Walking, Riding, Dying: A Homily for Palm/Passion Sunday, 2019

How many miles had Jesus walked on his long journey to Jerusalem? Way back in chapter 9, Luke tells us “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” But even before that, he had been walking throughout Galilee. He had walked and along the way he had healed and taught. Now, finally, as he approaches Jerusalem, he instructs his disciples to fetch a donkey so he could ride on it for a bit.

He may have been tired. He may have been full of anxiety and fear about what would happen in Jerusalem, but he didn’t ask for a donkey so that the final leg of his journey would be less taxing. He wanted to ride on a donkey to make a point—to stage a demonstration. It’s a clear reference to Zechariah 9:9: Continue reading

The Disciple who poured out love: A Sermon for Lent 5C, 2019

A few days ago, I had one of those uncomfortable encounters I have from time to time in Madison. I had stopped into Barrique’s for a cup of coffee, and sat down at a table to read through the latest Isthmus edition. There were two well-dressed men at the next table having a conversation. One of them saw me and began to ask me about the shelter. What followed was a fifteen minute rant about the evils of homelessness and the need to construct a shelter somewhere else than downtown. Their brilliant idea was to put it down by the Alliant Center, far away from their places of business and residence downtown, far enough away that they wouldn’t be bothered by homeless people, or presumably by panhandlers because they could not get downtown anymore. Continue reading

A manipulative son? An over-indulgent father? A Sermon for 4 Lent, 2019

How many of you remember watching as your parents let a sibling get away with things they would never have permitted you, or seemed to treat them better, more lovingly than they treated you? How many of you parents have had the experience of loving one child just a little bit more than your other children? Or at work, watching as a co-worker received special, and undeserved treatment while you had to stay late, or failed to get the credit, or the promotion, you deserved? Continue reading

Be merciful as God is merciful: A Sermon for 7 Epiphany, 2019

Who’s your enemy? Take a moment and think about them. Who is it? Why are they your enemy? Is it someone you know, someone who wronged or hurt you deeply? Is your enemy more abstract—do you think of political figures or groups whose ideas and actions offend you? Or is it members of another religious or ethnic group whose hateful rhetoric and violent tactics threaten you? Draw a picture in your mind of the person, real or imagined, whom you passionately and completely hate. Be honest with yourself; there’s someone or some group that you hate…

Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.

Hard words, challenging words. Words that seem so far beyond human possibility that we assume they must be hyperbolic, intended to demonstrate to us once and for all, human incapacity to do the right thing. Or perhaps they are meant only for the perfect few, saints like Francis or figures like the Dalai Lama who seem to be live on a completely different plane of existence than those of us in our busy, messy, complicated lives.

But what if they are meant for us, too?

Remember where we are in Luke’s gospel and what we have already heard. Jesus has come down from the mountain to a level place with his disciples. There was a large crowd pressing in on him, seeking the healing power that came out from. And in the middle of that throng, Jesus lifted his eyes up to his disciples and began to teach. As we saw last week, he began with the beatitudes, a series of blessings pronounced on the poor, the hungry, those in mourning and those being persecuted. Corresponding to that series of blessings was a series of curses: on the rich, the full, those who are laughing, and those who are respected or well-regarded.

Binary oppositions, blessings and curses, reversals of fortune. As I pointed out last week, how we react to these contrasts and reversals very much depends on where we situate ourselves; with which groups we identify.

Now Jesus shifts gears, and the ground under our feet shifts as well. For instead of allowing us to position ourselves comfortably, Jesus’ words strike home uncomfortably, challenging the distinctions we make, upending our assumptions, our attitudes, breaking down the lines we draw between “us” and “them” between those who belong to our group, deserve our love and compassion, and those on the other side of the border, our enemies, outsiders.

I feel the need to come clean with you—these verses: Love your enemy, turn the other cheek profoundly shaped my upbringing and ultimately how I still strive to follow Jesus. I hesitate to bring up my background as a Mennonite publicly because it too quickly becomes little more than a curiosity, something exotic. But these verses and stories interpreting or embodying them have entered the marrow of my bones and shaped my heart and soul. I’ll tell just one of those stories.

In the 17thcentury, Dutch Mennonites, after gaining toleration and becoming successful merchants, compiled a collection of stories of the men and women who had been killed for their faith in the sixteenth century. Many of the stories are accompanied by engravings. One of them depicts the story of Dirk Willms who had been convicted of heresy for believing and practicing adult rather than infant baptism. On the way to the place of execution, he somehow escaped from the authorities, running for his life. He crossed an ice-covered river, one of his captors in hot pursuit. But the pursuer broke through the ice and was in danger of drowning. Willems could have gone free, he was across the river, but instead, he went back, and helped his captor to safety. It may surprise you to learn that in spite of his heroism, Willems’ execution went on as planned.

It’s a story that strikes us as unbelievable, relating behavior that to us is inexplicable and foolish. It’s no way to live one’s life, no way to survive as an individual, much less as a community, a church, a nation. Whether or not we find Jesus’ words believable, or relevant, or possible, the challenge to love our enemies, turn the cheek, to give one’s shirt as well as one’s coat, to lend expecting nothing in return confronts us with questions of personal worth and value, the relative importance of self and other, and yes, sheer survival.

But these words challenge us in other ways. For those of us with privilege and status, they pierce the armor of our wealth, gender, color. For those of us without, they work very differently. It’s important for us to be conscious of how they have been used and interpreted over the centuries and even today—how they have been used to oppress and to maintain structures of injustice. Even today, how many pastors counsel victims of domestic violence to turn the other cheek and passively accept the blows of their husbands or fathers?

What if, instead of commands, these words are meant to unsettle and de-center us, to move us away from the certainty of our existence and the world we know into a journey toward a new world, where God reign’s and where God’s love is the model for all of our relationships and for all of human community? Jesus came down from the mountain to a level place where he taught a vision of a new world order, coming into existence in the community of his followers. It is a vision of a community with no barriers or boundaries, no distinction between rich and poor, friend and enemy.

As hard as it is for us to imagine, or even to articulate, there is yet one more step to take. When we view these words as commands, we place our behavior on a continuum of obedience: Should I turn the other cheek? Did I turn the other cheek? And if in a particular instant we choose not to, because of fear or threat to life and limb, or simply because our anger overwhelms us, we may judge ourselves and feel shame and guilt for falling short.

Luke, in his compassion and concern for his readers, offers hope and consolation even on such occasions. In Matthew’s version of these sayings, Jesus concludes with the admonition: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Luke’s version is quite different, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Using this as a lens by which to read Jesus’ statements offers us a new way of seeing, a new world of possibilities, the reign and realm of God—where the neat calculus of debt and repayment, crime and punishment, eye for an eye no longer is operative. And that’s true not only for the specifics that Jesus talks about but also for us. We need not use this calculus on our own lives and actions. God is merciful and invites us to receive God’s mercy and in turn to offer it to others and to the world.

The instructions which Jesus gives his listeners on the level place are instructions that address our actions towards those who act violently or unjustly against us (love your enemy, turn the other cheek) and address our actions towards those with whom we are already in relationship (if you love those who love you). But the heart of the matter seems to be that whether friend or foe, our actions should not be guided by how others treat us but rather by how God treats us: Be merciful as your Father is merciful.

It may be that we often interpret God’s disposition toward us in terms similar to how we act towards others, loving friends, hating enemies experiencing guilt, expecting punishment when we sin. But God is merciful and forgiving. Receiving God’s mercy and grace gives us the power to share that mercy and grace with others.

 

 

 

The Glory of the Lord revealed in level places: A Sermon for 6 Epiphany, 2019

As we work through the Gospel of Luke this year, we will have a number of opportunities to explore this gospel writer’s unique perspective on Jesus and on the early Christian community. Like Matthew, it’s probable that Luke wrote with a knowledge of the Gospel of Mark and with Matthew he had access to a source that provided much of the material for Jesus’ teachings that appear in both Matthew and Luke, teachings like the ones here, known as the Beatitudes. But each of the gospel writers introduce additional material that is unique to their gospel. In Luke, this includes many of the most familiar and beloved parables—the Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, are examples of this other material. Continue reading

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.