Making space for God: A Homily for 2 Epiphany B, January 17, 2021

2 Epiphany

January 17, 2021

Each week seems to bring new challenges, new anxieties, new fears. We’re recording this service on Saturday this week because of the protests that are expected on Capitol Square on Sunday. What has been a bizarre year just keeps getting stranger, more disorienting. Our world today seems completely unmoored from the world we lived in just a year ago. Our lives have been upended; many of our deepest assumptions about our nation and our community have been laid bare for the fantasies they are. We are afraid, anxious, angry, and confused.

All of this can make it hard for us to find time for God, to make space for God. The noise of the world, the noise in our minds, our cares and concerns, work, family, all of it can fill every moment of our day. We are harried and hurried with no respite and no space of our own to be still, to wait in silence for God, to listen for God’s voice.

This week’s lectionary readings direct us to that voice of God, calling us, and to our relationship with Jesus Christ. The first lesson is the story of Samuel’s call. Born to a barren mother who had prayed many years for a son, when he came into the world, his mother in her joy and gratitude dedicated him to God and put him in the care of the High Priest Eli. God’s voice comes to him in a dream. Finally, after thinking it was Eli himself calling, Samuel discovers the voice is that of God, and responds, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

The gospel reading is also a call story. It’s an episode in the larger story of Jesus calling the disciples in John’s gospel. As we see throughout the fourth gospel, there are significant differences in John’s account from those in the synoptics gospels and those differences highlight the different emphases John places in his understanding of Jesus and what it means to follow him.

We see Jesus calling Philipp with the simple command, “Follow me.” Presumably he does, but he also takes a detour to engage with his friend Nathanael, to tell him about Jesus. But Nathanael wants nothing of them. If Jesus is from the little village of Nazareth, he can’t be the Messiah. Philipp responds, not with an attempt to refute Nathanael’s argument, but with an invitation to relationship: “Come and see.” 

But it’s the encounter between Jesus and Nathanael that is of most interest. It might be a bit difficult to figure out what’s going on. The upshot is this. Jesus says something to Nathanael that suggests intimate knowledge of him, “Here is an Israelite who doesn’t lie.” Taken aback, Nathanael asks him how he knows him and Jesus tells him he saw him sitting under the fig tree before his encounter with Philipp. In that moment, just as Jesus knew who Nathanael was, Nathanael sees who Jesus is. He throws messianic titles out as others will do throughout the gospel: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel!”

Think about the transformation in Nathanael over these few verses. He goes from disbelief and discounting Jesus—when hearing that’s he from Nazareth, he ridicules the notion that Jesus might be the Messiah. Later, in the direct, personal encounter, he comes to know Jesus as he really is. But the final verses suggest that there is more to come, that Nathanael will come to know more, to see greater things, than the Jesus he has already seen and come to know.

This dynamic, of failing to recognize Jesus is one of the gospel of John’s dominant themes. Often, such failure ends in bitter conflict—as so often when Jesus is confronted by the religious establishment. Other times, failure leads to growth, as the initial confusion or error gives way to deeper insight and relationship.

There’s an important lesson for us here, especially when we think of all the titles that are tossed out in these few verses: Jesus, son of Joseph; Jesus of Nazareth are the first, suggesting that one’s identity is bound up with one’s parentage or city of origin. It’s kind of like the appeal of Ancestry.com—if we know our DNA, our genetic background, we know who we are. But that can be an illusion. It certainly was in Jesus’ case—for he was not the Son of Joseph but the Son of God, as we readers of John know; Jesus’ parentage and hometown didn’t tell us anything about his identity—which we learned in the Gospel’s first verses, that Jesus is the Word of God incarnate.

But I think in many ways we are like Nathanael, certain of who Jesus is. Our understanding of him is shaped by our past, by the church’s teaching, by the language of scripture and the creeds. And our cynicism and comfortable, intellectual sophistication likely lead us to discount most of that language—virgin birth? Son of God? That’s way too far out there for us. He was a good man, a great teacher, a moral example but nothing more. We interpret him in categories that make sense to us. We interpret him in ways that confirm our assumptions and don’t rock our boats.

But even when Nathanael identifies him as the Son of God, Jesus basically says to him, you think that’s something, just wait! “You’ll see the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I wonder whether there’s an important lesson or lessons for us here. How do we identify Jesus? Who do we say that he is? Do our confessions of faith express the limits of what we know about him? Do our definitions of him keep him in a comfortable place in our lives. But what would it be like if instead of settling for those definitions and that comfortable place, we opened ourselves up to the possibility of seeing the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man?

In other words, what would it be like if we opened ourselves up, if we removed the walls that we have built up that prevent us really seeing and knowing him? Or to use the image I began with, what if we made space in our lives to wait, and listen for God’s voice calling us? 

In this era of fake news and echo chambers, I sometimes think we have build echo chambers in our spiritual lives, chambers where we hear only the words we want to hear, words we are comfortable with. When Jesus calls us, he calls us out of our shells, out of our echo chambers. When he says, come and see, he doesn’t mean that we should gawk like tourists or bystanders, but that we should walk with him, listen to him, learn from him. Amidst the noise of the world, may we come and see him as he really is, and be encouraged to see greater things than these.

Remembering the meaning of Baptism: A Homily for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 2021

The Baptism of our Lord

January 10, 2021

These are difficult, frightening, shocking days. After two months of baseless claims of election fraud, the insurrection or attempted coup on January 6 has shaken our nation to its foundations. In spite of all that we’ve seen over the past years, police violence, the overt racism and white supremacy on display, the treatment of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. I could go on and on—in spite of all of that, politicians and pundits have continued to mouth mantras like “This is not who we are” and “America is better than this.” Even now, many refuse to see how deeply flawed, even failed, our political, cultural, and religious institutions are. Religious, for among the banners flying on Wednesday were “Jesus saves” and “Jesus 2020.” We don’t know yet whether our nation will survive this onslaught, whether we have the strength of will, the moral power, to hold back the tide. We don’t know if Christianity as we have known itwill survive either; while the Word of God is eternal, the false prophets and idolatry of many American Christians threaten it. 

And in our own congregation, this has been a difficult week. They say deaths come in three, but I added it up last night, I have learned of the deaths of no less than seven people who are in some way connected to Grace over the last week or so, loved ones, members, former members. And there are others who are suffering. With the pandemic, the normal ways in which we care for each other, by gathering together for worship on Sundays, pastoral visits to the hospital or to grieving families—none of that is possible. Instead, we are limited to phone calls that rarely provide the necessary comfort and support, let alone the bodily presence and reassurance of a smile or hug.

In fraught moments like this one, we want to turn to each other, to discuss and share our concerns, to offer consolation; we turn to our faith and our religious community. Worship reassures and strengthens us; a sermon or homily should help to orient us, help us to think about these difficult times, put them in perspective, and connect them with the traditions of our faith. We want to know how the example of Jesus, his life and ministry, his teachings might inform our response and shape our witness.

This year in the Eucharistic lectionary, we are reading the Gospel of Mark, even though our focus over the last few weeks, the season of Christmas and the feast of the Epiphany this past Wednesday has drawn our attention to the infancy stories of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark tells a different story; he has a different agenda. His gospel begins not with Jesus’ birth, but with the ministry of John the Baptist and with the story we just heard, Jesus’ baptism by John.

The story of Jesus’ baptism, which is the focus of our attention each year on the Sunday after the feast of the Epiphany, is an opportunity to re-examine the meaning of baptism. Mark’s version of this story is especially rich in detail and invites us to explore what he thinks the significance of Jesus’ baptism was and to connect that meaning with our own lives. 

Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ baptism is dramatic and puzzling. The drama, though, surrounds Jesus, who seems to be a passive player as the action swirls around him. He doesn’t speak or in any way assent to his baptism. Instead we see him receiving John’s baptism and coming out of the water, when Mark writes, “The heavens were torn open and a voice came saying, “you are my son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” 

Both of these are of great significance. The word translated as “torn” appears only one other time in the Gospel of Mark, at the moment of Jesus’ death, when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. There’s more symmetry in these two scenes as well, for it is the centurion who says, upon seeing Jesus die, that “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This confession is foreshadowed by the voice from heaven here in chapter 1, who speaks not to the crowd, nor to John the baptizer, but to Jesus. Think about that framework for the Gospel—from beginning to end, we the reader know that Jesus is the Son of God, but within that framework as well as the sense that something new has broken in on the old order—the heavens have been torn apart and the curtain of the temple torn from top to bottom. The old world is being remade into something new by the coming of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus comes out of the water and immediately, a voice from heaven comes to tell him, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that little detail. It’s incredibly important and raises all kinds of questions, but let’s just stick with the most obvious one. We don’t know, Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was thinking before this event, what he knew about himself. All we know is what Mark tells us, that he hears while coming out of the water, that he is God’s son, the beloved. We might wonder what it would be like to hear such words, what an affirmation, a blessing.

We don’t know what Jesus thought when he heard those words from heaven. In Mark’s gospel, this is the moment when he learns who he is, but it’s an identity that will remain hidden from most everyone else, including Jesus’ disciples until the very end of the gospel.

You are my Son, the Beloved. Or, let’s put it another way, “You are my Child, my Beloved.” Those words of affirmation, of love, of identity, are words meant not only for Jesus, but for each of us. It is an identity that is affirmed and strengthened in our baptism, but as human beings, created in God’s image, it is an identity that precedes our baptism, an identity that unites all humankind in shared relationship with God.

It’s an identity that is so often lost or erased by the divisions that separate—divisions of race, gender or sexuality, class, place of birth or ethnicity, national origin. We are taught by our culture, by media and marketing, by our political leaders that some people are better than others, that some marks of identity make us better than others. We are taught, or led to believe, that we don’t have value, that we aren’t worth being loved or respected unless we are certain kind of person. So many of the conflicts in our nation boil down to this one issue—whether we are all equal, no matter our race, religion, national or ethnic background, whatever our gender or sexual orientation. In our baptismal covenant that we recite at every baptism, we promise to respect the dignity of every human person. That vow is more important than ever.

Who knows what will happen over the next week or ten days? Who knows what our nation, our community will be like as we begin to emerge from the pandemic and try to rebuild our economy? Who knows whether we will have the courage and vision to imagine a city and nation that confronts our racism and white supremacy honestly and seriously in an attempt to create a more just and equitable society? As Christians, baptism reminds us of our common identity as God’s beloved children across all of our differences. It calls us into a future in which we respect the dignity of all humans, work for justice and peace, and love our neighbors. May we all, reminded of God’s transforming grace imparted through the waters of baptism, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, claim our calling as God’s beloved children, and be witnesses in the world, of that same transforming grace.

The Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot–A poem for the Feast of the Epiphany

The Journey Of The Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

A Disrupted Advent: A Homily for Advent 4B, 2020

It’s a familiar story. They are words we’ve heard many times year after year. A story depicted in countless paintings; gestures and words mimicked in devotional practices. It has settled into our memory like other stories that have shaped us—stories told in our families that seem to capture something of the essence of who we are and where we came from; stories of our nation, mythic stories that define us. Such stories are often so familiar, so beloved, their meaning so fixed in our memory that we rarely explore them more deeply.

There’s so much we don’t know about this story; so much more we want to know. We don’t know who Mary was, not really. We don’t know how old she was, although it’s likely she was a teenager. In first century Palestinian Judaism, girls were often betrothed at age 12 or so, and married no later than 19 or 20. We don’t know, can’t imagine, what this encounter, this new reality did to her. The gospels are largely silent about what she does later in life, about her response to her son. John tells us that she was present at the crucifixion; Luke says she was among the group of disciples that gathered in Jerusalem after the ascension, and presumably right through to Pentecost. Tradition has filled out the story. Theological reflection and devotional creativity have answered questions raised by Christians for 2000 years.

We have this story. A young woman, her life suddenly disrupted by the appearance of an angel; her world shattered and remade by events out of her control. That we know something about. So many of our certainties, so much of our lives have been disrupted over the last nine months; who could have imagined back in March that we would be here, the pandemic still raging, our lives on hold, fear, and weariness, and anger, still overwhelming us? Exhausted, fearful, the lives we led, the world we lived in nine months ago seem distant memories, faint whisps of dream we once had, with no connection to reality in which now live. Our hopes for the future cling by a slender thread. Oh, yes, we know what disrupted worlds and lives are like.

An angel came to Mary, saying “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Her world upended, first by the very appearance of an angel.. And then came more, that she would bear a child who would be the Savior of the world.  

I’m always fascinated by her response to the angel. First, when he appears to her and greets her, Luke she was perplexed and wondered what sort of greeting this might be—perplexed and wondering, not by the appearance of the angel to her, which would no doubt shock and surprise us, but by his greeting, by him calling her “Favored one.” And then when told the rest, she asks the question, “How can this be?” 

The tradition of devotion and theology, and perhaps going back to Luke himself, has tended to portray Mary as a passive recipient of God’s grace and favor, as someone who accepted her fate quietly, submissively. Often she has served as a role model for passive, submissive femininity, and certainly in Luke’s gospel, she functions as something of the ideal disciple, one who follows meekly and obediently.

But here we see something else. Surprise, wonder, questions. Mary’s faith is not that passive, unquestioning faith. She wants to know more, she wants to understand. And then, in the midst of her disrupted world and disrupted life, something else. We know the scandal of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, of teenaged mothers left on their own with no resources, forced to struggle to provide for themselves and their little ones. We can imagine how hard it would have been for a teenager in first-century Palestine, with all of the shame and stigma, traces of which remain in the accounts of Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. We can, I think, imagine the fear, the future she imagined as she heard the angel’s words.

But can we imagine also the hope? In the middle of this disruption to her world and to her life, Mary visits her elderly cousin and during that visit, sings a song that has echoed throughout history down to our day:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior 

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

And while it has become a song of pious devotion, it is a profound prophecy of God’s power, justice, and mercy. It is a song of hope in the midst of fear, hope for justice in the midst of oppression, a cry of resistance against the forces of evil and inequality.

Mary is an example for us. In the midst of our disrupted and upended lives and world, nothing seems the same, and our wishes for a return to normalcy, to turn the clock back nine months or a year, or simply an exhausted desire to ignore what’s happening around us and get on with our lives, when we are beaten down, Mary is an example for us.

We can’t know what her life was like, what she thought or felt. But we know her faith, her hope. We know the God in whom she trusted. And the words she sang can become our own as we hope for a new world, a better future, for ourselves, our nation and world. 

Into our disrupted world, into our disrupted lives, Christ is coming. The angel’s greeting comes to us and in that greeting, in Mary’s song, we may find strength and hope for the coming months. The world being brought into being by Christ’s coming, is a world disrupted by God’s justice and mercy, where the mighty have fallen, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. 

Mary sings of and shows us the world as God intends it, a just and equitable world, not the old world of wishful thinking and faint memories. Mary points us toward the future, a future full of hope, a future where God reigns. May we raise our voices with Mary, in hope and faith that God is with us now and reigns in justice and mercy.

Returning from Exile: A Homily for Advent 3B

Advent 3       

December 13, 2020

Advent Exile

December 7, 2014

We are now observing the Third Sunday of Advent. It is known as Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday of joy. In many churches, the purple or blue vestments that are used throughout Advent give way to rose or pink vestments. And the dominant themes of the season—repentance in preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas and at the second Coming, give way to rejoicing. We don’t make the change in liturgical colors, but as you can see, our advent wreath includes a rose-colored candle to represent this Third Sunday.

This theme of joy comes out especially in the first reading and the psalm today. Both texts speak to our own situation as well, because as you probably know the first doses of a covid vaccine are being shipped today, signifying that our struggle with the pandemic may be coming to an end. At the same time, experts warn that there are dark, difficult times ahead.

Both of those texts, Psalm 126 and Isaiah 61 reflect the experience of God’s people in exile in Babylon. The Psalm speaks of God restoring the fortunes of Zion, of people who left weeping, return in joy. The prophet speaks of God providing for those in Zion, replacing their mourning with a garland. He speaks also of building up the ancient ruins and repairing the ruined cities.

Exile is an image that may resonate powerfully in this season. Forced from our churches, our downtown nearly abandoned, having to give up many of our cherished activities and familiar routines, we are in exile physically, but also spiritually and psychologically. We feel profoundly dislocated from our community, our friends and family, even perhaps, from ourselves. We are disoriented, longing for return. And now, we may be able to see an end to all of this. Our hope is rekindled even as the number of those suffering and dying continues to rise. 

Advent speaks to that longing, of hope in the midst of difficult times. As the year comes to a close, the days shorten and grow cold, the candles we light each week seem to be an act of defiance, a statement of faith that the light coming into the world, shining in the darkness, will overcome the forces of evil. It is a hope expressed in our faith that the one coming into the world, the Word made flesh is at work making all things new, even when chaos and evil seem to be overwhelming everything. 

Our faith this season, our waiting, our hope, is not passive. It must participate in the work that God in Christ is doing here among us. That’s the message of the prophet, who proclaims those powerful, familiar words, echoed by Jesus himself in his first public sermon in the Gospel of Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

because the Lord has anointed me; 

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted, 

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

This is the work that God in Christ is accomplishing, the work that we ourselves are called to. And in this season of struggle, of waiting and hope, it is work that we may want to defer or ignore because of all that is going on around us and in our personal lives. 

We have, I think, been tempted to focus on ourselves, on our fears and on all that we have lost—and we must, as we say that, recognize that many of us have lost a great deal indeed, loved ones, jobs and livelihoods, our hopes for the future, a sense of security. As we have seen in the runup to the election, and now in the weeks since, the anger and fear, the emotions surrounding all of that loss have driven deep in our individual and national psyches, heightened division, led to violence.

But even as we have tended to focus on ourselves, it is important to pay attention to the words of scripture this week, to the prophet’s call for justice, to bind up the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives, to rebuild the city. He was talking about Jerusalem, of course, the desolate city that the returning exiles would encounter. But our city is not so very different, with its deep inequities and injustice, with its boarded up windows and abandoned restaurants and retail establishments. As we return in the coming months, to the downtown and to our church, we must not lose sight of the work we need to do to advocate and struggle for a more just and equitable downtown, where all are welcome and may flourish.

As we think about our return, we would do well to heed the example set by John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. When asked if he was the Messiah, he repeatedly denied it, and directed attention away from himself toward the one who was coming into the world, Jesus Christ. John was a witness; his proclamation, his testimony was not about himself but about Christ. His repeated denials, his pointing away from himself to another, is a powerful witness to us in our age.

Among everything else we see in our culture today, in our highly individualistic, perhaps even narcissistic culture, is an emphasis on the individual, on the individual’s rights. We are bombarded with images from politics, from culture, from social media of people who go out of their way to bring attention to themselves, make everything about them. What, after all, is a “social influencer” if not someone who is marketing themselves? In our response the pandemic, in the debates and conflicts over masks, or public gatherings, even worship, the rights of the few are often privileged over the needs of the many. 

But John shows us a different way. His popularity, his notoriety, brought him attention, brought the religious elite to him to question him. And when questioned, he bore witness, not to himself, but to Jesus. 

Even when we want to do the work to which God calls us, advocating for justice, feeding the hungry, binding up the broken-hearted, we may often do it for reasons that are as much about ourselves as they are about the needs of others or following the teachings of Jesus. 

But John shows us a different way. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. In our work for justice, in our efforts to help our fellow human beings, our priority must always be to point the way to Jesus. As we look ahead to our return to the city, as we look ahead to Christ’s coming, may our longing, our waiting, our searching point us to Christ, and help us point others to him as well.

What shall I preach? A sermon for Advent 2B, 2020

Advent 2       

December 6, 2020

What Shall I preach?

December 7, 2014

Whenever I read the Isaiah text, I find myself reading it in the cadences of Handel’s Messiah, the beautiful Tenor aria that begins that oratorio. I have no idea how many times I have heard that music; it was an annual accompaniment to Christmas throughout my childhood and youth. Although it’s been years since I’ve attended or sung in a performance of it, the music remains in my memory. 

I’m fascinated by the different ways in which we encounter and interpret scripture. Take Messiah, for example. If you’re familiar with it, it’s very hard not to hear it when you read, or listen to, the scriptures that Handel set to music. There’s a sense in which the music has shaped our experience and interpretation of the texts. 

That makes our experience of Advent this year especially difficult. The familiar hymns are heard only in recording, we try to remember what it was like to join our voices with hundreds of others, or the sheer joy of attending holiday performances of favorite works. Our celebrations are muted, or transformed as we focus our efforts more intimately at home, with family and friends.

Music interprets texts; texts interpret texts. In the gospel reading, Mark draws on the language from Isaiah 40 to make it relevant for his own day. The words from Isaiah helped him to understand John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” and Jesus, especially Jesus. The reading from Isaiah includes the verses: 

Get you up to a high mountain, 

O Zion, herald of good tidings; 

lift up your voice with strength, 

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, 

lift it up, do not fear; 

say to the cities of Judah, 

“Here is your God!” 

It’s imagery Mark picks up and uses for his own purposes, although our translations don’t make that clear. Mark tells us “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” Good news, good tidings, Gk euangelion, also translated as “gospel.” Mark is identifying himself, and John the Baptist, with the one who climbs the high mountain and proclaims the good news, “Here is your God!” Mark is looking back to Isaiah and to other biblical stories as he attempts to convey to his readers the urgency and significance of the good news. 

Mark’s John is not only a voice crying in the wilderness, drawing on themes from Isaiah. In his depiction of John, Mark reaches even further back, to the legendary figure of Elijah, depicting John in the very same terms that the prophet Elijah was depicted, wearing camel skins and with a belt around his waist. By the first century, Elijah had become much more than a figure from Israel’s ancient history. There were fervent hopes that he would return, and when he did, he would usher in the messianic age. In the gospel of Mark, both John and Jesus are mistaken for Elijah.

Mark uses all of this imagery from the Hebrew bible to impress upon his readers that the long period of waiting and anticipation is nearing its end. Israel’s hopes for God’s inbreaking into history are coming true. Mark is a herald of Good Tidings, a proclaimer of the good news. And the good news is “Here is your God!”

But there are other ways, other contexts, in which we interpret and read scripture. Primary among those other contexts is the situation in which we find ourselves. Covid case numbers are skyrocketing and the number of deaths reaching unimaginable totals, almost 3000 reported on Friday. At the same time, our mental and emotional exhaustion with the social distancing requirements meaning many of us are giving up, what words of comfort and consolation, what message of hope can be offered?

When I read those words from Isaiah, “A voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” The prophet’s words become my own. Like so many, I struggle to make sense of what we’ve learned about our nation in these past weeks and months. I struggle too, to find words that can express honestly and faithfully my own heartbreak and what I think the good news of Jesus Christ might be in this moment.

For Isaiah, the question, “What shall I cry?” is part of a standard call narrative. That is to say, here, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, when God calls someone, there is often resistance. Remember Moses, called by God at the burning bush, responded that he wasn’t an eloquent speaker. Other prophets resisted God’s call. Jonah, for example, traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid the responsibility God gave him. Here, the prophet’s question is followed by his observation that prophetic utterances don’t matter—human beings are weak and fickle; they come and they go like grass that flowers and then turns brown.

We know the futility about which the prophet speaks. We know the disappointment of dreams and justice deferred. We know a world in which the hopes of an earlier age have faded in the face of what seem to be insurmountable problems. In our own lives, we know the routine grind of daily life, our hopes for a brighter future crushed by economic realities, social change, illness, or personal failure. We know the grief we should be feeling, the extraordinary we should be taking, the exhaustion and despair that have set in.

We do know hope. Mark proclaims, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Isaiah is told, “Get up to a high mountain … say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’!” Our hope is that God is here among us; that we are God’s agents, helping to bring God’s reign into being in our world. 

We also know comfort and consolation. In the midst of the disappointments and pain in our personal lives, in the midst of a world where injustice and violence seem to have free reign, the prophet’s words come to us, reminding us that in the midst of all our struggle and pain, God is present as well, that God’s love and grace sustain and surround us. The prophet’s image of God as shepherd, feeding and protecting the flock assures us of God’s protection and care in the midst of everything.

Advent is a time of waiting as we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Christ child. Advent is a season of discernment as we look for signs of God’s grace in the midst of a dark world. Advent is a season of hope as we look forward to Christ’s coming among us and as we prepare ourselves to receive him in our hearts and in our world. Advent calls us to kindle our faith as its candles are lit. Advent urges us to get up on a high mountain and shout aloud, “Here is your God!” May we respond to that call and offer words of comfort and consolation to our hurting world.

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

Advent 1       

November 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there’s something else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus, John Wayne, and Christ the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praying in anxious times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collect For the Nation (BCP pg. 207)

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

Collect for Social Justice (BCP pg. 823)

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

Collect For an Election (BCP pg. 822)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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