How can we carry a cross on top of everything else? A Sermon for Lent 2, 2021

Back a year ago, when we first entered lock-down, thinking it would last a few weeks, I remember reading in various places advice on how to take advantage of this unique situation, to learn new skills, for example. Often, the example of Isaac Newton was held up to us. During the two years he was in quarantine because of the 1665 outbreak of plague, it is said that he discovered the laws of gravity and optics and invented calculus. 

While I doubt anyone has been as productive as that over the last year, there are numerous examples of people using their isolation productively and creatively. Most of us, myself included, aren’t like that. We find ourselves exhausted all of the time, trying to work, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate to the task, depressed and demoralized. 

As we struggle with the uncertainties of our lives and the pandemic, as we watch the problems with vaccine distribution, our hopes that one day soon our lives can once again take on some semblance of what we used to regard as normalcy, today’s gospel may come across as tone-deaf or inappropriate to our situation. 

Let me offer a little context. After a couple of weeks reading from chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, we’re back in the middle of it, in chapter 8, in an early portion of what is a very skillfully constructed section of the gospel. Today’s reading comes immediately after Peter’s great confession that Jesus is the Messiah and is the first of three predictions Jesus makes that he (the Son of Man) will go to Jerusalem, be arrested, crucified, and raised from the dead. Each of these three predictions is immediately followed by something that makes clear the disciples don’t comprehend what Jesus is talking about, and then Jesus follows it up with a teaching about what it means to be a disciple, to follow him. 

In this case, we have Jesus making the prediction that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be killed, and on the third day rise from the dead. The gospel writer then says that “Peter took him aside and rebuked him.” Then, in a remarkable turn, Jesus responds to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” 

Had we been reading the gospel continuously, this episode immediately following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the sudden turn would be obvious. We might want to interpret that turn in terms of Peter’s personality as evidenced in the gospels—impetuous, mercurial. He’s the one who jumped into the lake when he saw Jesus walking on the water and began to drown. He’s the one who wanted to build booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. When Jesus predicted his denial, Peter protested loudly, then went on and denied Jesus, and immediately began to weep. 

But there’s more to it than Peter’s personality here. There are multiple contrasts. Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah but as becomes clear, his notion of Messiah is not what Jesus had in mind—the royal deliverer, restorer of Davidic monarchy and the prestige and power of the Jewish people. Jesus’ prediction of his coming suffering did not reference himself in the first pronoun, nor use language of Messiah. Instead, here as he will in the two subsequent predictions, Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man”—a rich, traditional image that hearkens back to Hebrew prophecy, to Ezekiel and to the Book of Daniel. Its best meaning is “Human one.” We might see here evidence of Jesus rejecting the title of Messiah with all of its connotations for a much humbler, more universal symbolic title and identity.

The human one who will be crucified in the most horrific, cruel way, a form of execution used by the Romans for its most notorious criminals and especially for rebels against its power. The cross symbolized Roman power and imperial terror. For Jesus to tell those who were with him, his disciples, followers, and the crowd, that if they wanted to be his disciples, they would have to take up their crosses.

We hear that language refracted through two thousand years of Christian theology and devotional practice. Take up your cross… We hear that call against the backdrop of Christian reflection on Christ’s death, theologies of atonement, and personal struggle. Taking up our cross has come to mean bearing whatever burden and suffering we may experience in our personal lives, burdens that we can lay at the foot of Jesus’ cross, who bears our burdens and died for our sins. We personalize it, internalize it, and yes, domesticate it.

But Mark didn’t mean it that way. Writing to a beleaguered, frightened community in the midst of conflict and war, as they watched the power of imperial Rome crush the Jewish rebellion, the cross meant for him and for them, their fate as followers of Jesus. “Take up your cross” meant just that—condemned to death by Rome, forced to carry their own crosses to the place of execution, where the executions and the hanging bodies would stand as powerful witness to the folly of resisting Rome.

Jesus went on to explain, or perhaps a better word is, to challenge his listeners with what it meant to take up their crosses and follow him, to explore their motivations and hopes in doing so: “For whoever would save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.”

It’s a statement that catches us off guard, turns the rock of certainty to which we cling into sand that slips away, leaves us hanging in midair with no parachute. If we examine it closely, it challenges all of our assumptions, our desires, our hopes. If we want to save our lives—well, who doesn’t want to save their life—we’ll lose it; but if we lose our life, we’ll save it. But doesn’t that mean that if we set about losing our life because we want to save it, we’ll lose it anyway? Well, you get the horns of the dilemma on which Jesus leaves us hanging.

And to us today, in the midst of our world’s suffering and all of its uncertainty, what do these words mean? What do we do with them? What does it mean to “follow” Jesus when we’re essentially confined to our homes, when the notion of a journey, even if it is a journey to Jerusalem and to the cross, and not a delayed vacation to an exotic locale, when the notion of a journey, any journey is little more than a distant dream?

If you hope I’ve got this figured out and will give you the answers, that I’ll tell you what Jesus means and what you should do, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Jesus’ words hear stand us judgment and warning on whatever certainty we might have about ourselves, about Jesus himself, and about what the future holds. Just as the readers of Mark’s gospel were looking at a difficult and uncertain future, so too are we all. We don’t know what that future holds, what challenges we will face in the coming months and years. What we do know, and can be certain of, is that we can choose to walk that journey with Jesus and that as we walked, nourished by word and sacrament, strengthened by God’s grace, it will be a journey into hope and new life, a journey into possibility and resurrection.

Wild Beasts and Waiting Angels: A Homily for Lent 1, 2021

Last Epiphany

February 14, 2021

What a difference a week can make! Last week we heard the story of the Transfiguration; we commemorated Christ’s glory on the mountaintop. This week we are in a very different place, not on top of a mountain, but in the wilderness, with Jesus, not celebrating, but wandering, not affirmed but being tested. But we are also with that recurring theme of the voice from heaven saying “You are my son, my beloved.” It’s the third time we’ve heard that voice and that statement over the last few weeks. Yet each time, because of the way the lectionary is divided and because of the way Mark tells the story, it seems to mean very different things. 

When we first heard it on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the reading ended with the voice:  “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Last week, the voice said, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.” And immediately after that, all was back to normal. Jesus looked like an ordinary person, the figures of Moses and Elijah had vanished, and the cloud was gone.

In today’s reading, we hear the voice at Jesus’ baptism. Then Mark follows it with:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

In these few words Mark conveys the urgency, immediacy, and violence of the story he wants to tell. There was no time for Jesus to reflect on what the voice might have meant, or to celebrate and reflect on his baptism. Although he was filled with the Holy Spirit, it was that same spirit that drove him into the wilderness. Here, Mark uses the same verb he will use repeatedly to describe Jesus driving out demons or unclean spirits, and also driving the moneychangers out of the temple. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness by choice; he was driven there. 

The reference to 40 days in the wilderness calls to mind the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. It was a time of struggle and hardship but it was also the period when God gave them the Torah, the law, at Mt. Sinai, and a time during which God provisioned them with food, giving them manna. It is also why we talk about Lent lasting forty days, analogizing this season of the church year to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; why, of course, that we read this particular gospel story on the first Sunday in Lent. 

In this instance, “tempting” might not be the best translation. The Greek word also means testing and in that sense, at least for Mark, it may be that this time was not about the sorts of temptations with which we are familiar and which are recorded in Matthew and Luke, but rather that it was a time when Jesus identity was tested—was he truly the Son of God, the beloved as the voice from heaven declared? 

I was reading a commentary on this passage a couple of days ago that referred to Jesus’ fasting and it suddenly struck me that Mark makes no reference to that in these few verses. What we are told instead is that he was tested or tempted by Satan, that he was “with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.”

It’s that image that intrigues and fascinates me. I wonder if it fascinates you as well. What sort of scene does this conjure up for you? Jesus, surrounded by wild animals. Is it the image of the peaceable kingdom, describerd in Isaiah 11:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

Or is a different image, perhaps the one Mark is alluding to, of Daniel in the lion’s den, the prophet endangered by wild beasts and predators?

And the angels waiting on him—another rich, intriguing image of heavenly beings supporting, caring for Jesus as the prophet Elijah experienced during his own 40 days in the wilderness when he was near death from starvation. Surely Mark is alluding to that story because Elijah plays such an important role in the gospel, as we saw last week. 

But there’s something else Mark has in mind because the verb translated as “waiting” is another verb we’ve seen before in our reading of the gospel. It’s the word for serving or ministering, as Peter’s mother-in-law will do in just a few verses after Jesus raises her from her sickbed, she serves them, and as Mark describes the women watching the crucifixion from afar, they ministered to him on the journey from Galilee.

Mark is telling us important things about Jesus in these few verses and telling us important things about the larger story he has in mind. As we read through Mark this year, I am more and more drawn to that larger story, to the cosmic significance of Jesus’ coming, the cosmic battle between the powers and principalities of this world, of evil, and the work God is doing in Jesus. We see echoes of that cosmic battle here in the presence of wild beasts, symbols of chaos, and the angels waiting on and serving Jesus. We saw evidence of that cosmic struggle in Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens were torn open, the voice from heaven speaking, suggesting that the barriers between heaven and earth had been torn apart, that something new was breaking in. 

That’s Mark’s story. Is it our story as well? Where do we fit in it? We may find such language of wild beasts, Satan, and angels a bit strange or off-putting, fanciful, relics of an earlier age. But isn’t it true that in our world today, we see unexplained, powerful evil wreaking havoc? The evil we experience may seem to have very human causes—the failure of a power grid in Texas the result of greed and malfeasance, the ravages of a pandemic, an insurrection stoked by social media, by lies and conspiracy theories. What wild beasts do you see? What wild beasts threaten and make you afraid?

 After Jesus’ encounter with Satan and the wild beasts, after his forty days in the wilderness, after the arrest of the one who had baptized him, Jesus began his public ministry. He came to Galilee and proclaimed the good news of God’s reign: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”

 Can we, even as we are surrounded by wild beasts, hear that good news? Can we repent, or change our mind to focus not on the threats that face us, but on the good news of God’s coming among us? Can God’s grace, the angels who wait upon us, give us the perspective to see the good, and the strength to persevere. 

In this Lent of fear, anger, and despair, the spiritual disciplines we need to cultivate may not be those of self-denial and fasting. Rather, might we called to different spiritual disciplines, of faith, hope, and courage, of discernment of the evil that surrounds us, and the risk of truth-telling? May this Lent be a holy one, in which we grow more deeply in faith, and when we recognize and acknowledge the angels that wait upon us.  s

Transfigured lives, transfigured Lent: A Homily for Last Epiphany, 2021

Last Epiphany

February 14, 2021

This past week I’ve been working on our parochial report, the annual report we make to the diocese and to denominational offices concerning membership, attendance, baptisms, funerals, and our financial activity for the year. This information provides the basis for our annual diocesan assessment as well as serving as a benchmark for growth or decline, or relative health of the congregation. The instrument has seen significant changes over the past years in response to ongoing conversations about how best to assess congregational vitality. Questions concerning outreach programs like food pantries and homeless shelters have been added. This year has seen even more radical changes, as we were asked to calculate average Sunday attendance for January and February of 2020, there were questions about virtual services, and a narrative section that asks to reflect on the challenges and opportunities posed by the pandemic.

All of this has encouraged me to reflect on our and my experiences over the last 11 months. My other main task for these last few weeks has been to think about Ash Wednesday, Lent, and look ahead to Holy Week. All of that reflection has played into my homilies as well, as one of my persistent questions while preparing them is how to help all of us listen and reflect on scripture and our current experience, which is so dominated by events on the national stage, and our experience of pandemic.

At the same time, I increasingly feel a disjuncture between the rhythms of the liturgical year and our lives in pandemic. Our usual observances of Easter, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany have been muted—quite literally so because of our inability to raise our voices in song. As we enter our second pandemic Lent, I suspect that the internal spiritual resources available to us for the observation of a Holy Lent are rather depleted. Moreover, the emotional and spiritual effects of gathering together for celebrations are unavailable to us. As others have pointed out, it sometimes feels as if we’ve been in Lent for almost a year…

Which brings us to this point in the lectionary and liturgical year: the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent is only a few days away and whatever we are doing to celebrate the changing season, our celebrations lack the excitement and excess of other years—there is no Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for example. Our gospel reading today is, as it is every year on this Sunday the story of the Transfiguration, that eerie, otherworldly encounter of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop.

It’s a profound story, rich in biblical imagery and symbolism, closely tied to the rest of Mark’s gospel with its resonances to the story of Jesus’ baptism that we heard on the first Sunday of this season after Epiphany, and to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But as should be obvious after hearing the reading from II Kings, it also draws on earlier stories and traditions, with the presence of Moses and Elijah, the whole prophetic tradition, and the many stories of theophanies, or appearances of the divine, on mountain tops beginning with Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai.

Our attention is quite naturally drawn to the supernatural elements, to the special effects. We want to know what happened, if it happened, what Jesus looked like, all of that. Those of us of a more skeptical bent might be inclined to disregard the whole thing, mark it up to the fanciful imaginings of a first-century peasant.

To do so is to underestimate the gospel writer’s genius and the message he wants to convey to his readers. There are a number of ways that this story echoes and builds on the account of Jesus’ baptism. There’s the obvious connection—the voice from heaven, speaking now to the disciples, not to Jesus, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

Though not explicitly stated, as at the baptism where we are told that the heavens are torn open, we see a fracture in the barrier dividing heaven and earth. Now it’s not a dove but heavenly messengers, prophets themselves, who come down and walk with Jesus. 

And this story looks ahead to the crucifixion; the final, climactic confession that Jesus is the Son of God, made now not by a voice from heaven, but from the executioner, the centurion. And then too, barriers will be torn apart, the curtain in the temple being torn in two. 

This is a story that confirms Jesus’ identity and mission both for us and for his disciples. But even in that confirmation, it undercuts traditional messianic expectations. For while the presence of Moses and Elijah might lead us to conclude, as it seems to have done for Peter, that Jesus fits into those hopes of a restoration of Israel’s royal power, its conclusion suggests that something quite different is happening.

First, as in so many other places in Mark, just as people, or demons, or unclean spirits seem to identify Jesus as the Messiah, or Holy One, or Son of God, Jesus rebukes them and silences them, telling them not to tell anyone about this until after his resurrection from the dead. So instead of ending on a note of triumph and power, the story ends by foreshadowing what is to come—Jesus’ rejection by the political and religious establishment, by his disciples, left to die alone on the cross, a victim of the forces arrayed against God’s reign of love and justice.

There are a couple of details in Peter’s response to the transfiguration that should speak to us. First, he calls Jesus “rabbi” a term of authority within 1st-century Judaism. It’s a term of respect and honor, but it is also evidence that he hasn’t quite got the point. Just before this story, Peter made his great confession that Jesus was the Messiah—now he seems to suggest that he is merely a human teacher within a religious institution. The second is the reference to “booths” an allusion to the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness and to the festival of sukkoth, but also an allusion to a certain kind of messianic expectation—of the restoration of Israel. 

Peter’s expectations and understanding of Jesus is shaped by his hopes, his political interests, and his religious background. He is overwhelmed by spectacle, by Jesus’ miraculous transfiguration and the mysterious appearance of Moses and Elijah. 

And there is where we come in. We too are tempted by miracle, by spectacle. We love the celebration, the emotional uplift, getting caught up in the effervescence of large gatherings filled with music. We get caught up in it, and it seems to be enough to carry us forward to assure us in our faith.

Mark is here to remind us that Jesus is about something quite different than all of that—not the spectacle, but the suffering. Jesus is here about the suffering of the sick and possessed, the downtrodden. Jesus is here because he is God’s beloved child, as are we. His journey leads to the cross where he will die alone, an anguished cry on his lips. But the story doesn’t end there.

In our experience of the last year when so much of our lives have seemed cramped and ordinary, when familiar pastimes have given way to solitude and the pleasures of spectacle and celebration are just distant memories, we yearn for something deeper, more powerful. We yearn for the emotional strength that comes from gathering with others and from the familiar rituals of our faith. 

As we look ahead to the season of Lent in the midst of our continuing struggles, may we seek Jesus in the ordinary places of our lives and in the dark and grieving corners of our souls. May we find him beckoning to us, reaching out his arms to us from the cross. May we open ourselves to him, as he comes to us, not meeting our expectations and desires, but creating new ones, experiencing his love in new ways, and sharing that love with the world in which we live. 

Healing and Discipleship: A Homily for Epiphany 5B, 2021

5 Epiphany

February 7, 2021

One of the things I’ve struggled with most over the past ten months is the helplessness I often feel when pastoral concerns arise. I’m unable to visit people in their homes, or hospital beds, or hospice. Phone calls or emails are no substitutes for a face-to-face conversation, for being present with someone who is suffering or struggling, to offer prayers, words of consolation and comfort, or communion. 

I’m not alone in this. It’s something clergy talk about when we gather but it’s a general problem as well. We have been cut off from each other and in spite of all of the ways that technology enables us to worship, to have fellowship, to continue to do our work, we miss the simple pleasures of being together with friends, family, coworkers, other members of the body of Christ. We feel the sense of that loss every day. 

The little gospel story we heard today seems straightforward, perhaps even uninteresting but hearing it in our context brings out new themes that speak to our situation. 

Recall that we are at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Earlier that day, he had visited the synagogue in Capernaum where he taught (with authority) subdued a man with an unclean spirit. Now he is going home with Peter, where they discover that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever. 

In moving from the synagogue to a home, Jesus is not only going out for lunch after services. He is moving from the public, male-oriented space of the synagogue to the private space where women could act as agents. But in this case, Peter’s mother-in-law is incapacitated by illness and unable to fulfill her traditional and important role of offering hospitality. Jesus heals her and Mark says that she got up and served them. 

That little detail might be something we overlook, or it might be something we notice and even offend us. Think about, one could interpret this story to mean that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law so that she could get up and fix dinner for him and his disciples. 

There’s more to it than that, of course. First off, the word used here for “served” is the Greek word diakosune—from which we derive our word “deacon.” Significantly, Mark uses it at the very end of the gospel to describe the women who watched from afar as he is crucified. There, Mark is contrasting the behavior of these female disciples with Jesus’ male disciples, all of whom abandoned him at the end and left him to die alone. For Mark these women are models of discipleship. It’s appropriate, then, that at the very beginning of the gospel, Mark shows a woman, Peter’s mother-in-law, modeling discipleship by serving Jesus.

That’s not the end of the story. As evening falls, ushering a new day and the end of the sabbath, the townspeople bring all of their sick and those possessed by demons to Jesus. Mark says that he healed many of them—not all. And then Mark tells us that Jesus went off to a deserted place to pray. When his disciples caught up with him, they told him that “everyone was looking for him” implying that he was wanted back in Capernaum, to continue his ministry of healing. But Jesus demurred. He told them his work was elsewhere, to proclaim the good news, heal the sick, and cast out demons in the towns and villages of Galilee. 

Packed into these few verses are some important lessons for us. We see models of both ministry and discipleship. For Mark, one key theme discipleship and ministry is service—Jesus will later tell his disciples in 10:45 that he came not to be served but to serve (using the exact same Greek word here). While healing is central to Jesus’ ministry, it’s important to keep in mind that healing was not only about a physical illness. In the ancient world, illness affected the whole person, body and soul, and to be healed meant being healed spiritually, and restored to the community. Peter’s mother-in-law was isolated in her bed. When Jesus healed her, she was restored to her place in the community. 

In addition, in Jesus’ actions we see an important reminder to us as well. In the first place, while all the sick and those possessed by demons were brought to him in Capernaum, Mark says he healed many, not all of them and that he left to go to a deserted place to pray. Even Jesus couldn’t solve all of the problems of the people and he needed to take a break, get away from it all, to pray and recharge. 

I’ve been inspired as I’ve watched Grace members come together over the last months. In spite of the challenges facing us all, in spite of the many limitations on what we can do, we are still caring for each other, preparing meals, praying, reaching out to those in need. We are doing ministry in all kinds of ways, sharing God’s love with each other and with the larger community. The phone tree, the healing prayer team, pastoral care committee, the nourishing community group are all working hard to keep us connected and to respond to needs as they emerge.

But we should remember that even as we seek to do ministry, to follow Jesus’ example in serving others, healing and restoring them to community, we should not lose sight of our own needs and limitations, that we can’t do it all, and we can’t do it by ourselves. Our work needs to be centered in prayer and in our relationship with God. The prophet’s words should inspire us:

“but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”