Mark and the Movement

Sermon for Sunday, April 30, 2017 || The Feast of St. Mark (transferred) || Mark 1:1-15

After services today, we are kicking off our celebration of the 150th anniversary of St. Mark’s Church here in Mystic, Connecticut. While the church’s roots go back to the creation of a Sunday School in 1859, the traditionally accepted date for the founding of St. Mark’s jumps forward to Christmas Eve 1867 and the first service here at the Pearl Street location. Our history tells us that a wooden causeway had to be constructed that December night so members could navigate the tidal pools swirling on the lawn outside.

Of course, our church is more than this building with its simple, bright, lovely interior and occasional problems with flooding; indeed, a church is technically a gathering of people, not a location. We don’t go to church. We are church: we are a community of people gathered for mutual support, to praise and worship God, to deepen our commitment to follow Jesus Christ, and to partner with God in mission in our neighborhood. Continue reading “Mark and the Movement”

Six Words for Following

A Compilation of Sermons from Epiphany 2015

Word1Affirmation(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015 || Epiphany 1B || Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

You may recall during a sermon last spring, I challenged you to choose six words to proclaim your faith. I remembered the “Six-Word Witness” challenge as I began to prepare for this new season after Epiphany, as there happen to be six Sundays between now and Lent. If you read my article in the recent issue of The Lion’s Tale, you got a sneak peak at a particular six-word witness, one that describes the trajectory of the next six weeks as we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. My plan during this season after Epiphany is to connect this sermon with the next five to tell a much larger story of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.

Yes, you heard that right. Today’s sermon is the beginning of a six-part series. That means if you have plans to go skiing in a couple of weeks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to cancel.

We begin today with the first word: Affirmation. And we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning. What we find when we enter the story as early as we possibly can is the affirmation of goodness. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Right away, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God has already affirmed something as good. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the creation story. Each day God creates, and that which God creates God affirms as good. Thus the fundamental goodness of creation is built into the very fabric of creation. From the sweeping array of celestial bodies to the lowliest tadpole dwelling in the muck to us troublesome and ungainly humans, God affirms everything God makes with the seal of goodness.

(As an aside, God calls us humans “very” good while the rest of creation is merely good, but I think that has more to do with the fact that we humans we were the ones who wrote it all down.)

The reality that goodness entered creation on the ground floor is of utmost importance for the rest of the ongoing story. There have been folks in the past, notably in the early centuries of Christianity, who taught that the physical creation God made — the matter, the flesh, the stuff we can see and touch — was, in fact, inherently evil. They taught that only the spiritual realm held any goodness, and so they sought to divorce themselves from the flesh entirely. Of course, to make this heretical mental leap, they had to ignore the bulk of the Biblical witness, which they did with no qualms at all. Their path led to disengagement from the world; the founding of secretive, insular societies; and what I imagine was quite a lot of struggle against instincts that are totally normal, but which they decided were base and evil. Thankfully, the majority of Christians were not led astray by this faulty understanding of creation. And so we still have the witness of Genesis reminding us of God’s affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation.

But now comes our own mental leap. Or call it a leap of faith. We move from one beginning to another, from the beginning of creation to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the outset of Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water of the River Jordan during his own baptism. He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Notice the placement of this piece of the Gospel. Before Jesus has a chance to do anything of consequence; before his ministry gets off the ground; before any miracles or teachings or healings or his death or resurrection, God showers upon Jesus God’s love and pleasure. Just like God affirms creation as good right from the start, God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son before he has a chance to earn the right to such a name.

Now, you might be thinking: “Of course God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son — that’s who he is! What about me?!” Yes, what about the rest of us troublesome, ungainly, and yet “very” good humans? Well, to make our leap of faith, we need a little help from our friend the Apostle Paul. He writes to the church in Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).

If the writers of Genesis were presumptuous to call us “very” good, then Paul must be doubly so to claim that we are joint heirs with Christ. Or is he? Perhaps, instead, Paul has seen into the truth of the matter, seen Jesus’ plan all along, a plan to show us what we have always been and to reaffirm our inherent goodness, our lovableness.

And here’s where our own version of the heresy I spoke of earlier comes to into play. While those folks taught the matter of creation was inherently evil, there is an overriding voice in our modern American society telling us that we aren’t exactly evil, but we sure are deficient. I’m of course referring to my favorite homiletical punching bag, the ubiquitous marketing department. Marketing campaigns work like this: they tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.

All this must be true, right? I mean, we’re bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. That’s when we forget our inherent goodness, the goodness God affirmed in the first rushing breath of creation.

Here our leap of faith continues, because the marketing department has convinced us of our utter worthlessness. And so we might not want to believe that Jesus has invited us — yes, even you and me — to be joint heirs with him of the love and pleasure of God. Jesus received this affirmation of his belovedness before his ministry even started. Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are. God’s love and pleasure are nestled at the very core of our beings, nestled right next to the affirmation of goodness, which God breathes into all creation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed this up in one dazzling sentence. He once said, “God does not love us because we are lovable; we are lovable because God loves us.” This love is the core of our identity, not something we earn, not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we choose to believe this fundamental truth, we will be ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives. It is to these invitations we turn next week as our six-part series continues. But for today, feel this truth in your bones. Feel God say this to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Word2Invitation(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, January 18, 2015 || Epiphany 2B || 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

Last Sunday, we started our six-part sermon series about our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. And we began with the word “Affirmation.” God affirmed in the earliest moment of creation the fundamental goodness of that creation. And God affirmed Jesus – and by extension we who are also God’s children – as the beloved, in whom God is well pleased. The love and goodness of God form the core of our identity. They are not something we earn. They are not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we embrace this fundamental truth, we are ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives.

That’s the second word: Invitation. As we move on, you’ll see how closely linked our two words are, and you’ll see why we had to start with affirmation in the first place.

Invitations offer specific, time-sensitive choices about how you are going to spend your time and resources. A friend may invite you to her birthday party. A head hunter may invite you to apply for a new job. A coach may invite you to join a club soccer team. Or God may invite you. Let me rephrase – God does invite you, me, each of us to join God in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world.

We’ll get to that mission next week since “mission” is our third word. For now, let’s stay with “invitation” – God’s invitation. When God invites us to partner with God in mission, we always have a choice and the mission is always specific. Individual invitations may be time-sensitive due to the exigencies of what a particular mission is, but God’s invitations never expire. God renews them day by day, hour by hour. God is always inviting us into deeper relationship, into closer partnership, into greater service.

In our story this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures, God calls to the boy Samuel four times. No three strikes and you’re out here. On the fourth time, Samuel responds to God’s invitation, but I imagine God would have kept calling until Samuel and Eli figured out what was happening.

Sadly, unlike Samuel, we often turn away from the invitations God sends us. We ignore them or decline them because of where or why God delivers them. This is because, most often, God’s invitation intersects with our inadequacies, our pain, our brokenness. Each of us is broken in one way or another, or in many ways. Brokenness is part of the human condition because perfection is far from us and sin is near. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves.

But when we allow God to move in our lives, we discover God redeeming this brokenness by offering us invitations to go to the center of our pain. Because only at the center of our pain can healing begin. And because only at the center of our pain will we find solidarity with others feeling the same pain as we. God’s desire to extend holy invitations is not the reason we are broken; rather, accepting a holy invitation is the best way to make our brokenness mean something for ourselves and to others.

I’d like to share with you a deeply personal story about my own brokenness to illustrate this point. I share this not to garner sympathy, but to demonstrate from my own experience God’s astonishing ability to redeem brokenness and refashion old pain into new possibility.

When I was eleven years old, the church broke me. My father was three years into his rectorship at his first church when everything started to fall apart. His misplaced enthusiasm and zealous naïveté collided with an intransigent establishment that said it wanted change and growth, but was not ready to face the consequences of such things. My father was the proverbial unstoppable force, and the establishment the immovable object. And my mother, sister, and I were caught in the middle.

I do not remember much about the conflict. But I do remember one Sunday morning. It is a fixed point in my life. I was acolyting at the 8 o’clock service. My father stood up to preach, but a few minutes into his sermon, a man in the congregation also stood up, a man who had been a friend to our family when we first moved. He spoke out sharply, telling my father to “sit down and shut up.” I had never heard anyone speak to my dad that way, let alone during a church service. I started to cry. My father came over and calmly asked if I’d like to go home. I nodded, and he hugged me and helped me back to the sacristy. Later that week, several parishioners accused my father of planning and then staging my tearful departure from the church.*

A few months after that, we moved to Alabama and were met by the most gracious and loving congregation a clergy family could ask for. But I didn’t trust them. I always wondered when the betrayal would happen. I was broken.

Where is God’s holy invitation in this story? How is God redeeming this brokenness? Let me tell you. The church that broke my family was also called St. Mark’s. It was here in New England, about sixty miles from this spot. It was my father’s first call as rector. We lived next door in the rectory. Our family had two young children, a boy and a girl. You might see a pattern here.

Somehow, by accepting God’s holy invitations throughout my life, my family has arrived at a place close to the center of my childhood pain. And I feel God redeeming that pain every day as I collaborate in ministry with the wonderful people at this St. Mark’s; and as I walk with people who have also been broken by the church.

Each of us is or has been broken in one way or another. But through God’s invitations, our brokenness can mean something. Perhaps alcohol ruined your life years ago, but you’re a dozen years sober, and now you sponsor new members of AA who are trying to turn their lives around. Perhaps the scourge of gun violence cruelly took the life of a loved one, and now you rally support to end such senseless killing. Perhaps you were in the closet in high school and know the pain of one living a lie, and now whenever you meet a gay teen you do all in your power to bring hope to that person’s life. “It gets better,” you say, and you mean it. These are God’s invitations, delivered to the heart of our own pain and brokenness.

And this is where affirmation re-enters our discussion. Since so many of God’s holy invitations originate in our brokenness, our pain can trick us into thinking the invitation is meant for someone else. But we err when we think that God can only use the whole parts of us, as there aren’t many of those anyway. That’s why we must remember that before anything else, God affirmed us as God’s good and beloved children. No amount of brokenness can keep God from inviting us into deeper relationship, closer partnership, and greater service.

We’ll pick up this greater service next week when we reach the third word: “Mission.” But for now, I’d like to share one last story of finding God’s invitation in our brokenness. It comes from Leo McGarry, the chief-of-staff on the fabulous TV show, The West Wing, and a recovering drug and alcohol addict. Leo tells the struggling Josh Lyman this parable:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’ ”

*I shared with my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, the few paragraphs concerning my experience as an eleven-year-old, and he asked me to share with you what happened after I left the church from his perspective. He writes: “This is a powerful part of your story. You should and must tell it. I would, however, ask you to consider adding what happened after you left the sanctuary (interesting word: not a place of safety for you at that time!). I resumed my sermon, the text was on the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain and the whining that accompanies unrealistic expectations: no wonder I was challenged. The most odd and graceful thing for me occurred as we shared holy communion. Everyone came to the altar rail, including my antagonist. The blessing (and irony) of offering him and the other antagonists the grace found within the sacrament still prompts a sense of wonder and joy when the hugeness of God’s love is made evident.

Word3Mission(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, January 25, 2015 || Epiphany 3B || Mark 1:14-20

Two weeks ago, we felt God affirm us as God’s good and beloved children. Last week, that affirmation allowed us to accept God’s holy invitations, which most often originate in our own brokenness. This week, we ask where those invitations lead us, and we find our third word in this six-part series. That third word is Mission.

In church lingo, the word “mission” is usually followed by the word “trip.” Perhaps you went on a mission trip as a teenager to a Native American reservation or spent a week painting a church in a town in El Salvador. When I was in seminary I went on a mission trip to New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. The group went down with Habitat for Humanity thinking we were going to be rebuilding homes. Turns out it was too soon to begin rebuilding, so we spent much of the week mucking putrid, knee-deep mud and silt out of water-logged homes on streets, whose road signs had been ripped off their poles by hundred mile an hour winds. We wore white coveralls, masks, and plastic gloves, which we duct-taped to our wrists. We spent the days bent over our shovels, thinking of nothing more than the next scoop of muck, because if you tried to think bigger thoughts, you became suddenly and irreversibly overwhelmed by the sodden despair clinging to every surface. Everywhere you looked, the five-month old disaster was still raw, still fresh.

When we returned to Virginia, it felt like coming home from a trip to Mars. I woke up the morning after we got back, and I wondered if it had all just been a bad dream. Then I rose and felt the bone-deep ache in my muscles and knew it was no dream. We had been there. We had helped. A little.

For that week in January 2006, bending over a shovel in a house on the outskirts of New Orleans was my mission from God. I have no doubt about that. I bring up this particular, weeklong excursion, however, to point out just how atypical it is. Most people never go on mission trips. If you do regularly, you’ll go probably a single week a year. I’ve only been on one other since New Orleans. Surely, there’s more to mission than just the trips?

When Jesus invites those four unsuspecting fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he doesn’t say, “Follow me for a week.” He just says, “Follow me.” And then he gives them their mission: “And I will make you fish for people.” What Jesus offers is not just a break from their nets, but a complete change in their lives as they know them. Simon, Andrew, James, and John do not sign up for a mission trip. They sign up for a mission life.

This is the opportunity Jesus offers us today. He offered it yesterday, too, and he will offer it again tomorrow. He doesn’t say, “Follow me for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when you are around your church friends.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when it is convenient.” He just says, “Follow me.” The invitation embedded in those two words promises a life of meaning, of service, of sacrifice, and of joy; not an easy life, but a full life, a life of purpose.

And all Jesus wants in return is you. All of you. Everything that makes you, you: your gifts and talents, as well as your pain and brokenness; your hopes and dreams, as well as your fears and nightmares. Offering everything we are to Jesus helps God tailor our missions to our lives. God will only use the parts of us that we give back to God. So if we want our missions to be authentic outpourings of ourselves for God’s work in the world, then we have to be willing to give everything — and I mean everything — back to God. There may be a dark corner of your life that you don’t want anyone to see. But shining a light into that dark corner may be the exact mission God yearns for you to accomplish. It may be painful. It may lead you to places you never thought you’d go. But it will be your mission. And because you will be following Jesus, he will arrive there ahead of you.

Like the original disciples, when we sign up to follow Jesus, we sign up for mission lives. But before you cringe away from the level of commitment that Jesus calls forth from us, let’s consider those original disciples. For them, following Jesus was an immersive experience. They lived with him. They ate with him. They could tell us if he snored or which sandal he always put on first. And still they often misunderstood him, disbelieved his power, and even abandoned him in his own hour of need. And these were the fellows who knew him in person.

Living mission lives does not mean living perfect lives. Like I said, Jesus wants us – warts and all – to follow him. The brokenness the disciples exhibit in the Gospel is the same brokenness that leads us to God’s holy invitations and then on to our missions.

Jesus’ own mission led him to the cross, and it is the image of the cross that I’d like to dwell on for a moment. Think of the vertical plank of the cross as all the possible missions God could call you to, everything that leads to healing and reconciliation in this world. Now think of the horizontal plank as the entirety of yourself that you have to give to the one who invited you to follow him. The spot where the two planks meet is the center of your mission life. And it is also the spot where Christ gave up his life in order to give you yours.*

The center of the cross is not a pleasant place. Neither will be many of the places where we find ourselves engaged in our mission lives. But just as Jesus transformed the cross from a symbol of death and brokenness into a symbol of life and wholeness, Jesus has already gone ahead of us to our mission fields and prepared the way for us to participate in this same transformation. All we need do is leave our nets and follow him there.

As you contemplate the mission God is inviting you to accomplish with your life, remember these things: Because your authentic mission life resides at the center of the cross you have taken up, it will be something uniquely tailored for your gifts and passions. You will identify with it because it will recall something about you that is or was broken. And, though it might be the most difficult thing you have ever done, you will still feel the glow of rightness about it even when everything is going wrong.

A final story about my own awakening to a life of mission: about five months after the trip to New Orleans, I found myself in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas for a summer residency as a chaplain. There were eight of us, all young and zealous. We had just gotten our hospital badges, but surely there was a mistake. The badges said, “CHAPLAIN.” Not Chaplain Intern. Not Chaplain-in-Training. Just CHAPLAIN. You see, our advisors borrowed their teaching techniques from mother birds. On day one, they flung us out of the nest to see if we could fly. We had our mission: it was right there on the badge. We were chaplains, like it or not. But of course, we could not fly. Within a week, each of us had crash-landed. We had met children living with and dying from cancer. We had seen disease and trauma ravage these small bodies. I had witnessed my first death, a three-month-old baby boy. We brand-new chaplains had a mission: to care for and comfort these young patients and their families. But we could not fly. And so we plummeted. We hit rock bottom. And at rock bottom is where our mission truly began, where Jesus was calling us to follow him. Because when we hit rock bottom, we found our young patients and their families there.

*Thanks to the Rev. Tim Hodapp for reminding me of this image for mission at a recent meeting.

Word4Confrontation(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, February 1, 2015 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28

Over the last month we have been considering our walks as followers of Jesus Christ. God affirms us as God’s good and beloved children. God invites us to the center of our own brokenness, where we seek the missions God yearns for us to pursue. We trudge with Jesus to the cross and find those missions where the two planks meet, at the intersection of the world’s need and our passions. So what happens when we engage those missions on a personal level? What happens when we join together to accomplish those missions on a larger scale? What happens when we partner with God to bring God’s healing and reconciliation to this world? The answer is our fourth word. The answer is Confrontation. The world fights back. Those who profit from the status quo fight back. The spiritual uncleanness that festers in the dank recesses of everyone’s heart fights back.

Here’s a recent example from a part of the world most of my generation participates in: video games. (Before you scoff it off as kids’ stuff, know that in the United States, the video game industry now pulls in more revenue than the film industry.) In the last six months, many brave women have started speaking out about the truly disgusting way women are sexualized (and sometimes brutalized) in video games, as well as about the utter lack of women working in the Tech industry in general. While there has been good positive reaction to this burgeoning discussion, the bulk of the reaction that has been grabbing headlines is negative. Grossly negative. Horribly negative. A subgroup of truly vicious male gamers has taken upon itself to lash out at these women in the most demeaning and degrading ways: death threats, rape threats, constant harassment, hounding on social media with language that makes me sick to my stomach, and even disclosure online of the women’s home addresses and telephone numbers to make them fear for their safety. These brave women, and their many male allies, have a mission: to alter an industry badly in need of change, to make it safer for men and women alike. And they are even now confronting a demonic piece of that industry, which seeks to terrorize them into submission.

I use the word “demonic” here on purpose. Whenever we engage in the missions God has invited us to pursue, demonic forces, both interior and exterior to ourselves, confront us and try to dissuade us by any means necessary from following through. Just look at the Gospel lesson for today. We aren’t even done with the first chapter of Mark, Jesus has barely begun his mission, and already he confronts an unclean spirit. This unclean spirit seeks to expose who Jesus is before Jesus is ready to do so for himself. But Jesus rebukes the spirit, silences it, and drags it kicking and screaming from its victim. This confrontation typifies Jesus’ ministry: in each encounter, Jesus confronts something that stands in the way of people being reconciled to God and to each other; and in each encounter, Jesus conquers, though not always in the ways we might expect.

Now, I know that dismissing this kind of Biblical story is easy in our day and age. We look to psychology for a comfortable, modern lens with which to interpret unclean spirits. Demonic possession belongs to horror films and to fantasy worlds populated by vampires, zombies and werewolves. But for all the science and science fiction that we can use to explain away stories like today’s Gospel, the fact of the matter remains that we ourselves and the world at large are afflicted by spiritual uncleanness. We have voices inside us that coerce and cajole us away from the missions God sets before us – demonic voices like apathy, lethargy, fear, greed, dominance. Society has these same voices, and in society these voices are bankrolled.

To these many voices, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.” Be silent, so we can hear the deeper, more constant voice of Christ propelling us away from these unclean voices. Heeding the voice of Christ amongst the clatter within prepares us to confront the same unclean voices in their entrenched forms in society.

A week and a half ago, I was blessed to listen to Dr. Cornel West’s keynote address to the Trinity Institute, which we webcast at St. Mark’s. Quoting the great W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. West offered four questions that always surface when good people confront the entrenched demons of society. Number one: “How shall integrity face oppression?” Number two: “What does honesty do in the face of deception?” Number three: “What does decency do in the face of insult?” And number four: “How does virtue meet brute force?” *

With these questions Cornel West outlines the confrontation that we people striving to follow Jesus Christ encounter. Being part of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation means choosing, as often as we can in our brokenness, the first option in each of these questions. How do we confront oppression? By exhibiting enough integrity to stand with the oppressed, especially when it is inconvenient or unpopular. How do we confront deception? By holding steadfastly to the truth, especially when it gets mangled by extremism. How do we confront insult? By nurturing the dignity of all people, especially when injustice has strangled any notion of decency from the equation. How do we confront brute force? By not submitting to it all that is good and virtuous about us; by not fighting fire with fire.

Remember the ultimate confrontation, in which our savior defeated each of these demonic forces. Jesus took all the oppression, deception, insult, and brute force the world could muster with him to the cross. And in his resurrection, he exposed them for what they are: a sham. Whenever we are seduced by the demonic voices within, we are falling victim to all that is counterfeit about our fallen world. Whenever we side with the entrenched injustice of society we perpetuate the fraudulent narrative the world loves to tell. Confronting this narrative with the true one that God continues to tell takes all the integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue we can muster – and more. Confronting this narrative takes embracing the love of God and letting it shine through us to bring to light everything that would prefer to stay in darkness.

That’s why we confess our sins every single week. We don’t do it because of our individual, personal sins, though those are subsumed into the act of confession. No. We confess every week as a sort of inoculation against the demonic voices that seduce us away from God’s mission. We confess every week to remember that God calls us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We confess every week to announce to ourselves and to each other that we are willing (and with God’s help ready and able) to confront the entrenched sins of the world.

When we joined up with Jesus, this is what we signed on for. This was his mission, and he continues it through us. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes I think it’s too big. I quiver in fear. I find myself rigid with spiritual lethargy. I start to give in to the coercing and cajoling voices that seek to muzzle my witness. When this happens to you, remember that you are walking with Jesus. And hear his voice rise over the clatter and say, “Be silent, and come out of him.”

*Hear Cornel West’s keynote address here. (Scan to 1:00:28 for the speech.)

Word5Rejuvenation(featured)
(No audio this week: I forgot at the early service,
and then I thought I pressed record at the later service, but didn’t. Sorry!)

Sermon for Sunday, February 8, 2015 || Epiphany 5B || Isaiah 40:20-31; Mark 1:29-39

Next week ends our Epiphany sermon series, which means today we have come to our fifth word. But let’s start with a recap. Our first word was Affirmation: Nothing can take away God’s affirmation of us as God’s good and beloved children. Our second word was Invitation: God’s holy invitations most often originate in the center of our brokenness. Our third word was Mission: When we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, we find God’s missions for us where the plank of the world’s need intersects with the plank of our passions. Our fourth word was Confrontation: All the forces of this fallen world fight back when we embrace God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.

And this brings us to today, to our fifth word. And that word is Rejuvenation. When I was deciding on the six words to highlight during this series, today’s word was the most difficult to find. I read the Gospel lesson over and over again, but nothing stood out. The whole passage was just more confrontation. But then on the tenth or eleventh reading, I noticed a verse I had always skimmed over before. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

How wonderful is it that Mark, in all his hurry to move the narrative forward, would stop for a brief moment and give us this insight into Jesus’ character. Jesus must have been bone weary after the day he had. He spent most of the day at the Sabbath assembly, where we heard last week’s story of casting out the unclean spirit. Then he went to Simon and Andrew’s house, presumably for some respite. But he was needed there, too, as Simon’s mother-in-law was abed with fever. That evening, perhaps Jesus was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. But no. The people of Capernaum heard tell of his power, and “the whole city” (Mark tells us) gathered around the door clamoring for healing. Who knows how late into the night Jesus spent confronting demons and diseases. It seems no one, not even Jesus, can keep the pace he set that bone weary day in Capernaum.

And so we find Jesus in the wee hours of the morning escape to a deserted place. “And there he prayed.” And there he found his own Sabbath rest. And there he took a deep breath and reconnected with God his father. And there he reflected on the events of today so he’s better equipped for the events of tomorrow. And there he was rejuvenated.

This rejuvenation lasts only a single verse. In the next, Simon and his companions hunt for Jesus, find him, and he’s right back in the melee again, confronting all that separates his people from God. But for this one indefinite moment of time early in the morning in the deserted place, Jesus teaches us the value of rejuvenation: of Sabbath rest, prayerful reconnection, and spiritual reflection. Let’s take these three pieces of rejuvenation in turn.

We live out our missions from God throughout our daily lives and during special times of confrontation with the entrenched sins of the world. But what most of us fail to realize most of the time is that Sabbath rest is part of our missions. We have been suckered in by the myth of the full calendar. In recent years, school-aged children have started getting scheduled to within an inch of their lives. When I was a child and adolescent, I played a lot of sports, but I still remember spending plenty of time just hanging out with my friends, too. Those days seem to be long gone. And the over-scheduling we are subjecting our young ones to is now infecting us all.

Taking time to pause when this maelstrom of activity is swirling around you is totally countercultural. Over-scheduling is a form of the sin of gluttony, to which society is addicted in the extreme. But when we take Sabbath rest, we resist the false claim that doing more leads to greater happiness. You don’t need to take this rest on the actual day of the Sabbath, but I urge you to carve some white space out on your full calendar. Start with an hour of rejuvenation and try over time to stretch it to a full day.

Our time of rejuvenation begins with rest, which then deepens into prayerful reconnection with God. Engaging in our God-given missions, confronting the demons of the world, and – for that matter – just living our lives tend to untether us from our moorings. The currents of entrenched sin pull us out to sea. And the farther we drift from the source of all goodness, the more our priorities rearrange themselves. Greed and self-preservation rise up the list even as love and self-sacrifice fall. But returning to God regularly in prayer helps us examine those priorities and order them in the way God desires us to do. We come together each week to share Holy Communion because the Eucharist both physically reconnects us to the nourishment of God in Christ and reminds us of our true priorities: gratitude, community, love, and service.

Our rejuvenation begins with rest, continues with reconnection, and concludes with reflection. When we intentionally make available enough free space and time for reflection, then everything we do becomes more effective. I can hear my father’s voice in my head saying over and over again as I was growing up: “You don’t learn from experience. You learn from reflection on experience.” The most productive form of reflection couples self-examination with counsel from a coach, mentor, or friend. The best athletes in the world still have coaches to help them reflect on their games, learn from the mistakes, and get better at sports they are already the best at. The same holds true in our walks with Jesus Christ. Each of us can follow more nearly when others help us to reflect on our experiences to learn what holds us back.

When Jesus sneaks off by himself to be alone in prayer, he rests for a few precious moments, away from the demands of his ministry. He reconnects in prayer with the source of his strength. And I imagine that he reflects on an action packed day so that the days ahead can be more effective. And in so doing, God rejuvenates him to continue his mission. Likewise, God offers us this same opportunity to retreat strategically from our confrontations, engage a different piece of our mission, and rediscover ourselves moored to God’s goodness and love. When we accept the invitation to this opportunity, we find ourselves rejuvenated to continue our journeys towards the sixth and final word. That word is Revelation. But that will have to wait until next week.

For now, I urge you to carve that white space out on your calendar so that you have the space to hear one of God’s great and enduring promises, which the prophet Isaiah proclaims in today’s reading: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:30-31).

Word6Revelation(featured)
Sermon for Sunday, February 15, 2015 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9

We’ve spent the last five weeks walking with Jesus during the first days of his ministry. We stood on the shore of the Jordan River as Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism. We also stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as Jesus called his first disciples and gave them their mission. We wandered into the Sabbath assembly and watched him confront an unclean spirit. And we escaped with him into the desert to rest, reconnect, and reflect with God. Today, in our last sermon in this series, we skip forward to the middle of the story, and we find ourselves following Jesus as he picks his way up the mountain path with Peter, James, and John. And at the top of the mountain, we find our sixth and final word: Revelation.

“Revelation” comes from the same root as the word “reveal.” A revelation is an unveiling, a pulling back of the curtain that separates the known from the unknown. You might say the difference between revelation and ordinary discovery is that we usually attribute revelation to an outside source, namely God, while discovery is the product of our own learning and experimentation. But I think this is a false dichotomy. Rather, God is always offering us the blessing of revelation; in fact, I believe God desires nothing more than for us to know God better. But we are not always in places that allow ready embracing of such revelation. Revelation is available to us, but we are not always available to revelation.

And this is where the process of ordinary discovery comes in. Think back to a time in school. You were in math class – say, geometry. And you had no idea what your teacher was talking about. You’d been taking math classes your whole life. You’d learned addition and subtraction and your multiplication tables. You’d struggled with long division, but got it in the end. Then came fractions. Yikes! But those too made sense in time. Algebra next – the slope of a line. Y=MX + B. No problem. But now you’re stuck. You see the formulas to find the areas of various shapes on the dry erase board, and the only sound in your brain is the dull buzz of incomprehension. But you like math, so you buckle down. You ask a friend who understands it to help you learn. You draw circle after circle, triangle after triangle, trying to figure out the material. Thankfully, your friend is patient with you, and one day in the library after school, you get it. You’ve put in the legwork. You’ve applied your elbow grease. And now you own that geometric discovery for yourself.

We can apply this same legwork and elbow grease when it comes to nurturing our faith. We call it discipleship. While revelation is always available to us, we make ourselves more and more available to revelation when we actively participate in our relationships with God, when we strive to follow Jesus with intention. In geometry class, we could have just let the material pass us by. We could have just limped along not really understanding the lesson. But that’s not what we signed up for. In the same way, when we make every effort to pair our drive for discovery with God’s desire to pull back the curtain, we find ourselves open to revelation. And we find ourselves on the mountaintop with the disciples.

Jesus stands before us in the darkness. But suddenly the light from within Jesus blazes forth, and the darkness flees. Or at least that’s what seems to happen. We perceive Jesus changing, and as Mark tells us, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” But I think something else is going on here, and to see it, we have to reorient our perspective. In the evening, we say the sun sets beneath the horizon. But what really happens is that our little plot of earth rotates away from the sun. Likewise, I don’t think anything at all changes about Jesus during the mountaintop visit. Rather, I think God gives the disciples the gift of revelation. God gives them transfigured eyes – eyes that, for a moment, are able to see Jesus as God sees him, as a luminous being from whom the darkness can do nothing but flee.

When we stumble into a moment of revelation – and it almost always is a stumbling in – we discover new or deeper truths about God’s movement in our lives and God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this broken world. In these moments of revelation, our perspective shifts, deepens, and we catch a clearer glimpse of what God is up to.

And everything begins again.

We look back at where our feet have taken us, and we know we’ve moved along the path following Jesus. And yet, we find ourselves back at our first word, Affirmation. And we hear once again God say to Jesus the same words God spoke six weeks ago. “This is my Son, the beloved.” Once again, God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved child, and by extension God affirms us – warts and all – as fundamentally good children beloved by God. But the affirmation is deeper now because of the journey we’ve taken. We’ve gone to the center of our brokenness; we’ve taken up our crosses; we’ve confronted the entrenched demons of society; we’ve collapsed exhausted for a time of Sabbath rest – and now we discover God revealing to us that God loves us even more than we thought possible.

With that deeper affirmation of goodness and love resonating in our hearts, we are ready for new Invitations, to go even closer to the center of our brokenness than we were willing to go before. We are ready to embrace with even more zeal the authentic Missions that Christ offers us when we pick up our crosses. We are ready to trust God with ever-expanding reserves of courage and faith when we Confront all that stands in the way of creation reconciling at last to God. We are ready to drink even more deeply from the waters of Rejuvenation. And each time we walk this path as it spirals upwards, we are ready to embrace greater Revelation, to see more often with those transfigured eyes.

That’s the goal, really: seeing more and more often with transfigured eyes, seeing this world as God sees it, as broken and beautiful at the same time. And in seeing as God would want us to see, we begin to notice with greater regularity those whom God yearns for us to love. We begin to serve with greater passion those whom God yearns for us to serve. And we begin to live with greater vitality the abundant life that Christ offers to all.

The Battlefield

Sermon for Sunday, February 22, 2015 || Lent 1B

TheBattlefieldWednesday 4:45am. My six-month-old daughter is screaming and has been for the last hour and a half. I’ve been doing what the method we’re using says to do: go into the nursery every five minutes and say the same script. Don’t pick her up. Just assure her you’re there: “It’s time for sleeping baby girl. Mommy and Daddy are right outside. We love you very much.” Then leave, start a new five-minute timer, and hope she settles down. Over the last six weeks or so, most nights have been pretty good. The twins are waking about once per night, but going back to sleep after a bit of nursing. We’ve been getting used to this wonderful new routine.

But Wednesday something is different. My daughter will not settle down. She just keeps screaming. With each five-minute check, my patience wears just a little thinner, which is bad because you’re supposed to be calm when you go in and say the script. During each five-minute interval, I sit at the top of the stairs, watch the timer, grind my teeth, and resist the urge to start banging my head against the banister.

By about the ninth or tenth interval, I am downstairs pacing the living room. And a new voice has joined the cacophony upstairs, a voice inside me telling me to let loose my frustration. “Stomp around. Punch the couch cushions. Kick over the laundry basket. It’ll help.” So I punch the couch cushions for a bit, swearing under my breath. And you know what? It doesn’t help at all. It just gets me more worked up. The only way to help my daughter calm down is to be calm myself, and punching couch cushions is not exactly the ideal definition of serenity.

So the questions I have are these: why do I perpetuate this pattern every time one of my babies has a bad night? Why do I give in to this irate voice time and again? And a final question, one which the voice does not want me to ask: where do you come from? When I’m calm enough to ask this last question, I see with sudden clarity my interior landscape. The demonic forces, of which the irate voice is ambassador, are marshaling to attack. They control a small, but strategically significant piece of my inner territory, and they want more. They want me to give in to anger and pride and the desire to isolate myself. Isolation, you see, makes me an easier target. And anger and pride are to these demonic forces like the marbling in a rib-eye steak. One look at their territory tells me why they want more. They’ve spoiled it: polluted the rivers, clear-cut the forests, and trampled the grass until all that’s left is mud sticking to their boots.

On the other side of the battlefield, the territory of God’s kingdom stretches to the horizon: Vast tracts of land waiting to be tilled and cultivated; fruit trees in blossom; rivers overflowing their banks with fresh, living water. But as my eyes scan this interior landscape, I’m horrified to discover no heavenly forces marshaling to defend God’s side of the battlefield. There are no walls to keep the invaders out, no minefield, no anti-infantry firepower of any kind. Surely the demonic hordes clamoring behind their pickets will overrun and despoil this good land.

I look again. Why aren’t the hordes charging? Why hasn’t the attack begun? And then I realize the horde has no leadership. No one down on the battlefield is in command. Demonic forces are experts, I’m sure, at disobeying orders, but you have to receive an order to disobey, and the horde hasn’t received one. They just stand there, calling out challenges and cruel taunts – to no one apparently, as the other side is empty.

But then, as I continue to survey this inner battlefield, two things dawn on me. First, their challenges and cruel taunts do have a target: Me. And second, they do have a commander. Me again. They won’t charge into God’s territory until I cede it to them. They will do all in their power to trick or persuade me to do so, but until I give in, they’re stuck in their own little cancerous kingdom.

Then a third thing dawns on me. My daughter is finally asleep again and the sun is rising outside. The sun rises over my interior landscape as well, and I look closer at God’s territory. It seemed so empty when I was focusing on the hordes clamoring for martial action, when all my attention was drawn by the demonic forces trying to force-feed me anger and pride. But now that I’m focusing on God’s territory I see the emptiness was just an illusion; a reverse mirage, so to speak.* God’s territory isn’t empty. It’s full of God’s love and grace: so full, in fact, that my normal narrowness of vision misses the fullness completely.

The season of Lent, which we began the same day as my daughter’s early morning wakefulness, offers us the invitation to expand our normal narrowness so that God has even more interior space to fill. We accomplish this expansion, paradoxically, by doing its opposite – by fasting. A fast is a series of intentional choices not to partake of something that has power over us. Most often we think of fasting as having to do with food, but that’s only if food has power over you (and it does over many Americans). But each of us has those things – the correct term is “idols” – to which we cede God’s territory within us. Whatever your particular idol is, that’s the thing from which you should be fasting. Right now mine is my anger at my own frustration when my babies don’t sleep when they’re supposed to.

I found the phrase “anger at my own frustration” in the Litany of Penitence, which we pray on Ash Wednesday. The Litany gave me the language I needed to put my idol into words. If you have trouble discerning what your idols are, take a look at the Litany. You can find it on page 267 of the Book of Common Prayer. I invite you, during this season of Lent, to take an honest look at your interior landscape, see what demonic forces are marshaling at the edge of God’s territory, and then choose each day to fast from whatever the horde is persuading you to do – or not do.

Fasting is our way of telling those demonic hordes that there won’t be a battle today so you might as well go home. The more we (their commanders) fail to issue the attack order, the less interested those forces get in standing sentry at the battle lines. They get bored. They retreat, not because they have been beaten, but because the internal violence they so revel in never occurs. As they retreat, God’s territory nips at their heals; replants the trampled, muddy ground with fresh orchards; and reclaims the land as God’s own. And the little cancerous kingdom diminishes.

I commit this Lent to fast from the anger my own frustration causes me. I hope you will join me in your own fast, whatever it may be. Don’t listen to the voices urging conquest. Instead, allow God’s territory to grow rampant across your inner selves. And then be part of the same rampant growth of God’s territory out in the world.

*I’m pretty sure I got this idea from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which I just read again, but I can’t find where it is in the book.

The Fifth Word: Rejuvenation

(Or with Wings Like Eagles)

Sermon for Sunday, February 8, 2015 || Epiphany 5B || Isaiah 40:20-31; Mark 1:29-39

(No audio this week: I forgot at the early service, and then I thought I pressed record at the later service, but didn’t. Sorry!)

Word5RejuvenationNext week ends our Epiphany sermon series, which means today we have come to our fifth word. But let’s start with a recap. Our first word was Affirmation: Nothing can take away God’s affirmation of us as God’s good and beloved children. Our second word was Invitation: God’s holy invitations most often originate in the center of our brokenness. Our third word was Mission: When we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, we find God’s missions for us where the plank of the world’s need intersects with the plank of our passions. Our fourth word was Confrontation: All the forces of this fallen world fight back when we embrace God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.

And this brings us to today, to our fifth word. And that word is Rejuvenation. When I was deciding on the six words to highlight during this series, today’s word was the most difficult to find. I read the Gospel lesson over and over again, but nothing stood out. The whole passage was just more confrontation. But then on the tenth or eleventh reading, I noticed a verse I had always skimmed over before. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

How wonderful is it that Mark, in all his hurry to move the narrative forward, would stop for a brief moment and give us this insight into Jesus’ character. Jesus must have been bone weary after the day he had. He spent most of the day at the Sabbath assembly, where we heard last week’s story of casting out the unclean spirit. Then he went to Simon and Andrew’s house, presumably for some respite. But he was needed there, too, as Simon’s mother-in-law was abed with fever. That evening, perhaps Jesus was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. But no. The people of Capernaum heard tell of his power, and “the whole city” (Mark tells us) gathered around the door clamoring for healing. Who knows how late into the night Jesus spent confronting demons and diseases. It seems no one, not even Jesus, can keep the pace he set that bone weary day in Capernaum.

And so we find Jesus in the wee hours of the morning escape to a deserted place. “And there he prayed.” And there he found his own Sabbath rest. And there he took a deep breath and reconnected with God his father. And there he reflected on the events of today so he’s better equipped for the events of tomorrow. And there he was rejuvenated.

This rejuvenation lasts only a single verse. In the next, Simon and his companions hunt for Jesus, find him, and he’s right back in the melee again, confronting all that separates his people from God. But for this one indefinite moment of time early in the morning in the deserted place, Jesus teaches us the value of rejuvenation: of Sabbath rest, prayerful reconnection, and spiritual reflection. Let’s take these three pieces of rejuvenation in turn.

We live out our missions from God throughout our daily lives and during special times of confrontation with the entrenched sins of the world. But what most of us fail to realize most of the time is that Sabbath rest is part of our missions. We have been suckered in by the myth of the full calendar. In recent years, school-aged children have started getting scheduled to within an inch of their lives. When I was a child and adolescent, I played a lot of sports, but I still remember spending plenty of time just hanging out with my friends, too. Those days seem to be long gone. And the over-scheduling we are subjecting our young ones to is now infecting us all.

Taking time to pause when this maelstrom of activity is swirling around you is totally countercultural. Over-scheduling is a form of the sin of gluttony, to which society is addicted in the extreme. But when we take Sabbath rest, we resist the false claim that doing more leads to greater happiness. You don’t need to take this rest on the actual day of the Sabbath, but I urge you to carve some white space out on your full calendar. Start with an hour of rejuvenation and try over time to stretch it to a full day.

Our time of rejuvenation begins with rest, which then deepens into prayerful reconnection with God. Engaging in our God-given missions, confronting the demons of the world, and – for that matter – just living our lives tend to untether us from our moorings. The currents of entrenched sin pull us out to sea. And the farther we drift from the source of all goodness, the more our priorities rearrange themselves. Greed and self-preservation rise up the list even as love and self-sacrifice fall. But returning to God regularly in prayer helps us examine those priorities and order them in the way God desires us to do. We come together each week to share Holy Communion because the Eucharist both physically reconnects us to the nourishment of God in Christ and reminds us of our true priorities: gratitude, community, love, and service.

Our rejuvenation begins with rest, continues with reconnection, and concludes with reflection. When we intentionally make available enough free space and time for reflection, then everything we do becomes more effective. I can hear my father’s voice in my head saying over and over again as I was growing up: “You don’t learn from experience. You learn from reflection on experience.” The most productive form of reflection couples self-examination with counsel from a coach, mentor, or friend. The best athletes in the world still have coaches to help them reflect on their games, learn from the mistakes, and get better at sports they are already the best at. The same holds true in our walks with Jesus Christ. Each of us can follow more nearly when others help us to reflect on our experiences to learn what holds us back.

When Jesus sneaks off by himself to be alone in prayer, he rests for a few precious moments, away from the demands of his ministry. He reconnects in prayer with the source of his strength. And I imagine that he reflects on an action packed day so that the days ahead can be more effective. And in so doing, God rejuvenates him to continue his mission. Likewise, God offers us this same opportunity to retreat strategically from our confrontations, engage a different piece of our mission, and rediscover ourselves moored to God’s goodness and love. When we accept the invitation to this opportunity, we find ourselves rejuvenated to continue our journeys towards the sixth and final word. That word is Revelation. But that will have to wait until next week.

For now, I urge you to carve that white space out on your calendar so that you have the space to hear one of God’s great and enduring promises, which the prophet Isaiah proclaims in today’s reading: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:30-31).

<<The Fourth Word: Confrontation || The Sixth Word: Revelation>>

The Third Word: Mission

(Or The Center of the Cross)

Sermon for Sunday, January 25, 2015 || Epiphany 3B || Mark 1:14-20

Word3MissionTwo weeks ago, we felt God affirm us as God’s good and beloved children. Last week, that affirmation allowed us to accept God’s holy invitations, which most often originate in our own brokenness. This week, we ask where those invitations lead us, and we find our third word in this six-part series. That third word is Mission.

In church lingo, the word “mission” is usually followed by the word “trip.” Perhaps you went on a mission trip as a teenager to a Native American reservation or spent a week painting a church in a town in El Salvador. When I was in seminary I went on a mission trip to New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. The group went down with Habitat for Humanity thinking we were going to be rebuilding homes. Turns out it was too soon to begin rebuilding, so we spent much of the week mucking putrid, knee-deep mud and silt out of water-logged homes on streets, whose road signs had been ripped off their poles by hundred mile an hour winds. We wore white coveralls, masks, and plastic gloves, which we duct-taped to our wrists. We spent the days bent over our shovels, thinking of nothing more than the next scoop of muck, because if you tried to think bigger thoughts, you became suddenly and irreversibly overwhelmed by the sodden despair clinging to every surface. Everywhere you looked, the five-month old disaster was still raw, still fresh.

When we returned to Virginia, it felt like coming home from a trip to Mars. I woke up the morning after we got back, and I wondered if it had all just been a bad dream. Then I rose and felt the bone-deep ache in my muscles and knew it was no dream. We had been there. We had helped. A little.

For that week in January 2006, bending over a shovel in a house on the outskirts of New Orleans was my mission from God. I have no doubt about that. I bring up this particular, weeklong excursion, however, to point out just how atypical it is. Most people never go on mission trips. If you do regularly, you’ll go probably a single week a year. I’ve only been on one other since New Orleans. Surely, there’s more to mission than just the trips?

When Jesus invites those four unsuspecting fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he doesn’t say, “Follow me for a week.” He just says, “Follow me.” And then he gives them their mission: “And I will make you fish for people.” What Jesus offers is not just a break from their nets, but a complete change in their lives as they know them. Simon, Andrew, James, and John do not sign up for a mission trip. They sign up for a mission life.

This is the opportunity Jesus offers us today. He offered it yesterday, too, and he will offer it again tomorrow. He doesn’t say, “Follow me for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when you are around your church friends.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when it is convenient.” He just says, “Follow me.” The invitation embedded in those two words promises a life of meaning, of service, of sacrifice, and of joy; not an easy life, but a full life, a life of purpose.

And all Jesus wants in return is you. All of you. Everything that makes you, you: your gifts and talents, as well as your pain and brokenness; your hopes and dreams, as well as your fears and nightmares. Offering everything we are to Jesus helps God tailor our missions to our lives. God will only use the parts of us that we give back to God. So if we want our missions to be authentic outpourings of ourselves for God’s work in the world, then we have to be willing to give everything — and I mean everything — back to God. There may be a dark corner of your life that you don’t want anyone to see. But shining a light into that dark corner may be the exact mission God yearns for you to accomplish. It may be painful. It may lead you to places you never thought you’d go. But it will be your mission. And because you will be following Jesus, he will arrive there ahead of you.

Like the original disciples, when we sign up to follow Jesus, we sign up for mission lives. But before you cringe away from the level of commitment that Jesus calls forth from us, let’s consider those original disciples. For them, following Jesus was an immersive experience. They lived with him. They ate with him. They could tell us if he snored or which sandal he always put on first. And still they often misunderstood him, disbelieved his power, and even abandoned him in his own hour of need. And these were the fellows who knew him in person.

Living mission lives does not mean living perfect lives. Like I said, Jesus wants us – warts and all – to follow him. The brokenness the disciples exhibit in the Gospel is the same brokenness that leads us to God’s holy invitations and then on to our missions.

Jesus’ own mission led him to the cross, and it is the image of the cross that I’d like to dwell on for a moment. Think of the vertical plank of the cross as all the possible missions God could call you to, everything that leads to healing and reconciliation in this world. Now think of the horizontal plank as the entirety of yourself that you have to give to the one who invited you to follow him. The spot where the two planks meet is the center of your mission life. And it is also the spot where Christ gave up his life in order to give you yours.*

The center of the cross is not a pleasant place. Neither will be many of the places where we find ourselves engaged in our mission lives. But just as Jesus transformed the cross from a symbol of death and brokenness into a symbol of life and wholeness, Jesus has already gone ahead of us to our mission fields and prepared the way for us to participate in this same transformation. All we need do is leave our nets and follow him there.

As you contemplate the mission God is inviting you to accomplish with your life, remember these things: Because your authentic mission life resides at the center of the cross you have taken up, it will be something uniquely tailored for your gifts and passions. You will identify with it because it will recall something about you that is or was broken. And, though it might be the most difficult thing you have ever done, you will still feel the glow of rightness about it even when everything is going wrong.

A final story about my own awakening to a life of mission: about five months after the trip to New Orleans, I found myself in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas for a summer residency as a chaplain. There were eight of us, all young and zealous. We had just gotten our hospital badges, but surely there was a mistake. The badges said, “CHAPLAIN.” Not Chaplain Intern. Not Chaplain-in-Training. Just CHAPLAIN. You see, our advisors borrowed their teaching techniques from mother birds. On day one, they flung us out of the nest to see if we could fly. We had our mission: it was right there on the badge. We were chaplains, like it or not. But of course, we could not fly. Within a week, each of us had crash-landed. We had met children living with and dying from cancer. We had seen disease and trauma ravage these small bodies. I had witnessed my first death, a three-month-old baby boy. We brand-new chaplains had a mission: to care for and comfort these young patients and their families. But we could not fly. And so we plummeted. We hit rock bottom. And at rock bottom is where our mission truly began, where Jesus was calling us to follow him. Because when we hit rock bottom, we found our young patients and their families there.

<<The Second Word: Invitation || The Fourth Word: Confrontation>>

*Thanks to the Rev. Tim Hodapp for reminding me of this image for mission at a recent meeting.

The First Word: Affirmation

(Or The Fundamental Goodness of Creation)

Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015 || Epiphany 1B || Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

Word1AffirmationYou may recall during a sermon last spring, I challenged you to choose six words to proclaim your faith. I remembered the “Six-Word Witness” challenge as I began to prepare for this new season after Epiphany, as there happen to be six Sundays between now and Lent. If you read my article in the recent issue of The Lion’s Tale, you got a sneak peak at a particular six-word witness, one that describes the trajectory of the next six weeks as we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. My plan during this season after Epiphany is to connect this sermon with the next five to tell a much larger story of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.

Yes, you heard that right. Today’s sermon is the beginning of a six-part series. That means if you have plans to go skiing in a couple of weeks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to cancel.

We begin today with the first word: Affirmation. And we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning. What we find when we enter the story as early as we possibly can is the affirmation of goodness. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Right away, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God has already affirmed something as good. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the creation story. Each day God creates, and that which God creates God affirms as good. Thus the fundamental goodness of creation is built into the very fabric of creation. From the sweeping array of celestial bodies to the lowliest tadpole dwelling in the muck to us troublesome and ungainly humans, God affirms everything God makes with the seal of goodness.

(As an aside, God calls us humans “very” good while the rest of creation is merely good, but I think that has more to do with the fact that we humans we were the ones who wrote it all down.)

The reality that goodness entered creation on the ground floor is of utmost importance for the rest of the ongoing story. There have been folks in the past, notably in the early centuries of Christianity, who taught that the physical creation God made — the matter, the flesh, the stuff we can see and touch — was, in fact, inherently evil. They taught that only the spiritual realm held any goodness, and so they sought to divorce themselves from the flesh entirely. Of course, to make this heretical mental leap, they had to ignore the bulk of the Biblical witness, which they did with no qualms at all. Their path led to disengagement from the world; the founding of secretive, insular societies; and what I imagine was quite a lot of struggle against instincts that are totally normal, but which they decided were base and evil. Thankfully, the majority of Christians were not led astray by this faulty understanding of creation. And so we still have the witness of Genesis reminding us of God’s affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation.

But now comes our own mental leap. Or call it a leap of faith. We move from one beginning to another, from the beginning of creation to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the outset of Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water of the River Jordan during his own baptism. He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Notice the placement of this piece of the Gospel. Before Jesus has a chance to do anything of consequence; before his ministry gets off the ground; before any miracles or teachings or healings or his death or resurrection, God showers upon Jesus God’s love and pleasure. Just like God affirms creation as good right from the start, God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son before he has a chance to earn the right to such a name.

Now, you might be thinking: “Of course God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son — that’s who he is! What about me?!” Yes, what about the rest of us troublesome, ungainly, and yet “very” good humans? Well, to make our leap of faith, we need a little help from our friend the Apostle Paul. He writes to the church in Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).

If the writers of Genesis were presumptuous to call us “very” good, then Paul must be doubly so to claim that we are joint heirs with Christ. Or is he? Perhaps, instead, Paul has seen into the truth of the matter, seen Jesus’ plan all along, a plan to show us what we have always been and to reaffirm our inherent goodness, our lovableness.

And here’s where our own version of the heresy I spoke of earlier comes to into play. While those folks taught the matter of creation was inherently evil, there is an overriding voice in our modern American society telling us that we aren’t exactly evil, but we sure are deficient. I’m of course referring to my favorite homiletical punching bag, the ubiquitous marketing department. Marketing campaigns work like this: they tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.

All this must be true, right? I mean, we’re bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. That’s when we forget our inherent goodness, the goodness God affirmed in the first rushing breath of creation.

Here our leap of faith continues, because the marketing department has convinced us of our utter worthlessness. And so we might not want to believe that Jesus has invited us — yes, even you and me — to be joint heirs with him of the love and pleasure of God. Jesus received this affirmation of his belovedness before his ministry even started. Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are. God’s love and pleasure are nestled at the very core of our beings, nestled right next to the affirmation of goodness, which God breathes into all creation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed this up in one dazzling sentence. He once said, “God does not love us because we are lovable; we are lovable because God loves us.” This love is the core of our identity, not something we earn, not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we choose to believe this fundamental truth, we will be ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives. It is to these invitations we turn next week as our six-part series continues. But for today, feel this truth in your bones. Feel God say this to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

The Second Word: Invitation >>

Good News

Sermon for Sunday, December 7, 2014 || Advent 2B || Mark 1:1-8

goodnewsThe Gospel writer Mark wastes no time telling us what his story is about. The very first words of his account of the Gospel proclaim without hesitation: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Matthew begins with a genealogy linking Jesus back to Abraham. Luke begins with a short address about his research methodology. John begins with a mysterious poem about creation. But Mark just hits the ground running and never looks back. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Now, Mark’s Gospel tends to hurtle from one scene to the next. Everything happens immediately after everything else. The fast pace of this sixteen chapter account of the Gospel just makes me want to keep reading and get to the end as quickly as Mark seems to want me to. But if we did such a binge reading, we’d miss the depth and intricacy packed into this, the shortest of the Gospel accounts. So with this in mind and because Advent is upon us, let’s slow down for a few minutes and really digest this first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

In today’s parlance, when we hear the term “good news,” the two words are usually embedded in the sentence: “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” We’ve all used this conversational staple.

“The good news is the rest of this week will be lovely; the bad news is next week we’re in for a Nor’ Easter.”

“The good news is no one was seriously hurt in the accident; the bad news is the car was totaled.”

“The good news is I found the recipe; the bad news is we’re out of eggs.”

In meetings, around kitchen tables, on the bus, we use the words “good news” to talk about the sometimes funny, sometimes bland, sometimes serious details of our lives. These two words are so ordinary, so normal. Because they sound so common, I wonder how we encounter the words “good news” when we hear them right at the beginning of Mark’s account of the Gospel. Perhaps Mark is really excited about the story he’s going to tell. Perhaps Mark is employing a specific term that Jesus’ himself or his first followers used to describe his message. Either way, Mark is almost certainly doing something that we 21st century citizens would miss entirely because of our modern connotation of “good news.”

You see, in the first century Roman Empire, of which Israel was an occupied region, the term “good news” had a special connotation. The word was used exclusively for propaganda about the empire and usually about the Roman emperor himself.

“Good News: the Emperor won a victory in Gaul!”

“Good News: the Emperor’s wife has given birth to a strapping infant boy!”

“Good News: the Emperor has had another birthday!”

The Roman propaganda machine churned out these ancient press releases, and the strong arm of the military bade the cowed citizenry of occupied countries to celebrate. This was one small way that the Empire kept control of all that conquered land.

So when Jesus and later Mark proclaim their own “Good News,” they are tacitly setting their story, their message, their view of who’s really in charge squarely in the face of the Roman establishment. The “Good News,” which Jesus and his followers proclaim, is a stark challenge to the ruling order of the day. Indeed, Mark shows his faith and his gutsiness in the simple act of writing those two rebellious words on the page.

Okay, file this stark challenge away for just a minute and let’s back up to the first two words in the verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The beginning. These two words seem completely innocuous. They obviously start the story. They’re on page one. They would have been at the top of the scroll in Mark’s day. So then why does Mark need to tell us that we are reading the beginning of the story when we are obviously reading the beginning of the story?

Perhaps Mark isn’t just stating the obvious. Perhaps this “beginning” is greater than “the opening verses of Chapter One.” Perhaps the “beginning” that Mark has in mind encompasses the entirety of his sixteen-chapter Gospel. Now we’re on to something.

If the whole, entire Gospel is the “beginning of the good news,” then the natural question becomes, “What is the middle and end of the good news?” And this is where followers of Jesus Christ down through the centuries come in. Jesus lived the beginning of the Good News. Mark, along with Matthew, Luke, and John, wrote down the story of that beginning. And you and I are characters in the middle of that same story begun two thousand years ago. You and I are players in the unfolding drama of the Good News. You and I have taken up the narrative of the Gospel that God continues to tell in our lives.

All right, go ahead and un-file the stark challenge we talked about a minute ago. Remember that Mark’s usage of the term “Good News” was a gutsy, implicit challenge to the ruling order of the day. This ruling order touted their empire as the “Pax Romana,” the “peace of Rome.” Of course, this “peace” was accomplished through conquest, coercion, occupation, and fear. But Jesus Christ replaced this so-called “peace” with a peace of his own invention. Jesus’ own Good News, his own triumph was accomplished through welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

Of course, when these two versions of “peace” clashed, the broken, imperial establishment utterly crushed Jesus. However, by not fighting back, by sacrificing himself to halt the cycle of violence, Jesus succeeded in his challenge, even though he died. But even then, the story was just beginning. With his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that his version of the Good News is truly the Good one. As characters who have now appeared later in this same narrative, we have the opportunity to take up the same challenge that Jesus and Mark after him championed. The Pax Romana of our day rules through apathy, self-centeredness, greed, and fear. But when find ourselves in the middle of the story begun in the Gospel, we find the strength and courage to combat those evils with Jesus’ own arsenal of welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

This opening verse of Mark’s Gospel invites us once again to read the prologue to our own lives as followers of Jesus Christ. This beginning of the Good News gives us who live in the middle our meaning and our purpose and the promise that we are part of the great story of God’s mission to reconcile all creation back to God. The Good News was a challenge in Jesus’ day. And it still is in ours. But we’re up for the challenge because once the Good News of Jesus Christ has lodged itself in your heart, you can’t help but share it in your words and in your deeds.

Now, I’ll end this sermon with some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first? The bad news. Sure. The bad news is there’s still so much brokenness in this world, so many places where God’s reconciling love seems so far away. The good news is that with God’s help, we can challenge the ruling order of our day and bring the wholeness of this reconciliation to those broken places. The good news is that we are the current characters in the story begun in the Gospel. The good news is that the story isn’t over yet.

Three Panels of the Story

(Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2012 || Lent 1B || Mark 1:9-15)

Every year on the First Sunday of Lent, we hear the story from the Gospel that tells about Jesus’ time in the wilderness. We hear this story on this particular Sunday because Jesus’ forty days off by himself, fasting in the arid austerity of the desert, are a model for our own forty-day Lenten journey. Last year, we heard Matthew’s telling of this tale – an eleven-verse treatment, complete with the devil’s three-pronged attack on a famished Jesus. The year before that, we heard Luke’s version, a full thirteen verses that recount the same story as Matthew does. Now, if Matthew and Luke spend on average a dozen verses on this story, then you might be wondering whether you nodded off during the Gospel reading from Mark a few moments ago and missed something. Where was the dialogue between the seductive devil and the stalwart Jesus? Where were the temptations: the bread from the rock, the leap from the temple, the view from the mountain? The answer is that I didn’t read them because they aren’t there. And I can assure you that you didn’t have time to nod off, no matter how sleepy you are.

Never one to spend his words frivolously, Mark gives us a grand total of two verses on Jesus’ time in the wilderness. “And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s all Mark has to say on the subject. So, to keep you all from feeling gypped by a two-verse Gospel reading, the framers of our lectionary tacked on a few verses before and a few verses after Jesus’ time in the wilderness. And I’m so glad they did.

I’m glad because Mark’s rapid style progresses from scene to scene with such haste that the individual scenes cannot be isolated from one another. Indeed, I don’t think Mark intended for them ever to stand alone. Rather, taken together like the three panels of a comic strip, the three short scenes we read a few minutes ago tell the concise story of our life of faith.

Here’s the first panel: Mark draws Jesus emerging from the waters of the River Jordan. A dove alights on his outstretched arm. A text bubble points out the top of the frame and reads: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This first panel in the story of our life of faith is “relationship.” Jesus hears God’s voice calling him “Son.” And not just son, but a son whom God loves. And not just a son God loves, but a son God loves, in whom God finds delight and joy. This relationship that God has with Jesus is the same relationship that God initiates with each one of us. Each of us is a son or daughter whom God loves and in whom God delights.

I know this can be hard to accept because most of the time we feel way too messy and unkempt for God to want to know us, let alone to delight in us. Our socks have holes in them. We haven’t vacuumed in a while. We ate that pretzel we found between the couch cushions. And that’s just the surface stuff. Why would God want to have anything to do with such untidy people?

But the wonderful thing about this first panel of our story is that Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. We’re less than a dozen verses into Mark’s account of the Gospel. Jesus hasn’t spoken a word or accomplished anything more remarkable than traveling from Nazareth to the Jordan and coming up for air after John dunked him under the water. Before Jesus has time to win or lose God’s favor, God has already staked out a place in their relationship. Likewise, God tossed God’s lot in with us long before we let God see our untidiness. And God’s not going to cut and run just because of our state of disrepair. God’s knowledge of us, love for us, and delight in us do not depend on our worthiness. In fact, they create our worthiness. Because God is in relationship with us, we are worthy to be in relationship with God. This is the first panel of our story.

In the second panel, Mark draws Jesus walking in the desert. At first glance, he seems to be alone. But then you notice the faint outline of an angelic hand holding one of Jesus’ hands as the other fends off Satan. This second panel in the story of our life of faith is “adversity.” Immediately after God affirms God’s relationship with Jesus, Jesus finds himself in the wilderness with the wild beasts and the temptations of Satan. I always assumed that Jesus had to travel quite far to get to the wilderness, but as I thought about this sermon, I changed my mind. I doubt he went very far at all. The wilderness is all around us. We live in the wilderness. Sometimes through our actions and inactions, we contribute to expanding the wilderness. The wilderness exists anywhere that we feel isolated or afraid or tempted or lost. And let’s be honest – we are feeling at least one of those most of the time.

But the adversity, which brings on these feelings, does not make the wilderness a trial or a proving ground. God does not drop us in the desert just to test our endurance. We simply wander into the wilderness, and we get caught there because the wilderness is vast and tangled. But remember the first panel of our story. The relationship God entered into on our behalf does not end at the desert’s edge. When the people of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years after fleeing Egypt, they made a remarkable discovery. Their God was in the desert, too. The adversity of the wilderness is the second panel of our story, but the relationship of the first panel carries through.

When we discover God’s constant presence even in the midst of the wilderness, we are ready to move to the third panel. Mark draws Jesus striding through Galilee proclaiming a message to everyone who will listen and to some who won’t. A text bubble points to Jesus, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This third panel in the story of our life of faith is “proclamation.” After God has claimed a delight-filled relationship with the beloved Son, and after the Son has wandered in the wilderness, Jesus returns to Galilee with the words of the good news of God on his lips.

Our proclamation of this same good news happens whenever we act on the faith that comes from God’s delighted, loving relationship with us. Our proclamation happens when we come to know, love, and delight in all the messy and unkempt people around us. Our proclamation happens when, even in the midst of the tangled wilderness, we rely on God to show us the path to freedom.

Our life of faith moves from relationship through adversity to proclamation. But this life of faith is not linear; rather, this life is a spiral. As we grow in our faith, we delve more deeply into our side of our relationships with God. As we come ever closer to the God who is always close to us, we can endure greater adversity. And we can proclaim more continuously and more courageously the love and delight God has for all people.

As we enter this holy season of Lent, I invite you to take stock of where you are in this life of faith. Are you nurturing your relationship with God? Or are you wandering through the tangled wilderness of adversity? Or are you reveling in all the ways that you show forth God’s love? Or perhaps, you are living out a little of all three. Wherever you are in this story of the life of faith, trust that God began a relationship with you before you were worthy of one, that God is hacking away at the tangle of wilderness right alongside you, and that God is constantly speaking the words of the good news through your words and deeds into the hearts of those you meet along the way. Thanks be to God.

Be Silent, and Come out of Him

 (Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2012 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28 )

I don’t know about you, but if I were the unclean spirit in today’s Gospel reading, I probably would have kept a lower profile. I would have lain low, kept my mouth shut, perhaps donned a pair of those Groucho Marx glasses with the big eyebrows and moustache. Then, after Jesus left the synagogue, I would have slunk home, incessantly cackling and cajoling, coercing and enticing, whispering, persuading, coaxing, craving, swaying, squeezing, luring. I would have slunk home, still embedded within my “patient,” as C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape calls you delicious people. I mean, us delicious people. I mean, us people.

*shakes head vigorously*

What I’m trying to say is this unclean spirit doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of self-preservation. If the unclean spirit knew that Jesus was “the Holy One of God,” and therefore had plenty of authority to command said spirit, then why did the spirit make a peep? And not just a peep, but a scene? And not just a scene, but a scene in the synagogue, which would be like the event taking place right now during this service. As I said before, I probably would have kept a lower profile.

However, maybe I’m not giving the unclean spirit enough credit for trying. Perhaps, this thing afflicting the guy in the synagogue did attempt to keep his lips zipped. Perhaps, the unclean spirit knew that Jesus would make the spirit’s existence rather uncomfortable if Jesus caught wind of the afflicting presence. And perhaps, the spirit just couldn’t help but cry out when Jesus was nearby.

The unclean spirit is caught in Jesus’ gravitational field. Like a satellite in a degraded orbit falling to earth, the spirit succumbs to Jesus’ gravity and reveals itself. The gravity – the authority – of Jesus’ presence compels the unclean spirit to cry out. And by this same authority, Jesus pulls the spirit from the man with the words: “Be silent, and come out of him!”

Now, I know that dismissing this kind of Biblical story is easy in our day and age. We look to psychology for a comfortable, modern lens with which to interpret unclean spirits. Demonic possession belongs to horror films and to currently popular fantasy worlds populated with vampires, zombies and werewolves. But for all the science and science fiction that we can use to explain away stories like today’s Gospel, the fact of the matter remains that Jesus took this man, who was afflicted by spiritual uncleanness, and made him well. The thought of unclean spirits may make you uncomfortable – sure makes me uncomfortable. But the reality of Jesus standing near and cleansing the filth within replaces my discomfort with wonder and awe and thanksgiving.

“Be silent, and come out of him!” says Jesus. He says this to the unclean spirit within the man at the synagogue, and he says this to the unclean spirits within us at St. Stephen’s church. Our afflictions may not look like the ones depicted in Renaissance frescos or horror film special effects, but that doesn’t make our unclean spirits any less real or damaging to our walks with God and one another. The question is: do we want to stand close enough to Jesus for his gravity to act on our uncleanness?

Whenever I ask myself this question, an overwhelming sense of lethargy strikes me out of nowhere. The status quo may not be perfect or even ideal, but I’ve gotten along well enough so far, I tell myself. May as well stay the course. “If it’s only somewhat broke, don’t fix it!” But honestly, this lethargy doesn’t strike out of nowhere. The lethargy comes from the unclean parts of me that want to be left well enough alone. I hear a voice within that sounds like mine, but I know deep down this voice is not the one I should listen to. The voice coaxes me back: back to bed, back to sleep, back away from the Holy One of God, whose gravity is always seeking to pull me to a closer orbit.

To this voice, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.” For me this voice belongs to pride and self-sufficiency and self-importance. Jesus calls the owner of this voice to leave me so that I can follow Jesus more closely. That’s mine. I wonder what your unclean voice is coaxing and coercing from you?

Perhaps, yours tells you that if you do just enough to get by, everything will work out. Your life might not be great, but your life will be easy, and that’s good, right? You don’t study for the test because you know you can scrape a C-minus, and that’s good enough. You don’t practice the piano piece because you can hit most of the notes most of the time, and that’s good enough. “Good enough, good enough” says the voice, which belongs to the indolent drifter within you, the slacker who’d rather just play video games all day. To this unclean spirit, Jesus says, “I never promised life would be easy, but I did promise life would be abundant, not just good enough. Be silent, and come out of him.”

Perhaps, your unclean voice tells you that working all those extra hours shows your dedication, and you never think to ask, “Dedication to what?” You stay late at the office most nights and the tonnage of missed dinners and little league games and ballet recitals piles up around you. You burned out a year ago, but you’re still plugging away because you’re no quitter. “You’re giving your family a better life, no matter if you’re not around,” says the voice, which belongs to the petrified consumer within you. To this unclean spirit, Jesus says, “Your relationships are more important than your money. Be silent, and come out of him.”

Perhaps, your unclean voice tells you that you are unattractive, unlovable, and doomed to a lonely existence; or that you should just shut yourself in your house so others won’t see that the years are taking their toll on your faculties; or that your challenges are too insignificant to ask others for help; or that others will laugh at whatever you say; or that whatever you do, nothing will be enough for God or anyone else to love you. To each and every one of these unclean spirits, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.”

These unclean spirits are familiar to us. They are comfortable, even though they demean and debase and shackle us. The overwhelming feeling of lethargy happens when they sense that we are moving nearer to Jesus Christ, when we are circling at a closer orbit. The unclean spirits feel the pull of his gravity, and they try to escape, to keep us for themselves. But they can never escape, because we were made not for them, but for God. And the Holy One of God has the authority, the mercy, and the grace to cleanse us.

When you give in to the unclean spirit within you, the enticing voice that speaks of lethargy or apathy or anger or fear, listen also for a second voice, the voice of Jesus Christ speaking from the depths of your soul. His is the voice of freedom from the filth that keeps us from living into the fullness that God desires for each of us. His is the voice filled with the gravity and authority of the Holy One of God. His is the voice that cries out: “Be silent, and come out of him.”

The Beginning of the Beginning

(Sermon for Sunday, December 4, 2011 || Advent 2B || Mark 1:1-8 )

The Gospel writer Mark wastes no time telling us what the story he is writing is about. The very first words of his account of the Gospel proclaim without hesitation: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Whereas Matthew begins with a genealogy that links Jesus back to Abraham; whereas Luke begins with a short address about his research methodology; whereas John begins with a mysterious poem about creation, Mark just hits the ground running and never looks back. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Now, until I started thinking about this sermon, I had always taken this verse at face value. The “beginning” that Mark is talking about is simply the launch of the story he is telling. The “good news” is the marvelous effect of the life, death, and resurrection of the main character, whose name and identity Mark helpfully provides at the end of the verse: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The immediate, no frills manner, in which Mark relates the rest of the Gospel, makes this face value interpretation of the opening verse quite attractive. However, just because Mark’s narrative tends to hurtle forward from one encounter to the next, doesn’t mean that the narrative has no depth or intricacy. With that in mind, and because Advent is upon us, let’s slow down for a few minutes and really digest this first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

In today’s parlance, when we hear the term “good news,” the two words are usually embedded in the sentence: “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” We’ve all used this conversational staple.

“The good news is the Patriots won their game; the bad news is so-and-so outside linebacker broke his leg and is out for the season.”

“The good news is no one was seriously hurt in the accident; the bad news is the car was totaled.”

“The good news is I found the recipe; the bad news is we’re out of eggs.”

In meetings, around kitchen tables, on the bus, we use the words “good news” to talk about the sometimes funny, sometimes bland, sometimes serious details of our lives. These two words are so ordinary, so normal. Because they sound so common, I wonder how we encounter the words “good news” when we hear them right at the beginning of Mark’s account of the Gospel. Perhaps Mark is really excited about the story he is going to tell. Perhaps Mark is employing a specific term that Jesus’ himself or his first followers used to describe his message. Either way, Mark is almost certainly doing something that we 21st century citizens would miss entirely because of our modern connotation of “good news.”

You see, in the first century Roman Empire, of which Israel was an occupied region, the term “good news” had a special connotation. The word was used exclusively for propaganda about the empire and usually about the Roman emperor himself.

“Good News: the Emperor won a victory in Gaul!”

“Good News: the Emperor’s wife has given birth to a strapping infant boy!”

“Good News: the Emperor has had another birthday!”

The Roman propaganda machine churned out these ancient press releases, and the strong arm of the military bade the cowed citizenry of occupied countries to celebrate. This was one small way that the Empire kept control of all that conquered land.

So when Jesus and later Mark proclaim their own “Good News,” they are tacitly setting their story, their message, their view of who’s really in charge squarely in the face of the Roman establishment. The “Good News,” which Jesus and his followers proclaim, is a stark challenge to ruling order of the day. Indeed, Mark shows his faith and his gutsiness in the simple act of writing those two words on the page.

Okay, file the challenge away for just a minute and let’s back up to the first two words in the verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The beginning. I’ll confess, until this week, I never thought there was something odd about these two words, which open Mark’s account of the Gospel. But think about them for a second: the beginning. The two words obviously start the story. They’re on page one. They would have been at the top of the scroll in Mark’s day. Why does Mark need to tell us that we are reading the beginning of the story when we are obviously reading the beginning of the story?

Perhaps Mark isn’t just stating the obvious. Perhaps this “beginning” is greater than “the opening verses of Chapter One.” Perhaps the “beginning” that Mark has in mind encompasses the entirety of his sixteen-chapter Gospel. Now we’re on to something.

If the whole, entire Gospel is the “beginning of the good news,” then the natural question becomes, “What is the middle and end of the good news?” And this is where followers of Jesus Christ down through the centuries come in. Jesus lived the beginning of the Good News. Mark, along with Matthew, Luke, and John, wrote down the story of that beginning. And you and I are characters in the middle of that same story begun two thousand years ago. You and I are players in the unfolding drama of the Good News. You and I have taken up the narrative of the Gospel that God continues to tell in our lives.

Alright, go ahead and un-file the challenge we talked about a minute ago. Remember that Mark’s usage of the term “Good News” was a gutsy, implicit challenge to the ruling order of the day. This ruling order touted their empire as the “Pax Romana,” the “peace of Rome.” Of course, this “peace” was accomplished through conquest, coercion, occupation, and fear. But Jesus Christ replaced this so-called “peace” with a peace of his own invention. Jesus’ own Good News, his own triumph was accomplished through welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

Of course, when these two versions of “peace” clashed, the broken, imperial establishment utterly crushed Jesus. However, by not fighting back, by sacrificing himself to halt the cycle of violence, Jesus succeeded in his challenge, even though he died. But even then, the story was just beginning. With his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that his version of the Good News is truly the Good one. As characters who have now appeared later in this same narrative, we have the opportunity to take up the same challenge that Jesus and Mark after him championed. The Pax Romana of our day rules through apathy, self-centeredness, greed, and (as then) fear. But when find ourselves in the middle of the story begun in the Gospel, we find the strength and courage to combat those evils with Jesus’ own arsenal of welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

Now, I’ll end this sermon with some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first? The bad news. Sure. The bad news is there is still so much brokenness in this world, so many places where God’s Kingdom seems so far away. The good news is that with God’s help, we can challenge the ruling order of our day and bring the wholeness of the Kingdom to those broken places. The good news is that we are the current characters in the story begun in the Gospel. The good news is that the story isn’t over yet.