather, I want to focus on the power and significance of those two questions, and I want to imagine, if you can, Jesus asking those questions today, on Madison’s Capitol Square, or perhaps on Allied Drive, or in the halls of the US Capitol, or the White House, or on the streets of all the cities where protests are ongoing, or in ICUs all over the country where medical workers are caring for COVID victims.

Jesus asked his questions in the shadow of empire, with the presence of Roman military and cultural power dominating the landscape and no doubt the minds and lives of the residents.

Who do people say that I am?

That’s the easy question to answer. The disciples had no problem offering answers—John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. What answers would you give to that question today?

“Who do you say that I am?”

That’s the hard one and I can imagine the disciples looking away, looking down at their sandals, trying to avoid Jesus’ searching gaze. Awkward silence, until Peter blurted his response,, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  And I can see the other disciples rolling their eyes as Peter responded, thinking to themselves, “There he goes again. Why doesn’t he just shut up?”

But Peter’s answer was not because he had studied harder than the other disciples, that he had memorized everything Jesus had said. Peter’s answer came not from himself but from God. And even he didn’t know what his answer meant. A few verses later, after protesting in response to Jesus’ prediction of his arrest, execution, and resurrection, Jesus would call Peter, “Satan.” And as we know, Peter would deny Jesus at the moment it mattered most.

Still, now, he made the confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The culture in which we live is dominated by religious imagery. We see appeals to Christian faith on bumper stickers and at political conventions. We see the cynical use of symbols of Christianity to win and consolidate power, to divide and conquer, to marginalize and disempower, to amass wealth and influence.

And we see the consequences of such cynical use of Christianity, in the alienation of so many from the teachings of Jesus and from churches, in the desperate search for meaning and connection in secular activities, in the rise of conspiracy theories.

What are the temples of idolatry in our culture? Where are the images and symbols of empire? What entities demand our allegiance and worship?

Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”

It’s easy to confess with our lips that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but to live our lives as expression of that confession is much, much harder. To commit ourselves to Christ apart from all the cultural trappings and imperial idolatry that has accrued to his image in this nation, to turn our backs on the temples of wealth, privilege, white supremacy, and American exceptionalism is another matter entirely.

From here, from Caesarea Philippi, Jesus would begin his long journey to Jerusalem, a journey that would end in his crucifixion, a victim of imperial violence.

In this world of violence and oppression, anger, hatred, and fear, it’s easy to lose sight of who Jesus is and what he means. It’s easy to remake him into an idol that reflects our desires and values, our greed and desire for power and influence. It’s easy to lose sight of the cross that stands at the end of his journey.

But if we want to confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we must open ourselves to be transformed into his image and likeness, to be shaped by the cross on which he died, and by the love for which he died. To confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is to invite him to enter our lives, grow more deeply into holiness, and when we stumble and falter on that journey, to ask forgiveness and to be reconciled by his love. May we find the strength to confess his name and the joy of growing more deeply in relationship with him.