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. 

Continue reading “I Will Give You Words”

Both Miner and the Vein of Gold

Sermon for Sunday, April 21, 2019 || Easter Day C || JOHN 20:1-18

Here we are at long last: Easter Sunday, a long wait this year, two-thirds of the way through the month of April. But it could have been longer. April 25th is the latest Easter can be, but that hasn’t happened since 1943 and won’t happen again until 2038, which coincidentally is the year I’ll be eligible to retire. Unlike most holidays, which are fixed on a particular date or day of the month, the date of Easter (and the Jewish Passover) springs from something much grander – the motion of celestial bodies. We start with the vernal equinox, the day in March when the earth is tilted just so in relation to the sun to make day and night the same exact length. Then we find the next full moon, and the Sunday following is this day of Resurrection.

Continue reading “Both Miner and the Vein of Gold”

The True Messiah

Sermon for Sunday, September 16, 2018 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38

Imagine with me today’s Gospel story as told me the perspective of the disciple Peter.

The coals in the cooking fire still smolder hours after the last log is cast on them. I awake in the pre-dawn chill and warm my fingers over the scant heat. Mine is the night’s last watch, and I mutter to myself about the pointlessness of posting a sentry. But our resident Zealot, the other Simon, has convinced the others about the need for vigilance. The foggy, half-light of dawn creeps through our camp, and I see movement coming through the scrub from the foothills. I’m about to wake the Zealot when I hear the tune of a psalm carried on the breeze, and then Jesus himself steps out of the mist. Under one arm, he has a load of sticks and twigs. Blowing gently on the embers, he rekindles the fire and sits down next to me. Continue reading “The True Messiah”

You Will be Found

Sermon for Sunday, August 26, 2018 || Proper 16B || John 6:56-69

Sometimes ordinary conversations spur the deepest of thoughts. This past Monday, I was cleaning up the breakfast dishes while listening to the kids talking to each other at the kitchen table. At their recent birthday party, they had decorated small terra cotta pots with glitter glue and stickers. Inside the pots they planted seeds that hopefully will grow into tiny spruce trees by Christmas. So there they sat at the kitchen table, and then they started listing off all the people they wanted to invite over to see their Christmas trees when they’re done growing.

They began with close family friends who had helped bake their birthday cake. Then they listed all their family members – Nana and Papa, Amma and Abba, their aunts and uncles and cousins. Then they moved onto friends who attended their party and their parents; then to other friends from school; then to people from church. They kept naming people they know, people with whom they have some level of relationship. And for a pair of four-year-olds, they had a pretty extensive list. Continue reading “You Will be Found”

I Am. I Am Not.

Sermon for Friday, March 30, 2018 || Good Friday || Passion According to John

Way back in Chapter Four of the Gospel According to John, we hear Jesus use a particular phrase for the first time. The phrase is special for it links Jesus’ identity to the divine identity of God. This one little phrase is just two words long, with only three letters among them. The phrase is “I Am.” In Chapter Four, Jesus says these special words to the Samaritan woman at the well. They’ve had a long talk about living water and where to worship, and their conversation ends with Jesus revealing to her his divine identity, saying,  “I Am.”

These two little words reveal his divine identity because of their link to a famous passage in the book of Exodus, in which Moses meets God in the burning bush. God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. To gain some credibility, Moses asks to know God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. Jesus echoes this name many, many times in the Gospel of John, beginning first with the Samaritan woman. Continue reading “I Am. I Am Not.”

Spiritual Topography

Sermon for Sunday, February 11, 2018 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9

Our spiritual lives are topographically interesting. Two of the most enduring images of walking with God are the mountain and the valley, the high place and the low. You’ve heard of the proverbial “mountain top experience,” which can spark faith for the first time or renew the well-trodden paths of faith. And you’ve prayed the immortal words of Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…thou art with me.” The mountain and the valley: these are the peaks of our spiritual lives and the troughs. Continue reading “Spiritual Topography”

Who is this Jesus?

Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is this Jesus?

At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?” Continue reading “Who is this Jesus?”

Precipice

Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015 || Easter 6B || Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98

precipice“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Today’s psalm begins with these glorious words, and for me it begins with a question. Why does the song we sing have to be a new one? Why can’t the song be an old song, one that has stood the test of time? “Amazing Grace,” perhaps? Or how about “In the Garden?” While these songs are beautiful and wonderful and should never, ever be lost to the ages, I think the psalmist feels the urge to sing a new song because he or she has discovered a fundamental truth about God’s movement in God’s universe. God is always doing something new.

God’s ceaselessly creative hand did not stop molding and shaping the universe at the end of the sixth day of creation. God continues to breath new life into this ever-expanding cosmos: at the grand scale of galactic expansion and at the small scale of simple, daily interaction. In the playroom next door, the twins do something new seemingly every day. Amelia loves to eat real food. Charlie has started climbing. We have several parishioners who have recently moved from their homes into assisted living facilities or whose recent medical interventions have led to new lifestyle choices. They are faced with newness of a less joyful kind, but we still fervently hope that their new situations will lead to much better outcomes than they could have expected before.

The simple fact that spring has sprung reminds us that God is always doing something new. In my life. In your lives. In the life of the church. The world. Creation. We believe that God’s reign is constantly and continually reshaping existence, bringing all things into closer connection with God, as creation was always intended to be.

The newness that trumpets God’s closeness is borne on the wind of the Holy Spirit. Not all new things are of God, but the Holy Spirit helps us discern when and where God is birthing those new things that do lead to closer connection for all people. When we allow ourselves to be open to the newness dancing along in the Holy Spirit’s wake, we become people who are less afraid to try new things, to risk, perhaps to fail, but to know that in the attempt a new shoot of possibility has sprung up from the ground. When we do succeed in living into God’s reconciling newness, the result is deeper connection with God and a more expansive understanding of God’s love and God’s generosity.

One climactic example of this success happens in our tiny first reading today. It is the most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church. You might think it would be a dramatic conversion or a miraculous healing or a mystical vision or a memorable speech, but while each of these happens in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, none is the event I have in mind. No. The most extraordinary moment of reconciling newness in the early days of the church happens when one person simply realizes he is wrong and then changes his mind.

That person is Peter. And we might expect Peter to be a hardliner, sticking to all of his positions and presuppositions just because he had been with Jesus from the beginning. After all, Jesus did give Peter the figurative keys to the kingdom. What could be more human of a reaction than for Peter to lock out anything new that threatened the integrity of the in-crowd? As I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time, Peter could have stuck his head in the sand, ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and resisted any opportunity for growth, for reconciliation, or for new possibilities.

But that’s not what happens. So here’s the story, beginning with just a bit of background. The society in which Peter grew up was divided between Jews and Gentiles. There wasn’t necessarily animosity between them, but there was indifference and a lack of connection. Society was just built in this divisive way, so no one really questioned the structure.

That is, until one day when Peter is hungry. While a meal is being prepared, Peter receives a vision from God. All of the animals that observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat appear before Peter, and a voice directs him to kill and eat. Peter balks at the command: “I’ve never eaten anything that’s profane or unclean.” But the voice counters: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times until the vision has finally sunk into Peter’s bones.

When the vision ends, Peter meets a trio of Gentiles who invite him to meet a Roman named Cornelius, who has also had a vision from God concerning Peter. Never fearing that he might be walking into a trap, Peter goes with them and meets Cornelius and his whole household. And then Peter preaches a fabulous sermon that proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.

This is where our passage for this morning picks up the tale. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit encounters all who hear him. Peter’s companions, who are Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, are astounded that the Holy Spirit of God would deign to manifest itself through unclean Gentiles. “But what about our in crowd,” they seem to protest. “We thought we were the special ones. We thought we were the ones that had the Holy Spirit.”

Then Peter remembers his vision of the now clean animals. And he finds himself standing at the precipice of a decision, at the precipice of something new trying to break into reality. His society, his upbringing, and everything he has ever known pulls him to reconfirm that Jews and Gentiles can never be united, that the good news of Jesus Christ is for Peter’s people alone. But that same Holy Spirit, which is even now dancing around Cornelius and his Gentile family, pulls Peter in a new direction toward unity and acceptance and radical welcome of the estranged other. And this time Peter doesn’t balk. He baptizes all the Gentiles present and charts a new course of acceptance in this new and nascent religion soon to be called Christianity.

This particular type of newness – welcome of the other, whatever makes that person other – keeps encountering the church again and again. Over the centuries, Christians have failed to be swept up by the wind of the Holy Spirit’s newness too many times to count, but every once in a while, we trim the sail just right and succeed in ushering in God’s reconciling newness. Just in our lifetimes, we have expanded opportunities in our church to many groups who had been shut out before – allowing women to be priests, for example; or blessing loving relationships of any orientation with the sacrament of marriage.

When you are trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life, how do you feel? Terrified? Excited? Saddened by what is fading away? Joyful for what is breaking in? All of the above, probably. In any case, like spring blooming in a riot of color every year, newness is just a part of life. In our own lives and in the life of the church or our nation or the world, the newness that comes from God will always lead to deeper connection, greater reconciliation, more hope – maybe not today or tomorrow. But the path will lead there someday.

The next time you are at the precipice of a decision like Peter, stop for a moment and pray. Take a deep breath and feel which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is pushing you. Ask God what new thing God is trying to birth through you with this decision. How will it lead you closer to God or another person? God is forever speaking words of reconciliation and renewal into this creation. Each day, we have the opportunity to hear them anew and to choose the course towards closer connection and to leap off the precipice and to soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit.

10,000 Talents

Sermon for Sunday, September 14, 2014 || Proper 19A || Matthew 18:21-35

10000talentsImagine with me the Apostle Peter in prison in Rome near the end of his life. He is talking to his cellmate, a new convert to the Way of Jesus Christ.

I’ve been thinking about what you said last night – about getting arrested at your first ever gathering of Jesus’ followers, about wishing you had had the chance to talk to your mother before being thrown in this cell with me, about feeling guilty for having lied to her as to where you were going. You seek forgiveness, and you’re not sure you’ll ever have the chance to ask for it. For both your sakes, I hope you do. Son, there’s nothing as precious as forgiveness for making a life worthwhile. I wish I had understood that when I was your age.

I understood so little back in the days when Jesus was with us. I was headstrong and curious, but I was curious about the wrong things. If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked different questions. Instead of asking Jesus about quantities and statistics, I would have asked about values and purpose. I remember this one time, I asked about forgiveness. Well, not about the practice of forgiveness, but about how often I was obligated to forgive my brother or sister. And knowing Jesus to be the generous sort, I shot high. Seven times seemed a bit excessive, but still reasonable. Seven is, after all, a number that, in my culture, evokes completion.

For once Jesus answered the question I asked rather than the one he wished I had asked. And yet, as he always did, he answered it in his own unique, unexpected, and unrelentingly gracious way. I remember him raising his eyebrows and tilting his head to one side. It was his, “Seriously, Peter?” look. Bartholomew used to do a spot on impression of it. “Not seven times,” Jesus said. “Try seventy-seven times.” Now, he could apparently see me doing math in my head, so before I finished my multiplication table, he made his outrageous hyperbole clear.

He told a story about a slave who didn’t understand forgiveness, and this slave owed his master 10,000 talents. You don’t use talents where you’re from? Let’s see: 10,000 talents is equal to…about 150,000 years worth of wages.* You see what I mean about Jesus’ hyperbole. This slave had a debt that neither he, nor the next hundred generations of his family could ever hope to pay off. You wonder how he ever accumulated that much debt, but Jesus never went into that part of the story.

But his master forgives it all. Just waves his hand, and the slave is forgiven. If it were me, I think I’d about float away with such a weight lifted off my chest. But this fellow doesn’t float. No, he sinks. He goes out and demands the 100 denarii another slave owes him. That’s only about three months wages – a laughably tiny amount compared to his own forgiven debt. Makes you wonder about the nerve of some people or their lack of compassion or just plain lack of decency. But don’t be too quick to count yourself out of such a group. I’m in it. We’re all in it some of the time.

This story has stuck with me all these years. It reminds me of the prayer Jesus taught us. You might have said it at the gathering before you were arrested. Do you know the line I’m thinking of? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Now what’s the line right before it? “Give us this day our daily bread.”

I prayed Jesus’ prayer for years before I ever saw a connection between these two phrases. I always said them in isolation. I prayed for my daily sustenance. Then I prayed for the capacity to offer and receive forgiveness. It must have been fifteen or more years after Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to guide us when the two lines finally joined for me. There was a big council of the various groups that had sprung up around Jesus. People came from all over. Paul was there – you may have heard of him. I don’t want to bore you with the issues we discussed, but suffice to say tempers got heated. There were arguments, rancor, vitriol spat back and forth. I gave as good as I got, I’m sorry to say. I left the council with the taste of bile in my mouth. And for days and days after, that’s all I could taste. Any food I tried to eat made me so nauseated. I didn’t eat for a long time. I started wasting away.

During those days of unintentional fasting, I continued praying Jesus’ prayer. I had my daily bread, but I couldn’t stomach it. I had been forgiven by our Father in heaven – to the tune of those 10,000 talents in the story. But I had not practiced forgiveness myself. I had not let it flow from my heart, as Jesus taught. Instead, I had relished the anger I had for my opponents at the council. For those first days, the bile I tasted was like a war wound proudly worn.

But as food continued to turn to ash in my mouth, I realized that my stubborn refusal to forgive was the cause. When the desire to forgive finally returned, so did my appetite. And the return of my daily bread gave me the strength to ask for forgiveness from my opponents and grant it, too. From then on, the two lines of Jesus’ prayer have gone together: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those you trespass against us.”

You see, my young friend, forgiveness is not just something we do occasionally. Like our daily bread sustaining us each and every day, forgiveness is a posture that we can employ all the time, an attitude that leads to open, trusting, caring, and fulfilling relationships. Forgiveness is an act of grace, a gift given or received whether or not it is deserved.

That’s why Jesus told me to forgive 77 times. He didn’t mean exactly 77. He didn’t mean for us to take out our accounting ledgers. No. Just look at the number. Two sevens. Two instances of completion. A beginning and an end. A life made complete by the grace-filled act of forgiveness.

So if you ever get out of this cell, my son, I hope you reunite with your mother in order to ask for her forgiveness. But don’t stop with just that one instance. Make your life one in which you never grow accustomed to the angry taste of bile in your mouth. As your daily bread sustains you, remember that offering and receiving forgiveness are parts of your sustenance, as well. And through them you partner with God in nourishing this hollow and starving world. We all have a tendency to sink in the mire, like the wicked slave in the story. But God has already forgiven our 10,000 talent debts. In response, make such outrageous and extravagant forgiveness one of purposes of your life. And instead of sinking, you will float on the wind of grace.

* The calculation about the 10,000 talents comes from this article by Karl Jacobson.

Trailblazer

Sermon for Sunday, August 24, 2014 || Proper 16A || Matthew 16:13-20

(A problem with our sound system rendered the audio for this sermon unusable.)

TrailblazerFor as long as I can remember, my father has worn a cross beneath his clothing, resting on his skin close to his heart. So when my parents gave me a cross of my own to wear when I was in my early teen years, I was thrilled. I was going to be just like Dad, wearing my cross all the time, even in the shower! The trouble was I kept losing it. I couldn’t wear the cross all the time because I played soccer, and there was a “no jewelry” rule. So it would get lost in the depths of my soccer bag (which was not a place for the faint of heart). The chain broke once, but I managed to find the cross beneath the seat of my car. Then during my freshman year of college the chain broke again, and I lost the cross for good.

At that time, I was just beginning to glimpse the edge of the expanse of the life God was calling me into, so I was quite upset at losing my cross. I’m not naturally a superstitious person, but I took it as a bad omen. So two weeks before I turned nineteen, I went to a local tattoo parlor and emerged a few hours later with a Celtic cross indelibly inked on my back. It was my way of telling myself that I was, indeed, a follower of Jesus, that if push came to shove there was no way to deny my identity. At baptism I was marked with oil as “Christ’s own forever,” but now I was visibly marked as Christ’s own.

And yet, walking out of the tattoo parlor on that fine January day, I don’t think I could have told you what it meant to me to be a follower of Jesus. I think I could do a bit better job today, but such meaning-making will take the rest of my lifetime to unfold, so check back with me again sometime. What’s telling is that – in my tattoo experience – I identified as “follower.” Since I put myself in the position of “follower,” for me Jesus took on the identity of “guide.”

As my guide, or better yet my “trailblazer,” I envisioned Jesus walking ahead of me, as if we were tramping through a marsh and he knew where it was safe to place one’s feet. Because he was my trailblazer and I his follower, I attempted to step where he stepped and to stay on the path he showed me. When people learned I was in the process to become an ordained minister, they asked if I was following in my father’s footsteps. I responded, “No,” because in my mind, we were both following in Jesus’ footsteps. Thus, in my language and in my imagination – two of the most potent vehicles for meaning-making – I identified as the follower of a trailblazer.

But the trailblazer-follower relationship is only one of myriad possibilities. And this is why today’s story from the Gospel according to Matthew is so important for us today. You see, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s really asking them, “What kind of relationship do you want to have with me?”

This powerful secondary question hovers just beneath the primary one because no matter what the disciples say, they set up the presumption of a relationship. Let’s take Simon Peter’s answer, for instance. I imagine his words rushing from Peter’s mouth all at once, as if an unseen force reached into his heart and yanked them out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

So if Peter names Jesus “Messiah,” what title would Peter use for himself to relate to this identity? Would it surprise you if I said soldier? The title of “Messiah” was something of a political identity at this time in Israel. The Jewish Messiah was supposed to be a warrior like the great King David, who swept away the forces occupying Israel with his martial prowess. It’s not a coincidence at all that Matthew sets this exchange in the city of Ceasarea Phillipi, a city named for the Roman Emperor. Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah tacitly sets Jesus against the power of occupying Rome. That Peter identifies as a soldier in the Messiah’s army is made clear both in his use of a sword when Jesus is arrested and in the very next passage after ours today. We’ll read it next week, but here’s a spoiler. Jesus reveals to the disciples what is going to happen to him – namely something basically the opposite of kicking the Romans out of Israel – and Peter is stunned to hear the Messiah will die. Another set of words rips itself from Peter: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It takes the rest of the Gospel, and indeed the rest of Peter’s life, to fathom Jesus’ understanding of “Messiah.” Peter’s journey takes him from confession to denial to redemption to proclamation as he struggles with his relationship to Jesus in light of calling him Messiah. By the end of his time in the book of Acts, Peter has moved from soldier to something of a herald of Jesus’ understanding of Messiah-ship.

So Peter undergoes a long transformation of his identity in the light of calling Jesus Messiah. I still think of Jesus as my trailblazer, and I try to follow his steps. But what of you? When Jesus puts this question to you, who do you say that he is? And what does that say about the kind of relationship you want to have with him?

Perhaps you answer that Jesus is “Lord,” which makes you his “subject.” If so, this means you cede your sovereignty over to him. You surrender your will to his. You are a vassal and he is your liege. We might not want to give up our autonomy to a higher power, knowing as we do how badly that turns out most of the time here on earth. But Jesus is a Lord who is trustworthy and true, and giving up our wills for his leads not to enslavement but to freedom.

Perhaps you answer not Lord but “Teacher.” This makes you Jesus’ “student.” If so, you desire to learn all you can from him, both by searching the scriptures and listening for his instruction as you pray. We have so much to learn from Jesus our teacher, and we will never graduate from his class, not until we “know fully, even as we are fully known.”

Perhaps you answer not Lord or Teacher, but “Savior.” Thus, you relate to Jesus as someone who needs saving. He is the knight in shining armor and you are in distress in the dragon’s lair. As our savior, Jesus accomplished the great work set before him between the cross and the empty tomb. But if we let him, his presence in our lives continues to save us from all the small, yet debilitating, ways we drift towards annihilation.

And if not Lord or Teacher or Savior, how about “Friend?” If Jesus is your friend, then you are his. This is not blasphemy, for Jesus calls his disciples friends in the upper room on the night of his arrest. As a friend, a companion, Jesus is not walking ahead of us blazing the path. Rather, he is walking with us, hand in hand, as we discover the way together.

Of course, these ways of answering Jesus’ question are not mutually exclusive. Jesus is trailblazer and Messiah and Lord and teacher and savior and friend. And that is just a small sampling. Answering his question – “Who do you say that I am?” – does not limit our relationships with him, but it does define them. Discerning how we relate to Jesus at any given time or in any given situation will only serve to strengthen our relationships with him. And the more we follow our trailblazer and proclaim our Messiah and serve our Lord and learn from our teacher and reach out to our Savior and walk with our friend Jesus Christ, the better and fuller and deeper will we answer his call in our lives.

Art: Detail from “Handing Over the Keys” by Raphael (1515)