Anointing and Discipleship: A Sermon for Lent 5C, 2020

April 3, 2022

Picture the scene. Jesus and his disciples have come to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. It is six days before the Passover; to clarify, it is six days before Jesus’ crucifixion. The plot to arrest and have him killed is already underway; and Jesus and his disciples are coming back into the public sphere after a few days of hiding. As the Gospel of John tells the story, what precipitated the plot to kill Jesus was his raising of Lazarus.

So Jesus chooses to emerge from hiding for this event, what we may conclude was a celebratory dinner, welcoming Lazarus back into the land and community of the living; and to thank Jesus for bringing him back from the dead.

This celebration, this dinner party takes place against the backdrop of the intensifying opposition to Jesus. With Passover six days away, Jesus and his disciples are going to Jerusalem to be a part of that ritual celebration. It is a time of increased tension and possible violence. Passover recalls God’s deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery and oppression and the parallels with the Jewish community of Palestine living in territory occupied by Rome was not lost on anyone. It’s a moment fraught with tension.

But it’s also a time of celebration. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and his family treats their dear friend Jesus and his disciples to a dinner party. We might imagine that in addition to the family and the presence of Jesus and his disciples, there are others in attendance, townspeople who may be curious to see this man who was raised from the dead.

And suddenly, in the midst of the conversation and dining; something unexpected happens. Mary takes a pound of costly nard, drops to her knees, anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume, and wipes his feet with her hair. It is an extravagant gesture in so many ways. First, we’re told that it costs 300 denarii; that’s roughly equivalent to a year’s wages for a day laborer. Again, to put it in terms we might understand—a year’s income at the minimum wage is currently around $15000. As we know all too well, that’s not enough to live on, not a living wage, but an awful lot of money for a jar of perfume.

Then there’s the fact that she did this in public and wiped his feet with her hair. It’s an extravagant, inappropriate, intimate gesture that crosses boundaries of host and guest, male and female. But there’s something else. The gospel writer describes her actions using the exact same language he will use in the next chapter when he describes Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples. This points us forward to the Last Supper and all that will come and underscores the connection between her act and Jesus’ death and burial that he himself mentioned.

There’s another detail in the story that directs us elsewhere in the gospel. John tells us that the perfume filled the whole house. That’s quite a difference from the smells that are mentioned in chapter 11, at Lazarus’ tomb. When Jesus told them to roll the stone away from his tomb, Martha says, “Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” The scent of the perfume overwhelms whatever lingering odors there might be in the house.

This extravagant gesture, and then the reaction. In Mark’s version of the story; the response comes from some of those in attendance at the meal. In Matthew’s version, it’s the disciples. Here, John puts the criticism in the mouth of Judas alone, and attributes it, not to any sincerity on Judas’ part, but blames it on his greed and thievery. 

Jesus’ response is a defense of Mary’s actions—she purchased the perfume for his burial. And then the sentence made familiar by the endless debates around our concern and care for the poor: “You always have the poor with you; you do not always have me.” 

In spite of this story being very closely tied to the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, in spite of the fact that John has very carefully woven it into the intricate tapestry of his gospel, there’s a certain timelessness to the themes and the conflict that is depicted here. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What constitutes a faithful response to God’s call to us? 

On one level, Mary’s response stands in for all of those over the centuries who have sought to be faithful to God through worship and beauty: the splendor of church architecture; the beautiful vestments, the music that lifts our souls heavenward.

On the other hand, there is the call to serve the poor; the cry for justice, the desire to help those in need. In a time when there are limited resources, the question of how best to allocate those resources is an important one. We began Lent on Ash Wednesday hearing these words from the Prophet Isaiah: 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

All of which seems to be a clear repudiation of religious acts like fasting in favor of works of mercy and justice. Jesus’ words, as ambiguous as they might seem, are not necessarily a repudiation of such efforts. He may be saying in effect, “Look, you will have plenty of opportunity to serve the poor, they’re not going anywhere; but I’m here for only a few more days.”

I would like to offer yet another way of thinking about this act. I mentioned earlier that John uses the exact same verb to describe Mary’s actions of wiping Jesus’ feet as he will use in the next chapter to describe Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples. There, as he offers an explanation of his actions to the disciples, he says:

“ if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Mary is foreshadowing Jesus’ own actions. She is also modeling discipleship, what it means to follow Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we are certainly called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and the like. We are also called to serve each other, and to serve Christ. Our worship, our prayers, our music, our beautiful space bring us into God’s presence even as we experience that presence in word and sacrament. To linger in Christ’s presence, to spiritually anoint and dry his feet helps us deepen the intimacy of our experience of Christ, to express our love, and to be touched by his love.

As we approach Holy Week, as we come closer to Golgotha, to the cross and the tomb, may we find ways of experiencing and deepening Christ’s presence in our hearts and our lives. As our relationship deepens, as our experience of Christ expands, may it strengthen our resolve and inspire us to work for justice and to care for those in need.

Transfiguration and Exodus: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2022

The images on our screen are horrifying and mesmerizing. The stories, tragic and sinspiring. We are watching war unfold in real time, tanks rolling across the terrain of Ukraine. They are images and events few of us could have imagined in Europe, in 2022. And this morning we learned that Russia has placed its nuclear forces on high alert. All of it seems so unbelievable, so shocking.

Why are we shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Is it the audacity of it, the insanity, the outright rejection of democratic ideals and national self-expression? Is it, on the other hand, the fact that it is taking place in Europe when we thought Europe had seen its last conflict in World War II, with a Cold War eventually giving way to democracy and capitalism? That view, of course, conveniently forgets the violence in the states of the former Yugoslavia in the 90s. Would we be equally shocked if it were war in the Middle East, or Afghanistan? Conveniently forgetting that there has been war there, perpetrated in the first case by the US, since 2001?

But then again, a look closer home to the rise of Christian nationalism, authoritarianism, the attacks on democracy here; and now, the attacks on history, truth, science—and most recently the anti LGBTQ laws and rhetoric, the attacks on trans people coming out of some state houses and governors remind us that whatever is happening in Ukraine is also happening here. And some on the right are still supporting Russia and its dictator in the midst of the horror.

Our hearts are heavy; we may be overwhelmed with fear. Certainly the burdens of the last years, not just COVID but the whole tenor of our nation, our world, weigh heavily on us. Other images, now fainter with the passing of time, remind us of moments of hope and exhilaration—the fall of the Berlin Wall; the election of the first African-American president; the legalization of same-sex marriage. Backlash reminds us that such moments were hard-fought and that the victories we acclaimed were tentative, not secure.

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany and always, on this Sunday we hear this story from the gospels, the otherworldly, eerie story of the Transfiguration. Because Ash Wednesday is fairly late this year, we have lingered longer than usual in stories about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Week by week, the great stories of Christmas and Epiphany have faded in our memories and we feel we are precisely where liturgically we are—Ordinary Time.

But now, suddenly this story breaks in upon us like the light from heaven that illumines Jesus and us, and we are surprised and being prepared for what next is to come. As it breaks in upon us, like this morning’s spectacular sunrise, it’s a reminder of God’s glory in our world, 

Breaking in upon our sense of time and reality. It’s a story that in its details invites us to look forward to the resurrection, and back to the Hebrew Bible, to Sinai and to the prophets. Present in all three synoptic gospels, it appears in the very same narrative sequence, occurring just after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, just after Jesus has predicted for the first time that he will be crucified and explains to his followers that to be his disciples, they must also take up their crosses and follow him. So this is a story told under the looming presence of the cross and Jesus’ death.

In Luke’s version, he takes his three closest followers up the mountain to pray. I’ve mentioned it before, it bears repeating, that Jesus’ praying is a significant theme of Luke’s gospel. He mentions it at key moments in the story—at Jesus’ baptism for example, in the lead up to his preaching of the Beatitudes. What takes place here takes place in the context of prayer. 

Several details stand out to help us begin to understand this strange story. First, Luke uses the exact same language when describing Jesus’ appearance as he will use to describe the angels who appear at Jesus’ tomb at his resurrection: The clothes are “dazzling white.” Second, the presence of Moses and Elijah is another powerful reminder of the deep connection and continuity between Jesus’ ministry and mission and the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. For Luke, that connection is made concrete in various ways, but it’s important that we understand there is no sharp break between Old and New Testament, between the way God revealed Godself in the past and the way God reveals Godself in the present. Moses and Elijah’s presence are evidence of that continuity.

All of this is meant to be confirmation of Jesus’ identity—the change in appearance of his face, his dazzling clothes, the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter has just confessed him to be the Messiah. Now this is divine confirmation of that fact. But there’s more. God, too is present here, to confirm Jesus’ identity. The voice that came from heaven in Jesus’ baptism comes again. At the baptism, the voice said, “You are my son, my beloved.” Now the voice is directed not to Jesus but to the disciples. It says, “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him.” This time, the voice comes not from heaven, not from a far distance, but from close at hand, from the cloud that envelops them, suggesting God’s near presence in this place. And the message directed to the disciples is not about abstract theology, it has to do with Jesus’ message: Listen to him. And suddenly, the event was over. The glory, the dazzling clothes, the cloud, Moses and Elijah, all of it was gone. Left there were Jesus and his three disciples, Peter, James, and John. And they went back down the mountain and didn’t tell anything to anyone.

There is much here for us to ponder. This strange story eludes our grasp, just as God eludes our grasp and comprehension. We can discern traces of other things in it—the connection with Hebrew Scripture, the pointing back toward the past and the pointing forward to the cross and resurrection. We can hear and see in Luke’s vivid description all that takes place, but still, none of it really is comprehensible to our twenty-first century skeptical minds. We want to make sense of it, process it, analyze it, understand it in our terms, on our territory. But this story, like the story of Moses’ shining and veiled face, remain beyond our comprehension, beyond our human understanding. 

There’s one other detail worth pondering. Only in Luke do we get a sense of what Jesus and the two biblical prophets discussed: “they were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” It’s curious wording although the intent is clear—that they were talking about Jesus’ crucifixion. The word translated as departure is the Greek word “exodus”—another echo of scripture. But more than that, it connects cross and resurrection with the great saving act of God, delivering God’s people out of slavery in Egypt into a promised land. 

Exodus, journey, deliverance. The experience of Exodus for the Hebrew people was fraught with peril, full of conflict and struggle. Along their exodus they encountered God at Mt. Sinai and received the torah, the Law, and eventually, they entered the promised land.

Jesus and his disciples were also on a journey. A little later in the chapter, after they had come down from the mountain, Luke says that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

The Transfiguration came at a very particular moment in Jesus’ ministry, after his disciples had confessed him to be the Messiah, after he had begun to tell them about his imminent suffering and death, after he had begun to teach them about the cost of discipleship—take up your cross and follow me. Even in the midst of the Transfiguration, Jesus and Moses and Elijah speak about what is to come, Jesus’ suffering and death.

Our relationships with God, our life with Jesus Christ is not just about those moments of perfect bliss and happiness, moments when our faith is sure, our lives are happy, and we rest comfortably in God’s love. Our life in Jesus Christ is a call to discipleship, a call to follow him. It is a call that may come to us in a flash of lightning or a still, small voice. It may make us thirst for more, to build booths where we might rest content with Jesus Christ, without a care in the world.

But discipleship means walking along, following Christ on the journey he leads, And so we, too come down the mountain, with God’s glory at our backs, the cross ahead of us, and Jesus beckoning us forward, teaching us what it means to follow him. Listen to him!

On the Third Day, Glory: A Sermon for 2 Epiphany C, 2022

On the third day, glory

January 16, 2022

When was the last time you were at a really good party? You know where the food was good, the drinks were flowing; the conversation scintillating? Perhaps even people were dressed up for the occasion? Did you attend something like that with friends or family over the holidays? Or was it longer ago? At this point, I’m not sure I can even remember when I was last at something like that. Certainly it was before March 2020. New Years’ Eve 2018? New Year’s Day 2019?

And if you have been to such events in the more recent past, was your enjoyment muted because of shame or guilt; were you wondering whether it was safe? To sit down with friends for a sumptuous meal, lingering at the dinner table for hours; to gather with a crowd to celebrate a wedding, or a gala fundraiser, or for us, a ballroom dance weekend, all of those pleasures reshaped by the pandemic. But don’t you desire it? To gather with friends or strangers freely, to let loose! Wouldn’t that be fun!

The story of Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, reads very differently to me today than it did the last time we encountered it in the lectionary, back in 2019. It’s a story rich in detail, overflowing with suggestive symbolic meanings, and for me, now, evocative both of what we have lost and of the hope that the coming of Christ into the world elicits.

It’s remarkable, really that John chooses to begin his story of Jesus’ public ministry in this way. In the synoptic gospels, we are introduced to Jesus as he teaches and heals in the towns, villages, and synagogues of Galilee. We’ll hear Luke’s very different story of Jesus’ entrance onto the public stage next week. So why this? Why a wedding, why a miracle, a sign in which Jesus turns water into wine? Those are all great questions, and it may be that I will address some of them. But let me say this right now. When I’ve preached before on this text, when I’ve taught it, I’ve focused on the wine, the amount of wine, the sheer overabundance of wine, and Jesus providing it only after the party had been going on for some time, and they had run out of it. 

This time around I want to focus on something else; the beginning and end of the story. It begins: “On the third day…” and it ends, “… he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”

“On the third day, glory.” 

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear that phrase, “On the third day”—The Nicene Creed? “And on the third day, he rose from the dead.” 

But wait, the third day of what? Well, let’s go back to the beginning of John’s gospel. Remember how it starts? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Starting with creation, a hymn to the Word, the logos, the gospel writer eventually brings it down to earth, to first-century Roman Palestine. He introduces John the Baptist and then, continues his story with chronological references. Three times he writes, “The next day…” Chapter 2 begins, “The third day…” If you add it all up, you get seven days. Seven days from creation: “In the beginning was the Word…” to the wedding at Cana. Seven days of creation. And on the seventh day, God rested from all that God had done. The sabbath, the eternal sabbath, the messianic banquet, the Wedding at Cana.

On the third day, he revealed his glory. 

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” 

Glory is one of those words that we seem to use only in church anymore. It’s all over scripture, in our hymns, in our liturgy, but it’s likely that we aren’t quite sure what it means. The glory of the Lord, God’s presence, it’s something that in Hebrew Scripture is overwhelming. When Moses asks to see God’s face in Exodus, God says that no human can see God’s glory and live. 

In the gospel of John, glory takes on additional significance. Especially in the later chapters of the gospel, as the cross looms ahead, glory, or glorification, is used to describe what’s going to happen. Jesus says, “Now the Son of man is glorified…” It refers not just to the crucifixion, but to the resurrection and ascension as well. Glory, for John, means cross and resurrection: Cana, wedding and wine, glory. Calvary, cross and resurrection, glory.

So to bring it back to this story and to us, He revealed his glory, in the sign of turning water into wine, at a wedding feast, a banquet, where the overabundance of joy, the celebration of that gathering transformed the mundane into the sacred, the ordinary into the extraordinary.

As we survey our world today, we may see little that gives us joy. The deadly toll from the pandemic continues to grow, climate catastrophe revealing itself all around us. The horrific scene yesterday of hostage-taking at a synagogue in Texas reminding us that all the cries of persecution of Christian notwithstanding, in our nation, our world, it is our Jewish siblings who are more at risk for expressing the religious commitments publicly. On this MLK weekend, our hopes and work for a more just and equitable society, where all can vote freely and fairly seems further beyond our grasp than ever before.

There are many reasons for despair. Worse still, many of the things which give us strength to carry on, gathering in community to hear the word of God, to sing of our faith, to fellowship with one another, are once again, restricted. And yet, the glory of Christ is here among us, in our world, in the midst of our suffering and struggles, in the face of our despair.

Christ’s glory shines around us, often in ways we don’t see or know, or recognize. Just as no one saw the water being transformed into wine, we may not at first recognize Christ’s glory among us. And it may be that our senses are dulled to his glory, that it sounds in frequencies we cannot hear, or in registers of light that we cannot see. But Christ’s glory is there.

Indeed, if we understand it as the gospel of John does, the transcendence of Christ’s glory is revealed as much in cross as resurrection, as much in suffering as in celebration, in grief as in joy. 

Corrie and I have been showered with meals, prayers, and support over the last couple of months of surgery and recuperation. Friends, neighbors, parishioners have helped us through this time and we have felt your love throughout the season of Christmas. But perhaps no more than by this. Ever since we have been at Grace, we have received a lovely fruitcake from Linda Savage. Corrie and I are both lovers of fruitcake and in our opinion, Linda’s is the best we’ve ever had. Imagine our surprise this year when a few days before Christmas, we received a call from Blair asking when he might bring this year’s fruitcake. From beyond the grave, Linda’s love came to us. The glory of Christ’s love shone brightly in her face, and, I might add, in her fruitcake. We relished every bite.

Opening ourselves to seeing Christ’s glory may mean focusing our attention elsewhere than on the spectacular, the miraculous, the otherworldly. It may mean paying attention to the little ways in which the love of Christ is made manifest in our world, in the gestures of friends, in the hard, self-sacrificial work of health care professionals, in a simple, yet delicious meal dropped off in time of need. The glory of Christ’s love is manifested in wedding feasts at Cana, and on the cross of Calvary. May it also be manifest in our lives.

Baptism and the stories we tell ourselves: A Sermon for The Baptism of our Lord, 2022

Baptism of Our Lord

January 9, 2022

We tell stories about ourselves. As the late Joan Didion wrote, “we tell stories in order to live.” What she meant by that, among other things, is that we impose a narrative framework on our lives, we fit the events of our lives into a coherent narrative that helps us make sense of who we are, where we came from, and often, where we are going. Sometimes those stories are straightforward and fairly uneventful; sometimes they are full of trauma and suffering. The stories we tell are stories about ourselves as individuals, about our families, about our nation. And as we have seen, there can be competing stories that as in the case of something like the 1619 Project, can arouse great anger and resistance when untold or suppressed stories are brought into the light of day.

A group of us have been gathering for almost a year to explore the stories of Christians and Native Americans in North America. Thanks to the creativity and hard work of some of them, we will be offering to the congregation and beyond the opportunity to learn more deeply about those stories over the coming months, through a series of on-line sessions with prominent local and national Native American voices. Alongside the group’s work, I have also been doing a lot of reading and study and much of that work has challenged me to think about the stories we tell as Christians and as Americans.

One of those books, one of those stories is “Native” by Kaitlin Curtice. Curtice is a member of the Potowotamie Nation but grew up in predominantly white Southern Baptist churches, where she became a worship leader. As she began to embrace her native identity, she discovered that the churches that once welcomed her and employed her as worship leader began to give her a cold shoulder. She is open and articulate about her struggle, wondering whether as she reclaims her identity as a Potowotamie woman, she will also be able to retain her identity as a Christian.

Curtice’s story is not uncommon for indigenous and other people of color as they seek to negotiate predominantly white spaces and white churches. The stories of Curtice and other people of color are caught up in and affected by the larger histories of what has been done in the name of Christianity and of National myth-making. Nonetheless, many of us can identify with those struggles as we seek to fashion lives, even spiritual lives in the wake of trauma, doubt, and despair, as we negotiate our journeys away from conservative Christianity or painful family pasts. 

 For Christians, our identity should be shaped by our baptisms. Baptized into the name of Christ, as our collect reminds us, baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, as St. Paul writes in the letter to the Roman, adopted as children of God, as our baptismal rite proclaims. 

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Always on the Sunday immediately following the Feast of the Epiphany, each year we read one of the versions of Christ’s baptism from the synoptic gospels. It’s one of the Sundays designated as an especially appropriate time to celebrate baptisms, although we aren’t doing that this year, an appropriate time, at the beginning of the new year, when we may have made resolutions of one sort or another, to reflect on our own baptismal identity as well as on the gospel’s account.

The gospel reading offers us an adumbrated version of the ministry of John the Baptist and of Jesus’ baptism. We heard more about John the Baptizer from Luke during Advent, when we read Luke’s description of his teaching. Luke actually goes into greater detail on the content of John’s message than the other gospels, but now we are treated to a scene devoid of context. Doubly devoid, because the appointed gospel reading omits verses 18-20 that describe Herod’s arrest of John.  

Why does Luke tell the story in that particular way? Why did the lectionary editors abridge the story the way they did? Let’s look a little more closely at the text. In the verses we’re given, we hear a bit of John’s message and the popular response to that message: The people were filled with expectation and wondering whether John was the Messiah. He deflects attention away from himself and to another: “One who is more powerful than I is coming.”

This points to one of the challenges presented to the gospel writers and to early Christians by the figure of John the Baptizer and by the fact of Jesus’ baptism by him. John’s baptism was a baptism for the “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and that he baptized Jesus called into question who had greater authority. For the gospel writers to have John say: “I am not worthy…” was one way of emphasizing Jesus’ superiority. Luke does something else, however. By putting the baptism itself off-scene, he seems to downplay the significance of the physical act of baptism.

Nonetheless, Luke does retain other elements of the story, with slightly different emphases, and at the same time he interjects several of his central concerns. We hear the voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son” There’s the descent of the Holy Spirit, Luke says, in the bodily form of a dove. But then, Luke adds a detail, “After all the people had been baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…” That, the image of Jesus praying, is one that will recur throughout the gospel.

Luke is telling a story about Jesus but he is also inviting us to enter into that story, to let Jesus’ story become ours. But the way the lectionary has divided it up may obscure the importance of the particularity, the context of Jesus’ story and our own. The chapter in which the story of Jesus’ baptism appears begins with Luke setting the story in its historical, political, and religious context. He tells us who the emperor was, who the governor of Judea was, who the high priests were. He tells us where it takes place—in the wilderness, in the region around the Jordan river.

There’s a tendency in Christianity, perhaps especially in some sectors of contemporary Christianity, to try to overlook or de-emphasize our personal contexts, where we came from. That’s at the heart of Kaitlin Curtice’s struggle with contemporary Evangelicalism. She was welcome as long as she didn’t embrace and name her native identity. Baptism, especially when it is the baptism of an adult believer, often is accompanied by a conversion experience in which the individual turns their back on their past, or counts that past as of little or no account. Repentance, or turning around, may mean a rejection of who we were and where we came from.

But the Christian life is lived in the world, in historical and geographical contexts. We are enmeshed in relationships with family and friends that continue to play a role in our lives. Sometimes, of course, for some people, turning one’s back on that past, breaking sharply and permanently with it, is of crucial importance in moving forward, in becoming a whole person, in responding to God’s call and accepting God’s grace. Sometimes, though we bring with us our pasts, in their richness and depth, and pain and trauma, as we walk with Jesus.

And sometimes, we are called to excavate those pasts, uncover those hidden stories that are half-remembered or fully forgotten. The story of Jesus’ baptism was also part of the story of empire and of John the Baptizer, whose arrest and imprisonment by Herod, looms large in Luke’s telling of it.

 What story do you tell about yourself to live? Is it a story of suffering and trauma, of joy; Is it a story of forgiveness and transformation, a story of hope? Does it include all of those things? My hope for you, for all of us, is that our story is shaped by the words spoken from heaven to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased. They are words spoken at our baptisms, words of grace and acceptance. May we hear them and weave them into our own stories. 

Singing after Silence: A Sermon for Advent 2C, December 5, 2021

Of all the things the pandemic has deprived me of, deprived us as humans, as members of a congregation, none may be more significant than the loss of song. From the early days, when we learned of the rapid spread of covid among choir singers, we have remained largely silent in church—the rich hymnody of the Christian tradition, which speaks to and for us and our faith, has been laid aside except for halting attempts like virtual choirs or our zoom hymn sings when we gather virtually to raise our voices. But the sheer joy and emotional depth that comes from singing together has been largely absent from our worship. We are slowly, haltingly, reintroducing hymns to our worship, but at the same time we recognize the challenges we face when we do sing.

Still, as Mark and Berkley know, I refused to go through a second Advent without singing “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” which will be our closing hymn today at our later service. 

Song has been a central part of Christian worship from the beginning, as it was and remains for Judaism—evidenced in the presence of the Book of Psalms in our holy scripture. 

Today, we sang the Song of Zechariah as our psalm or response. It’s one of four songs that Luke includes in his story of the nativity.  One of those songs, the Gloria, sung by the angels when they appeared to the shepherds, has traditionally been a central part of our Eucharistic celebrations. The other songs appear regularly in the daily office, morning and evening prayer: the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, the song of Simeon, the nunc dimittis, which is sung at Evening Prayer, and the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, which we just said together.

These songs likely were not composed by Luke, but were taken and adapted by him from songs that Christians were already singing in their worship. Whether or not they come from the people or angels, in whose mouths Luke placed them, they reflect an even deeper tradition for all of them are bathed in the language, imagery, and poetry of Jewish worship and Hebrew scriptures. 

Still it’s important to pay attention to the context and to the lips where Luke places these songs. In Zechariah’s case, he hadn’t been able to sing, or speak for nine months. You may recall the story. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were elderly, childless. Zechariah was a priest. The story goes that he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense, quite likely a great honor and probably the only time he did it in his life, and while he was there by himself, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and promised that he and Elizabeth would have a child. Zechariah was rather skeptical about the probability of this ever happening, and when he expressed his doubts, Gabriel struck him speechless for the duration of the pregnancy. 

The child was born and on the 8th day, as he was about to be circumcised, and still speechless, Zechariah wrote out instructions that the baby should be named John. As soon as he did that, his voice returned and he began to praise God. Luke continues, “Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy.” 

For nearly two years, our voices have remained silent of song. We have been able to speak, unlike Zechariah who remained totally silent for nine months. Now, I can’t imagine being silent for nine months, and I can’t imagine that after nine months of silence, the first thing I would do would be to praise God. But I do know this about silence, that it allows us to think and reflect before we speak, and with nine months of silence, and uncertainty about whether the silence was just temporary as Gabriel said, or would be permanent, I think I probably would think carefully, very carefully about what words I would speak when the ability to speak came back.

But Luke doesn’t say that this song was the product of careful reflection and composition over the course of nine months. He offers a rather different account of its composition—Zechariah, Luke says, was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy. This prophecy, this Spirit-filled song, fairly bursts with scriptural allusions. It’s as if Zechariah, having nine months of silence to reflect on his experience and on his promised son, has internalized all of salvation history, the whole story of scripture, and recasts it in light of the hope he now has. 

It’s fitting that the name Zechariah means “God remembers” for Zechariah sings of God’s remembering God’s people. Zechariah sings of God’s promises, to raise up a mighty nation, to save “us”—Zechariah includes himself in this promise of salvation—from our enemies; to show mercy to our fathers; to set us free to worship God without fear.

In the last section of the psalm, Zechariah turns to the promises embodied in his own son, John the Baptist, who would be the prophet, not only of God’s promises, but also prepare the way for the one who was still to come, the one who would usher in God’s reign. 

This one, Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be a harbinger, a sign of that which was to come, the dawn of salvation, not salvation itself. John offered hope and pointed away from himself to the Christ. But through him, we begin to see, recognize, and experience “the tender compassion of our God.” That lovely phrase not only evokes images of a mother embracing her new-born child, as the joyful and incredulous Elizabeth was likely cradling her infant son John, it also invites us to imagine God’s maternal, nurturing love for us and for all creation, a love we experience and know in and through Christ’s love for us. 

“Tender compassion” reminds as well that God’s love and mercy for us, as powerful as it may be, is also an invitation, not an imposition. It requires us to pay attention, to be vulnerable and open, to allow ourselves to see and experience that tender compassion in spite of the noise and violence of our world. Like the breaking dawn that we see only if we ourselves are already awake, and if we lift our eyes away from ourselves and our concerns to the horizon, God’s tender compassion is easily overlooked, missed in the noise of all that competes for our attention. God’s tender compassion is a melody played on a single note, not the cacophony of a rock band in a stadium.

Zechariah sang his song after nine months of silence, imposed on him as punishment by Gabriel. Song has largely been absent from our voices, our lives over the last couple of years and our lives have been less rich because of it—our spiritual experience perhaps less full, less rich because of our inability to sing.

And the world may make us feel like we cannot sing. We may feel hopelessness, despair, oppression as the world around us careens from one disaster to the next. Images and stories from across the globe make real the suffering of our fellow humans, the fact that like Zechariah, they too, cannot open their mouths to sing, or if they do, their songs are laments or the blues.

Such songs can also be prophesies—they can call us out of our complacency, our stupor, our self-deception. They can wake us to the pain and suffering of the world around us; they can also, like Zechariah’s inspire us to action and to hope. 

God’s tender compassion comes to us in many ways and in many forms. May we pay attention, open our ears to hear its sweet melody, and may it help our hearts sing as we experience God’s mercy and salvation.

Our redemption has drawn near: A Sermon for Advent 1C, 2021

November 28, 2021

What a couple of weeks it’s been! The shock of the Rittenhouse verdict; the carnage in Waukesha last weekend, during which the good people of St. Matthias led by the rector David Simmons, opened their doors to offer refuge and comfort to victims and bystanders. Then this week the convictions for murder of the defendants in the murder of Ahmad Aubery. And even as we were trying to observe the annual rituals of Thanksgiving, Good Friday, and the end of the college football regular season, news of a new and worrisome COVID variant threatening to upend our lives once again.

We continue to struggle, individually, as a community, a nation, a world, with ongoing pandemic and our deep desires to return to the world and the lives we had two years ago. News of the omicron variant sent shockwaves through the financial system on Friday, and I daresay, has caused many of us to worry again what the future, the next weeks may hold for us, even as we look ahead to Christmas and other holiday plans that were beginning to look rather like celebrations of past years.

With all of that on my mind, I didn’t have the fortitude to go back through my past sermons on Advent I, to remind myself of past years, of the themes I stressed. For me, the beginning of Advent has usually been a wonderful moment in my personal spiritual life and in the life of the congregations of which I’ve been a part. There’s the excitement of the build-up towards Christmas but more than that, the central themes of the season: waiting, watching, hope have tended to strengthen my faith in Christ’s coming—not only at Christmas but on the Last Day, and strengthen my resolve to look for signs of his coming, and his presence already in the world around us and in my life. 

But this year, I feel like I’ve had enough of waiting. Haven’t we all been waiting, for nearly two years, for life to return to some semblance of normal? Is it possible to maintain hope in the face of all that’s going on in the world? 

How do we make sense of it all? How do we enter Advent this year with all of this uncertainty, fear, and, let’s face it, sheer exhaustion? I don’t have answers for you—I think asking these questions, wondering how to prepare for Christ’s coming, how to open ourselves to his presence in the world, experiencing his entrance into a world like ours all that pondering search; well, that all maybe Advent discipline enough for now.

Still, as I reflect on our readings and collect, there’s something that intrigues me this year. As I was thinking about today’s sermon, something a commentator wrote caused me to stop and ponder. They said something to the effect that the gospel reading in Advent begins with a focus on time expanding outward, toward the Second Coming, and over the course of the four weeks, time begins to slow down, to shorten, until we come (this is me, not the commentator) to the moment of Gabriel announcing to Mary the coming of the Savior of the World in her body.

There’s something profound in that observation that says something about the Gospel of Luke and about us. We are in Year C of the lectionary, when we read the Gospel of Luke which has a very different tone, and certainly different perspective on time, than the Gospel of Mark which we read this past year. If there’s a single word that describes Mark’s attitude toward time, it is “Immediately” one of the most common words in the gospel, often used to introduce a new scene or episode. There’s an urgency to Mark’s gospel, a sense that everything is happening at a break-necked pace. And that extends to his perspective on Christ’s second coming, which as you heard last Sunday, Mark seems to have expected to happen very soon, in his lifetime.

 Luke has a very different tone. As we will see again and again throughout the coming year. The story he tells is not limited geographically in scope to Galilee and Jerusalem, as with Mark. Instead, Luke puts the story of Jesus in a global context. He begins by contextualizing his story in the Roman Empire, and ends the Book of Acts, the second volume of his work, with St. Paul’s arrival in Rome. 

Even here, in this text, Luke ratchets down Mark’s urgency. Whether it’s because he’s writing at a later date, further removed from the events described in the text, Luke’s version of Jesus’ words lack the intensity of Mark’s.

We are actually hearing from Luke’s version of verses taken from the same episode in Mark’s gospel that we heard last week, the so-called Little Apocalypse. Both gospel writers place in Jesus’ mouth in the last days of his life as he is teaching in and around the temple. He predicts the destruction of that very temple, an event that would take place some forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was a cataclysmic event both for Judaism and for Christianity.

Mark was very likely written shortly after the temple’s destruction, and his version of this apocalypse shows urgency and immediacy. Luke, writing at least 15 years later, has a longer perspective. Clearly, the destruction of the temple did not inaugurate Christ’s return, so Luke leaves out references to wars and rumors of wars, references to people fleeing the destruction and fleeing persecution. Instead, he mentions signs in the skies and stars, and in the seas, nothing so specific as an earthquake.

Luke’s version may not seem quite so urgent, but there is desperation, nonetheless. The language used is evocative—“People will faint from fear and foreboding”—we might also say, it is enough to take one’s breath away, feelings we are familiar with these days.

But in the midst of these signs, all is not lost. There is hope. God’s reign is still entering into the world, still coming. Our redemption is drawing near. 

Over the course of the next weeks, as we move back from nearly the end of Jesus’ life to the beginning, and before, time will contract; the scope of Luke’s story will narrow to Bethlehem, and to the coming of Christ into the world. Our focus may narrow as well, as the business of the season, the world-historical events swirling around us give way to the intimate rituals of family, friends, and community.

But those small, intimate moments bear witness to the larger truth—that Christ’s coming into the world ushers in a new age—God’s reign of justice and peace. And signs of that coming are not just in scripture, or in re-enacted stories but in the world around us.

Our redemption draws near. Even when it seems most unlikely, when things seem to be at their worst, when there are signs in the skies and in the seas, when the powers of the heavens seem to shake, and we cower in desperate fear, there are signs of God’s coming reign. 

Our redemption draws near. There is hope for all who live on the face of the earth. This Advent, even as we struggle with all of the world’s ills, struggle with pandemic, with injustice, oppression, and racism, when all seems lost and the world seems to be spiraling into chaos, our redemption draws near. 

May this Advent be a season when our hope is rekindled like the candles of advent wreaths are lit; when our faith is strengthened and our eyes opened to see those signs of Christ’s coming, signs of God’s reign breaking in upon us, signs of God’s future entering into our present. 

Inheritance and Discipleship

What do you want to inherit?

Proper 2, Year B

October 10, 2021

Yesterday our diocesan convention, held on zoom, passed a resolution submitted by a group of Grace members and diocesan clergy that committed the diocese to examine our history as it relates to the indigenous people of Wisconsin and to build relationships with our Native American neighbors. It came at an appropriate time. Next year, 2022, sees the concurrence of two important anniversaries for Wisconsin Episcopalians. First, next year is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Episcopalians to what is now the State of Wisconsin. They were members of the Oneida Nation, forced to leave their homes in upstate New York. The second anniversary is the 175th anniversary of the Diocese of Milwaukee, which we will observe at a special convention a year from now. 

Tomorrow is also the observance of Columbus Day, or increasingly “Indigenous People’s Day” an opportunity for us as Americans to consider the complicated and violent history that saw the destruction of native cultures, the seizure of land, and genocide. I’ve been reading David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Treuer, an Ojibwe who grew up on the Leech Lake reservation in Minnesota, tells the stories of Native Americans over the last century; the Federal government’s efforts to force assimilation, to “kill the Indian and save the man” to dissolve reservations and tribal autonomy, and slowly, haltingly, to support Native efforts to build community and heal trauma. Treuer also tells stories of resistance and resilience. 

Like the history of slavery and the persistence of racism, the history of Native Americans in the US is a story that makes us uncomfortable. The hard truths of that history have long been ignored and suppressed, replaced by a story of whites settling and taming a land that was empty, bringing prosperity, civilization, and democracy to the wilderness. Christianity, Christian churches played an important role in that project operating missions and boarding schools that suppressed native cultures, native languages, and native religions.

As we move forward with our efforts, both at Grace and on the diocesan level, we will engage in conversations internally and with Native Americans to deepen our understanding both of the history and of the current challenges facing indigenous peoples in Wisconsin. We hope to provide an update at our Annual Meeting next month.

This legacy, this history, is uncomfortable. It raises questions about our responsibilities given the fact that events like the removal of the HoChunk, the history of the boarding schools, took place decades or over a century ago. It challenges our self-understanding, as individuals, as Christians, as Americans. Too often, faced with these harsh truths, we want to ignore, turn away. And so the sorts of conflicts we see at school boards, here in our State Assembly, over what is derided as “Critical Race Theory” seek literally to white-wash American history and culture. 

Even as our national, cultural, and family identities may tug at as, may tempt us to avert our eyes and pass over our history, Jesus calls us into a different identity and into new community. I think we see something of that same struggle of identity, the conflict between legacy and discipleship in today’s gospel reading.

It’s a familiar story, though as is typical of gospel stories, we’re never satisfied with the way one gospel writer tells it and introduce details from other versions to complete it. So, in Mark’s telling, a young man comes to Jesus with the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Think about that question for a moment. First, the way he addresses Jesus: “Good Teacher,” he begins. Rather like a student might approach a teacher, but not really, right?” It’s a bit of flattery maybe, like the student who approaches a prof for an extension, or a letter of recommendation. And I’ll point out, instead of responding in kind, Jesus rejects the flattery, no one is good but God. 

But then comes the real question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We might assume it’s a rather obvious question, similar to others we see in the New Testament, “What must I do to be saved?” for example. But in fact, this is the only time the term “eternal life” appears in the Gospel of Mark. 

And furthermore, that verb: “inherit.” In the ancient world, if not today, inheritance almost always was a family thing—parents’ passing their possessions on to their children after death. Inheritance implies family; it implies privilege. Inheritance, privilege. Think again of the wealth accumulated and passed on in the US thanks to slavery, thanks to the dispossession of Native Americans; think of the generational trauma inherited by African Americans, by indigenous peoples.

And think of Jesus, calling his disciples. Those first disciples, by the Sea of Galilee, “Come, follow me.” When Jesus talks about discipleship and following him in the gospel of Mark, he stresses that it means giving up everything, including family ties. Here, Peter says, “we have left everything to follow you.” Jesus responds with a saying about the reward for giving up everything, including family, to follow him. 

Seen in this light, the man’s question is phrased incorrectly. What Jesus is proclaiming is a new community based not on ties of family or economic status. It may be that when Jesus tells the young man to distribute his possessions among the poor, he is instructing him to break away from his old relationships of privilege and family and enter into this new community that Jesus is calling together. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the same words, “Follow me,” to the young man that he used when calling the disciples. But in this instance, he has added another stipulation, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.” It’s as if he knows, to pick up on the idea that this story is in the form of a healing story, that for the young man to follow him, to be whole spiritually, he needs to abandon his wealth.

But what does this all have to do with us? It’s a story that may fill us with guilt because we think about our relative wealth in the face of the world’s and this city’s poor. It may fill us with guilt as we think about our privilege over against the struggles of people of color in the US, of African Americans and Indigenous peoples. It may fill us with guilt because of our comfort and enjoyment of life in the face of the world’s need. 

At the same time, in light of all those stories about the vast accumulation of wealth by the few, how that wealth increased exponentially during the pandemic, we may think that whatever our privilege and relative wealth, it is nothing compared to the wealth of those other people, and that Jesus’ words are not directed at us but at them.We may think that this is one of those places where what Jesus has to say has no relevance for our lives. 

But I don’t think that’s the case. All of us struggle with money. Some of us struggle with the lack of money, with worries about the future, about making it till the end of the pay period. Some of us have different struggles, as we wonder whether how our financial lives connect with our spiritual lives. Did you know that Jesus had more to say about money and wealth than about any other topic?

It’s not something we like to talk about at church, especially in this time of the year as we are beginning our annual stewardship campaign. But we need to talk about it and think about it, as a congregation and as individual Christians. Jesus calls us to follow him. He wants our whole allegiance, body and soul. Following him totally means living all of our existence in light of him and that call. It means seeing our wealth, our financial choices, in light of that call. What have we inherited, what do we want to inherit?

As we struggle with these questions; as we struggle with Jesus’ call to follow him, he sees us in our struggles, as we try to make wise and faithful decisions. He sees us, and while we may think his gaze is one of judgment and condemnation, may we be certain that even as he loved the man who turned away; he loves us even when we stumble or falter. Thanks be to God.

The Comfort of a Reasonable and Holy Hope: A Sermon for Proper 21B, 2021

During a funeral last week, I was caught short by a phrase I heard and had never noticed before. After 15 years of being a priest, presiding at who knows how many Rite 1 funerals (15? 20? 30), I was listening as Carol read the prayers. I heard this:

Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they
may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a
reasonable and holy hope

“The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope.” In case you’re wondering, they’re on p. 481 of the Book of Common Prayer, in the prayers of the people.

I was so taken by these words, so moved by them, that I could hardly return my focus to the service at hand. And over the last week, they have continued to run through my mind. They spoke to me in that moment; they speak to me as I navigate these difficult times; in the midst of my fear, despair, as I listen to the news and see the horrific images of men on horseback whipping desperate Haitian asylum seekers, as I hear about the suffering of COVID victims, as we all wonder when the crises in which we are living will finally give way to some sense of ordinary-ness.

The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope. Hope has certainly been hard to come by the last months and years. As a citizen of the United States, I think my hope began to wane in 2016, if not before, as we have seen the backlash against efforts to make ours a more just and equitable society, to address the legacies of slavery and genocide against Native Americans; the ongoing racism and sexism, our catastrophic wars and the devastation and suffering they have caused. And then came the pandemic, months of fear and isolation, with hope rekindled as the vaccines were rolled out, then the Delta variant, and anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers allowing the pandemic to continue.

I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with the altar guild leader about, of all things, Christmas decorations. The deadline for ordering was coming up and we needed to decide what sort of decorations we will put up this year; something restrained and minimal as we did last year when we weren’t worshiping in person? Or should we go back to the extravagance of past years? It was a hard conversation, not just because planning more than a few weeks in advance is so difficult. We have had to make so many last minute changes in order to adapt to the changing pandemic. It was difficult too because of the memories—of a full church, of the excitement of being together for Christmas, of music and festivity and joy, and the possibility reality of continued social distancing, masks, and fear.

Hope is hard to come by these days, and when it does, it often feels more like self-delusion. With all of the crises we face, with a political establishment apparently unable to honestly and seriously deal with those crises, from climate catastrophe to pandemic, with a media and social media more interested in producing content that generates more views and clicks than conveying the reality of the situation, despair seems not only the appropriate emotional response, it seems like a logical, even necessary stance in the world.

But then those words, “the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope.” You may wonder why I fixated on them. I wonder myself. As I’ve pondered them, and my response to them, I began to focus on the adjectives used—reasonable and holy. I don’t know whether I had ever attached such words to the concept of hope and I began to explore what their presence here might mean.

After all, what is “reasonable” about hope in our current context? Why might hope be “holy”?

As I’ve reflected on these questions, I have thought about how we generally think about hope. We might assume that hope stands in opposition to reason. Perhaps we’re reminded of what St. Paul writes in Romans 8: 

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

And often hope seems to be something far off; a sort of imagined future that bears little resemblance to the world we live in, the lives we lead. So what might a “reasonable hope” be? Given the original context of the phrase, I would assume that it is a reference to our faith in the resurrection—both the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the hope for the resurrection of the faithful. Reasonable, because as Paul writes elsewhere, the resurrection of Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection of the dead; evidence that our hope is justified, thus rational.

But let’s be honest—that hope may seem as distant, as unmoored from reality as the hopes we have for a better life, for change in ourselves, our loved ones, our world. 

But there’s another adjective in that phrase that encourages reflection—“holy” What might a holy hope be? And here I think it’s worth going back to the word’s origin, to its biblical usage. Holy means being set apart—made sacred for God; other than ordinary objects, occupations, concerns. And here is where I think it helps to distinguish “holy” from other sorts of hope. We have desires, wishes, hopes for ourselves and our loved ones but are those based in our own desires or are they something more, something deeper, drawing on God’s love in Christ?

The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope. As I reflect on where we are as followers of Jesus, as members of the body of Christ that gathers in this place, and virtually, that has experienced these last months and years together and is looking ahead into an uncertain and challenging future, “a reasonable and holy hope” may be just what is needed for us to move forward in faith.

Reasonable—what have we as Christians, as God’s people learned over the last months? What resources in ourselves and our congregation have we discovered that have helped us grow more deeply together in community, and in relationship with Christ? What has made us stronger, more resilient to face new challenges that may arise in the future? I’m mindful of our technological adaptations; the months of phone tree activity that kept us in touch with each other, the efforts of the little group that imagined and organized the short Monday videos. I’m mindful of the lay-led bible studies that have continued throughout the pandemic. There has been much we have failed at, but we have a great deal for which to be grateful, much to celebrate.

We have reason to hope; but our hope must be holy. As we continue to adapt to these circumstances, as we tentatively, slowly emerge into a new reality of congregational and community life, our holy hope should help us distinguish those things we desire out of nostalgia or selfishness, and the vision of mission and ministry to which God is leading us. 

My friends, there is much to hope for; the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope is God’s gift to us. Over the coming weeks, we will be talking about the future as changes come to our congregation, our ministry, and mission. We will be talking about our future role in the downtown neighborhood, our leadership in racial reconciliation and addressing the Episcopal Church’s and the US’s treatment of Native Americans, seeking to build relationships with our HoChunk neighbors and other indigenous peoples of Wisconsin. We will be imagining ways of reaching out into the neighborhood and community, to share the love of Christ in new and creative ways. Filled with God’s love, inspired by that reasonable and holy hope, may we step courageously and faithfully into the future.

Did you wash your hands? A Sermon for Proper 17B, 2021

Proper 17, Year B

August 29, 2021

We know all about washing our hands, don’t we? Here at Grace, we’ve got signs everywhere reminding us of the importance of that act. We’ve developed little rituals to help us make sure we do the full 20 seconds. If we’re not able to wash our hands, we’ve got hand sanitizer everywhere. Over the last eighteen months, we’ve developed instincts for things like staying six feet away, not shaking hands, all the rituals of sanitizing and social distancing. Many of us have so internalized these instructions and rituals that they have become second nature, even as we learn that much of the things we were told to do and did are no longer necessary. And at the same time, we’re all too familiar with the conflicts over such measures, the way those conflicts reflect partisan and cultural differences; the ways our views on such matters have become identity markers, to the detriment of public health and the suppression of the pandemic.

To hear Jesus debating the merits of hand washing may seem to us a bit strange, even if we might wonder whether there was something there that might connect with our own concerns and controversies. And truth be told, after all of those weeks listening to the conflicts over the meaning of bread in John 6, a switch in topic might be welcome indeed. At the same time, we might wonder whether Jesus is little more than a trouble-maker, looking for ways of generating conflict and drawing distinctions between himself and the religious establishment. Given that in our current context, watching people inciting or welcoming conflict and controversy has become commonplace, with fatal consequences for some, we may be a bit weary of it all, and eager to find other things to talk about in church.

But there’s more to it than that, and in order to make sense of it, we need to spend a little time talking about Mark’s gospel and the context in which this story appears. We are in Mark 7, so we are picking up the story where we left off—after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, after Jesus walked on water, after those trips back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. It’s not quite clear where we are, but I think we can assume we are back in Galilee. 

In any case, Pharisees and some scribes have come to check Jesus out. It’s the second time we’ve seen this constellation of characters. The first time was near the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when they confronted him about healing someone in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This time, they are challenging Jesus’ disciples about their conformity to ritual practices. 

For us, heirs of two thousand years of Christian polemic against Judaism, this debate seems lifeless, the outcome a foregone conclusion. But in the first century, it wasn’t. We need to remember just who the Pharisees were and what they were trying to do. They were a movement within Judaism that sought to make Torah, the Jewish law, relevant for the daily lives of ordinary people. They wanted to “build a fence around Torah” that is to say, to develop a body of interpretation that would help people be faithful while protecting the Torah’s central tenet. So they developed traditions of interpretation that applied the principles of the law to ordinary life. They also wanted to expand its reach and relevance, so they applied legal material that had originally affected only the priests, to all. That was the case here, with hand-washing.

But it’s also important to remember that they were only one group within 1st century Judaism; there were others who disagreed with their approach. In other words, this debate was alive and there were sound arguments on both sides.

We generally assume that Jesus preached against the Pharisees’ approach. He does so here, but note that he argues against their position by quoting the tradition, the prophets. In other words, Jesus is not trying to abandon the tradition, he is arguing from within the Jewish tradition against the Pharisees’ approach.

It’s important to understand just what the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was about—interpretation of the law, and especially interpretation of the purity laws. It was not a conflict between external religious practice and inward piety. That’s the way Christians have often understood the conflict and thus they see  Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees as an attack on external practice. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that impurity does not come from the outside, but rather an impure heart leads to sins, he is redefining purity and holiness. Sin, Jesus is saying, comes from within. Evil intentions lead to evil acts. 

The lesson from the Letter of James makes the same point in a slightly different way, “Be ye hearers of the word also, and not just doers.” This letter, well it’s not really a letter, more like a collection of ethical advice, emphasizes moral action. Throughout, the author of the letter emphasizes the importance of faith expressing itself by doing good toward others. 

We don’t think in terms of purity much these days, we don’t even use the term holiness very much. They seem old-fashioned, irrelevant in the contemporary world, not even terribly important in our lives of faith. But to ignore such important categories is to miss something that was crucial in Jesus’ message in the first century, and should remain of central significance to those who would follow him in the twenty-first century. 

Holiness has meant different things over the centuries. In the biblical tradition, of course, holiness was above all something denoted of God. But the real connotation of the term, both in the Hebrew, and later in the form we are also familiar with it—sacred, both terms mean essentially being set apart. That which is sacred, or holy is different from, that which is not. In a sense, what is holy or sacred is God’s, and that’s why when the people of Israel came to think of themselves as God’s chosen people, they use rules of purity to set themselves apart from other peoples. Over time, those purity rules became more important as they came to define the differences between the people of God and others. So in Leviticus, when the Israelites received the laws of purity, the holiness code, it found its meaning with God’s statement “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” 

The question of course, is what all this means. We are called to be a holy people, yet if you’re like me, you probably bristle at the notion. Some of us have good reason to do so. There was a time in the Episcopal Church, maybe some of you can remember it, when if you were divorced, you couldn’t receive communion. I don’t know if that was the practice here at Grace before rules were liberalized in the 70s; I know it was true in churches in South Carolina. 

For the Judaism of Jesus’ day, such purity rules were all about preserving the community over against a dominant and domineering culture. Over the centuries such rules, laws, had become more important, especially as the Jewish community had to struggle to survive as a subject of mighty empires. 

But Jesus challenged that view of things. Such purity rules, as helpful as they were and are in preserving community, went against something even more important to Jesus—the full inclusion of all people among his followers. We will see this more clearly in the coming weeks, but it is no accident that Mark puts this dispute about Jesus’ disciples keeping the purity code right after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. For there was no more perilous moment for someone who kept purity laws than eating. And since they were somewhere out in the wilderness, as Mark makes clear, there would have been no way to keep the purity laws concerning the washing of hands, or, of food. 

That’s precisely what Jesus was advocating and living, a move away from a notion of holiness that divides and excludes, toward one that is inclusive—a holiness of the heart, rather than a holiness of rules. What that means for us in the twenty-first century may not be exactly clear. 

Jesus’ words challenge us to rethink our deepest cultural values and some of our deepest aversions. To be the inclusive, welcoming community that Jesus has called us to be means not only eliminating the barriers and rules that divide us but to embrace one another in a spirit of love and forgiveness and above all, to transform the love we experience in our acceptance by God, to the love of others. In our divided and conflict-ridden world, to welcome and embrace difference, to reach across everything that divides us and be witnesses to God’s love, may be the most important thing we can do.

Where can we go? A Sermon for Proper 16B, 2021

Proper16, Year B

August 22, 2021

Have you ever faced one of those life-changing decisions, one where you knew that whatever you did, your life would change forever? It may have been a relationship, a job opportunity, where to go to college. It may have been a decision between remaining in the familiar comfortable place, where you knew who you were and where you stood, and the uncertainty and challenge of a future that held the possibility of excitement and a transformed life, but also might have been dangerous. 

We know all about bad decisions, regretting the choices we made, things that led us down deadends, or trouble. We also know about doors that we didn’t open, opportunities that we didn’t pursue.

We know about bad decisions in the world around us. We see them playing out in society, in government, in institutions like schools or universities as we all struggle with the pandemic and with the challenges we face. The news is full of such stories these days; some of those decisions affect us, our livelihoods, the health and welfare of our families and in the face of those bad decisions, we wonder how we can make right ones.

We are seeing bad decisions play out on a global scale as we watch unfolding events in Afghanistan; the fruits of a twenty-year long military debacle, and repeated bad decisions, or refusals to make the hard decisions. And we see the consequences of those decisions in the lives of Afghanis who wanted to create a better society and better lives for themselves and their families.

Often we can’t know or imagine the implications of decisions we make—how they will affect those around us, our future lives. And in such circumstances, we often don’t take others into consideration when we act, or out of fear that we might make the wrong decision, we don’t choose, which of course is a decision of its own.

I was scrolling twitter last night, witnessing the deep partisan conflict and anger that is endemic to that platform; seeing links to heartbreaking stories of COVID patients, chaos in Afghanistan; witnessing the fear and anxiety of individuals as they try to do the right thing; conflicts over, well just about everything. As I scrolled, I thought about Peter’s response to Jesus in today’s gospel reading, “Where can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Facing a choice, facing a decision, Peter and the twelve vowed to walk with Jesus into an uncertain future.

We are finally coming to an end to our reading of John 6. Next week, we will be back in Mark for the rest of the liturgical year. Today’s reading provides us with a helpful transition back to Mark because it addresses one of Mark’s central themes, and certainly a central theme of that part of Mark where we will find ourselves for the next several weeks. 

Let’s go back and look at what is taking place. The story begins with the feeding of the five thousand. His disciples cross the lake and Jesus walks on water to join them. After discovering that Jesus is gone, the crowd follows him back across the lake, and then begins the lengthy debate, discussion, argument, over the meaning of the miracle and the significance of bread. Now, as the chapter comes to an end, we are told that Jesus said these things, with the culminating statement: “But the one who eats this bread will live forever” in the synagogue at Capernaum, where he had been teaching.

Then we are treated to another shock, or abrupt transition. The crowd with whom Jesus had been debating has suddenly vanished, and only the disciples are left. The controversy is over, or Jesus’ opponents are gone, and in the quiet of the moment, some of those closest to Jesus have second thoughts: “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” 

Struggling to comprehend what Jesus is saying, what he is about, the gospel writer observes, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

And then, Jesus took the inner circle, the twelve, aside and asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” 

Peter answered for the group: “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

“Where would we go?” 

Peter and the twelve had borne witness to the conflict. They had listened and watched as Jesus and his opponents argued over the meaning of bread, and the bread of life. They saw as his opponents appealed to history and tradition in their attempt to silence Jesus. They watched too, as their friends, other disciples turned away because Jesus said difficult things. 

We might very well be among those that think Jesus’ teachings are difficult, so difficult in fact, that we refashion them into an ideology that reflects our fears and baser instincts, that contribute to white supremacy and Christian nationalism, that reinterpret the command to love our neighbor and our enemy, so that they refer only to those in my family, race, political party, or socio-economic class. 

Jesus has difficult words for us, difficult teachings. Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, wherever we stand on the burning questions of our day, it is easy for us to view Jesus, his teachings, through the lens of our political and cultural assumptions. We can see that when others do it; when they mold Jesus and Christianity into an ideology supportive of their political perspective. It’s often much more difficult to see when we do it ourselves.

Where would we go? 

As we return to the Gospel of Mark next week, we will see that following Jesus, discipleship means for that gospel, following Jesus to the cross—an arduous and dangerous journey for those who would follow Jesus. We will learn from Mark his perspective on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

In the gospel of John, there’s a rather different emphasis. As I mentioned last week, in this gospel discipleship is all about relationship with Jesus, being with, abiding with Jesus. There’s a poignancy in this little episode, when some of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. Having tasted that relationship, having abided in him, having glimpsed the abundant life Jesus offers, they chose the easier path, to walk away. 

But Peter and the twelve saw that they really had no option. There was no alternative. “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

We stand at a crossroads, in this liturgical year as we move from John to Mark, and between somewhat different notions of discipleship. We stand at a crossroads as Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” We may want to step away from him, from the difficult words that he teaches, back into the comfort of easy answers and complacency, but to do so means also turning our backs on the life he offers us. Behind us lies the familiar with all of its easy answers and certainties. Ahead of us lies the uncertainty of a future, and amid that uncertainty the promise of a life lived in Christ. Where will we go?