What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? A Homily for 4 Epiphany B, 2021

4 Epiphany

January 31, 2021

Yesterday, we held our vestry retreat. As with so many things over the past 10 months, we had to adapt our practices the realities of social distancing, so we held it over zoom, and for a much briefer period than we would in normal years. We did the usual beginning of new year things, appointed some officers, discussed the 2021 budget and the like. We also took some time to talk about what we missed about church and to begin thinking about how to prepare ourselves as leaders, and the people of Grace for our common life and worship as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.

Almost everyone who spoke about what they missed mentioned something about the beauty of Grace Church, the sacred space into which we enter each week and where we worship. Some of us talked about the opportunities we’ve had over the last 10 months to spend time by ourselves in the nave, being in silence with God, and experiencing the sights, sounds, and sounds of an old church.

One thing no one mentioned was missing the occasional disruption to our worship—the noise on the square, a police officer interrupting worship to warn us that our cars might be towed, or a homeless person sleeping in a back pew whose snores finally became too loud to ignore, or a someone beginning to shout.

Jesus is confronted by such an encounter during his visit to the synagogue in Capernaum as he begins his public ministry in the Gospel of Mark. And given our own memories of those disruptions to our services in the past, we are likely to try to interpret this story in light of our own experiences. We are also very likely to seek explanations from our world and worldviews. So a man with an unclean spirit becomes someone suffering from mental illness or epilepsy, or some other condition with which we are familiar and which our medical and social establishments have named and categorized.

But that’s precisely the wrong interpretive move to make. When we try to reinterpret phenomena like an unclean spirit into terms that are comprehensible to us, we fail to see the power that those phenomena had or still have in traditional societies. In the case of this particular story, to ignore the power of the unclean spirit robs us of the ability to see what’s really at stake here—for while it is a story of Jesus dealing with an unclean spirit, more fundamentally, it is a story about power, or to use the story’s language—authority.

In fact, if you think carefully about it, the one who creates the disturbance in the synagogue is Jesus, not the man with the unclean spirit. For when he confronts Jesus, he asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In other words, he is questioning Jesus’ right to be in the synagogue, and presumably to be teaching there. Jesus has already upset things for his teaching was as “one with authority” not as the scribes. And of course, it was the scribes who had the right to be teaching in the synagogue, and the authority to do so.

Jesus’ authority is further demonstrated when he casts out the unclean spirit and we hear the onlookers’ response: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

One more thing. This is how Mark starts his story of Jesus’ public ministry. Like Luke, who has Jesus begin his public ministry by teaching in a synagogue (in Luke it’s Nazareth, however, and we get a synopsis of Jesus’ sermon), in Mark, we hear nothing of what he has to say, but rather this confrontation with a man with an unclean spirit. It points to one of Mark’s most important themes—that in Jesus we see the coming of God’s reign, but that this coming involves a confrontation with the evil and demonic forces that oppose it. 

Here is where we might find a way of bringing the themes of this text into our world and our lives. Without trying to explain away the presence of this unclean spirit confronting Jesus, we can see clearly the evil and demonic forces in our world—racism, sexism, the assault on truth, white supremacy, violence, intolerance, rampant individualism, unfettered capitalism. We are seeing played out in our culture what seems to be a battle between good and evil, a battle that takes place on the streets of our cities, in our state and national capitol, in grocery stores and vaccine lines.

In the midst of our struggles, as we watch these battles playing out, the Gospel of Mark suggests that the first and perhaps most important step is to name the demons in our midst. By naming them, we begin to have power over them. That may be one reason Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be silent, not to name him. We can see in our daily news the consequences when people are to afraid or unwilling to name evil—it is allowed to grow and become more powerful.

But a second step is prayer. We often think that prayer is a last resort and it has become commonplace to ridicule the call for “thoughts and prayers” after national or local tragedies. But prayer is not always an act of compliance or resignation. It can be an act of resistance and it can or should be an act of faith. When we pray, we are struggling within ourselves against the temptations of despair or unbelief. When we pray that God will bring justice and peace, we are imagining God’s reign coming into being on earth, we are expressing our hope and faith that God is acting in history to liberate God’s people, free prisoners and captives, give sight to the blind, and bind up the broken-hearted.

Mark’s Jesus isn’t comfortable or warm and fuzzy, reassuring us that we’re ok. Mark’s Jesus speaks and acts with authority; he confronts the powers and principalities. Mark’s Jesus challenges our complacence and complicity. It may be that when he comes among us, as he came into the synagogue in Capernaum and taught with authority, that we are the ones who would cry out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” 

May Jesus’ authority inspire and fill us as we seek to follow him, to speak with authority, to name and cast out demons and unclean spirits. May Mark’s Jesus inspire us to speak boldly about and to the evil we see, and to heal the wounds of the suffering, and bring justice to the oppressed. 

Follow me! A Homily for 3 Epiphany, 2021

I was surprised when I went back through the sermons I’ve preached on this set of propers over the years. It turns out I’ve always focused on the Jonah text. There are two likely reasons for this. The first is that this is the only time we read from Jonah in the three-year lectionary, so it’s my only opportunity to preach on it, and your only opportunity to hear a sermon on it. The second reason I’ve always focused on Jonah is because it’s a wonderful story full of drama, and more than a little humor. But if you want to know my take on Jonah, go to my blog and run a search for Jonah.

The reading from Jonah points to a central theme in today’s lessons, the issue of call. We see that emphasis in the collect as well:

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, and to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation…”

Vocation, call—words we hear a lot. We use vocation to describe our chosen profession or career path, even though originally it had a specifically religious sense. It was used to describe what nuns and monks had, a vocation to the religious life. We don’t use call interchangeably with vocation, now call often refers only to the call to ministry. 

 But as is clear from the collect, if not obvious in the gospel, is that “call” is not only for those of us in or exploring the ordained ministry. Call pertains to all of us. Call can come to us in many ways. It can be obvious and overwhelming, like St. Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. It can also be very different—a gentle tug on our heartstrings as we discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives pointing us in a new direction, leading us down a different path into the unknown. 

In last week’s gospel, we heard part of John’s version of Jesus’ calling the disciples. Today, from the gospel of Mark, we hear a different version, no less dramatic. In its brevity, it leaves us with more questions than answers, and tantalizes our imaginations. Before digging into the text itself, I would like to step back and say a few things about the gospel of Mark as a whole, and about the context in which our reading appears.

Mark is the shortest of the gospels and likely was the first to be written. In fact, we might say that Mark invented the genre of gospel. What he is writing is not a biography of Jesus. He’s not interested in the details of Jesus’ life, where he came from, who his parents were. He’s not that interested in Jesus’ teaching and preaching. While he does record some parables and sayings of Jesus, much of what we know about the content of Jesus’ preaching comes from the other gospels. There’s an old saying, “Mark is a passion narrative with an introduction”—that is to say, the last week of Jesus’ life, from the entry into Jerusalem to his burial takes up a major part of the gospel.

So what is Mark about? It is about the coming of God’s kingdom; inbreaking of God’s reign, ushered in by Jesus challenging the powers and principalities of the world and Satan himself. He makes that clear in the gospel’s very first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”—and immediately after that—“immediately” by the way is one of Mark’s favorite word, expressing the urgency of his work, and the urgency of Jesus’ ministry. Immediately after that, Mark introduces John the Baptizer.  Then, in just a handful of verses, Mark tells of Jesus’ baptism by John and Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness.

That brings us today’s gospel reading. Again, in a very few words, Mark depicts the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Importantly, it begins only after John is arrested, so that demonstration of political resistance to the coming of God’s reign looms over Jesus. It’s also significant that Jesus waits until John is off the scene before appearing publicly. Mark wants to downplay any notion of competition between the two, suggesting instead that Jesus is in continuity with John’s work. The uninitiated reader would have no idea what Mark meant by this terse summary of Jesus’ message: “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” That will only become apparent later.

Instead, and perhaps not a logical progression, instead of giving examples of what Jesus said, Mark moves to the calling of the disciples. Here, too, we’re left with more answers than questions. If a stranger came up to you as you were working and said, “Come follow me,” would you do that? Would you leave your family and your livelihood for a life of uncertainty? And what about the world they are leaving behind? How would old Zebedee make it with his fishing business without the help of his two sons? Mark’s not interested in those questions. He’s driven by other things—the urgency of the matter at hand, Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of God’s reign, and, as we shall see throughout the coming year as we read the gospel of Mark, the implications of our response to Jesus’ call, specifically, what it means to follow Jesus, to be one of his disciples.

Now Mark is writing at a specific historical moment—as the Jewish revolt is being suppressed by Roman legions around the year 70 and he is writing to a beleaguered and frightened community, struggling to make sense of these momentous events, and also trying to understand what it means to be followers of Jesus a generation or so after his crucifixion and resurrection, when the promised Kingdom of God seems not to have come.

We are living in perilous times ourselves but in many ways our lives are very different than those of first-century Christians, and so our response to Jesus’ call may be very different as well. He is asking us to follow him but he may not be asking us to abandon our lives and families, our livelihoods, our jobs, yes, our vocations. Sometimes I even wonder whether “discipleship” is even a very useful term for us in the twenty-first century world. It’s one of those churchy buzz words that may be more off-putting than lifegiving and restricts our imaginations. Still, Mark uses it repeatedly; it’s one of the most important themes of the gospel, so we need to take it seriously.

In my homily last week, I urged you to think about ways of breaking down the walls in our souls that keep us from seeing and experiencing God, to make space to listen to God. That’s an important step but it’s not enough. Sometimes I think our focus on the all-encompassing nature of “discipleship” in the gospels lets us off the hook. We know we can’t do that, we know we can’t leave our homes, families, and jobs to follow Jesus, so we think that none of what Jesus says, or that he is indeed calling us to follow him, applies to us. 

But I wonder, if you break down those walls, if you make space for God, if you open your ears to the voice of Jesus calling you, I wonder what you might hear and how he is asking you to respond? He calls us into relationship, he proclaims to us the forgiveness of our sins, and invites us to receive the gift of God’s grace. But he is also remaking us in his image as his followers. What is Jesus nudging you toward? What opportunities do you have in your life right now, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to work for justice and peace, to offer love to your neighbor or to an enemy? As we open our hearts to God, as we respond to Jesus’ call, may we also show forth his love, and share the good news in our daily lives and work.ser

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.