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

Proper 17, Year B

August 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

He is not here, he is risen: A Sermon for Easter, 2021

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

The traditional Easter acclamation rings hollow in empty churches today. Whatever joy we may feel on this Easter is tempered by the reality of our celebration. Instead of a church packed to the rafters, with most of us dressed in Easter finery; instead of brass, choir, and the voices of hundreds singing “Hail thee, festival day” and “Christ the Lord is risen today” we have soloists, recordings, livestreamed worship. Most of us are sitting at home, on our couches or at a kitchen table dressed in comfortable clothes or even, perhaps pajamas, with a cup of coffee instead of a hymnal in our hands. 

Yet all around us are also signs of new life and reasons for hope. As the pace of vaccinations continues to increase, we can glimpse and begin to plan for life after pandemic, and lockdowns, and isolation. Spring seems to be on its way. The bulbs in our garden are beginning to show flowers, and there’s clump of daffodils blooming in the courtyard garden here at the church. We are also beginning to make plans to return to public worship in the near future.

Still, the waiting continues and many of us remain anxious about the present and the future, even as we chafe at the continued restrictions and limits on our activities. It’s a difficult time, an in-between time, a time of waiting. 

The gospel of Mark was written in just such a time of waiting and anxiety; written for a community struggling to find a way forward in uncertain times, in the midst of violence, and as the old faith that had brought them into being as followers of Jesus was running up against new realities and new challenges.

The challenges facing Mark’s community are symbolized by the gospel’s ending, here, at the empty tomb. Mark leaves us hanging with the sentence: “And the women fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” 

Now, this is no way to end a gospel, no way to tell the story of Easter and of resurrection. If you go to your bible and look up Mark 16, you will see that in most English bibles the Gospel of Mark doesn’t in fact end with v. 8, but has 8 additional verses, often set off in brackets or with asterisks. For while the earliest and most reliable manuscripts end with verse 8 and the women’s silence and fear, very quickly editors and copyists sought to provide a more suitable ending to the gospel, one that included appearances of the Risen Christ to the disciples.

But imagine those women as they came to the tomb. Mark tells us that they had come with Jesus from Galilee, that they had walked with him and the other, the male disciples, learning from, watching him as he healed the sick and cast out demons. Mark says that they had ministered to him along the way. They had heard him proclaiming the coming of God’s reign. They had been among the small group that had staged what we call “the triumphal entry into Jerusalem” casting their coats and tree branches on the road as Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey, a clear allusion to the Davidic monarchy.

They had watched as he turned over the moneychangers temples and silenced his opponents with clever debating tactics. And then, had they been there at the last supper? Mark doesn’t tell us, but they were at the crucifixion, watching from afar. 

All their hopes were dashed; their grief at the execution of their beloved teacher and friend overwhelming. And like Jesus, they were probably alone. The male disciples, easily distinguished by their Galileean accents were laying low, probably trying to figure out how to escape the city and Roman troops without notice. 

But the women came to the tomb, as women have done for millennia; to grieve, and to once again, minister to their loved one, to prepare his body for burial. It was probably a mourning ritual they had done before for other loved ones, but likely none was done with the grief and despair that accompanied them this morning.

And then, an empty tomb, a man clothed in white telling them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, that they were tell the others and go meet him in Galilee. 

Why wouldn’t they be afraid? The tomb had been robbed of their loved one’s body; they received a strange, incomprehensible message, they were to take the risky journey out of their hiding place in the city and go back to Galilee. 

Mark leaves us hanging with this grief and fear. He leaves us frustrated, unsatisfied. Why did he tell the story this way, why doesn’t he end it on a high note with all of the blockbuster special effects we’ve come to expect?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question, to go back and read through the gospel again, full of mystery and ambiguity, to wonder and imagine what he might want his readers to know about “The good news of Jesus Christ, son of God”—a gospel that begins with certainty and ends here, in fear, terror, amazement, silence.

We are like those women, peering into an empty tomb. We are looking back, in fear, despair, disappointment, and anger. More than a year of disrupted lives, suffering, isolation. Two Easters now observed, I won’t say “celebrated” with live-streamed worship. More than a year since many of you have tasted the body of Christ in the sacrament; a year away from friends, family, the body of Christ gathered in community.

Our yearnings are clear, we can feel them in the marrow of our bones. If not to go back to the way things were in 2019 but an intense desire to return to this place, to public worship, to singing, and fellowship.

You are peering into an empty church as those women peered into an empty tomb. The same message resounds: “He is not here, he is risen!” 

We are being called not to return to the past, but to make our way into the future, to meet Christ, not at the empty tomb or in the empty church, but out there, in Galilee, in the streets and neighborhoods of our city, in the world. We are called to imagine a new church, a new community, inspired by the risen Christ helping to heal and rebuild our city and the lives of our neighbors. 

We are called to meet the risen Christ who is going before us into the future. There we will see him, for he is risen. There we will encounter the risen Christ in the new life and new world that is emerging through his resurrection.

That Christ is risen gives us hope. That Christ is risen reminds us that the powers of evil, Satan and his forces, do not have the last word, will not vanquish. That Christ is risen shows us the possibility and reality of new life, of new creation, of God’s reign breaking into our lives and into our world, making all things new, remaking us, in God’s image.

That Christ is risen  gives us strength and courage to imagine a new world emerging, new community where God’s justice reigns, where prisoners are released, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, where the barriers that divide us crumble. 

That Christ is risen gives us hope and courage to build a new community, to rebuild our neighborhood justly and equitably. We see signs of that already in the recent announcement that the boys and girls club will be our neighbors on Capitol Square, a symbol that this neighborhood belongs to our whole city, not just the few.

May we have the courage and hope to heed the call to go out and meet the Risen Christ where he is; and in our encounters with him, may our hearts burn with love and hope as we are healed and as we work toward the healing of our city and world.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Transfigured lives, transfigured Lent: A Homily for Last Epiphany, 2021

Last Epiphany

February 14, 2021

This past week I’ve been working on our parochial report, the annual report we make to the diocese and to denominational offices concerning membership, attendance, baptisms, funerals, and our financial activity for the year. This information provides the basis for our annual diocesan assessment as well as serving as a benchmark for growth or decline, or relative health of the congregation. The instrument has seen significant changes over the past years in response to ongoing conversations about how best to assess congregational vitality. Questions concerning outreach programs like food pantries and homeless shelters have been added. This year has seen even more radical changes, as we were asked to calculate average Sunday attendance for January and February of 2020, there were questions about virtual services, and a narrative section that asks to reflect on the challenges and opportunities posed by the pandemic.

All of this has encouraged me to reflect on our and my experiences over the last 11 months. My other main task for these last few weeks has been to think about Ash Wednesday, Lent, and look ahead to Holy Week. All of that reflection has played into my homilies as well, as one of my persistent questions while preparing them is how to help all of us listen and reflect on scripture and our current experience, which is so dominated by events on the national stage, and our experience of pandemic.

At the same time, I increasingly feel a disjuncture between the rhythms of the liturgical year and our lives in pandemic. Our usual observances of Easter, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany have been muted—quite literally so because of our inability to raise our voices in song. As we enter our second pandemic Lent, I suspect that the internal spiritual resources available to us for the observation of a Holy Lent are rather depleted. Moreover, the emotional and spiritual effects of gathering together for celebrations are unavailable to us. As others have pointed out, it sometimes feels as if we’ve been in Lent for almost a year…

Which brings us to this point in the lectionary and liturgical year: the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent is only a few days away and whatever we are doing to celebrate the changing season, our celebrations lack the excitement and excess of other years—there is no Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for example. Our gospel reading today is, as it is every year on this Sunday the story of the Transfiguration, that eerie, otherworldly encounter of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop.

It’s a profound story, rich in biblical imagery and symbolism, closely tied to the rest of Mark’s gospel with its resonances to the story of Jesus’ baptism that we heard on the first Sunday of this season after Epiphany, and to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But as should be obvious after hearing the reading from II Kings, it also draws on earlier stories and traditions, with the presence of Moses and Elijah, the whole prophetic tradition, and the many stories of theophanies, or appearances of the divine, on mountain tops beginning with Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai.

Our attention is quite naturally drawn to the supernatural elements, to the special effects. We want to know what happened, if it happened, what Jesus looked like, all of that. Those of us of a more skeptical bent might be inclined to disregard the whole thing, mark it up to the fanciful imaginings of a first-century peasant.

To do so is to underestimate the gospel writer’s genius and the message he wants to convey to his readers. There are a number of ways that this story echoes and builds on the account of Jesus’ baptism. There’s the obvious connection—the voice from heaven, speaking now to the disciples, not to Jesus, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

Though not explicitly stated, as at the baptism where we are told that the heavens are torn open, we see a fracture in the barrier dividing heaven and earth. Now it’s not a dove but heavenly messengers, prophets themselves, who come down and walk with Jesus. 

And this story looks ahead to the crucifixion; the final, climactic confession that Jesus is the Son of God, made now not by a voice from heaven, but from the executioner, the centurion. And then too, barriers will be torn apart, the curtain in the temple being torn in two. 

This is a story that confirms Jesus’ identity and mission both for us and for his disciples. But even in that confirmation, it undercuts traditional messianic expectations. For while the presence of Moses and Elijah might lead us to conclude, as it seems to have done for Peter, that Jesus fits into those hopes of a restoration of Israel’s royal power, its conclusion suggests that something quite different is happening.

First, as in so many other places in Mark, just as people, or demons, or unclean spirits seem to identify Jesus as the Messiah, or Holy One, or Son of God, Jesus rebukes them and silences them, telling them not to tell anyone about this until after his resurrection from the dead. So instead of ending on a note of triumph and power, the story ends by foreshadowing what is to come—Jesus’ rejection by the political and religious establishment, by his disciples, left to die alone on the cross, a victim of the forces arrayed against God’s reign of love and justice.

There are a couple of details in Peter’s response to the transfiguration that should speak to us. First, he calls Jesus “rabbi” a term of authority within 1st-century Judaism. It’s a term of respect and honor, but it is also evidence that he hasn’t quite got the point. Just before this story, Peter made his great confession that Jesus was the Messiah—now he seems to suggest that he is merely a human teacher within a religious institution. The second is the reference to “booths” an allusion to the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness and to the festival of sukkoth, but also an allusion to a certain kind of messianic expectation—of the restoration of Israel. 

Peter’s expectations and understanding of Jesus is shaped by his hopes, his political interests, and his religious background. He is overwhelmed by spectacle, by Jesus’ miraculous transfiguration and the mysterious appearance of Moses and Elijah. 

And there is where we come in. We too are tempted by miracle, by spectacle. We love the celebration, the emotional uplift, getting caught up in the effervescence of large gatherings filled with music. We get caught up in it, and it seems to be enough to carry us forward to assure us in our faith.

Mark is here to remind us that Jesus is about something quite different than all of that—not the spectacle, but the suffering. Jesus is here about the suffering of the sick and possessed, the downtrodden. Jesus is here because he is God’s beloved child, as are we. His journey leads to the cross where he will die alone, an anguished cry on his lips. But the story doesn’t end there.

In our experience of the last year when so much of our lives have seemed cramped and ordinary, when familiar pastimes have given way to solitude and the pleasures of spectacle and celebration are just distant memories, we yearn for something deeper, more powerful. We yearn for the emotional strength that comes from gathering with others and from the familiar rituals of our faith. 

As we look ahead to the season of Lent in the midst of our continuing struggles, may we seek Jesus in the ordinary places of our lives and in the dark and grieving corners of our souls. May we find him beckoning to us, reaching out his arms to us from the cross. May we open ourselves to him, as he comes to us, not meeting our expectations and desires, but creating new ones, experiencing his love in new ways, and sharing that love with the world in which we live. 

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? A Homily for 4 Epiphany B, 2021

4 Epiphany

January 31, 2021

Yesterday, we held our vestry retreat. As with so many things over the past 10 months, we had to adapt our practices the realities of social distancing, so we held it over zoom, and for a much briefer period than we would in normal years. We did the usual beginning of new year things, appointed some officers, discussed the 2021 budget and the like. We also took some time to talk about what we missed about church and to begin thinking about how to prepare ourselves as leaders, and the people of Grace for our common life and worship as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.

Almost everyone who spoke about what they missed mentioned something about the beauty of Grace Church, the sacred space into which we enter each week and where we worship. Some of us talked about the opportunities we’ve had over the last 10 months to spend time by ourselves in the nave, being in silence with God, and experiencing the sights, sounds, and sounds of an old church.

One thing no one mentioned was missing the occasional disruption to our worship—the noise on the square, a police officer interrupting worship to warn us that our cars might be towed, or a homeless person sleeping in a back pew whose snores finally became too loud to ignore, or a someone beginning to shout.

Jesus is confronted by such an encounter during his visit to the synagogue in Capernaum as he begins his public ministry in the Gospel of Mark. And given our own memories of those disruptions to our services in the past, we are likely to try to interpret this story in light of our own experiences. We are also very likely to seek explanations from our world and worldviews. So a man with an unclean spirit becomes someone suffering from mental illness or epilepsy, or some other condition with which we are familiar and which our medical and social establishments have named and categorized.

But that’s precisely the wrong interpretive move to make. When we try to reinterpret phenomena like an unclean spirit into terms that are comprehensible to us, we fail to see the power that those phenomena had or still have in traditional societies. In the case of this particular story, to ignore the power of the unclean spirit robs us of the ability to see what’s really at stake here—for while it is a story of Jesus dealing with an unclean spirit, more fundamentally, it is a story about power, or to use the story’s language—authority.

In fact, if you think carefully about it, the one who creates the disturbance in the synagogue is Jesus, not the man with the unclean spirit. For when he confronts Jesus, he asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In other words, he is questioning Jesus’ right to be in the synagogue, and presumably to be teaching there. Jesus has already upset things for his teaching was as “one with authority” not as the scribes. And of course, it was the scribes who had the right to be teaching in the synagogue, and the authority to do so.

Jesus’ authority is further demonstrated when he casts out the unclean spirit and we hear the onlookers’ response: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

One more thing. This is how Mark starts his story of Jesus’ public ministry. Like Luke, who has Jesus begin his public ministry by teaching in a synagogue (in Luke it’s Nazareth, however, and we get a synopsis of Jesus’ sermon), in Mark, we hear nothing of what he has to say, but rather this confrontation with a man with an unclean spirit. It points to one of Mark’s most important themes—that in Jesus we see the coming of God’s reign, but that this coming involves a confrontation with the evil and demonic forces that oppose it. 

Here is where we might find a way of bringing the themes of this text into our world and our lives. Without trying to explain away the presence of this unclean spirit confronting Jesus, we can see clearly the evil and demonic forces in our world—racism, sexism, the assault on truth, white supremacy, violence, intolerance, rampant individualism, unfettered capitalism. We are seeing played out in our culture what seems to be a battle between good and evil, a battle that takes place on the streets of our cities, in our state and national capitol, in grocery stores and vaccine lines.

In the midst of our struggles, as we watch these battles playing out, the Gospel of Mark suggests that the first and perhaps most important step is to name the demons in our midst. By naming them, we begin to have power over them. That may be one reason Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be silent, not to name him. We can see in our daily news the consequences when people are to afraid or unwilling to name evil—it is allowed to grow and become more powerful.

But a second step is prayer. We often think that prayer is a last resort and it has become commonplace to ridicule the call for “thoughts and prayers” after national or local tragedies. But prayer is not always an act of compliance or resignation. It can be an act of resistance and it can or should be an act of faith. When we pray, we are struggling within ourselves against the temptations of despair or unbelief. When we pray that God will bring justice and peace, we are imagining God’s reign coming into being on earth, we are expressing our hope and faith that God is acting in history to liberate God’s people, free prisoners and captives, give sight to the blind, and bind up the broken-hearted.

Mark’s Jesus isn’t comfortable or warm and fuzzy, reassuring us that we’re ok. Mark’s Jesus speaks and acts with authority; he confronts the powers and principalities. Mark’s Jesus challenges our complacence and complicity. It may be that when he comes among us, as he came into the synagogue in Capernaum and taught with authority, that we are the ones who would cry out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” 

May Jesus’ authority inspire and fill us as we seek to follow him, to speak with authority, to name and cast out demons and unclean spirits. May Mark’s Jesus inspire us to speak boldly about and to the evil we see, and to heal the wounds of the suffering, and bring justice to the oppressed. 

Follow me! A Homily for 3 Epiphany, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transgressing Boundaries: A Sermon for Proper 8, Year B, 2018

As we work through the Gospel of Mark this year, two key structural themes worth attending to are geography and boundaries. One of the challenges presented to us when we read the gospel primarily, perhaps only by means of the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary, is that it’s often difficult to grasp the significance of these larger themes.

So, for example, geography. Today’s gospel provides us with precious little geographical orientation, only the phrase “When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side.” Continue reading

Our journey into the heart of God: A Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2018

“Love so amazing, so divine, demands our souls, our lives, our all.”

Palm Sunday is a rich, powerful, conflicted day in the life of the church. We begin with hosannas, palms, and praise, and end with silence and the cross. Each year, our hearts churn with emotion as we hear again the story of the last week of Jesus’ life and begin the journey that will pass through Maundy Thursday, lead to Good Friday, and the silence of Holy Saturday. We enter into the drama, participate as we wave our branches and shout, “Hosanna!” and a few minutes later, shout, just as loudly, “Crucify him.”

There is so much here, so much on which to reflect. And really, what might be best for us would be to be silent, to sit with our emotions, with the images that run through our minds, to sit with our memories, our faith, and our doubt, and not worry about words.

But among all those images, in the stories from Mark’s gospel that we heard, I want to draw your attention to one theme, one set of characters, one aspect of the drama, that might help us orient ourselves to this story and to the days that follow this one.

One of the dominant themes that runs through the Gospel of Mark, from its very beginning is that Jesus’ disciples are uncertain of who he is, unclear on what he is about, and misunderstand Jesus’ intentions and message. This portrayal intensifies as the gospel progresses, and in the passion narrative, we see a group of disciples who are fearful, forgetful, and abandon Jesus. He dies alone, on the cross, the cry of despair on his lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the end, Jesus wonders whether he has been abandoned by God, as well as by his friends.

Even as this is Mark’s dominant theme, he writes into his gospel another theme, or contrasts the behavior of Jesus’ male disciples with another group of individuals, the group of women. So, at the beginning of today’s reading, we heard not only of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, but of the wonderful story of the woman who anointed Jesus. Her behavior, and Jesus’ praise of her—“she has anointed my body beforehand for burial”—is Jesus’ acknowledgment that even if he is betrayed by Judas and the other male disciples don’t understand what is going to happen, this woman, this disciple does, and as he commends her he says, in one of those ironic twists Mark loves, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”—ironic, because the story is indeed told of her wherever the gospel is proclaimed, we don’t know her name.

So to at the end of today’s reading, Mark depicts Jesus’ death, the confession of the centurion, and then, “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”

There they were, watching silently, fearfully, full of grief. There they were standing afar off as their hopes and dreams were dashed, their teacher, killed. There they were as they watched his execution, his death, and watched as others they knew took his body down and buried it. Was it then that they made plans to come to the tomb after the Sabbath, to anoint his body with spices? To touch him once again, to perform the familiar and ancient rituals of burial?

As followers of Jesus, as seekers, the curious, Holy Week presents us with intense emotions, profound questions. It is a story that many of us know, and as we reenact it in the liturgy of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, we do more than go through motions, or play a part. We enter into the ancient story, and become characters in it ourselves. It is a story that asks us where we stand, what will we do?

And all of those characters, Judas the Betrayer, Peter the Denier, the disciples who fell asleep while Jesus prayed, the disciples who fled in fear from the scene and abandoned Jesus. We are at times, all of those characters. We have each at one time or another, acted like one of them, or of the others—the crowd who shouted “Crucify him” or the soldiers who executed him, or the bystanders who mocked.

Holy Week confronts us with profound questions, but none may be more pressing, more difficult, than the one that asks, “Where do you stand? Or “Are you walking with Jesus on his journey?” Are you staying with him, bearing witness?

Even as our very human emotions, our busy, complicated lives, our divided allegiances, encourage us or tempt us to flee, or keep silent, or deny, or betray, or simply to ignore, Mark is challenging us, as he always does, to go deeper, to plumb the depths of our own lives and experiences, and as we do that, to look for, to seek Jesus.

When we do that, when we dare to allow Mark’s story, the story of Jesus to enter deeply into our lives and world, we are confronted, not only with ourselves, but with the mystery of salvation, the mystery of Jesus, the mystery of love and sacrifice.

Earlier in the gospel, as Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, after he made his first prediction of what would happen when he got there, he told his disciples, “If you want to become my followers, take up your cross and follow me.”

When we do that, we enter into Jesus’ journey, going with him into the heart of God, where we will find love. It is not an easy journey, because as Mark insists, the journey to God, into God, is a journey into the suffering, oppression, and injustice of the world, where God is working transformation. It is there that we see God, there we find God, there we know and are loved by God.

Following Jesus to the cross, standing near the cross, we encounter God in Christ. We encounter the miracle of transformation as Mark tells us, even his executioner knew and saw, that truly “This man is the Son of God.” May this experience and transformation be yours this Holy Week, may this experience and transformation be everyone’s in the midst of our broken, suffering, unjust world.

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