A manipulative son? An over-indulgent father? A Sermon for 4 Lent, 2019

How many of you remember watching as your parents let a sibling get away with things they would never have permitted you, or seemed to treat them better, more lovingly than they treated you? How many of you parents have had the experience of loving one child just a little bit more than your other children? Or at work, watching as a co-worker received special, and undeserved treatment while you had to stay late, or failed to get the credit, or the promotion, you deserved? Continue reading

Sly foxes, mothering hens: A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, 2018

Another horrific massacre. Another white supremacist taking aim at worshippers. We’ve seen it at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, now the majhids in Christchurch, New Zealand as faithful muslims gathered for Friday prayers. The white supremacy and islamophobia that is so prevalent in our society is a worldwide phenomenon, flamed by social media and by politicians seeking to amass power and wealth by stoking fear, hatred, and anger. And too often, far too often, the hatred and white supremacy are coupled with a Christianity that is shaped more by nationalism and hatred than by the teachings of Jesus. Continue reading

Temptation and Identity: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 2019

I know that many of you are relatively new to the Episcopal Church. I know that many, most of you didn’t attend Ash Wednesday services this past week, so you may be uncertain of what the Season of Lent is—what it means and why we observe it. Perhaps the best explanation of Lent can be found in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday and specifically, the Invitation to a Holy Lent. It’s found on p. 264 of the BCP, and I’m going to read it right now:

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading andmeditating on God’s holy Word.

 

Our worship takes a much more somber and penitential tone in Lent. We traditionally begin our services on the First Sunday in Lent with the Great Litany. For the next five Sundays, we will begin with the Penitential Order in Rite I. While there is a solid reason for the Confession of Sin’s usual place in our liturgy, after the reading of Scripture and the Proclamation of Gospel. There, the confession is part of our response to what we’ve heard from scripture and preparation for the Liturgy of the Table, the Eucharist.

But placing the penitential order, including the confession, at the beginning of the service emphasizes the transition from daily life in the world to our worship of God. It acknowledges our identity, our sins and underscores the distance between us and God, a distance overcome in Jesus Christ.

There are other differences in our worship during Lent. I encourage to note them and reflect on how they might help us in this season of penitence and spiritual discipline. And I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities at Grace and the resources we’ve made available to deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ in these weeks.

Our gospel reading on this first Sunday in Lent, as many of us begin to think about this season of repentance and forgiveness, is Luke’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The connection with Lent is obvious—the 40 days of Lent are modeled on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. He fasted as well. But the temptations seem just a bit out of place. It may prompt us to see in our temptation to break our fast, to eat the chocolate we said we would give up for Lent, a parallel to the confrontation between Jesus and Satan.

I doubt it. One of the interesting changes Luke makes to Mark’s story of the wilderness temptations is that Mark says, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, while Luke says that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. That’s in keeping with Luke’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit. It also links this story to Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit came down on Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is one of those overarching themes of Luke’s gospel and of Acts. And here we see Luke’s mention of it twice. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit, as he had been filled at his baptism, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Unlike Mark’s construction of this scene, Luke wants to emphasize that this cosmic battle waged between Jesus and Satan, is at bottom a battle between unequal combatants—Jesus is not alone. He is the Son of God, filled with the Holy Spirit.

But still, Luke doesn’t tip his hand. In fact, he suggests to the reader that Jesus is the weak one—emphasizing by repetition that Jesus fasted for 40 days, that he was famished. In that physical condition, and who knows what his mental or spiritual condition might have been, Jesus is confronted by Satan: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Hungry as he was, having not eaten anything for forty days, Satan may have been putting into words what Jesus was already thinking. For anyone who fasts, the temptation to break that fast is always present to a greater or lesser degree. It takes enormous willpower to resist and for Jesus, the Son of God, to resist the miraculous power to intervene and make a meal for himself from nothing, or from a stone—well for us mere mortals, it’s quite something to imagine.

But the temptation that Satan presented Jesus was deeper: “If you are the Son of God”—Just  a bit earlier, at his baptism, Luke tells us that Jesus heard the voice saying to him, “You are my Son, my beloved.” There are implicit questions in that statement, questions explored by nearly two millennia of Christian reflection on the nature of Christ.

Did Jesus already know his identity as the Son of God before hearing that voice? Was it confirmation of something he already knew? Did he become the Son of God at the baptism? Now, I am not going to explore those questions or why they may be important, but given the text, they are legitimate questions to ask.

From the perspective of Luke’s narrative, Jesus hears this voice, this statement of his identity, then led by the Holy Spirit goes into the wilderness where he fasts for 40 days. The very next thing he hears is Satan tempting him, “If you are the Son of God…”

Each of three temptations is about Jesus’ identity. Is he the Son of God? What sort of Son of God is he, or will he be? In the biblical tradition, the Psalms for example, the king is often referred to as a son of God, God’s representative on earth, with power on earth. In the second temptation, Satan says, “all authority has been given over to me.” In a sense, Satan’s questions of Jesus are questions about what sort of Son of God he might be, what kind of Messiah he will be. Jesus passes the test, and Satan departs from him until an opportune time.

Miraculous bread, all the nations of the world, the pinnacle of the temple—these were the tests put to Jesus by Satan. We might well wonder whether they are also tests put to us as individuals and as the body of Jesus Christ in the 21stcentury.

But at the same time, the deeper question of identity is one that also confronts us. Like Jesus we have been baptized, and in our baptism we gain our identity as children of God, marked as Christ’s own forever. What temptations draw us away from that identity? What temptations distract us from our knowledge and identity as God’s beloved children? May this season of Lent be a time, where we too, filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, may claim our identity as God’s beloved children and experience the love and grace of God revealed to us in Christ and expressed most fully on the cross.

Dust, Ashes, and God’s steadfast love: A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2019

I have been surrounded by death the last few months. There was the death of my mother before Christmas, and two funerals at Grace in recent weeks. Yesterday morning, I visited someone in hospice care and we talked about death as I prayed and read Psalms with her. After that visit, I came to the church and burnt the dried palms from last year’s Palm Sunday and prepared the ashes that I will use to mark the sign of the cross on our foreheads and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is now my tenth Ash Wednesday at Grace and I’m increasingly conscious of those people whose foreheads I daubed with ash and said, “Remember that you are dust…” and who in the years since, I’ve said while committing their remains to their final resting place, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Of all the intimate and powerful acts I perform as a priest, there may be none so intimate or powerful as what I do today, for as I say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…” I am saying it as much to myself as to you.

In our culture, we do almost everything we can to avoid talking about, thinking about, or being near, death. We don’t even use the word—someone has passed, they don’t die. We go to extraordinary lengths to avoid looking old, spending billions on cosmetic surgery to look young. We are so averse to speaking about death that we’ve invented a word, “cremains” so we don’t have to confront the reality of ashes.

But then we come hear and have our foreheads smudged with ashes and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

To face our mortality with honesty and admitting our vulnerability is no easy thing. But it is an important first step in the work we need to do. Lent is a season of repentance and spiritual discipline. But to ask God’s forgiveness, to receive God’s forgiveness requires that we first admit who we are, acknowledge our sin and brokenness, open our selves and our hearts to God’s redemptive and forgiving grace.

We see that in Psalm 51, which we will recite together later. It’s a psalm of repentance but as the psalmist acknowledges his sinfulness and prays to God for forgiveness, there’s a moment when the tone changes:

Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

 

It is only through such confession, and honesty about oneself, that one can fully experience the joy of God’s forgiveness.

There’s another image that haunts me each Ash Wednesday, a verse from the Joel reading, “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” My attention was first drawn to it years ago by Tom Davis, a priest who has himself now entered the larger life, as we were preparing for services at St. James, Greenville.

The image of priests weeping between the vestibule and altar, or as we might say, between the sacristy and the altar haunts me because it evokes a moment of intense repentance and it goes against the priestly decorum we display and that is expected of us. In the larger passage, the prophet Joel is talking about an imminent catastrophe, a natural disaster, a plague of locusts that has come upon the land and destroyed the crops. Interestingly, he does not attribute this natural disaster to punishment for the evil of the people. He offers no explanation for the coming destruction.

But he does offer hope: “Return to the Lord…”

The prophet continues:

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

As we confront our mortality this day, as we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, as we confess our sins, and acknowledge our brokenness, as we weep between the vestibule and the altar, may our broken bodies and spirits be filled with the joy of God’s forgiveness, and know the immeasurable power of God’s loving grace.

 

 

 

 

 

Exodus and Transfiguration: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

How are you all doing? Hanging in there? At least February is over even if winter is still around. We Wisconsinites are hardy folk, We pride ourselves in not being thwarted by a few inches of snow or sub-zero temperatures. But let’s be honest: a forecast of -10 tonight? I’m sure we’re all waiting for spring, or wishing we were somewhere warm and sunny. Last night, we drank Sicilian wine, ate Sicilian food, watched a TV show set in Sicily. It only made things worse.

As this winter continues, I feel myself dreading the Season of Lent. I feel like I’ve been in the middle of a spiritual discipline which is simply surviving winter. I’m not sure I’m ready to take on something else.  But here we are on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany with Ash Wednesday only a few days away.

Because Ash Wednesday is so late this year, we seem far removed from the joyous celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, the manifestation of God in Christ seems more a faint memory than lived experience. So it may be appropriate that on this Sunday each year, we experience another jolt of glory as we read the story of the Transfiguration.

Each gospel writer tells the story somewhat differently, reflecting their different emphases and their different understandings of Jesus. So for Luke, the first thing that we notice is the reason Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain—to pray. Matthew and Mark only observe that Jesus took the three of them to be off by themselves.

We have seen this emphasis on prayer before. Just a few weeks ago, I pointed out that Jesus began his sermon on the level place after going up to the mountain to pray with his disciples.

Thcere’s a similar moment a few verses before today’s gospel reading. Luke reports that one time, Jesus was praying, with only his disciples near him, and he asked them the famous question, “Who do people say that I am?” We might think what ties these three instances together. In the first, prayer precedes Jesus revealing himself to the disciples and the crowd by teaching them. In the second, he asks the disciples about his identity; in the third, God reveals Jesus’ identity, “This is my son, the Chosen, listen to him.”

These three different episodes in which Jesus reveals himself or in which his identity is revealed, have much to say to us. We might ask how we expect to encounter Jesus Christ, how we understand and experience him, what assumptions we bring with us. Do we expect preaching and teaching, a confession of faith, a miraculous experience? What satisfies us, what convinces us, what changes us?

There’s another important theme here. The story is full of imagery that looks back to the Hebrew Bible and forward to the resurrection. For example, the words that Luke uses to describe Jesus’ appearance are the exact same words he will use when describing the appearance of the angels at the empty tomb—the dazzling clothes appears in both places. But the ways in which this story points backwards in the biblical tradition are even more striking.

It’s not just the presence of Moses and Elijah, which 21stcentury readers might assume is only the gospel writers’ attempts to add to the drama and spectacle. Moses and Elijah were important figures in Jewish speculation. Both had mysterious deaths—Deuteronomy tells us that when Moses died, God buried him, and no one knows the location of his tomb. In the case of Elijah, he didn’t die at all but was carried off to heaven by chariots of fire. Because of this mystery, Jewish apocalyptic thinking focused attention on the return of both figures.

But their presence may be accounted for in less dramatic fashion. Moses, the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet were two key figures in the development of scripture and Jewish identity—Luke repeatedly tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, so their presence here are a reminder of Jesus’ continuity with the tradition that came before him.

There’s another theme that connects back with earlier tradition and with Moses. Luke tells us that the Moses, Elijah, and Jesus “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” It’s an odd turn of phrase in English that takes on surprising significance in the Greek, for the Greek word used is “exodus.” With this, Luke is reaching back to the story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, a journey they were on in today’s reading from Exodus. In doing so, he is laying the foundation for his interpretation of the events of the cross and resurrection—like the Exodus Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection liberates us from our bondage to sin and death.

But there’s another departure, or exodus here. The voice from heaven says to Jesus’ disciples, “This is my Son, my Chosen, Listen to him.” Jesus and his disciples will go down the mountain. In Luke’s gospel this is the introduction to a lengthy section, from 9:37 to 19:28, which takes place during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Having spent most of the preceding section of the gospel teaching in his home region of Galilee, Jesus now sets out on that final journey, towards his exodus.

Equally important, these 10 chapters are made up of material that is almost entirely unique to Luke, that is to say, it is material that doesn’t have parallels in Matthew or Mark. It includes some of Jesus’ most familiar and beloved parables: The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, for example. When the voice commanded, “Listen to him” it speaks to us as well as to Jesus’ disciples, commanding us to pay attention to what Jesus is teaching us.

We are about to enter the season of Lent and our focus as Christians turns toward Jerusalem, the events of Holy Week, the joy of Easter. It’s easy for us in this season of repentance to focus on our sins and shortcomings, to view the 40 days of Lent as a season of struggle, fasting, time in the wilderness. While Exodus in the biblical tradition did include such themes, much of it took place in wilderness, it was much more than that. It was a celebration of freedom and God’s mighty act of delivering God’s chosen people from oppression in Egypt, and it looked ahead to a promised land, a future of freedom and plenty.

In Luke, the cross and resurrection are God’s mighty acts of deliverance of us from our bondage to sin and death. Our repentance in Lent opens us up to the joy of God’s forgiveness and the overwhelming power of God’s grace. May this coming season be for all of us a time to experience God’s forgiveness and the joy of God’s love.

Be merciful as God is merciful: A Sermon for 7 Epiphany, 2019

Who’s your enemy? Take a moment and think about them. Who is it? Why are they your enemy? Is it someone you know, someone who wronged or hurt you deeply? Is your enemy more abstract—do you think of political figures or groups whose ideas and actions offend you? Or is it members of another religious or ethnic group whose hateful rhetoric and violent tactics threaten you? Draw a picture in your mind of the person, real or imagined, whom you passionately and completely hate. Be honest with yourself; there’s someone or some group that you hate…

Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.

Hard words, challenging words. Words that seem so far beyond human possibility that we assume they must be hyperbolic, intended to demonstrate to us once and for all, human incapacity to do the right thing. Or perhaps they are meant only for the perfect few, saints like Francis or figures like the Dalai Lama who seem to be live on a completely different plane of existence than those of us in our busy, messy, complicated lives.

But what if they are meant for us, too?

Remember where we are in Luke’s gospel and what we have already heard. Jesus has come down from the mountain to a level place with his disciples. There was a large crowd pressing in on him, seeking the healing power that came out from. And in the middle of that throng, Jesus lifted his eyes up to his disciples and began to teach. As we saw last week, he began with the beatitudes, a series of blessings pronounced on the poor, the hungry, those in mourning and those being persecuted. Corresponding to that series of blessings was a series of curses: on the rich, the full, those who are laughing, and those who are respected or well-regarded.

Binary oppositions, blessings and curses, reversals of fortune. As I pointed out last week, how we react to these contrasts and reversals very much depends on where we situate ourselves; with which groups we identify.

Now Jesus shifts gears, and the ground under our feet shifts as well. For instead of allowing us to position ourselves comfortably, Jesus’ words strike home uncomfortably, challenging the distinctions we make, upending our assumptions, our attitudes, breaking down the lines we draw between “us” and “them” between those who belong to our group, deserve our love and compassion, and those on the other side of the border, our enemies, outsiders.

I feel the need to come clean with you—these verses: Love your enemy, turn the other cheek profoundly shaped my upbringing and ultimately how I still strive to follow Jesus. I hesitate to bring up my background as a Mennonite publicly because it too quickly becomes little more than a curiosity, something exotic. But these verses and stories interpreting or embodying them have entered the marrow of my bones and shaped my heart and soul. I’ll tell just one of those stories.

In the 17thcentury, Dutch Mennonites, after gaining toleration and becoming successful merchants, compiled a collection of stories of the men and women who had been killed for their faith in the sixteenth century. Many of the stories are accompanied by engravings. One of them depicts the story of Dirk Willms who had been convicted of heresy for believing and practicing adult rather than infant baptism. On the way to the place of execution, he somehow escaped from the authorities, running for his life. He crossed an ice-covered river, one of his captors in hot pursuit. But the pursuer broke through the ice and was in danger of drowning. Willems could have gone free, he was across the river, but instead, he went back, and helped his captor to safety. It may surprise you to learn that in spite of his heroism, Willems’ execution went on as planned.

It’s a story that strikes us as unbelievable, relating behavior that to us is inexplicable and foolish. It’s no way to live one’s life, no way to survive as an individual, much less as a community, a church, a nation. Whether or not we find Jesus’ words believable, or relevant, or possible, the challenge to love our enemies, turn the cheek, to give one’s shirt as well as one’s coat, to lend expecting nothing in return confronts us with questions of personal worth and value, the relative importance of self and other, and yes, sheer survival.

But these words challenge us in other ways. For those of us with privilege and status, they pierce the armor of our wealth, gender, color. For those of us without, they work very differently. It’s important for us to be conscious of how they have been used and interpreted over the centuries and even today—how they have been used to oppress and to maintain structures of injustice. Even today, how many pastors counsel victims of domestic violence to turn the other cheek and passively accept the blows of their husbands or fathers?

What if, instead of commands, these words are meant to unsettle and de-center us, to move us away from the certainty of our existence and the world we know into a journey toward a new world, where God reign’s and where God’s love is the model for all of our relationships and for all of human community? Jesus came down from the mountain to a level place where he taught a vision of a new world order, coming into existence in the community of his followers. It is a vision of a community with no barriers or boundaries, no distinction between rich and poor, friend and enemy.

As hard as it is for us to imagine, or even to articulate, there is yet one more step to take. When we view these words as commands, we place our behavior on a continuum of obedience: Should I turn the other cheek? Did I turn the other cheek? And if in a particular instant we choose not to, because of fear or threat to life and limb, or simply because our anger overwhelms us, we may judge ourselves and feel shame and guilt for falling short.

Luke, in his compassion and concern for his readers, offers hope and consolation even on such occasions. In Matthew’s version of these sayings, Jesus concludes with the admonition: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Luke’s version is quite different, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Using this as a lens by which to read Jesus’ statements offers us a new way of seeing, a new world of possibilities, the reign and realm of God—where the neat calculus of debt and repayment, crime and punishment, eye for an eye no longer is operative. And that’s true not only for the specifics that Jesus talks about but also for us. We need not use this calculus on our own lives and actions. God is merciful and invites us to receive God’s mercy and in turn to offer it to others and to the world.

The instructions which Jesus gives his listeners on the level place are instructions that address our actions towards those who act violently or unjustly against us (love your enemy, turn the other cheek) and address our actions towards those with whom we are already in relationship (if you love those who love you). But the heart of the matter seems to be that whether friend or foe, our actions should not be guided by how others treat us but rather by how God treats us: Be merciful as your Father is merciful.

It may be that we often interpret God’s disposition toward us in terms similar to how we act towards others, loving friends, hating enemies experiencing guilt, expecting punishment when we sin. But God is merciful and forgiving. Receiving God’s mercy and grace gives us the power to share that mercy and grace with others.

 

 

 

The Glory of the Lord revealed in level places: A Sermon for 6 Epiphany, 2019

As we work through the Gospel of Luke this year, we will have a number of opportunities to explore this gospel writer’s unique perspective on Jesus and on the early Christian community. Like Matthew, it’s probable that Luke wrote with a knowledge of the Gospel of Mark and with Matthew he had access to a source that provided much of the material for Jesus’ teachings that appear in both Matthew and Luke, teachings like the ones here, known as the Beatitudes. But each of the gospel writers introduce additional material that is unique to their gospel. In Luke, this includes many of the most familiar and beloved parables—the Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, are examples of this other material. Continue reading