Fashioned by God, refashioned by Jesus: A Sermon for Proper 18C, September 4, 2022

I have an old friend who’s a potter. We’ve pretty much known each other all our lives. Grew up in the same town, he was a year older, in my sister’s class and a friend of hers. We went to the same college and after graduation, he went back home and became the potter at the local historic village/ museum set up by a wealthy entrepreneur. I would drop by his studio every time I went home and if there weren’t many people around, I would watch him throwing pots as we would chat, catching up on our lives and other friends and acquaintances. Like all potters, as he is creating his art, occasionally things will go wrong. There’s a fault in the object he has on the wheel and he has to take it all back down, start over. There’s something mesmerizing about watching a potter at work

Somewhere, I’ve got a pitcher of his I bought at a college art fair many years ago. We also have a number of his more recent pieces. Over the course of his career, he has become adept not only at making useful, attractive objects but also at using glazes to create stunning works of art. 

This reading from Jeremiah is one of the most vivid and memorable images in all of scripture. It has also lent itself to reinterpretation and adaptation as the image of the potter and the clay has become a common way of thinking about our individual relationships with God, “You are the potter, I am the clay” goes the old song. 

But before exploring the image, let’s go back and get a bit of background. We’ve actually been reading about the Hebrew prophetic tradition throughout this season after Pentecost. We were introduced to Elijah and Elisha, then Amos, who was the first of the Hebrew prophets to have his words written down and recorded. Now we come to Jeremiah, who was active for around 40 years or more. He began his work in the 620s, during the reign of Josiah, who introduced a number of religious reforms, chief among them an insistence on worship and sacrifice in Jerusalem at the temple (the book of Deuteronomy reflects these concerns). Jeremiah’s prophecies address these same concerns, especially the tendency to worship other gods, the gods of Canaanite religion, Baal and Astarte

Alongside these religious concerns are the political ones. Judah, the southern kingdom is being threatened by Babylon. Eventually it will be conquered, the temple destroyed, and the religious and political elite of Judah carried off into captivity in Babylon. Under threat, the king of Judah wants to make an alliance with Egypt, something Jeremiah opposes and which contributes to his troubles (imprisonment and exile).

Against this context Jeremiah’s visit to the Potter’s House, and the Word of the Lord that comes to him there becomes quite clear. God is the potter, Judah the clay. God chose and called the people of Israel, created the monarchy, and nourished it. But their apostasy and disobedience have angered God, who will destroy them as a potter destroys a misshapen pot on the wheel. Nevertheless, if the people repent and turn away from the worship of false gods, God may restore them and recreate them.

While this may be the context for the original prophetic oracle—Judah’s apostasy and the existential threat to the nation posed by the Babylonian empire, there is significant biblical warrant for reinterpreting it as the Christian tradition has done, to think about our relationship with God as that of a potter and clay.

Indeed, the biblical story of creation lends itself to that interpretation—God created human beings out of the dust of the earth, fashioned the human as a sculptor fashions a sculpture. That sense of intimacy alongside the creative power of God is evidenced in the first verses of Jeremiah—words we heard a couple of weeks ago: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

That same intimacy and deep connection between God and us human beings is eloquently described in today’s Psalm:

Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

 My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.

15 Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.

This sense of being shaped, created, formed by God may seem a long way away from the hard words Jesus says in today’s gospel reading.

In today’s gospel, Jesus seems to be making statements about family relationships that radically upend our feelings and ideas about traditional family ties. 

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

What to make of this? On first hearing, Jesus’ language seems offensive, overly harsh. In its context, it may be hyperbolic, exaggeration. Jesus uses such stark language to drive home the point that if one wants to follow Jesus, be his disciple, nothing else should matter as much.

Our tendency when we hear Jesus say things like he says in today’s gospel reading, is to dismiss it. Either he can’t really mean what he says, or it’s so outlandish as to be completely irrelevant to our lives. And if he means it, then maybe I don’t want to sign on to this Jesus stuff, and anyone who does is crazy, which may be a judgment many of us make regarding others who call themselves Christian. 

But to do that is to let ourselves off the hook; to relegate Jesus to some hidden corner of our lives that is largely irrelevant. Jesus’ words challenge us to think about what he hold most dear, what our deepest commitments are, what are priorities and values really are. And Jesus’ words challenge us to reshape our lives in conformity to him, to reshape our relationships, commitments, and priorities.

We live in a messy world. We lead messy lives. We face all kinds of decisions in our lives that seem not to be clear-cut. We face choices at work that might seem the lesser of two evils; we wonder what it might mean to follow Jesus’ call. Whether the decisions are large or small, it’s about trying to be faithful day in, day out. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. These words challenge us to follow him in all of our lives, in everything we do. They challenge us to get our priorities in line. They challenge us to see everything in light of the cross. Everything! All that we do, all of our values, our hopes and fears, the things we love most dearly lie in the shadow of the cross, by the love demonstrated by Christ’s outstretched arms, and by his call to follow him.

An onerous burden indeed. But even as we hear Jesus’ call to us, to take up our cross and follow him, even as we hear his words that we must hate father and mother, brother and sister, if we want to enter God’s reign, we also need to remember that the burden is not wholly on us. God is working in us, on us, as a potter works on clay, fashioning us into the creatures, the human beings, God desires us to become helping us, through the grace given us in Jesus Christ, to be the vessels of God’s love, pouring out that love into the world. Thanks be to God.

Strangers and Foreigners: A Sermon for Proper 14C, 2022

Proper 14C

August 7, 2022

A few weeks ago, one of my cousins posted on facebook a copy of the deed to the land my great-great-great grandfather Christian Beck purchased in 1835 in Northwestern Ohio.

If I had seen it a few years ago, I would have thought, how cool! But as I’ve immersed myself in Native American history and learned more about the forced removal and genocide of Native Americans—the Potawatomie who had lived on that land had been forcibly removed west only a few years earlier—the deed was a reminder of all that history and of all the ways my ancestors, who had come to America in search of a better life, and in their case, freedom to worship and express their faith as a dissident religious community, were bound up in that larger story of dispossession and genocide.

That story, America’s story, my story, is tied up in notions of American exceptionalism and the doctrine of discovery—the idea that European settlers could claim as their own property land on which native peoples had lived for millennia. But that story is also tied up with the biblical story in so many ways, perhaps most notably in the story retold and interpreted in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews.

Well, it’s not really a letter. It’s more of a sermon than a letter. It doesn’t have any of the characteristics of a piece of correspondence. There’s no back and forth. There is no conversation between the author and their audience; no questions asked or answered. We don’t know who wrote it—the attribution to Paul is ancient but his name does not appear in the text. We do not know when it was written, probably around the year 100. We don’t know who the intended audience was.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating, powerful, and beautifully written text. We encounter it at various points in the three-year lectionary cycle. Much of the first half of the book was read last year, in October and November. And now we return to it for a few weeks. 

Our reading today is extracted from the 11th chapter. To this point, the author has been laying out their understanding of Christ, using imagery from the Jewish Temple and Jewish sacrifice to contrast those traditions with Jesus Christ, who is the Great High Priest and whose sacrifice on the cross both fulfilled and brought to an end the need for animal sacrifice. 

Now the author switches gears. Chapter 11 is an explication of faith, and provides litany of the heroes of the faith; of which the verses concerning Abraham that we read are a part:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” It might seem that the author is setting up the familiar dichotomy to us—faith against science, faith against reason, faith against facts. But that’s not the case. David Bentley Hart translates this verse as “Now faithfulness is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of unseen realities.”

In other words, by using “substance” Hart is stressing that it is real, tangible, objective over against something that isn’t real. But there’s something else to note in Hart’s translation; he uses the word faithfulness, rather than faith. We tend to think of faith as something static. We either have it or we don’t. But it’s not. It’s about relationship, about process.

It’s not about whether we can say the words of the Nicene Creed without stumbling, or without crossing our fingers behind our back. It’s about trusting in God and centering ourselves in God even when we’re not certain that God is there.

We’re given examples of faith to guide us in what follows. The author takes us on a journey through the great heroes of faith, citing the examples of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, before coming to the greatest exemplar of biblical faith: Abraham. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents.”

In fact, Abraham died without God’s promise to him having been fulfilled. At his death, he had one son, Isaac, and the only land he actually possessed was the land he purchased for his wife Sarah’s burial place. He died, as the author of Hebrews writes, All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, … But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.”

Strangers and foreigners.

The author of this text is writing to a community that is profoundly not at home in its environment. Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord in the first and second centuries meant going against the ideology and culture of the Roman Empire. The cities in which they lived were expressions of that ideology, of Roman power and prestige. It was unescapable, part of everyday life. But our author reminds them of their true citizenship in the city of God.

Strangers, foreigners. It may be hard for us to think of ourselves that way. Certainly in this time when Christian Nationalism runs rampant through our culture. It’s difficult to imagine a Christian faith untethered to the language and symbolism of American exceptionalism.

 Of course, we may feel estranged from all of that. To watch our rights being eroded; the end of Roe, the attacks on our political institutions may leave us profoundly alienated and disoriented. And that so much of it is being done in the name of Christianity may anger and frighten us. It may even make us uncomfortable identifying as Christian or confessing our faith publicly. And yet even in our discomfort we may be reminded that “the we” I am using is made up of people of different races and ethnicities, different places of origin, different sexual and gender identities. 

This past couple of weeks, the bishops of the Anglican Communion have been meeting; for the first time in fourteen years. A gathering that was supposed to take place every ten years was delayed, first by internal division within the communion, then by COVID. Disagreement over sexuality and same sex marriage received much of the press and threatened to disrupt the gathering.  Beneath that noise were days of relationship-building among bishops and their spouses from across the globe. My social media feeds were filled with photos and comments about those relationships, being built and strengthened across great cultural divides, united by and in Christ. A reminder that our identity as Anglicans, as Episcopalian Christians, is not just about the people next to us in the pews or others in the Episcopal Church, but that we are part of a church with members across the globe. Indeed, we are strangers and foreigners here.

We may even, at times, feel alienated from God, strangers and foreigners wandering far from home with no map or road to follow. We may not feel at home in our bodies or our skin. The faith of Abraham may seem an unattainable goal. But God does not abandon us when we feel lost and alone. There may be signs of God’s presence in the wilderness or the foreign land, signs that God is with us, caring for us, carrying us, leading us toward that city where justice and peace reign.

We are bold to say: A sermon for Proper 12C, 2022

We are bold to say

Proper 12C

July 24, 2022

Lord, teach us to pray.

There’s something powerful, something even sad, about the plea we hear in today’s gospel reading. Powerful, because the request of one of Jesus’ disciples is something most of us could imagine asking. How many of us really think we get the whole prayer thing?

But sad, too, because we would like to think that Jesus’ disciples, his closest friends and companions, would have this prayer thing figured out. Or at least, that Jesus would have taught them to pray earlier in their time together. I mean, what were they all doing all those weeks and months together?

Lord, teach us to pray. As Anglicans, Episcopalians we have a treasured resource in the Book of Common Prayer—prayers written by faithful Christians over the centuries, many of them whose roots go back more than a 1000 years. Even I, someone who has been using the BCP for upwards of thirty years, even I am occasionally surprised by the power of a collect I may have prayed 100 or 1000 times. There are some that I find difficult to pray aloud without my voice catching.

But such prayers can also become rote, so familiar that we barely notice the words as we say them, we never think twice about them, never consider their meaning. 

It’s also true that the Book of Common Prayer can become a crutch> It can help us by offering words and images that ring true when we can’t speak for ourselves. But it can also prevent us from developing the habits and becoming comfortable with speaking to God with words from our hearts, expressing our authentic selves to the one who created and redeemed us.

In the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus praying often. He prays as he comes from his baptism. He prays at other significant moments, perhaps most famously, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he faces his coming crucifixion and death. Sometimes, he goes off by himself to pray as he does in today’s gospel reading. 

The disciples had seen all this, and they also knew that John the Baptizer had given his disciples instructions in prayer, so one of them asked Jesus to teach them as well. Perhaps the disciple asking had also noticed the intimate relationship Jesus had with his Father and sought a deeper, more intimate relationship with God as well. 

“We are bold to say… Those are the words that introduce the Lord’s Prayer in our worship. Have you ever thought about them? Is it bold, courageous to pray in the words Jesus taught us? Or is it bold to say, “Our Father”?

, “Our Father.” For many of us in the 21st century, to address God as Father is deeply problematic as it plays into gender hierarchies and the patriarchy, and for those of us with complicated relationships with our fathers, to refer to God as Father may be more stumbling block than life-giving. Still, it’s important to underscore the positive meaning of this address. To call God “Father” is to emphasize the relationship between us and God; at best, as we see in Jesus’ later reference to how a father should behave in response to a child’s request, such relationships are grounded in love, and yes, dependency.

To call God Father was not a revolutionary act by Jesus, there are places in Jewish scripture where God is so addressed, and we know it also from extra-biblical sources. Still, there seems to have been an intense intimacy in Jesus’ address and experience of God as Father; perhaps best expressed in the Aramaic word we know Jesus used, “Abba” was a word that was remembered and used by early Christians who spoke no Aramaic. Paul tells us, for example, that early Christians in the Gentile, Greek-speaking comunities to which he wrote letters, prayed to “Abba,” Father.

I doubt very much whether many of us, when we begin saying the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father”—think or experience such intimacy, but it may be that the cultivation of a deeper and richer prayer life begins by opening ourselves and our hearts to deeper intimacy with God. 

There’s something more here. Jesus begins, “Our Father” not “My Father”—Prayer, the Lord’s prayer is predicated on intimacy and relationship, not just with God, but with a community at prayer. We pray together; not only when we gather for the Eucharist and say the words of the Lord’s prayer together but even if we pray these words alone, we are praying them with all those Christians throughout the world and throughout history who have prayed and are praying them. 

Prayer is about relationship—with God and with others. We see that in Jesus’ follow-up to the Lord’s Prayer. The brief parable about the one who asks for bread, and the familiar sayings, “Ask, seek, knock” are often interpreted as how-to’s or as encouragement to persistence. If you pray long enough and hard enough, eventually, your prayer will be answered.

But I don’t think that’s what’s intended here. Think again about the first story. You go to a neighbor to ask for bread late at night because an unexpected visitor has arrived. He’s in bed, he doesn’t want to bothered but nonetheless he relents. The word translated here as persistence might better be translated as shameless. In other words, you go to your neighbor for help, openly, humbly, admitting your need, relying on that friendship. 

At our 10:00 service, we will be baptizing Magdalen, Mage. Like all babies, she is utterly dependent on her parents, on their love and care for her. Today, we are also widening that web of relationships in which she is nurtured, bringing her into the body of Christ, naming her as Christ’s own forever. We hope that as she grows and matures, she will also experience deep relationship with God. 

We may sometimes feel like babies when we think about our relationship with God. We may feel inadequate to express ourselves to God, unable to find the words, unable even to say “Our Father.” There may be times that intimate relationship with God seems impossible. Our needs so great, our faith faltering, that words simply do not come.

But even then, in those dark moments, when God may seem distant when words fail, prayer may become the silent cry of anguish. It’s worth remembering that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane; that he even prayed on the cross.

There’s a lovely progression in this passage. Beginning with deep intimacy, “Our Father” the Lord’s prayer quickly moves to a reminder of God’s wholly otherness—your name be holy or hallowed. In Judaism, of course, God’s name cannot be spoken, cannot even be written. 

And then we are given images of child asking his parent for bread; From transcendence to immediacy; from distance to intimacy. We are free to approach God as a child approaches her parent, spontaneously, intimately, expressing our needs and our dependence, confident of God’s love. 

Whether we pray with words or wordlessly, whether the Lord’s Prayer speaks for us or not, may we find ways in prayer to deepen our intimacy with God, and may we be bold to express our needs to God, approaching God as a child approaches her loving parent.

Freedom, chains, or life among the tombs

Proper 7C

June 19, 2022

Today is Juneteenth, a brand-new federal holiday celebrating the end of chattel slavery in the US. It has its origins in Texas, where African-Americans have observed it off and on since that first June 19th, 1865, when two months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, confederate forces in Texas finally surrendered, and General Granger of the Union Army issued the order enforcing emancipation in Texas. It is a day for us both to celebrate the end of the evil of slavery but also to take note of all the ways that slavery has shaped the United States and its legacy continues to burden us more than 150 years later. 

It is a celebration of freedom, a celebration of our nation coming to understand that the lofty values expressed in the Declaration of Independence extended beyond the rights of white men, to include ultimately all people, men and women, black and white. But to observe Juneteenth means that we also have to recognize and lament all of the ways we have failed to live up to those expanding values. As Clint Smith eloquently writes in the chapter on Galveston in his book How the Word is Passed, slavery didn’t end in Texas on June 19, 1865. Slaveholders continued to enslave people for years after. 

In her extended meditation, On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed reflects on how our history and especially the history of her homestate of Texas, is shaped by mythologies and mythological figures—the cowboy, the oilman—while erasing other figures and realities, like the fact that slavery drove the Texan fight for independence from Mexico and the importance of slavery and the slave economy to the state. 

Even as we mark this occasion, our hearts also go out to our Episcopalian siblings at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, AL, where another shooting took place at a potluck gathering Thursday evening. It reminds us that there is no place in our nation, no person in our nation who is safe from the violence perpetrated with guns and that our nation remains deeply beholden to the myth of redemptive violence and the worship of guns. 

All this of course against the backdrop of the January 6 hearings as we learn more and more about the dangers faced by our democracy on that day, and the ongoing threat to democracy posed by many of those same actors. We know more now as well about the many ways Christian nationalism is intertwined with the ideology of the groups supporting that insurrection.

These evils, these demonic forces hold us in their grip, bind us, and even when we seem to break free and allow us to imagine a future of freedom, of justice and equality, we often creep back to the comfort of the chains that limit us, keep us and others in bondage.

In today’s gospel reading we hear one of the most fascinating and rich stories in the gospels. It is by far the longest of the many stories telling of Jesus’ encounters with demonic powers and forces. The rich details we are presented encourage us to think of the action taking place on several levels: the individual, the man possessed by Legion; the social and communal; the political and imperial, and, of course, most importantly the cosmic.

First of all, geography. I have repeatedly stressed the importance of paying attention to geography in the gospels, and especially in Luke. With his two-part work of Luke and Acts that tells the story of the move of the gospel from Galilee, to Jerusalem, to the world, this incident is the only time in Luke that Jesus enters Gentile territory, crossing the Sea of Galilee to the territory of the Gerasenes.

Second, there’s the demoniac. His description, naked, living among the tombs, is the description of someone who has lost his identity. He has no home, no family, no place in society. He might as well be dead, which may be one reason he’s living among the tombs.

The third thing I want to point out has to do with the demons and the herd of swine. When Jesus asks the demon for its name, they reply, “Legion, for we are many.” Fearful that Jesus might return them to the abyss, which in the ancient world was the dwelling place of demons, they ask him to cast them into a nearby herd of pigs, and promptly stampede into the sea to perish. The name Legion brings to mind the Roman army and while it’s likely that we are meant to think that there are as many demons as soldiers in a legion (6000), it’s also possible that the story as a whole is meant to convey a confrontation between Jesus and the Roman Empire. Coincidentally, one of the legions stationed in Palestine had as its figurehead a boar, and more generally, a fertile sow was one of the ancient symbols of Rome. So while Jesus is confronting the powers of the demonic, he is also confronting imperial power in this story.

The story ends in an odd fashion, completely consistent with its overall strangeness. The man is restored to his senses Luke describes him sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. When the people see him healed, they are fearful and beg Jesus to leave them. He does so, returning by boat with his disciples to Galilee. But before he departs, the healed man begs Jesus to allow him to come along. Jesus tells him no, instead, he should proclaim what God had done for him, so the man returns to his home, “proclaiming throughout the city all that Jesus had done.”

There is a great deal that is intriguing in this story, but what I’m most struck by this week is the fear of the city’s residents. They see the demoniac clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet, and they are afraid. Now many commentators will say that their fear was caused by the news of the pigs being drowned in the sea, or by the possibility that their economic livelihood was at stake if Jesus continued to perform such mighty acts among them. I’m not so sure.

Jesus is a foreigner here, an outsider. He comes for no apparent reason, or perhaps only for this reason, to encounter this man who was possessed by demons. He heals him, restores him to his senses and to his community and in so doing he isn’t threatening a way of life or economic well=-being, he is threatening the very order of the universe. He demonstrates his power over the forces of evil, demonstrates that many of the assumptions the inhabitants of this place held dear, can no longer be taken for granted. If the demons obey him, what else might he be capable of? What other trouble might he stir up?

Now the story begins to challenge us and our assumptions. As hard as it may be for us to believe that Jesus cast out demons, it may be even harder for us to believe that Jesus Christ continues to work in that way in the world today. It’s almost unimaginable to us that the reign of God, proclaimed by Jesus Christ nearly two thousand years ago and demonstrated with his mighty acts, may be in our midst already. It’s hard to believe that our faith, our community can work miracles like Jesus did; that we have power over the forces of evil in the world; that we can restore people to their right minds.

In fact, of the characters in this story we’re more like the Gerasenes than the possessed man. We’re more like those people who saw evidence of Jesus’ power and proclamation, grew fearful, and asked him to leave their country. It’s likely that we’re more comfortable in the place we are, whether as individuals or as a congregation, than we would welcome the frightening, world-changing power of Jesus Christ in our midst. 

We can’t imagine that we might be freed of the demons that possess us—the demons of white supremacy, gun violence. We look around in despair at the world’s situation and watch as the fears of a different future cause reactions that seek answers in the past, try to turn back the movement toward greater gender and racial equality, diversity, LGBTQ inclusion.

We are living among the tombs. We are surrounded by the monuments previous generations built for themselves, not just buildings of course, but a culture and society that privileged the few, stealing their lives, their land, their futures. Now we are in the same place, with our actions and inaction, condemning future generations to live on a globe transformed b climate catastrophe. 

Jesus comes to us, comes among us, and offers us new life, the vision of a way forward into the future. Will we risk following him into the unknown, with no signposts to lead us forward? Will we risk the possibility that as we follow him into the future, we will experience new forms of life, new ways of being, encounters with all sorts and conditions of people? Or will we ask him to leave us alone, so we can continue to live among the tombs?

The Dance of Love: A sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2022

Trinity Sunday

June 12, 2022

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty …

God in three persons, blessed Trinity

Our opening hymn this morning was probably familiar to most of you. What you may not have noticed, or perhaps paid attention to, was the closing line of the first and last verses. 

Today is Trinity Sunday—the only Sunday in the liturgical year devoted to a theological doctrine, a central tenet of our faith, rather than on Jesus: his person, or on his ministry. 

I have a sense that for most of us, the Trinity is not something we spend much time thinking about. We may sing about it in hymns like “Holy, holy, holy,” we may confess our faith in it using the the words of the Nicene Creed, but I doubt many of us lose sleep wondering about the relationships among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; how they might be equal yet different, united in the Godhead. We don’t worry whether the Son was only-begotten, or as our Eucharistic Prayer B says (quoting the letter to the Colossians) the first-born of all creation…

That wasn’t alwaysthe case in the History of Christianity. In the first centuries of our tradition, debates over the relationship between Father and Son, and the Trinity were intense and had ramifications that played out in the sphere of politics. These doctrines were things that ordinary people debated and cared deeply about. 

I like to cite an early Church father Gregory of Nyssa, who lived through, and participated in, the dramatic controversies over the Trinity in the fourth century. He described life in Constantinople during one period of the conflict in the following terms:

If in this city you ask anyone for change, he will discuss with you whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of bread, you will receive the answer that ‘the Father is greater, the Son is less.’ If you suggest that a bath is desirable, you will be told that ‘there was nothing before the son was created.

Imagine getting into your Uber and immediately being confronted with questions about Christology and the Trinity. To be honest, that’s happened to me, but only after being identified as a priest…

I’m not going to rehearse any of those debates, nor am I going to go back through old files and resurrect lectures I used to give on the trinitarian controversies. Instead, I would like to focus on two key elements about the trinity that speak directly to the nature of God, and how God relates to us and to the created world.

The first is that at the heart of God is community—relationship. When St. Augustine was working through the doctrine of the Trinity in his great treatise “On the Trinity” one of the first images he grasped for to explain it was this. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like love: The Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that binds them together. While he quickly rejects that image as inadequate, I think it says something important about the nature of God and of the Trinity. At the heart of God is love, relationship; love flowing out of Godself into the world, to us.

One way we see and experience that love is in the fact that God’s love flowed outward, creating the universe and us; and even after we rejected or turned away from God, God’s love continues to flow outward, reaching out to us in the form of his son our savior.

I want us to think about God’s creativity in another way. We see that creativity at work and at play in today’s reading from Proverbs. The reading from Proverbs is a poem of Wisdom. Wisdom, personified here as female is speaking:

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?

“On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.”

We may find it hard to imagine Lady Wisdom taking her stand at the crossroads, beside the gates of the town. Such imagery may bring to mind the sort of protests of which we are familiar around here, but that’s a little misleading. In the biblical tradition, the city gates or portal was the place where justice was meted out; where injustice was decried and people who had been wronged received their due. The crossroads or marketplace was a place where ideas were exchanged, decisions affecting the community decided. So here, Lady Wisdom is proclaiming her role in creating community. She speaks from the centers of human life, from and about economic and social relationships. 

But Wisdom isn’t just present in human society. She also is present in God, at the creation. She reminds us that it was through wisdom, in wisdom, that God created the universe. She helped to give it order:

 “When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

Here, wisdom describes herself as the master workman, and in the reading we get a strong sense of Wisdom participating in creation in some way, helping plan it or at least observing it. But, wait. That word that’s translated as master worker? It might instead mean nursling, little child. What a different sense we would get from the reading.

“When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was with him, like a little child, I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

I love that dual image, of Wisdom as a master worker, wisdom as a little child. I especially love that last verse, I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

Delight, play. There’s a term in Greek orthodox theology that became quite fashionably in the west in the late twentieth century that captures something of this play and delight. The term is “perichoresis” literally, co-indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity, that they occupy the same space, if you will. It’s also translated as, or understood as, a divine dance: three persons moving rhythmically and dynamically, distinct and yet united in a shared dance of love.

Isn’t that a marvelous image? That at the heart of the Trinity, at the heart of God is three persons united in a wild dance of love?

For St. Augustine, one of the key things about the Trinity was how it helped us understand ourselves as human. If we are created in God’s image, then our being, our nature, reflects the trinity, in all of its creativity, its need for relationship. To think about ourselves that way invites us to imagine ourselves not as independent beings but as beings created in and for relationship, with each other and with God. And what is the nature of the relationship for which we are created? A dance of love.

There’s much more that might be said about all of this and I will admit to you that the idea of Trinitarian perichoresis as “dance” has been challenged by a number of theologians in the last couple of decades but I do think it can help us think creatively about God, ourselves, and our life in community.

As we struggle to make sense of the world, as we are confronted by all of the world’s challenges and take up the challenge to follow Jesus in these difficult times, it’s important not to lose sight of God’s playfulness and creativity, and the invitation the Trinity offers us to play, and love, and dance. 

Preaching a gospel of inclusion in a world overwhelmed by hate and fear: A sermon for 5 Easter C, 2022

On Thursday morning, I remarked to Parish Administrator, Christina, how strange and wonderful it felt to have other people in the offices. JF was working away on various projects in his office, and our new Communications Coordinator, George Decker, was at work in his. It’s been a long time since we’ve had that many staff in place. As we begin to build relationships and establish camaraderie, there’s the excitement that new things are bubbling up, new opportunities, new life. 

Thursday was also probably the best day to enjoy the beauty of Spring. With the high temperatures this past week, the bulbs and flowering trees won’t last long; but I was at least able to get a couple of photos of the crabapple and redbud out in the courtyard.

But our hope and excitement is tempered by the reality of all of the uncertainty and problems we face. Over the weekend, the shootings that left 20 people injured in Milwaukee after the playoff game and the news from Buffalo of 10 killed and three more injured in a racist shooting attack. The perpetrator was radicalized to white supremacy and great replacement theory, once a fringe notion that contends white people in America are being replaced by people of color. Now, it has been taken up by media personalities and by politicians.

We watch the ongoing, senseless war in Ukraine and the horrific human suffering it has caused. Our record high temperatures ought to remind us of the climate crisis that is unfolding across the planet. Reports this week that the pandemic has cost a million lives in the US alone and that it has laid bare and exacerbated the inequities in our society and across the globe. There are also more local effects. Among the long-term changes intensified by the pandemic is the long-term decline of Christianity in the US, with church membership and attendance (virtual or in-person) falling precipitously in recent years. Our downtown was hollowed out by the pandemic with empty storefronts on our streets and the likelihood that many office workers will never return to full-time in-person work.

There’s so much more I could add—the rise in gun deaths, suicides; the shortage of baby formula; the exhaustion we all feel so much of the time. We are a society on edge, and our anxiety and fear leads us to lash out in violence and anger.

Contrast that with the vision cast by our reading from the Revelation of St. John the Divine. While it is a complicated text, full of violence and symbolic imagery that eludes interpretation, as we approach its end, we are presented a vision of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and new earth. At the heart of that vision is God, a God whose home is now with mortals, a God who comforts mourners and ends suffering. It is a vision that may inspire and comfort us as well.

But before that vision becomes reality, there is work to do. In the reading from Acts, we see that work taking place, and the conflict that such work often initiates.

For many of us it’s a familiar story. This is its second appearance in Acts. The first time, in chapter 10, it is told by the narrator. Now, in chapter 11, we have Peter’s version of it, testimony, as it were presented before suspicious and skeptical believers when he has returned to Jerusalem from his travels. Peter has a vision of a cloth descending from heaven, filled with all sorts of unclean, that is to say, non kosher animals, and a voice from heaven commands him, “Take and eat.” 3 times this happens and each time Peter refuses. 

Just as the vision comes to an end, there’s a knock on the door. The Roman Centurion, himself the recipient of a divine vision, has sent for Peter to come preach to him. Peter does and during his sermon, the Holy Spirit descends on the assembly. Peter’s version of the story leaves out  what happened next, that he baptized everyone in the household. 

Peter’s speech is in response to questions from some of his fellow believers in Jerusalem. But we should be clear on the issue at stake. Even though we have this dramatic vision of a sheet filled with all sorts of unclean animals and a divine command to take and eat, the issue at stake was not about food rules or about baptizing Gentiles. It was about Peter eating and presumably also staying with Gentiles.

To be clear, this is something of a false problem. While first-century Palestinian Jews were concerned about eating certain foods and about the idolatry that was widely practiced in Hellenistic culture, there were no clear rules or bans on interacting with Gentiles—such bans would have been almost impossible to maintain in the ethnically and religiously pluralistic Roman empire. This was even more true of Jews living in the diaspora, Alexandria Egypt or even Rome.

What we do see reflected here is something of an identity crisis brought on by the rapidly changing events and community. As the Holy Spirit takes the disciples out of Jerusalem into the world, baptizing Ethiopian eunuchs, preaching and baptizing in Samaria, visiting the house of a Roman centurion, there emerges this fundamental question of who are we, and how do we maintain our identity as we embrace these new people and go into new places? It is a question that preoccupies much of the book of Acts and much of Paul’s writings, as he sought to find a way to include Gentiles equally and fully alongside Jews in the Body of Christ.

In a time when White Supremacy runs rampant and has overtaken much of one of our political parties, and baseless, incendiary claims that the Federal Government is sending baby formula to refugees and immigrants at the expense of white suburban families, the message that God shows no partiality needs to be proclaimed as loudly and urgently today as Peter boldly proclaimed it before the community in Jerusalem.

We Episcopalians don’t do a particularly good job of incarnating inclusive community—we are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, over aged 50 and our efforts to do so at Grace are made more difficult by the lack of diversity in our city and county and the ongoing, systemic racism and marginalization of communities of color.

Still, we have done some good work. Over the last eight or nine years, our Creating More Just Community has helped us address the racism in ourselves, our church, and community. It has built relationships with African American churches and organizations; and through its work with MOSES, has advocated for criminal justice reform. Similarly, our Native American initiative has explored the history of US relations with Native Americans and developed ongoing relationships with a number of Native American groups and individuals. And the outreach committee has committed itself to supporting our neighbors across the square at the Boys and Girls Clubs.

These are all small steps, for our congregation and for our community and may feel terribly inadequate in the face of white supremacists spouting replacement theory nonsense in manifestos and on tv and the internet. We may feel helpless to counter white supremacists shooting down people of color in malls or on the streets, or as they gather for bible study in churches. But Jesus’ words in the gospel, “love one another as I have loved you” ring as true today as they did two thousand years ago. He is with us laying down his life for us, for his friends, and for his enemies. And he calls us to do the same.

Our burdens seem so heavy, the world’s pain so intense, that we may lose heart and hope. We may feel alone and abandoned

But we are not alone. As we watch events unfold around us and around the world, as we move into an uncertain and challenging future, may we be assured that the Holy Spirit is with us. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter guides us, strengthens us, helps us to discern our way forward, to respond to the world’s needs and helps us to love one another as Christ loved us, to deepen our relationships with each other and to reach out to the neighbors we have never met.

Charcoal Fires, 153 fish, and Discipleship: A Sermon for 3 Easter C, 2022

3 Easter

May 1, 2022

Friends, I love this gospel story. It’s full of fascinating details that invite speculation. There’s the 153 fish—what a strange number! I’m sure you can imagine how much has been written about the significance of that number. There’s the detail that apparently Peter was fishing in the nude and put on clothes in order to swim to shore. There’s the dialogue between Peter and Jesus. Strange to begin with, but even stranger when you consider that Jesus uses two different words for love in the questions he asks Peter—again, think about how much has been written about that!

There’s more to puzzle over. For one thing, this whole chapter seems like an addition to the gospel. Chapter 20 ends with a beautiful summation that sounds like the perfect way to end a gospel: 

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Then, it’s like, “Oh, I forgot. I gotta tell you this other amazing thing that happened! 

I don’t know whether it’s a later addition. If it is, it is carefully written to connect this story, this resurrection appearance, with the rest of the gospel. I’ll just give you a couple of examples. Nathaniel is mentioned here. The only other time he’s mentioned is in chapter 1, when Jesus calls several of the disciples. There’s the charcoal fire; mentioned here and in chapter 18. There’s a charcoal fire in the courtyard outside of the high priest’s to them, and is the location of Peter’s third denial  of Jesus, when he hears the cock crow. 

I would like to pause and reflect on the significance of the confluence of those two things. With Nathaniel, we are drawn back to the original story of the calling of the disciples. In John’s gospel, the location of that initial call is not clear. All we know is that Jesus is walking. We may conclude because of the presence of John the Baptist in the story, that these calls are meant to be taking place in the wilderness, near the Jordan River. The disciples mentioned are not quite the same. Several are unnamed in chapter 21; there are the sons of Zebedee, who are not mentioned in Chapter 1; and Simon Peter, who like Nathaniel, is mentioned in both places.

However, the presence of the Sons of Zebedee; and the location of the story in chapter 21, the Sea of Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee bring us back to the story of the calling of the disciples in the synoptic gospels. There, Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee, sees Simon and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, working in their fishing boats.

What I’m getting at here, is that this story is about call and discipleship as much as it is about the appearance of the Risen Christ. Simon Peter, at that other charcoal fire, denied Jesus and turned away from following him. Now, at this charcoal fire, he is called again. As he denied Jesus three times, now Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and then gives him a task or responsibility, to feed his sheep. After the third question and answer, and an allusion to Peter’s martyrdom, Jesus commands him, “Follow me!”

But perhaps the most significant parallel has to do with the location—the Sea of Tiberias or Sea of Galilee. It’s mentioned here, and in chapter 6; where it is the site of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. And it’s a similar meal on both occasions: bread and fish. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the jumping off point for Jesus’ great discourse on the bread, an extended reflection on the meaning of the bread of the Eucharist, Jesus as the Bread of Life. Jesus says there: 

When we think of Christ’s resurrection or the presence of the risen Christ, we tend to think of those gospel stories: of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ in the garden or the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples in the upper room. We tend to think of those spectacular events.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 

Or for another spectacular appearance of the Risen Christ, consider Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus; struck down, struck blind; transformed from a persecutor of the Gospel to an apostle of the Gospel. We may not consider Paul’s experience quite like those gospel stories. But Paul did. When he describes it in I Corinthians 15, at the end of his list of the appearances of the Risen Christ, Paul writes, “And last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, … but by the grace of God I am what I am.”

Gathered around that charcoal fire, eating bread and fish; the disciples were in the presence of the Risen Christ. They might have wanted to linger over that meal, to enjoy being in his presence and being with each other, to rest after a long night’s work. 

But Jesus had other plans. He took Simon Peter aside and asked him three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, he said in response to Peter’s affirmation, “Feed my sheep.” Relationship with Christ, experience of the Risen Christ is not just about, or primarily about, our own spiritual experience, our own personal faith. It is about what we are called to do for others. To feed them, to offer them daily bread and the bread of life. 

But even more. It had never occurred to me before this week as I was preparing this sermon, and I don’t know how many times I have read this chapter; discussed in classes both as student and teacher. It had never occurred to me that in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ last words are to Peter, after he tells him to “Feed my sheep.” He says then, “Follow me.” He will say it again to him a few verses later, “Follow me.”

Think about it. Where was he going? In the synoptic gospels, of course, the story ends not with resurrection or resurrection appearances, but with Jesus’ final departure from his disciples, his ascension, to the right hand of God, as our creeds say. In the gospel of John, that’s not quite the case. Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.” Follow me, away from here into the future, into the unkown.

Jesus says to us, Feed my sheep. He also says, “Follow me.” He is calling us to follow him, into the future, into the uncertainty of the world in which we live and into the world that is being made. He is telling us to follow him as disciples, making disciples. He is calling us to gather around charcoal fires and tables,, to encounter him in the breaking of the bread and in the community gathered. He is calling us to follow him, into the unknown, into the world. Let us heed his call and follow him.

The Garden of Resurrection: A Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2022

Easter

April 17, 2022

“Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.”

In the summer, my wife and I spend most of our evenings on our screened-in back porch, enjoying our views of the garden we have created over the years. It has taken a lot of hard work, a lot of money but over those years, we have created a sanctuary of beauty for ourselves that offers us respite from our busy and stressful lives, and offers our cats an endless supply of squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and birds to frustrate them. 

And there’s always more work to be done. A Norway maple on the border of our neighbor’s property came down during a storm last summer, so we are having to fill the vacated space with new plantings and an expanse of fence. As we’ve grown older, we have come to rely on others to do much of the heavy work that we once did, but we still spend time weeding and clearing and trying to keep the yard as beautiful as possible.

Gardens. Places of beauty and serenity in the midst of busy worlds, combining the beauty of nature and the work of human hands, human creativity and ingenuity alongside the beauty and endless diversity of God’s creation. Gardens are places of beauty and hard work, places of respite and toil.

Our gospel reading takes place in a garden. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark”—For some of us, this mention of first day and darkness may take us back to the beginning, to the story of creation, of light coming into the darkness, and the first garden, the garden of Eden planted by God at creation and in which God placed the man and the woman to care for it, to husband it.

Here, too, there is a woman, and a man, or at least one mistaken as a man.

The tragedy of the first garden, disobedience, expulsion, an angel at the gate to prevent the first couple’s return to it.

The tragedy of the second garden: the death and burial of the one beloved by his followers and disciples. Two angels, not preventing entry but asking her a question, “Woman why are you weeping?”

It’s strange how John tells the story. The angels ask a question with an obvious answer but there’s another question unspoken, unanswered. Why had Mary Magdalene come to the tomb? It’s a question John doesn’t ask, nor does he answer. We’re only told that she came to the tomb. Not to embalm him; remember Jesus had been anointed for burial by the other Mary, Mary of Bethany, a week before. And Nicodemus had brought 100 pounds of burial spices to the tomb. So she didn’t come to do anything, except to grieve. 

She came to the garden, to grieve, to reflect, to process all that had happened. Her beloved teacher had died; the one she had believed to be the Messiah; the one on whom she and the other disciples had pinned all their hopes; the one they had seen offer abundant life to others, who healed, and taught, and transformed lives, including their own. 

She came to the garden and her grief was suddenly compounded with horror. The tomb where she expected to grieve and reflect had been desecrated, robbed. She didn’t even stoop down to look in. She ran back to tell the others and the three of them ran back. Peter and the other disciple, Jesus’ beloved disciple, raced to the tomb. They saw the linen wrappings; Peter, then the other one entered, and we are told that he “saw and believed.”

The two of them had seen enough. They went back to the house where they were staying while Mary stayed back. And where could she or should she go? She had come to the garden to grieve and whatever emotional turmoil that had brought her here was only intensified by the fact of the empty tomb.

But suddenly, her tears were interrupted. She saw the gardener, and then it wasn’t the gardener. He spoke her name, and in that moment, she knew her Lord. Sorrow turned to joy; mourning and grief were gone. Her world had changed.

Suddenly, the garden was no longer a place of respite and grief; and even as she sought to process all this, no doubt as she wanted to linger, to ask questions, to understand, she was sent outward and away to share the good news. Jesus told her, “Don’t hold on to me.” Her very human, all too human desire to understand, to rejoice with the risen one was overwhelmed by another desire, another task: to share the good news.

And so Mary Magdalene became the first to share the good news; the apostle to the apostles. It was she he told the others that Christ had risen from the dead; that he had conquered sin and evil, and changed their world; changed the world.

One of the many things I love about Grace Church is the Vilas window, to my right, with its depiction of this very scene in the garden, Mary encountering, and recognizing the Risen Christ. In the late afternoon on a sunny day, if the nave is dark, the deep reds of the window suffuse the entire church, bathing it in ethereal light. I have preached and ministered under that window for thirteen years, thirteen Easters and it still has the capacity to take my breath away. A detail from that window is reproduced on our Easter bulletins and while it can’t do justice to the refracted light of a stained glass window; it still captures something of the beauty of the image, and the beauty of that moment.

Churches are refuges: buildings like ours are places of beauty and serenity where time seems to stand still and we can sense God’s presence. We have felt the loss of this sacred place over the last two years and the opportunity to gather on Easter to worship, to hear the story, to sing the familiar hymns, to experience joy is an amazing gift.

Gardens are refuges; places of beauty and serenity that provide us with spiritual sustenance in difficult times. Gardens, for all their hard work, can be escapes from the challenges of our daily lives; from the constant pressures we feel; a balm to our emotions scarred and wounded by the world’s events. For us, sitting on our porch in the evening, nursing a drink, watching the antics of our cats frustrated by the screens that prevent them from chasing rabbits or squirrels, or birds or chipmunks, All of that discracts us from the pressures of our busy lives, brings smiles to our faces, and the occasional laugh.

Mary came to the garden to grieve and mourn, and she left, full of joy and the power of the gospel, ready to share the good news. Similarly, we have come here, many of us after long absences to be strengthened, for an infusion of hope, to hear the good news, for reassurance, to encounter the Risen Christ in word and sacrament. But like Mary, the Risen Christ who tells us, “Don’t hold on to me, don’t stay.” He sends us out like Mary, to share the good news to share Christ’s love, the promise of new life; the certainty of resurrection. May we go from this place into the world, our hearts on fire with new life in Christ; our hearts on fire with faith and love. 

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Transfiguration and Exodus: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2022

The images on our screen are horrifying and mesmerizing. The stories, tragic and sinspiring. We are watching war unfold in real time, tanks rolling across the terrain of Ukraine. They are images and events few of us could have imagined in Europe, in 2022. And this morning we learned that Russia has placed its nuclear forces on high alert. All of it seems so unbelievable, so shocking.

Why are we shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Is it the audacity of it, the insanity, the outright rejection of democratic ideals and national self-expression? Is it, on the other hand, the fact that it is taking place in Europe when we thought Europe had seen its last conflict in World War II, with a Cold War eventually giving way to democracy and capitalism? That view, of course, conveniently forgets the violence in the states of the former Yugoslavia in the 90s. Would we be equally shocked if it were war in the Middle East, or Afghanistan? Conveniently forgetting that there has been war there, perpetrated in the first case by the US, since 2001?

But then again, a look closer home to the rise of Christian nationalism, authoritarianism, the attacks on democracy here; and now, the attacks on history, truth, science—and most recently the anti LGBTQ laws and rhetoric, the attacks on trans people coming out of some state houses and governors remind us that whatever is happening in Ukraine is also happening here. And some on the right are still supporting Russia and its dictator in the midst of the horror.

Our hearts are heavy; we may be overwhelmed with fear. Certainly the burdens of the last years, not just COVID but the whole tenor of our nation, our world, weigh heavily on us. Other images, now fainter with the passing of time, remind us of moments of hope and exhilaration—the fall of the Berlin Wall; the election of the first African-American president; the legalization of same-sex marriage. Backlash reminds us that such moments were hard-fought and that the victories we acclaimed were tentative, not secure.

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany and always, on this Sunday we hear this story from the gospels, the otherworldly, eerie story of the Transfiguration. Because Ash Wednesday is fairly late this year, we have lingered longer than usual in stories about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Week by week, the great stories of Christmas and Epiphany have faded in our memories and we feel we are precisely where liturgically we are—Ordinary Time.

But now, suddenly this story breaks in upon us like the light from heaven that illumines Jesus and us, and we are surprised and being prepared for what next is to come. As it breaks in upon us, like this morning’s spectacular sunrise, it’s a reminder of God’s glory in our world, 

Breaking in upon our sense of time and reality. It’s a story that in its details invites us to look forward to the resurrection, and back to the Hebrew Bible, to Sinai and to the prophets. Present in all three synoptic gospels, it appears in the very same narrative sequence, occurring just after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, just after Jesus has predicted for the first time that he will be crucified and explains to his followers that to be his disciples, they must also take up their crosses and follow him. So this is a story told under the looming presence of the cross and Jesus’ death.

In Luke’s version, he takes his three closest followers up the mountain to pray. I’ve mentioned it before, it bears repeating, that Jesus’ praying is a significant theme of Luke’s gospel. He mentions it at key moments in the story—at Jesus’ baptism for example, in the lead up to his preaching of the Beatitudes. What takes place here takes place in the context of prayer. 

Several details stand out to help us begin to understand this strange story. First, Luke uses the exact same language when describing Jesus’ appearance as he will use to describe the angels who appear at Jesus’ tomb at his resurrection: The clothes are “dazzling white.” Second, the presence of Moses and Elijah is another powerful reminder of the deep connection and continuity between Jesus’ ministry and mission and the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. For Luke, that connection is made concrete in various ways, but it’s important that we understand there is no sharp break between Old and New Testament, between the way God revealed Godself in the past and the way God reveals Godself in the present. Moses and Elijah’s presence are evidence of that continuity.

All of this is meant to be confirmation of Jesus’ identity—the change in appearance of his face, his dazzling clothes, the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter has just confessed him to be the Messiah. Now this is divine confirmation of that fact. But there’s more. God, too is present here, to confirm Jesus’ identity. The voice that came from heaven in Jesus’ baptism comes again. At the baptism, the voice said, “You are my son, my beloved.” Now the voice is directed not to Jesus but to the disciples. It says, “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him.” This time, the voice comes not from heaven, not from a far distance, but from close at hand, from the cloud that envelops them, suggesting God’s near presence in this place. And the message directed to the disciples is not about abstract theology, it has to do with Jesus’ message: Listen to him. And suddenly, the event was over. The glory, the dazzling clothes, the cloud, Moses and Elijah, all of it was gone. Left there were Jesus and his three disciples, Peter, James, and John. And they went back down the mountain and didn’t tell anything to anyone.

There is much here for us to ponder. This strange story eludes our grasp, just as God eludes our grasp and comprehension. We can discern traces of other things in it—the connection with Hebrew Scripture, the pointing back toward the past and the pointing forward to the cross and resurrection. We can hear and see in Luke’s vivid description all that takes place, but still, none of it really is comprehensible to our twenty-first century skeptical minds. We want to make sense of it, process it, analyze it, understand it in our terms, on our territory. But this story, like the story of Moses’ shining and veiled face, remain beyond our comprehension, beyond our human understanding. 

There’s one other detail worth pondering. Only in Luke do we get a sense of what Jesus and the two biblical prophets discussed: “they were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” It’s curious wording although the intent is clear—that they were talking about Jesus’ crucifixion. The word translated as departure is the Greek word “exodus”—another echo of scripture. But more than that, it connects cross and resurrection with the great saving act of God, delivering God’s people out of slavery in Egypt into a promised land. 

Exodus, journey, deliverance. The experience of Exodus for the Hebrew people was fraught with peril, full of conflict and struggle. Along their exodus they encountered God at Mt. Sinai and received the torah, the Law, and eventually, they entered the promised land.

Jesus and his disciples were also on a journey. A little later in the chapter, after they had come down from the mountain, Luke says that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

The Transfiguration came at a very particular moment in Jesus’ ministry, after his disciples had confessed him to be the Messiah, after he had begun to tell them about his imminent suffering and death, after he had begun to teach them about the cost of discipleship—take up your cross and follow me. Even in the midst of the Transfiguration, Jesus and Moses and Elijah speak about what is to come, Jesus’ suffering and death.

Our relationships with God, our life with Jesus Christ is not just about those moments of perfect bliss and happiness, moments when our faith is sure, our lives are happy, and we rest comfortably in God’s love. Our life in Jesus Christ is a call to discipleship, a call to follow him. It is a call that may come to us in a flash of lightning or a still, small voice. It may make us thirst for more, to build booths where we might rest content with Jesus Christ, without a care in the world.

But discipleship means walking along, following Christ on the journey he leads, And so we, too come down the mountain, with God’s glory at our backs, the cross ahead of us, and Jesus beckoning us forward, teaching us what it means to follow him. Listen to him!

Our redemption has drawn near: A Sermon for Advent 1C, 2021

November 28, 2021

What a couple of weeks it’s been! The shock of the Rittenhouse verdict; the carnage in Waukesha last weekend, during which the good people of St. Matthias led by the rector David Simmons, opened their doors to offer refuge and comfort to victims and bystanders. Then this week the convictions for murder of the defendants in the murder of Ahmad Aubery. And even as we were trying to observe the annual rituals of Thanksgiving, Good Friday, and the end of the college football regular season, news of a new and worrisome COVID variant threatening to upend our lives once again.

We continue to struggle, individually, as a community, a nation, a world, with ongoing pandemic and our deep desires to return to the world and the lives we had two years ago. News of the omicron variant sent shockwaves through the financial system on Friday, and I daresay, has caused many of us to worry again what the future, the next weeks may hold for us, even as we look ahead to Christmas and other holiday plans that were beginning to look rather like celebrations of past years.

With all of that on my mind, I didn’t have the fortitude to go back through my past sermons on Advent I, to remind myself of past years, of the themes I stressed. For me, the beginning of Advent has usually been a wonderful moment in my personal spiritual life and in the life of the congregations of which I’ve been a part. There’s the excitement of the build-up towards Christmas but more than that, the central themes of the season: waiting, watching, hope have tended to strengthen my faith in Christ’s coming—not only at Christmas but on the Last Day, and strengthen my resolve to look for signs of his coming, and his presence already in the world around us and in my life. 

But this year, I feel like I’ve had enough of waiting. Haven’t we all been waiting, for nearly two years, for life to return to some semblance of normal? Is it possible to maintain hope in the face of all that’s going on in the world? 

How do we make sense of it all? How do we enter Advent this year with all of this uncertainty, fear, and, let’s face it, sheer exhaustion? I don’t have answers for you—I think asking these questions, wondering how to prepare for Christ’s coming, how to open ourselves to his presence in the world, experiencing his entrance into a world like ours all that pondering search; well, that all maybe Advent discipline enough for now.

Still, as I reflect on our readings and collect, there’s something that intrigues me this year. As I was thinking about today’s sermon, something a commentator wrote caused me to stop and ponder. They said something to the effect that the gospel reading in Advent begins with a focus on time expanding outward, toward the Second Coming, and over the course of the four weeks, time begins to slow down, to shorten, until we come (this is me, not the commentator) to the moment of Gabriel announcing to Mary the coming of the Savior of the World in her body.

There’s something profound in that observation that says something about the Gospel of Luke and about us. We are in Year C of the lectionary, when we read the Gospel of Luke which has a very different tone, and certainly different perspective on time, than the Gospel of Mark which we read this past year. If there’s a single word that describes Mark’s attitude toward time, it is “Immediately” one of the most common words in the gospel, often used to introduce a new scene or episode. There’s an urgency to Mark’s gospel, a sense that everything is happening at a break-necked pace. And that extends to his perspective on Christ’s second coming, which as you heard last Sunday, Mark seems to have expected to happen very soon, in his lifetime.

 Luke has a very different tone. As we will see again and again throughout the coming year. The story he tells is not limited geographically in scope to Galilee and Jerusalem, as with Mark. Instead, Luke puts the story of Jesus in a global context. He begins by contextualizing his story in the Roman Empire, and ends the Book of Acts, the second volume of his work, with St. Paul’s arrival in Rome. 

Even here, in this text, Luke ratchets down Mark’s urgency. Whether it’s because he’s writing at a later date, further removed from the events described in the text, Luke’s version of Jesus’ words lack the intensity of Mark’s.

We are actually hearing from Luke’s version of verses taken from the same episode in Mark’s gospel that we heard last week, the so-called Little Apocalypse. Both gospel writers place in Jesus’ mouth in the last days of his life as he is teaching in and around the temple. He predicts the destruction of that very temple, an event that would take place some forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was a cataclysmic event both for Judaism and for Christianity.

Mark was very likely written shortly after the temple’s destruction, and his version of this apocalypse shows urgency and immediacy. Luke, writing at least 15 years later, has a longer perspective. Clearly, the destruction of the temple did not inaugurate Christ’s return, so Luke leaves out references to wars and rumors of wars, references to people fleeing the destruction and fleeing persecution. Instead, he mentions signs in the skies and stars, and in the seas, nothing so specific as an earthquake.

Luke’s version may not seem quite so urgent, but there is desperation, nonetheless. The language used is evocative—“People will faint from fear and foreboding”—we might also say, it is enough to take one’s breath away, feelings we are familiar with these days.

But in the midst of these signs, all is not lost. There is hope. God’s reign is still entering into the world, still coming. Our redemption is drawing near. 

Over the course of the next weeks, as we move back from nearly the end of Jesus’ life to the beginning, and before, time will contract; the scope of Luke’s story will narrow to Bethlehem, and to the coming of Christ into the world. Our focus may narrow as well, as the business of the season, the world-historical events swirling around us give way to the intimate rituals of family, friends, and community.

But those small, intimate moments bear witness to the larger truth—that Christ’s coming into the world ushers in a new age—God’s reign of justice and peace. And signs of that coming are not just in scripture, or in re-enacted stories but in the world around us.

Our redemption draws near. Even when it seems most unlikely, when things seem to be at their worst, when there are signs in the skies and in the seas, when the powers of the heavens seem to shake, and we cower in desperate fear, there are signs of God’s coming reign. 

Our redemption draws near. There is hope for all who live on the face of the earth. This Advent, even as we struggle with all of the world’s ills, struggle with pandemic, with injustice, oppression, and racism, when all seems lost and the world seems to be spiraling into chaos, our redemption draws near. 

May this Advent be a season when our hope is rekindled like the candles of advent wreaths are lit; when our faith is strengthened and our eyes opened to see those signs of Christ’s coming, signs of God’s reign breaking in upon us, signs of God’s future entering into our present.