We would see Jesus: A Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 2021

            
5 Lent—March 21, 2021

Where are you spiritually today? Are you, like so many others, in a place of darkness and despair—the pandemic continuing, a return to life as we knew it a year ago apparently as far away as ever? Is your despair or hopelessness related to news this week, the continued suffering on our borders as people seek a better life? Or are you, as so many of us are, devastated by the senseless and racist killing of Asian-American women in Atlanta suburbs, a heinous crime perpetrated by yet another good white boy who “just had a bad day.” Are you wondering about the future of our country, our neighborhood, our congregation?

Or are you in a very different place? It’s spring after all, and in spite of the snow we had earlier this week, it feels and looks a bit like spring today. We are emerging from the pandemic, perhaps you’ve been vaccinated and are eager to reconnect face to face, with no masks intervening, with family and friends you’ve not seen in person in months or over a year.

We’re in something of a holding pattern. We know that it’s likely the pandemic will lose its grips as more people get vaccinated and we approach herd immunity. It’s likely that everything we’ve put on hold for over a year, whether it’s school, or a vacation, or a meal inside at a favorite restaurant, is not too far away. We even expect that one Sunday, in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to gather for public worship here in Grace Church. 

It may be, in fact, that there’s so much going on in our lives and in the world around us, so much to worry and wonder about, jobs, school, our personal, family, community’s, nation’s future, that little time is left for us to think about or focus on our own spiritual growth or that of our families. We may even be catching this service at a free moment in our lives a day or two from now, when there is a moment of unexpected or unplanned peace and quiet in our lives. In the unfamiliar world we are negotiating right now, the sure foundations of faith in God and a relationship with Jesus may seem more elusive than ever.

Still there’s that longing in us, the desire to connect with something deeper, a yearning for God that may be often unexpressed or even unnoticed but still beckons to us, even as we feel guilt that we aren’t able to make the time, find the energy, or, as I talked about it in my sermon on the first Sunday in Lent, to observe a “Holy Lent.”

To us, to the world we live in, to the spiritual chaos some of us may be experiencing, today’s gospel reading speaks with comfort and hope. 

The disparate way we encounter the Gospel of John in the Sunday eucharistic lectionary prevents us from comprehending its overall structure and discerning its deeper themes. We read from John each year during Lent, often during the season after Epiphany, on the Sundays of Easter, and this year, Mark’s year, we will hear a series of readings from John 6—the discourse on the Bread of Life. Our reading today comes from chapter 12 which is a transitional chapter. So far in the gospel, we have been introduced to Jesus’ public ministry of healing and conflict with the religious elite of Palestinian Judaism. He also has a series of encounters with individuals like Nicodemus to which we alluded last week, and the Samaritan woman. Beginning with chapter 13, there’s a very different focus. The scenes are first of the last supper and then of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, and finally, of course, his resurrection and appearances to the disciples.

So what we have before us today is the end, perhaps the climax of Jesus’ public ministry. It occurs just after Jesus’ triumphal entry, in the runup to the Passover, which is the festival mentioned in the beginning of today’s gospel. Some Greeks come to Jesus’ disciples Philip and Andrew, and ask “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This is one of those details from John that I find endlessly fascinating. Philip and Andrew both appear in chapter 1, as disciples called by Jesus. Their names are both Greek in origin, as well. While Jesus told Andrew when Andrew asked him where he was staying, “Come and see,” now it is others, Greeks, who want to see Jesus.

Just as in chapter 3 and the encounter with Nicodemus, it’s not quite clear from this text that the Greeks actually do see Jesus or are present for Jesus’ words. Now there’s a great deal that could be said about Jesus’ statements here, a great deal about what they tell us about the gospel’s overarching themes and how it relates to the other three gospels, but I don’t have time for any of that. Instead, I would like to focus the rest of our time on a single verse: “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” 

This is the heart of John’s gospel, the heart of Jesus’ ministry and person. In the cross, we see Jesus, in the cross, on the cross, Jesus draws us and the whole world to himself. In the cross, on the cross, we see God’s love for us.

Did the Greeks see Jesus? In the gospel of John, “seeing” is a prelude to faith, at most, it is an inadequate, partial faith. It is a first step, an entrance and first exposure to the abundant life that is offered through relationship with and in Jesus Christ.

I see myself, I see us and hear us in the Greeks’ plea, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Separated from each other and from the body of Christ, encountering one another only virtually, seeing, experiencing Christ through the mediation of technology with all of its noise and frustration, we would see Jesus. We long to see Jesus. We struggle to make sense of the devastation of the pandemic, the deaths of 530,000 Americans. We struggle to make sense of the deep divisions in our nation and community, the violence that erupts from and deepens those divisions. We struggle to make sense of the pain experienced by people of color, by African-Americans, Asian-Americans, the deep racism that pervades our society. The heart of our nation is breaking; the heart of American Christianity is breaking.

We would see Jesus. Jesus, lifted high on the cross, the victim of imperial violence and oppression, the victor over hate and oppression. We would see Jesus, but our eyes are blinded by tears, and by our own insensitivity to our participation in the oppressive and violent systems in which we live and from which we profit.

We would see Jesus but our own blindness and self-interest clouds our vision. Nonetheless, Jesus, lifted high on the cross, draws all people to himself. His outstretched arms beckon to us, invite us in, welcome us

May we see Jesus and may his love heal our hearts and our vision, that we can see our fellow human beings with love, lament and repent our sins, and create the beloved community to which we are called and in which all can flourish.

God loves the Cosmos: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2021

            

For God so loved the world…

A familiar verse, etched in many of our memories since childhood, John 3:16 etched on jewelry, on billboards, on signs held up at sporting events. One of those ubiquitous Christian symbols that can be off-putting and life-giving, a marker of identity and difference, life and death, judgment and welcome. A verse deployed to threaten and cajole, to convert, and yes, to offer salvation. 

I wonder sometimes what the effect had been if the verses hadn’t been divided in the way they were. That is to say, instead of ending where it does with “may have eternal life” but had included the next sentence: “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Instead of condemnation and judgment, the offer of salvation and life.

But we have what we have and the weight of tradition, of centuries of Christian devotion and evangelism, leave us little room to think differently or imaginatively about this verse. But let me try.

First off, context. One of the challenges of our tradition of dividing scripture into verses as well as chapters (they’re a fairly late development, only becoming universal in the seventeenth century), is that it is easy to extract a single sentence, or phrase, or verse, from its literary context and use it as a mantra or to prove a doctrinal point. John 3:16 is part of a larger literary unit, and even our gospel reading which encompasses 14-21, is pulled out of a larger narrative, that of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.

It’s one of those encounters in the Gospel of John that is jam-packed with theological significance. Carefully constructed, rich with symbolism,  the encounter uses images of light and darkness to highlight some of the key themes of the gospel. Nicodemus is said to be a Pharisee, a leader of the “Jews.” He comes to Jesus by night, calls him “Rabbi” (teacher or master) and asks about the source of his authority. 

In fact, it’s not at all clear when the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus ends, whether we are to assume that Nicodemus is still present, or even if Jesus himself is speaking these verses from 14-21. In fact, it may be, I interpret this not as Jesus himself speaking, but as the gospel writer trying to say some important things about who Jesus is, why God sent him, and what relationship with Jesus means for his followers.

I want to highlight a couple of themes here. First of all “lifted up.” Having heard the story of Moses, the Israelites, and the serpent in the wilderness, hearing the gospel, we are in on the reference made here to Moses and the Serpent, and are inclined to think of “lifted up” in those terms, a serpent of bronze erected on a pole so the Israelites could look at it, and Jesus, crucified for all to see.

But lifted up means more than that in the Gospel of John, or more accurately, “lifted up” includes in it ascension as well as crucifixion—a single act of God, encapsulated in another favorite Johannine word “glorification.” We can see an allusion to “lifted up” as ascension as well as crucifixion in v. 13, which immediately precedes our gospel reading: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” I’ll have more to say about all this next week when we look at another significant section of John’s gospel, John 12.

For now, I would like to turn our attention to another word—“world” or in Greek, “Cosmos” universe. Its occurrence here will catch the attention of a careful reader of John because it takes us back to John 1, In the beginning was the word. A few verses into that hymnic prologue, we read, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Throughout John’s gospel, “world” or “cosmos” is understood negatively, even if, as in chapter 1, the world was created by God. The world stands in opposition to Jesus Christ in John’s gospel, yet here we see that “God so loved the world.”

Now two things. First of all, “the world” the “cosmos”—not just human beings. We might think about God loving the world in much more inclusive, expansive terms than we typically do. For those of us who care about the environment, worry about climate change, the fact that God loves the world challenges us to rethink our own understanding of the world in which we live and our relationship to it. 

Secondly, we would do well to translate this phrase a little differently. Instead of, “For God so loved the world”—it has a slightly different emphasis: “This is how God loves the world.” To put it another way: we see the extent and nature of God’s love for the world in that God sent God’s only son so that all who believed in him would have eternal life.

The significance is this. Instead of putting the emphasis on human response: believing, and the effects of that response, eternal life, it might be better to emphasize the extent and nature of God’s love. God loves the world so much that God sent God’s only son….

Judgment here comes not from God but from the human beings who reject God in Christ. To use the gospel’s imagery, “the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.” That offers a different perspective on things. Instead of fearing a just and righteous God, we need to fear our own desires and choices—to preserve the dark and hidden corners of our lives and to live in the dark and hidden corners of the world.

We experience sin and brokenness, in ourselves and in the world around us. Sometimes that sin so burdens us that we can see nothing else, or know nothing else. 

But God loves the world, God loves us. God offers us, in relationship with Jesus Christ, a different way, a different possibility for living. Sometimes, that is hard to know and to experience. Look up to the cross, look to Christ, lifted up, and see God’s love, not God’s punishment, see and experience healing and hope. See the possibility and promise of new life in him!

Preaching Christ Crucified: A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 2021

This past week, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and beginning to plan for our Holy Week and Easter services. We had a. productive meeting of interested people on Wednesday that generated lots of creative ideas as we imagined together how we might adapt our worship to the realities of social distancing and live-streaming. On Friday, I had a conversation with clergy friends from other denominations who were also asking those same questions and developing solutions based on their own worship styles and traditions. 

As part of that planning, I took a look at the lectionary for the coming weeks. It’s surprising to me that after all these years of preaching, I still need to remind myself of where the lectionary is going. Oh, I know the big ones of course, and some of the ways the lectionary parcels out gospel texts in some parts of the year. For example, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the Gospel of John makes an appearance in Lent in all three years of the lectionary cycle, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you what those texts are from year to year.

Today, and for the remainder of the Sundays in Lent leading up to Palm Sunday, we are in John’s gospel. Today’s reading is not an obvious one for Lent. It’s John’s version of the cleansing of the temple, and in this context it is as confusing as it is problematic. Confusing, because we will hear or refer to Mark’s version of the cleansing of the temple in a few weeks, which in that gospel occurs in Holy Week, immediately following the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, puts the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. 

It’s an important event in either case and it’s one that’s easily and often misinterpreted. We can see some of that already here in John’s version, where the complex diversity of first-century Palestinian Judaism is reduced to a single entity “the Jews” as will happen throughout the gospel, and especially in John’s depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. The temple was a political as well as religious institution, one of the central nodes in how Roman imperial power was distributed locally. 

Second Temple Judaism, as it’s often called, retained the focus on the temple and on temple sacrifice. Pious Jews were obligated to visit the temple for major festivals and to offer certain sacrifices. That’s why the animals were there. It was much easier to purchase sheep or cattle there than to bring them from home. And the moneychangers were there because the temple had special currency, that didn’t bear the image of the emperor, so one would have to exchange for that currency before purchasing or making financial offerings.

Jesus’ actions here are often deployed in contemporary debates about the appropriate role of Christians in the public sphere. They are cited when Christians protest in the streets or make symbolic actions against institutions that are perceived to be oppressive. They are often even used to defend violent actions taken in the name of Christ.

Instead of trying to explicate the complexities of this story and of Jesus’ interactions with the temple establishment (remember, according to the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spent much of his time in the last week of his life teaching and debating in the temple), I would like to shift our focus elsewhere. 

One way of thinking about our lectionary readings this Lent is to see them as an exploration of the meaning of the cross, both in the New Testament and for us as 21stcentury followers of Jesus. Last week, we heard Jesus saying “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” In the next two weeks, we will hear two key passages from John’s gospel where the meaning of the cross takes central stage. On Palm Sunday, as we read Mark’s version of the passion narrative, we will confront his austere, enigmatic interpretation of the cross, with its themes of abandonment, weakness, and despair. Today, in the reading from I Corinthians, we hear elements of Paul’s understanding of the cross’s meaning, and his words speak powerfully to us and may help us reflect on the cleansing of the temple as well.

In his letters to the church at Corinth, Paul is engaged in an effort to defend his ministry against detractors and to articulate clearly and forcefully his understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ, the cross, and Christian community against opponents who seem to be trying to undermine everything for which he has worked.

He sounds his central theme in the verses from the beginning of I Corinthians we heard: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul here is alluding to a central paradox of the Christian faith, the paradox of the cross. In this horrific death by torture, a vivid demonstration of Roman power and ruthlessness, we see Jesus crushed and killed. There could be no starker display of his human weakness. Yet for Paul, on the cross we see the power and wisdom of God. 

Elsewhere, in II Corinthians when Paul is talking about his own personal physical weakness and infirmity, he says that in response to his prayer, Christ said to him, “power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, the cross is a demonstration of Christ’s power, of God’s power. Yet, that power, an allusion to the vindication of Christ through the resurrection, that power never erases the fact of the cross. The cross still stands, Jesus’ suffering remains. 

It’s a message that’s often overlooked and ignored by Christian triumphalism. We internalize and spiritualize the cross to rid it of its revolutionary message. We ignore the pain and suffering of the cross to focus on the joy of resurrection. When Christianity becomes enmeshed in power politics, in empire, nationalism, and white supremacy, the symbol of the cross often becomes a weapon wielded against the weak, the stranger and the alien, unbelievers, adherents of other religions.

One of our great challenges as Christians in this historical moment is to preach Christ crucified, folly and stumbling block, or literally, scandal. Our challenge is to see and to proclaim the cross as power made perfect in weakness, not to wield it as a weapon against others. In this day, when much of Christianity seems to have become another means by which people assert their own individual rights in a zero-sum game that results in the infringement of the rights of others, preaching Christ crucified, taking up our crosses, is a truly revolutionary message and way of being in the world. The Tuesday night group reading Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree are discovering a new way of thinking about the cross as it is shaped by the African American experience in the United States. I hope all of us in this season of Lent will meditate on Christ crucified and reflect on how the cross might reshape our lives in Christ’s image.

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. 

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.