Show us the way! A Sermon for 5 Easter, 2023

May 7, 2023

When Corrie and I lived in the south, we spent a lot of time exploring the back roads and mountains of Tennessee and the Carolinas. This was before GPS, so we occasionally got lost or found ourselves in places that were sketchy at best. Corrie would warn me that if we had car trouble, or had to stop and ask for directions, to let her talk, because my Yankee accent might have been less than welcome. 

Among the many diversions on our travels were the religious signage and other religious imagery. Some of it was unintentionally humorous, like the many independent gas stations that displayed signs like: Jesus saves, buy gas. Other signage was quite intentional and in your face; promising the fires of hell if we didn’t accept Jesus as our personal lord and savior, or the ubiquitous “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh to the father but by me.” This was long before cell phones with cameras, so we had a camera in the glove box just in case. But usually we were a bit too self-conscious and nervous to stop the car, get out and make photos.

There’s another side to all of this imagery and slogans. As an Episcopal priest in the South and even here, I’ve had to help people deal with the scars of the trauma experienced by this kind of religious abuse that can wreak lasting emotional and spiritual havoc.

In today’s gospel, we have part of Jesus’ long good-bye to his disciples. It’s long, really long, because it begins in chapter 13 and continues through chapter 17. We will be spending the next several Sundays in these chapters, so if you don’t like long good-byes, you might think about spending your time on Sunday mornings somewhere else besides church.

In today’s gospel, Jesus has just told his disciples in enigmatic language that he is about to die. He has said that he will be leaving shortly, that where he goes they will not be able to follow immediately, but will come after him. That statement is the catalyst in the Gospel of John for Peter’s promise to follow to the very end, to lay his life down for Jesus. But Jesus replies with his prediction of Peter’s three-fold denial of him. We have here a first example of the disciples’ confusion and uncertainty. In today’s gospel we have two other examples of the disciples’ response to Jesus’ words. Thomas and Philip both ask Jesus questions in hopes of hearing words of comfort and in hopes of understanding what he is saying.

It is in that context, that Jesus utters these familiar words of comfort: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus is consoling his disciples. Having told them he is about to leave them, he will also tell them over the course of the next chapters, that he is not abandoning them. They will not be left to their own devices. Rather, Jesus makes a series of promises that are intended to give them hope in the face of a future without him. The colorful imagery of the first few verses of chapter 14 often lead us to imagine a sumptuous heaven. The King James translated this as “In my father’s house are many mansions.” What we need to keep in mind is that the Greek word behind the translation of “mansions” or “dwelling places” is the noun form of a very common Johannine verb—to abide or stay. We’ve heard this before repeatedly, in chapter 1, when Andrew asks, “where are you staying?” and Jesus replies; “come and see.”  

It is in the context of this promise of his going and return for them, that the famous verse, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” As we all know, these words are used by many conservative Christians, and some not so conservative, to assert that only Christians will make it into heaven. And of course, it’s usually not just any old Christian—it’s usually Christians of my denomination, or who agree with me on this or that matter of doctrine or practice, who can be certain that they will be saved.

But to interpret these words to emphasize their exclusivity is to miss the point. Thomas does not ask Jesus, will anyone else get into heaven? Rather, he asks, “Show us the way.” Thomas’ question is at best redundant. Jesus has just told them that they know the way to where he is going. But Thomas is processing the words that Jesus has spoken, the talk of his imminent departure, and he seems not to have understood. So Jesus needs to remind him of what he’s just said, to reassure him, and all the disciples, that he will be with them.

Statements like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” are often used in precisely the opposite way than the gospel writer intended them. They are used to strike fear in people’s hearts, to cause them to doubt whether they’ve been saved or not, and to get them to sign on. Instead of fear, in the gospel of John, these words and indeed the entire passage are meant to reassure and to comfort. “You know the way,” Jesus says. “I am the way.” 

But there’s more in this passage. Philip asks a question. It is one of the few times in the gospel of John when the disciples seem as clueless as they do in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replies, somewhat testily, that whoever has seen the father has seen him. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus asserts his identity with God the Father. To see Jesus is to see God. To know Jesus is to know God.

There is a third promise that Jesus makes in this text. He reassures his disciples that they are as powerful as he is. In fact, he goes further, promising them that they will accomplish greater things than him, and they will do those things in his name. 

So we have three promises—a promise of Jesus’ continuing presence with us, a promise that he and the Father are one, and a promise that we, Jesus’ disciples, have power. All of those promises come at a time when the gospel is showing the disciples at their most confused and most uncertain. They are meant to comfort and reassure.

Of course, when we think of reassurance and comfort, images of protection and safety come to mind, perhaps images of the good shepherd like we saw last week. But Jesus words here take us in a very different direction. Instead of closing in, retreating behind the high walls of a fortress, Jesus is telling his disciples to go out. He is telling them to take action in the world, to move forward in faith. With that faith, he says, we can do great things. But above all, Jesus is telling them, and us, that what matters most is relationship with him. To be with him, abide with him does not only offer comfort in difficult times; knowing, experiencing Jesus’ presence in our lives, in our community gives us strength for the journey and power to do great things.

Were not our hearts burning? A Sermon for Easter 3A, 2023

I’ve always been grateful that I’ve worked in occupations that didn’t require a lot of travel. While I enjoy seeing new places and revisiting places I’ve been or lived before, getting there, especially if it requires a plane ride, can be challenging. It’s not just the hassle; it’s being put in close proximity to strangers, who might want to engage me in conversation.

Why? Because inevitably, the question is posed: “What do you do?” Back when I was a college professor, I learned early on never to say “Religion Professor.” It only took one or two awkward conversations, usually in which my conversation partner expounded on some book they were reading, or wanting to debate the existence of God or talk about the spiritual quest they had been pursuing for the last thirty years, to make me answer “European history” in an attempt to quiet them.

It hasn’t gotten any easier since I’ve become a priest. It’s one of the reasons I don’t even carry books—it’s much harder for onlookers to detect what I’m reading when I’m using a kindle.

I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences. You’re traveling, all you want is to be left alone with your thoughts or your reading, and your seatmate wants to engage tell you everything about themselves, or learn everything about you.

I’ll never forget the uber driver who was so intent on sharing his knowledge of Gnosticism with me that he got lost taking me to my destination in Cambridge Mass, and I had to give him instructions, even though it had been more than 25 years since I’d driven in the city.

One of the things I love about the gospel stories of the appearances of the Risen Christ is how they bring together moments of utter transcendence and awe with daily life and the mundane. In the story of Thomas which was read last week, we heard about the disciples gathered together, the appearance of Christ, and the disbelief of Thomas. We also heard his great confession: “My Lord and my God!” In another story from the gospel of John, the disciples encounter the risen Christ making breakfast for them after they’ve spent the night fishing on the Sea of Galilee.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we have these two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and encountering a stranger as they go. A perfectly ordinary story with an extraordinary conclusion. A perfectly ordinary story, on the one hand, yet on the other, full of mystery and raising many questions.

Two disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. That’s the first mystery: Why and Where? There’s a great deal of uncertainty about the location of Emmaus. There’s no clear village or town in the vicinity of Jerusalem that had that name in the first century—oh, if you visit the Holy Land now, they can show you where tradition says Emmaus was, the house where Cleopas lived, the church built on the site. But all of that comes much later. It’s almost as if these two disciples, one of them unnamed and unknown, the other Cleopas, only mentioned here, were on a journey to nowhere. 

And why were they traveling? Was Emmaus their home? Were they trying to escape Jerusalem? Are they fleeing the city? That’s perhaps a better guess. Although Luke isn’t quite so hard on the disciples as the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the disciples had every reason to be fearful—their leader had been arrested and executed by the Roman authorities. Their movement was in a shambles and they had every right to suspect that the Romans would be coming after them, too. So they may have been trying to get away from Jerusalem and return to obscurity. They may have been fleeing for their lives.

While we can only hypothesize about their fear and assume they were grieving as well, the text does tell us that they were in despair. They tell their unkown companion, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” After telling their story and expressing their dashed hopes, they listen as Jesus explains to them again how everything that happened conforms to Hebrew scripture. They are so taken with him that they urge him to join them for dinner. And it’s at dinner that their eyes are opened.

The gospel reads, “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” It’s a description that echoes Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, and earlier, in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. At that moment, their eyes were opened, they recognized their Lord and Savior, and he vanished from their sight. Now everything made sense to them. The explanation of scripture Jesus had given them helped them make the connection—their encounter with the Risen Christ changed their fear into joy and their despair into happiness. Now they remembered, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”

Whatever plans they had made earlier, whatever reasons they had for leaving Jerusalem to go to Emmaus, didn’t matter any more. They immediately raced back to Jerusalem to see the other disciples and tell them what happened, that Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

What’s so wonderful about this story is its relationship to our lives as Christians. Like those two disciples, we all have histories, backgrounds with Jesus. Some of us have grown up in the church, heard bible stories since we were children, have never not been connected to the faith. Others of us have had different journeys, have little or no background in the church, have found ourselves drawn to Jesus, drawn to God. Still others have had a little of both, wandering in and out over the years, active in the church, then for whatever reason feeling profoundly alienated from it, or only disinterested. We read, discuss, explore on our own.

But too often, most of the time, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Even for many of us who are committed members of Grace, too often it seems like we’re just going through the motions, coming to church because that’s what we do, are active volunteers because, well, somebody has asked us, and we just can’t say no, or say it often enough. But our involvement doesn’t touch us at our deepest selves. Sometimes, all the things that are going on in the rest of our lives, struggles at work or in our closest relationships, worries about health or financial security, bog us down, dash our hopes, blind us to the presence of Christ, and our spiritual lives, our lives of faith, seem to be like discarded trash on the side of the road, as we wander.

But then something happens. A chance encounter, a gracious word, a meaningful conversation, a sacred meal. Suddenly our eyes are opened, our hearts burn within us, and Jesus Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. We are transformed, and we rush to tell others.

This is a very rich, thought-provoking story. It operates on many levels, inviting us to reflect on our own experience as people of faith, and people seeking faith. It invites us to think about our Eucharistic feast as an encounter with the Risen Christ, and our worship with the liturgy of the word and table, as a self-contained, embodied experience of resurrection. It invites us to imagine our worship and our lives as transformational experiences.

But there’s more. What would have happened if those two disciples had not urged Jesus to stay with them? What would have happened if they had not invited him to dinner? Yes, it was a simple gesture of hospitality, an act of kindness. But it opened their eyes. It changed their lives.

Our worship, our common life, our own individual spiritual journeys are all opportunities to encounter Jesus Christ. But they are opportunities not for us alone. When we invite others to join us, when we invite others into our lives, our stories, and into our worship, we invite them to encounter Jesus Christ. We are inviting them to experience resurrection. We are practicing resurrection. May all of our hearts burn within us, may we know Jesus Christ in the breaking of the bread, and in the fellowship of the table. Amen.

Empty Tomb and Resurrection: A sermon for Easter, 2023

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.”

During the lockdown, I began walking with some regularity in Forest Hills Cemetery. It’s not far from our home and in those months when we were especially concerned about social distancing, I joked that most people I encountered there would remain more than six feet away, safely buried underground. Over the years, I’ve watched as people spent time at the graves of their loved ones, grieving, or tending the plantings. I’ve noticed graves that were unattended, the dead who lay beneath them long forgotten. There are graves with many ritual objects on and around them. 

The reality is that for most twenty-first century Americans, whose lives may not be tied to particular places, cemeteries have lost the kind of meanings and associations they held in the past. 

We’ve lost most of the rituals and duties surrounding the deaths of loved ones. Few of us have touched the body of loved one, fewer still prepared a body for burial which was, up until a century and a half ago, something taken for granted, a crucial part of what it meant to care for a family member or loved one. 

We see that concern expressed, the roles played out in the gospel accounts of the resurrection. While it’s often assumed that such tasks were the responsibility of women, in the Gospel of John, it is two men who prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus’ body, Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes, and together they buried Jesus in Joseph’s tomb.

So why did Mary Magdalene come to the tomb that morning? Knowing the other gospel accounts, we might not even think that was a question, for in all of them, we’re told the women brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. 

Consider it. Mary has come with Jesus to Jerusalem. We don’t know how long she had been following him, whether she had come with him from Galilee or met him along the way. She had heard him teach, amazing the crowds, filling her and the other disciples with hope. She had seen him heal the sick, give sight to the blind, even raise the dead. She had been part of that strange demonstration, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a procession full of royal symbolism.

And then, she had seen it all come crashing down. The betrayal by one their own, the arrest, and finally, the crucifixion. Everything she had hoped for, everything she had believed, crumbled to ashes and dust, her heart empty, overwhelmed by grief and despair.

I wonder whether she came by herself early that morning because she wanted to mourn in the silence and the dark. I wonder whether the feelings that overwhelmed her compelled her to seek solitude, time to be alone with her thoughts, to try to pick up the pieces of her life and figure out what she might do next. She had abandoned her own life, whatever it was, abandoned her family and friends, to follow Jesus, and now, here she was. Alone, with her dashed hopes, her shattered faith, and a meaningless future.

These are feelings we all know well. We have all been on a walk like Mary was that morning two millennia ago. Whether because of a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, a lost job or career, or simply the heavy weight of the world’s violence and suffering, we’ve all been at that spot, a dead-end, where we can’t go back, and where there seems to be no way forward, a spot very much like a tomb or a cemetery.

But the tomb was empty, and in her confusion and worry, she ran to tell the others. Peter, and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, race to see for themselves, they look in, enter, and their curiosity fulfilled, go back home. But Mary stays behind. Instead of reassuring her, allaying her fears, answering her questions, the empty tomb only added to them, raised more questions. 

And then, in an instant, all those questions were answered. In an instant, Mary’s life changed; the world changed. The tomb was not the end of the story; her hopes were not dashed; her faith was not in vain. When Jesus called her by name, she knew her Lord.
         For us though, it may not be so simple. In the last two thousand years, in spite of Christians claiming through all the centuries that Christ has been raised from the dead, that he has conquered evil and the grave, things look very much the same. There is still hatred, and violence, and suffering. We still have doubts and uncertainty. We still mourn the loss of loved ones. We still know the anguish of the painful chasm between the way things are and the way things ought to be. 

But in the midst of our tears and grief, as we cast our eyes on the tomb, Jesus calls us, and if we turn to him, everything changes: sadness into joy, despair into hope, doubt into faith. The tomb is there, but it is empty. Christ is alive! There is no reason to linger there, for he is risen and goes before us.

We come to this place today, carrying the weight of the world and our lives. There are the private disappointments, doubt, despair, the pain inflicted on us by a cruel word; fears for family, for the future. There is all that is going on in the world, war, injustice, a broken political system. There is, yes, pandemic, with a continuing toll both in lives lost and lives changed. But in the midst of that whirlwind of evil and suffering, in the still, center point, there is Christ, calling to us, calling us by name.

Easter changes everything and nothing. Tomorrow will come and with it, all of the problems that were here yesterday and the day before and last week. The scent of the lilies will dissipate; the memories of a full church and with choir and hymns and brass will slowly fade. Life will go on.

But Jesus calls us by our name and he goes out before us, beckoning us to follow him into the future, away from the empty tomb. He calls us into relationship with him. He calls us into new life and into hope. With Mary, may we turn away from the empty tomb and toward the one who calls us by name, who wipes away our tears and embraces us with his love.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Poetry for Holy Saturday: “Great and Holy Saturday” by Madeleine L’Engle

Death and damnation began with my body still my own,
began when I was ousted from my place,
and many creatures still were left unnamed.
Gone are some, now, extinct, and nameless,
as though they had never been.
In hell I feel their anxious breath, see their accusing eyes.
My guilt is heavier than was the weight of flesh.

I bear the waste of time spent in recriminations
(“You should not have…” “But you told me…” “Nay, it was you who…”).
And yet I knew my wife, and this was good.
But all good turned to guilt. Our first-born
killed his brother. Only Seth gave us no grief.
I grew old, and was afraid; afraid to die, even knowing
that death had come, and been endured, when we
were forced to leave our home, the one and only home a human man
has ever known. The rest is exile.
Death, when it came, was no more than a dim
continuation of the exile. I was hardly less a shadow
than I had been on earth, and centuries
passed no more slowly than a single day.

I was not prepared to be enfleshed again,
reconciled, if not contented, with my shadow self.
I had seen the birth of children with all its blood and pain
and had no wish ever to be born again.

The sound, when it came, was louder than thunder,
louder than the falling of a mountain,
louder than the tidal wave crashing down the city walls,
stone splitting, falling, smashing.
The light was brutal against my shaded eyes,
blinding me with brilliance. I was thousands 
of years unaccustomed to the glory.
Then came the wrench of bone where bone had long been dust.
The shocking rise of dry bones, the burning fleshing,
the surge of blood through artery and vein
was pain as I had never known that pain could be.
My anguished scream was silenced as my hand was held
in a grip of such authority I could not even try to pull away.
The crossed gates were trampled by his powerful feet
and I was wrenched through the chasm
as through the eye of the hurricane.
And then—O God—he crushed me
in his fierce embrace. Flesh entered flesh;
bone, bone. Thus did I die, at last.
Thus was I born. 
Two Adams became one.
And in the glory Adam was.
Nay, Adam is.

Love is its meaning: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2023

Calvary, Golgotha, the cross. Holy Week has been building toward this moment. The arc of salvation history has bended toward this day. The cross is the center point of history. For medieval Christians it was also the center point of the universe.

Though we know that the cross is not the center of the universe as pre-modern people may have imagined, the cross remains the center point of our religious world and our spiritual lives. And so we come to contemplate on this day, the events so long ago, we say familiar words and familiar prayers, we sing familiar hymns, and we ponder the mystery of a God who became human like us, and becoming human, took on human suffering and pain in all of its extremity. And we wonder, why?

The power of the story lies not only in the words on the page, or the words as read aloud, but in all the images that are evoked in our minds as we hear them. The cinematic adaptations we have seen again and again since our childhoods; the countless images of crucifixion upon which we have gazed, whether in reproductions in books, or in art museums or in churches like our own. Our hymns are also full of such imagery, powerful, emotional. And there are the ways all of these images reverberate across our culture: crosses worn on pendants, crosses on tattoos, crosses burned on lawns. 

The violence of John’s version of the passion jumps out from the page. There is the violence of language—mocking and scorning; the violence of humiliation, flogging and the crown of thorns. There is the violence of the crucifixion itself—execution by torture as it’s been called. The state violence of this form of capital punishment; displayed publicly for all to see and to understand as warning; the constant presence on the outskirts of cities throughout the Roman Empire of these instruments of execution on display and the bodies of victims as well. 

The text conveys other violence, the virulent anti-Judaism that is woven throughout John’s gospel, but especially here where the gospel writer does everything in his power to divert attention and blame away from Rome and onto the Jewish community. So violent, so anti-Jewish, in fact, that many scholars and theologians advocate abandoning John’s passion gospel on this day. The history of anti-semitism and its resurgence in recent years; its presence in contemporary political and cultural discourse leads me to consider alternatives for future years.

Even if we can ignore or set aside the text’s anti-Judaism, the other violence of the text continues to work on us. We may internalize it, transforming it to guilt and shame, or project it onto a vengeful God who demands blood sacrifice. 

But there are other ways of reading this story, other themes that we might emphasize:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten son…

Or the verse we heard in last’s night gospel reading: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” 

Ponder that statement. “He loved them to the end.” It is the same word that lies behind Jesus’ last words on the cross in John’s gospel: “It is finished.” It has been completed. Was that the end to which he loved them, to that final point, to his death? It is the end to which he loves us and the world, a love which brought him to this point, a love that reaches out to us and to the world from his arms outstretched on the cross. 

For all the violence and hatred in the text, there is also, and above all, love. In Jesus’ last conversation with his disciples, he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. The cross is about suffering, yes, but we should never lose sight of what stands behind that suffering, God’s love for us, Christ’s love for us. It is love that brought Christ to us in the incarnation, love that he showed his disciples and those to whom he ministered, and love he shows most profoundly on the cross. 

The violence may repel us. The bloody depictions throughout Christian history may make us avert our gaze, to turn away, to turn inward, but even if we do, we should not let that violence and suffering obscure God’s love.

I’m reminded of the great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, who lived in turbulent times, including the Black Plague, who herself suffered illness unto death, and on her deathbed had a vision of the crucified Christ on which she reflected for some thirty years. The vision and her interpretations were replete with graphic descriptions of Christ’s body on the cross. She writes:

And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years and after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.”

         Love was his meaning. Love is the meaning of the cross. My prayer for us all today is that we experience that meaning in all of its profundity and power, that love suffuses us, fills us, and draws us closer to Christ. May love be our meaning.

Emptying and the Cross: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, Year A, 2023

Palm Sunday 2023:

April 2, 2023

What a difference a few days make! What a difference a few minutes make!

We have gone from joy to sadness, from excitement to mourning, from celebration to despair. In the gospel’s timing, it’s a few days. For us, it’s a few minutes. Earlier, we shouted and sang Hosanna!; then, we shouted, “Crucify him!”

The emotional whiplash in those two cries reflects the liturgical compression of this day—Palm or Passion Sunday. We join with the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem and minutes later join with the mob calling for Christ’s execution and then stand by watching as he suffers and dies. 

The emotions of this day will linger through the week as we reenact Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. On Maundy Thursday, we will remember the last supper he had with his disciples and in imitation of his own actions, and in obedience to his command, we will wash each others’ feet in act of service and love. Then, on Good Friday we will hear another passion gospel, that of John, and recall the brutality of the crucifixion and human complicity in that act. We will linger at the foot of the cross in silence, meditating on Christ’s love and our sin.

There are years when Holy Week comes at me like loaded dump track barreling down the highway, making me stop, overwhelming me with its power and confronting me with my mortality and humanity. But this year seems different. The crescendo of news—war, indictments, elections, natural disasters threaten to drown out and distract from the liturgical solemnity in which we are participating.

And yet there’s something else. Another school shooting this week reminds us of the horrors in our midst, the deep rot in our society and culture. And the politicians who wash their hands and say there’s nothing that can be done remind me more than a little of Pilate who washed his hands in the face of the frenzied mob. 

Our impulse might be to try drive all of that out of our minds, at least for today, or perhaps even for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, to regard all of the world’s ills and suffering to be distractions from what really matters, from our focus on the events of this week. As understandable as such an impulse might be, I think it’s a temptation that we should avoid. As we recall what happened two thousand years ago, what is inscribed in our sacred texts and reenacted in our liturgies, the crucifixion of Christ, his confrontation with the forces of evil in the world, are not matters to be kept apart from our struggles, our lives, and our world, but are deeply embedded in them, and help us to make sense of them.

To help us regain our footing in the midst of the tumult of our lives, the tumult of our world, the tumult of the passion narrative, the words of St. Paul we heard from his letter to the Philippians is a good place to begin. Scholars call it the “Christ hymn.” It has been much debated over the centuries as we wonder whether it was something Paul wrote or whether he borrowed and adapted it from early Christian worship, 

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.

It speaks of Christ emptying himself to become human, humbly and obediently living in such a way to show us God’s love incarnate; living in such a way that he aroused the hatred and enmity of Rome, and died on the cross.

We may want to focus on the cross today and in the days to come, but the important point to remember is that death is not the end of the story, either for us or for Jesus. As Paul argues here, Christ’s obedience, humility, his incarnating of God’s love that ended in the cross was vindicated. The gory, painful, ignominious death transformed into life, a victory over the forces of evil and death.

Jesus’ silence comes to an end on the cross with his final, despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry of despair, doubt, and pain, at a moment when all seems lost, when the reign of God seems farther away than ever before, when the message of love proclaimed and lived by Jesus seems to be refuted completely by the power of the Roman state.

But in that moment we see the power of God; we see God suffering with us in all of our struggles, suffering, and pain, we see God with us, in the struggle for justice and peace, we see God breaking open the gates of hell and conquering evil. 

Many of us struggle; we are disheartened by the world in which live; horrified by attacks on LGBT people, by the resurgence of anti-semitism. We are fearful for the future of human life and our planet, crushed by the weight of injustice, our hearts breaking for the victims of oppression and violence, 

The cross offers no escape from any of this. The cross is a symbol of the reality of our world, the depths of human evil and depravity. But in its horror, in the horrors of our world, the cross also symbolizes the presence of God in all of those places, suffering with us, suffering with victims of injustice, violence, and oppression. 

The cross is a symbol that even when things seem darkest, when it seems that evil has triumphed, the story is not over. God hears the cries of the suffering and the oppressed. Sometimes, we cry with them, sometimes we cry on their behalf. Sometimes, God cries with those who are suffering and in pain. The cross is a symbol of hope, of our hope that ultimately God will prevail. God does prevail. 

Jesus at the Midnight Diner: A sermon for 6 Epiphany C, 2023

6 Epiphany:

February 12, 2023

Corrie and I have been watching a quirky, endearing Japanese show on Netflix called Midnight Diner. The premise is a bit far-fetched, at least from a Western perspective. It’s set in a diner that is open only from midnight to 7 am. It’s run by world-weary man probably in his late 50s who is called Master by his customers. There’s only one item on the menu: pork miso soup. But he’ll make anything his customers request, as long as he has the ingredients, and sometimes, they bring him ingredients to make a favorite dish

         There’s a recurrent cast of characters: misfits, a gangster, sex workers, a non-binary bar owner, among others. Each episode may focus on one of them, or on new customers who come in and bring their problems with them. As the series progresses, community is created around the stools, and around the food the master cooks. The brokenness of the world and of human lives is on display, but so too are the tentative attempts to heal that brokenness and the relationships that emerge around conversation and good food. The episodes always end with a brief description of the food item that was featured. And some of them are quite surprising: I never knew that potato salad was a thing in Japanese cuisine.

         We know that community is hard to build and easy to break. We’ve all experienced its blessings and felt the pain of the brokenness. We may even have been reminded of that brokenness, the brokenness of our relationships as we listened to today’s gospel reading with its hard words about hate, reconciliation, divorce, and adultery.

         In fact, one of the key themes in Matthew’s gospel is life in community—“where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Elsewhere Jesus expresses his concern for the weakest and most vulnerable—“the least of these” and cautions his followers not to act in such a way or to offer teaching that might cause the little ones, the vulnerable, the weak in faith, to stumble.

Today’s gospel is a continuation of our reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last week’s reading ended with the ominous statement, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Today we are presented with a series of antitheses. Jesus seems to be quoting Torah as he says, “You have heard it said of old…” and then he offers his own interpretation, “But I say to you…” 

These antitheses—you have heard it say of do not murder, but I say to you… show Jesus working with Torah (the Jewish law). There’s a common assumption among Christians, going back centuries, that Jesus put an end to the Jewish law—that the Jewish community of Jesus’ day struggled to live by the hundreds of narrow prescriptions in the law laid down in the Pentateuch, were oppressed by its demands, and sought freedom from it—a freedom preached by Jesus Christ, Paul, and early Christianity.

Well, it’s not quite so simple as that. In fact, that common understanding is wrong on two counts. It’s wrong concerning first-century Judaism, and it’s wrong concerning Jesus. We know from first-century sources as well as from earlier biblical texts that that the Mosaic law was perceived by Jews as a good thing. Our psalm today expresses that idea:

“Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the laws of the Lord.”

Throughout the Psalms, there’s a consistent sense of joy for the law and that continued down through Jesus’ day. There is ongoing development in the understanding of the law in Judaism and by the first century, the Pharisees were seeking to broaden the law’s influence and range. They were applying the Torah to everyone, not just to the priests. While we may think of that as increasing legalization, it was also in a very real sense, a democratization of the law. It applied to everyone. 

In addition, the Pharisees’ sought to provide guidance concerning the law to every aspect of life. What is murder, for example? The Pharisees provided ways for people to understand the connection between every day activity and the central precepts of the law, in order to preserve the law’s integrity. The Pharisees, and the rabbis after them, called this effort “building a wall around Torah.”

Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus doing very much the same thing. “You have heard it said of old, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Like the Pharisees, Jesus is offering instruction to his listeners about how to interpret Torah. He’s answering the questions, What is murder? What is adultery? 

And think about the way we generally approach such questions. Both in the legal arena and in our own personal moral reflections, we’re likely to try to find ways to interpret actions so that they aren’t judged the more serious offense—thus, instead of murder, people are charged with reckless homicide or manslaughter. 

Jesus is doing just the opposite: What is murder? Jesus says, it’s not just the act of killing someone, it’s being angry, or hating, or ridiculing someone. Jesus is intensifying the law, sharpening it, and internalizing it. It’s not just our outward actions that matter, it’s our inward dispositions and inclinations as well. We all know that it is not only acts like murder that fracture community. We have seen in the world around us how hatred and disparaging language breaks down community; how easy it is to go from violent language to violent action, and how violent language is ultimately dehumanizing.

         Jesus is pointing to the deeper significance of the commandments, and the relationships, the communities that lie beneath them. Sure, murder is wrong, but isn’t hate that leads us to deride fellow human beings as “fools” equally problematic? If our relationships with our fellow human beings are broken, is not our relationship with God also broken? If we are called to reconcile ourselves to God, how can we not want to reconcile with fellow humans? To think about reconciliation, being at peace and harmony with our friends, neighbors, coworkers, before coming to the altar, may have us thinking in new ways about justice. 

         Our criminal justice system is organized around punishment. It often continues to punish people long after they have completed their time in prison. Wisconsin is notorious both for the high percentage of African-Americans in the criminal justice system as well as for its broken and punitive pardon and parole system.

         It profoundly reflects our values that we view certain people as less than human, as threats to the social order. We would rather have them spend their lives in prison than explore ways of helping them flourish. We would rather punish them for minor offenses and police their behavior than do the hard work of creating a society in which their lives have value and to which they can contribute their gifts and skills.

         To be honest, it’s easy for us to allow our views on punishment and retribution in larger society affect the way we think about our personal relationships, our relationships in the church, and our relationship with God. When we are in conflict with another person, we may rather want to see them punished or suffer than do the hard work of talking through the conflict, seeking resolution and reconciliation. We may rather see God as the punitive judge who is likely to punish us for our sins, and who we hope will punish those who have wronged us, than as the merciful, loving One who embraces the penitent sinner.

         The vision that Jesus is beginning to describe in these verses is of a beloved and loving community, in which individuals can flourish and where trust underlies all relationships. It is the vision of a community, reconciled to God, that does the work of reconciliation in the world. It is the vision of a community bound together by love, not united by fear of common enemies, or by the power exerted by authority. It is the vision of a community that witnesses to God’s love and mercy, and works to restore all human beings to relationship with each other and God. It is the vision of such a community to which we are called. Drawn to that vision, may we make it our own. 

The Scandal of the Cross: A sermon for 4 Epiphany, 2023

I’ve been thinking a lot about St. Paul this week. Wednesday, January 25, was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul often has a bad reputation among contemporary progressive Christians. He can be quite nasty; he seems very sure of himself, and he wrote, or others wrote in his name, things about the role of women that strike modern sensibilities as offensive.

Still, the occasion gave me the opportunity to reflect on his conversion or call, and the different ways he in his own writings, and Luke in the Book of Acts, have slightly different takes on it. In my homily at our monthly Eucharist at Capital Lakes, I talked about how Paul is in some ways much like us—a flawed person who was transformed by God’s grace and called by God to share the good news of Jesus Christ. 

I almost always focus on the gospel reading in my sermons—it’s not only accepted practice but in some ways expected. And perhaps I should have chosen to preach on today’s gospel reading the first verses of Matthew 5, the beginning of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. These verses are known as the Beatitudes. But the other two readings are equally compelling. First there are the words from the prophet Micah that climax eloquently with: 

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Then the Beatitudes, which in the Gospel of Matthew are the first public words uttered by Jesus:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

And so on. Words that have comforted and challenged Christians throughout the millennia, and comfort and challenge us today. If I have time this morning, I will come back to them and connect what Jesus is saying here with what I will be saying about Paul over the next few minutes.

But to Paul, and to 1 Corinthians. We heard the first verses of the letter last week and we’ll have more readings from it over the next few weeks, so it’s worth saying about about the letter as a whole. The first thing to keep in mind is that it was a letter. It was written by Paul to a community that he had founded some years earlier and it reflects that relationship. He has been in contact with members of that community. Apparently he received a letter from them and also a visit from some “Chloe’s people” he calls them. 

Like any other letter, it is written for a particular purpose and to a particular audience—not to us. We are, in a sense, eavesdroppers on that conversation. The questions that are asked are not necessarily questions that concern us—whether it’s ok to eat food that’s been offered to Hellenistic deities, for example. Nonetheless, these letters tell us a great deal about Paul, about the communities he began and those with whom he corresponded. We also learn a great deal about early Christianity. As such, and because they were written only a couple of decades after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, they are worth reading to gain an understanding of how this new religious movement was developing and what motivated people to join it.

The relationship between Paul and the early Christian community in Corinth was not an easy one. II Corinthians reveals the intensity of the conflict between Paul and some members of the community, and the extent of the pain he felt from their criticisms. But I’ll leave all that aside. I want to focus in on today’s reading. 

Paul makes one of the great rhetorical and theological flourishes in the Christian tradition as he rebuffs his opponents: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” When we hear Paul contrasting the “folly” of the cross with the Greeks’ desire for wisdom, our temptation is to read those words in light of our own conflicts between faith and reason. But that’s not the case. For the Greeks, the search for wisdom was a religious quest, a quest for a certain kind of religious knowledge that was acquired only through great effort or personal revelation. 

What Paul is trying to articulate is that the wisdom of the cross, or to use his language, the folly of the cross, is accessible to all. At the same time, it subverts all categories of comprehension and expectation. For Paul, the cross—where we see Jesus Christ dying—where we see God at God’s weakest, is precisely the place where God’s saving power is revealed. That is the central paradox of the gospel for Paul. He uses it to undercut all efforts to connect status or power in the community with one’ own abilities, efforts, or experience. 

There may be nothing more difficult to understand than this key notion of Paul’s. It runs counter to everything we know or expect. As humans, our very conception of God is tied to God’s power and knowledge. God is that being to whom we appeal for help when we are powerless, weak, and in need. We project on God all of our hopes. We turn Jesus Christ into the superhero who will rescue us when we are in danger. 

But Paul says something quite different. For Paul, God is at God’s most powerful, we see Jesus Christ most clearly, when we see him dying on the cross. There we confront and experience God’s love and more importantly, God’s sharing in our humanity and pain. That’s the foolishness of the cross. But that’s also the power of the cross. That’s the power of the incarnation—God with us. Jesus Christ is not the superhero who rescues us, Jesus Christ is the one who is with us when we suffer. Jesus Christ, God is with all those who suffer.

It is there, on the cross, that we see God. It is there, on the cross, that we see God’s reign breaking in upon the world. Jesus proclaims this truth when he announces that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, when he announces that all of them are blessed. They share in God’s reign. They experience God’s reign.

Of course, none of that may be obvious. Those who mourn are grieving; the poor in spirit are suffering. Yet when we accept Jesus’ call to follow him and become fishers of people, we share with him in proclaiming the Good News that God’s reign has come near. We share with him the responsibility of bringing healing and wholeness to a broken world and to broken people. When they experience that healing, they begin to see and experience God’s grace and power in their lives. They begin to experience the power of the cross and the reality that God’s reign is near. Thanks be to God.

It’s time to leave our nets and our boats: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 2023

Over the years, I have developed a pattern as I begin working on my sermon for Sunday. I try reading Sunday’s texts early in the week—one of my profs recommended reading them already on Sunday afternoon, but I never do that. Then I go back through my files to look at sermons I preached on the text in previous years. There may be a hint of something that I can build on, an idea I didn’t develop, that could be woven into this year’s sermon.

As I am now in my 14th year at Grace, and going on twenty years of preaching regularly, this practice has become something of a journey into my past, and into the recent history of Grace, as well. Just to give you two examples. In 2014, when I preached on this Sunday, I talked about how we opened our doors to the homeless on MLK Day that year when there was no other location for them to go. That experience catapulted me into the center of efforts to create a day shelter in Madison. In fact, a photo from that day showed up in my Facebook memories on Friday.

Three years later, in 2017, it was just after the inauguration of the last president, and the day after the Women’s March, another occasion when we opened our doors for people to gather, rest, and warm up. 

Both of those events, and it’s just a coincidence that they occurred in conjunction with this Sunday’s lectionary readings, are evidence of our efforts to use our space for outreach and to support the community. If you’ve been around here for a while, you know that we have done many other things in this regard—opening our doors during protests, for groups to gather before and after engaging with legislators, for our food pantry, for the homeless shelter, for concerts.

Over the last year, we have engaged in conversations about our witness and mission in the community. These conversations have seemed especially urgent as the shelter’s departure at the beginning of the pandemic not only left a lot of vacant space in our building, it also left a gaping hole in our congregational identity and mission.

All of those conversations are beginning to bear fruit. Over the last few weeks, I have met with a couple of entities that are interested in using our space for their work. You will all hear more about this in the weeks to come, as proposals are presented and more details emerge. 

As we reflect on where we have been as a congregation, where God is calling us in this present moment, it seems especially appropriate that today’s gospel reading points us directly toward the question of call. We often hear a text like this and want to interpret it light of our own lives, to reflect on God’s call of us, and where Jesus might be asking us to follow him.

Let’s delve into the text. First of all, a bit of context might be helpful. We’re dropped into Matthew’s story of Jesus after he was baptized by John, and after his temptation in the wilderness. So today’s gospel reading comes immediately after Jesus has been tempted by Satan. It’s the beginning of his public ministry, and it begins on an ominous note, after John’s arrest.

Matthew tells us that after hearing of John’s arrest, Jesus withdraws, he returns to Galilee, his home country, presumably having been further south, around the Jordan River, where he was baptized, where John was preaching, and where he himself was tempted. 

In essence, Jesus is going back home; but he’s going there because Herod arrested John the Baptist. It’s likely that Jesus felt himself under threat and suspicion because of the action taken against John; after all, the two were associated. 

So one might imagine that Jesus was feeling fearful, concerned about the future, concerned about his future. But he did not hide. He may have gone to Galilee, but in the midst of whatever fear he might have had, he chose at that very moment, in all of the uncertainty, to begin his public ministry. More than that, Jesus emphatically chose to continue John the Baptist’s ministry. Matthew reports as a summary of Jesus’ proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 

Let me pause and make two observations because to twenty-first century ears, this language sounds overly pious and a bit old-fashioned. When we hear the word “repent” our minds go to the overt rituals and drama of repentance—feeling shame and guilt over sins and seeking God’s forgiveness, whether we do this individually and privately, or in the context of the sacrament of Confession. Similarly, “kingdom of heaven” sends our minds to pearly gates, angels with harps, and streets paved with gold. Both of those sets of images are misleading.

The word translated here as “repent” is the Greek “metanoiete” which literally means “change your mind.” So it’s not so much feeling remorse for one’s actions and seeking forgiveness, but a complete transformation in one’s point of view; the way one looks at the world, perhaps even, a transformation of who we are at our very core. 

Similarly, while Matthew almost exclusively uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” it’s his wording for what in the gospels of Mark and Luke is called the kingdom of God and kingdom should be thought of not as a place, a territory or nation, but a qualitative existence—we could say “reign of God.” We will have a great deal more to say about the reign of God as we work through the Gospel of Matthew this coming year. Especially now, we might even translate it as “empire” and interpret Jesus’ proclamation of the “empire of God” as a direct challenge to Rome. God’s power and justice is present around us and in this very world, confronting and overturning the power and oppression of Rome.

From that brief summary of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew turns to the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. In its brevity and simplicity, it invites all sorts of questions. Why did Peter and Andrew, James and John, respond in such a way to Jesus’ call? Did they know Jesus? Had they heard about him? Was it something in his demeanor that motivated them? Were they so ground down and dispirited by lives caught up in the grinding poverty and oppression of Roman occupation that they jumped at the opportunity to break free? Or, as many scholars think, were they somewhat successful? If they owned their own boats, they may have had decent livelihoods. In any case, they left what they were doing, they left their families and homes, and followed Jesus. 

We may think it was an individual call, but it was a call in community and to community. Peter and Andrew, James and John, heard the call together, and answered it together, and when they followed Jesus, they were the first members of the community Jesus was calling into existence, a community that includes us and all those throughout the generations who have responded to that call.

We gather here, in this place, on this square, and with those who join us remotely in response to God’s call. In the heart of this city, God is calling us to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to work for justice and peace. 

Last Sunday, we heard Mark Charles speak eloquently about the injustices the people of the United States have inflicted on Native Americans over the centuries; how our most revered heroes and presidents participated in and perpetrated those evils. He called us, not to reconciliation because that word assumes there was a prior state of relationship or community. Instead, he called us to conciliation, to building relationships with indigenous peoples, to become their allies and to build a more just and equitable society.

In Madison, we are hearing a great deal about the need for affordable housing. We are also seeing how efforts to change zoning laws, to make it possible to build more affordable housing, are resisted by some of our most progressive leaders and media, because those efforts threaten neighborhoods and historic districts. We’re all for justice and equity, except when our home values might be threatened, or when people of different ethnicity or socioeconomic status might move next to us.

Jesus is calling us to leave our boats, to leave our complacency and comfort, and follow him into a future and into community that welcomes all and where all might flourish. May we have the courage to follow him into that unknown and possible future.

Unsettling Truths: Confronting our history, lamenting our sins, working for justice

Last weekend, Mark Charles, co-author of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery visited the Diocese of Milwaukee. I had read his book early last year as part of my effort to educate myself about Native American history and about the culture, lives, and resilience of contemporary Native Americans. Although I knew much of the story told in the book, I hadn’t connected all of the dots in the way that Charles and his co-author, did. The story they told, and the story Mark told us this weekend, re-shaped how I think about myself, my ancestors, and my nation.

My ancestors settled in Northwestern Ohio beginning in 1836, just four years after the Indian Removal Act and the forced relocation of the Potawatomie from that area to Indian Territory in the West. When I was growing up, there was almost no vestige of Potawatomie or other Native American remaining in the area. A single town in my county, Wauseon, was named after a Potawatomie chief but all other place names were European in origin. We weren’t taught the story of the forced removal of the Potawatomie to make way for European settlers. Instead, it was empty territory, waiting for European settlers to populate it. It’s a story that could be told of many other places in the US, different from others, including Southern Wisconsin, only in the total erasure of Native peoples from the landscape and from memory.

The most devastating part of Charles’ talk and Unsettling Truths is his discussion of Abraham Lincoln. The Great Emancipator, the President who preserved the Union and freed the slaves, is an American hero, beloved for his wisdom and for his accomplishments, mourned after his assassination by the nation. While the Civil War was raging, Lincoln also oversaw the transformation of the West. The Homestead Act offered 160 acres to anyone who homesteaded for five years on Western lands; he promoted the Transcontinental Railway that transferred vast tracts of land to railroad companies in exchange for their commitments to build railroads linking the west coast with the east.

To accomplish those goals, Native Americans had to be forced from their homelands. During Lincoln’s presidency, while the Civil War was raging the US Army also oversaw massacres, forced relocation, and internment camps: the Arapahoe and Comanche in Eastern Colorado, the Navajo in the Four Corners area, and the Dakota from Minnesota. When the Dakota resistance was finally quelled in 1862, more than 300 Dakota warriors were condemned to death by military tribunals. In the end, 38 Dakota were executed, the largest mass execution in US History. That the number wasn’t larger is partly attributable to the pleas of Minnesota Episcopal Bishop Whipple, who convinced Lincoln to offer leniency.

The Doctrine of Discovery, the notion that lands occupied by native peoples could be claimed and seized by Europeans was first promulgated by papal bulls in the 15th century. It shaped notions of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. It is reinforced by White Supremacy and notions of racial superiority. Charles pointed out how these underlying ideas continue to resonate in the policies and statements of contemporary politicians, Republican and Democratic. Surprisingly, the Doctrine of Discovery continues to play a role in contemporary legal disputes. As recently as 2005, it was cited in a majority opinion of the Supreme Court, written by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, that denied New York Oneida efforts to gain sovereignty over land that had been seized from them centuries ago and that they had repurchased.

As Americans, as Christians, as Episcopalians, it is crucial that we come to terms this history. The evil done to Native Americans, like that perpetrated on African-Americans, resulted in countless lives lost and continues to affect those communities in the legacies of poverty, health inequities, and generational trauma. Studying that history is only a first step. We must lament the sins that have been committed and the evil that was perpetrated and from which have benefited.  We must build relationships and learn from the Native Americans who live among us. Finally, we must take concrete actions, however small, that begin to right the wrongs that were committed, to make justice where there was and remains injustice.