Freedom, chains, or life among the tombs

Proper 7C

June 19, 2022

Today is Juneteenth, a brand-new federal holiday celebrating the end of chattel slavery in the US. It has its origins in Texas, where African-Americans have observed it off and on since that first June 19th, 1865, when two months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, confederate forces in Texas finally surrendered, and General Granger of the Union Army issued the order enforcing emancipation in Texas. It is a day for us both to celebrate the end of the evil of slavery but also to take note of all the ways that slavery has shaped the United States and its legacy continues to burden us more than 150 years later. 

It is a celebration of freedom, a celebration of our nation coming to understand that the lofty values expressed in the Declaration of Independence extended beyond the rights of white men, to include ultimately all people, men and women, black and white. But to observe Juneteenth means that we also have to recognize and lament all of the ways we have failed to live up to those expanding values. As Clint Smith eloquently writes in the chapter on Galveston in his book How the Word is Passed, slavery didn’t end in Texas on June 19, 1865. Slaveholders continued to enslave people for years after. 

In her extended meditation, On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed reflects on how our history and especially the history of her homestate of Texas, is shaped by mythologies and mythological figures—the cowboy, the oilman—while erasing other figures and realities, like the fact that slavery drove the Texan fight for independence from Mexico and the importance of slavery and the slave economy to the state. 

Even as we mark this occasion, our hearts also go out to our Episcopalian siblings at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, AL, where another shooting took place at a potluck gathering Thursday evening. It reminds us that there is no place in our nation, no person in our nation who is safe from the violence perpetrated with guns and that our nation remains deeply beholden to the myth of redemptive violence and the worship of guns. 

All this of course against the backdrop of the January 6 hearings as we learn more and more about the dangers faced by our democracy on that day, and the ongoing threat to democracy posed by many of those same actors. We know more now as well about the many ways Christian nationalism is intertwined with the ideology of the groups supporting that insurrection.

These evils, these demonic forces hold us in their grip, bind us, and even when we seem to break free and allow us to imagine a future of freedom, of justice and equality, we often creep back to the comfort of the chains that limit us, keep us and others in bondage.

In today’s gospel reading we hear one of the most fascinating and rich stories in the gospels. It is by far the longest of the many stories telling of Jesus’ encounters with demonic powers and forces. The rich details we are presented encourage us to think of the action taking place on several levels: the individual, the man possessed by Legion; the social and communal; the political and imperial, and, of course, most importantly the cosmic.

First of all, geography. I have repeatedly stressed the importance of paying attention to geography in the gospels, and especially in Luke. With his two-part work of Luke and Acts that tells the story of the move of the gospel from Galilee, to Jerusalem, to the world, this incident is the only time in Luke that Jesus enters Gentile territory, crossing the Sea of Galilee to the territory of the Gerasenes.

Second, there’s the demoniac. His description, naked, living among the tombs, is the description of someone who has lost his identity. He has no home, no family, no place in society. He might as well be dead, which may be one reason he’s living among the tombs.

The third thing I want to point out has to do with the demons and the herd of swine. When Jesus asks the demon for its name, they reply, “Legion, for we are many.” Fearful that Jesus might return them to the abyss, which in the ancient world was the dwelling place of demons, they ask him to cast them into a nearby herd of pigs, and promptly stampede into the sea to perish. The name Legion brings to mind the Roman army and while it’s likely that we are meant to think that there are as many demons as soldiers in a legion (6000), it’s also possible that the story as a whole is meant to convey a confrontation between Jesus and the Roman Empire. Coincidentally, one of the legions stationed in Palestine had as its figurehead a boar, and more generally, a fertile sow was one of the ancient symbols of Rome. So while Jesus is confronting the powers of the demonic, he is also confronting imperial power in this story.

The story ends in an odd fashion, completely consistent with its overall strangeness. The man is restored to his senses Luke describes him sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. When the people see him healed, they are fearful and beg Jesus to leave them. He does so, returning by boat with his disciples to Galilee. But before he departs, the healed man begs Jesus to allow him to come along. Jesus tells him no, instead, he should proclaim what God had done for him, so the man returns to his home, “proclaiming throughout the city all that Jesus had done.”

There is a great deal that is intriguing in this story, but what I’m most struck by this week is the fear of the city’s residents. They see the demoniac clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet, and they are afraid. Now many commentators will say that their fear was caused by the news of the pigs being drowned in the sea, or by the possibility that their economic livelihood was at stake if Jesus continued to perform such mighty acts among them. I’m not so sure.

Jesus is a foreigner here, an outsider. He comes for no apparent reason, or perhaps only for this reason, to encounter this man who was possessed by demons. He heals him, restores him to his senses and to his community and in so doing he isn’t threatening a way of life or economic well=-being, he is threatening the very order of the universe. He demonstrates his power over the forces of evil, demonstrates that many of the assumptions the inhabitants of this place held dear, can no longer be taken for granted. If the demons obey him, what else might he be capable of? What other trouble might he stir up?

Now the story begins to challenge us and our assumptions. As hard as it may be for us to believe that Jesus cast out demons, it may be even harder for us to believe that Jesus Christ continues to work in that way in the world today. It’s almost unimaginable to us that the reign of God, proclaimed by Jesus Christ nearly two thousand years ago and demonstrated with his mighty acts, may be in our midst already. It’s hard to believe that our faith, our community can work miracles like Jesus did; that we have power over the forces of evil in the world; that we can restore people to their right minds.

In fact, of the characters in this story we’re more like the Gerasenes than the possessed man. We’re more like those people who saw evidence of Jesus’ power and proclamation, grew fearful, and asked him to leave their country. It’s likely that we’re more comfortable in the place we are, whether as individuals or as a congregation, than we would welcome the frightening, world-changing power of Jesus Christ in our midst. 

We can’t imagine that we might be freed of the demons that possess us—the demons of white supremacy, gun violence. We look around in despair at the world’s situation and watch as the fears of a different future cause reactions that seek answers in the past, try to turn back the movement toward greater gender and racial equality, diversity, LGBTQ inclusion.

We are living among the tombs. We are surrounded by the monuments previous generations built for themselves, not just buildings of course, but a culture and society that privileged the few, stealing their lives, their land, their futures. Now we are in the same place, with our actions and inaction, condemning future generations to live on a globe transformed b climate catastrophe. 

Jesus comes to us, comes among us, and offers us new life, the vision of a way forward into the future. Will we risk following him into the unknown, with no signposts to lead us forward? Will we risk the possibility that as we follow him into the future, we will experience new forms of life, new ways of being, encounters with all sorts and conditions of people? Or will we ask him to leave us alone, so we can continue to live among the tombs?

The Dance of Love: A sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2022

Trinity Sunday

June 12, 2022

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty …

God in three persons, blessed Trinity

Our opening hymn this morning was probably familiar to most of you. What you may not have noticed, or perhaps paid attention to, was the closing line of the first and last verses. 

Today is Trinity Sunday—the only Sunday in the liturgical year devoted to a theological doctrine, a central tenet of our faith, rather than on Jesus: his person, or on his ministry. 

I have a sense that for most of us, the Trinity is not something we spend much time thinking about. We may sing about it in hymns like “Holy, holy, holy,” we may confess our faith in it using the the words of the Nicene Creed, but I doubt many of us lose sleep wondering about the relationships among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; how they might be equal yet different, united in the Godhead. We don’t worry whether the Son was only-begotten, or as our Eucharistic Prayer B says (quoting the letter to the Colossians) the first-born of all creation…

That wasn’t alwaysthe case in the History of Christianity. In the first centuries of our tradition, debates over the relationship between Father and Son, and the Trinity were intense and had ramifications that played out in the sphere of politics. These doctrines were things that ordinary people debated and cared deeply about. 

I like to cite an early Church father Gregory of Nyssa, who lived through, and participated in, the dramatic controversies over the Trinity in the fourth century. He described life in Constantinople during one period of the conflict in the following terms:

If in this city you ask anyone for change, he will discuss with you whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of bread, you will receive the answer that ‘the Father is greater, the Son is less.’ If you suggest that a bath is desirable, you will be told that ‘there was nothing before the son was created.

Imagine getting into your Uber and immediately being confronted with questions about Christology and the Trinity. To be honest, that’s happened to me, but only after being identified as a priest…

I’m not going to rehearse any of those debates, nor am I going to go back through old files and resurrect lectures I used to give on the trinitarian controversies. Instead, I would like to focus on two key elements about the trinity that speak directly to the nature of God, and how God relates to us and to the created world.

The first is that at the heart of God is community—relationship. When St. Augustine was working through the doctrine of the Trinity in his great treatise “On the Trinity” one of the first images he grasped for to explain it was this. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like love: The Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that binds them together. While he quickly rejects that image as inadequate, I think it says something important about the nature of God and of the Trinity. At the heart of God is love, relationship; love flowing out of Godself into the world, to us.

One way we see and experience that love is in the fact that God’s love flowed outward, creating the universe and us; and even after we rejected or turned away from God, God’s love continues to flow outward, reaching out to us in the form of his son our savior.

I want us to think about God’s creativity in another way. We see that creativity at work and at play in today’s reading from Proverbs. The reading from Proverbs is a poem of Wisdom. Wisdom, personified here as female is speaking:

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?

“On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.”

We may find it hard to imagine Lady Wisdom taking her stand at the crossroads, beside the gates of the town. Such imagery may bring to mind the sort of protests of which we are familiar around here, but that’s a little misleading. In the biblical tradition, the city gates or portal was the place where justice was meted out; where injustice was decried and people who had been wronged received their due. The crossroads or marketplace was a place where ideas were exchanged, decisions affecting the community decided. So here, Lady Wisdom is proclaiming her role in creating community. She speaks from the centers of human life, from and about economic and social relationships. 

But Wisdom isn’t just present in human society. She also is present in God, at the creation. She reminds us that it was through wisdom, in wisdom, that God created the universe. She helped to give it order:

 “When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

Here, wisdom describes herself as the master workman, and in the reading we get a strong sense of Wisdom participating in creation in some way, helping plan it or at least observing it. But, wait. That word that’s translated as master worker? It might instead mean nursling, little child. What a different sense we would get from the reading.

“When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was with him, like a little child, I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

I love that dual image, of Wisdom as a master worker, wisdom as a little child. I especially love that last verse, I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

Delight, play. There’s a term in Greek orthodox theology that became quite fashionably in the west in the late twentieth century that captures something of this play and delight. The term is “perichoresis” literally, co-indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity, that they occupy the same space, if you will. It’s also translated as, or understood as, a divine dance: three persons moving rhythmically and dynamically, distinct and yet united in a shared dance of love.

Isn’t that a marvelous image? That at the heart of the Trinity, at the heart of God is three persons united in a wild dance of love?

For St. Augustine, one of the key things about the Trinity was how it helped us understand ourselves as human. If we are created in God’s image, then our being, our nature, reflects the trinity, in all of its creativity, its need for relationship. To think about ourselves that way invites us to imagine ourselves not as independent beings but as beings created in and for relationship, with each other and with God. And what is the nature of the relationship for which we are created? A dance of love.

There’s much more that might be said about all of this and I will admit to you that the idea of Trinitarian perichoresis as “dance” has been challenged by a number of theologians in the last couple of decades but I do think it can help us think creatively about God, ourselves, and our life in community.

As we struggle to make sense of the world, as we are confronted by all of the world’s challenges and take up the challenge to follow Jesus in these difficult times, it’s important not to lose sight of God’s playfulness and creativity, and the invitation the Trinity offers us to play, and love, and dance. 

Preaching a gospel of inclusion in a world overwhelmed by hate and fear: A sermon for 5 Easter C, 2022

On Thursday morning, I remarked to Parish Administrator, Christina, how strange and wonderful it felt to have other people in the offices. JF was working away on various projects in his office, and our new Communications Coordinator, George Decker, was at work in his. It’s been a long time since we’ve had that many staff in place. As we begin to build relationships and establish camaraderie, there’s the excitement that new things are bubbling up, new opportunities, new life. 

Thursday was also probably the best day to enjoy the beauty of Spring. With the high temperatures this past week, the bulbs and flowering trees won’t last long; but I was at least able to get a couple of photos of the crabapple and redbud out in the courtyard.

But our hope and excitement is tempered by the reality of all of the uncertainty and problems we face. Over the weekend, the shootings that left 20 people injured in Milwaukee after the playoff game and the news from Buffalo of 10 killed and three more injured in a racist shooting attack. The perpetrator was radicalized to white supremacy and great replacement theory, once a fringe notion that contends white people in America are being replaced by people of color. Now, it has been taken up by media personalities and by politicians.

We watch the ongoing, senseless war in Ukraine and the horrific human suffering it has caused. Our record high temperatures ought to remind us of the climate crisis that is unfolding across the planet. Reports this week that the pandemic has cost a million lives in the US alone and that it has laid bare and exacerbated the inequities in our society and across the globe. There are also more local effects. Among the long-term changes intensified by the pandemic is the long-term decline of Christianity in the US, with church membership and attendance (virtual or in-person) falling precipitously in recent years. Our downtown was hollowed out by the pandemic with empty storefronts on our streets and the likelihood that many office workers will never return to full-time in-person work.

There’s so much more I could add—the rise in gun deaths, suicides; the shortage of baby formula; the exhaustion we all feel so much of the time. We are a society on edge, and our anxiety and fear leads us to lash out in violence and anger.

Contrast that with the vision cast by our reading from the Revelation of St. John the Divine. While it is a complicated text, full of violence and symbolic imagery that eludes interpretation, as we approach its end, we are presented a vision of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and new earth. At the heart of that vision is God, a God whose home is now with mortals, a God who comforts mourners and ends suffering. It is a vision that may inspire and comfort us as well.

But before that vision becomes reality, there is work to do. In the reading from Acts, we see that work taking place, and the conflict that such work often initiates.

For many of us it’s a familiar story. This is its second appearance in Acts. The first time, in chapter 10, it is told by the narrator. Now, in chapter 11, we have Peter’s version of it, testimony, as it were presented before suspicious and skeptical believers when he has returned to Jerusalem from his travels. Peter has a vision of a cloth descending from heaven, filled with all sorts of unclean, that is to say, non kosher animals, and a voice from heaven commands him, “Take and eat.” 3 times this happens and each time Peter refuses. 

Just as the vision comes to an end, there’s a knock on the door. The Roman Centurion, himself the recipient of a divine vision, has sent for Peter to come preach to him. Peter does and during his sermon, the Holy Spirit descends on the assembly. Peter’s version of the story leaves out  what happened next, that he baptized everyone in the household. 

Peter’s speech is in response to questions from some of his fellow believers in Jerusalem. But we should be clear on the issue at stake. Even though we have this dramatic vision of a sheet filled with all sorts of unclean animals and a divine command to take and eat, the issue at stake was not about food rules or about baptizing Gentiles. It was about Peter eating and presumably also staying with Gentiles.

To be clear, this is something of a false problem. While first-century Palestinian Jews were concerned about eating certain foods and about the idolatry that was widely practiced in Hellenistic culture, there were no clear rules or bans on interacting with Gentiles—such bans would have been almost impossible to maintain in the ethnically and religiously pluralistic Roman empire. This was even more true of Jews living in the diaspora, Alexandria Egypt or even Rome.

What we do see reflected here is something of an identity crisis brought on by the rapidly changing events and community. As the Holy Spirit takes the disciples out of Jerusalem into the world, baptizing Ethiopian eunuchs, preaching and baptizing in Samaria, visiting the house of a Roman centurion, there emerges this fundamental question of who are we, and how do we maintain our identity as we embrace these new people and go into new places? It is a question that preoccupies much of the book of Acts and much of Paul’s writings, as he sought to find a way to include Gentiles equally and fully alongside Jews in the Body of Christ.

In a time when White Supremacy runs rampant and has overtaken much of one of our political parties, and baseless, incendiary claims that the Federal Government is sending baby formula to refugees and immigrants at the expense of white suburban families, the message that God shows no partiality needs to be proclaimed as loudly and urgently today as Peter boldly proclaimed it before the community in Jerusalem.

We Episcopalians don’t do a particularly good job of incarnating inclusive community—we are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, over aged 50 and our efforts to do so at Grace are made more difficult by the lack of diversity in our city and county and the ongoing, systemic racism and marginalization of communities of color.

Still, we have done some good work. Over the last eight or nine years, our Creating More Just Community has helped us address the racism in ourselves, our church, and community. It has built relationships with African American churches and organizations; and through its work with MOSES, has advocated for criminal justice reform. Similarly, our Native American initiative has explored the history of US relations with Native Americans and developed ongoing relationships with a number of Native American groups and individuals. And the outreach committee has committed itself to supporting our neighbors across the square at the Boys and Girls Clubs.

These are all small steps, for our congregation and for our community and may feel terribly inadequate in the face of white supremacists spouting replacement theory nonsense in manifestos and on tv and the internet. We may feel helpless to counter white supremacists shooting down people of color in malls or on the streets, or as they gather for bible study in churches. But Jesus’ words in the gospel, “love one another as I have loved you” ring as true today as they did two thousand years ago. He is with us laying down his life for us, for his friends, and for his enemies. And he calls us to do the same.

Our burdens seem so heavy, the world’s pain so intense, that we may lose heart and hope. We may feel alone and abandoned

But we are not alone. As we watch events unfold around us and around the world, as we move into an uncertain and challenging future, may we be assured that the Holy Spirit is with us. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter guides us, strengthens us, helps us to discern our way forward, to respond to the world’s needs and helps us to love one another as Christ loved us, to deepen our relationships with each other and to reach out to the neighbors we have never met.

Charcoal Fires, 153 fish, and Discipleship: A Sermon for 3 Easter C, 2022

3 Easter

May 1, 2022

Friends, I love this gospel story. It’s full of fascinating details that invite speculation. There’s the 153 fish—what a strange number! I’m sure you can imagine how much has been written about the significance of that number. There’s the detail that apparently Peter was fishing in the nude and put on clothes in order to swim to shore. There’s the dialogue between Peter and Jesus. Strange to begin with, but even stranger when you consider that Jesus uses two different words for love in the questions he asks Peter—again, think about how much has been written about that!

There’s more to puzzle over. For one thing, this whole chapter seems like an addition to the gospel. Chapter 20 ends with a beautiful summation that sounds like the perfect way to end a gospel: 

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Then, it’s like, “Oh, I forgot. I gotta tell you this other amazing thing that happened! 

I don’t know whether it’s a later addition. If it is, it is carefully written to connect this story, this resurrection appearance, with the rest of the gospel. I’ll just give you a couple of examples. Nathaniel is mentioned here. The only other time he’s mentioned is in chapter 1, when Jesus calls several of the disciples. There’s the charcoal fire; mentioned here and in chapter 18. There’s a charcoal fire in the courtyard outside of the high priest’s to them, and is the location of Peter’s third denial  of Jesus, when he hears the cock crow. 

I would like to pause and reflect on the significance of the confluence of those two things. With Nathaniel, we are drawn back to the original story of the calling of the disciples. In John’s gospel, the location of that initial call is not clear. All we know is that Jesus is walking. We may conclude because of the presence of John the Baptist in the story, that these calls are meant to be taking place in the wilderness, near the Jordan River. The disciples mentioned are not quite the same. Several are unnamed in chapter 21; there are the sons of Zebedee, who are not mentioned in Chapter 1; and Simon Peter, who like Nathaniel, is mentioned in both places.

However, the presence of the Sons of Zebedee; and the location of the story in chapter 21, the Sea of Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee bring us back to the story of the calling of the disciples in the synoptic gospels. There, Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee, sees Simon and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, working in their fishing boats.

What I’m getting at here, is that this story is about call and discipleship as much as it is about the appearance of the Risen Christ. Simon Peter, at that other charcoal fire, denied Jesus and turned away from following him. Now, at this charcoal fire, he is called again. As he denied Jesus three times, now Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and then gives him a task or responsibility, to feed his sheep. After the third question and answer, and an allusion to Peter’s martyrdom, Jesus commands him, “Follow me!”

But perhaps the most significant parallel has to do with the location—the Sea of Tiberias or Sea of Galilee. It’s mentioned here, and in chapter 6; where it is the site of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. And it’s a similar meal on both occasions: bread and fish. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the jumping off point for Jesus’ great discourse on the bread, an extended reflection on the meaning of the bread of the Eucharist, Jesus as the Bread of Life. Jesus says there: 

When we think of Christ’s resurrection or the presence of the risen Christ, we tend to think of those gospel stories: of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ in the garden or the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples in the upper room. We tend to think of those spectacular events.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 

Or for another spectacular appearance of the Risen Christ, consider Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus; struck down, struck blind; transformed from a persecutor of the Gospel to an apostle of the Gospel. We may not consider Paul’s experience quite like those gospel stories. But Paul did. When he describes it in I Corinthians 15, at the end of his list of the appearances of the Risen Christ, Paul writes, “And last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, … but by the grace of God I am what I am.”

Gathered around that charcoal fire, eating bread and fish; the disciples were in the presence of the Risen Christ. They might have wanted to linger over that meal, to enjoy being in his presence and being with each other, to rest after a long night’s work. 

But Jesus had other plans. He took Simon Peter aside and asked him three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, he said in response to Peter’s affirmation, “Feed my sheep.” Relationship with Christ, experience of the Risen Christ is not just about, or primarily about, our own spiritual experience, our own personal faith. It is about what we are called to do for others. To feed them, to offer them daily bread and the bread of life. 

But even more. It had never occurred to me before this week as I was preparing this sermon, and I don’t know how many times I have read this chapter; discussed in classes both as student and teacher. It had never occurred to me that in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ last words are to Peter, after he tells him to “Feed my sheep.” He says then, “Follow me.” He will say it again to him a few verses later, “Follow me.”

Think about it. Where was he going? In the synoptic gospels, of course, the story ends not with resurrection or resurrection appearances, but with Jesus’ final departure from his disciples, his ascension, to the right hand of God, as our creeds say. In the gospel of John, that’s not quite the case. Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.” Follow me, away from here into the future, into the unkown.

Jesus says to us, Feed my sheep. He also says, “Follow me.” He is calling us to follow him, into the future, into the uncertainty of the world in which we live and into the world that is being made. He is telling us to follow him as disciples, making disciples. He is calling us to gather around charcoal fires and tables,, to encounter him in the breaking of the bread and in the community gathered. He is calling us to follow him, into the unknown, into the world. Let us heed his call and follow him.

The Garden of Resurrection: A Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2022

Easter

April 17, 2022

“Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.”

In the summer, my wife and I spend most of our evenings on our screened-in back porch, enjoying our views of the garden we have created over the years. It has taken a lot of hard work, a lot of money but over those years, we have created a sanctuary of beauty for ourselves that offers us respite from our busy and stressful lives, and offers our cats an endless supply of squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and birds to frustrate them. 

And there’s always more work to be done. A Norway maple on the border of our neighbor’s property came down during a storm last summer, so we are having to fill the vacated space with new plantings and an expanse of fence. As we’ve grown older, we have come to rely on others to do much of the heavy work that we once did, but we still spend time weeding and clearing and trying to keep the yard as beautiful as possible.

Gardens. Places of beauty and serenity in the midst of busy worlds, combining the beauty of nature and the work of human hands, human creativity and ingenuity alongside the beauty and endless diversity of God’s creation. Gardens are places of beauty and hard work, places of respite and toil.

Our gospel reading takes place in a garden. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark”—For some of us, this mention of first day and darkness may take us back to the beginning, to the story of creation, of light coming into the darkness, and the first garden, the garden of Eden planted by God at creation and in which God placed the man and the woman to care for it, to husband it.

Here, too, there is a woman, and a man, or at least one mistaken as a man.

The tragedy of the first garden, disobedience, expulsion, an angel at the gate to prevent the first couple’s return to it.

The tragedy of the second garden: the death and burial of the one beloved by his followers and disciples. Two angels, not preventing entry but asking her a question, “Woman why are you weeping?”

It’s strange how John tells the story. The angels ask a question with an obvious answer but there’s another question unspoken, unanswered. Why had Mary Magdalene come to the tomb? It’s a question John doesn’t ask, nor does he answer. We’re only told that she came to the tomb. Not to embalm him; remember Jesus had been anointed for burial by the other Mary, Mary of Bethany, a week before. And Nicodemus had brought 100 pounds of burial spices to the tomb. So she didn’t come to do anything, except to grieve. 

She came to the garden, to grieve, to reflect, to process all that had happened. Her beloved teacher had died; the one she had believed to be the Messiah; the one on whom she and the other disciples had pinned all their hopes; the one they had seen offer abundant life to others, who healed, and taught, and transformed lives, including their own. 

She came to the garden and her grief was suddenly compounded with horror. The tomb where she expected to grieve and reflect had been desecrated, robbed. She didn’t even stoop down to look in. She ran back to tell the others and the three of them ran back. Peter and the other disciple, Jesus’ beloved disciple, raced to the tomb. They saw the linen wrappings; Peter, then the other one entered, and we are told that he “saw and believed.”

The two of them had seen enough. They went back to the house where they were staying while Mary stayed back. And where could she or should she go? She had come to the garden to grieve and whatever emotional turmoil that had brought her here was only intensified by the fact of the empty tomb.

But suddenly, her tears were interrupted. She saw the gardener, and then it wasn’t the gardener. He spoke her name, and in that moment, she knew her Lord. Sorrow turned to joy; mourning and grief were gone. Her world had changed.

Suddenly, the garden was no longer a place of respite and grief; and even as she sought to process all this, no doubt as she wanted to linger, to ask questions, to understand, she was sent outward and away to share the good news. Jesus told her, “Don’t hold on to me.” Her very human, all too human desire to understand, to rejoice with the risen one was overwhelmed by another desire, another task: to share the good news.

And so Mary Magdalene became the first to share the good news; the apostle to the apostles. It was she he told the others that Christ had risen from the dead; that he had conquered sin and evil, and changed their world; changed the world.

One of the many things I love about Grace Church is the Vilas window, to my right, with its depiction of this very scene in the garden, Mary encountering, and recognizing the Risen Christ. In the late afternoon on a sunny day, if the nave is dark, the deep reds of the window suffuse the entire church, bathing it in ethereal light. I have preached and ministered under that window for thirteen years, thirteen Easters and it still has the capacity to take my breath away. A detail from that window is reproduced on our Easter bulletins and while it can’t do justice to the refracted light of a stained glass window; it still captures something of the beauty of the image, and the beauty of that moment.

Churches are refuges: buildings like ours are places of beauty and serenity where time seems to stand still and we can sense God’s presence. We have felt the loss of this sacred place over the last two years and the opportunity to gather on Easter to worship, to hear the story, to sing the familiar hymns, to experience joy is an amazing gift.

Gardens are refuges; places of beauty and serenity that provide us with spiritual sustenance in difficult times. Gardens, for all their hard work, can be escapes from the challenges of our daily lives; from the constant pressures we feel; a balm to our emotions scarred and wounded by the world’s events. For us, sitting on our porch in the evening, nursing a drink, watching the antics of our cats frustrated by the screens that prevent them from chasing rabbits or squirrels, or birds or chipmunks, All of that discracts us from the pressures of our busy lives, brings smiles to our faces, and the occasional laugh.

Mary came to the garden to grieve and mourn, and she left, full of joy and the power of the gospel, ready to share the good news. Similarly, we have come here, many of us after long absences to be strengthened, for an infusion of hope, to hear the good news, for reassurance, to encounter the Risen Christ in word and sacrament. But like Mary, the Risen Christ who tells us, “Don’t hold on to me, don’t stay.” He sends us out like Mary, to share the good news to share Christ’s love, the promise of new life; the certainty of resurrection. May we go from this place into the world, our hearts on fire with new life in Christ; our hearts on fire with faith and love. 

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Weeping at the foot of the cross: A Homily for Good Friday, 2022

April 15, 2022

I have a keen sense of the powerful emotions that are roiling through me today. Good Friday is always a day full of emotions—of grief and sadness, shame. As we listen to John’s passion gospel with its extreme anti-Judaism, we may be reminded of all the ways that text, and Christian devotion and theology surrounding the crucifixion, have fueled anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in the church and in wider culture. The weight of that history always burdens me on this day, as I seek to lead a community of Christians into reflection on Christ’s suffering and death.

But this year there are other emotions—the reality that we gather in this place on this day for the first time since 2019. We carry with us the trauma of those years: pandemic leaving millions dead and millions more permanently affected; an insurrection that used and continues to use the imagery of Good Friday, the cross and Jesus Christ in the service of autocracy, white nationalism and white supremacy; and now a war in Ukraine that has killed thousands, forced millions from their homes. It too is perpetrated in part on behalf of so-called Christian values.

With all of these emotions and thoughts running through our heads, it is difficult to find the space, the silence to reflect on the meaning of this day. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Our pain, grief, fear, anger, and trauma have brought us to this place, to the foot of the cross, and to Christ’s arms, outstretched in love.

It may seem somewhat surprising that the gospels have little to say about the emotions of those who were closest to Jesus, as they watched the events of his last days unfold. There are hints of what they might have been feeling; certainly fear, perhaps bewilderment as they tried to make sense of what was happening, the dashing of their hopes for a restored Israel and divine intervention against the Roman Empire. Luke mentions the disciples’ grief on at least one occasion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke writes that Peter, James, and John fell asleep “because of grief” while Jesus prayed.

There’s a passage that struck me this year during the reading of Luke’s passion narrative this past Sunday. Luke is describing Jesus’ walk to Calvary and in 23:27 writes that:

 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. Then Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.

It’s one of those details that may be familiar and well-known, it is one of the stations in the traditional stations of the cross, for example. But it’s a detail that can take on new significance or meaning in a different context.

Weeping women. I’ve also been reflecting on the traditional medieval hymn, the stabat mater. A baroque setting of that hymn by Pergolesi is featured in the concerts performed by Madison Bach Musicians this week, tonight, here at Grace. The Stabat Mater reflects on the emotions of Mary, Jesus’ mother as she witnesses the crucifixion of her son. 

It’s a bit curious that John gives a prominent role to Jesus’ mother at the crucifixion because she’s mentioned only one other time in the gospel, at the very first miracle of Jesus, the turning of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. Surprisingly, Jesus addresses her in the same way both times, calling her “Woman.” In fact, nowhere in the gospel of John is she mentioned by name.

Only John writes that Mary and the Beloved Disciple were at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion. In the synoptic gospels, the disciples abandon Jesus after his arrest and we’re told by Mark that the women disciples who had followed Jesus from Galilee looked on the crucifixion from afar.

John’s version has become the dominant version in the Christian tradition. Countless visual images, paintings especially, show Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the cross. In medieval churches, carved statues of the crucified Christ flanked by Mary and John were often prominently displayed atop the rood screen. And the Stabat Mater, helped to focus devotional attention on Mary’s grief and suffering as she watched her son die and asks that we share in that grief and suffering:

O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
Make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ my Lord.

Such sentiments may seem somewhat alien to us in the twenty-first century, but it is the case that much of what we do on this day, our prayers and hymns try to connect Christ’s suffering with our own and are meant to elicit even deeper emotions from us than we might have been feeling otherwise.

But perhaps instead of intensifying our emotions it might be better for us simply to name them: to name our fear, grief, despair. As we do that, we might also name the emotions that Mary and Jesus’ other disciples were feeling, and the emotions that so many humans across the globe are feeling. We may be particularly affected by them on this day as we contemplate Christ’s suffering and death and we may find it difficult to acknowledge, to process all of them.

The scene of Christ crucified, his mother and the beloved disciple at his side, is not just about his suffering and ours. It is, above all, about love, the love that brought him among us, the love that brought him to this place of execution, the love that draws the whole world to himself. It is a love that was not just present then and there, but is present with us, among us, in our suffering, as he suffers beside us and with us.

It is also a love that binds us to him and to each other. From the cross, Jesus said to his Mother, “Woman, here is your son” and to the Beloved Disciple, he said, “Here is your mother.” At the cross, Jesus was creating new relationships, new community among his followers. Even as his body was being broken, he was knitting together a new body, the body of Christ.

That may be the most important and profound message for us on this Good Friday, when we have felt the pain of isolation and separation so intensely for so long, when we have struggled to gather as the body of Christ, the community of the faithful. We are bound together by Christ’s love. His outstretched arms embrace us and invite us to embrace each other. May the cross be a place where we experience Christ’s all-embracing love and may it empower us to embrace the world with that same love.

Anointing and Discipleship: A Sermon for Lent 5C, 2020

April 3, 2022

Picture the scene. Jesus and his disciples have come to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. It is six days before the Passover; to clarify, it is six days before Jesus’ crucifixion. The plot to arrest and have him killed is already underway; and Jesus and his disciples are coming back into the public sphere after a few days of hiding. As the Gospel of John tells the story, what precipitated the plot to kill Jesus was his raising of Lazarus.

So Jesus chooses to emerge from hiding for this event, what we may conclude was a celebratory dinner, welcoming Lazarus back into the land and community of the living; and to thank Jesus for bringing him back from the dead.

This celebration, this dinner party takes place against the backdrop of the intensifying opposition to Jesus. With Passover six days away, Jesus and his disciples are going to Jerusalem to be a part of that ritual celebration. It is a time of increased tension and possible violence. Passover recalls God’s deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery and oppression and the parallels with the Jewish community of Palestine living in territory occupied by Rome was not lost on anyone. It’s a moment fraught with tension.

But it’s also a time of celebration. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and his family treats their dear friend Jesus and his disciples to a dinner party. We might imagine that in addition to the family and the presence of Jesus and his disciples, there are others in attendance, townspeople who may be curious to see this man who was raised from the dead.

And suddenly, in the midst of the conversation and dining; something unexpected happens. Mary takes a pound of costly nard, drops to her knees, anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume, and wipes his feet with her hair. It is an extravagant gesture in so many ways. First, we’re told that it costs 300 denarii; that’s roughly equivalent to a year’s wages for a day laborer. Again, to put it in terms we might understand—a year’s income at the minimum wage is currently around $15000. As we know all too well, that’s not enough to live on, not a living wage, but an awful lot of money for a jar of perfume.

Then there’s the fact that she did this in public and wiped his feet with her hair. It’s an extravagant, inappropriate, intimate gesture that crosses boundaries of host and guest, male and female. But there’s something else. The gospel writer describes her actions using the exact same language he will use in the next chapter when he describes Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples. This points us forward to the Last Supper and all that will come and underscores the connection between her act and Jesus’ death and burial that he himself mentioned.

There’s another detail in the story that directs us elsewhere in the gospel. John tells us that the perfume filled the whole house. That’s quite a difference from the smells that are mentioned in chapter 11, at Lazarus’ tomb. When Jesus told them to roll the stone away from his tomb, Martha says, “Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” The scent of the perfume overwhelms whatever lingering odors there might be in the house.

This extravagant gesture, and then the reaction. In Mark’s version of the story; the response comes from some of those in attendance at the meal. In Matthew’s version, it’s the disciples. Here, John puts the criticism in the mouth of Judas alone, and attributes it, not to any sincerity on Judas’ part, but blames it on his greed and thievery. 

Jesus’ response is a defense of Mary’s actions—she purchased the perfume for his burial. And then the sentence made familiar by the endless debates around our concern and care for the poor: “You always have the poor with you; you do not always have me.” 

In spite of this story being very closely tied to the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, in spite of the fact that John has very carefully woven it into the intricate tapestry of his gospel, there’s a certain timelessness to the themes and the conflict that is depicted here. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What constitutes a faithful response to God’s call to us? 

On one level, Mary’s response stands in for all of those over the centuries who have sought to be faithful to God through worship and beauty: the splendor of church architecture; the beautiful vestments, the music that lifts our souls heavenward.

On the other hand, there is the call to serve the poor; the cry for justice, the desire to help those in need. In a time when there are limited resources, the question of how best to allocate those resources is an important one. We began Lent on Ash Wednesday hearing these words from the Prophet Isaiah: 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

All of which seems to be a clear repudiation of religious acts like fasting in favor of works of mercy and justice. Jesus’ words, as ambiguous as they might seem, are not necessarily a repudiation of such efforts. He may be saying in effect, “Look, you will have plenty of opportunity to serve the poor, they’re not going anywhere; but I’m here for only a few more days.”

I would like to offer yet another way of thinking about this act. I mentioned earlier that John uses the exact same verb to describe Mary’s actions of wiping Jesus’ feet as he will use in the next chapter to describe Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples. There, as he offers an explanation of his actions to the disciples, he says:

“ if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Mary is foreshadowing Jesus’ own actions. She is also modeling discipleship, what it means to follow Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we are certainly called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and the like. We are also called to serve each other, and to serve Christ. Our worship, our prayers, our music, our beautiful space bring us into God’s presence even as we experience that presence in word and sacrament. To linger in Christ’s presence, to spiritually anoint and dry his feet helps us deepen the intimacy of our experience of Christ, to express our love, and to be touched by his love.

As we approach Holy Week, as we come closer to Golgotha, to the cross and the tomb, may we find ways of experiencing and deepening Christ’s presence in our hearts and our lives. As our relationship deepens, as our experience of Christ expands, may it strengthen our resolve and inspire us to work for justice and to care for those in need.

Transfiguration and Exodus: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2022

The images on our screen are horrifying and mesmerizing. The stories, tragic and sinspiring. We are watching war unfold in real time, tanks rolling across the terrain of Ukraine. They are images and events few of us could have imagined in Europe, in 2022. And this morning we learned that Russia has placed its nuclear forces on high alert. All of it seems so unbelievable, so shocking.

Why are we shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Is it the audacity of it, the insanity, the outright rejection of democratic ideals and national self-expression? Is it, on the other hand, the fact that it is taking place in Europe when we thought Europe had seen its last conflict in World War II, with a Cold War eventually giving way to democracy and capitalism? That view, of course, conveniently forgets the violence in the states of the former Yugoslavia in the 90s. Would we be equally shocked if it were war in the Middle East, or Afghanistan? Conveniently forgetting that there has been war there, perpetrated in the first case by the US, since 2001?

But then again, a look closer home to the rise of Christian nationalism, authoritarianism, the attacks on democracy here; and now, the attacks on history, truth, science—and most recently the anti LGBTQ laws and rhetoric, the attacks on trans people coming out of some state houses and governors remind us that whatever is happening in Ukraine is also happening here. And some on the right are still supporting Russia and its dictator in the midst of the horror.

Our hearts are heavy; we may be overwhelmed with fear. Certainly the burdens of the last years, not just COVID but the whole tenor of our nation, our world, weigh heavily on us. Other images, now fainter with the passing of time, remind us of moments of hope and exhilaration—the fall of the Berlin Wall; the election of the first African-American president; the legalization of same-sex marriage. Backlash reminds us that such moments were hard-fought and that the victories we acclaimed were tentative, not secure.

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany and always, on this Sunday we hear this story from the gospels, the otherworldly, eerie story of the Transfiguration. Because Ash Wednesday is fairly late this year, we have lingered longer than usual in stories about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Week by week, the great stories of Christmas and Epiphany have faded in our memories and we feel we are precisely where liturgically we are—Ordinary Time.

But now, suddenly this story breaks in upon us like the light from heaven that illumines Jesus and us, and we are surprised and being prepared for what next is to come. As it breaks in upon us, like this morning’s spectacular sunrise, it’s a reminder of God’s glory in our world, 

Breaking in upon our sense of time and reality. It’s a story that in its details invites us to look forward to the resurrection, and back to the Hebrew Bible, to Sinai and to the prophets. Present in all three synoptic gospels, it appears in the very same narrative sequence, occurring just after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, just after Jesus has predicted for the first time that he will be crucified and explains to his followers that to be his disciples, they must also take up their crosses and follow him. So this is a story told under the looming presence of the cross and Jesus’ death.

In Luke’s version, he takes his three closest followers up the mountain to pray. I’ve mentioned it before, it bears repeating, that Jesus’ praying is a significant theme of Luke’s gospel. He mentions it at key moments in the story—at Jesus’ baptism for example, in the lead up to his preaching of the Beatitudes. What takes place here takes place in the context of prayer. 

Several details stand out to help us begin to understand this strange story. First, Luke uses the exact same language when describing Jesus’ appearance as he will use to describe the angels who appear at Jesus’ tomb at his resurrection: The clothes are “dazzling white.” Second, the presence of Moses and Elijah is another powerful reminder of the deep connection and continuity between Jesus’ ministry and mission and the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. For Luke, that connection is made concrete in various ways, but it’s important that we understand there is no sharp break between Old and New Testament, between the way God revealed Godself in the past and the way God reveals Godself in the present. Moses and Elijah’s presence are evidence of that continuity.

All of this is meant to be confirmation of Jesus’ identity—the change in appearance of his face, his dazzling clothes, the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter has just confessed him to be the Messiah. Now this is divine confirmation of that fact. But there’s more. God, too is present here, to confirm Jesus’ identity. The voice that came from heaven in Jesus’ baptism comes again. At the baptism, the voice said, “You are my son, my beloved.” Now the voice is directed not to Jesus but to the disciples. It says, “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him.” This time, the voice comes not from heaven, not from a far distance, but from close at hand, from the cloud that envelops them, suggesting God’s near presence in this place. And the message directed to the disciples is not about abstract theology, it has to do with Jesus’ message: Listen to him. And suddenly, the event was over. The glory, the dazzling clothes, the cloud, Moses and Elijah, all of it was gone. Left there were Jesus and his three disciples, Peter, James, and John. And they went back down the mountain and didn’t tell anything to anyone.

There is much here for us to ponder. This strange story eludes our grasp, just as God eludes our grasp and comprehension. We can discern traces of other things in it—the connection with Hebrew Scripture, the pointing back toward the past and the pointing forward to the cross and resurrection. We can hear and see in Luke’s vivid description all that takes place, but still, none of it really is comprehensible to our twenty-first century skeptical minds. We want to make sense of it, process it, analyze it, understand it in our terms, on our territory. But this story, like the story of Moses’ shining and veiled face, remain beyond our comprehension, beyond our human understanding. 

There’s one other detail worth pondering. Only in Luke do we get a sense of what Jesus and the two biblical prophets discussed: “they were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” It’s curious wording although the intent is clear—that they were talking about Jesus’ crucifixion. The word translated as departure is the Greek word “exodus”—another echo of scripture. But more than that, it connects cross and resurrection with the great saving act of God, delivering God’s people out of slavery in Egypt into a promised land. 

Exodus, journey, deliverance. The experience of Exodus for the Hebrew people was fraught with peril, full of conflict and struggle. Along their exodus they encountered God at Mt. Sinai and received the torah, the Law, and eventually, they entered the promised land.

Jesus and his disciples were also on a journey. A little later in the chapter, after they had come down from the mountain, Luke says that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

The Transfiguration came at a very particular moment in Jesus’ ministry, after his disciples had confessed him to be the Messiah, after he had begun to tell them about his imminent suffering and death, after he had begun to teach them about the cost of discipleship—take up your cross and follow me. Even in the midst of the Transfiguration, Jesus and Moses and Elijah speak about what is to come, Jesus’ suffering and death.

Our relationships with God, our life with Jesus Christ is not just about those moments of perfect bliss and happiness, moments when our faith is sure, our lives are happy, and we rest comfortably in God’s love. Our life in Jesus Christ is a call to discipleship, a call to follow him. It is a call that may come to us in a flash of lightning or a still, small voice. It may make us thirst for more, to build booths where we might rest content with Jesus Christ, without a care in the world.

But discipleship means walking along, following Christ on the journey he leads, And so we, too come down the mountain, with God’s glory at our backs, the cross ahead of us, and Jesus beckoning us forward, teaching us what it means to follow him. Listen to him!

On the Third Day, Glory: A Sermon for 2 Epiphany C, 2022

On the third day, glory

January 16, 2022

When was the last time you were at a really good party? You know where the food was good, the drinks were flowing; the conversation scintillating? Perhaps even people were dressed up for the occasion? Did you attend something like that with friends or family over the holidays? Or was it longer ago? At this point, I’m not sure I can even remember when I was last at something like that. Certainly it was before March 2020. New Years’ Eve 2018? New Year’s Day 2019?

And if you have been to such events in the more recent past, was your enjoyment muted because of shame or guilt; were you wondering whether it was safe? To sit down with friends for a sumptuous meal, lingering at the dinner table for hours; to gather with a crowd to celebrate a wedding, or a gala fundraiser, or for us, a ballroom dance weekend, all of those pleasures reshaped by the pandemic. But don’t you desire it? To gather with friends or strangers freely, to let loose! Wouldn’t that be fun!

The story of Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, reads very differently to me today than it did the last time we encountered it in the lectionary, back in 2019. It’s a story rich in detail, overflowing with suggestive symbolic meanings, and for me, now, evocative both of what we have lost and of the hope that the coming of Christ into the world elicits.

It’s remarkable, really that John chooses to begin his story of Jesus’ public ministry in this way. In the synoptic gospels, we are introduced to Jesus as he teaches and heals in the towns, villages, and synagogues of Galilee. We’ll hear Luke’s very different story of Jesus’ entrance onto the public stage next week. So why this? Why a wedding, why a miracle, a sign in which Jesus turns water into wine? Those are all great questions, and it may be that I will address some of them. But let me say this right now. When I’ve preached before on this text, when I’ve taught it, I’ve focused on the wine, the amount of wine, the sheer overabundance of wine, and Jesus providing it only after the party had been going on for some time, and they had run out of it. 

This time around I want to focus on something else; the beginning and end of the story. It begins: “On the third day…” and it ends, “… he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”

“On the third day, glory.” 

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear that phrase, “On the third day”—The Nicene Creed? “And on the third day, he rose from the dead.” 

But wait, the third day of what? Well, let’s go back to the beginning of John’s gospel. Remember how it starts? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Starting with creation, a hymn to the Word, the logos, the gospel writer eventually brings it down to earth, to first-century Roman Palestine. He introduces John the Baptist and then, continues his story with chronological references. Three times he writes, “The next day…” Chapter 2 begins, “The third day…” If you add it all up, you get seven days. Seven days from creation: “In the beginning was the Word…” to the wedding at Cana. Seven days of creation. And on the seventh day, God rested from all that God had done. The sabbath, the eternal sabbath, the messianic banquet, the Wedding at Cana.

On the third day, he revealed his glory. 

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” 

Glory is one of those words that we seem to use only in church anymore. It’s all over scripture, in our hymns, in our liturgy, but it’s likely that we aren’t quite sure what it means. The glory of the Lord, God’s presence, it’s something that in Hebrew Scripture is overwhelming. When Moses asks to see God’s face in Exodus, God says that no human can see God’s glory and live. 

In the gospel of John, glory takes on additional significance. Especially in the later chapters of the gospel, as the cross looms ahead, glory, or glorification, is used to describe what’s going to happen. Jesus says, “Now the Son of man is glorified…” It refers not just to the crucifixion, but to the resurrection and ascension as well. Glory, for John, means cross and resurrection: Cana, wedding and wine, glory. Calvary, cross and resurrection, glory.

So to bring it back to this story and to us, He revealed his glory, in the sign of turning water into wine, at a wedding feast, a banquet, where the overabundance of joy, the celebration of that gathering transformed the mundane into the sacred, the ordinary into the extraordinary.

As we survey our world today, we may see little that gives us joy. The deadly toll from the pandemic continues to grow, climate catastrophe revealing itself all around us. The horrific scene yesterday of hostage-taking at a synagogue in Texas reminding us that all the cries of persecution of Christian notwithstanding, in our nation, our world, it is our Jewish siblings who are more at risk for expressing the religious commitments publicly. On this MLK weekend, our hopes and work for a more just and equitable society, where all can vote freely and fairly seems further beyond our grasp than ever before.

There are many reasons for despair. Worse still, many of the things which give us strength to carry on, gathering in community to hear the word of God, to sing of our faith, to fellowship with one another, are once again, restricted. And yet, the glory of Christ is here among us, in our world, in the midst of our suffering and struggles, in the face of our despair.

Christ’s glory shines around us, often in ways we don’t see or know, or recognize. Just as no one saw the water being transformed into wine, we may not at first recognize Christ’s glory among us. And it may be that our senses are dulled to his glory, that it sounds in frequencies we cannot hear, or in registers of light that we cannot see. But Christ’s glory is there.

Indeed, if we understand it as the gospel of John does, the transcendence of Christ’s glory is revealed as much in cross as resurrection, as much in suffering as in celebration, in grief as in joy. 

Corrie and I have been showered with meals, prayers, and support over the last couple of months of surgery and recuperation. Friends, neighbors, parishioners have helped us through this time and we have felt your love throughout the season of Christmas. But perhaps no more than by this. Ever since we have been at Grace, we have received a lovely fruitcake from Linda Savage. Corrie and I are both lovers of fruitcake and in our opinion, Linda’s is the best we’ve ever had. Imagine our surprise this year when a few days before Christmas, we received a call from Blair asking when he might bring this year’s fruitcake. From beyond the grave, Linda’s love came to us. The glory of Christ’s love shone brightly in her face, and, I might add, in her fruitcake. We relished every bite.

Opening ourselves to seeing Christ’s glory may mean focusing our attention elsewhere than on the spectacular, the miraculous, the otherworldly. It may mean paying attention to the little ways in which the love of Christ is made manifest in our world, in the gestures of friends, in the hard, self-sacrificial work of health care professionals, in a simple, yet delicious meal dropped off in time of need. The glory of Christ’s love is manifested in wedding feasts at Cana, and on the cross of Calvary. May it also be manifest in our lives.

Baptism and the stories we tell ourselves: A Sermon for The Baptism of our Lord, 2022

Baptism of Our Lord

January 9, 2022

We tell stories about ourselves. As the late Joan Didion wrote, “we tell stories in order to live.” What she meant by that, among other things, is that we impose a narrative framework on our lives, we fit the events of our lives into a coherent narrative that helps us make sense of who we are, where we came from, and often, where we are going. Sometimes those stories are straightforward and fairly uneventful; sometimes they are full of trauma and suffering. The stories we tell are stories about ourselves as individuals, about our families, about our nation. And as we have seen, there can be competing stories that as in the case of something like the 1619 Project, can arouse great anger and resistance when untold or suppressed stories are brought into the light of day.

A group of us have been gathering for almost a year to explore the stories of Christians and Native Americans in North America. Thanks to the creativity and hard work of some of them, we will be offering to the congregation and beyond the opportunity to learn more deeply about those stories over the coming months, through a series of on-line sessions with prominent local and national Native American voices. Alongside the group’s work, I have also been doing a lot of reading and study and much of that work has challenged me to think about the stories we tell as Christians and as Americans.

One of those books, one of those stories is “Native” by Kaitlin Curtice. Curtice is a member of the Potowotamie Nation but grew up in predominantly white Southern Baptist churches, where she became a worship leader. As she began to embrace her native identity, she discovered that the churches that once welcomed her and employed her as worship leader began to give her a cold shoulder. She is open and articulate about her struggle, wondering whether as she reclaims her identity as a Potowotamie woman, she will also be able to retain her identity as a Christian.

Curtice’s story is not uncommon for indigenous and other people of color as they seek to negotiate predominantly white spaces and white churches. The stories of Curtice and other people of color are caught up in and affected by the larger histories of what has been done in the name of Christianity and of National myth-making. Nonetheless, many of us can identify with those struggles as we seek to fashion lives, even spiritual lives in the wake of trauma, doubt, and despair, as we negotiate our journeys away from conservative Christianity or painful family pasts. 

 For Christians, our identity should be shaped by our baptisms. Baptized into the name of Christ, as our collect reminds us, baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, as St. Paul writes in the letter to the Roman, adopted as children of God, as our baptismal rite proclaims. 

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Always on the Sunday immediately following the Feast of the Epiphany, each year we read one of the versions of Christ’s baptism from the synoptic gospels. It’s one of the Sundays designated as an especially appropriate time to celebrate baptisms, although we aren’t doing that this year, an appropriate time, at the beginning of the new year, when we may have made resolutions of one sort or another, to reflect on our own baptismal identity as well as on the gospel’s account.

The gospel reading offers us an adumbrated version of the ministry of John the Baptist and of Jesus’ baptism. We heard more about John the Baptizer from Luke during Advent, when we read Luke’s description of his teaching. Luke actually goes into greater detail on the content of John’s message than the other gospels, but now we are treated to a scene devoid of context. Doubly devoid, because the appointed gospel reading omits verses 18-20 that describe Herod’s arrest of John.  

Why does Luke tell the story in that particular way? Why did the lectionary editors abridge the story the way they did? Let’s look a little more closely at the text. In the verses we’re given, we hear a bit of John’s message and the popular response to that message: The people were filled with expectation and wondering whether John was the Messiah. He deflects attention away from himself and to another: “One who is more powerful than I is coming.”

This points to one of the challenges presented to the gospel writers and to early Christians by the figure of John the Baptizer and by the fact of Jesus’ baptism by him. John’s baptism was a baptism for the “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and that he baptized Jesus called into question who had greater authority. For the gospel writers to have John say: “I am not worthy…” was one way of emphasizing Jesus’ superiority. Luke does something else, however. By putting the baptism itself off-scene, he seems to downplay the significance of the physical act of baptism.

Nonetheless, Luke does retain other elements of the story, with slightly different emphases, and at the same time he interjects several of his central concerns. We hear the voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son” There’s the descent of the Holy Spirit, Luke says, in the bodily form of a dove. But then, Luke adds a detail, “After all the people had been baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…” That, the image of Jesus praying, is one that will recur throughout the gospel.

Luke is telling a story about Jesus but he is also inviting us to enter into that story, to let Jesus’ story become ours. But the way the lectionary has divided it up may obscure the importance of the particularity, the context of Jesus’ story and our own. The chapter in which the story of Jesus’ baptism appears begins with Luke setting the story in its historical, political, and religious context. He tells us who the emperor was, who the governor of Judea was, who the high priests were. He tells us where it takes place—in the wilderness, in the region around the Jordan river.

There’s a tendency in Christianity, perhaps especially in some sectors of contemporary Christianity, to try to overlook or de-emphasize our personal contexts, where we came from. That’s at the heart of Kaitlin Curtice’s struggle with contemporary Evangelicalism. She was welcome as long as she didn’t embrace and name her native identity. Baptism, especially when it is the baptism of an adult believer, often is accompanied by a conversion experience in which the individual turns their back on their past, or counts that past as of little or no account. Repentance, or turning around, may mean a rejection of who we were and where we came from.

But the Christian life is lived in the world, in historical and geographical contexts. We are enmeshed in relationships with family and friends that continue to play a role in our lives. Sometimes, of course, for some people, turning one’s back on that past, breaking sharply and permanently with it, is of crucial importance in moving forward, in becoming a whole person, in responding to God’s call and accepting God’s grace. Sometimes, though we bring with us our pasts, in their richness and depth, and pain and trauma, as we walk with Jesus.

And sometimes, we are called to excavate those pasts, uncover those hidden stories that are half-remembered or fully forgotten. The story of Jesus’ baptism was also part of the story of empire and of John the Baptizer, whose arrest and imprisonment by Herod, looms large in Luke’s telling of it.

 What story do you tell about yourself to live? Is it a story of suffering and trauma, of joy; Is it a story of forgiveness and transformation, a story of hope? Does it include all of those things? My hope for you, for all of us, is that our story is shaped by the words spoken from heaven to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased. They are words spoken at our baptisms, words of grace and acceptance. May we hear them and weave them into our own stories.