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

Proper 17, Year B

August 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper16, Year B

August 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where would we go?” 

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

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

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

Where would we go? 

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

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

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

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

Here are my mother and my brothers: A Homily for Proper 5B, 2021Sermons

            

June 6, 2021

What an exciting day it is at Grace. After almost exactly fifteen months of live-streamed or recorded worship, some of us are back in person. Others are still joining us online—and as I’ve said before, I assume that we will continue to offer some form of online worship for the foreseeable future. Some of us aren’t able to join us in person; others will choose to join us from home or while traveling because of convenience. It’s a new adventure for us all and we will have to do the hard work of thinking how to incorporate everyone into our congregation. 

What an exciting day, too, for Brandon and Kate. They’ve been waiting almost six months to have their daughter Mia baptized. We originally planned for a private baptism in November, but as COVID cases spiked we decided to delay it until a time when we could all feel more comfortable with it. This way, members of their family can be present

It’s lovely that we have a baptism today, on our first Sunday back for in-person worship. Not only does it bear witness to the newness of life in these difficult times, it is also a reminder to us of what we are about as God’s people, bringing into the body of Christ new members, witnessing to God’s love, and proclaiming our faith in the risen Christ. Our baptismal liturgy includes in it an opportunity for us to renew our own baptismal vows, to commit ourselves to each other as members of Christ’s body, and to renew our promises to grow more deeply as followers of Jesus.

There’s a creative tension at the heart of our understanding of baptism, especially infant baptism. On the one hand, it is a profoundly, intimately family celebration and event, linking families across generations with beloved and familiar traditions. That understanding was especially prominent in earlier generations when most baptisms were private. In the Episcopal Church, they were often conducted with only the immediate family and the priest present, often after Sunday services had taken place.

On the other hand, baptism is the full initiation of individuals into the body of Christ. It is a rite that brings us into fellowship and relationship with Jesus Christ and other members of Christ’s body. That aspect of it is emphasized when we all promise to help the one being baptized grow in the Christian faith. That’s why we now conduct baptisms usually at the principal Sunday service of Holy Eucharist, although we do make provisions as needed and to accommodate individual circumstances.

We see something of that same tension in today’s gospel reading. This is the first time we’re reading from the Gospel of Mark since Easter and after all those weeks in John’s gospel, we jump back into Mark’s very different story with a jolt that may wake us up.

We’re back fairly early in the gospel—chapter 3 to be precise. In the preceding chapters, Jesus has been on a preaching tour through the towns of Galilee, beginning with Capernaum. He has healed many people of their illnesses, cast out evil spirits, and called several of his disciples. His fame has spread far and wide and the crowds are becoming impressive. He has also aroused conflict around his interpretation of the law.

We see the effects of his healing ministry and the conflict he has already elicited here in this story. It’s an enigmatic story, full of drama, and leaving us with many questions as we listen to it. But I want to focus on the internal drama—or perhaps better put, the internal conflict between Jesus and his family members. A bit of that drama is downplayed in our reading because we pick up the story in verse 20. It’s not really clear to us that Jesus has come home, literally, to his house. That’s where the crowd presses in, so urgently that they are not able to eat. But, and this is important for what comes next, he and the disciples are not in the house, because his family comes out and wants to restrain him. They fear he has gone mad. To top it off, the religious experts have come down from Jerusalem to assert that he is not a messenger from God, but a servant of Satan.

That all this takes place around the house is significant. We have already seen that the private home is a place of refuge. Jesus went to his disciple Peter’s house after his initial public preaching and healing in the synagogue in Capernaum. But there too, he was beset by the crowds who wanted him to heal the sick. Later on in the gospel, we will see Jesus gathered with his disciples, but also with tax collectors and sinners, in people’s homes sharing table fellowship. Here, the house is a refuge, but it is occupied by family members who question his sanity.

Coming back to the end of the reading, Jesus is in the house, and his family members are outside. Being made aware of their presence outside, Jesus asks:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

We have been outside of this place these many months, clamoring to enter, wanting to return. For many of us, to be back inside this sacred building is a coming home. It is a sanctuary from the troubles and dangers of the world, a place where we connect with our deepest selves, with God, and with our fellow Christians. Yet many of us are still standing outside—for whatever reasons reluctant to return to services because of anxiety, vaccination status, or medical conditions that limit our freedom.

Others stand outside because of their alienation from God, because of the pain they have suffered at the hands of the Church, because they are not sure they are welcome here. Some may not feel welcome because they are different from us, racially or ethnically, socioeconomically, because of their sexuality or gender. 

Even as Jesus embraces the household, the home, as a place of refuge, for himself and his followers, at the same time, he reinvents or reimagines the nature of the community that occupies the house. No longer is it a fellowship united by ties of blood; anyone “who does the will of my father” is a part of this new community, new family brought together by shared commitment to Jesus.

 In fact, it may be misleading even to call what is being brought together by Jesus a “family.” Especially in our culture where the notion of “family” is contested and full of symbolic meaning, weaponized for political purposes and cultural warfare, when we call the church a “family” we risk setting up the same sort of barriers between “inside” and “outside” that are created by the walls of a church, or a house. When one’s experience of family is full of trauma, scars, and abuse, to be called into a new family of the faithful may be a barrier to hard to cross.

Still, we are a new community, created by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are a new community that welcomes into its midst through baptism and confession of faith anyone who comes to us. We are a new community that is meant to model what it means to follow Jesus in the world. We are a community called by Christ, calling others to Christ. 

As we reaffirm our baptismal vows today, as we bring into this fellowship a new member, as we gather, for the first time in many months in this place, face to face, and as we after a long fast, once again taste and see that the Lord is good, share in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, may the bonds that unite us together be strengthened, that we may go from this place, to love and serve the Lord.

Here are my mother and my brothers: A Homily for Proper 5B, 2021Sermons

Preaching Grace on the Square

Here are my mother and my brothers: A Homily for Proper 5B, 2021Sermons

Friendship with Christ and the world after Pandemic: A Homily for Easter 6B

This past Monday evening, Corrie and I did something we hadn’t done in over fifteen months. We were invited over to friends for dinner. A week earlier, we had been the hosts for another couple, but that dinner took place on our screened-in back porch. So this was the first time, we sat down at a formal dinner table with friends.

It was a lovely occasion, of course but it was also deeply poignant. Over the years we have enjoyed many meals at that table, usually it would be crowded with 10 or 12 or 14 guests and the festivities would last for many hours. Memories of those happy times came to the surface throughout the evening. The meal was fantastic, the conversation diverting, catching up with friends we hadn’t seen face to face for many months was wonderful.

But over it all there was also a sense of loss—the missed opportunities for similar gatherings over the course of the pandemic, the sense that our friendship had been in some way suspended over that time, that we couldn’t really fully engage with each other, share the sorts of things friends share through good times and bad. And there was also something else, a wariness or discomfort as we experienced the strangeness of being in close quarters with other people for an extended period of time.

That wariness, or strangeness, that feeling of a gap in our lives or relationships, is something I’ve also sensed as I’ve begun to meet again with the people of Grace Church over the last few weeks. There’s an awkwardness as we try to reconnect and catch up and those conversations sometimes seem much more difficult simply because I have grown unaccustomed to being present with another person fully—not just as a disembodied voice on the phone or a face on a zoom call.

There are so many things that are going to be difficult as we begin to reconnect face-to-face, and I suspect one of the hardest will simply be the sensory and emotional overload of being together with people we care about and who care about us for the first time in many months.

Friendship—in pandemic as in ordinary times—friendship can be lifegiving and supportive. It can also be elusive. It’s a word that comes easily off our lips and in a world now shaped by social media, friendship can be a fleeting thing, as ephemeral as the posts we scroll through on our various timelines. 

So when we hear the words from today’s gospel reading with ears conditioned by life in pandemic, we may hear them rather differently than we would have three or six years ago. When we have felt the strain placed on all of our relationships by quarantine, fear, and everything else we have experienced, to hear Jesus say, “I know longer call you servant but friend” may come as something of a shock. Especially when it comes after a series of other statements about love—“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” and “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 

 When we have struggled to maintain relationships without face-to-face contact, the sort of friendship, the sort of love that Jesus is talking about here is both deeply appealing and may seem to be quite beyond our capacity to feel or experience. We may consider laying down our life for a family member, a child; or we may regard as heroes those who sacrifice their lives in efforts to save the lives of others, but would we really consider laying down our lives for a “friend”? 

Here, of course, Jesus is not referring to a facebook friend, but a fellow member of the community that he himself gathers—a community abiding in his love. He, and the gospel writer after him, are envisioning a community abiding in love, just as Jesus abides in his Father’s love. We may imagine that such a love is focused inwardly, on building and deepening the relationships among the members of the community and building and deepening the relationships of individual members of the community with Christ—abiding in his love.

 But is not an inward-focused love. It is a love that emanates outward into the world: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit…” The love of Christ in which we abide and which abides in us opens us to a world desperate for that love.

  We are slowly, tentatively, as a society, as a congregation, and as individuals emerging from the isolation of pandemic. We are entering the world cautiously, timidly, many of us, experiencing the strangeness of returning to places and to activities that we were forced to abandon for many months. As we emerge, we have to confront the reality of the changed world.

 For us at Grace, there may no greater sign of that change than the departure of the homeless shelter at the beginning of the pandemic. Central to our identity and mission for some 35 years, at the heart of our role in the community, vanished suddenly and without fanfare. We have not had opportunity to mourn its departure or to celebrate the dedication of our congregation and so many volunteers over the years to helping some of the most vulnerable members of our community. We will need that opportunity, to mourn and to celebrate, before we can move on fully into the new work to which God is calling us.

There are other changes of course. As we plan for a return to public worship, we can expect to be confronted by many changes made necessary by the pandemic—continued social distancing, masks, no congregational singing. Though many are yearning to return to church, it may not seem to us like “church” at all. No doubt we will be frustrated and struggle with all of the changes.

 As we enter this changed world and as we enter our changed church, bringing our fears and uncertainties with us, Jesus’ words here should offer us comfort and encouragement. We abide in his love as he abides in the Father’s love. The love he has for us is not for our benefit alone but is meant for the world. Even as we rebuild and deepen our relationships with each other, Christ’s love calls us out into the world, and for us, that love calls us out into our neighborhood where we can see visibly how much that love is needed right now. 

The shelter may be gone from Grace, but as events this past week have demonstrated, whether and where our city can find a new location to welcome and care for men experiencing homelessness remains an open question. And even with the shelter’s departure from Grace, there will continue to be unhoused people living and present downtown. How will we as a neighborhood and church respond to those needs?

 More deeply, and reflecting on our experiences as we seek to return to some normalcy in our lives, how can our church support and sustain the building of life-giving relationships among our members and with our neighbors? What can we do to help create a new, vibrant, inclusive, downtown that truly welcomes everyone? 

 These are important questions that get at the heart of our future mission in our community. The final words of the gospel reading urge us to focus on our responsibilities as followers of Jesus even as we abide in his love: “

 And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” 

 We truly love one another only if we bear fruit that lasts. The decision to welcome the shelter was a decision that bore much fruit over the last three and a half decades. How will our love in this new season of Grace’s life bear fruit that lasts?

Beloved Community in a world of violence: A Sermon for Easter 3B, 2021

            
Easter 3

April 18, 2021

            The news is horrific; driving us to depths of despair, anguish, outrage and anger. We feel impotent as we watch the spiral of violence continue. The senseless killings by police officers of unarmed civilians: Daunte Wright in the Twin Cities, a 13-year old boy Adam Toledo in Chicago, high school student Anthony J. Johnson, Jr in Knoxville. All this while the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd unfolds in Minneapolis.

            But there’s more. It’s not just police officers. It’s also ordinary people, usually white men, of course, killing innocent bystanders or coworkers, or family members. Mass shootings every day, it seems. Just in the couple of weeks, in Indianapolis and Rock Hill, SC. We woke this morning to news of a shooting at a bar in Kenosha—3 dead, 2 wounded. The Gun Violence Archive has identified 148 such mass shootings so far in 2021. There are no words. I have no words. 

This culture of death, this lust for violence is not new. But in this season of Easter 2021. It is a time when we Christians remember the death of Christ in another culture of violence, that of the Roman empire. More importantly, it is also a time when we celebrate his victory over death and violence through his resurrection. His resurrection strikes at the heart of the culture of violence that rules our world, the evil that threatens our existence as humans. 

Still, with the news of the world swirling around us, our faith in resurrection, in new creation, our hope for a new world being called into existence through Christ’s resurrection; well, all of that can seem fanciful, hollow, meaningless. What is appropriate joy in resurrection in the face of the violence that vulnerable communities, vulnerable people are experiencing daily in our society? I’ve often heard bishops or that category of people now called “thought leaders”—apparently we have them in the church, too—I’ve often heard such folk proclaim that we are “Easter people.” Well, what on earth or in heaven does it mean to be “Easter people” when all around us people are suffering and dying?

As I’ve been pondering these things over the last couple of weeks, my attention has been drawn to the Epistle of I John which we’ve been reading in the Sunday morning lectionary but also, coincidentally, in the daily office lectionary. There are three letters of John in the New Testament and scholars associate them closely with the Gospel of John, although it’s unlikely that they were written by the same person. We do hypothesize that they are products of the same community because so much of the language and imagery used in the letters reflects language and imagery in the gospels. They also reflect many of the same concerns as the gospel.

But it also shows a certain distance or development from the gospel. The anti-Judaism that is at the heart of the gospel of John is not so evident in the 1st letter of John. Instead, other concerns take center stage, particularly concerns for false teaching. Leaving those concerns aside, one can detect at the heart of the letter a desire to connect the life of the community with the love that the author sees at the heart of the relationship between God and Christ. We see that to some degree in today’s reading: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” 

But that theme comes out even more strongly in verses we will hear over the next two weeks. From 1 John 3:16: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Or from John 4, the reading for the 5th Sunday after Easter: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” 

Or a few verses later: “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them”

Well, you get the picture by now. A community of love brought into being by God’s love, sharing God’s love with one another and through that love knowing God and abiding in God. 

It’s language like this that gives rise to images like the Beloved Community, a term so often used by our Presiding Bishop to call us into deeper relationship with each other and with God in Christ. What beloved community looks like depends on the circumstances of each congregation in their particular contexts. For us at Grace it may look very different than it does for our fellow parishes in Madison or across the diocese of Milwaukee. 

It’s not just about the congregation, however. It’s also about each of us individually. How do we embrace God’s love; entering more deeply into relationship with Jesus Christ; growing more deeply in the knowledge and love of Christ, committing ourselves to follow him? 

It’s clear that our city, our nation needs beloved communities making God’s love incarnate in the world; sharing God’s love with the world. It’s also clear that it will not be easy. The forces of evil and empire are arrayed against it. There’s an image that was widely circulated on Twitter yesterday. A church in Brooklyn Center, MN, where Daunte Wright was killed, had been offering sanctuary to those injured by the police in the protests there. In response, the police surrounded the church, standing three or four deep to ensure that no one could seek help or safety there.

Stephanie Spellers, who is the Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation, recently published a book, The Church Cracked-Open. Written in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the nation-wide protests that erupted, Spellers reflects on the disruption to traditional institutions, especially the church, as membership has declined. Coupled with the disruption caused by the pandemic and the long-overdue reckoning with racism and white supremacy, she uses the image of a “cracked-open church” to describe the new possibilities emerging in this moment. Being cracked-open means that as the old structures decline and collapse, there is room for new possibilities, for creativity and imagination as we seek to embody God’s love in the world.

As the old dies and falls away, God’s love beckons to us, inviting us into a future that imagines a world remade as beloved community. We see that happening even here in Madison. This week, the outreach committee heard from Laura Ford-Harris, who is leading the new Boys and Girls Club space on Capitol Square. Their presence here is a sign that as we rebuild the downtown after the pandemic and the protests, we can imagine and bring into being a neighborhood where all are truly welcome.

As we listen to First John’s invitation to us to become beloved community, to love each other and the world as God loves us, may we abide in that love, share that love, and above all may we learn to live that love in our relationships with others, with our neighbors. May the love we share create beloved community, at Grace, in our neighborhood, and in the world.

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

            
5 Lent—March 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            

For God so loved the world…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.