Sermon for Sunday, March 18, 2018 || Lent 5B || John 12:20-33
Imagine with me the thoughts of Jesus that might have been swirling around in his head during the day of the Gospel passage I just read.
It finally happened. Word of our little movement has reached past the confines of our stomping grounds, past Jerusalem, past Galilee. Philip and Andrew brought some people from Greece to see me. From Greece! Imagine that. I did not set out to become a household name; my name is so common that you’d have to ask which Jesus someone was talking about. But our mission, our movement – that is less common. To be honest, I thought the movement had died last year after so many left me. They were looking for more miraculous signs, sure; but still, I pushed too hard. You’ll never know how it feels to have so much power at your fingertips, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could compel people to stay if I so desired.
But above all else, I want people to be free, not to trade one empire for another. I yearn for everyone to choose the light, to walk in the light, for that is where Truth lives. And the truth will make you free.1Continue reading “My Soul is Troubled”→
Sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2018 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28
One of the enduring images of my childhood is my father never taking off his cross necklace. He wore that cross under his clothes close to his heart. He wore it (and still wears it) all the time: while sleeping, while exercising, even while showering. I can see him in my mind’s eye at the beach wearing just swim trunks and a three-inch by two-inch piece of silver metal.
I wanted to be like him so badly that I asked for a cross of my own to wear. So my parents gave me one for my birthday when I was about fourteen or fifteen. I tried to wear it all the time like my dad, but the chain would chafe my neck while I slept, so I took it off at night, and sometimes I’d forget to put it back on. It was against the rules to wear jewelry on the soccer field, so off came the cross then too. I lost it in the depths of my car for a few months my senior year of high school. Then one day during my first semester of college the chain broke, and I lost the cross for good. I had wanted to wear the cross to be like my dad, but I had failed. He never took his off, never lost it. Continue reading “Live Deep, Live Wide”→
Sermon for Good Friday, March 25, 2016 || John 19:25-27
The Passion narrative Stacey just read can be quite overwhelming. It is by far and away the longest reading we listen to all year, and there’s a lot going on. There’s Judas’s betrayal, Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the trial with the high priest, the interview with Pilate, the frenzy of the crowd, the crucifixion, and the last words from the cross. There’s so much going on, in fact, that we can easily lose sight of the overarching story of the Gospel when we find ourselves overloaded by this painful and heart-breaking narrative. So instead of talking about the entire Passion narrative, each year I like to focus on one little moment of it that speaks to the whole story. On this Good Friday, that moment happens between the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ clothes and Jesus drinking the sour wine.
“Meanwhile,” the Gospel tells us, “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
Have you ever noticed the beauty of this moment? Have you ever noticed how succinctly these three verses sum up Christ’s mission of reconciliation? I see in my mind’s eye these two people standing apart from each other. One weeps silently for his beloved friend, and his tears wash two clean lines on his dusty, grimy face. The other has no more tears; she has cried her eyes dry, and now she just stands there counting her son’s breaths, treasuring each one in case it’s his last. She always knew this day would come, but not like this. God, not like this.
A few other women comfort Jesus’ mother, but his beloved friend remains several paces away from them, perhaps not wanting to intrude on their stunned grief. He stands there alone, wondering how it all went wrong, wondering if he had been hoodwinked or if he had just gotten caught up in messianic hysteria. No, I believe. He doesn’t mean to, but he says the words out loud. Then he adds, I just don’t understand.
That’s when he looks up at Jesus, and his friend’s lips begin to move. He’s trying to speak, but he can’t catch his breath. After all, the cross kills by suffocation, not by loss of blood. With a monumental force of will, Jesus pulls himself up, using the nails for leverage. He sucks in a ragged breath and looks down first at his friend, then at his mother. His gaze connects them, and they stumble towards each other. With fleeting breath, Jesus manages to say, “Woman, here is your son.” His mother leans her head on his friend’s shoulder. Jesus inclines his head, “Here is your mother.” His friend wraps his arm around her and squeezes.
While dying on the cross, Jesus stitches together this new family. He creates a new relationship built on two people’s own relationships with him. Before Jesus redefined it, the cross was the ultimate symbol of domination and separation. The cross brutally demonstrated who was in charge and who was discarded, the human garbage of the empire. But even before the resurrection – even in this beautiful moment we are discussing here – Jesus is changing the meaning of those two planks of wood. No longer would they be the terrifying symbol of ruthless subjugation. Now the cross would be the symbol of the promise of eternal life, which is really the promise of eternal relationship with God.
By creating this new relationship between his mother and friend, Jesus reminds them and us that his mission is one of reconciling us to each other and all things back to God. Indeed, it’s no accident that the Gospel writer never names these two people. We know his mother’s name is Mary and tradition tells us that his beloved friend is John. But the Gospel steadfastly resists naming them as such, and does so for this purpose: So we can put ourselves in their place. So we can feel ourselves being called “beloved” by Christ. So we can feel in our relationships with Christ the unique closeness that a mother has for her child – the act of cherishing. And in feeling this intimacy with Christ, this belovedness, we might feel the call to create and engage in deep relationships with others, each one fostered by Christ’s love for all people.
This is the story of the Gospel: God came to us to bring us back into relationship with one another and with God. Good Friday marks the cliffhanger in that story, the moment when it all looks bleak. But even in this bleakest moment, even while struggling for breath on the cross, Jesus is still bringing people together, still performing miracles.
For many years, I became queasy at the thought of having ashes scraped across my forehead — not because they are a reminder of my own mortality, not because I dislike being called to repent, but because I couldn’t square the action with Jesus’ command in the Gospel for the day. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes to task those who do things merely for show rather than for dedicated spiritual discipline. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” he says. Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms. Don’t pray ostentatiously on street corners so others will see you. Don’t disfigure your face when you fast. Give alms, pray, and fast in secret, “and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Don’t disfigure your face. These words stuck in my mind while walking to the altar rail, while watching the priest’s trembling thumb touch the powder, while feeling the gritty scrape first vertical then horizontal on my forehead, like sooty sandpaper. Why are we disfiguring our faces when Jesus just told us not to?!
I was preparing a children’s sermon when I realized I had it all wrong. As far back as I can remember, I had not seen the ashes as anything other than a disfigurement, a liturgically pretentious sign that I was a pious person. Everything changed when I tried to explain Lent to a group of five-year-olds.
“Did you know that you have a cross on your forehead,” I asked, arching my eyebrows as high as they could go. They all looked back at me with those funny, squinched up faces that kids make when they are quizzical. Several shook their heads emphatically. “It’s true,” I said, “but the cross on your forehead is invisible.”
That got their attention. They began looking at each other’s foreheads. I continued, “When you were baptized, a priest took some oil and made a cross right here” — I demonstrated on myself — “and said, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.’
“That cross is still there, but you can’t really see it. It’s a reminder that you belong to God and that God loves you very much.” They nodded, open-mouthed. “Today is a special day because today we are going to use some special dust to make that cross appear on your foreheads again.”
On Ash Wednesday, we don’t disfigure our faces so others can see how pious we are. In fact, it’s just the opposite. By making visible again the cross that we received at Baptism, we acknowledge our impiety, our lack of repentance, our apathy to the suffering in the world. The renewed visiblity of our baptismal crosses indicts us for our indifference to our baptismal promises.
We look in the mirror and see a pair of lines, crude charcoal calligraphy. And we remember what it means to be a follower of Christ, to be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. We remember that we have only a limited time on this earth to make a difference in the lives of those we meet, to show forth the love and light of God to a world too familiar with darkness. Disfigurementhappens when we rub the ashes away and forget that there is still a cross written on our foreheads.
On Ash Wednesday we make that cross visible, if but for a brief time. This small, crudely drawn cross reminds us of another cross, the one that Jesus calls his followers to pick up when they decide to follow him. All too often, this cross also fades into invisibility, a wooden victim of our lethargy and misplaced priorities. During the season of Lent, we are given the opportunity to discern how to make that cross visible again.