A Bird’s Eye View

Sermon for Sunday, February 18, 2018 || Lent 1B || Mark 1:9-15

The Gospel of Mark differs from the other accounts of the gospel by telling a sparer story. Mark provides less detail, less dialogue, and less delay in his sixteen chapter account. Everything in Mark happen immediately after everything else. Each scene rushes headlong into the next without a chance for us readers to catch our breath. This Sunday’s lesson is no exception. If you were expecting the story of Jesus’ temptation today, you got it; at least, you got the ten words Mark devotes to that particular story. This is an example of Mark’s style: his gospel often gets right to the point, no frills. If Mark’s gospel were a car, it would have been the first car I ever owned: a 1992 Mazda Protege with a manual transmission, roll down windows, and only two cup holders. But hey, I loved that car.

Continue reading “A Bird’s Eye View”

The Arrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art: screenshot from this incredible Youtube video.

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.