Curses and Blessings

Sermon for Sunday, February 17, 2019 || Epiphany 6C || Luke 6:17-26

Imagine with me an entry from the journal of Caleb of Jerusalem, a fictional bystander in today’s Gospel story.

The pen shakes in my hand as I begin to write. The hairs on the back of my neck are still standing up. My heart is still pounding in my chest. Today I was healed. I was healed and I didn’t even know I was sick.

This is what happened. I was returning to Jerusalem from a business trip in Sepphoris. I recently purchased a new quarry in that region, and I needed to oversee operations for a few days. My business is booming even though I only have one customer—the Romans procure my stone like the land might run out it tomorrow.

I was returning to Jerusalem from Sepphoris when my caravan got caught up in a huge crowd of people. I lashed out with my whip trying to clear a path, but to no avail. So I stopped fighting the current of people and turned my mount eastward with the flow. The crowd was making for a smaller group of people picking their way down the mountainside. My curiosity whetted, I spurred my mount toward them. One man seemed to be getting the most attention as the mass of people pressed in. He moved through the crowd touching them one by one.

Continue reading “Curses and Blessings”

Mistaken Identity

Sermon for Sunday, September 13, 2015 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38

mistakenidentityThis 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.

The Question at the Top of Page 303

The following post appeared Sunday, September 19th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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As the church in which I am blessed to serve God prepares for a new adult Christian formation program, I have found myself thinking about baptism quite a bit lately. And I have also found myself jotting down notes about several pieces of the baptismal services. A few of these notes, I share with you below.

If you were baptized in an Episcopal Church after 1979, either you or your parents and godparents answered a series of six questions. The last of which reads, “Do you promise to follow and obey [Jesus Christ] as your Lord?” Whether or not you were baptized under this particular liturgy, this is the fundamental question at the heart of the Christian faith. The answer, “I do,” is simply two little words, but these two words really aren’t the answer at all. The true answer to this question is the manner in which we choose to lead our lives in the wake of such a powerful promise. Let’s take a moment to break down this question to see what we are really getting ourselves into.

Do you promise…
Girls link pinkies. Guys spit on their hands and shake. Car dealers sell extended warranties. Banks make you sign the mortgage paperwork a dozen times. Each of these signals a promise: the secret is safe, the ex-girlfriend is off-limits, the car will be repaired free of charge, and the loan will be repaid. The act of making the promise itself means little compared to the continuous act of fulfilling the promise. Ex-friendships, fine print wielding salesmen, and foreclosures point to the fact that many promises do not last.

But there happens to be a significant difference between these promises and the one we make at baptism. In most promises, the other entity entering the trust is another human being—another fallible, flawed human being. When we promise to follow and obey Jesus Christ as our Lord, we make our promise to God. And God never breaks trust with us. So our promise to God follows God’s eternal promise to us to be faithful always, to be with us always, just to be…always.

Thus, our fulfillment of the promise always happens in response to God’s steadfastness. When we break the promise, it does not cease to hold sway because God continues to fulfill it. And God invites us to renew the promise again and again and again.

…to follow…
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the first words that Jesus says to Peter and Andrew, his prospective disciples, are “Follow me” (Matt. 4:18). In the Gospel according to John, the last words that Jesus says to Peter are (you guessed it) “Follow me” (John 21:22). Therefore, considering how the compilers of the New Testament chose to lay out the Gospel, the first and last words out of Jesus’ mouth are “Follow me.” What does it mean to follow Jesus? Like the main promise we are discussing, this question takes a lifetime to answer; but here are a few quick observations.

To follow means to come after or travel behind. You do this most often when you don’t know the way to, say, the movie theater, and the friends in the car ahead of you lead you there. Our Christian faith tells us that Jesus walks with us, leading us on right paths through our lives. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In Greek, the “way” is literally the “road” on which we walk down. So not only is Jesus the guide for our feet; he paved the road on which our feet tread. The Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus the “pioneer” of our faith: he is the trailblazer. He invites us to walk the difficult path he first walked, a path full of both pain and joy (Hebrew 12:2).

To follow also means to learn by example. To quote a learned man at my parish, we are “apprentices” of Jesus Christ. During the Renaissance, master painters directed their students to copy their works of art in order to learn the craft. More often than not, these apprentice copies couldn’t compare to the master’s, but they still learned how to apply paint to canvas, and they learned well. Likewise, we will never be able to reach the full example of Jesus Christ, but this shouldn’t stop us from following him just the same.

…and obey…
Obedience is a tricky thing because it involves something that many folks aren’t all that good at: listening. To obey means to listen carefully and then to act. Obedience to God begins with our intentional effort to discern God’s will in our lives and continues with our reliance on God to live out that will. The good news is that when we choose to obey God, God has already given us the gifts we need to accomplish that will. (Of course, this doesn’t mean the act of obeying will be easy.)

When Jesus commands the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and walk, the man gets up immediately (John 5:8-9). Jesus speaks no word of healing at all. Rather, the act of healing is subsumed in the command. Jesus gives the man the gift of healing in order that the man can obey his command. Likewise, we discover new gifts when we listen for and obey God’s will in our lives.

[Jesus Christ] as your Lord…
In our Christian parlance, we call Jesus many things: friend, brother, teacher, savior. But in this question, we call Jesus “Lord.” We promise to follow Jesus as our “Lord.” How does “Lord” differ from other titles for Jesus? Leaving aside the masculine nature of the title, a lord is someone in a position of authority and respect. In the Gospel, the Greek word for “lord” (kyrie) can also be translated as “sir.” In the military, a person you call “sir” is someone who has the authority to command you to do something.

Likewise, when we promise to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord, we acknowledge that Jesus has the authority to direct our lives. This authority comes from the fact that God is the author of each of us. God pens each day in the books of our lives; sometimes we are the protagonists and sometimes we are antagonists of our own stories. When we follow Jesus as our author, as our Lord, we consciously take on the protagonist role. To change the metaphor, we resonate with God’s directing creativity in our lives. We are in tune with God.

Of course, these few notes simply scratch the surface of this immense question. I wonder how we each live out this promise in our everyday lives? I wonder how the promises we make with other people reflect the promises we make to God?  I wonder how readily we allow God to fulfill God’s promises, which, in the end, allow us to fulfill ours?