Encountering God: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

I entered the chapel at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist exhausted by the long day of travel from Madison. I’d had only enough time to drop my things in my room before the evening Eucharist. Stressed, tired, distracted, as I entered the space, I was immediately reminded why I had come here. It’s a remarkable space, perfectly, beautifully designed. You’re suddenly thousands of miles and a thousand years away from Harvard Square in Cambridge. Designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram in the Romanesque style, the walls are stone, with roman arches throughout, lovely stained glass windows dominated by deep blues. Continue reading

Discomfort and love: A Sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

I’m glad to see that all of you are surviving the crazy weather we’ve been having. We’ve survived it at the church and our ministries as well. I’m sure most have you have heard or seen stories of how Madison has coped with the bitter cold and especially how the weather affected our most vulnerable neighbors. The men’s shelter was well over capacity; the total number of guests on Tuesday night was 170. The Beacon was over capacity, and our friends at First Methodist provided emergency overflow shelter during the day for homeless families because there was not enough room for them at the Beacon. Through the coldest weather, our food pantry remained open, thanks to Vikki and her intrepid band of volunteers. I’m grateful to all of you who reached out to me or to others with offers to volunteer.

In times like these, we see both the strength and the weaknesses of our community—among the strengths, the resilience, cooperation, and all the amazing people who do so much to support our most vulnerable residents. But we also see the gaps or inadequacies of the services we do provide as well as the deep inequities and the number of people who lack adequate shelter or for other reasons struggle in weather emergencies. Our hearts ache as we see the need and we reach out generously but at the same time, it should become clear that our community needs to do more. As followers of Jesus and members of the body of Christ, we should help those in need but we should also call for policy changes that would help all members of our city flourish and thrive. With the mayoral campaign heating up, our voices are especially important.

It’s not always easy because calling for justice and an end to oppression, to proclaim release to the captives, can rouse opposition. That certainly happened to Jesus in today’s gospel reading.

Last week we heard Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After a preaching and healing tour of the surrounding towns, he comes home to Nazareth, goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, reads a passage from Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He sits down and says, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s where today’s gospel reading picks up, with a repetition of that verse. And that’s where the trouble starts. While Luke reports that the people were amazed by what they heard, it’s pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t impressed with their response.

It’s almost as if he goads them to their negative response. It’s after that question that Jesus seems to provoke them. First he quotes the proverb, “Doctor, heal yourself;” and says that they will want him to do the sort of healings in Nazareth that he has done elsewhere. Instead of answering those objections directly, Jesus cites the two examples from Hebrew Scripture, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, and their healing of two gentiles.

The meaning of this exchange is obscure. Does Jesus want to incite the crowd’s anger? Or is something else going? Is his challenge to them a response to the question, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” If we think back to what I said last week about the Isaiah text quoted by Jesus. It serves in Luke as what we could Jesus’ mission statement and his identity as Messiah is measured by the extent to which he preached good news to the poor, gave sight to the blind, etc. So, he is basically laying out his future ministry to his listeners, identifying himself as the Messiah, and declaring the year of the Lord’s favor. And the response from the crowd was not recognition that he is the Messiah, but recognition that he is one of their own, Joseph’s son. They are given everything they need to see him as the Messiah, but all they can see is the one who grew up among them.

There’s a great deal of discussion and debate about how churches and Christians should express their faith publicly and what that public expression or proclamation of faith should be. We have people who claim to be Christians on different sides of every hot topic in our culture and politics, from climate change to immigration, from abortion to criminal justice and we are often likely to say that those who disagree with our political view aren’t Christian at all or are perhaps “fake Christians.”

It’s easy for us to justify our political views with scripture. We, all of us, cherry-pick verses that seem to support our pet causes or political convictions, extracting them from their contexts and twisting their meaning beyond recognition. A good example of that comes from the first reading which is the story of the call of the Prophet Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;” which has been made to do some heavy lifting in the debate over abortion, and the doctrine of predestination. But it is about neither of those things. It is about the prophet’s call and identity.

Scripture becomes a mine from which we extract the necessary means to do battle rather than a treasure house in which to explore God’s beauty or a library in which to learn of God and of Jesus Christ. We impose our political views on the text rather than wrestling with scripture and seeking to follow Jesus.

Think about what happened in that synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus read from scripture, sat down, and interpreted it. Luke says the people were amazed by his words.

I find it instructive that Jesus elicited such a negative response in his hometown. What was it about what he said that roused the ire of his neighbors and fellow townspeople? The examples Jesus cited, Elijah and Elisha, were the two great prophets of the Jewish tradition. Elijah, alongside Moses was a mythical figure, in part because of the tradition that he did not die but was carried up to heaven. In Jesus’ day, many expected Elijah to return. The two of them were model prophets and Jesus cites their example to justify his own ministry. Two of their most spectacular healings took place away from home; they healed outsiders, Gentiles, not Jews.

For Jesus to cite these examples was to challenge his listeners’ expectations, to confront them with their biases and assumptions and encourage them to think differently about them.

To be honest, this incident is a challenge to me as well. Whenever someone says to me after a sermon, “That was a really good sermon,” I wonder whether they liked it only because I confirmed their biases and assumptions. The gospel should be unsettling. It should make us uncomfortable. Jesus certainly made his listeners uncomfortable. When we’re reading scripture, when we’re listening to a sermon, we should be asking ourselves whether we are being challenged to see things in a new way, whether our world and our worldview is being upended and unsettled, whether our deepest held values are coming under scrutiny. If we say yes to these questions, it may be that we are hearing the voice of Jesus.

But discomfort is not the only point of the good news or of following Jesus. It’s worth recalling the lesson from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the famous “Love Chapter” which has nothing to do with marital love, but rather with the love that binds the body of Christ together, and binds us all to God in Christ.

In the course of this beautiful and profound meditation on love, Paul reminds us that our perspective is narrow, faulty. “Now we see through a mirror darkly; now we know in part.” Recognizing our limitations, the limitations of our knowledge and perspective goes a long way toward teaching us humility, an important lesson in the divided world in which find ourselves. And finally, Paul tells us, at the end, there is only love. Love abides. May we know something of that love in this life, in our common humanity and in our community and congregation, and may we all experience the fullness of that abiding love in the age to come.

Bringing Good News: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

A week ago Saturday, the vestry held its annual retreat, gathering to reflect on the previous year, to strategize and dream about the future, and to do the usual business of the first meeting of the year. We were meeting at a significant moment in the life of our congregation. As most of you know, there is in the works a proposal to develop much of the block on which we are located, with the center of the project a proposed new State History museum. That development may affect both our property and our congregational life. In addition, we have seen significant growth over the past years, bucking the overall national trend in the Episcopal Church and in American Christianity in general. We are located in a downtown that continues to experience development and growth in population, while many of the challenges that we face as a city are most evident in our immediate vicinity—racial and economic inequities, homelessness and the scarcity of affordable housing, and Wisconsin’s broken and oppressive criminal justice system. Continue reading

The shepherds were just doing their job: A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2018

 The shepherds were doing their job. It was a thankless, underappreciated life. They were little more than vagabonds, outsiders, feared and despised because they spent most of their time in the wilderness, living more like animals than humans. But it was a job someone had to do, like all those people who are doing their jobs tonight while we worship and celebrate: cashiers at convenience stores, employees at fast food outlets, hotel workers, doctors, nurses, orderlies, first responders. Continue reading

Songs of Suffering, Songs of Silence, Songs of Joy: A sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 2018

 A couple of weeks ago, Corrie and I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the bio-pic of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen. If you’re around my age, Queen’s music was, and perhaps still is, part of the soundtrack of your autobiography. The lyrics, the showmanship, Freddy’s incredible voice—and those songs, Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the Champions, they defined an era, a genre within Rock music, and decades later, they are still ubiquitous, not only on playlists but at sporting events and in popular culture. The movie begins and ends at LiveAid 1986, when Freddy Mercury, already suffering from HIV/Aids and the band gave a show-stopping performance. It was a moment of cultural significance, artistic expression, cries of hope and pain that captured the world in an experience of such effervescence that one might call it a religious experience.

Music does that. Whether it’s a stadium performance with a rock band in front of tens of thousands of fans, a small jazz combo like John Coltrane’s in an intimate club, opera, or yes, even in a worship service, music transports and transforms us, helps us communicate our deepest emotions, our faith and our doubt; music also shapes our experiences; creates experiences for us, affirms or calls into question who we are, who God is, our pain, our hope. Continue reading

My kingdom is not of this world: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, 2018

Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in our liturgical year, and it’s commonly called “Christ the King.” To be honest, I’m not a big fan of that name, and not just because of the twitter debate this past week on whether it’s an appropriate observance in the Episcopal Church. No, my discomfort is deeper, with the history, imagery and temptations of the observance. It’s a relatively recent practice. Pope Pius XI introduced it in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, just a few years after the end of World  War I. He was concerned with the rise of secularism and the corresponding decline in the political power of the Roman Catholic Church, and thought that a robust celebration of Christ the King would combat those evils. Protestants came to embrace it as well, and even though the Episcopal Church has not adopted the name for this Sunday, the propers–the scripture readings and the collect focus on Christ’s kingship.

 

Discomfort with the observance is not just related to its provenance. It’s a bit jarring, in our ostensibly democratic society, to talk about kingship at all. And at a time when we are sensitive around issues of hierarchy, authority, and gender, to appeal to Christ the King is problematic.

Of course, as our readings point out, all of them, Jewish and Christian scripture are replete with imagery of kingship, especially as used of God. In the Psalm, for example, God is depicted as a king seated upon a throne, and the language here suggests an analogy between the rule of God and the rule of Israel’s king, an analogy that has persisted among Christians down through the centuries. At the center of the Psalmist’s vision is an image of the king ruling in splendor and majesty, on a throne.

Similar images dominate the readings from Daniel and Revelation. Both of them, as I mentioned last week, are apocalyptic texts, and in these excerpts we are treated to images of the world as the authors imagine they might become or will be, or even perhaps are, if we see the world as it really is, ruled and governed by a righteous and just God. Although we don’t see those themes in any of these three texts, the notion that God’s reign is a reign of peace and justice is self-evident. All of these images are meant to emphasize the fact that Christ’s kingship, though accompanied and understood with imagery from human experience of kingship, is of a totally different order. Christ’s kingship has no beginning or end; it will not fail or falter

Whatever the imagery that might come to mind when we think of kings and kingship—whether we imagine the British Royal Family, or perhaps Louis XIV, the Sun King and the resplendence and opulence of Versailles Palace, the reality of human kingship is rather different than its display. For that, the small portion of John’s gospel that was read will do quite well. For that is how kingship has played out in human history, in oppression, injustice, and violence.

As Procurator or governor, Pilate was the most powerful person in this little corner of the world. He had come to Jerusalem, as he did every year during the Passover to be present during a time filled with tension. The Jewish community was remembering and celebrating God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from an evil and oppressive ruler, and given that they were living under an equally evil and oppressive tyranny, tensions always ran high. That explains, at least in part, the charge that was brought against Jesus—King of the Jews. It was not simply a mistake, or an effort by his Jewish opponents to get the Romans to do their work for them. It was, quite frankly, accurate. Jesus did pose a political threat to the Roman Empire. By preaching the coming of God’s reign, Jesus presented a direct challenge to Roman power, and to the local leadership who both benefited from, and helped to exert that power.

We see that confrontation front and center here. When Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews? Jesus, and we suspect that Pilate is not asking the question honestly. He does not know, or care who Jesus is. In fact, he seems most interested in finding some way to avoid responsibility for what is taking place. And Jesus seems willing to help Pilate avoid what is to come. As the Gospel of John tells the story, Pilate will make every effort to avoid condemning Jesus to death. He moves back and forth between Jesus and the other players in the drama—the crowd that according to John seeks Jesus’ death. He offers to free Jesus, but the crowd will have none of it. Then he stages a mock ritual of coronation with the purple robe and the crown of thorns.

Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus puts the question back on him, asking him his motives for the charge. But Pilate will have none of it, and so Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world—cosmos, to use the Greek word. And here, our western, 21stcentury conceptions get in the way of understanding what’s at stake. For when we hear Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not of this world,” we are inclined to think of the contrast between spiritual and material realms, or perhaps between political and religious, projecting our notions of completely separate spheres of human experience and human power back on to the first century.

But when Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this cosmos” he is using a term that in the Gospel of John is introduced in the very first chapter, and recurs throughout. The world, the cosmos, is inveterately opposed to God: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10). At every turn, the world rejected Jesus, yet throughout the gospel Jesus again and again expresses his desire and intent to save the world.

For example, John 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And John 12:47: “I came not to judge the world but to save the world.”

But Jesus’ efforts came to naught. As we see in this passage, his apparent attempt to sway Pilate away from the predetermined course of events was a failure. Pilate was enmeshed in the world, he saw things only in terms of power and self-protection and in the end, condemned Jesus to death.

This gospel story presents us with a grave temptation. It is likely that we see the confrontation between Pilate and Jesus as a historical event, with a clear winner and loser, and with no implications for our own lives, except that it resulted in the crucifixion.

In a very profound way this confrontation between Jesus and Pilate presents us with a dilemma that faces us in our present lives and circumstances. We are blind to the ways in which we live in and share the values of the world into which Jesus comes and to which Jesus offers a clear alternative. To what extent do we place our trust in the might and wealth of empire? To what extent do we offer our allegiance to secular power? To what extent do we bow down in homage and worship of the kings of this world?

To put it that way is to obfuscate because we live in a purported democracy not a monarchy. But in so many ways, on so many levels of our society, the rules of raw power and dog-eat-dog contests determines winners and losers.

Christ the King Sunday is a problem because it allows us to elide the distinction between the reign of Christ and the kingdom of this world. Our king may not wear purple or a carry a crown, or even sit on a throne, but imperial power still holds sway and may be more brutal today than at any time in recent history.

When we think of the kingship of Christ, our attention and focus should be, not on images of Christ ruling in majesty, but rather images of Jesus in the dock, facing the oppressive power of an unjust and evil regime. When we think of the kingship of Christ, we should think of Christ, not elevated or seated on a throne in majesty, but hanging on a cross, dying at the hands of oppressive, imperial power.

When we think of the kingdom of Christ, we should think not of the kingdoms and empires of this world, fighting unjust and meaningless wars that claim millions of innocent victims. We should think instead of Christ the victim, suffering at the hands of an imperial power, suffering with and for, those innocent victims. And if we want to live under Christ’s reign, live in Christ’s reign, we should take our place beside those innocent victims, and work for justice and peace. For that is the nature of Christ’s reign, a reign not of this world, not of hate, or violence, injustice or oppression, but a reign of love, justice, and peace. May Christ’s reign come soon!

A communion of saints: A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2018

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. In the life of Grace Church, it’s a day full of opportunities to reflect on who we are as a community and who we are becoming, and called to become. We are baptizing a baby today. We commemorate those who have died from our congregation and our loved ones, in the last year and distant past. We welcome new members into our community, and finally, we gather up our pledges of financial commitment to the ministry and mission of Grace for the coming year. Continue reading