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. 

The Comfort of a Reasonable and Holy Hope: A Sermon for Proper 21B, 2021

During a funeral last week, I was caught short by a phrase I heard and had never noticed before. After 15 years of being a priest, presiding at who knows how many Rite 1 funerals (15? 20? 30), I was listening as Carol read the prayers. I heard this:

Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they
may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a
reasonable and holy hope

“The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope.” In case you’re wondering, they’re on p. 481 of the Book of Common Prayer, in the prayers of the people.

I was so taken by these words, so moved by them, that I could hardly return my focus to the service at hand. And over the last week, they have continued to run through my mind. They spoke to me in that moment; they speak to me as I navigate these difficult times; in the midst of my fear, despair, as I listen to the news and see the horrific images of men on horseback whipping desperate Haitian asylum seekers, as I hear about the suffering of COVID victims, as we all wonder when the crises in which we are living will finally give way to some sense of ordinary-ness.

The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope. Hope has certainly been hard to come by the last months and years. As a citizen of the United States, I think my hope began to wane in 2016, if not before, as we have seen the backlash against efforts to make ours a more just and equitable society, to address the legacies of slavery and genocide against Native Americans; the ongoing racism and sexism, our catastrophic wars and the devastation and suffering they have caused. And then came the pandemic, months of fear and isolation, with hope rekindled as the vaccines were rolled out, then the Delta variant, and anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers allowing the pandemic to continue.

I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with the altar guild leader about, of all things, Christmas decorations. The deadline for ordering was coming up and we needed to decide what sort of decorations we will put up this year; something restrained and minimal as we did last year when we weren’t worshiping in person? Or should we go back to the extravagance of past years? It was a hard conversation, not just because planning more than a few weeks in advance is so difficult. We have had to make so many last minute changes in order to adapt to the changing pandemic. It was difficult too because of the memories—of a full church, of the excitement of being together for Christmas, of music and festivity and joy, and the possibility reality of continued social distancing, masks, and fear.

Hope is hard to come by these days, and when it does, it often feels more like self-delusion. With all of the crises we face, with a political establishment apparently unable to honestly and seriously deal with those crises, from climate catastrophe to pandemic, with a media and social media more interested in producing content that generates more views and clicks than conveying the reality of the situation, despair seems not only the appropriate emotional response, it seems like a logical, even necessary stance in the world.

But then those words, “the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope.” You may wonder why I fixated on them. I wonder myself. As I’ve pondered them, and my response to them, I began to focus on the adjectives used—reasonable and holy. I don’t know whether I had ever attached such words to the concept of hope and I began to explore what their presence here might mean.

After all, what is “reasonable” about hope in our current context? Why might hope be “holy”?

As I’ve reflected on these questions, I have thought about how we generally think about hope. We might assume that hope stands in opposition to reason. Perhaps we’re reminded of what St. Paul writes in Romans 8: 

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

And often hope seems to be something far off; a sort of imagined future that bears little resemblance to the world we live in, the lives we lead. So what might a “reasonable hope” be? Given the original context of the phrase, I would assume that it is a reference to our faith in the resurrection—both the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the hope for the resurrection of the faithful. Reasonable, because as Paul writes elsewhere, the resurrection of Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection of the dead; evidence that our hope is justified, thus rational.

But let’s be honest—that hope may seem as distant, as unmoored from reality as the hopes we have for a better life, for change in ourselves, our loved ones, our world. 

But there’s another adjective in that phrase that encourages reflection—“holy” What might a holy hope be? And here I think it’s worth going back to the word’s origin, to its biblical usage. Holy means being set apart—made sacred for God; other than ordinary objects, occupations, concerns. And here is where I think it helps to distinguish “holy” from other sorts of hope. We have desires, wishes, hopes for ourselves and our loved ones but are those based in our own desires or are they something more, something deeper, drawing on God’s love in Christ?

The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope. As I reflect on where we are as followers of Jesus, as members of the body of Christ that gathers in this place, and virtually, that has experienced these last months and years together and is looking ahead into an uncertain and challenging future, “a reasonable and holy hope” may be just what is needed for us to move forward in faith.

Reasonable—what have we as Christians, as God’s people learned over the last months? What resources in ourselves and our congregation have we discovered that have helped us grow more deeply together in community, and in relationship with Christ? What has made us stronger, more resilient to face new challenges that may arise in the future? I’m mindful of our technological adaptations; the months of phone tree activity that kept us in touch with each other, the efforts of the little group that imagined and organized the short Monday videos. I’m mindful of the lay-led bible studies that have continued throughout the pandemic. There has been much we have failed at, but we have a great deal for which to be grateful, much to celebrate.

We have reason to hope; but our hope must be holy. As we continue to adapt to these circumstances, as we tentatively, slowly emerge into a new reality of congregational and community life, our holy hope should help us distinguish those things we desire out of nostalgia or selfishness, and the vision of mission and ministry to which God is leading us. 

My friends, there is much to hope for; the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope is God’s gift to us. Over the coming weeks, we will be talking about the future as changes come to our congregation, our ministry, and mission. We will be talking about our future role in the downtown neighborhood, our leadership in racial reconciliation and addressing the Episcopal Church’s and the US’s treatment of Native Americans, seeking to build relationships with our HoChunk neighbors and other indigenous peoples of Wisconsin. We will be imagining ways of reaching out into the neighborhood and community, to share the love of Christ in new and creative ways. Filled with God’s love, inspired by that reasonable and holy hope, may we step courageously and faithfully into the future.

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.