Get Behind Me, Satan

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Face Paint

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020 || Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

My kids love to get their faces painted. Whenever we are at a fair or carnival, they will beeline to face painting booth and wait in line as long as they have to. One of the twins will get a Spiderman paint job and the other will look like a unicorn. Then they will spend the rest of the day so happy because of the art adorning their faces. At bedtime, the inevitable strife will ensue. 

“I need to wash the the paint of your faces.”
“No!”
“But it will smear all over your pillow.”
“I don’t care!”
“You’re not the one who does the laundry.”

I’m in charge, so the paint eventually comes off, but I always hate cleaning their faces because it’s like I’m taking their joy away. Those nights, they go to bed very sullen. The unicorn and Spiderman are no more.

Or are they? The paint might be gone, but the imaginations that asked for those particular designs remain. The children can still enter into those identities in their play whether they have their faces painted or not. But for that one shining day, the face paint illuminates on the outside the characters they are playing within.

The same is true today on Ash Wednesday.

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Old Life, New Life

Sermon for Sunday, January 26, 2020 || Epiphany 3A || Matthew 4:12-23

This past summer, I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The pebbled beach crunched beneath my feet. The windswept waves gurgled in and out. The fresh air filled my lungs just like it did for those first disciples of Jesus, who knelt on the same shore two thousand years ago repairing their fishing nets. The sea felt holy, filled with the memory of fishing boats plying the waves, delivering Jesus the Christ to various destinations on the coast; filled too with the energy of those ancient calls, brought to the present to strengthen and renew my own call to follow Jesus.

Imagine yourselves on that shore. The Sea of Galilee, really a large lake, stretches out before you, its dark blue waters lightening with the dawn under a clear sky, where the last of the brightest stars is disappearing. The Golan Heights and other points of elevation rise on the far side of the sea, gold and green and hazy in the distance. The sun is just rising over the hills across the water, and you’re squatting on the ground with threads of twine between your fingers. You need to repair the net soon so you can get in the water during the best fishing. Simon and Andrew already pushed off and they’re…

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I Will Give You Words

Sermon for Sunday, November 17, 2019 || Proper 28C || Luke 21:5-19

Imagine with me the words of the Apostle Peter, spoken to his young cellmate on the eve of Peter’s death in the city of Rome around the year 64 A.D.

I heard about the great fire that swept through Rome, and I knew immediately that the authorities would blame us Christians. That’s why I came here – to support the community I knew would face persecution. And now here I am, arrested for arson – this is my fourth arrest, by the way – and I wasn’t even here at the time of the blaze. But facts don’t matter to those in power. Only keeping their power matters to them. 

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Walk in Love

Sermon for Sunday, September 29, 2019 || Proper 21C || Luke 16:19-31

This sermon is about walking in love. But before I go there, I need to talk about Jesus the radical. Jesus shares a lot of radical stories in the Gospel. We might not realize how radical they are because they appear in the Bible. And the Bible over time has become such an established collection of writings that we don’t necessarily expect them to be radical. We hear the same stories over and over again, so their shocking nature is dulled both by repetition and the long march of history.

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Only the Present

Sermon for Sunday, January 27, 2019 || Epiphany 3C || Luke 4:14-21

Stacey just read for you the entirety of Jesus’ first recorded sermon. If you spaced out for a second during the Gospel lesson, then you might have missed it. The sermon is really short – one sentence only: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

That’s it. That’s Jesus’ first sermon. Short and sweet. You wouldn’t even have time to be distracted by your text messages or Twitter feed during that sermon. Back in my last church, the pulpit was a good ten feet in the air, so I could always see when people were checking their phones. Don’t worry – you’re safe here with me on the floor. Continue reading “Only the Present”

Like a Dove

Sermon for Sunday, January 13, 2019 || Epiphany 1C || Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:21-22

I don’t normally do traditional three-point sermons, but one’s coming at you right now. Are you ready? Something caught my eye in today’s Gospel reading that I’ve never noticed before. Luke tells us: “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove.” All four accounts of the Gospel mention the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, but Luke is the only one to go so far as to say “in bodily form” like a dove. Could it be that an actual, physical dove flew down from the sky as Jesus was coming up out of the waters of Baptism and alighted on his outstretched hand? Could it be that Jesus’ followers interpreted the descent of this dove as an encounter with the Holy Spirit? I think this is very possible. I’ve known too many people who have lost loved ones, only to have their own hearts uplifted by the odd actions of birds that I’m convinced the Holy Spirit has a special avian connection. Indeed, the dove is the most common symbol of the Holy Spirit. There it is at the top of that window.

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Here and Now

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

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

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

Beloved Community

Sermon for Sunday, September 30, 2018 || Proper 21B || Mark 9:38-50

(I was blessed to preach this day at my father’s retirement service. For the sermon preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mystic, please click here.)

Good morning. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to speak with you today as you say farewell to my mother and father. After nearly thirty years of active ordained ministry, my dad is “retiring” tomorrow.  I put that word in air quotes because if you know my dad, then you can’t imagine that particular verb ever describing him. For him, retirement won’t mean playing golf every day (which is good, because he’s not very good at it). For him, retirement will mean a refocusing of the life God has called him to live so that he might help others learn how to do the kind of work that you and he have been doing together these last three years. God called you and my parents together to participate in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation here in Middletown. As my parents depart this place, the mission of God remains, and you will have a new pastor with whom to share this mission. Continue reading “Beloved Community”

The Airport Rule

Sermon for Sunday, July 8, 2018 || Proper 9B || Mark 6:1-13

When I was growing up, my parents instituted a family ordinance called “the airport rule.” The airport rule stated that whenever we were in a crowded place like an airport, we always had to be holding hands with another member of the family. Observing this safety measure meant we were less likely to get lost or (God forbid) snatched. All my parents had to do was call out, “Airport rule!” and Melinda and I immediately buddied up with them.

When I became a parent myself, I finally understood the genius of the airport rule. It wasn’t just about safety, though that was a big part of it. The airport rule also made our travel more efficient because, once buddied up, we had to walk at the parent’s pace instead of the child’s. And there was one more sneaky element of the airport rule that I would never have dreamt of when I was a kid. I’m certain my parents called out for the airport rule just because they liked holding our hands. There’s simply nothing like reaching down and finding those warm, little fingers to squeeze. Every time I hold my son’s or daughter’s hands, I can’t help but send up a prayer of thanks that God entrusted these two precious lives to Leah and me.*

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