At the end of this sermon, I’m going to talk about the prophetic voice of the movie Frozen II, but first let me talk about the church hymn board affixed to the wall to my left. This is the attractive wooden rack into which our altar guild slides in the numbers that correspond to particular songs in our hymnal. At the top of the rack, we display the particular Sunday of the church year. I haven’t touched the hymn board since the last time we used it. I’ve left it alone as a memento from our last in-person gathering. Right now the hymn board reads the “3rd Sunday in Lent.” Half a year ago.
I remember the anguished discussion the vestry had about closing the church building back in March. We had no idea how bad the pandemic would get, but the writing was on the wall. Thankfully, the vestry made the hard choice in that moment of uncertainty. Now, six months later, we are faced with the opposite hard choice: how and when to invite people back to in-person services as we balance our need for physical proximity with our collective goal of deterring the spread of the virus.
Today’s sermon is a meditation. In a minute, I’m going to invite you to find a relaxing sitting position, which will be easier on your couch than if you were here sitting on a hard pew. I decided to offer a meditation today because recently I’ve been feeling my jaw clenching more and more. Sleep isn’t restful. I’m on edge all the time. I’d wager you are responding to the abnormally high level of stress in our society in similar ways. A friend of mine has a newborn in the NICU whom he says is there because he has to “remember to breathe.” I think that goes for all of us right now.
So, in lieu of my regularly scheduled sermon, I’d like to lead us all through a meditation designed to bring our ultimate future into this present moment. This is a meditation about God’s presence and promise when death is an ever-present reality. I’m offering it because today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans includes a paragraph that we read as the third stanza of the opening anthem at the beginning of every Episcopal funeral. All four stanzas are quotations from scripture, and I’d like to meditate on them with you this morning. This might seem like a strange thing to do – focus on words spoken after someone has died. But these words are shared with those who remain, and I believe these scriptural truths actually help to bring us more fully alive.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus says this amazing promise at the end of our Gospel reading this morning. We’ve heard this promise every week since we began worshiping together online at the start of the pandemic. At the end of the service of Morning Prayer, we say a prayer written in the early centuries of the Church by St. John Chrysostom:
“Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them…”
I am so thankful that our Gospel reading inspired John Chrysostom to write this prayer, especially in these days when we cannot be in close physical proximity with each other. The prayer reminds us of the singular truth that Christ connects us one to another. But “I am there among them” is a rather anemic translation. I “am in the midst of them” is better. The original language translates most directly to, “I am there in the middle of them.”
“Get behind me, Satan.” I’ve always wondered how Jesus said these words. Peter has just named Jesus the Messiah. And Jesus has just said what will happen if he continues his mission on its current trajectory. He will undergo great suffering and be killed! (He mentions rising again on the third day, but Peter doesn’t key in on that part.) Peter says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” That’s when Jesus says these famous words: “Get behind me, Satan.”
Did Jesus say them along with a frustrated sigh, like a geometry teacher trying to explain what a proof is? “Get behind me, Satan.
Or did he say them dismissively, with a flick of his hand, like one of the Fab 5 on Queer Eye, getting rid of a pile of cargo shorts: “Get behind me, Satan.”
Or did Jesus say them with a throaty, commanding tone, like Gandalf confronting the Balrog: “You cannot pass!”;* “Get behind me, Satan.”
No matter how Jesus said this iconic sentence, I don’t think he was addressing the command to Peter. Yes, Jesus is responding to Peter’s anxiety, but he’s not calling Peter Satan. Jesus is speaking directly to Satan. Jesus sees past the conversation he’s having with his disciples and confronts the insidious force of temptation that seeks only to unspool us from who we truly are.
(If that’s what’s happening with these words, then I’m liking the Gandalf version.)
Jesus cries out against Satan, the embodiment of temptation, because Peter’s words unwittingly tempt him. By saying, “This must never happen to you,” Peter gives Jesus an out. Jesus hasn’t been telling the disciples what he wants to happen, but what will happen if he remains on his mission of spiritual and communal awakening among his people. His death at the hands of the combined religious and secular authorities is all but assured based on the challenge Jesus’ way of life presents them. When Peter declares that God forbid Jesus from dying, Jesus knows the only way that he won’t die a horrible death is if he veers from his path.
But that would mean a fundamental shift in who Jesus is at his core – a person whose purpose is to bring people and communities fully alive within the love and the grace of God. Such a mission meant challenging unjust structures in his society. Such a mission meant transgressing boundaries of class, gender, religion, and ethnicity in order to show those boundaries should not exist. Such a mission meant living a life of radical welcome, risky love, and permanent vulnerability. That’s who Jesus was. To stray from that path meant a different kind of death – not a horrible physical death, but a spiritual death of the person whom Jesus had chosen to be, whom God had blessed him to be.
Satan, that insidious force of temptation, would revel in the unraveling of the beautiful identity that made Jesus who he was and is. But Jesus stands strong against the temptation, just like he did earlier in the wilderness. “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus will remain on his mission because his life is the mission. His very identity is Emmanuel – “God with us” – and each day of his life, he showed what that promise looked like.
One of the most miraculous things about Jesus was how he stayed true to himself in the midst of overwhelming adversity. Not only were the religious and secular authorities after him, not only did the Pharisees seek to entrap him, not only did he have no place to lay his head, but in our passage today even Peter entices him to give up. Again, I don’t think this was Peter’s intent, but I do think Jesus heard Peter’s words as a call to turn aside and become someone that he (Jesus) was not – someone who kept his head down and got along, never raising his voice against the oppressive society in which he lived.
With Jesus’ example before us, I wonder how you confront the insidious force of temptation that seeks to unravel us. Do you know what I mean when I talk about unraveling? It’s the only word I can find that comes close to describing the sensation I’m talking about. There’s a feeling you get in your gut, a few inches behind your navel. It feels like the thread of yourself is being pulled away, like a sweater caught on a splintered piece of wood. It feels like there is less of you than there was before.
This happens when we act in ways that run counter to the people God yearns for us to be. For example, I am tempted by a less than moral way of doing something. I know it’s technically wrong, but (come on) who’s it really hurting? So I cheat on the test. I plagiarize a little. I hop the turnstile. I download the album from a pirated file share instead of paying for it. None of these things seem all that bad, I convince myself, but each one unravels me just a little bit more.
The more I get used to living in an unraveled state, the easier it is to ignore when I fall farther and farther away from the person God yearns for me to be. I grow violent or reactionary or miserly. I lash out at loved ones. I hoard my possessions. I assume someone else’s gain must mean my loss. The more I unravel, the harder it becomes to see God’s image in myself, and that means there’s no way I’m going to be able to see God’s image in other people.
Unraveling happens when we act in ways that run counter to the image of God within. And unraveling also happens when we don’t act in ways that honor the image of God inside ourselves. For example, I am tempted to sit idly by while the great sins of the world run amok. I convince myself that since I seem to benefit from the way the world is, I might as well let it be. Or I convince myself that it’s someone else’s problem to fix. Or I convince myself that I’m just one person: what can I do? So I scroll by the news story of Jacob Blake, who last week was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin police while his children were right there. I might muster a sigh or a shake of the head before moving on to other things.
And while I am looking away from this latest gruesome example of death-dealing injustice, I will unravel a bit more. But I won’t notice because I am getting good at not noticing things. I give in to the temptation not to notice so often that I become a cog in the banal machinery of evil. And in my cog-hood, I don’t recognize the empty shell I’ve become. What happened to the person God yearned for me to be?
This is the temptation Jesus faces down when he says, “Get behind me, Satan.” It is the temptation to live a life other than the one God invites us to live. That other life often seems easier, but only if we don’t take into account what it does to our souls.
This week, I pray that you may take stock of how you are being tempted to unravel. In what ways is God beckoning you to become the person who you truly are? How are you living into that image? And how are you not? If you feel yourself unraveling, bring the feeling to God in your prayer. Ask for eyes to see the difference between who you are now and who you are in God’s dream for you. The good news is that, while our threads may unravel, they are never cut from the spool. And our God is the great Weaver of Creation. No matter how far we are from ourselves, God can knit us back together so that we can participate in God’s weaving movement in this world.
* I know Gandalf says, “You shall not pass” in the movie, but in the book he says, “You cannot pass,” and I had to go with the book.
Sermon for Sunday, August 23, 2020 || Proper 16A || Romans 12:1-8
When I was a kid, I was a know-it-all and proud of it. I spent two and a half years at Hillcrest Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL, making sure everyone knew I was the smartest kid there. I mellowed a bit in high school, but my know-it-all nature still asserted itself all too often. One time in tenth grade, I got into an argument with my English teacher about the proper pronunciation of the word “conch,” as in “conch shell.” We were reading Lord of the Flies, and I was an idiot. (Turns out, both konk and contsh are correct.*)
It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 – between my first two years of seminary – that I understood that thinking you are a know-it-all is really dumb. First off, it’s never true. Second, thinking you know everything makes you completely impervious to new information and, for that matter, personal growth. Thanks be to God for a summer of hospital chaplaincy that showed me in excruciating detail the vast expanse of things I didn’t know. After that, I no longer conceived of myself as a know-it-all, but a lifetime of inhabiting that identity made it hard to shake. Nearly 15 years later, I find myself lapsing back into it all the time, and so I try constantly to inject myself with the viewpoints of people who differ from me in order to remember there’s always something more to learn.
I mention all this because of a verse we heard this morning, one of the most important sentences the Apostle Paul ever wrote. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
In a footnote of a sermon from June, I quoted eminent theologian James Cone and mentioned that his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, would not be the first or even the tenth book I would read if you are a white person just coming to a new awareness of racial injustice in the United States. A person commented on the post and asked me what would be the ten books I would read before it, so I figured I would offer that list today.
I’ll begin with a caveat. I have been engaged for about three and a half years in personal reading and reflection concerning my own place in the great sin of white supremacy. I am by no means an expert, and I can only recommend books I have read – there are plenty more out there, as well as plenty of great lists to get engaged in the work for racial justice. What I offer below is a list of ten books leading up to Cone’s Theology, which would be book eleven. After that, I’ve added a few other resources that aren’t books but are incredibly worthwhile, especially if your own learning style leans towards the visual or auditory.
Before I jump into my sermon, I’d like to say I was hoping that at least some of us would be gathering in person outside this morning. Our reopening team decided that we would wait until I was back from vacation to begin our in person experimentation. But that was all predicated on Connecticut being in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan. Our prudent and cautious officials have kept us in Phase 2 as much of the rest of the country experiences a huge upsurge in their cases. We will have in person outdoor services during Phase 3, and we will be bringing back Holy Communion during Phase 4. For now, patience, perseverance, and continued compassionate sacrifice mark us citizens of both the state of Connecticut and the Kingdom of God. We don’t know when we will move to Phase 3, but I am very much looking forward to seeing you all when the state reaches that goal.
One of my favorite things about writing fantasy novels is the task of “world building”; that is, constructing a new world with its own geography and history and cultures and political entities. I know, I know – super nerd alert. But it’s fun for me, and one of the most fun parts is creating holidays within the contexts of fantasy cultures. In the fictional city of Thousand Spires, Cornerstone Day marks the date when the cities of Farhome and Canlas grew big enough to meet each other at the site of the laying of the cornerstone of the Cathedral of Light. League Day celebrates the founding of the Sularin League following the Three Sisters War. The Great Step…No, never mind. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Every holiday, fictional or real, springs from a culturally significant event or observance.
Sermon for Sunday, June 28, 2020 || Proper 8A || Romans 6:12-23
Would it surprise you if I told you that I didn’t get to know Jesus until I was in my mid-thirties. You might be thinking, “Wait, Adam, aren’t you in your mid-thirties right now?” Yes, yes I am. I am in what I will charitably call my late mid-thirties. Or you might be thinking, “Wait, Adam, didn’t you get ordained to the priesthood when you were 25? How could you not have known Jesus until years later?” Yes, I was ordained about ten years before I got to know Jesus. Or you might be thinking, “Wait, back in 2014, we hired a priest who didn’t know Jesus! We want our money back!”
Before you go asking me to refund six years worth of salary, allow me to explain what I mean. Obviously, I talked about Jesus a lot. I sang songs about Jesus, preached sermons about Jesus, and read books about Jesus. But I never felt connected in any substantive way to Jesus himself. A perpetual bait-and-switch was going on in my head. I could not square the Jesus the Church taught with the Jesus of the Gospel.
Today, I’d like to talk about Hagar. Specifically, I’d like to talk about Hagar’s vision and how God grants us the same capacity for faithful seeing that Hagar has. First, though, you might be wondering who Hagar is. Hagar is an Egyptian servant (or slave) in the household of Abram and Sarai (who during the course of the Genesis story have their names changed to Abraham and Sarah). When God promises Abram that God will give Abram countless descendants, the old couple don’t know what to do. They’ve never had children of their own, and now they’re way too old. Taking God’s promise into her own hands, Sarai offers her servant Hagar to Abram, saying, “It may be that I shall obtain children by her.” (If this sounds eerily like The Handmaid’s Tale, it is.)