Three Stories of Jesus

Sermon for Sunday, September 1, 2019 || Proper 17C || Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

In her last sermon with us Pastor Stacey Kohl reminded us that stories are powerful things. Sharing stories helps us make meaning, pass on tradition, teach lessons, deepen relationships, learn from one another’s experience, and grow closer to God. Today, I’d like to share with you three stories, all sparked by a single verse from today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” I’d like to share with you a story about Jesus Christ yesterday, a story about Jesus Christ today, and a story about Jesus Christ forever. Each of these stories is about Jesus and about me, and if I do my job right, each will also be about you.

Continue reading “Three Stories of Jesus”

My Soul is Troubled

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.1 Continue reading “My Soul is Troubled”

The Day of Preparation

Sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017 || The Passion according to John

The story of Jesus’ Passion, which I just read, overwhelms me. Truly. After reading it aloud, I feel like I’ve hiked a mountain. The beauty and grief of the Passion takes my breath away. Because the Passion overwhelms me, I find that when I sit down to write sermons about it, I must focus on a single moment in it: one detail that can help tell the story as a whole. They say the devil is in the details, but when it comes to the Gospel, the divine is in the details instead.

The detail that caught my eye this year comes at the very end of the narrative directly after Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit. The detail is a simple marker of time: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.” Continue reading “The Day of Preparation”

Who is this Jesus?

Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is this Jesus?

At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?” Continue reading “Who is this Jesus?”

The Words on Jesus’ Lips

Sermon for Sunday, November 20, 2016 || Christ the King C || Luke 23:33-46

I was at the Annual Convention for the Episcopal Church in CT this Sunday, so a pair of dedicated parishioners delivered these words for me. Thanks, John and Craig.

Today, on this final Sunday of the church’s year, we celebrate the “kingship” of Christ or (put another way) the “reign of Christ.” The eternal “reign of Christ” stretches out from Christ the King and supplants the lesser things that attempt to reign in this world and in our lives. When we turn our attention away from these lesser (yet louder) things – power, money, fame, and the like – we can see and participate in the greater (yet quieter) reality of Christ’s reign.

The territory over which Christ reigns encompasses the whole of Creation, and yet we tend to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule because it seems like the normal and acceptable thing to do. But there’s the rub: Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing, so, of course, his reign subverts the expectations of the world. Continue reading “The Words on Jesus’ Lips”

Three Parades

Sermon for Sunday, March 20, 2016 || Palm/Passion Sunday C || Luke 19:28-40; Luke 23

ThreeParadesIn our lovely, little town of Mystic, today is a day of parades. There’s one this afternoon that will get all the press – the St. Patrick’s Day parade will attract throngs of green-clad people to Main Street to watch and revel at a charming small town spectacle. The Highland Pipe Band will set the tone as they march off from Mystic Seaport towards downtown. Hundreds of people on floats, in cars, and on foot will follow, not to mention the real reason to go to parades, which is the fire engines. They say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and the same extends to Mystic’s parade four days later.

In addition to our town’s parade, we here at St. Mark’s remember not one, but two more parades today. In the first parade, a baby donkey walks down the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem. A man rides on its back, and people hail him as the “king who comes in the name of the Lord.” In the second parade, the same man staggers out of Jerusalem under the weight of the cross, and people deride him with mocking shouts: “If you really are the king, then save yourself.”

These two parades – separated by less than a week’s time in Luke’s Gospel – couldn’t look more different. In the first, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem with “the whole multitude of the disciples” praising God. In the second, Jesus stumbles his way to the place called The Skull, whipped and beaten, too exhausted to carry his own cross the entire distance.

But if we take a deeper look at these two parades, we discover they aren’t as different as they appear on the surface. In both parades, Jesus subverts expectations. He could have ridden into Jerusalem on the back of many a more respectable beast, but he chose a baby donkey. Why? Well, for starters there was Zechariah’s prophecy to fulfill:

“…Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…” (9:9)

But beyond prophetic fulfillment, Jesus chose this humble farm animal to show the incongruity inherent in people’s expectations of their king. They wanted a warrior. They got a healer.

Jesus’ walk to Golgatha continues this subverting of expectation. “Save yourself,” people jeer. “If you are who you say you are, then break out of here and dispatch these Roman soldiers as you go!” What they don’t realize, however, is that Jesus has no interest in saving himself. He wants to save them.

In both parades, a vulnerable Jesus turns his face towards danger and death instead of running the other way. He had been saying for the entire journey south that Jerusalem was where everything was going down. This was high noon, and Jesus purposefully left his six-shooter at home. He rides into the city weaponless, with his deputies cringing and looking for likely hiding places. He chooses this utter vulnerability because it illuminates his innocence, the fact that he is put to death for no just reason. The second parade, the one to The Skull, happens because he continues defenseless. Pontius Pilate is just looking for an excuse to release him, and surely Jesus could have provided one. But no. Jesus is staring down the power of death itself, and he’s not about to blink.

Indeed, in both parades, Jesus has a grander agenda than anyone realizes. He is a king, but of a realm so much bigger than any physical location. He is locked in battle, but his enemy is so much larger than an intransigent religious establishment or even the entirety of the Roman Empire. He is going to die, but new life that triumphs over death will be the ultimate conclusion. The Pharisees want him to quiet his disciples. But Jesus says: You’re setting your sights too small. “If they were silenced, the very stones themselves would shout out.” The thief on the cross just wants to be remembered. But Jesus says: You’re setting your sights too small. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

These two parades show the beauty and glory of Jesus for who he is: the messiah who fulfills God’s promises in unexpected ways; the healer-king who puts himself squarely between us and the power of death; the savior who yearns for us to stop setting our sights so small.

There was a fellow way back in the fifth century who did just that. Like his Savior, he set his sights big – like entire island big. He had been captured and taken to that island in his youth and he had been made a slave. After many years in servitude, he escaped and returned to his homeland. He might have expected to live out his days in comfort after the trials of his youth, but Jesus is in the business of upending expectations. What’s incredible and beautiful is that this man listened to Christ’s call, and went back to the place of his captivity. Just like his Savior, he turned his face towards danger and death, despite his vulnerability. And he enlightened an entire island with the Good News of Christ. His name was Patrick, and a parade in his honor happens at one o’clock today. Hmm. Maybe all three parades have more in common than I thought.

Art: Mashup of “Entry of the Christ into Jerusalem” by Jean-Leon Gemore (1897) and “Jesus Falling Beneath the Cross” by Gustave Dore

Two Horrible Words

Sermon for March 29, 2015 || The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday Year B || Mark 14:32 – 15:47

twohorriblewordsUsually the sermon follows the reading of the Gospel, but on this particular day – The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – I prefer to preach first in order to help us orient ourselves towards the lengthy and powerful story we are about to hear. And because I think anything I would add after reading the Passion Gospel would serve only to lessen its impact. Also, this sermon will be unusually short since today’s service has a lot of extra parts, and so I’m going to limit myself to talking about two words. Only two words out of the 1,837 that make up today’s Passion Gospel. Those two words are: “Crucify him.” Those are your words. Three of us will be standing up here reading the rest of the characters, but you have a part to play, as well. Yours is the part of the crowd. Your part has one line, spoke twice. “Crucify him.”

I know many people who are so uncomfortable about saying this that they decline to join in, and I respect that. But I also think it invites further examination. When we shout, “Crucify him,” we place ourselves amongst Jesus’ opponents. We are given this opportunity – within the context of the liturgy – to join the crowd clamoring for Jesus’ death. This serves two purposes.

First, it serves as a corrective measure against the millennia old fallacy that “the Jews killed Jesus.” This mistaken outlook has led to ferocious atrocities perpetuated against Jews by Christians over the course of history, and it is unconscionable. That this malicious viewpoint still exists today among some Christians shows the worst side our religion is capable of. The Jews only killed Jesus in so far as everyone in the story besides Pilate and his soldiers is Jewish – including Jesus. Jesus was not the first Christian, and it was a couple generations before Jewish followers of Jesus stopped identifying themselves as Jewish. By putting ourselves in the group that shouts, “Crucify him,” we acknowledge that we, too, are part of the legacy of those people swept up in the bloodlust of the chief instigators of Jesus’ arrest. And by standing in that group, we liturgically atone for the sins of past Christians who persecuted Jewish people for “killing Jesus.”

The second purpose is this: by shouting, “Crucify him,” we give voice – if only for a moment – to the worst pieces of ourselves that want to have nothing to do with Jesus. If they wanted something to do with him, they wouldn’t be our worst pieces. Each of us has within us – hidden or not so hidden – these worst pieces. Pride. Envy. Hypocrisy. The desire to dominate. Separate. Isolate. And our fate hangs on our ability to recognize these shadowy pieces. To acknowledge them. To allow voice to the worst of what makes us, us. And once we’ve acknowledged them, we can confront them. Jesus is on his way to the cross, where he confronts the worst of the worst of the human condition. When we shout those two painful, horrible words – “Crucify him!” – the worst of the worst bubbles to the surface. And once on the surface, we can skim it off, like a layer of fat from a broth. With the fat skimmed off, we give it to Jesus. Jesus takes it to the cross. And there it is nailed with him. And there it dies with him.

I hope you will speak those two words today, despite how painful they are to voice aloud. Saying, “Crucify him,” is another way we make our confession. It is another way we acknowledge that sometimes we stand on the wrong side. And it is another way for us to realize the depths of love Christ has for us. Even though we ignore him and deny him and abandon him and crucify him, he does not stop loving us back into right relationship with God. He does not stop sweeping away the worst of our pieces and reconstructing us only using the good parts. So today, when you say those two painful words, “Crucify him,” remember that you have already been forgiven. And remember that next week, you’ll have the opportunity to replace these two ugly, horrible words with shouts of joy.

A Passion Primer

Sermon for Sunday, April 13, 2014 || Passion/Palm Sunday, Year A || Matthew 26:31–27:54

Passion2014If you’ve spent any length of time in the Episcopal Church, you know the sermon comes after the Gospel reading. But because of the nature of our Gospel reading today, I hope you will allow me to flip that convention around. The Passion Gospel we will read in a few moments has the lyric substance of an epic poem; the depth of one of the works of a Russian master – Dostoyevsky, say; and the emotional weight of the entire book of Psalms: all in the space of an average magazine article. So rather than preaching after we listen to the performance of this momentous work of faith and story-telling, I thought I’d talk with you now, before we listen. I plan, in the next few minutes, to give you something of a listening guide: a few keys to listening faithfully, and a few things to listen for.

Before we begin the reading, I invite you (during the silence/hymn) to acknowledge all the things that are clamoring for attention in your mind: the sports practice after the service, the spring break vacation that needs packing for, the unpaid bills, the house that’s still on the market, the impending surgery, papers that are due, deadlines at work. Acknowledge each thing and then gently push it aside; breathe it away for the time being. Clear a space within; within your mind, within your heart. And invite God to fill that space with the truth of Christ’s Passion.

Also before we begin reading, just a note for our performance practice today. I will be narrating, Craig will be reading the parts of Jesus and Peter, and Sarah will be reading the parts of everyone else. That is, except for the place in the story when Pontius Pilate addresses the crowd. That part is yours. I know many people feel uncomfortable voicing this part. Saying, “Let him be crucified,” feels like the worst kind of betrayal. Speaking aloud those words always causes a deep sorrow to well up in me, and I bet many of you feel it, too.

Even so, I hope you will still say the words when it comes to your turn. I know they are hard to voice, painful to say aloud, but they are also necessary. Cathartic, even. Saying those words today – “Let him be crucified” – allows us to give voice to a year’s worth of our own sin, our own willful separations from God, both small and great. In those four words, we identify with the jealous leaders who brought Jesus to the Roman officials. We confess our complicity in this sad desire to separate ourselves from the source of grace and healing. We say those words today. We live with them rattling around in the hollowness inside us this week. As they reverberate within, their echo is like a mirror held up to our willful separation. We see ourselves for the lonely, despairing people our choices often make of us. For a week, we live with those words on our lips. Then, a week from today, we replace them with fresh words of praise, with shouts of triumph, with good news about God’s eternal embrace heralded by Christ’s resurrection.

Before we move on to our proclamation of Christ’s Passion, here are a few things I invite you to listen for. First, listen for things you might never have heard in this reading no matter how many times you’ve listened to it. Small things like Jesus’ own non-violence; Simon Peter’s weeping; Judas’s repentance; the warning of Pilate’s wife; the service of the unnamed person who gave Jesus wine to drink; the final witness of the Roman centurion.

Second, notice how often Matthew, our Gospel writer, puts truth on the lips of those in charge of Jesus’ execution. When Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ death, the rioting crowd responds, “His blood be on us and on our children!” And in a way, it is – not as evidence of murder, but as a cleansing agent, as a way of removing the very sin the rioting crowd is committing. We are “washed in the blood of the lamb.” Notice also the soldiers who hail Jesus as king. They do it in mocking, as a despicable game, but even so they speak the truth. Notice finally, the words of the chief priests as Jesus hangs from the cross, also said in cruel jest. These words include, “He trusts in God.” This trust is independent of their desire for corroboration of that trust. This trust is Jesus’ own brand, which goes well beyond saving his broken body and finds its home on the other side of Easter.

After you empty yourself to allow God to fill you with the witness of Christ’s passion, and while you are listening for those small details Matthew gives us, I invite you to enter the story yourself. Taste the tang of fear in the air. Feel the crush of bodies clamoring for blood. Listen to the jeers. See Jesus standing silently, absorbing the cruelty of the world in order to bring it with him to the cross in order for its power to die.

And as you stand with Jesus’ enemies, here them speak the truth unbeknownst to themselves. Allow that ironic truth to well up within you. And believe. Set your heart on the one who went willingly to torture and death. Set your heart on the one who suffered for us. Set your heart on the one who died on the cross. Because he has set his heart on you.

*Art: detail from “Christ Nailed to the Cross” by William Blake (c.1803)

A Gospel Medley

Several people who’ve heard me sing this live have asked for a recording, so here it is. And I’m including the lyrics because parts of it (especially the Peter Gabriel section) are a bit difficult to follow. If you want to play it yourself, let me know, and I’ll send you the lead sheet. I hope you enjoy it!

(Oh, btw, I’m working on a second Gospel Medley. If you think of a song I could use for a piece of the Gospel, let me know. Right now, I just have Bryan Adams for the call of the disciples.)

(To download, right-click picture and choose “Save Link As…”)

The Nativity (Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin'”)
Just a virgin girl when the angel said to her,
“You will bear the Son of God.” She said, “Here am I.”
Just a carpenter of David’s line from Bethlehem;
He took her for his wife (the angel told him to).
So Caesar made the census rule
Telling all to go back home
In a stable Mary bears her babe
He’s the Son, the Son, the Son, the Son.

Shepherds grazing up and down the countryside
The wise men searching in the night
Starlight, angels singing ‘bout the Incarnation
Shining on this holy night

Don’t stop believing
Remember it’s with God you’re dealing
Peace to people

– – –

John the Baptizer (John Mellencamp, “Jack and Diane”)
A little ditty about John the Baptist
Whose favorite dinner was honeyed locusts
John, he’s saying, “I’m just the voice crying out:
Prepare the way of the Lord, that’s what I’m talking ‘bout.” (Sayin’)
Oh yeah, it won’t be long:
the kingdom has come near, repent your wrongs
Oh yeah, it won’t be long:
He is coming soon, I can’t tie his sandals’ thong (now walk on)

– – –

The Feeding of the 5000 (The Proclaimers, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”)
Jesus looks up, and he knows he’s gonna feed,
He’s gonna feed the people coming to see him.
The disciples, they all say they’re gonna need
They’re gonna need denarii to feed them all.

But I see there five loaves of bread
And I see there two tiny fish
I will bless this food to feed five thousand people
So sit down in the grass
Gotta lot now! Gotta lot now!
Gotta lot of scraps of bread leftover now!

– – –

Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration (John Parr, “Man in Motion (St. Elmo’s Fire)”)
Jesus asks, “Who do you disciples say has come?”
Peter says, “You’re the Son of God, the Chosen One.”
God revealed this to you, not some fleshly search
So I name you Rock, now go build my church.

Then they climb the highest mountain, underneath the starry sky
And they witness Jesus’ changing, whiter and whiter
Gonna build some tabernacles, but then a cloud descends:
“This is my beloved Son, listen to him”

– – –

The Last Supper (John Denver, “Leaving on a Jet Plane”)
All my friends are here in this upper room.
Their feet are clean, now my Passion looms:
Here’s a four long chapter speech to say goodbye.
See this bread I’m breakin’, it’s a special loaf,
The wine you’re drinkin’ is my blood’s merlot.
Let’s share this meal before I’m brought to die.

So take, eat: you’re sharing me.
Drink this to remember me.
Hear my words ‘cause soon I’ll have to go.
I’ll be dying on the cross soon,
But know that I’ll be back again
Oh, friends, I hate to go…

– – –

The Crucifixion (Peter Gabriel, “In Your Eyes”)
On his head’s placed a crown of thorns;
The temple veil will soon be torn.
Without a noise, without his pride, he reaches out to his bride.

They crucify: the blood, the sweat
His mouth is dry from thirstiness.
Eli, Eli, Have you forsaken
Me to die? You’ll be with me in
Paradise. Oh God forgive them.
Then he cries: I commend my Spirit.
I see the blood and the sweat, oh, but it’s not over quite yet.
Just come on down this Sunday, meet you there at sunrise.

– – –

The Resurrection (U2, “Beautiful Day”)
They go to the tomb, on the first day of the week
But there’s no stone, so Mary takes a peak
She’s out of luck, and the reason that she had to care
Was apparently snuck away when they were unawares
But she knows she’s found a friend when the gardener says her name.
And then Jesus sends her saying, “My return proclaim.”

On this Easter Sunday, the grave falls and you know
On this Easter Sunday, death’s sting is wiped away
On this Easter Sunday…

Touch me, put your finger in my side
When I leave, my Holy Spirit will abide

It’ll be Pentecost Day, tongues of fire, you know
On that Pentecost Day, the Church is here to stay
On that Pentecost Day…