Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17; 7:45-52; 19:38-42
The Pharisee Nicodemus is not a member of the main cast of the Gospel according to John. In the parlance of television, he would be known as a recurring character. If each chapter of John’s Gospel were an episode of a TV series, it would fill one standard network season, and Nicodemus would guest star in episodes 3, 7, and 19. We meet him at the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’ ministry, and each time we drop in on him, Nicodemus is somewhere new in his own journey towards an active faith in Christ.
The Gospel writer makes clear that the intention of the Gospel is to help the reader believe by telling the story of Jesus in a certain way. The writer uses Nicodemus’s three-part journey as a stand-in for our own, as we, too, journey towards more active faith in Christ. The world of Nicodemus and our own world share some striking similarities. Nicodemus lived in a world that had yet to be steeped in Christian tradition; people around him were either confused by the message of Jesus, hostile to it, or ignorant of it. Today’s world is similar; the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, while confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply. Today, we’re going to go on the journey of our guest star Nicodemus to see what his participation in the story of Jesus has to tell us about our own. Continue reading “The Guest Star”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2016 || Proper 23C || 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
*Plays the opening riff to the Beatles’ “Blackbird”*
Does anyone know what this song is? (Hopefully someone will.) That’s right. “Blackbird” by the Beatles. I’m having something of a Beatles kick in my sermons recently. Not only is it “Blackbird” by the Beatles; it is also the very first song I ever tried to learn on the guitar.
It was the day after Christmas my senior year of high school. I had used my Christmas gift money to buy an incredibly cheap acoustic guitar from the local shop. My friends in musical theatre class all knew how to play guitar, and it seemed like a really good way to impress girls.
So I thought to myself, “What was in impressive song I could learn on the guitar?” And, of course, “Blackbird” came to mind. The trouble is, “Blackbird” is not an easy song to play. Your left hand has to move away from the precious comfort zone near the neck of the guitar where most chords are played and venture into the hazardous territory closer to the body of the instrument. Your right hand has to pluck the correct strings at the correct times, in concert with the movement of your left hand hand.Continue reading “Naaman Syndrome”→
Sermon for Sunday, September 4, 2016 || Proper 18C || Luke 14:25-33
The date is March 29, 2010, just over one month since I moved to Massachusetts. The rain is so heavy that I feel like I’m driving through a carwash. I can barely see out the windshield, and I keep thinking that I’ve missed Furnace Brook Parkway. But just when I decide I need to turn around, I spot the sign, turn left, and five minutes later, I make a mad dash for the dryness and warmth of the Coffee Break Cafe.
The rain still manages to soak my jeans during the ten seconds I’m out in the elements, but the moment I step into the café, I forget the torrential downpour. I forget the dangerous drive. I forget the soaked jeans and the English language and my name and how to walk correctly. The woman I planned to meet stands before me wearing houndstooth rain boots, holding a steaming cup of tea, and smiling. And I forget everything about myself except for the fact that she is there to meet me – me of all people.Continue reading “Jesus’ Sales Pitch”→
Sermon for Sunday, June 26, 2016 || Proper 8C || Luke 9:51-62
During the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 10 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.
As I was preparing for this morning’s sermon, I was having trouble, and I realized the reason I was having trouble is that I was actually preparing for four sermon, and not for one sermon. So today is the beginning of a four part series that goes all the way until I start my vacation. So you have to come back for the next three Sundays to get the whole thing. The topic of this sermon series is a topic we don’t talk a lot about in the Episcopal Church, but it is something you hear a lot of in other churches and in popular culture. It is the concept of being “born again.” You’ve heard that before, right? Probably not here. Continue reading “Born Again, part 1: New Life”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2015 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52
Imagine with me the beggar Bartimaeus. He is remembering the fateful day when a large crowd passed his perch beside the road from Jericho. It started like every other day, with a certain memory dancing before his sightless eyes.
I was seven and a half years old when I got sick. It was the kind of illness you don’t usually recover from, but I did. Almost. The last image my eyes captured was my mother’s face – beautiful and distressed, a smile worn for my benefit betrayed by a furrowed brow. When I returned to the land of the living, if not the sighted, I could touch her face with my fingers and know the smile and the worry lines were still fighting with each other. I could hear her singing me to sleep. I could smell her bread baking, and I could taste it, too. But I could not see. With no new picture to replace it in my memory, the image of my mother hovering over my sickbed remained with me all those years.
I was remembering the way her hair always fell across one side of her face until she pushed it behind one ear, the way her tears ran over her cheekbones, the way her smile battled her furrowed brow, when I heard it – a large crowd coming down the road from Jericho. You might think the prospect of so many people passing me by would excite me, since my only source of income was the kindness of strangers. But large crowds rarely yielded much coin in my experience. People couldn’t really stop for fear of being run into; they usually were just paying attention to each other; and they always kicked up such a cloud of dust that I was probably as invisible to them as they were to me.
Or at least those were those reasons I told myself. To be honest, I think I made their excuses for them because of how disheartened I got when so many people passed me by without noticing me. It was as if my blindness struck them blind too. But not that day. The moment I heard Jesus of Nazareth was in the party, people would have to have been both blind and deaf not to notice I was there. This was my one chance. I had heard stories of him from other beggars and from people coming down from Galilee. I knew he had the power to heal me. I believed he could restore my sight. This was my one chance. And I took it.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” I shouted as loud as I could. But someone hit the side of my head and told me to shut my mouth. Other voices joined the first, a chorus of shush-ers. It wasn’t enough for them that I be blind; apparently, they wanted me to be mute too. But this was my one chance, and I was not going to be deterred. I yelled again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And then something happened. The tremor of hundreds of feet stamping the ground just stopped. The sound of voices died away. I could hear the echo of my own shouted words fleeing for the hills. For a moment there was no noise, save for the grunts of pack animals and the laughter of children. Then I could feel next to me a looming presence, a hand on my shoulder, a few flecks of spittle on my face when the man spoke. He smelled of sweat and old fish. “Take heart,” he said. “Get up, Jesus is calling you.”
The vision of my mother swam in front of me. I could see her mouthing the words, “Take heart.” I could see the smile gaining ground on the furrowed brow. I jumped to my feet and clung to the man’s hand as he led me away from my beggar’s nest. I counted the steps I took in case I had to make my way back there if Jesus wouldn’t help me…or couldn’t help me. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Stop.
A new pair of hands gripped my shoulders, gentler but still strong. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. It was the most extraordinary question. He could have assumed I wanted my sight back. He could have assumed I wanted to leave the life of begging. He could have assumed any number of things about me. But instead of just mandating my cure, he asked me what I wanted. He engaged me in conversation. He let me take the lead.
“My teacher, let me see again.” Once more, my mother’s face danced in front of me, and her smiling mouth formed the word, “Go.” And as she spoke, her smile turned into someone else’s: a man’s smile, a man about my own age with piercing dark eyes and no furrow whatsoever in his brow. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.
I turned my head this way and that. Everything was so bright. Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach, dizzy, my balance gone. But as I started to fall, Jesus’ strong arms clenched my shoulders tighter, and he kept me on my feet. “Look at my eyes,” he said. “The vertigo will pass. Just at my eyes, nothing else.” For a long moment – a minute, five, ten, I don’t know – he anchored me with his gaze. And in that long moment, I memorized his face like I had memorized my mother’s. I had seen her face everyday of my blindness. Now I see his.
But not everyday. While he was still with us, I saw him in the flesh most days, but now that he’s here only in Spirit, I find it hard to see his face. My eyes work perfectly, but to see him now takes a different set of eyes. He said my faith had made me well. And now it’s the eyes of faith I need, the eyes that see beyond what’s in front of me, the eyes that see God’s reality swirling beneath the mundane.
And so I repeat my request: “Lord, let me see again.” Let me look again at your presence in the world around me. Let me notice again the people who are usually invisible. Let me see again your face in their faces. Let me serve again. Let me help again. Hope again. Love again.
Lord, I asked for mercy, I shouted at the top of my lungs for mercy. And mercy is all about second chances. Mercy is all about “again.” And so my first request remains the most fervent longing from the depths of my heart. I have made this my prayer for all time: “Lord, let me see again.”
Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2015 || Proper 24B || Mark 10:(32-34) 35-45
Over the last six weeks, our Gospel lessons have been tracking Jesus’ movement. We began in the Roman garrison town of Ceasarea Philippi, then to Galilee, then south to Judea, and now we find ourselves on the road towards Jerusalem. In each of these places, Jesus performed wonders that restored people to health and wholeness. He also sparred with his opponents over various issues, and he taught his disciples many things. But one thing he taught them just didn’t sink in, and so he teaches it to them over and over again – three times to be exact – he teaches that he is walking to his death.
In Caeserea Philippi, after Peter makes his famous declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be condemned, killed, and after three days rise again. Peter just can’t handle this information, so he tells Jesus off. As they pass through Galilee, Jesus tells them a second time he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again. They don’t understand what he is saying, and they lapse into an argument about which of them is the greatest. Now they’re on the road to Jerusalem. The time is near at hand. So Jesus tries one more time to prepare them for what is coming.
The problem is – we skipped those verses this week. For over a month, we’ve read every verse of chapters 9 and 10* of the Gospel according to Mark, and now suddenly we skip three verses. Apparently, the framers of our lectionary don’t think we need to hear all three predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I disagree. So here’s the third one, which is sandwiched between last week’s Gospel reading and the one I just read.
“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”
(Quick aside – They’re afraid because Jesus was relatively safe in the boondocks of Galilee, but his fame has spread south to Jerusalem, where he has few friends. Apart from his seemingly clueless disciples, no one thinks he’s coming home from this trip.)
The skipped verses continue: “He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ ”
Of the three predictions, this last one is the longest and most explicit. It’s the only one that mentions his mistreatment at the hands of the Roman soldiers. In fact, all three predictions are different, but they all share one common phrase: he will be killed, and after three days he will rise again.
Even after this third most strident attempt, the notion that their Lord could ever suffer such an ignominious fate still doesn’t sink in. And once again, the disciples lapse into an argument about places of prominence when Jesus enters into glory. You can see that their current outlook is untroubled by such a mundane thing as reality. They are stubbornly unwilling to engage Jesus on such a weighty topic as life and death.
Or should I say death and life. This small distinction, this tiny flipping of two words, makes all the difference. The disciples put their fingers in their ears the moment Jesus starts talking about dying in Jerusalem, and so they miss the most important part. They miss that life comes after death. They miss the rising again.
And we miss it too. We miss the resurrection because we tend to place it in chronological order after our own physical deaths. This makes sense because the death of our bodies terrifies us, and so hoping in the resurrection gives us some comfort. Let me be clear, this chronological thinking about the resurrection is not wrong, but it’s also not the whole picture. The whole picture is drawn on the canvas of eternity. If we believe we are given the gift of eternal life in the power of the resurrection, then we already have it – even now, here, this day, long before our physical deaths. Eternity, after all, has no start date.
But this eternal life, this resurrection life, does have one kind of beginning: the day we awaken to this beautiful reality, the day we decide to participate in God’s mission of renewal, the day we choose to live. This awakening doesn’t happen just once, God knows, but again and again – because, like the disciples, we are clueless and stubbornly unwilling some of the time. How does this awakening happen? Remember, we’re not talking life and death here. We’re talking death and life. Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death. Let me say that again: Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death.
Here’s what I mean. Notice that each time Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, he follows his disciples’ lack of understanding with a call for them and us to let little gangrenous pieces of ourselves die. After the first prediction, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Deny yourself – in other words, let your own will die. Too often, we let the selfish or petty or abusive or apathetic or ruthless pieces of ourselves take the wheel. We lapse into these death-dealing behaviors when we are scared, which is why Jesus tells us so many times not to be afraid. Let your will die a little death, he says, so mine can come alive in you.
After the second prediction, Jesus puts a little child among his quarreling disciples and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Welcome the lowest of the low – in other words, let your own presumption of privilege die. Too often, we allow ourselves to get caught up in death-dealing hierarchies – caste systems built around money or race or any number of ways we can differentiate ourselves from others. Let your presumption of privilege die a little death, says Jesus, so my compassion for all life can come alive in you.
And today, after the third prediction, Jesus silences the disciples anger toward James and John when he says: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Serve each other – in other words, let your own complacency die. Too often, we expect life to be easy. We like to coast along, untroubled by the death-dealing evils of world around us. And to be honest, life is easy when we ignore everything that makes it hard. Jesus invites us to awaken to the power of servanthood so we can help others awaken to the power of the resurrection in their own lives. Let your complacency die a little death, says Jesus, so my mission of healing and reconciliation can come alive in you.
Three times Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection. Three times he encourages us to let parts of ourselves die little deaths in order that we might awaken again and again to the beautiful reality of resurrection life here and now. As we live into this reality, as we participate in resurrection life, remember this: our faith is not a matter of life and death. Jesus turned everything around, so our faith is really a matter of death and life.
Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2015 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31
Jesus feels drawn to the man kneeling in front of him. His heart is warmed, and he feels the stirrings of love and compassion for this frightened soul in the midst of an existential crisis. Perhaps the man recently had a parent or friend die, or perhaps he himself had experienced an accident or illness that brought death near. Whatever the trigger, the man comes to Jesus with a serious question that has obviously been plaguing him because of some unspoken dread roiling within him.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus lists off some of the standard commandments, and the man checks each box. That’s when Jesus looks at him with love and compassion. Here is this man in fine clothes getting dirty in the dust of the road. Here is this man with obvious wealth and power coming to an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head. “I know what’s holding you back,” Jesus says. “It’s always something. There’s always something in the way that only you can shift. I can help. I can encourage. I can give you strength and courage. But you must decide.”
“What? What is it?” pleads the man.
“In your case: sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”
Shocked into speechlessness, the man gives Jesus a hard look, stands, dusts off his finery, and stalks away, not really understanding the source of his tears. Jesus invited this man to give away his possessions. He was holding his stuff so tightly that he couldn’t open his hands to receive what Jesus was offering him. He couldn’t let go, so he never discovered how life-changing it can be to release your grip, to uncurl your hand ready to give and ready to receive.
Jesus diagnoses this man on the spot. Jesus loves him enough not to sugarcoat what he needs to do to get past the barriers his own wealth has set up. Give it all away. Just give it all away. This action of giving is one of the more powerful steps we can take in our lives of faith in response to God’s movement in those lives. So it makes sense that Jesus invites each and every one of us, like the man in the story, to give. And as near as I can tell, this giving follows a general pattern.
First we have giving up. I know, I know, the great American sports movie teaches us differently: every single one of them follows the same pattern: upstart team or individual gets trounced by dominant team or individual. Upstart trains, learns something about teamwork or grit, and challenges the champion. The game goes horribly for our heroes until the last minute – it’s gut check time – and they decide never to give up. With renewed strength and faith, the upstart wins in the last second. That’s the narrative we are steeped in here in the United States. Never give up.
And yet, that’s exactly what our faith calls us to do. Give up. So we ask ourselves: what does God desire us to give up? Most questions we put to God are hard. But not this one. God dreams for us to have as close a connection to God as God has to us. Therefore, we have to give up all that stands in the way of such intimate connection. There’s a special word for this stuff that stands in the way: “idol.” Whatever it is, each of us has something we tend to put ahead of God. We look to that something to give us life. But since the idol will never be able to give us what we need, our lives shrivel until they are brittle and paper thin, starved because the idol provides such poor nourishment.
So God urges us to give up such idols. But that’s just step one. Step two is giving in. It’s not enough to do away with the idols. If we don’t give in – if we don’t surrender ourselves into God’s loving and sustaining care – then the power vacuum will just attract another idol to take the place of the old one. So we give in to God. We surrender ourselves to God’s love and mercy.
This giving in is so hard. It continues going against the grain we’ve been taught. Now the war movie takes center stage. Of course, we’d never surrender! But again, we must ask ourselves: to whom are we surrendering. Not to the enemy. Not to the bad guy. We surrender to our own commander. We were in rebellion all along, and now we’re coming home.
So we give up, then we give in. And then we give ourselves over to trusting God with our whole beings. It’s not enough simply to surrender. Giving over means joining God’s side. You say, “You’re in charge, Lord, not me. Of the two of us, I’m not the better decision maker, so why don’t you take the lead. I’ll follow.”
Again, giving over is no cakewalk. Our socialization is still against us. We’ve seen too many movies, and now the Teacher-Pupil archetype comes to mind – the one where the hard luck case puts trust in a mentor who turns out not to be as perfect as the hard luck case thought, and drama ensues. We are the hard luck cases, but our mentor just so happens to be as perfect as we think. (More perfect even, since we can’t begin to perceive the wonder of God.)
So we give up, then we give in, then we give over. Now we’re ready to give back. We remember the TV shows and movies in which the teenager gets a first credit card and goes on a crazy buying spree. Yep, that’s us, if given half a chance, so maybe we shouldn’t be in charge. Since we trust God more than we trust ourselves, we conclude, it’s time for God to take charge of all our stuff. We can be stewards of the stuff, but it’s not ours anymore.
Each year, God gives us stewardship of most of this stuff and keeps a small percentage to be used for God’s mission here at St. Mark’s and elsewhere. We partner with God by pledging this small percentage towards God’s mission. That percentage might be 10% or a little less or a little more. Through prayer, we can discern what’s right for each of us in our circumstances.
This giving back transitions into the final act of giving: giving forward; that is, not only financing God’s mission but participating in it with our own gifts and passions. Think of disaster films in which everyone bands together to beat the odds. Giving forward means making decisions and making sacrifices with people other than ourselves in mind. Giving forward means propelling into God’s bright future those people who think they have no future.
Just as Jesus invites the man in today’s Gospel to give away all he has, Jesus invites us to give. With God’s help, we give up our idols. We give in to God and surrender our malfunctioning wills. We give over to God our self-determination and trust God’s guidance. We give back to God all that we have, knowing that our stuff is safer in God’s hands. And we give forward for God, partnering with God in the great mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. To give up, in, over, back, forward – to give – is a great act of faith. Thanks be to God, then, that God began this entire process by giving first: giving us God’s son, God’s grace, love, hope; giving us our own deep desire to give.
Sermon for Sunday, September 20, 2015 || Proper 20B || Mark 9:30-37
Every day of my fourth grade year, my class lined up at the end of recess to go back inside. The bell rang, and we raced to our spots in the line. But the race was in vain because no matter who arrived at the door first, we always lined up alphabetically by last name. By last name. What I wouldn’t have given to line up by first name. Then (Oh happy day!) I would have been at the very front of the line. No Aarons or Abigails in my class. No. Adam would have been the first name on the list. But those days were cruel. Every morning, I stood on tiptoes to see over the twenty-three heads in front of me, and only one boy – Shane Yellin – was worse off than I.
Then, on the day when all the mothers began insisting their fourth graders wear winter coats to school, something happened. Mrs. Ida Hughes, my math teacher, challenged us to line up in reverse alphabetical order. And for one cold, drizzly, glorious day, I stood at the front of the line and only one head obstructed my view of the playground doors.
Standing at the front of the line feels good and the benefits are numerous. Being in front means the concert tickets aren’t sold out. The first baseman hasn’t tired of signing autographs. The bucket of fried chicken at the church potluck retains its full complement of chicken legs. Certainly, perks abound for those in front. Go to any shopping center in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving and witness the millions of Americans attempting be first in line simply to purchase new TVs for “doorbuster” prices.
Of course, these benefits are all about me. I get the tickets and the autograph and the preferred piece of chicken. I get the deal on the television. I get all these things because I got in line before you. You are behind me and someone else is behind you and countless faceless others line up behind that someone else. So we stand in our line and stare at the backs of the heads in front of us. In this linear configuration, no one can converse. No one can relate. No one can do anything more than slowly shuffle forward, both surrounded and isolated at the same time.
This isolation is the danger Jesus envisions when he places a little child among his disciples. They’ve been arguing about which one of them is the greatest (in other words, which one of them should be first in line). The prevailing linear culture has thoroughly molded the disciples. They only understand relationships in terms of hierarchy based on class, gender, and age. But they’ve been hanging around Jesus long enough to know that Jesus is thoroughly countercultural. He talks with women. He eats with outcasts. He touches the unclean. And so the disciples lapse into embarrassed silence when Jesus asks them about the content of their argument. They know they’ve provided Jesus with what would now be called a “teachable moment.”
The disciples expect something countercultural and that’s exactly what Jesus gives them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To illustrate the revolutionary nature of this statement, Jesus brings a small child and places the child among the disciples – not before them or after them, but among them. In Jesus’ day, this child was the last of the last. The hierarchy of the society placed children just below farm animals because you could get a lot more out of a goat than a toddler, and the goat would probably live longer. Children had no rights or protections. They weren’t even considered people until they were old enough to work.
But Jesus ignores this cruel stratification when he says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Jesus commands his disciples and us to welcome those whom society deems lowest of all. With this welcome comes the opportunity to see the faces and learn the stories of those who until now were at the end of the line, too far removed from us to register on our radar. And as we hear the stories of the lowest and the last, we seek ways to serve them and serve with them.
But one of the greatest mistakes of our time has been the Western presumption that we know what’s best for the people we serve: “You might not have said you need a well in your village, but we’re going to come and build one anyway.” This imperialistic attitude only perpetuates the linear model, which our service should be attempting to supplant. However, with his command to welcome, Jesus doesn’t allow us to develop a “serve first and ask questions later” mentality. Welcoming provides the framework through which service leads to the building up of relationships.
With his emphasis on relationships, Jesus changes the existing linear model into a circular one. In the line, you can’t welcome anyone because all you see are the backs of heads. You can’t serve anyone because the implied hierarchy of the line makes isolation the norm. You can only count the number of people ahead of you and nurse your own indignation over your rotten place in line. But in the circle, there is no first and no last. We can grasp hands in welcome precisely because we will be unable to quantify our position in the continuous round. And relationships have a chance to flourish because we look not at backs but at each other’s faces.
This circular model of welcome and service stands in laughable contrast to the current situation in this country. Too many incidents to count show that the tired old scourge of racism is alive and well. The drive to produce leads to longer hours, more work, and more money, but assuredly less happiness, less camaraderie. The gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider. Each of these examples depends on the linear model continuing to thrive. And it is. So here we sit with our Lord challenging us to do something, which the loudest voices on the other side of those doors claim is utter nonsense.
To be first you must be last of all and servant of all, he says. Let go of linear relationships based on power and ambition and embrace circular relationships based on welcome and service. If you are standing near the front of the line now, start walking to the back. Grab the hand of the last person in line and form the circle. Welcome the least among us. Listen to their needs, their desires, their dreams. Form new relationships. Partner with them in service because we are only as strong as our weakest members. Jesus invites us over and over again to accomplish these things. And Jesus never issues an invitation without simultaneously offering the gifts needed to embrace it.
So to every fourth grader lining up after recess and to every businessperson lining up at Starbucks and to everyone whose ambition blinds him or her to those standing on tiptoes in the back: Give up your place in line.
Sermon for Sunday, September 13, 2015 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38
This week has been a particularly tough one for our twins, Charlie and Amelia. At thirteen and a half months, we think they are cutting their molars, so their extreme fussiness is understandable. On Tuesday, I walked in the door of the kitchen, and before I had taken three steps, Charlie was toddling up to me as fast as his little legs and precarious balance would allow. He ran into me and buried his head between my knees, which is his way of saying, “Pick me up, Daddy.” I hefted him into my arms. He put his arms around my neck and his head on my shoulder. And for the next twenty minutes, I just walked around, holding him and speaking softly into his ear. It was a special moment, a physical heart to heart.
The next morning, I was preparing to write this sermon and reading Jesus’ question over and over again: “Who do you say that I am?” And this question about identity got me thinking about Charlie, about how he would answer the question if it were asked about me. Who does Charlie say that I am? I think Charlie’s answer and Peter’s answer share a lot in common.
You see, Charlie’s first word was “Dada.” Early on he used it for everything, so it wasn’t really my name, it was just what he said. Then, as the months progressed, Charlie’s collection of sounds increased, “Dada” became “Daddy,” and, for the most part, focused in on my personage. He says “Daddy” in the sweetest, high-pitched singsong that melts my heart like butter. And yet, I wonder what his toddler’s mind imagines when he identifies me.
Judging by the way he wanted to be held on Tuesday, the way he clung to me so fiercely, the way he calmed down immediately when he was safe in my arms, I think I have a lot to live up to. In his eyes, my identity must be larger-than-life. I am, quite literally, the largest person he sees regularly. And I’m not around as much as Mommy, so there’s an air of mystery to my presence, a rock star quality. I’m a super hero. I just don’t have any super powers. I can remember the exact, illusion-bursting moment in my own adolescence when I realized my parents were not the infallible super heroes I always took them for. And I wonder when Charlie and Amelia will figure that out about me.
Identity is a tricky, slippery thing. Our identities are multi-faceted. They are synthesized and refined and redefined throughout our lifetimes as we gain new skills and interests, as we adapt to new circumstances and relationships, as we deal with success and failure. For example, for nineteen years (about 60 percent of my life) “student” was the most important facet of my identity, but no longer is. The importance of one facet of identity might rise or fall in direct proportion to another. My identity as “sports fan” has fallen significantly with the rise of my identity as “father.” Identity is also a negotiation between what we think about ourselves and others’ expectations of us. If someone asks me, “Are you a golfer,” I always respond the same way. “I own golf clubs.” I don’t want that person to generate an undue expectation of me, as someone with a handicap less than the maximum.
The reality (or unreality) of expectation is where Charlie’s and Peter’s answer to the question converge. Who do you say that I am? You are the Daddy: bottle giver, tantrum calmer, crib rescuer, super hero! You are the Messiah. And while Peter doesn’t expand on this identity, his reaction to Jesus’ explanation of it shows us what Peter’s expectation is. You are the Messiah: Israel’s deliverer, Rome’s exterminator, mighty warrior, sure victor. It’s no wonder Peter takes Jesus aside to clarify things. Jesus is obviously mistaken. Had he heard Peter right? Peter had said “messiah,” not “sacrificial lamb,” not “victim.”
Bur Jesus had heard Peter. Jesus could sense the underlying expectation of such a baggage-laden identity as “messiah.” That’s why he starts speaking openly for the first time in the entire Gospel. He needs to clarify things. He needs to make sure his disciples know just what he thinks the identity of “messiah” means. If he had wanted to live into the militaristic expectation of “messiah,” he probably wouldn’t have recruited fisherman. “Look around,” he seems to say to his disciples. “I don’t have an army. I have you guys. I haven’t been fighting. I’ve been healing.”
We follow Jesus precisely because his expectation of “messiah” runs counter to Peter’s. We follow Jesus because he chose not to fight. We follow Jesus because he gloried not in destruction, but in resurrection, in new life, in deep relationship that lasts beyond death. That’s Jesus identity as “messiah.” He suffered not because suffering is good, but because suffering was the natural outgrowth of his taking on the isolating, dominating, death-dealing machinery of this world. We follow Jesus because we believe he won that fight by not fighting back, by not fighting fire with fire, but by clogging the machine with the love, grace, and peace of God.
And that brings us to our own identity as followers. “If any want to become my followers,” says Jesus, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It’s quite possible this isn’t what we signed up for. It’s quite possible we expected more comforting words. Perhaps we expected Jesus to say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Perhaps we expected Jesus to say, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Perhaps we expected Jesus to say, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Well, the good news is this: Jesus does say all those things. It is these promises of rest and relationship and abundant life that make us able to accept his strident expectation of identifying as his followers. Denying ourselves means letting go of our stranglehold on our own lives – our self-determination, our bootstraps mentality – in order to allow Christ to live in us. And when Christ lives in us, we find we can resist the machinery of this world. We take up the cross because from the cross Jesus beckoned everything that’s wrong with this world to come die with him. When we come to the cross, we come face to face with all the manifestations of evil, snarling in its death throes. It’s a scary place, teeming with poverty, racism, disease, violence. But this is the place our followers’ footsteps lead us because this is the place we partner with Christ to bring resurrection and new life.
Someday, Charlie is going to realize I’m not the super hero he thought I was. That expectation will crack, and our relationship will change. Some days, we follow Christ more closely than other days. Some days, the identity of follower takes us to dark places, despite our expectations. But that identity takes us there because part of being a follower is being a light-bearer to such darkness. The light we bear is the light of Christ, our healer-messiah. And our identity as followers is safe in his hands because no amount of evil or darkness will ever extinguish his light.
Sermon for Sunday, September 6, 2015 || Proper 18B || Mark 7:24-37
You might be wondering if I accidentally read two weeks worth of Gospel lessons just now. The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman ended satisfactorily, and at that point I could have said, “The Gospel of the Lord.” But the appointed lesson for today barrels forward into the next story, as well, and we read about Jesus healing a man who cannot hear and can hardly speak. We could focus on either half of this Gospel reading: there surely is enough in each to fill out a sermon. But today, I’m going to break a rule of preaching and bite off more verses than I normally do because I think the Gospel writer Mark places these two stories side-by-side for a reason. And this reason centers on the strangest word in the passage, a word that itself needs to be translated because Mark chose to preserve Jesus’ original language when he wrote it down. That word is “Ephphatha”: Be opened. Openness is the key to these two encounters. And openness is one of the keys to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
But before we get to openness proper, we need to address the historic challenge of the first encounter in our passage. For hundreds and hundreds of years, faithful readers of scripture have had more trouble with the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman than almost any other story in the Gospel. The main issue boils down to this: Jesus seems to change his mind after the woman’s response to his rather rude statement about dogs eating the children’s food. If Jesus is who he says he is, the argument goes, then how could he possibly be induced to change his mind? Wouldn’t that be tantamount to saying he’s wrong about something?
You can see why people of all stripes – scholars, clergy, laypersons – have trouble with this story. It has always made me a little spiritually itchy, as well, to be honest. And because of this trouble, people throughout history have used some (shall we say) flexible interpretive gymnastics to bend the encounter until it fits into their conception of who Jesus is. “Jesus was going heal the little girl all along,” says the most common acrobatic interpretation. “He was just testing her mother.” Another goes: “Jesus is simply moved by her plight. That’s why he gives in to her request.”
While these might be fine interpretations of the passage, they miss the simplest explanation entirely because they are not open to the possibility that Jesus might just be wrong in this case. But let’s for a moment step out of this history of interpretive gymnastics and imagine such a possibility. Let’s see if there is some good news in a story about Jesus being wrong and changing his mind.
The first thing to notice is the status of the other person in the encounter. Right away, Mark gives us three reasons why this woman would normally be dismissed in Jesus’ day and age (and perhaps ours, as well). She’s a woman. She’s a foreigner. And she has a child with some challenges. That’s three strikes, three excuses others would use to marginalize her. And this is the person who teaches Jesus something.
She comes to Jesus and implores him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He responds with what sounds like a stock retort of the day, complete with ethnic slur (and let me assure you, “dog” is the mildest translation of the word). But the woman takes the slur and turns it around, in effect saying: “Listen to me. Take me seriously. I might not have a seat at the table but I deserve to be fed.”
And then something astounding happens. I imagine Jesus standing there, dazed for a minute, then his features softening as he realizes how closed off he is being, how stuck in a cultural norm, how unlike his usual self who is always pushing boundaries and rubbing shoulders with outsiders. The woman’s response jars him out this unusual narrowness. “Good answer,” he says – not just because it gets her what she wants but because it also helps Jesus reassert his normal posture of openness.
The beauty of living a life of openness is illustrated in the next encounter. People bring to Jesus a man who cannot hear and can hardly talk. Jesus looks him over, touches him, and says, “Ephphatha”: Be opened. Immediately, the man is able to hear and speak. Jesus could have said any number of things to heal this man. Or he didn’t have to say anything at all. And yet the word he chooses is a word of openness. That’s what’s on Jesus’ mind when he heals the man – not just the mechanical action of opening his ears and releasing his tongue, but the greater reality that open ears convey, the deeper meaning of Ephphatha.
Be open. Do not let your preconceptions deafen you to new ideas. In our world today, we can pick and choose the voices who influence us, and human nature pushes us towards voices we already agree with. The arguments we expose ourselves to in such a partisan climate often pit the best of one side against the worst of the other, or else have no basis in reality in the first place. The loudest voices in the media are always the most extreme. And yet underneath that layer of bluster, there are other, quieter, smarter men and women who disagree with each other and take the time to appreciate and understand one another’s views. They may not change their minds like Jesus does in the story, but the openness exists, nonetheless.
Be open. Do not let innate tribalism keep you from getting to know people unlike yourself. We all fall into this trap. We like people who remind us of ourselves. This isn’t a bad thing at all. But it’s also not the only thing. Rubbing shoulders with people unlike us – in whatever way the differences present – has a way of broadening us, giving us greater awareness, growing in us more empathy, more solidarity. It’s no wonder that the person who reminds Jesus of his usual openness is so unlike him.
Be open. Pray for the trust that leads to openness. Open your hands to receive. Then open your hands again to give. Walk with your arms outstretched, open to embrace the call God places in your heart. Ask God to open your heart to welcome whoever walks across your threshold, to listen to experience that differ from your own, to learn what others have to teach.
I truly believe Jesus learned something that day from the Syrophoenician woman, or perhaps remembered something he had forgotten. She teaches him to embrace his openness and then returns home to a demon-free daughter. Jesus returns home, too, and meets a man who is physically closed off. Be opened are his words of healing to that man, who then cannot contain his raucous proclamation. And just as Jesus lived a life of openness to God and to those people whom most never bothered to see, Jesus gives us the same invitation today. Ephphatha. Be open.