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

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

He loves us to the end: A homily for Good Friday, 2021

            
Good Friday

April 2, 2021

            A second Good Friday, a second Holy Week observed in strange and unsettling circumstances. The numbers are staggering, more than 550,000 lives lost in the US. The losses we have all experienced, isolation, jobs, routines, what used to be ordinary and common-place—a gathering with friends, a meal in a restaurant, seem strange indeed. The familiar rituals have become unfamiliar, the usual observances suspended because of pandemic and restrictions on public worship. We struggle to connect our current lives and world with the religious lives we have known in the past. We struggle to connect the suffering we are experiencing, and the suffering in the world around us, with the familiar, dramatic story of Jesus’ arrest and execution.

But there are resonances if we pay attention. As we worship today, the trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of the murder of George Floyd, is taking place less than a half-day’s drive away. This week we have heard the testimony of bystanders who watched, bore witness, and shared the last minutes of George Floyd’s life. The Tuesday night group that read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree may see those resonances and make those connections between the crucifixion of Jesus, the widespread practice of lynching, and the death of Floyd and so many other African-Americans at the hands of police officers who too often face no consequences for their actions.

There are other resonances, too, that echo through the centuries. In the vitriolic Anti-Judaism of the Gospel of John’s portrayal of Jesus’ death, and in fact, of so many other episodes in the gospel, we see the roots of two millennia of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that forced Jews into hiding during Holy Week in fear of the violence that Christians might visit upon them. We see the roots to of the Holocaust, and of the revived anti-semitism in 21st century America.

And the crowd, stirred up into a frenzy by politicians and religious leaders seeking to use them for their own purposes, well, we have seen the seductive power of crowds and of mass violence. Or the desire to find a scapegoat for our own troubles and suffering, and lashing out at Asian-Americans, or succumbing to conspiracy theories.

The hatred, violence, fear, and anxiety we experience in the world find parallels in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, and even if we want, for a day at least, to put all those other things out of our minds in order to focus on the profound and powerful death of Jesus, we bring with us those events, our context and world, our suffering and our deepest fears, into our spiritual lives, into our encounters with the cross of Christ.

There’s a tendency in Christian devotion to focus on Christ’s suffering, the pain, the blood he shed. We see that tendency in the high culture of medieval and renaissance art. We see and hear it in the hymns that are being sung today—O sacred head sore wounded, and the Pange lingua. We hear it in the revivalist and gospel songs of 19th and 20th century American evangelicalism. For some of us the focus on Jesus’ suffering, his pain, the blood seems morbid and overdone. It may lead us to want to avert our eyes, turn away, even ignore the events of Good Friday.

Still, the story we heard just now, a story that many of us know so very well, not only through the words of the gospel writers but through the centuries of Christian reflection and devotion on it—the art, the hymns, the popular cultural appropriations, and even the movies, is a story that is gripping, powerful, and disturbing. As we hear it read again, as we contemplate its imagery, listen to the hymns, images powerful, painful, emotional pass fleetingly through our minds, perhaps catching our attention for a moment, more likely vanishing to be replaced by other images, visual or verbal.

While our minds and hearts, like our tradition, may focus on the manner and extent of Christ’s suffering on the cross, it’s surprising that the gospel writers themselves pass over the crucifixion with relatively little attention. It’s almost as if the crucifixion takes place in the background. The focus seems to be on the responses of the crowd and the executioners. Of Jesus’ suffering, only his thirst is mentioned in the gospels, and immediately after that, his death.

All our focus on Jesus’ suffering, which is often intended to increase our feelings of guilt, shame, and need for repentance, can distract us from other aspects of the cross, the way the gospel writers tell the story, the way they want us to understand what is happening and why. 

Which brings us back today to other themes from John’s gospel, powerful images and words that are often obscured when we focus too much on Jesus’ suffering and on human responsibility for his suffering and death. 

For the gospel of John, the cross isn’t ultimately about Jesus’ suffering but about his glorification; the cross isn’t a focus of our own guilt and shame, but a symbol of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. But more than that, the cross is a symbol, indeed the very fact of God’s love. 

For God so loved the world, the Gospel writer says, that God gave his only son. 

And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself, Jesus says, in reference to his crucifixion, being lifted high on the cross.

And then, as we read last night at our Maundy Thursday service, “Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

He loved them to the end. His love for us, for the human race, for the world, brought him into confrontation and conflict with the powers of the world, the religious establishment and the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. His love brought him here, to trial before Pilate in a kangaroo court where the verdict was foreordained by the interests of empire. His love for us, for the world brought him here, to this place of execution.

It’s a love that is incomprehensible, unimaginable, that offers us and the world the possibility to hope for a different kind of world, where power, greed, oppression, and self-interest hold no sway but where love invites us to imagine we ourselves giving our lives for others: “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

As we contemplate Christ’s love for us, expressed in his crucifixion, may we open our hearts to receive and to be embraced by that love. And may that love inspire us, move us to share that love, to express Christ’s self-giving love in the world around us. May it give us hope that our world might be redeemed and transformed by Christ’s love, breaking down the barriers that divide us, bring justice to those who are oppressed, hope to those living in fear and anxiety. May we be Christ’s love, binding up wounds, mending the broken-hearted. In this world where so many are overcome by suffering, oppression, fear and despair, may Christ’s love shed abroad by us show us the way from cross to resurrection, from despair to hope, from death to new life, into beloved community, and a world created anew. 

Follow me! A Homily for 3 Epiphany, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making space for God: A Homily for 2 Epiphany B, January 17, 2021

2 Epiphany

January 17, 2021

Each week seems to bring new challenges, new anxieties, new fears. We’re recording this service on Saturday this week because of the protests that are expected on Capitol Square on Sunday. What has been a bizarre year just keeps getting stranger, more disorienting. Our world today seems completely unmoored from the world we lived in just a year ago. Our lives have been upended; many of our deepest assumptions about our nation and our community have been laid bare for the fantasies they are. We are afraid, anxious, angry, and confused.

All of this can make it hard for us to find time for God, to make space for God. The noise of the world, the noise in our minds, our cares and concerns, work, family, all of it can fill every moment of our day. We are harried and hurried with no respite and no space of our own to be still, to wait in silence for God, to listen for God’s voice.

This week’s lectionary readings direct us to that voice of God, calling us, and to our relationship with Jesus Christ. The first lesson is the story of Samuel’s call. Born to a barren mother who had prayed many years for a son, when he came into the world, his mother in her joy and gratitude dedicated him to God and put him in the care of the High Priest Eli. God’s voice comes to him in a dream. Finally, after thinking it was Eli himself calling, Samuel discovers the voice is that of God, and responds, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

The gospel reading is also a call story. It’s an episode in the larger story of Jesus calling the disciples in John’s gospel. As we see throughout the fourth gospel, there are significant differences in John’s account from those in the synoptics gospels and those differences highlight the different emphases John places in his understanding of Jesus and what it means to follow him.

We see Jesus calling Philipp with the simple command, “Follow me.” Presumably he does, but he also takes a detour to engage with his friend Nathanael, to tell him about Jesus. But Nathanael wants nothing of them. If Jesus is from the little village of Nazareth, he can’t be the Messiah. Philipp responds, not with an attempt to refute Nathanael’s argument, but with an invitation to relationship: “Come and see.” 

But it’s the encounter between Jesus and Nathanael that is of most interest. It might be a bit difficult to figure out what’s going on. The upshot is this. Jesus says something to Nathanael that suggests intimate knowledge of him, “Here is an Israelite who doesn’t lie.” Taken aback, Nathanael asks him how he knows him and Jesus tells him he saw him sitting under the fig tree before his encounter with Philipp. In that moment, just as Jesus knew who Nathanael was, Nathanael sees who Jesus is. He throws messianic titles out as others will do throughout the gospel: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel!”

Think about the transformation in Nathanael over these few verses. He goes from disbelief and discounting Jesus—when hearing that’s he from Nazareth, he ridicules the notion that Jesus might be the Messiah. Later, in the direct, personal encounter, he comes to know Jesus as he really is. But the final verses suggest that there is more to come, that Nathanael will come to know more, to see greater things, than the Jesus he has already seen and come to know.

This dynamic, of failing to recognize Jesus is one of the gospel of John’s dominant themes. Often, such failure ends in bitter conflict—as so often when Jesus is confronted by the religious establishment. Other times, failure leads to growth, as the initial confusion or error gives way to deeper insight and relationship.

There’s an important lesson for us here, especially when we think of all the titles that are tossed out in these few verses: Jesus, son of Joseph; Jesus of Nazareth are the first, suggesting that one’s identity is bound up with one’s parentage or city of origin. It’s kind of like the appeal of Ancestry.com—if we know our DNA, our genetic background, we know who we are. But that can be an illusion. It certainly was in Jesus’ case—for he was not the Son of Joseph but the Son of God, as we readers of John know; Jesus’ parentage and hometown didn’t tell us anything about his identity—which we learned in the Gospel’s first verses, that Jesus is the Word of God incarnate.

But I think in many ways we are like Nathanael, certain of who Jesus is. Our understanding of him is shaped by our past, by the church’s teaching, by the language of scripture and the creeds. And our cynicism and comfortable, intellectual sophistication likely lead us to discount most of that language—virgin birth? Son of God? That’s way too far out there for us. He was a good man, a great teacher, a moral example but nothing more. We interpret him in categories that make sense to us. We interpret him in ways that confirm our assumptions and don’t rock our boats.

But even when Nathanael identifies him as the Son of God, Jesus basically says to him, you think that’s something, just wait! “You’ll see the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I wonder whether there’s an important lesson or lessons for us here. How do we identify Jesus? Who do we say that he is? Do our confessions of faith express the limits of what we know about him? Do our definitions of him keep him in a comfortable place in our lives. But what would it be like if instead of settling for those definitions and that comfortable place, we opened ourselves up to the possibility of seeing the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man?

In other words, what would it be like if we opened ourselves up, if we removed the walls that we have built up that prevent us really seeing and knowing him? Or to use the image I began with, what if we made space in our lives to wait, and listen for God’s voice calling us? 

In this era of fake news and echo chambers, I sometimes think we have build echo chambers in our spiritual lives, chambers where we hear only the words we want to hear, words we are comfortable with. When Jesus calls us, he calls us out of our shells, out of our echo chambers. When he says, come and see, he doesn’t mean that we should gawk like tourists or bystanders, but that we should walk with him, listen to him, learn from him. Amidst the noise of the world, may we come and see him as he really is, and be encouraged to see greater things than these.

What shall I preach? A sermon for Advent 2B, 2020

Advent 2       

December 6, 2020

What Shall I preach?

December 7, 2014

Whenever I read the Isaiah text, I find myself reading it in the cadences of Handel’s Messiah, the beautiful Tenor aria that begins that oratorio. I have no idea how many times I have heard that music; it was an annual accompaniment to Christmas throughout my childhood and youth. Although it’s been years since I’ve attended or sung in a performance of it, the music remains in my memory. 

I’m fascinated by the different ways in which we encounter and interpret scripture. Take Messiah, for example. If you’re familiar with it, it’s very hard not to hear it when you read, or listen to, the scriptures that Handel set to music. There’s a sense in which the music has shaped our experience and interpretation of the texts. 

That makes our experience of Advent this year especially difficult. The familiar hymns are heard only in recording, we try to remember what it was like to join our voices with hundreds of others, or the sheer joy of attending holiday performances of favorite works. Our celebrations are muted, or transformed as we focus our efforts more intimately at home, with family and friends.

Music interprets texts; texts interpret texts. In the gospel reading, Mark draws on the language from Isaiah 40 to make it relevant for his own day. The words from Isaiah helped him to understand John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” and Jesus, especially Jesus. The reading from Isaiah includes the verses: 

Get you up to a high mountain, 

O Zion, herald of good tidings; 

lift up your voice with strength, 

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, 

lift it up, do not fear; 

say to the cities of Judah, 

“Here is your God!” 

It’s imagery Mark picks up and uses for his own purposes, although our translations don’t make that clear. Mark tells us “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” Good news, good tidings, Gk euangelion, also translated as “gospel.” Mark is identifying himself, and John the Baptist, with the one who climbs the high mountain and proclaims the good news, “Here is your God!” Mark is looking back to Isaiah and to other biblical stories as he attempts to convey to his readers the urgency and significance of the good news. 

Mark’s John is not only a voice crying in the wilderness, drawing on themes from Isaiah. In his depiction of John, Mark reaches even further back, to the legendary figure of Elijah, depicting John in the very same terms that the prophet Elijah was depicted, wearing camel skins and with a belt around his waist. By the first century, Elijah had become much more than a figure from Israel’s ancient history. There were fervent hopes that he would return, and when he did, he would usher in the messianic age. In the gospel of Mark, both John and Jesus are mistaken for Elijah.

Mark uses all of this imagery from the Hebrew bible to impress upon his readers that the long period of waiting and anticipation is nearing its end. Israel’s hopes for God’s inbreaking into history are coming true. Mark is a herald of Good Tidings, a proclaimer of the good news. And the good news is “Here is your God!”

But there are other ways, other contexts, in which we interpret and read scripture. Primary among those other contexts is the situation in which we find ourselves. Covid case numbers are skyrocketing and the number of deaths reaching unimaginable totals, almost 3000 reported on Friday. At the same time, our mental and emotional exhaustion with the social distancing requirements meaning many of us are giving up, what words of comfort and consolation, what message of hope can be offered?

When I read those words from Isaiah, “A voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” The prophet’s words become my own. Like so many, I struggle to make sense of what we’ve learned about our nation in these past weeks and months. I struggle too, to find words that can express honestly and faithfully my own heartbreak and what I think the good news of Jesus Christ might be in this moment.

For Isaiah, the question, “What shall I cry?” is part of a standard call narrative. That is to say, here, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, when God calls someone, there is often resistance. Remember Moses, called by God at the burning bush, responded that he wasn’t an eloquent speaker. Other prophets resisted God’s call. Jonah, for example, traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid the responsibility God gave him. Here, the prophet’s question is followed by his observation that prophetic utterances don’t matter—human beings are weak and fickle; they come and they go like grass that flowers and then turns brown.

We know the futility about which the prophet speaks. We know the disappointment of dreams and justice deferred. We know a world in which the hopes of an earlier age have faded in the face of what seem to be insurmountable problems. In our own lives, we know the routine grind of daily life, our hopes for a brighter future crushed by economic realities, social change, illness, or personal failure. We know the grief we should be feeling, the extraordinary we should be taking, the exhaustion and despair that have set in.

We do know hope. Mark proclaims, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Isaiah is told, “Get up to a high mountain … say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’!” Our hope is that God is here among us; that we are God’s agents, helping to bring God’s reign into being in our world. 

We also know comfort and consolation. In the midst of the disappointments and pain in our personal lives, in the midst of a world where injustice and violence seem to have free reign, the prophet’s words come to us, reminding us that in the midst of all our struggle and pain, God is present as well, that God’s love and grace sustain and surround us. The prophet’s image of God as shepherd, feeding and protecting the flock assures us of God’s protection and care in the midst of everything.

Advent is a time of waiting as we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Christ child. Advent is a season of discernment as we look for signs of God’s grace in the midst of a dark world. Advent is a season of hope as we look forward to Christ’s coming among us and as we prepare ourselves to receive him in our hearts and in our world. Advent calls us to kindle our faith as its candles are lit. Advent urges us to get up on a high mountain and shout aloud, “Here is your God!” May we respond to that call and offer words of comfort and consolation to our hurting world.

By whose authority? A Sermon for Proper 21A, September 27, 2020

Proper21A

September 27, 2020

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

That’s the question the chief priests and elders asked Jesus in today’s gospel reading. It’s also a question that is very appropriate in our own context as we watch the assaults on democracy in our divided nation and continued protests over the apparent unbridled power of police to kill African Americans with impunity and celebrations for those who attack and kill protestors. 

By what authority? The context for this scripture is absolutely essential to understand what’s going on here. Today’s reading takes place the day after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He followed that display of royal symbolism by going to the temple and staging a violent demonstration—turning over the tables of the moneychangers and expelling all those who were buying and selling things there. The next day he returns to the temple, and upon his arrival is confronted by the guys in charge. Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of it resonate with you?

“By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?”

In a similar situation, we might ask, “What right do you have?” 

I don’t think it’s a legitimate question. I think they mean to put Jesus in his place, to remind him where he is, where they are, and where they are standing. It’s coming from a place of privilege and power, and it’s meant to stop the disturbances, to quiet things down, to shut Jesus up.

But he isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t back down. He responds, as he so often does, with a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” 

It’s quite a risky thing to ask, from Jesus’ perspective. To put it another way, he might be asking, “Was John the Baptist’s ministry, his preaching of repentance, his baptizing in the wilderness, was all that right, did that come from God, or was it his own personal invention?” A risky question, because John had been executed by Herod. For Jesus is not just asking a question about the source of John’s authority, he is also aligning himself with John’s ministry—aligning himself with a prophet who was executed because he was a truth-teller and challenged Herod, calling him out for his immorality, venality, and corruption. 

The gospels tell us that “all Jerusalem went out to see and listen to John” but we can be certain that the temple authorities were not big fans of his, that they perceived him as a threat to their power and wealth.

Unlike John, he preached against immorality, greed, and corruption from the wilderness, Jesus has brought his message to the heart of Jerusalem, to the very heart of Judaism. By overturning the tables of money-changers, Jesus is bringing John’s message of repentance and God’s coming reign to the temple and to the temple elite.

For us, in this moment, the significance of Jesus’ actions, the significance of this question asked of Jesus, and the question Jesus asks in reply, may seem obvious. We may think it has to do with a conflict between Jesus and Judaism, or more narrowly between Jesus and a religious establishment that refused to acknowledge him as the Messiah. We may want to project it forward into the controversies and division of our own time and see it as a question to be asked of political leaders or police officers with whom we disagree, or to be asked of protesters who have taken to the streets. But I think any of those strategies are inclined to leave us off the hook, to let us avoid the uncomfortable question about Jesus’ authority that is being asked of us, and of exploring the nature and extent of his authority in our lives and in our world.

If we reflect on those questions, we might find ourselves in a position of question our own perspectives, the way we have appealed to Jesus’ authority to support our own arguments and positions. Instead, I wonder if we might learn something from the reading from Philippians.

Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus… Paul is addressing life in Christian community, in the first instance he is writing to the small group of Christians in the city of Philippi, urging them to resolve their conflicts, to deepen their relationships with each other. He tells them to imitate Christ and then, in language that soars like poetry and has inspired Christian theology and liturgy for nearly 2000 years, he writes:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, 
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself 
and became obedient to the point of death– 
even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name 
that is above every name, 

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
to the glory of God the Father.

While there is much one could say about this, and let’s be honest, it includes language that we might find troubling or problematic, like slavery… I would like only to focus on what I think is Paul’s main point, that Christ emptied himself, did not himself grasp for power or prestige, did not demand his “rights” but emptied himself, becoming human in obedience to God. 

It’s a mystery that is beyond our comprehension, though we have tried to make sense of it for two thousand years—Christ’s love, his humbling himself, his self-giving. I’m not sure it’s something we can actually emulate or imitate, notwithstanding Paul’s admonition. Instead, it stands before us, not as model, but as gift—God’s gift of grace. And if there is a mind that we have in Christ, to see in Christ’s actions a new possibility for our own and for human existence in the world, a possibility of self-giving love, that offers love’s gift to the world. It’s a witness, a way of life that is desperately needed, especially in these dark days. And to circle back to the question that began this homily, to see Jesus’ authority, not in his divinity or his ability to work miracles, but in the self-giving love that brought him to the cross, raised him from the dead, and brings us hope.

Great is your faith: A homily for Proper 15A, 2020

I’ve sensed a shift in myself over the last few weeks. As the pandemic continues with no signs that we will be able to return to any semblancy of what we used to regard as normal life any time soon, I’ve moved out of crisis mode and begun to think about what our programming, worship, and other activities might look like in the coming months and year. I met with our music staff last week to begin talking about expanding our music offerings in the fall and to look ahead toward Advent and Christmas as we think about how we might observe and celebrate the seasons without in-person worship.

We’re working on other things as well. I’ve had conversations about Christian formation, both children and adult. We’re wondering what an annual meeting might look like; colleagues in the diocese are hosting discussions about stewardship and Christian Formation as well. It’s been over five months since we’ve gathered at Grace for in-person worship and I’m doubtful that we are half-way through this ordeal.

It’s so disheartening, isn’t it? Not just church, of course, but all of life has been upended. There will be no Badger football this fall, no concerts. What school will be like is still very much in the air, not to mention classes at the university. We long for some semblance of life as it was, to gather with friends or to go to restaurants and movies, and even as we try do those things now. For many of us things are even worse than that, with unemployment and uncertainty around housing and food security.

It’s enough for us to want to cry out like the woman in today’s gospel story, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” And like the desperate woman who had exhausted all options in her desire to help her daughter, Jesus’ silence in response doesn’t cut it.

This is may be of the most troubling stories in all of the gospels. Jesus is supposed to be merciful and compassionate, he’s supposed to respond with love and care when someone asks him for help. But that’s not what he does here. It’s not just that Jesus treats her with what appears to be enormous disrespect. It’s that she forces him to change his mind, to do something he seems not to want to do.

This story reminds of something quite important. Jesus is not quite everything we want him to be. We’ve got this warm, fuzzy notion about Jesus and this story breaks that notion apart. We want him to behave according to our standards and expectations, to fit into the box we’ve made for him, but unfortunately, the gospels tell a different story. As much as we want to domesticate Jesus and make his message one that confirms our preconceived notions of faith and of God, the gospels tell a different story. And this story may be the one that is most challenging of all.

One of the things I like about this story is that it shows a woman, an outsider, someone who has no religious power or even religious significance in the Jewish world of first century Palestine, challenging Jesus. More than that, as an outsider, as someone of reviled status, she forces herself into the story. She forces her way through Jesus’ disciples. She forces him to pay attention. She makes him stop in his tracks and notice her. When he ignores her and dismisses her, she doesn’t walk away. She flat out disagrees with him, takes issue with him, engages in wordplay, and beats him at his own game.

There is a great deal one could say about this story. It raises a lot of questions—about Jesus, about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Matthew’s gospel, about the extent of Jesus’ ministry, about his self-understanding. And if you’re interested in some of those questions, I encourage you to go to my blog and look up my sermons from previous years on this text.

But today, I want to focus on one moment—the woman’s reaction when Jesus doesn’t respond to her and when his responses to her don’t satisfy her. She doesn’t settle for his silence or his attempt to silence her. She persists. She kneels down and prays, “Lord, help me.” And when he seems to dismiss her with the saying, “It is not right to the children’s food to dogs,” her response is to say that “even dogs eat the scraps from their masters’ tables.”

We are in difficult times. I don’t need to tell you that. I’m not even going to recite the litany of everything that’s going on right now. As Christians, we are people of prayer. We ask God’s help for our loved ones and for ourselves, for our nation and for all of those who are suffering. But often our prayers are little more than words that cross our lips, pious statements that we make or read because well, that’s what we do after the creed and before the confession of sin.

But right now, many of us may find ourselves praying because there seems to be little else we can do. We’ve exhausted all of our options, we ourselves are exhausted. We may even cry out, or want to cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”

If we have said those or similar words, we may have been at the very end and not really expecting a response from God. We are greeted with silence, and unlike Elijah in last week’s reading from I Kings, we don’t even hear a still, small voice.

Silence, or as in the woman’s case, a rebuke—perhaps when our prayer isn’t answered, the rebuke we hear is from the voice inside of us that says we deserve all this that we’re getting. The Canaanite woman didn’t accept the silence; she didn’t accept the rebuke, she persisted.

And because she persisted, Jesus recognized her faith and healed her daughter. Maybe, just maybe, those unsettling, disappointing conversations with God we call prayer can bring us to new discoveries and deeper faith. Maybe, when we wrestle with God, when we challenge Jesus, it’s not that we change God’s mind, but that a new, deeper relationship with God opens up to us. Whether or not our suffering ends, by returning to God again and again in prayer and petition, we hear God say to us, “Great is your faith.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A deserted place of healing and abundance: A homily for Proper 13A, 2020

Among the many challenges over the past months of safer at home, self-quarantine, and the suspension of worship, has been the sense that we are losing a sense of connection, not only with friends, family, and fellow parishioners, but with the very place where we worship, Grace Church. I was reminded of that fact a couple of days ago when we made a test run of our new hearing loop that has been installed in the church. Two long-time parishioners entered the church for the first time in four months to test the new system with their hearing aids. The good news is that everything worked great. At the same time, both mentioned how much they had missed the church and how good it was to be able to be in it again, if only for a few minutes.

Live-streamed worship is a wonderful thing. Thanks to the miracle of technology, we can see the space, hear the liturgy, and listen to the organ and soloist. But there’s so much missing—the sense of the light refracted through the stained glass windows, the unique and familiar smells of an old church, the sounds of the floor creaking, or the pews as we sit and move around.

Place is important geographically as well. And in this time of pandemic and protests, the presence of Grace Church on the square is a reminder of our mission to help heal our city, and to share the good news of God’s love in the midst of division and suffering.

While we may not think so, place is always important in the gospels. There’s Jerusalem, of course, and I have mentioned repeatedly the importance to the synoptic gospels of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, with that growing sense of drama as he draws nearer to his fate. But geographical references are important in other ways. In today’s reading, we are told that “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” It wasn’t that deserted because crowds soon gathered around him. Still, we should imagine it to be something like a wilderness, far enough from any town to make traveling difficult, and remote enough that there were no easy provisions to be had.

The reason Jesus sought seclusion comes in the previous section of the gospel. There, Matthew tells of Herod killing John the Baptist, and it’s in response to that news that Jesus withdraws. The feeding of the five thousand takes on additional significance in light of this. We are offered a contrast between these two scenes, which reflect not only the difference between Herod and Jesus, but also between Herod’s court and the gathering around Jesus, the celebration of Herod’s birthday that culminated in the presentation of John the Baptist’s head on a platter with Jesus’ healing the sick and teaching the crowd, and finally offering them loaves and fishes. It’s the contrast between the power and violence of the Roman Empire, and God’s reign. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness calls to mind earlier stories as well—especially the Exodus, when the Israelites feasted on miraculous manna and quail after God delivered them from bondage to another empire, that of Pharaoh and Egypt.

Think of the contrast between those two scenes. On the one hand, a royal banquet, with all of the power and wealth on display, indulging every appetite and desire. It was meant not only to celebrate the birthday of Herod, but like all such banquets in the Hellenistic world, it was meant to display his power, and symbolize his place in the Roman order, as well as the places in that hierarchy of everyone in attendance.

On the other hand, a deserted place, where a crowd gathered to hear Jesus. There was no power and wealth on display. Instead, what was visible was Jesus’ compassion and gift for healing, restoring health to the diseased and infirm. And then, instead of exotic foods gathered from across the empire, a few loaves and fishes.

 

Jesus asks for the loaves and fishes. Then, in language that Matthew will also use to describe his actions at the Last Supper, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, gives to the disciples the bread and the fish. All eat and are satisfied and there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Matthew, as do the other gospel writers, makes a connection between this miraculous feeding and that other miraculous meal, the Last Supper, the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with his closest friends and companions; he shared his body and blood. When he fed the five thousand, his gift of sustenance in the wilderness was a sign of God’s reign, a symbol of the abundance that is promised in the age to come; a symbol, too, of the bread of life he offers us.

In this contrast between royal banquet and simple meal we are offered a symbol of the world in which we live today. At a time when our political elites dither and some display their power and wealth even as they amass greater amounts, millions are threatened with eviction, food insecurity, and the end of unemployment insurance. Already we are seeing longer lines at food banks and pantries across the country. The poor grow poorer while billionaires grow wealthier.

Perhaps we look with a bit of envy on the ostentatious consumption by the 1% but as we gather around the Lord’s table, we are offered the abundance of bread and wine at the Eucharistic feast. We eat the bread of angels and it is food enough.

As we eat and are satisfied, we are also called—to offer food to the hungry, to fight for justice, and to call out the hypocrisy, oppression, and exploitation of the economic system that has left so many behind. May we invite all to partake of the food offered here, to eat and be satisfied, transformed by the vision of God’s reign proclaimed by Jesus and by the Eucharistic feast.

 

 

Sighs too deep for words: A Sermon for Proper 12A, July 26, 2020

Early on in the pandemic, I read a number of essays comparing our situation in lockdown with the lives of hermits who abandoned life in community to live in solitude in their search for deeper relationship with God. The tone of the essays was usually encouraging—offering the reader resources for deepening their spirituality in the face of this new situation. But the reality of life in lockdown, and even now as the limits on our movement and activity are being lifted, is rather different. For myself at least, the stresses and anxiety of the moment, the fear of pandemic, reading the news of the spread of illness, protests, and everything else, have left little space for deeper relationship with God.

With worship relegated to livestreaming, the suspension of the Eucharist, the lack of physical gathering with God’s people, the inability to sing hymns, my spiritual life has been something of a wasteland. It’s only the comfort of the daily office, morning prayer, that sustains me. Words written hundreds of years ago, updated, but still they speak to and for me. The psalms continue to inspire me and provide language with which to approach God, and language that often describes or names my feelings and desires. Cultivating a prayer life these days is both exceedingly difficult and indispensable.

In Romans 8, St. Paul has some interesting and surprising things to say about prayer:

 

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

“We do not know how to pray as we ought.” This is Paul talking, remember. This is the guy who had an encounter with the Risen Christ that initiated a radical change in his life. He’s someone who could confront the principalities and powers, challenge Jesus’ closest followers, even Peter. He wrote letters full of brashness and invective, was absolutely certain of his faith and of the correctness of his theology. He could write about his own mystical experiences, journeys to the third heaven. But still, even for him, prayer wasn’t easy.

Prayer isn’t always easy. Finding adequate language with which to address God is a struggle common to many Christians, To grope for language to address God, to express our uncertainties and doubts about God to express them to God, none of this is unique. It is part of the experience of most Christians, at least at some point in their journeys. Even the greatest mystics experienced such times. Teresa of Avila, for example, called such times in her life when God seemed absent, as dryness. For her, the dryness could last for years.

It’s not just prayer, of course. We struggle spiritually in so many ways. We worry that we don’t do the right thing; that we’re not quite dedicated enough. Some of us may worry that we don’t believe in the right way. We struggle with the creed, the resurrection.

Especially now, with all of our anxieties and fears, with all of the new tasks and responsibilities—child care and schooling, work from home that has collapsed the boundaries from the world of work and our home lives, the challenges of connecting with friends and family. We may be largely confined to home, but our lives are busier than ever, and finding time to pray, finding the quiet to pray may be impossible. And so, the idea that the Spirit may intercede on our behalf, may pray with and for us, can be of great comfort.

But that’s not all that Paul says in this passage. As he draws this section of the letter to a close, his rhetoric and language rise to a crescendo as he asks a series of questions:

 

Who is against us?

Who brings a charge against us?

Who condemns us?

What separates us from the love of God?

The answer to each of those questions is “No one.” In fact, these verses are not just the conclusion of chapter 8. They are the culmination and summary of an argument Paul has been making since chapter 5, that we can be certain of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. And in the midst of this powerful argument, Paul introduces another idea that speaks directly to what I was talking about earlier; our struggles with prayer and with God. Earlier, Paul had assured us that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. Now, it is Jesus Christ himself, who died, was raised, and sits at the right hand of the Father, who intercedes for us.

We are not alone. We don’t need to try to figure everything out; we don’t even need to worry about finding the right words to express our fears or doubts, or our faith.

What we need to do is trust in God and in Jesus Christ. And in those darkest and driest moments, when we can’t even do that, we can rest in the assurance that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, with sighs too deep for words; that Jesus Christ intercedes on our behalf and that, in the end, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

I will give you rest: A Homily for Proper 9A, 2020

I can’t tell you how disorienting this all seems. Today is the first time we are celebrating Eucharist at Grace since mid-March. It’s the first time we will have heard the organ, the familiar language, seen this familiar space. And all around us are reminders of the strangeness. There are in various places around this space, lingering traces of the disruptions we’ve been through. Materials from Lent, for example. Do you remember Lent Madness? Continue reading