Good Guys and Bad Guys

Sermon for Sunday, July 15, 2018 || Proper 10B || Mark 6:24-39

The lesson Stacey just read from the Gospel is unique. It’s the only time in his fast-paced account that Mark ever diverges from Jesus’ storyline. This strange flashback to John the Baptist’s beheading is greatly abridged in the Gospel according to Matthew, and Luke and John give the story a pass entirely. Mark is the only Gospel writer who takes the time to detail for his audience what happened to Jesus’ predecessor and herald, John the Baptist.

The flashback centers around the character of King Herod, one of the true antagonists of the Gospel. Herod is the bad guy in this story. And Mark knows his craft as a writer. He knows a well-drawn antagonist helps reveal the good things about the protagonist. Often, facets of the main character remain in shadow until a skeptical or adversarial or malevolent character brings them to the light. Lex Luthor’s greed stands in contrast with Superman’s selflessness. Javert’s dogged pursuit of Jean Valjean over a crime of compassion stands in contrast with Valjean’s dogged pursuit of charity and redemption. Emperor Palpatine’s desire to consume Luke Skywalker’s power in the Force stands in contrast with Luke’s desire to set his father, Darth Vader, free from that same consumption. Continue reading “Good Guys and Bad Guys”

Trailblazer

Sermon for Sunday, August 24, 2014 || Proper 16A || Matthew 16:13-20

(A problem with our sound system rendered the audio for this sermon unusable.)

TrailblazerFor as long as I can remember, my father has worn a cross beneath his clothing, resting on his skin close to his heart. So when my parents gave me a cross of my own to wear when I was in my early teen years, I was thrilled. I was going to be just like Dad, wearing my cross all the time, even in the shower! The trouble was I kept losing it. I couldn’t wear the cross all the time because I played soccer, and there was a “no jewelry” rule. So it would get lost in the depths of my soccer bag (which was not a place for the faint of heart). The chain broke once, but I managed to find the cross beneath the seat of my car. Then during my freshman year of college the chain broke again, and I lost the cross for good.

At that time, I was just beginning to glimpse the edge of the expanse of the life God was calling me into, so I was quite upset at losing my cross. I’m not naturally a superstitious person, but I took it as a bad omen. So two weeks before I turned nineteen, I went to a local tattoo parlor and emerged a few hours later with a Celtic cross indelibly inked on my back. It was my way of telling myself that I was, indeed, a follower of Jesus, that if push came to shove there was no way to deny my identity. At baptism I was marked with oil as “Christ’s own forever,” but now I was visibly marked as Christ’s own.

And yet, walking out of the tattoo parlor on that fine January day, I don’t think I could have told you what it meant to me to be a follower of Jesus. I think I could do a bit better job today, but such meaning-making will take the rest of my lifetime to unfold, so check back with me again sometime. What’s telling is that – in my tattoo experience – I identified as “follower.” Since I put myself in the position of “follower,” for me Jesus took on the identity of “guide.”

As my guide, or better yet my “trailblazer,” I envisioned Jesus walking ahead of me, as if we were tramping through a marsh and he knew where it was safe to place one’s feet. Because he was my trailblazer and I his follower, I attempted to step where he stepped and to stay on the path he showed me. When people learned I was in the process to become an ordained minister, they asked if I was following in my father’s footsteps. I responded, “No,” because in my mind, we were both following in Jesus’ footsteps. Thus, in my language and in my imagination – two of the most potent vehicles for meaning-making – I identified as the follower of a trailblazer.

But the trailblazer-follower relationship is only one of myriad possibilities. And this is why today’s story from the Gospel according to Matthew is so important for us today. You see, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s really asking them, “What kind of relationship do you want to have with me?”

This powerful secondary question hovers just beneath the primary one because no matter what the disciples say, they set up the presumption of a relationship. Let’s take Simon Peter’s answer, for instance. I imagine his words rushing from Peter’s mouth all at once, as if an unseen force reached into his heart and yanked them out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

So if Peter names Jesus “Messiah,” what title would Peter use for himself to relate to this identity? Would it surprise you if I said soldier? The title of “Messiah” was something of a political identity at this time in Israel. The Jewish Messiah was supposed to be a warrior like the great King David, who swept away the forces occupying Israel with his martial prowess. It’s not a coincidence at all that Matthew sets this exchange in the city of Ceasarea Phillipi, a city named for the Roman Emperor. Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah tacitly sets Jesus against the power of occupying Rome. That Peter identifies as a soldier in the Messiah’s army is made clear both in his use of a sword when Jesus is arrested and in the very next passage after ours today. We’ll read it next week, but here’s a spoiler. Jesus reveals to the disciples what is going to happen to him – namely something basically the opposite of kicking the Romans out of Israel – and Peter is stunned to hear the Messiah will die. Another set of words rips itself from Peter: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It takes the rest of the Gospel, and indeed the rest of Peter’s life, to fathom Jesus’ understanding of “Messiah.” Peter’s journey takes him from confession to denial to redemption to proclamation as he struggles with his relationship to Jesus in light of calling him Messiah. By the end of his time in the book of Acts, Peter has moved from soldier to something of a herald of Jesus’ understanding of Messiah-ship.

So Peter undergoes a long transformation of his identity in the light of calling Jesus Messiah. I still think of Jesus as my trailblazer, and I try to follow his steps. But what of you? When Jesus puts this question to you, who do you say that he is? And what does that say about the kind of relationship you want to have with him?

Perhaps you answer that Jesus is “Lord,” which makes you his “subject.” If so, this means you cede your sovereignty over to him. You surrender your will to his. You are a vassal and he is your liege. We might not want to give up our autonomy to a higher power, knowing as we do how badly that turns out most of the time here on earth. But Jesus is a Lord who is trustworthy and true, and giving up our wills for his leads not to enslavement but to freedom.

Perhaps you answer not Lord but “Teacher.” This makes you Jesus’ “student.” If so, you desire to learn all you can from him, both by searching the scriptures and listening for his instruction as you pray. We have so much to learn from Jesus our teacher, and we will never graduate from his class, not until we “know fully, even as we are fully known.”

Perhaps you answer not Lord or Teacher, but “Savior.” Thus, you relate to Jesus as someone who needs saving. He is the knight in shining armor and you are in distress in the dragon’s lair. As our savior, Jesus accomplished the great work set before him between the cross and the empty tomb. But if we let him, his presence in our lives continues to save us from all the small, yet debilitating, ways we drift towards annihilation.

And if not Lord or Teacher or Savior, how about “Friend?” If Jesus is your friend, then you are his. This is not blasphemy, for Jesus calls his disciples friends in the upper room on the night of his arrest. As a friend, a companion, Jesus is not walking ahead of us blazing the path. Rather, he is walking with us, hand in hand, as we discover the way together.

Of course, these ways of answering Jesus’ question are not mutually exclusive. Jesus is trailblazer and Messiah and Lord and teacher and savior and friend. And that is just a small sampling. Answering his question – “Who do you say that I am?” – does not limit our relationships with him, but it does define them. Discerning how we relate to Jesus at any given time or in any given situation will only serve to strengthen our relationships with him. And the more we follow our trailblazer and proclaim our Messiah and serve our Lord and learn from our teacher and reach out to our Savior and walk with our friend Jesus Christ, the better and fuller and deeper will we answer his call in our lives.

Art: Detail from “Handing Over the Keys” by Raphael (1515)

Confronting Need

 Sermon for Sunday, September 29, 2013 || Proper 21C || Luke 16:19-31; 1 Timothy 6:6-19)

This story takes place on a brisk afternoon in mid-December of 2007. I was one week away from being ordained a deacon and six months away from graduating seminary. Margot was my spiritual director back then, and she and I decided it would be a good idea for me to give a formal confession in preparation for ordination. I wrote out everything I could think of on several yellow sheets of paper, and Margot listened to my confession up at the altar rail of St. Alban’s church in D.C. When I was done, she pronounced my forgiveness. I can’t tell you how good I felt afterwards. I was exhausted but overjoyed. I felt completely empty, but in a good way – like all this brush had been cleared away ready for new construction; like there was so much more room within me for God to fill.

I got in my car, drove down Rock Creek Parkway, and turned onto Memorial Bridge on my way back to Alexandria. As I pulled up to a traffic light in Arlington, I saw a sight familiar to the area: a person standing on the curb with a cardboard sign in hand. But as I got closer, the sight became less familiar. The person was, in fact, a young woman, beautiful beneath a layer of dirt on her face. She wore tattered jeans, and a duffel bag lay by her feet. My car came to a halt about fifteen feet from her. And this part I remember with crystal clarity. She looked right at me. Her gaze was neither plaintive, nor hopeful, nor condemning. She just looked at me as anyone with mild curiosity might do. And yet, for the flash of a moment that our eyes met, I felt her gaze pierce me down to the depths of the happy emptiness I had experienced after my confession.

And then I looked away. I couldn’t bring myself to meet her eyes. I willed the traffic light to turn green so I could drive away, so I could leave that place, so I didn’t have to choose not to look at her. After a small piece of eternity, the light did change. I did drive away. I did leave that place. But this young woman with the tattered jeans and cardboard sign hovered in the corner of my vision like when you look at the sun and then look away. And I burst into tears.

Less than fifteen minutes since my confession, since I heard the glorious news that God had forgiven me, would always forgive me, and I committed a brand new, heartbreaking sin. God was staring out at me through the eyes of the young woman. Her gaze pierced me to the depths of my happy emptiness, which God yearned to fill with compassion and solidarity and the fervent desire to answer the call to help people in her position. But I looked away. I did not engage.

My sin that day in 2007 (and my sin many, many times since then) was the sin of the rich man in today’s parable. The need at his gate is so visible that this man must actively choose not to see Lazarus lying there. If a film were shot from the rich man’s perspective, Lazarus would always be a bit to the side and out of focus. The man chooses to ignore the need at his gate, and thus his sin is the sin of non-engagement.

His wealth allows him to live inside the illusion of self-sufficiency; he needs no one’s help, and so he never offers to help. His wealth has led him to total isolation. When he dies, his self-chosen isolation follows him to the grave. The “great chasm” between himself and Abraham is of his own making.

The sin of non-engagement runs throughout this entire section of the Gospel according to Luke, all the way back to when Jesus sets his feet toward Jerusalem. The priest and the Levite commit the sin of non-engagement when they cross to the other side of the road upon being confronted with the beaten man. The Good Samaritan, on the other hand, engages him and tends to his wounds. The foolish man who desires to build bigger barns for his wealth commits the sin of non-engagement when he turns inward and decides to hoard his assets. Both brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son commit the sin of non-engagement: the younger when he takes his inheritance and runs away, and the older when he won’t come to the party honoring his brother’s return. When their father goes out to meet them in their isolation, he seeks to heal the gashes made by this sin. And now we have the rich man and Lazarus. Like in each of these other parables, today Jesus seeks to shake up how the establishment has been living, to indict how it has been ignoring the need around it, and to offer a new model for engaging with those whom they would rather not see.

Or should I say those whom we would rather not see, whom I would rather not see. This week at the Wednesday Bible study, Sheri Anderson saw right through my excuses as to why I rarely engage with people on the street. “I don’t carry cash,” I said (a thin defense, I know).

“And you couldn’t offer them a prayer or a blessing instead?” asked Sheri. I quibbled for a few minutes, but she was right. Too often, I have left Park Street station and walked the hundred yards to the cathedral wearing dark sunglasses and headphones. Too often, I have set my eyes straight ahead and chosen to ignore the need around me – because acknowledging that need makes me feel so small, so helpless.

But as Bill Viscomi said at the Haiti Ministry Night, “We can’t do everything, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing something.” Every week, we confess the things we have done and the things we have left undone. The enormity of the need around us has led me to respond by backing away, by disengaging, by allowing so many things to be left undone. But this week, Jesus’ words, along with Sheri’s challenge and Bill’s hope, have convicted me.

Next week, when I go to the cathedral for a meeting, I will be prepared. By the grace of God, I promise not to ignore the need around me. I promise to engage it in my own small way. I hope you will join me in this promise. As Paul says today to Timothy: “Command [the rich] not…to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”

Compared to the enormity of the need around us – in our communities and in this world – we are the rich ones whom Jesus and Paul speak to today. We can’t do everything, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing something. When we promise God that we will participate in God’s good work among the least of those in our society, we can be assured that God will be with us in our efforts, that God will push and prod us toward facing the need rather than looking away. With God’s help, we can start small: a promise to pray with a man on the street, to pass out small gift cards to the grocery store, to sit with guests at the Long Island Shelter and talk with them.

The more we do these “somethings,” the fewer things we leave undone. And as we trust God enough to engage with those in need, God will confront us with greater and greater opportunities to serve God in this world at both the personal and systemic levels. So I challenge you today, and I challenge myself: trust God enough to keep from being overwhelmed by the needs of the world. Find a corner of the need, and start working on it. And God will bless our engagement. We can’t do everything, but, by the grace of God, that will not stop us from doing something.

* You can hear my song “Miserere Mei,” the first verse of which recounts the story at the beginning of this sermon, here.

The decade (or) when God found me

God has known me since I was in my mother’s womb, so at least since 1982 (though there is that whole eternity thing to take into account). I have known God for somewhat less of an interval — only ten short years. My knowledge of my own walk with God began in the year 2000. And because Y2K forgot to blast us back to the Stone Age, I have this handy Internet thing to tell you all about the last decade. What follows is (and I’m well aware of the cliche) a top ten list of my journey with God. I offer these moments in hopes that they serve you as a guide for reflecting on the last decade of your life. What are the moments of consolation; that is, when did God find you? On the flip side, what are the moments of desolation, or when did you lose God? You will notice both appear in this list because both are important in shaping you and me, the people God is creating.

#10: The first baptism (2006) My summer as a chaplain at a children’s hospital is drawing to a close. In fact, I am working my final overnight on-call shift. This night, I have already been present with two families as their children died. It is 2am. I am trying to catch a few minutes sleep. The pager assaults my eardrums. A nurse on the sixth floor needs a chaplain. I grumble during the elevator ride because no one really needs a chaplain at 2am on a non-ICU floor such as the 6th. The nurse brings me to the room of a three-month-old baby. In a mix of Spanish and English, his parents ask me to baptize him in preparation for surgery, which the infant will have in the morning. After some halting discussion, I agree. The godparents have brought a small bottle of water, filled at their church’s baptismal font. The mother holds the infant. I sprinkle water on his head and say: “Yo te bautizo en el Nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.” And God finds me.

#9: The funeral (2009) Some situations are just so big or so brutal or hit so close to home that reliance on God is a requirement and not the fallback position (which too often is my default setting). This is one of those situations. I get a call that a parishioner’s daughter has died suddenly in the night. I rush to the house and stand outside the door trying to find the courage to knock. God finds me cowering on the front stoop. I take a deep breath and enter the house. Every day for a week and a half, I spend time with the grieving parents, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that my normal strength is unequal to the task. I officiate at her funeral, my first for someone my own age. And God is there.

#8: The first two months of seminary (2005) I go to chapel every day for two months. I read the prayers in the book. I recite the psalms and the creed. But I’m not praying. Something is missing: faith? passion? conviction? Ironically, I lose God when I first arrive at the place to study God. Then one evening at the end of September, I am leading a prayer at an evening worship service. I say, “Assist us mercifully, O Lord…” I read these five words and everything changes. I realize to whom I am addressing my speech — the Creator of all that is. How could I ever forget? But I did.

#7: I love you (2004) I am sitting with my girlfriend watching a movie. My arm is around her, and she is resting her head on my chest. It’s an ordinary, everyday kind of moment. And without warning or forethought or the classic over-thinking which I could patent, I whisper, “I love you.” She looks up at me, smiles, and says, “I love you.” We hold each other just a bit tighter. And the burning glow in my chest tells me that this is right.

#6: Breakdown in the office (2008) I have been at my first church for three months. A few days before, I had visited my seminary and saw many of my friends, who dispersed to the four winds after graduation. It is Sunday morning, and I have just finished celebrating the early service. I walk back to my office, remove my vestments, close the door, shut off the lights, fall to the floor, and crumble. I sit with my back to the door so no one can come in. And I cry and cry and cry. I can’t stop, and I can’t figure out why I started. I quietly hyperventilate, hoping that the coffee-drinkers in the next room can’t hear me. I can’t stand the thought of smiling and chatting and handshaking. I want to be anywhere but where I am.

#5: Confession (2007) I ask my spiritual director to hear my confession in preparation for my diaconal ordination one week later. I clean out my closet and bring a heaping box of clothes to the church’s opportunity shop. We enter the sanctuary. I kneel at the altar rail. I have written some notes on yellow legal sheets, and they are crinkled from being in my pocket. I begin my confession, and quickly the tears begin to flow. I confess the big things like my presumptuous reliance on myself above everything else. And I confess the little things like cheating on that math quiz in fifth grade (sorry Mrs. Goldberg!) I am utterly exhausted when I finish. I feel empty, but in a good way, like there is more space in me for God to fill.

#4: Laying on of hands (2004) I am a camp counselor. It is the second to last day of camp, and I am helping one of the priests during a healing service. The teenagers coming for healing have wounds beyond their years: broken families, eating disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger, pain, disease. I ask God to use me as a channel. Fill me to overflowing, I pray, so you spill through me into these children. And God does. I am so full that for twenty minutes after the service, I weep the excess Spirit from me. (If this sounds familiar, you may have read about it here.)

#3: Ordination to the priesthood (2008) My family arrives at the church early and discovers it has no air conditioning. It is June and blistering outside. I am glad to be wearing seersucker. A few hours later, I am kneeling before my bishop and his hands are gripping my head firmly. The rest of the priests are touching me lightly. I can feel my father’s hand on my shoulder. I am overwhelmed. At the end of the service, people come to me for the customary blessing from the new priest. I don’t know what to say, but the words come anyway.

#2: The year (2006) For several months, I ignore God’s prompting to examine the state of my relationship with my girlfriend. I refuse to notice that love has already eroded into convenience and is well on its way to indifference. In mid-May, we attend a Red Sox game. They lose. That night, she proposes the end of our relationship, though it takes another month to dissolve. I push away the abyss threatening to engulf me because I need to focus on my chaplaincy at the children’s hospital and there’s enough pain there for several lifetimes. When the chaplaincy ends, I let myself feel the effects of the breakup. At the beginning of my second year of seminary, I fall into despair. I isolate myself, presumptuously assuming that none of my friends has ever felt this way. I escape into the fantasy world of an online video game. I don’t surface again for many months.

#1: The moment with God (2000) I visit my college for the first time in October of my senior year of high school. I step onto the quad and know in the deep place within that I am walking ground being prepared for me. The following Sunday, I am in church. My father is preaching. I realize that I can’t hear him. Then I realize I can’t see him. But I know what he’s saying. The same deep place within is speaking his words directly into my soul. I am with God for an indefinite moment. My senses are overloaded. I am made anew. A few days later, I sit with my mother on the couch. I say, “I have something to tell you.” She waits patiently while I try to form words. Suddenly, I burst into tears and cry for an hour. She holds me. When I finally stop, she looks at me and says, “I know, love, I know.”