Hometowns and Sending out: A homily for Proper 9B, 2021

Proper 9, Year B

July 4, 2021

So today is the 4th of July. Especially this year, I am approaching this day with mixed emotions. It’s not just that it’s on a Sunday so marking it in some way seems inevitable, necessary. By the way, did you know that in the Episcopal liturgical calendar, there’s an official observance of the 4th of July with its own lessons and a collect? Like other such observances however, Sunday takes precedence, so if we were to observe the 4th of July here at Grace, we would do it tomorrow. 

With all that’s happened in the last era—the war on terror and in Iraq and Afghanistan; police violence and black lives matter; gun violence; the January 6 insurrection; the assault on democracy and voting rights; the attack on the teaching of American history and the teaching of systemic racism—it’s hard to figure out just how to observe this day, especially when Independence Day didn’t mean “independence” for many residents of our nation for many, many years.

For me, there’s an added complexity this year because my memory is still fresh, and I am still processing, emotionally and theologically the afternoon we spent with Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the HoChunk this week. Hearing his stories, learning more about the treatment of the HoChunk and other Wisconsin tribes by settlers and by the state and federal government, and in spite of that receiving gracious words and an expressed desire to develop relationships with Grace Church, other Madison organizations, and the Wisconsin Council of Churches, was both awe-inspiring and humbling. 

With all of these issues in our wider culture, our efforts to find a way of celebrating this day openly and honestly seem especially fraught, and to do it in a Christian Church, an Episcopal Church, adds another layer of complexity as we think about the ways that American Christianity has been tied up with nationalism and the good and bad of American history. We might want simply to ignore it all; to let the observances of the 4th of July pass unnoticed in our Sunday morning worship, left to barbeques and fireworks, and the like.

When we turn to the lectionary, as distraction, or escape, or perhaps, today, even for inspiration, we are confronted again with some of the ways that Jesus in Mark unsettles and disturbs our conventional thinking and perspective.

Jesus is coming home again after his preaching and healing tours that took him beyond Galilee, across the Jordan and back. Mark tells us that he went to the synagogue on the sabbath. That’s where he began his public ministry, in Capernaum, but we saw him visiting the synagogue in his hometown earlier in the gospel. Then, you may recall, he found himself in conflict with Jewish religious authorities and with his own family members.

This episode plays out in similar fashion. But now, it’s the local populace that takes offense at Jesus’ words. They know him; they remember him as a boy; they know his family. Who gave him the right to say these things? 

There is more going on here; it’s not just the hometown trying to put the uppity local boy back into his place. We might think about this whole episode tactically. If you’re about to go out and challenge the status quo, preach the good news of the coming of God’s reign, wouldn’t you want to go back where it all started, in hopes of getting support from the people who know and love you best? 

But they reject him, and in turn he rejects them. He turns his back on them and sends his disciples out into the countryside to teach and heal. One more thing, before moving on to the next section. While we’ve seen Jesus teaching publicly in the synagogue repeatedly up to this point, in Mark’s gospel, this the last such appearance. From now, Jesus’ teaching will take place elsewhere, in the streets and in the fields, in people’s homes around meals.

Which brings us to another way of linking these two sections; Jesus’ rejection in his hometown and the sending out of the disciples. The instructions Jesus gives are suggestive. The disciples are well-equipped for the journey with staff and sandals, but not with the means of sustenance, food, money, or extra clothes. They will be utterly dependent on the hospitality of others. As Ched Myers points out in his brilliant Mark commentary, “Binding the Strong Man” the disciples, “like Jesus who has just been renounced in his own ‘home’, are to take on the status of a sojourner in the land.” For Mark, putting on sandals is a metaphor for discipleship.

We will have a great deal more to say about discipleship in the gospel of Mark. What it means to follow Jesus will only become clear as we work through the next sections of the gospel, and especially as we recall Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, his arrest and execution. For now, it’s worth thinking about the contrast between the hometown and family that rejected Jesus, and the community of followers (whoever does the will of my Father is my mother and brothers and sisters) that Jesus gathers around himself and then here sounds out as an extension of his own ministry.

Like the 4th of July, hometowns can evoke a great deal of nostalgia. We often remember with great fondness the places where we grew up; or the way those places were when we were growing up. We may even recall hometown 4th of July celebrations that were community events, with parades and fireworks. But the stories our hometowns tell about themselves, the stories we have internalized, are often quite one-sided. That was one of the lessons I learned from Bill Quackenbush this week. He told HoChunk stories about the area that I had never heard before and helped me to see this land with new eyes.

For some of us, of course, remembering our hometowns can bring back bad memories, even trauma. We may have left the moment we were able, and never looked back. But nonetheless, they tug at our emotions and heartstrings. Even if our experience of them was painful, the dream of perfect childhood, a perfect place can continue to hold us captive.

As hard as it may seem, and in our current climate, it may seem even more difficult, following Jesus means leaving behind those old certainties and old stories. Following Jesus means entering into a new story—the story of a community gathered together by Jesus, a community of people tied together by shared faith, not by common ethnicity, national origin, or socioeconomic class. The story in which we are invited to become characters is a story of personal transformation and social change. It is a story that challenges complacency, nostalgia, and the status quo. It is the story of God’s reign coming. May we have the ears to hear this story as Mark tells it, and the courage to share it with others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Epiphany

February 7, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow me! A Homily for 3 Epiphany, 2021

I was surprised when I went back through the sermons I’ve preached on this set of propers over the years. It turns out I’ve always focused on the Jonah text. There are two likely reasons for this. The first is that this is the only time we read from Jonah in the three-year lectionary, so it’s my only opportunity to preach on it, and your only opportunity to hear a sermon on it. The second reason I’ve always focused on Jonah is because it’s a wonderful story full of drama, and more than a little humor. But if you want to know my take on Jonah, go to my blog and run a search for Jonah.

The reading from Jonah points to a central theme in today’s lessons, the issue of call. We see that emphasis in the collect as well:

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, and to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation…”

Vocation, call—words we hear a lot. We use vocation to describe our chosen profession or career path, even though originally it had a specifically religious sense. It was used to describe what nuns and monks had, a vocation to the religious life. We don’t use call interchangeably with vocation, now call often refers only to the call to ministry. 

 But as is clear from the collect, if not obvious in the gospel, is that “call” is not only for those of us in or exploring the ordained ministry. Call pertains to all of us. Call can come to us in many ways. It can be obvious and overwhelming, like St. Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. It can also be very different—a gentle tug on our heartstrings as we discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives pointing us in a new direction, leading us down a different path into the unknown. 

In last week’s gospel, we heard part of John’s version of Jesus’ calling the disciples. Today, from the gospel of Mark, we hear a different version, no less dramatic. In its brevity, it leaves us with more questions than answers, and tantalizes our imaginations. Before digging into the text itself, I would like to step back and say a few things about the gospel of Mark as a whole, and about the context in which our reading appears.

Mark is the shortest of the gospels and likely was the first to be written. In fact, we might say that Mark invented the genre of gospel. What he is writing is not a biography of Jesus. He’s not interested in the details of Jesus’ life, where he came from, who his parents were. He’s not that interested in Jesus’ teaching and preaching. While he does record some parables and sayings of Jesus, much of what we know about the content of Jesus’ preaching comes from the other gospels. There’s an old saying, “Mark is a passion narrative with an introduction”—that is to say, the last week of Jesus’ life, from the entry into Jerusalem to his burial takes up a major part of the gospel.

So what is Mark about? It is about the coming of God’s kingdom; inbreaking of God’s reign, ushered in by Jesus challenging the powers and principalities of the world and Satan himself. He makes that clear in the gospel’s very first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”—and immediately after that—“immediately” by the way is one of Mark’s favorite word, expressing the urgency of his work, and the urgency of Jesus’ ministry. Immediately after that, Mark introduces John the Baptizer.  Then, in just a handful of verses, Mark tells of Jesus’ baptism by John and Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness.

That brings us today’s gospel reading. Again, in a very few words, Mark depicts the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Importantly, it begins only after John is arrested, so that demonstration of political resistance to the coming of God’s reign looms over Jesus. It’s also significant that Jesus waits until John is off the scene before appearing publicly. Mark wants to downplay any notion of competition between the two, suggesting instead that Jesus is in continuity with John’s work. The uninitiated reader would have no idea what Mark meant by this terse summary of Jesus’ message: “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” That will only become apparent later.

Instead, and perhaps not a logical progression, instead of giving examples of what Jesus said, Mark moves to the calling of the disciples. Here, too, we’re left with more answers than questions. If a stranger came up to you as you were working and said, “Come follow me,” would you do that? Would you leave your family and your livelihood for a life of uncertainty? And what about the world they are leaving behind? How would old Zebedee make it with his fishing business without the help of his two sons? Mark’s not interested in those questions. He’s driven by other things—the urgency of the matter at hand, Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of God’s reign, and, as we shall see throughout the coming year as we read the gospel of Mark, the implications of our response to Jesus’ call, specifically, what it means to follow Jesus, to be one of his disciples.

Now Mark is writing at a specific historical moment—as the Jewish revolt is being suppressed by Roman legions around the year 70 and he is writing to a beleaguered and frightened community, struggling to make sense of these momentous events, and also trying to understand what it means to be followers of Jesus a generation or so after his crucifixion and resurrection, when the promised Kingdom of God seems not to have come.

We are living in perilous times ourselves but in many ways our lives are very different than those of first-century Christians, and so our response to Jesus’ call may be very different as well. He is asking us to follow him but he may not be asking us to abandon our lives and families, our livelihoods, our jobs, yes, our vocations. Sometimes I even wonder whether “discipleship” is even a very useful term for us in the twenty-first century world. It’s one of those churchy buzz words that may be more off-putting than lifegiving and restricts our imaginations. Still, Mark uses it repeatedly; it’s one of the most important themes of the gospel, so we need to take it seriously.

In my homily last week, I urged you to think about ways of breaking down the walls in our souls that keep us from seeing and experiencing God, to make space to listen to God. That’s an important step but it’s not enough. Sometimes I think our focus on the all-encompassing nature of “discipleship” in the gospels lets us off the hook. We know we can’t do that, we know we can’t leave our homes, families, and jobs to follow Jesus, so we think that none of what Jesus says, or that he is indeed calling us to follow him, applies to us. 

But I wonder, if you break down those walls, if you make space for God, if you open your ears to the voice of Jesus calling you, I wonder what you might hear and how he is asking you to respond? He calls us into relationship, he proclaims to us the forgiveness of our sins, and invites us to receive the gift of God’s grace. But he is also remaking us in his image as his followers. What is Jesus nudging you toward? What opportunities do you have in your life right now, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to work for justice and peace, to offer love to your neighbor or to an enemy? As we open our hearts to God, as we respond to Jesus’ call, may we also show forth his love, and share the good news in our daily lives and work.ser

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday Crosses, ashy, oily, woody: A homily for Ash Wednesday, 2020

I have had many memorable Ash Wednesdays. There was the first year I officiated at an Ash Wednesday service as a layperson. There was 2011, the year of the Act 10 protests, when the final vote occurred during our evening liturgy and we could hear the demonstrations as we knelt for the Litany of Penitence.

But perhaps my most memorable Ash Wednesday only became that in retrospect. A few years ago, I put ashes on the forehead of a dying parishioner. It was the first time she was in church after beginning chemotherapy earlier that year, and I recognized her only because she was accompanied by her daughter whose face was familiar to me. A few weeks later, she would die and I would officiate at her funeral and burial.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Those words, these ashes are a sign of our mortality, a reminder to us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that our bodies will return to the earth.

Those words weigh heavily on my soul when I say them to myself each year, and their weight accumulates on me as I say them to you. I suspect they weigh heavily on you as well, as they challenge all of us to reflect on our mortality, to admit to ourselves who we are—dust and ashes, and that we will once more be dust and ashes, that all of our efforts to the contrary, all of our attempts to hold death at bay will come to nothing.

But contemplation of our nature, our provenance and end, is not an end in itself. We do this ritual, we make this strange gesture, we wear this smudge on our forehead to remind us of who we are and to remind us also of who God is. For it is God who made us out of the dust of the earth. It is God who has given us life and all that we have. Yet like our fear and desperate attempts to ignore our mortality, to fight the finality of death, so too do we often find ourselves running away from or ignoring God. We construct defenses; we try to hide. We put in place of God all manner of idols that we worship and pursue: financial success or security, fame, power; bright, shiny possessions; or the thrill of new experiences.

Cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads, the admonition “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” lay bare the emptiness of all those pursuits. They break down the barriers, strip our defenses, leave us kneeling before God our maker and redeemer.

Our empty selves, our vain hopes, brought to nothing by those words, leaving us with broken and contrite hearts. It is then that we can encounter God, stripped of our defenses, and open ourselves to deeper relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.

We carry the ashy cross on our foreheads for a few hours, a day if we’re careful. But we’re just as likely to brush it off intentionally as soon as we leave church, or perhaps unintentionally, when it vanishes as we take off our winter hats or caps.

There’s a cross marked on us that is permanent, indelible, that can’t be brushed or washed off. It’s made with the same gestures, my thumb making the sign of the cross on foreheads, but with oil of chrism instead of ashes. And I say something quite different as well.

Instead of, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the words I say on Ash Wednesday, after baptizing someone, I dip my thumb in oil of chrism, and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized, saying while I do it, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

We bear that cross all of our lives, even if it is invisible. It is the mark of our belonging to Christ, the mark of our faith. And just as the cross of ash reminds us of our mortality, the cross marked in oil is a sign of who we truly are and of our ultimate destiny. We are beloved children of God.

We can forget that identity; as the cross is invisible, it can be forgotten under the weight of our sin and our doubts. But it may be that just as our foreheads are marked with ashes, the ash works as an abrasive, removing all of the accretions, so that our baptismal crosses are visible to ourselves and to the world. We are Christ’s own forever.

Of course, the Season of Lent has us think about another cross, the cross that looms ahead at the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. It’s a journey on which we are invited to accompany Jesus, to walk with him as his disciples and followers. When Jesus explained to his disciples what it meant to follow him, he said, “If you would be my disciples, take up your cross and follow me.”

We are carrying crosses today; these smudges of ash on our forehead. We carry that other cross on our forehead as well, the sign that we are Christ’s own forever. Lent encourages us to embrace another cross, the cross of discipleship, growing into our identities as followers of Jesus. As we walk this way of Lent, may we find it a time when we confront our mortality, claim our identity as children of God, and grow more deeply Christ-like as we accompany him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on us: A Sermon for Proper 25B, 2018

 This is a week that has been filled with meetings—with downtown leaders, with the Outreach Committee, the Creating More Just Community group, the taskforce working on issues around the redevelopment of our block, with ecumenical colleagues across the state, with grieving family members, families preparing for baptisms, and couples about to be married. I was so busy that I barely had a chance to take in the excitement of Grace’s participation in the downtown trick-or-treating on Wednesday, when thousands were welcomed to Grace and heard the spooky playing of our own Mark Brampton Smith. I did get to see the photos and videos that Pat posted to our facebook page and show all of the fun and excitement that was taking place.

Accompanying all of that, all week, has been the sound of the bells, as the technicians completed their work in time for this afternoon’s evensong and bells rededication. Many of us are looking ahead to events here at Grace, making plans for the coming months, talking about new opportunities for ministry and mission, or opportunities for deepening relationships among members in the congregation. The excitement is palpable all over Grace and in the soundwaves above and beyond Grace.

This week has also been a week of hatred and violence, with bombs sent in the mail, the killings of African-Americans in Kentucky, and then yesterday the shocking murders of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Whatever excitement and joy we may feel here at Grace as we gather this morning to celebrate a baptism and as we celebrate our newly refurbished bells is tempered by the grief, sadness, and anger we feel at the deep divisions in our nation, at the violence and hatred that surrounds us and threatens so many. Continue reading

The Third Time wasn’t the Charm: A Sermon for Proper 24B, 2018

We’re drawing near to the end of our reading of the Gospel of Mark this year. The past weeks, we have been accompanying Jesus and his disciples as they walk toward Jerusalem. They are now in Judea, the province where Jerusalem is located. As they near Jerusalem, the dangers and possibilities that await them come to dominate the narrative. It’s as if they can see the temple mount on the horizon as they walk.

We don’t know what the disciples were expecting. From Mark’s depiction of them, it seems likely that they thought they had signed up for a divine mission; that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and confronted Rome, God would intervene in history and restore the Kingdom of David and the Kingdom of God. Continue reading

Difficult conversations on our journey with Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, 2018

One of the things about my job that is both wonderful and at times frustrating is that among many other things, I get paid to talk to people. And while some of those conversations can be uncomfortable and difficult, many of them are opportunities to get to know people, to hear about their spiritual journeys, to learn about their struggles, their hopes and passions, and sit with them in the midst of their pain and suffering.

This week, I’ve met with a number of interesting people, among them a college student who wanted to talk to me about his senior thesis (that’s something I haven’t done in almost ten years); a young Roman Catholic woman who is searching for a new church home. There were also several homeless or nearly homeless people There were also conversations with people curious about the proposed development project on our block. Continue reading

Transfiguration and Discipleship: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2018

As most of you know, last week I was on a silent retreat at the monastery of the Society for St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. For four days, I worshiped, prayed, and ate with the brothers and other retreatants, most of whose names I never learned because of the silence that was observed most of the time. It takes me a while to adapt to that setting but the routine of the daily office that begins with Morning Prayer at 6:00 am and ends with Compline at 8:30 pm helps me adjust to a different pace and rhythm of life, and to refocus my energy and attention on God.

On Thursday evening, as I sat in the Romanesque style chapel waiting for the beginning of Evening Prayer, the beauty of the space, the thoughts of the monks chanting, and the incense that was billowing up into the rafters made me realize what a unique place it was, and how fortunate I was to be able to spend almost a week of my time there. I thought to myself, “It is good that I am here.” For a moment, I wondered what it might be like to worship there everyday, either as a monk or as one of those few laypeople who come to almost every service. Beautiful spaces, beautiful worship that engages all of the senses can help us experience the divine and deepen our relationship with God. Such worship restores, transforms, and revives us. Continue reading