Here and Now

Sermon for Sunday, December 9, 2018 || Advent 2C || Luke 3:1-6

God calls each one of us into relationship. God calls us because God love us. And God calls us to love. In love God calls us to take part in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. In love God calls us to serve others, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, and to speak the good news of Jesus Christ. God calls us. God calls you and me.

In today’s Gospel lesson, God calls John, a person who lives out in the wilderness, a person whose birth bewildered many, a person who willed others to remember the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We call him John the Baptist because he prepared the way of the Lord by ritually washing people in the River Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Continue reading “Here and Now”

Advent with the Beginning of Luke

Announcing “Advent with the Beginning of Luke,” a new daily devotional book for your Advent observance. Entries from December 1st through Christmas follow the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke – from the birth announcements of John and Jesus to the songs of Mary and Zechariah to the birth of Jesus, and culminating with the presentation in the temple. This Advent study will make a meaningful addition to your personal or group preparation for the feast of the Incarnation. Continue reading “Advent with the Beginning of Luke”

Right and Right

Sermon for Sunday, July 12, 2015 || Proper 10B || Mark 6:14-29

rightandrightI’ve never liked horror movies. I don’t understand the appeal of being scared out of my wits by things that go bump in the night or by gory chainsaw-driven bloodbaths. I don’t want to be afraid or disgusted, so why would I ever pay eleven dollars to subject myself to those emotions at the movie theater? I know that a lot of people out there enjoy horror movies, but if you’re anything like me in this regard, then the story I just finished reading possibly stirred in you the same feelings of fear and disgust that A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the Thirteenth might. The plot is truly dreadful: Herod throws a party to celebrate his birthday, but in the end, it is John the Baptizer’s death that is mourned. But even in the midst of these discomfiting emotions, I think we can still find something of value in this story.

To start, we must remember that Herod is a bad guy in the Gospel, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this flashback doesn’t end well. But we might be surprised that the story begins at least in shouting distance of the realm of good. Herod arrests John, it seems, for John’s own safety. We might call it “protective custody.” After all, Herod’s wife, Herodias, has a grudge against John and wants him dead. But Herod is intrigued by John. He thinks John has guts, and while what John says often bewilders Herod, the petty king likes having the prophet around.

Such is the status quo until Herod makes an ill-advised promise to his daughter (whose name is also Herodias, to make matters more confusing). “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom,” Herod proclaims. The girl conspires with her mother and then asks for something really grisly: the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. What happens next is what I find especially interesting.

“The king was deeply grieved,” Mark narrates, “yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests he did not want to refuse her.”

This is the moment of decision for Herod. I can hear in Herod’s mind, the petty king telling himself: “I have no choice. I don’t want John to die, but I gave my word!” However, Herod does have a choice. He can keep his promise or break it. Breaking a promise seems to me like a small price to pay to save a life, but Herod disagrees. He chooses to keep his word, despite the fact it means John will die. (Just so you know, for the sake of argument, I’m ignoring right now the fact that the promise Herod made was stupid and uninformed.)

Let’s dwell here for a few minutes and put ourselves in Herod’s shoes. Herod has a choice to make, and both options uphold a “good” of one type or another. Both can be defended as “right.” On the one hand, there is the good of keeping a promise. On the other, there is the good of saving someone’s life.

Now choosing between right and wrong is fairly easy in most cases. If you throw your baseball through the living room window just to see what breaking glass sounds like and then lie about it to your father, you’ve made two wrong choices. In general, if you have to keep your actions secret, you’ve done the wrong thing. So choosing between right and wrong is fairly easy. But choosing between right and right is much harder.

Here’s an example I used at a forum on this topic earlier this year. It’s 3 a.m. You’re on your way home from the airport, bone tired from a day of travel. You pull to a stop at a red light. No one’s coming. Do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. Here we have two goods in conflict, and I hope you’ll agree the good of respecting the law overrides the good of expediency.

Let’s add a wrinkle. It’s 3 a.m. Your wife’s contractions are only a few minutes apart. You hear her groaning and panting in the back seat. The baby is coming any minute now! You pull to a stop at a red light. No one’s coming. Now do you run the light? The good of respecting the law is in conflict with the good of protecting the safety of your family.

Choosing between right and right has a way of helping us clarify our values. Our values define us and guide us on the path of our moral lives. Each of us has a particular hierarchy of values instilled in us by our families and society at large, and our own life experience molds those values into certain shapes. Being followers of Jesus adds another dimension, as we seek to conform our values to the ones he displays in the Gospel. We’ll get to some of those in a minute, but first, we need to get back to Herod.

Herod has two goods in conflict: keeping a promise and saving a life. The narrator clues us in on Herod’s hierarchy of values: “Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests” he acquiesces to his daughter’s grisly appeal. For Herod, protecting John’s life ranks lower in his list of values than both upholding a promise and saving face. In the end, Herod cares much more about his own image than whether John lives or dies.

But remember, Herod is the bad guy. Let’s substitute Jesus in for Herod and see what happens to our hierarchy of values. While Herod was supremely concerned with his own image and standing, Jesus routinely ignored his image because rubbing shoulders with the least and the lost was more important to him. While Herod made outrageous oaths, Jesus said simply, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ ” And while Herod was willing to let John die to save face, Jesus himself was willing to die to save us.

We can start to see Jesus’ hierarchy of values unfold here: Humble service over popular image. Simple honesty over dramatic protestations. Self-sacrifice over self-aggrandizement.

If we are paying attention, even just a little bit, during our day to day lives, we’ll start to notice how often we make choices between right and right. Do you read the whole book for class or do you take a break to keep from burning out? Do you work longer hours to put more money away for your kid’s college or do you make sure to see all your daughter’s dance recitals? Do you keep a friendship intact by not speaking up or do you risk the friendship by letting your friend know you’re concerned about his alcohol consumption?

If all our decisions were between what’s right and wrong, life would be so much easier. But that’s not the way it works. The path of our moral lives stretches before us. Our values are guideposts along the path. And Jesus is walking that path with us, pointing out which values he believes are most important. This sermon’s almost over, so I’m not going to tell you which values those are. Instead, I invite you to spend some time this summer reading the Gospel. Pick Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – or read all four. They won’t take you too long. As you read the stories about Jesus, write down what he values. And ask yourself how his values fit into your hierarchy. What is his highest good? What is Jesus prompting you to shift around?

The Arrow

Sermon for Sunday, December 14, 2014 || Advent 3B || John 1:6-8, 19-28

thearrowJust before his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory that corrected a long held belief about our planet’s place in the heavens. Initial curiosity by the establishment, including some power brokers of the Church, unfortunately succumbed to the prevailing wisdom of the day that the sun revolved around the earth and not the other way around. When Galileo picked up Copernicus’s theories a few decades later (and we must mention with less diplomatic tact than Copernicus had shown), Galileo was convicted of heresy, compelled to recant, and lived the rest of his life under house arrest. The heads of the Church could not handle this new information that implied we humans weren’t quite as special as they thought. Despite the definitive nature of Galileo’s proofs and despite further corroboration by other reputable scientists, the establishment for many years shut its collective eyes, covered its collective ears, and said, “We’re not listening!”

Humans have always fallen victim to the particular notion that we each exist at the center of the universe. Just examine some common occurrences if you need evidence. When a young man of a certain disposition goes courting, an observer might say, “What does he think he is, God’s gift?” When doctors are accused of “playing God,” it’s often because their own egos have driven them to risky procedures. When the cult of celebrity that grips this country hails the triumphant return of a professional basketball player as the second coming or heeds the flawed advice of a low-wattage movie star concerning childhood vaccinations, then we’re all left to wonder why we don’t have such personal clout. And to top it off, how many of us have been told, when trying to insert ourselves into a friend’s troubles, “This isn’t about you!”

Thinking we are (or we should be) the center of the universe is just part of the human condition, but it’s a part of the human condition in continual need of rehabilitation. And in today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist gives us a lesson. Recall that one of my favorite things about the Gospel is the fact that people rarely answer questions the way you expect them to. The priests and Levites come to John when he is baptizing in the Jordan and ask him a simple question: “Who are you?” Note how John could have answered as expected: “I’m John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, from down yonder a bit. Favorite pastime: baptizing with water. Likes include locusts and wild honey…”

But that’s not what John says. “Who are you?” they ask. And what does John do? He tells them who he is not. “I’m not the Messiah.” His rejection of messiah-hood throws his questioners for a loop and they start grasping at straws: “Are you Elijah? A prophet? Tell us who you are!” If a cult of celebrity exists today, then a similar one, albeit less fed by the fawning media, existed in John’s day. False messiahs cropped up all the time, attracted followers, and then lost them just as quickly when they couldn’t deliver the goods. That’s why, at the beginning of the Gospel, the establishment doesn’t much worry about Jesus. They assume he’s going to fade into obscurity like everyone else. Indeed, John’s denial of messiah-hood was much more newsworthy than claiming it would have been.

With John refusing the identities that the priests and Levites try to pin on him, they decide to ask him point blank: “What do you say about yourself?” They need an answer to bring to their superiors, but John never gives them satisfaction. Even when asked specifically about himself, John doesn’t take the bait. He deflects the attention from himself and shines it on the one who is to come, saying: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ”

John has no delusions of grandeur. He knows his place in the universe. He knows he is not the Messiah. And he also knows his relationship to the Messiah: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John embraces an identity based in Jesus’ messiah-hood. John is the herald, the special voice that captures people’s attention and turns their eyes to the coming king. “What do you say about yourself?” they ask. And John responds: “My identity is based on the identity of the true Messiah. I am the voice, the herald, the witness. I am the arrow that always points to the one who is coming after me.”

John continues to display this identity throughout his short time in the Gospel. When his disciples see Jesus the next day, John the Arrow points and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” He risks losing his own followers because he knows it is not his place to have followers. Later he repeats that he is not the Messiah, calling himself instead the “friend of the bridegroom.” John has now heard Jesus’ voice, so John proclaims: “My joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

How in touch with his sense of self must John have been fully to embrace his identity as the arrow pointing to Jesus. How many of us would have felt jealous when our turn in the spotlight was over? How many of us would have tried to extend our fifteen minutes of fame? But not John. John knows he has no light of his own. He is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.

And so are we. The lesson we learn from John the Baptist today teaches us to delve within and discover our own true identities, the places in this universe where only you and I were made to fit. None of us was made to be the center of the universe, even if the human condition tries to trick us into believing that to be true. Our true identities are gifts from God; therefore, when you fully embrace your identity, when you try it on and it fits better than your favorite pair of jeans, then you will find yourself spontaneously pointing to the true center of the universe, the true light of the world.

Like John, we are arrows pointing to God. I invite you this week to list out all the different facets of your identity and pray about how each one connects back to the One who makes you who you are. Here’s a snippet of mine to get you started: I am a husband and a father. The love for my family that fuels these pieces of my identity comes directly from the love of God. I am a priest and a pastor. My service to God and others springs from the call Christ places on my heart. I am a singer and writer. My inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit’s creativity living within me.

As I continue to list out facets of my identity, I see this pattern continue: I am who I am because of God’s presence in my life. Claiming and proclaiming that presence makes me an arrow like John the Baptist. And not just me: each of us is an arrow pointing to God. Each of us is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.

Copernicus and Galileo knew the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. But they had no idea how far away from it we actually are in space. Recent modeling shows our own solar system is tucked in a corner of the Milky Way galaxy and the Milky Way galaxy is tucked in a corner of a supercluster of galaxies known as Laniakea, and Laniakea is just one piece of a web of superclusters that make up the known universe. We might not be at the center of this universe, but the Creator of it is at the center of ours.

Art: screenshot from this incredible Youtube video.

Turn Around

(Sermon for Sunday, December 8, 2013 || Advent 2A || Matthew 3:1-12)

InconceivableAbout ten minutes into The Princess Bride (one of my favorite movies), we meet Vizzini, Fezzek, and Inigo, who kidnap Princess Buttercup and set sail across the sea to another country. Once there, the giant Fezzek scales the imposing Cliffs of Insanity with the other three strapped to him. All the while, the Man in Black has been chasing them, but Vizzini, the leader of the thieves, dismisses their pursuer, saying it would be “inconceivable” that anyone would have known they kidnapped the princess in the first place. And yet the Man in Black starts climbing the cliffs after them. “Inconceivable” says Vizzini again. So Vizzini cuts the rope, and the Man in Black hangs onto the rocks. “He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” Vizzini says a final time. Then the Spanish blademaster Inigo looks at Vizzini and says one of the more quotable lines in a film full of quotable lines: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Well, friends, Inigo’s gentle rebuff finds a second target in a certain word that John the Baptist says three times in our Gospel reading for today. We also say this word every single week during our worship services. The word is “repent,” and I can hear Inigo saying to us what he says to Vizzini: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

See if this popular misunderstanding of repentance resonates with you. You’re walking toward Fenway Park for a game or you’re about to board the T at Government Center and you see a man standing before you wearing a sign. The sign is decoupaged with dire warnings about the end times, the largest of which says in big black letters on an orange background: “Repent! The end is near.” The man would be easier to dismiss if he were shouting at the top of his lungs on the street corner, because then he would be reduced to a silly caricature of himself. But this man’s solid, disconcerting silence makes you take him more seriously. I see him often when I’m in the city, and every time I do, I have to remind myself that I disagree with his sign’s version of repentance.

You see, the misunderstanding the sign promotes is that repentance is only relevant at the end, whichever end you might be thinking of – the end of life or the end of time. This misunderstanding reduces the act of repentance to a last minute bargain with God – a “Get out of jail free” card, if you manage to time your repentance at just the right moment. This misunderstanding is like repentance at gunpoint; it’s a “repent or else” threat that reduces the meaning of true repentance nearly to invisibility. Indeed, I would wager that when you hear the word “repent,” you have a negative visceral reaction because this misunderstanding runs rampant in popular culture and in certain very loud expressions of Christianity.

So let’s see if we can remove some of the negative reaction, because true repentance energizes our walks with God in ways few other spiritual concepts can. True repentance is concerned less about the future and more about the present. The word “repent” literally means “to turn around.” A recent translation of the Bible adds a layer of interpretation every time “repent” appears in the Gospel. “Change your hearts and lives” it reads instead. Change your hearts and lives. This is a good rendition of the original Greek because true repentance is both an active, kinetic force and a spiritual orientation.

When we repent, we reorient our lives in God’s direction. We bend toward God as a tree bends towards the sun, knowing that God is the source of our sustenance. Repentance begins with our acknowledgement that we live most of our lives facing the wrong direction: we ignore the need around us and we catch God’s glory only out of the corner of our eyes. Repentance helps us face head-on the need God yearns for us to notice. Repentance gives us the opportunity to rejoice in God’s glory, distraction free. When we participate in God’s work of changing our hearts and lives to resonate more fully with God’s movement, we discover the true meaning of repentance. True repentance is about turning to face God fully – with every facet of our lives – and to accept the truth that we can hide nothing from God, no matter how hard we try. When we repent, when we turn to face God fully, we discover new faculties for seeing and responding to God’s call in our lives, Christ’s presence in the lives of others, and the Holy Spirit’s surprising movement throughout all of creation.

Sure sounds like a different understanding of repentance than we’re used to, doesn’t it? Speaking of things we’re used to, let’s turn to the place in our worship in which we repent every week, and see if we can inject it with our better definition. You know that part I’m talking about? That’s right, the Confession of Sin:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Repentance is right there at the center of the confession. We begin by stating how we have separated ourselves from God. Then we repent. And then we ask for the fruits of repentance: forgiveness, delight in God’s movement, and a closer walk in God’s ways. Notice how our better definition energizes our confession.

“We are truly sorry and we humbly turn to you, we humbly seek to change our hearts and lives.” When we turn to face God fully, we find the mercy and forgiveness that we usually catch only out of the corner of our eyes. When we turn to face God, we find God’s delight in us reflecting on us fully, granting us the ability to delight in God. When we turn, we find the life-affirming paths that lead us to walk in God’s ways. This is what our repentance accomplishes here and now. The future ramifications for our souls that the sign-wielding man touts are byproducts of how our repentance leads us to closer relationships with God in the present.

So why are we talking about repentance during the season of Advent? Because Advent is a time for noticing. Advent is a time for changing our hearts and lives so they resonate more fully with the promises of God. Advent is a time for turning around and seeing the glory of God here now and the glory that is coming. This glory was easy to miss on that night in Bethlehem, which we will celebrate in a few weeks. No one expected the messiah to come in the manner Jesus did. No one, that is, except for those who noticed, for those who turned to see the promise of God fulfilled: shepherds who looked up at the right time to catch the angels’ song, magi who saw a star and knew to follow it, and a loving couple who changed their hearts and lives to make room for the Christ child to enter their midst.

Antagonists

(Sermon for Sunday, July 15, 2012 || Proper 10B || Mark 6:14-29)

Today’s Gospel reading gives us an entire story about one of the antagonists of the Gospel. Antagonist. This is a tricky word because often in current culture “antagonist” is simply synonymous with villain, enemy, or bad guy. Famous antagonists – a Jeopardy category, perhaps? Darth Vader. Javert. Lex Luthor. Vader wears black, breathes heavily, and uses the “Dark Side” of the Force – definitely a villain. Javert hunts for a man whose crime doesn’t warrant such obsessive and destructive investigation – a perfect enemy for Jean Valjean. And in the first Superman movie, Lex Luthor attempts to destroy California in order to raise his land’s property value – total bad guy.

Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor.

But dismissing these fellows as mere villains ignores their roles as the antagonists of their respective stories. A good antagonist doesn’t simply serve as the proverbial immovable object against which the hero’s unstoppable force must contend. A well-drawn antagonist helps reveal the good things about the protagonist. Often, facets of the main character remain in shadow until a skeptical or adversarial or malevolent character brings them to the light. Lex Luthor’s greed stands in contrast with Superman’s selflessness and so on and so forth.

The antagonist in our story today falls into the same Jeopardy category as Vader, Javert, and Lex Luthor. He is none other than King Herod, to whom Mark dedicates a precious fifteen verses of his short account of the Gospel. If you thought today’s reading felt a bit weird and out of place, then you’re not alone. The Gospel writer Matthew greatly abridges the tale, and Luke and John give the story a miss entirely. But Mark, who usually barrels his narrative ahead at a breakneck speed, oddly stops for a massive chunk of Chapter 6 and treats us to a banquet with one of the bad guys. So, my question is, “Why?”

Well, I think that Mark is a good storyteller, and good storytellers understand what antagonists are for. If antagonists exist to shed light on the good things about the protagonist, then we can ask ourselves, “What does Herod teach us about Jesus?” The easy answer is without Jesus, innocent people get beheaded at dinner. But I think we can go a little deeper than that. Jesus’ absence in this passage is truly conspicuous. Indeed, if the Gospel of Mark were cut up into a season-long television series, the actor playing Jesus would get this episode off. But still, I’m pretty excited because for one week, we get to look at the story from the other side. We get to see the actions of the bad guy and contrast them with the actions of the good guy. And boy, do we have some contrasts to make.

What Mark gives us is really a flashback to an earlier event. Herod thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead, which is bad news for our bad guy because Herod wound up signing John’s death sentence in the first place. Mark tells the tale of why Herod found himself in such a predicament.

The story begins at dinner. And at dinner is where we make our first contrast between the good guy and the bad. This isn’t just any dinner, either. This is Herod’s birthday dinner, and when you’re a puppet king of the Roman Empire – a lackey, really – you don’t have much power beyond spending your citizens hard-earned tax dollars on extravagant banquets for you and your friends. Mark describes these friends in detail: Herod’s guests are “his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee.” Not a bad turnout for the red carpet. You can see them in your mind’s eye, right? There they are reclining at table and congratulating each other for being part of such an impressive coterie.

Of course, if Jesus had been hosting such a banquet, whom would he have invited? That’s right: the outcasts, the sinners, the tax collectors – those people who wouldn’t have a chance in a million years to be on Herod’s guest list. The very people at Herod’s banquet are more than likely the ones who excoriate Jesus for eating with the unwashed poor, the street urchins usually labeled as “bad.” And yet, we know who the good guy in this story is.

So the who’s who of society arrives for Herod’s birthday, and his little daughter dances for the assembly. Her acclaim is so great that Herod swears to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” With the girl’s conniving mother in the background, we know this cannot go well. Swearing an oath was a big deal back then, akin to a legal contract today, but with more honor at stake. And swearing a blind oath was like writing a blank check.

Of course, if Jesus had watched the little girl’s ballet, what would he have done? Joyfully praised her for her creative expression, no doubt, but he sure wouldn’t have sworn an oath. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” In other words, there’s no need to swear an oath; just be trustworthy all the time and you won’t need to make guarantees.

And still, we have one more contrast to make – the biggest one yet between the good guy and the bad. On her mother’s prompting, the girl asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod is deeply grieved, Mark tells us, but apparently not too deeply grieved because he goes through with his oath anyway. In order to save his honor, his pride, his standing in society, Herod has an innocent man killed.

Of course, when Jesus was in a similar situation, what did he do? When he could have saved himself from public humiliation, scorn, pain, and death, what did he do? He gave himself up willingly. He gave no regard to his own honor and pride, but emptied himself and humbly chose the road that led to the cross. Society mocked him, the empire killed him, and yet he won in the end, and yet he won in the end when God raised him from the dead on the third day.

Our antagonist today, foolhardy and power-drunk King Herod, shows us the other side of the story, the shadow side, the side that exists in the darkness when the light of the world is offstage. He prizes his standing, his honor, and his pride above all else, even to the point of committing homicide.

I don’t know about you, but I suspect that all too often I place myself on the wrong side of the story. I look at myself in the mirror, and I wonder when the good guy decided to take the episode off and let the bad guy take center stage. I ignore Jesus’ dinner guests because they are so much easier to ignore than to include. I swear oaths to myself about how I will live my life, and then I fail to live up to them. I let my pride stand in the way of doing the right thing. If you’re anything like me, then we all occupy the antagonist’s role in our own lives far too much of the time.

But the good news is this: even when we occupy the bad guy’s role in our own stories, there is always and forever someone occupying the role of the good guy. Our protagonist is Jesus Christ, and as any good guy would, he calls us to come to him, to shed ourselves of our antagonism, and to live our lives as his followers. When we confess our sins in a few minutes, when we once again give up to God our villainy, we will be ready to recognize Jesus as the protagonist of our stories. And as he nourishes us with his Body and Blood at his dinner banquet, we will be strengthened to go out as the good guys and serve the world in his name.