Get Behind Me, Satan

Sermon for Sunday, August 30, 2020 || Proper 17A || Matthew 16:21-28

“Get behind me, Satan.” I’ve always wondered how Jesus said these words. Peter has just named Jesus the Messiah. And Jesus has just said what will happen if he continues his mission on its current trajectory. He will undergo great suffering and be killed! (He mentions rising again on the third day, but Peter doesn’t key in on that part.) Peter says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” That’s when Jesus says these famous words: “Get behind me, Satan.”


Did Jesus say them along with a frustrated sigh, like a geometry teacher trying to explain what a proof is? “Get behind me, Satan.

Or did he say them dismissively, with a flick of his hand, like one of the Fab 5 on Queer Eye, getting rid of a pile of cargo shorts: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Or did Jesus say them with a throaty, commanding tone, like Gandalf confronting the Balrog: “You cannot pass!”;* “Get behind me, Satan.”

No matter how Jesus said this iconic sentence, I don’t think he was addressing the command to Peter. Yes, Jesus is responding to Peter’s anxiety, but he’s not calling Peter Satan. Jesus is speaking directly to Satan. Jesus sees past the conversation he’s having with his disciples and confronts the insidious force of temptation that seeks only to unspool us from who we truly are.

(If that’s what’s happening with these words, then I’m liking the Gandalf version.)

Jesus cries out against Satan, the embodiment of temptation, because Peter’s words unwittingly tempt him. By saying, “This must never happen to you,” Peter gives Jesus an out. Jesus hasn’t been telling the disciples what he wants to happen, but what will happen if he remains on his mission of spiritual and communal awakening among his people. His death at the hands of the combined religious and secular authorities is all but assured based on the challenge Jesus’ way of life presents them. When Peter declares that God forbid Jesus from dying, Jesus knows the only way that he won’t die a horrible death is if he veers from his path.

But that would mean a fundamental shift in who Jesus is at his core – a person whose purpose is to bring people and communities fully alive within the love and the grace of God. Such a mission meant challenging unjust structures in his society. Such a mission meant transgressing boundaries of class, gender, religion, and ethnicity in order to show those boundaries should not exist. Such a mission meant living a life of radical welcome, risky love, and permanent vulnerability. That’s who Jesus was. To stray from that path meant a different kind of death – not a horrible physical death, but a spiritual death of the person whom Jesus had chosen to be, whom God had blessed him to be.

Satan, that insidious force of temptation, would revel in the unraveling of the beautiful identity that made Jesus who he was and is. But Jesus stands strong against the temptation, just like he did earlier in the wilderness. “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus will remain on his mission because his life is the mission. His very identity is Emmanuel – “God with us” – and each day of his life, he showed what that promise looked like.

One of the most miraculous things about Jesus was how he stayed true to himself in the midst of overwhelming adversity. Not only were the religious and secular authorities after him, not only did the Pharisees seek to entrap him, not only did he have no place to lay his head, but in our passage today even Peter entices him to give up. Again, I don’t think this was Peter’s intent, but I do think Jesus heard Peter’s words as a call to turn aside and become someone that he (Jesus) was not – someone who kept his head down and got along, never raising his voice against the oppressive society in which he lived.

With Jesus’ example before us, I wonder how you confront the insidious force of temptation that seeks to unravel us. Do you know what I mean when I talk about unraveling? It’s the only word I can find that comes close to describing the sensation I’m talking about. There’s a feeling you get in your gut, a few inches behind your navel. It feels like the thread of yourself is being pulled away, like a sweater caught on a splintered piece of wood. It feels like there is less of you than there was before.

This happens when we act in ways that run counter to the people God yearns for us to be. For example, I am tempted by a less than moral way of doing something. I know it’s technically wrong, but (come on) who’s it really hurting? So I cheat on the test. I plagiarize a little. I hop the turnstile. I download the album from a pirated file share instead of paying for it. None of these things seem all that bad, I convince myself, but each one unravels me just a little bit more.

The more I get used to living in an unraveled state, the easier it is to ignore when I fall farther and farther away from the person God yearns for me to be. I grow violent or reactionary or miserly. I lash out at loved ones. I hoard my possessions. I assume someone else’s gain must mean my loss. The more I unravel, the harder it becomes to see God’s image in myself, and that means there’s no way I’m going to be able to see God’s image in other people.

Unraveling happens when we act in ways that run counter to the image of God within. And unraveling also happens when we don’t act in ways that honor the image of God inside ourselves. For example, I am tempted to sit idly by while the great sins of the world run amok. I convince myself that since I seem to benefit from the way the world is, I might as well let it be. Or I convince myself that it’s someone else’s problem to fix. Or I convince myself that I’m just one person: what can I do? So I scroll by the news story of Jacob Blake, who last week was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin police while his children were right there. I might muster a sigh or a shake of the head before moving on to other things.

And while I am looking away from this latest gruesome example of death-dealing injustice, I will unravel a bit more. But I won’t notice because I am getting good at not noticing things. I give in to the temptation not to notice so often that I become a cog in the banal machinery of evil. And in my cog-hood, I don’t recognize the empty shell I’ve become. What happened to the person God yearned for me to be?

This is the temptation Jesus faces down when he says, “Get behind me, Satan.” It is the temptation to live a life other than the one God invites us to live. That other life often seems easier, but only if we don’t take into account what it does to our souls.

This week, I pray that you may take stock of how you are being tempted to unravel. In what ways is God beckoning you to become the person who you truly are? How are you living into that image? And how are you not? If you feel yourself unraveling, bring the feeling to God in your prayer. Ask for eyes to see the difference between who you are now and who you are in God’s dream for you. The good news is that, while our threads may unravel, they are never cut from the spool. And our God is the great Weaver of Creation. No matter how far we are from ourselves, God can knit us back together so that we can participate in God’s weaving movement in this world.


* I know Gandalf says, “You shall not pass” in the movie, but in the book he says, “You cannot pass,” and I had to go with the book.

10 Books to Light a Fire for Racial Justice

In a footnote of a sermon from June, I quoted eminent theologian James Cone and mentioned that his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, would not be the first or even the tenth book I would read if you are a white person just coming to a new awareness of racial injustice in the United States. A person commented on the post and asked me what would be the ten books I would read before it, so I figured I would offer that list today.

I’ll begin with a caveat. I have been engaged for about three and a half years in personal reading and reflection concerning my own place in the great sin of white supremacy. I am by no means an expert, and I can only recommend books I have read – there are plenty more out there, as well as plenty of great lists to get engaged in the work for racial justice. What I offer below is a list of ten books leading up to Cone’s Theology, which would be book eleven. After that, I’ve added a few other resources that aren’t books but are incredibly worthwhile, especially if your own learning style leans towards the visual or auditory.

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The Meaning in Stories

Sermon for Sunday, June 14, 2020 || Proper 6A || Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

Today, I’d like to share a few stories and talk about how we use them to make meaning. The lessons and meanings of our own stories, our communal stories, and our biblical stories dwell inside us, and we can use what we learn from these stories to make sense of the story we currently find ourselves in. Today, I’m going to tell two and a half stories: first a personal one, then a biblical one. The half story at the end is the story of now, which isn’t finished being written yet.

First, the personal story. Twelve years ago today, I knelt in front of the bishop of West Virginia. He and a dozen or so priests laid their hands on my head, back, and shoulders. And they prayed for God to make me a priest in God’s church. The day of my ordination was a blur, but I remember the next day much more, the day I celebrated Holy Communion for the first time. I was so nervous on the day of my first Eucharist as a priest. I was convinced I was going to knock over the chalice because I had to make specific gestures while clothed beneath a baggy piece of outerwear. 

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Vowels of Anti-Racism

In a 2016 conversation with Stephen Colbert, actor Will Smith said, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” With the video evidence of the racially-charged murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, along with the sobering display of Amy Cooper marshaling the forces of white power to her ‘defense’ when a black man asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, white America now has three recent galling examples of racism at work in this country. 

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Disrupt/Comfort

Sermon for Sunday, May 31, 2020 || Pentecost A || Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit empowering Jesus’ first followers to spread his loving, liberating, and life-giving message. If you were listening closely to the readings, you might have noticed we actually read two different versions of the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the first one from the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit spirals into the house like a rushing wind from heaven and anoints the disciples with tongues like fire. In this story, we sense the glorious upheaval in the lives of the disciples as these elemental forces – wind, fire – disrupt and invigorate them to embrace their new ministry as Jesus’ witnesses.

In the second story from the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to his disciples on the evening of the resurrection. They lean in close as he breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In this intimate story, Jesus delivers the Comforter, the enlivening companion the disciples need to be about their work.

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Be My Witnesses

Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2020 || Easter 7A || Acts 1:6-14

Early on a Wednesday morning last June, I stood in line at a checkpoint leading to the Western Wall below the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. Turning around, I watched the sun rise over the Mount of Olives, turning the distant tower of the Church of the Ascension into a dark silhouette against the thin clouds. And for a brief moment, my heart rose with the sun, and I was transported back to that spot 2,000 years ago. I watched with the disciples as Jesus was taken up into heaven. I gazed up at the sky and felt his final words settle in my gut: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

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Something of You in Each Other

Sermon for Sunday, February 2, 2020 || Feast of the Presentation || Luke 2:22-40

Just a warning. This sermon leans heavily on my combined training as a political scientist and an ordained priest. It’s pretty heady. That’s why I’m going to start by talking about my favorite TV show.

In a Season Six episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise race against time to complete a puzzle locked in the DNA of the various humanoid peoples of the galaxy. The Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians are also trying to complete the puzzle, thinking it will lead them to a new weapon of great power. But in the end, the four groups arrive on a planet after needing each other to solve the genetic puzzle, and they encounter a recording from the original humanoid people of the galaxy. The recording tells them that those ancient humanoids traveled the stars and found none like themselves, so they decided to seed the primordial oceans on many worlds with their own DNA as their legacy. The recording says, “It was our hope that you would have to come together in fellowship and companionship to hear this message, and if you can see and hear me our hope has been fulfilled.” With swelling music in the background, the recording concludes: “There is something of us in each of you, and so something of you in each other.”

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Rightside Up Again

Sermon for Tuesday, December 25, 2019 || Christmas Eve || Luke 2:1-20

One of the unique things about the Gospel according to Luke is how concerned the text is with setting, with time and place. Several times, Luke tells us when and where the events are happening. You’ve all heard an example of this tendency a million times: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

Why do we care that this registration happening while Quirinius was governor of Syria? The ancient world did not have reliably standardized calendars, so to date an event, one reliable way was to delve into Roman records. Rome was an empire, and if there’s one thing the Roman Empire did better than oppressing nations it conquered, it was record-keeping. So Luke uses the information available to date the birth of Jesus, and so this Quirinius guy had his named immortalized in the best-selling book of all time.

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Thoughts and Prayers

Sermon for Sunday, August 11, 2019 || Proper 14C || Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

It is so good to be standing here behind this lectern again. I haven’t preached a sermon since Easter Sunday, so I hope I remember how to do it. I have so many things I want to share with you from my time on sabbatical. Many I will share during the adult forum hour throughout the upcoming school year. Some things will surely influence my sermons. But today is not the day to begin that sharing. A week ago two more mass shootings, both perhaps spurred by the scourge of white nationalist terrorism, devastated the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The events were still breaking at the time of last week’s Sunday services, so there was no time to formulate more than just an anguished response – a prayer of lamentation: “How many more, O Lord?”

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Sabbatical Notes, Week 6: Fantasy Bias

Note: This week’s essay is a sample of what I’m working on during my sabbatical – a series of pieces in which I am interrogating my own past and looking for the societal underpinnings of my unconscious biases, especially in the realm of racism and white supremacy.


I have always loved fantasy and science fiction. Star Trek: The Next Generation is still, and probably always will be, my favorite TV show. As a young child, I watched Return of the Jedi until I wore out the VHS. In sixth grade I cut my long-form fantasy teeth on the Redwall series by Brian Jacques and The Hobbit. It took me three tries to get through The Lord of the Rings, but I finally did it in ninth grade, and then I read it every year for a decade. My senior year of high school, I read 35 Star Wars novels. Frank Herbert’s Dune blew my mind somewhere in there, but I can’t remember exactly when.

So it’s no secret I am a proud member of many fandoms: LOTR, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, the MCU, the whole Whedonverse (especially Buffy and Firefly). Engagement with some of these creative properties has shaped me from childhood. I learned the meaning of true friendship from Frodo and Sam. I learned the value of leadership with integrity from Captain Jean-Luc Picard. (And I learned the best way to sit down in a chair from Commander Riker.)

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