Returning from Exile: A Homily for Advent 3B

Advent 3       

December 13, 2020

Advent Exile

December 7, 2014

We are now observing the Third Sunday of Advent. It is known as Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday of joy. In many churches, the purple or blue vestments that are used throughout Advent give way to rose or pink vestments. And the dominant themes of the season—repentance in preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas and at the second Coming, give way to rejoicing. We don’t make the change in liturgical colors, but as you can see, our advent wreath includes a rose-colored candle to represent this Third Sunday.

This theme of joy comes out especially in the first reading and the psalm today. Both texts speak to our own situation as well, because as you probably know the first doses of a covid vaccine are being shipped today, signifying that our struggle with the pandemic may be coming to an end. At the same time, experts warn that there are dark, difficult times ahead.

Both of those texts, Psalm 126 and Isaiah 61 reflect the experience of God’s people in exile in Babylon. The Psalm speaks of God restoring the fortunes of Zion, of people who left weeping, return in joy. The prophet speaks of God providing for those in Zion, replacing their mourning with a garland. He speaks also of building up the ancient ruins and repairing the ruined cities.

Exile is an image that may resonate powerfully in this season. Forced from our churches, our downtown nearly abandoned, having to give up many of our cherished activities and familiar routines, we are in exile physically, but also spiritually and psychologically. We feel profoundly dislocated from our community, our friends and family, even perhaps, from ourselves. We are disoriented, longing for return. And now, we may be able to see an end to all of this. Our hope is rekindled even as the number of those suffering and dying continues to rise. 

Advent speaks to that longing, of hope in the midst of difficult times. As the year comes to a close, the days shorten and grow cold, the candles we light each week seem to be an act of defiance, a statement of faith that the light coming into the world, shining in the darkness, will overcome the forces of evil. It is a hope expressed in our faith that the one coming into the world, the Word made flesh is at work making all things new, even when chaos and evil seem to be overwhelming everything. 

Our faith this season, our waiting, our hope, is not passive. It must participate in the work that God in Christ is doing here among us. That’s the message of the prophet, who proclaims those powerful, familiar words, echoed by Jesus himself in his first public sermon in the Gospel of Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

because the Lord has anointed me; 

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted, 

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

This is the work that God in Christ is accomplishing, the work that we ourselves are called to. And in this season of struggle, of waiting and hope, it is work that we may want to defer or ignore because of all that is going on around us and in our personal lives. 

We have, I think, been tempted to focus on ourselves, on our fears and on all that we have lost—and we must, as we say that, recognize that many of us have lost a great deal indeed, loved ones, jobs and livelihoods, our hopes for the future, a sense of security. As we have seen in the runup to the election, and now in the weeks since, the anger and fear, the emotions surrounding all of that loss have driven deep in our individual and national psyches, heightened division, led to violence.

But even as we have tended to focus on ourselves, it is important to pay attention to the words of scripture this week, to the prophet’s call for justice, to bind up the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives, to rebuild the city. He was talking about Jerusalem, of course, the desolate city that the returning exiles would encounter. But our city is not so very different, with its deep inequities and injustice, with its boarded up windows and abandoned restaurants and retail establishments. As we return in the coming months, to the downtown and to our church, we must not lose sight of the work we need to do to advocate and struggle for a more just and equitable downtown, where all are welcome and may flourish.

As we think about our return, we would do well to heed the example set by John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. When asked if he was the Messiah, he repeatedly denied it, and directed attention away from himself toward the one who was coming into the world, Jesus Christ. John was a witness; his proclamation, his testimony was not about himself but about Christ. His repeated denials, his pointing away from himself to another, is a powerful witness to us in our age.

Among everything else we see in our culture today, in our highly individualistic, perhaps even narcissistic culture, is an emphasis on the individual, on the individual’s rights. We are bombarded with images from politics, from culture, from social media of people who go out of their way to bring attention to themselves, make everything about them. What, after all, is a “social influencer” if not someone who is marketing themselves? In our response the pandemic, in the debates and conflicts over masks, or public gatherings, even worship, the rights of the few are often privileged over the needs of the many. 

But John shows us a different way. His popularity, his notoriety, brought him attention, brought the religious elite to him to question him. And when questioned, he bore witness, not to himself, but to Jesus. 

Even when we want to do the work to which God calls us, advocating for justice, feeding the hungry, binding up the broken-hearted, we may often do it for reasons that are as much about ourselves as they are about the needs of others or following the teachings of Jesus. 

But John shows us a different way. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. In our work for justice, in our efforts to help our fellow human beings, our priority must always be to point the way to Jesus. As we look ahead to our return to the city, as we look ahead to Christ’s coming, may our longing, our waiting, our searching point us to Christ, and help us point others to him as well.

Don’t look back, don’t look ahead, look around: A Sermon for Advent 1A, 2020

Advent 1       

November 29, 2020

Here we are, beginning the season of Advent, observing it in ways none of us has ever done before, looking ahead to a Christmas season that will be equally unsettling in the compromises we will have to make because of the pandemic’s continued presence among us. Our joy and excitement are tempered by fear, exhaustion, and the ongoing sense of isolation—from our church, our friends and loved ones, from the rituals that have offered us such great comfort and to which we look forward each year at this time.

It’s enough to make us want to cry with the prophet, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and make the mountains shake!” We want deliverance from all of this; we look for solutions—vaccines, political leadership, magic bullets, that will remove all of our hardship and anxiety, and return things to normal.

In our present circumstances, the themes of Advent, as expressed in today’s gospel reading may provide less comfort and consolation, than increase our anxiety and exhaustion. In our struggles, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the situations in which the gospels were written; in this case, Mark in particular.

The first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, and the cycle of our readings switches. This year, we will be reading from the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree was the first of the gospels to be written. And it was written in difficult circumstances indeed. Around the year 70, so about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The gospel reflects the challenges those 40 years presented. During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly announced the coming of God’s reign, and proclaimed that he would soon return in majesty to usher in that reign of justice and peace. But 40 years had passed and Jesus’ followers saw no signs of that coming. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this delay constituted something of a crisis of faith for the early Christian community.

Another factor was emerging as the gospel was written. In 66 ce, Jewish revolutionaries had taken up arms against the Roman occupation. Early successes had led to Rome’s vicious crackdown. We don’t know whether Mark was written immediately before, or in the immediate aftermath of Rome’s re-conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple, but we know that this turn of events created crisis both for the emergent Christian community and for Judaism. 

The destruction of the temple was catastrophic for Judaism of the day. I used to say to my students that we couldn’t imagine what it meant emotionally, psychologically, and religiously to the Jews of the day. But now, I think we may have some sense of the significance of that cataclysmic event. Having been prevented from public worship, from gathering in this familiar place regularly, we have been forced to reimagine, reinvent our worship and our common life. And we have had to do that in the midst of our frustration and anger that we are not able to gather, that the old rituals and spaces are unavailable. We have spent a great deal of our time and energy in lament, mourning, and anger; looking back to the past, rather than forward into the uncertain future.

It’s in this context, to this moment, that Mark is writing his gospel. In this context, in this moment, we are beginning once again to observe Advent. Mark speaks to us, now, in our context, in this moment. We may be looking back to the past, to Advents and Christmases of years past, wishing we could easily recreate them without worry or concern for our safety. We might even, as so many are doing, observe them this year as we have in the past, throwing caution to the wind and endangering ourselves, our loved ones, our community. Our we might put everything on hiatus, put our lives and our celebrations on hold for a safer time. We can see all of those responses hinted at in the gospel reading. 

But there’s something else.

At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:

Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, (Mk13:35)

Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.

What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.

But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans. 

But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God. 

For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified. 

We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. We live in a time when many of our fellow Christians, many of our denominational institutions are more concerned about individual rights than the wellbeing of the wider community, the flourishing of all people. And in their demand for rights and power, they cause suffering and pain, they threaten the lives and health of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate. 

But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty. Remembering that Jesus died on the cross teaches us to seek his presence in the midst of suffering, weakness, and vulnerability.

For us in this season, let us not look back, nor look forward. Let us look around, keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence. Let us be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days. May we share the good news of Christ’s coming, of his presence, and may we help others recognize and know his presence in the midst of their anxiety, fear, and longing.

Jesus, John Wayne, and Christ the King

 In her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne, Kristine Kobes Du Mez writes about the transformation of American Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as it became indistinguishable from conservative white, masculine, nationalistic politics. While her focus is on evangelicalism, the story affects of all of American Christianity, in that the consumer culture we inhabit shapes us indelibly. She uses the actor John Wayne as a symbol of that transformation, showing how American evangelical Christians reimagined Jesus in light of Wayne’s iconic portrayal of the lone American fighting against evil in defense of the American way of life.

Such imagery may be profoundly alien to us. When was the last time you watched Wayne’s iconic Green Berets—his full-throttled defense of US involvement in Viet Nam? Perhaps you have seen The Searchers or The Sands of Iwo Jima. But for most of us, John Wayne and the characters he played in the movies are faded relics of a long-forgotten past. Still, Kobes De Mez reveals that the images continue to shape our worldview and Christianity and those of other Americans in profound and disturbing ways. His elevation of the lone individual fighting for truth and the American way, battling enemies who were usually not white; the emphasis on redemptive violence, the praise of dominant masculinity against passive femininity, all of these themes continue to resonate in our culture and in American Christianity.

The conflation of Jesus and John Wayne may seem an absurdity, laughable, idolatry. It may seem a distortion, even a heretical misinterpretation of the one who died on the cross, offering love to the world, preaching on behalf of the poor, the powerless, the hungry. But there is imagery in our scripture, liturgy, and theology that evokes themes of imperial power. 

Which brings us to today, the observance of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. When we hear those words, it’s hard not to conjure up images of Jesus reigning in majesty, his head adorned with a crown, wearing imperial purple. All of those symbols are derived from the imperial imagery of the Roman Empire and medieval kingship. And while we may imagine a pax Christiana, or a pax Romana, in which the empire rules benevolently, peacefully, over a harmonious world, such tranquility always requires vigilant borders, suppression of dissent, overwhelming military power.

This commemoration of Christ the King, or of the Reign of Christ, as it’s often called these days, is a product of the political conflicts of the last century. It was proclaimed by the pope in 1925, a few years after the devastation of World War I, and in the face of the rising tide of Fascism in western Europe. It was an attempt to remind Christians to put our trust not in the kings or presidents, the forces of nationalism or the powers of this earth, but in the one who reigns in majesty in heaven.

Observing this theme today in the midst of our own political and constitutional crisis, with the threat of authoritarianism and the subversion of the democratic process, seems especially appropriate. And the gospel reading cuts to the very heart of our experience right now.

With today’s reading, we are at the end of our reading of Matthew’s gospel. It is also the final public teaching of Jesus in the gospel. The rest of the gospel is taken up with the events of the last supper, the crucifixion, and resurrection. In some ways, it resembles the parables we’ve been hearing the past few weeks; there’s judgment, there’s separation of good and evil, there’s condemnation. But the similarities end there. While it’s often referred to as a parable, it’s not. It’s more a description of the last judgment than a parable.

The ubiquity of the themes from this story in contemporary progressive Christianity are unfortunate, because it is usually reduced to a set of ethical imperatives—to care for the least of these, the poor, the hungry, the naked, prisoners. What’s overlooked in that perspective is that such actions are not humanitarian; they are sacramental. They take place in response to, and in the presence of Christ. But they are sacramental in a very interesting way, because they are unconsciously sacramental. That is to say, those performing the sacramental acts of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, do not know they are performing sacramental acts, they are performing those acts out of mercy and love, to Christ and to their fellow humans, not knowing that as they perform them, Christ is present.

To bring it back to the day’s theme, reading this text in the context of the Reign of Christ is a powerful witness to the sort of king Christ is, to the nature of the reign of Christ. It is the very subversion of human notions of kingship and power. It is unspoken, unseen, unrecognized. It is present in the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society, in prisons and nursing homes where COVID is raging uncontrollably, on streets where the homeless sleep, in the lines that appear when our food pantry is open. It is present on our borders, in refugee camps, and facilities where immigrants are being held, in the cages where children live.

Think for a moment about all of those places—places we don’t want to think about, or see, or visit. Think about how most of those places, especially prisons and nursing homes, are occupied by people we don’t want to see or know.

There, among the most vulnerable, the weakest, the ignored, there Christ reigns. There, Christ is. And we are called, not only to reach out, to offer food, clothing, and shelter, to be present there. We are called to see Christ there, to recognize his presence, to serve him there.   It is our calling to remind our culture of who Christ is, where Christ is, even when the culture wants to see Christ very differently, as a white, violent, powerful warrior hero.

In these dark days, in the midst of our fear and anxiety, as we struggle to make sense of what’s happening, to hold out hope for the future, following Jesus means to follow him there, where he reigns, and where he is present, in prisons, in nursing homes. And even when it is impossible to do so, as it is now, in these circumstances, it is our calling to bear witness to Christ’s presence in those places, among the victims of violence and oppression, the poor, the hungry, and the naked. We are called to challenge the powers of this world who ignore and prolong the suffering of the least of these. We are called to show even to them, the powerful, the wealthy, the uncaring, to make known to them Christ’s presence where they would least expect it and least recognize it. May we have the courage to witness and to show mercy. 

Praying in anxious times

On November 8, 2016 I was beginning a retreat at the Monastery of the Society of St. John the Divine in Cambridge, MA. When I scheduled it, I had no idea that it was Election Day but it turned out that I would rather have been nowhere else as the results came in and the election of Donald Trump as President became clear. I wrote about those days in a blog post

Prayer continues to sustain me. We began saying Morning Prayer regularly via zoom and facebook at the beginning of the pandemic. While the Daily Office is something that I as a priest am familiar with and even expected to pray daily, I have found new strength and sustenance in it over the last seven months. Saying it with others enhances its meaning. 

… I found hope and inspiration in those stone walls, in the chanting of the Daily Office, in the community created in silence and in the brothers’ hospitality. The silence of last week gave me space to pray and to think. As the week went on, the importance of prayer, the centrality of prayer, became more obvious. To reach not for my own words but for the church’s words; to say and chant psalms that were written 2500 years ago; for the doubts and fears, the faith and trust of an author so unlike myself, who lived in a world imaginably different from, for his words to speak for and to me, to speak of and to God; was comfort and consolation in this difficult and anxious. To rediscover the power of prayer, and especially of a community at prayer, was just what I needed. …

These last days before the election are an especially anxious time. Wherever we find ourselves on the political spectrum, most of us sense the importance of this election. We are afraid. We are afraid for the future of the nation and the world. The pandemic is growing; we fear for our jobs, our families and futures. Some of us are afraid that what we take to be fundamental rights will be stripped from us. Some may fear that their marriages will be declared null and void. In the midst of all the fear and anxiety, we lose sleep, lash out in anger, and find ourselves unable to focus. The relationships that should sustain us at times like these, our families and friends, our fellow members of the body of Christ, are strained by isolation and the inadequacy of virtual gatherings and conversations in establishing deep connection.

 If there were no pandemic, I would make sure the church was open throughout the day on Tuesday and Wednesday for people to come into that familiar and beautiful space, to experience the beauty of holiness, and to pray. Instead, we will offer Morning Prayer at 9:00 am both days as we have done throughout the pandemic. We will also offer Noonday Prayer both days at 12 noon, and Compline at 9:00 pm on Tuesday. I invite you to join us via zoom or facebook for any or all of these opportunities.

Other opportunities for prayer include the prayer service livestreamed from the National Cathedral at 2 pm (CDT): Holding on to Hope.

In addition, there are a number of appropriate prayers offered by the Episcopal Church or in the Book of Common Prayer:

A Collect for Elections (from the Episcopal Office of Government Affairs)

Almighty God, you have promised to hear what we ask in the name of your Son. Watch over our country now and in the days ahead, guide our leaders and all who will vote, guide them in all knowledge and truth and make your ways known among all people. In the passion of debate give them a quiet spirit; in the complexities of the issues give them courageous hearts. Accept and fulfill our petitions, we pray, not as we ask in our ignorance, nor as we deserve in our sinfulness, but as you know and love us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Collect For the Nation (BCP pg. 207)

Lord God Almighty, who has made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for Social Justice (BCP pg. 823)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect For an Election (BCP pg. 822)

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States (or of this community) in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Getting behind Jesus: A Homily for Proper 17A, August 30, 2020

I was struck yesterday morning while sitting on my porch with just a touch of Fall in the air, that in normal years, this would have been the first weekend of college football. Nothing is quite the same, is it.

Some other impressions from the week:

The horrific shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, shot seven times in the back, paralyzed, lying in his hospital bed, handcuffed.

The 17-year old boy strutting down the street after gunning down protestors, unchallenged by police.

A politician’s speech, quoting the letter to the Hebrews and the Apostle Paul, replacing references to Jesus Christ with Old Glory, the American flag.

The sordid end of a prominent Evangelical’s university presidency.

And finally, on Friday, an article in the New York Times about alumni from Harvard Divinity School, my alma mater, who are marketing themselves as Divinity or Spiritual consultants in the corporate world. Perhaps you can imagine the outrage on social media.

What, if anything do these images have in common? Perhaps nothing at all, but perhaps they are evidence of the extent to which we as Americans, as Christians have lost our way.

It’s appropriate, I think that just now in our lectionary cycle we are at that pivotal point in the story of Jesus. Last week, the great confession of Peter in the shadow of empire and of Hellenistic religion: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

And just after that, Jesus begins to lay out just what it means that he is the anointed one, the Christ, the Son of God. To be the Messiah means that he will go to Jerusalem, be arrested, executed for the crimes of insurrection and revolution, and on the third day, be raised from the dead.

And Peter’s response? “This must never happen to you!”

This is one of those key moments in the gospels, crucial to understanding Jesus but crucial also to understanding the gospel writers portray him, his mission, and the disciples’ response to him.

Matthew is following Mark’s chronology closely here. There are a series of three exchanges between Jesus and his disciples, three times that Jesus makes a prediction that he is going to Jerusalem, that he will be crucified, and raised from the dead. Each of those three predictions is followed by an incident, like this one with Peter, that makes clear the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, that their ideas about him, and what will happen in Jerusalem are radically different. In response to their objections, Jesus then explains to them what it really means to follow him: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Two observations. First, when Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, he’s telling him to follow him, disciples are to follow behind their teachers. Yes, it’s a rebuke but it’s also a reminder to Peter where he belongs. To draw on imagery in the gospel itself, while earlier, after Peter’s great confession, Jesus had called him the rock on which he would build the church, now Peter has become a stumbling block.

Second, when we hear language of taking up one’s cross, or bearing a cross, it’s likely we think about burdens of one sort or another, personal struggles with which we have to deal. In the Roman world, “taking up one’s cross” meant only one thing. You were on your way to your place of execution.

In many ways our own reaction to Jesus’ words are much like Peter’s. We don’t want them to mean what they say literally, that following Jesus, becoming his disciples, means suffering and pain. We come to Jesus to find healing, to take away our suffering. And we think that on the cross, Jesus made everything Ok. But it’s not that simple. The gospels make clear that Jesus went to Jerusalem to confront the religious and imperial establishment, to initiate God’s reign, to transform the world. It’s also clear that he knew what would happen—that in Jerusalem, he would be arrested and executed, that he would die, as so many others did before and after him, crushed by the weight of imperial oppression. But he also knew that wouldn’t be the end.

His predictions of his coming crucifixion didn’t end with his death, for his death opened up the way to new life, his resurrection and the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace.

As we consider getting behind and following Jesus, we may wonder about the road ahead, we may wonder about the world around us. We see the deaths, again and again, of African Americans to police violence and to white supremacy, we see the suffering caused by COVID and the half-hearted response to it. We see the ravages of hurricanes and wildfires, intensified by climate change caused by our own greed. We see the drumbeat of hatred all around us, and a Christianity that either cozies up to power or seems ineffective to offer an alternative. We may want to escape into a spiritualism that denies any connection between our faith and the injustices and evils of this world.

But the journey on which Jesus is traveling is not a journey into escapism, fear or despair. It is a journey into the heart of the world as it is, with all of its struggles, suffering, and injustice. The journey ends, not at the foot of the cross but at the emptyw tomb, where we experience the joy of resurrection, and the possibility of a world made new by the transforming power of God’s justice and love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confessing Christ in the Shadow of Empire: A Homily for Proper 16A, August 23, 2020

Last week, Jesus was in the territory of Tyre and Sidon. Those cities were originally Phoenician, on the coast of the Mediterranean, north of Judea and northeast of Galilee, Jesus’ homeland. It was not only foreign territory; its inhabitants were not religiously Jewish. Now, he inland from the coast to Caesarea Philippi. It’s still a good distance north of Galilee. More importantly, it was a significant religious and political site.

In Caesarea, there was a sanctuary to the Greek God Pan. A spring inside a cave was one of the sources of the Jordan River. As is so often the case, the site had been a religious shrine for centuries. In fact before being renamed Caesarea in honor of the Emperor, its name was Panion, in honor of the Greek god. Caesarea’s history was bound up both with the Roman Empire and with their clients in the region, Herod and his family. In Jesus’ day, the territory was controlled by Philipp, Herod the Great’s son. Caesarea was a city that Augustus had given to Herod and Herod had rebuilt. When Philipp succeeded his father, he continued the building spree and renamed the city Caesarea Philippi, in honor of his imperial patron and himself. Like all such cities in the Roman Empire, it was a projection of Roman power and culture. It was both symbol of that power and a central node of power. Troops headquartered there were responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, events that would have been in the living memory of the first readers of Matthew’s gospel.

It was here that Jesus asked these two questions—“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Those of us who are familiar with the story, familiar with the Christian tradition, know a little bit of how this story has been interpreted in the history of Christianity. It is a founding text for notions of papal supremacy, and the power of the institutional church. “On this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” As you probably know, one of the most common symbols of the papacy are the papal tiara above two crossed keys.

But I’m not interested in that tradition of interpretation. Rather, I want to focus on the power and significance of those two questions, and I want to imagine, if you can, Jesus asking those questions today, on Madison’s Capitol Square, or perhaps on Allied Drive, or in the halls of the US Capitol, or the White House, or on the streets of all the cities where protests are ongoing, or in ICUs all over the country where medical workers are caring for COVID victims.

Jesus asked his questions in the shadow of empire, with the presence of Roman military and cultural power dominating the landscape and no doubt the minds and lives of the residents.

Who do people say that I am?

That’s the easy question to answer. The disciples had no problem offering answers—John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. What answers would you give to that question today?

“Who do you say that I am?”

That’s the hard one and I can imagine the disciples looking away, looking down at their sandals, trying to avoid Jesus’ searching gaze. Awkward silence, until Peter blurted his response,, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  And I can see the other disciples rolling their eyes as Peter responded, thinking to themselves, “There he goes again. Why doesn’t he just shut up?”

But Peter’s answer was not because he had studied harder than the other disciples, that he had memorized everything Jesus had said. Peter’s answer came not from himself but from God. And even he didn’t know what his answer meant. A few verses later, after protesting in response to Jesus’ prediction of his arrest, execution, and resurrection, Jesus would call Peter, “Satan.” And as we know, Peter would deny Jesus at the moment it mattered most.

Still, now, he made the confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The culture in which we live is dominated by religious imagery. We see appeals to Christian faith on bumper stickers and at political conventions. We see the cynical use of symbols of Christianity to win and consolidate power, to divide and conquer, to marginalize and disempower, to amass wealth and influence.

And we see the consequences of such cynical use of Christianity, in the alienation of so many from the teachings of Jesus and from churches, in the desperate search for meaning and connection in secular activities, in the rise of conspiracy theories.

What are the temples of idolatry in our culture? Where are the images and symbols of empire? What entities demand our allegiance and worship?

Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”

It’s easy to confess with our lips that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but to live our lives as expression of that confession is much, much harder. To commit ourselves to Christ apart from all the cultural trappings and imperial idolatry that has accrued to his image in this nation, to turn our backs on the temples of wealth, privilege, white supremacy, and American exceptionalism is another matter entirely.

From here, from Caesarea Philippi, Jesus would begin his long journey to Jerusalem, a journey that would end in his crucifixion, a victim of imperial violence.

In this world of violence and oppression, anger, hatred, and fear, it’s easy to lose sight of who Jesus is and what he means. It’s easy to remake him into an idol that reflects our desires and values, our greed and desire for power and influence. It’s easy to lose sight of the cross that stands at the end of his journey.

But if we want to confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we must open ourselves to be transformed into his image and likeness, to be shaped by the cross on which he died, and by the love for which he died. To confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is to invite him to enter our lives, grow more deeply into holiness, and when we stumble and falter on that journey, to ask forgiveness and to be reconciled by his love. May we find the strength to confess his name and the joy of growing more deeply in relationship with him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing the Eucharist

I’ve been having lots of conversations with Grace parishioners, and participating in lots of conversations, especially on Twitter, about our Eucharistic theology and practice in light of the suspension of in-person worship during the Pandemic.

I thought it might be helpful to offer some background on the Eucharist, and decided to produce a series of videos on the topic. I’ve published the first three on Youtube.

Introduction to the Eucharist 1: The Witness of the New Testament: 

Introduction to the Eucharist 2: Early Christianity:

Introduction to the Eucharist 3: The Middle Ages:

I’m not sure how many more I will create, I’ve got at least 3 more in various stages of development. I encourage your feedback, comments, and questions. They may generate additional videos.

Loud noises and sheer silence: A Homily for Proper 14A, 2020

There are biblical texts that are so familiar to me that I feel like I know them word for word, at least in the NRSV version. That’s partly because I taught Intro to the Bible at least 20 times over the years. It’s also because I’ve been preaching regularly for fifteen years now, which means that I’ve been through the three-year lectionary cycle 5 times. But with parents who took their children to church at least three times a week while I was growing up, my history with these stories goes back much further—some of them seem as though they have entered the very marrow of my bones.

That’s certainly true of the story of Jesus walking on the water. It’s drama and special effects made it a standard of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School. It’s also true of the story from I Kings—Elijah’s encounter with God on Mt. Horeb. I know I’ve got a sermon on it somewhere in my files but curiously I couldn’t find it—which means I’ve never preached this text at Grace.

It’s a story full of emotion and theological significance. Elijah, the great prophet of Israel has fled to this place, Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai. He had just won a contest with the prophets of Baal, and should have been basking in victory and in God’s victory over the Canaanite deity. Instead, King Ahab put a bounty on his head and Elijah had to flee the kingdom. Fearing for his life and despondent about his failure to convert king and people, Elijah came here as the text says, to die.

But God had other plans. What happens next is remarkable. If you were to go back and look at Exodus 19, which is the story of the Israelites’ arrival at Mt. Sinai after fleeing the Egyptians, you would read about God’s appearance to them. There was an earthquake, a mighty wind, a fire. And then God spoke.

Here, centuries later, at the same place, God tells Elijah to come out of the cave so that he can pass by. The text then reads: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

The contrast couldn’t be more clear. In the first instance God appeared to Moses and the Israelites in earthquake, wind, and fire. Now God appears to Elijah after all of the special effects were over, as if to say that God is present not in the powers of nature, but in the power of words and silence. What comes next is a recommissioning of Elijah and an anointing, of him, the kings who will come after Ahab, and of Elisha, Elijah’s successor.

There are significant parallels here with the gospel story. It occurs immediately after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand-remember that the immediate context for that was Jesus receiving news that John the Baptist had been beheaded and his desire to go to a deserted place. Thwarted by the crowds, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead, while he went up the mountain to pray.

The disciples are crossing the sea of Galilee and are caught up in a storm. They struggle all night. When morning comes, they see Jesus on the water, walking toward them. Thinking they are seeing a ghost, they become frightened (first mention of this emotion in the story.” Jesus greets them with words that are common in biblical encounters of divine and human: “Be not afraid.”

But then comes an even more dramatic and significant dialogue. Peter enters the water, begins to sink, and cries out, “Save me!” Jesus reached out his hand, caught him, and said: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they arrived back in the boat, the storm ended, and the disciples worshiped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

These two stories speak powerfully to our situation. How many of us feel like we are drowning in a storm-tossed sea, that we’ve been in this mess forever and there seems to be no way out? How many of us are calling out to Jesus, “Save me!” right now? How many of us are doubting whether he is reaching out to take hold of us?

How many of us have been speaking truth to power? Advocating for justice and equality, crying out against corruption, and intolerance, and cruelty? How many of us are ready to give up as we watch the forces of evil grow and crush those who are working against injustice and oppression? How many of us want to flee out into the wilderness and die as Elijah planned?

Despair, fear, drowning. Those are all obvious responses to our situation. There seems to be no way out and the crises seem to heap up one on another with no end in sight.

Still, God came to Elijah in the wilderness, when he was at his weakest and deep in despair. God came to him, spoke to him, and empowered him to continue his work.

As Peter was drowning, he called out “Save me!” and Jesus reached out his hand and took him.

We can’t do it on our own. We should be at the end of our rope, sapped of energy and hope. We should be down in despair. But even here, when things look most bleak, when the storm rages most furiously, God is here.

Can we see him? Can we hear him? After earthquake, wind, and fire, after the sound of sheer silence, can we hear God speaking to us? In the midst of the storm, as we feel ourselves drowning, can we see Jesus’ hand reaching out to us, to save us?

God comes to us, in the middle of life, in the middle of our experiences, the suffering of the world, injustice and oppression. God comes to us, offering us grace, mercy, and love, to restore us and strengthen us, and to prepare us for the journey ahead. May we feel God’s healing and comforting power in our lives and may we respond in faith to God’s call to us to hope and to work for justice and peace.

A deserted place of healing and abundance: A homily for Proper 13A, 2020

Among the many challenges over the past months of safer at home, self-quarantine, and the suspension of worship, has been the sense that we are losing a sense of connection, not only with friends, family, and fellow parishioners, but with the very place where we worship, Grace Church. I was reminded of that fact a couple of days ago when we made a test run of our new hearing loop that has been installed in the church. Two long-time parishioners entered the church for the first time in four months to test the new system with their hearing aids. The good news is that everything worked great. At the same time, both mentioned how much they had missed the church and how good it was to be able to be in it again, if only for a few minutes.

Live-streamed worship is a wonderful thing. Thanks to the miracle of technology, we can see the space, hear the liturgy, and listen to the organ and soloist. But there’s so much missing—the sense of the light refracted through the stained glass windows, the unique and familiar smells of an old church, the sounds of the floor creaking, or the pews as we sit and move around.

Place is important geographically as well. And in this time of pandemic and protests, the presence of Grace Church on the square is a reminder of our mission to help heal our city, and to share the good news of God’s love in the midst of division and suffering.

While we may not think so, place is always important in the gospels. There’s Jerusalem, of course, and I have mentioned repeatedly the importance to the synoptic gospels of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, with that growing sense of drama as he draws nearer to his fate. But geographical references are important in other ways. In today’s reading, we are told that “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” It wasn’t that deserted because crowds soon gathered around him. Still, we should imagine it to be something like a wilderness, far enough from any town to make traveling difficult, and remote enough that there were no easy provisions to be had.

The reason Jesus sought seclusion comes in the previous section of the gospel. There, Matthew tells of Herod killing John the Baptist, and it’s in response to that news that Jesus withdraws. The feeding of the five thousand takes on additional significance in light of this. We are offered a contrast between these two scenes, which reflect not only the difference between Herod and Jesus, but also between Herod’s court and the gathering around Jesus, the celebration of Herod’s birthday that culminated in the presentation of John the Baptist’s head on a platter with Jesus’ healing the sick and teaching the crowd, and finally offering them loaves and fishes. It’s the contrast between the power and violence of the Roman Empire, and God’s reign. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness calls to mind earlier stories as well—especially the Exodus, when the Israelites feasted on miraculous manna and quail after God delivered them from bondage to another empire, that of Pharaoh and Egypt.

Think of the contrast between those two scenes. On the one hand, a royal banquet, with all of the power and wealth on display, indulging every appetite and desire. It was meant not only to celebrate the birthday of Herod, but like all such banquets in the Hellenistic world, it was meant to display his power, and symbolize his place in the Roman order, as well as the places in that hierarchy of everyone in attendance.

On the other hand, a deserted place, where a crowd gathered to hear Jesus. There was no power and wealth on display. Instead, what was visible was Jesus’ compassion and gift for healing, restoring health to the diseased and infirm. And then, instead of exotic foods gathered from across the empire, a few loaves and fishes.

 

Jesus asks for the loaves and fishes. Then, in language that Matthew will also use to describe his actions at the Last Supper, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, gives to the disciples the bread and the fish. All eat and are satisfied and there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Matthew, as do the other gospel writers, makes a connection between this miraculous feeding and that other miraculous meal, the Last Supper, the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with his closest friends and companions; he shared his body and blood. When he fed the five thousand, his gift of sustenance in the wilderness was a sign of God’s reign, a symbol of the abundance that is promised in the age to come; a symbol, too, of the bread of life he offers us.

In this contrast between royal banquet and simple meal we are offered a symbol of the world in which we live today. At a time when our political elites dither and some display their power and wealth even as they amass greater amounts, millions are threatened with eviction, food insecurity, and the end of unemployment insurance. Already we are seeing longer lines at food banks and pantries across the country. The poor grow poorer while billionaires grow wealthier.

Perhaps we look with a bit of envy on the ostentatious consumption by the 1% but as we gather around the Lord’s table, we are offered the abundance of bread and wine at the Eucharistic feast. We eat the bread of angels and it is food enough.

As we eat and are satisfied, we are also called—to offer food to the hungry, to fight for justice, and to call out the hypocrisy, oppression, and exploitation of the economic system that has left so many behind. May we invite all to partake of the food offered here, to eat and be satisfied, transformed by the vision of God’s reign proclaimed by Jesus and by the Eucharistic feast.