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

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

Some other impressions from the week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who do people say that I am?

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

“Who do you say that I am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing the Eucharist

I’ve been having lots of conversations with Grace parishioners, and participating in lots of conversations, especially on Twitter, about our Eucharistic theology and practice in light of the suspension of in-person worship during the Pandemic.

I thought it might be helpful to offer some background on the Eucharist, and decided to produce a series of videos on the topic. I’ve published the first three on Youtube.

Introduction to the Eucharist 1: The Witness of the New Testament: 

Introduction to the Eucharist 2: Early Christianity:

Introduction to the Eucharist 3: The Middle Ages:

I’m not sure how many more I will create, I’ve got at least 3 more in various stages of development. I encourage your feedback, comments, and questions. They may generate additional videos.

Great is your faith: A homily for Proper 15A, 2020

I’ve sensed a shift in myself over the last few weeks. As the pandemic continues with no signs that we will be able to return to any semblancy of what we used to regard as normal life any time soon, I’ve moved out of crisis mode and begun to think about what our programming, worship, and other activities might look like in the coming months and year. I met with our music staff last week to begin talking about expanding our music offerings in the fall and to look ahead toward Advent and Christmas as we think about how we might observe and celebrate the seasons without in-person worship.

We’re working on other things as well. I’ve had conversations about Christian formation, both children and adult. We’re wondering what an annual meeting might look like; colleagues in the diocese are hosting discussions about stewardship and Christian Formation as well. It’s been over five months since we’ve gathered at Grace for in-person worship and I’m doubtful that we are half-way through this ordeal.

It’s so disheartening, isn’t it? Not just church, of course, but all of life has been upended. There will be no Badger football this fall, no concerts. What school will be like is still very much in the air, not to mention classes at the university. We long for some semblance of life as it was, to gather with friends or to go to restaurants and movies, and even as we try do those things now. For many of us things are even worse than that, with unemployment and uncertainty around housing and food security.

It’s enough for us to want to cry out like the woman in today’s gospel story, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” And like the desperate woman who had exhausted all options in her desire to help her daughter, Jesus’ silence in response doesn’t cut it.

This is may be of the most troubling stories in all of the gospels. Jesus is supposed to be merciful and compassionate, he’s supposed to respond with love and care when someone asks him for help. But that’s not what he does here. It’s not just that Jesus treats her with what appears to be enormous disrespect. It’s that she forces him to change his mind, to do something he seems not to want to do.

This story reminds of something quite important. Jesus is not quite everything we want him to be. We’ve got this warm, fuzzy notion about Jesus and this story breaks that notion apart. We want him to behave according to our standards and expectations, to fit into the box we’ve made for him, but unfortunately, the gospels tell a different story. As much as we want to domesticate Jesus and make his message one that confirms our preconceived notions of faith and of God, the gospels tell a different story. And this story may be the one that is most challenging of all.

One of the things I like about this story is that it shows a woman, an outsider, someone who has no religious power or even religious significance in the Jewish world of first century Palestine, challenging Jesus. More than that, as an outsider, as someone of reviled status, she forces herself into the story. She forces her way through Jesus’ disciples. She forces him to pay attention. She makes him stop in his tracks and notice her. When he ignores her and dismisses her, she doesn’t walk away. She flat out disagrees with him, takes issue with him, engages in wordplay, and beats him at his own game.

There is a great deal one could say about this story. It raises a lot of questions—about Jesus, about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Matthew’s gospel, about the extent of Jesus’ ministry, about his self-understanding. And if you’re interested in some of those questions, I encourage you to go to my blog and look up my sermons from previous years on this text.

But today, I want to focus on one moment—the woman’s reaction when Jesus doesn’t respond to her and when his responses to her don’t satisfy her. She doesn’t settle for his silence or his attempt to silence her. She persists. She kneels down and prays, “Lord, help me.” And when he seems to dismiss her with the saying, “It is not right to the children’s food to dogs,” her response is to say that “even dogs eat the scraps from their masters’ tables.”

We are in difficult times. I don’t need to tell you that. I’m not even going to recite the litany of everything that’s going on right now. As Christians, we are people of prayer. We ask God’s help for our loved ones and for ourselves, for our nation and for all of those who are suffering. But often our prayers are little more than words that cross our lips, pious statements that we make or read because well, that’s what we do after the creed and before the confession of sin.

But right now, many of us may find ourselves praying because there seems to be little else we can do. We’ve exhausted all of our options, we ourselves are exhausted. We may even cry out, or want to cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”

If we have said those or similar words, we may have been at the very end and not really expecting a response from God. We are greeted with silence, and unlike Elijah in last week’s reading from I Kings, we don’t even hear a still, small voice.

Silence, or as in the woman’s case, a rebuke—perhaps when our prayer isn’t answered, the rebuke we hear is from the voice inside of us that says we deserve all this that we’re getting. The Canaanite woman didn’t accept the silence; she didn’t accept the rebuke, she persisted.

And because she persisted, Jesus recognized her faith and healed her daughter. Maybe, just maybe, those unsettling, disappointing conversations with God we call prayer can bring us to new discoveries and deeper faith. Maybe, when we wrestle with God, when we challenge Jesus, it’s not that we change God’s mind, but that a new, deeper relationship with God opens up to us. Whether or not our suffering ends, by returning to God again and again in prayer and petition, we hear God say to us, “Great is your faith.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loud noises and sheer silence: A Homily for Proper 14A, 2020

There are biblical texts that are so familiar to me that I feel like I know them word for word, at least in the NRSV version. That’s partly because I taught Intro to the Bible at least 20 times over the years. It’s also because I’ve been preaching regularly for fifteen years now, which means that I’ve been through the three-year lectionary cycle 5 times. But with parents who took their children to church at least three times a week while I was growing up, my history with these stories goes back much further—some of them seem as though they have entered the very marrow of my bones.

That’s certainly true of the story of Jesus walking on the water. It’s drama and special effects made it a standard of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School. It’s also true of the story from I Kings—Elijah’s encounter with God on Mt. Horeb. I know I’ve got a sermon on it somewhere in my files but curiously I couldn’t find it—which means I’ve never preached this text at Grace.

It’s a story full of emotion and theological significance. Elijah, the great prophet of Israel has fled to this place, Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai. He had just won a contest with the prophets of Baal, and should have been basking in victory and in God’s victory over the Canaanite deity. Instead, King Ahab put a bounty on his head and Elijah had to flee the kingdom. Fearing for his life and despondent about his failure to convert king and people, Elijah came here as the text says, to die.

But God had other plans. What happens next is remarkable. If you were to go back and look at Exodus 19, which is the story of the Israelites’ arrival at Mt. Sinai after fleeing the Egyptians, you would read about God’s appearance to them. There was an earthquake, a mighty wind, a fire. And then God spoke.

Here, centuries later, at the same place, God tells Elijah to come out of the cave so that he can pass by. The text then reads: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

The contrast couldn’t be more clear. In the first instance God appeared to Moses and the Israelites in earthquake, wind, and fire. Now God appears to Elijah after all of the special effects were over, as if to say that God is present not in the powers of nature, but in the power of words and silence. What comes next is a recommissioning of Elijah and an anointing, of him, the kings who will come after Ahab, and of Elisha, Elijah’s successor.

There are significant parallels here with the gospel story. It occurs immediately after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand-remember that the immediate context for that was Jesus receiving news that John the Baptist had been beheaded and his desire to go to a deserted place. Thwarted by the crowds, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead, while he went up the mountain to pray.

The disciples are crossing the sea of Galilee and are caught up in a storm. They struggle all night. When morning comes, they see Jesus on the water, walking toward them. Thinking they are seeing a ghost, they become frightened (first mention of this emotion in the story.” Jesus greets them with words that are common in biblical encounters of divine and human: “Be not afraid.”

But then comes an even more dramatic and significant dialogue. Peter enters the water, begins to sink, and cries out, “Save me!” Jesus reached out his hand, caught him, and said: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they arrived back in the boat, the storm ended, and the disciples worshiped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

These two stories speak powerfully to our situation. How many of us feel like we are drowning in a storm-tossed sea, that we’ve been in this mess forever and there seems to be no way out? How many of us are calling out to Jesus, “Save me!” right now? How many of us are doubting whether he is reaching out to take hold of us?

How many of us have been speaking truth to power? Advocating for justice and equality, crying out against corruption, and intolerance, and cruelty? How many of us are ready to give up as we watch the forces of evil grow and crush those who are working against injustice and oppression? How many of us want to flee out into the wilderness and die as Elijah planned?

Despair, fear, drowning. Those are all obvious responses to our situation. There seems to be no way out and the crises seem to heap up one on another with no end in sight.

Still, God came to Elijah in the wilderness, when he was at his weakest and deep in despair. God came to him, spoke to him, and empowered him to continue his work.

As Peter was drowning, he called out “Save me!” and Jesus reached out his hand and took him.

We can’t do it on our own. We should be at the end of our rope, sapped of energy and hope. We should be down in despair. But even here, when things look most bleak, when the storm rages most furiously, God is here.

Can we see him? Can we hear him? After earthquake, wind, and fire, after the sound of sheer silence, can we hear God speaking to us? In the midst of the storm, as we feel ourselves drowning, can we see Jesus’ hand reaching out to us, to save us?

God comes to us, in the middle of life, in the middle of our experiences, the suffering of the world, injustice and oppression. God comes to us, offering us grace, mercy, and love, to restore us and strengthen us, and to prepare us for the journey ahead. May we feel God’s healing and comforting power in our lives and may we respond in faith to God’s call to us to hope and to work for justice and peace.

A deserted place of healing and abundance: A homily for Proper 13A, 2020

Among the many challenges over the past months of safer at home, self-quarantine, and the suspension of worship, has been the sense that we are losing a sense of connection, not only with friends, family, and fellow parishioners, but with the very place where we worship, Grace Church. I was reminded of that fact a couple of days ago when we made a test run of our new hearing loop that has been installed in the church. Two long-time parishioners entered the church for the first time in four months to test the new system with their hearing aids. The good news is that everything worked great. At the same time, both mentioned how much they had missed the church and how good it was to be able to be in it again, if only for a few minutes.

Live-streamed worship is a wonderful thing. Thanks to the miracle of technology, we can see the space, hear the liturgy, and listen to the organ and soloist. But there’s so much missing—the sense of the light refracted through the stained glass windows, the unique and familiar smells of an old church, the sounds of the floor creaking, or the pews as we sit and move around.

Place is important geographically as well. And in this time of pandemic and protests, the presence of Grace Church on the square is a reminder of our mission to help heal our city, and to share the good news of God’s love in the midst of division and suffering.

While we may not think so, place is always important in the gospels. There’s Jerusalem, of course, and I have mentioned repeatedly the importance to the synoptic gospels of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, with that growing sense of drama as he draws nearer to his fate. But geographical references are important in other ways. In today’s reading, we are told that “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” It wasn’t that deserted because crowds soon gathered around him. Still, we should imagine it to be something like a wilderness, far enough from any town to make traveling difficult, and remote enough that there were no easy provisions to be had.

The reason Jesus sought seclusion comes in the previous section of the gospel. There, Matthew tells of Herod killing John the Baptist, and it’s in response to that news that Jesus withdraws. The feeding of the five thousand takes on additional significance in light of this. We are offered a contrast between these two scenes, which reflect not only the difference between Herod and Jesus, but also between Herod’s court and the gathering around Jesus, the celebration of Herod’s birthday that culminated in the presentation of John the Baptist’s head on a platter with Jesus’ healing the sick and teaching the crowd, and finally offering them loaves and fishes. It’s the contrast between the power and violence of the Roman Empire, and God’s reign. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness calls to mind earlier stories as well—especially the Exodus, when the Israelites feasted on miraculous manna and quail after God delivered them from bondage to another empire, that of Pharaoh and Egypt.

Think of the contrast between those two scenes. On the one hand, a royal banquet, with all of the power and wealth on display, indulging every appetite and desire. It was meant not only to celebrate the birthday of Herod, but like all such banquets in the Hellenistic world, it was meant to display his power, and symbolize his place in the Roman order, as well as the places in that hierarchy of everyone in attendance.

On the other hand, a deserted place, where a crowd gathered to hear Jesus. There was no power and wealth on display. Instead, what was visible was Jesus’ compassion and gift for healing, restoring health to the diseased and infirm. And then, instead of exotic foods gathered from across the empire, a few loaves and fishes.

 

Jesus asks for the loaves and fishes. Then, in language that Matthew will also use to describe his actions at the Last Supper, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, gives to the disciples the bread and the fish. All eat and are satisfied and there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Matthew, as do the other gospel writers, makes a connection between this miraculous feeding and that other miraculous meal, the Last Supper, the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with his closest friends and companions; he shared his body and blood. When he fed the five thousand, his gift of sustenance in the wilderness was a sign of God’s reign, a symbol of the abundance that is promised in the age to come; a symbol, too, of the bread of life he offers us.

In this contrast between royal banquet and simple meal we are offered a symbol of the world in which we live today. At a time when our political elites dither and some display their power and wealth even as they amass greater amounts, millions are threatened with eviction, food insecurity, and the end of unemployment insurance. Already we are seeing longer lines at food banks and pantries across the country. The poor grow poorer while billionaires grow wealthier.

Perhaps we look with a bit of envy on the ostentatious consumption by the 1% but as we gather around the Lord’s table, we are offered the abundance of bread and wine at the Eucharistic feast. We eat the bread of angels and it is food enough.

As we eat and are satisfied, we are also called—to offer food to the hungry, to fight for justice, and to call out the hypocrisy, oppression, and exploitation of the economic system that has left so many behind. May we invite all to partake of the food offered here, to eat and be satisfied, transformed by the vision of God’s reign proclaimed by Jesus and by the Eucharistic feast.