Today I’m going to talk about the concept of repentance. But to get there, I need to talk about my experience of the fire here in Mystic that destroyed Seaport Marine last Sunday night. On Sunday evenings, Leah and I play Dungeons and Dragons with some friends in our basement. We were wrapping up our game when we heard a thunk coming from upstairs. Leah went to investigate and found a book had fallen off of one of the kids’ beds. No big deal. But right when she got back downstairs, we heard another thunk, and then another. But they weren’t thunks. They were explosions.
We went outside into the parking lot and that’s when we saw the intense orange glow filling the sky over the buildings in downtown Mystic. Orange smoke poured northward, deepening to gray then black as it billowed forth. We could see flames above the buildings. Sirens rent the air, a near constant wail of fire trucks from all over the region screaming towards the blaze. The trouble for the six of us, however, was that, from our position, we couldn’t tell where the fire was. We couldn’t tell where the fire trucks were headed. I climbed out onto the roof of the education wing to try to get a better look, but I still couldn’t tell what was on fire.
Sermon for Sunday, September 15, 2019 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10
This is a sermon about being lost and being found. Every time I read and re-read the Gospel lesson for today this past week, my heart kept drawing me to the same words: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” My heart just bursts with joy at those last four words: “Until he finds it.” These four words speak to the tenacious, undeterred nature of the shepherd who keeps looking and keeps looking until he finds the lost sheep.
Have you ever been lost? Of course you have. The question today is, have you ever been found? Let me leave that question hanging here in the air and share with you a quick story from the file labeled “Stupid Things Adam Did as a Child.”
(Sermon for Sunday, June 13, 2010 || Proper 6, Year C, RCL || Luke 7:36—8:3)
Every once in a while in my preaching, I’m going to ask you to imagine that I am a character in the story we’ve just heard. I will speak in the voice of that character and invite you to bring your own imagination to the story. This is an old technique for exploring the scripture going back to the sixteenth century’s St. Ignatius of Loyola and before him to the ancient Jewish Rabbis. So, imagine with me a letter written by Simon the Pharisee the day after his dinner party.
Simon, a servant of the Lord God and Pharisee faithful under the law, to Judith, my dearest sister and confidant: Peace to you and to your house.
I thank God for you every time I write to you since you are one of those rare people whom I know I can trust with my most private affairs. I smile as I write this because you yourself pointed out in your last letter that I only seem to write when I am vexed. And yes, this observation holds true today. I am vexed. I have so many questions, which I’m sure have answers, but I don’t know if I want to hear those answers.
By this point, I’m sure you’ve heard of the teacher from Nazareth who has been making the circuit throughout the region. I invited this Jesus to my house for the evening meal, as is my custom with all the rabbis visiting town. You know I have a soft spot for these provincial teachers who venture out of their backwater villages into the wider world. I enjoy their dusty, local wisdom, and their eyes always grow wide when they see the spread of my table. Never has one spoken words I could not predict. Never has one challenged me. Never has one planted festering questions in my heart.
Until he spoke up last night. I had heard stories about Jesus, but they were the same ludicrously incredible stories I always hear when the gullible discover hope. He forecast a huge catch of fish. He made a leper’s skin clean. He raised a widow’s son from the dead. I tell you, sister, the masses are never satisfied unless they have something sensational to chatter about. You know that I’ve always been good at reading people – but I confess, I misread Jesus from the very beginning. He may be from a provincial backwater, but he spoke with an authority I’ve never heard before. And he said such unnerving things. His voice continues to echo in my mind. But I get ahead of myself.
Here’s what happened. Dinner was progressing nicely. My guests were appropriately appreciative, and I was appropriately modest. But as the steward came around to refill our cups, he very nearly tripped over the prone body of a woman. She lay at Jesus’ feet, a quivering heap of streaming tears and unbound hair. A full minute passed before my shock subsided, and I realized that this trespasser, disguised by her reddened face and tangled curls, was in fact someone I had met several times. She is notorious in the district. Independently wealthy after a string of ancient husbands, she adds to her fortune by lending money at exorbitant rates of interest. Desperate people will take any avenue open to them, God knows – even the road to a predatory usurer.
Such was the kind of woman who walked uninvited into my home, disrupted my gathering, and disgraced everyone in the room with her outrageous display. Everyone that is, except Jesus. He allowed the behavior to continue. He even allowed the usurer to pour expensive ointment on his feet (bought no doubt by means of her immoral practices). “Some prophet,” I said to myself. “If he were who people claim he is, he’d know that the woman touching him is a sinner.”
Just then, as if he had heard my thoughts, Jesus confronted me. “A creditor had two debtors,” he said. Maybe he does know this woman’s sin after all, I thought. “One owed a lot of money and one owed a little,” he continued. “When neither could pay, the creditor canceled both debts. Which do you think will love him more?” The answer was obvious – the one who owed more money. But I couldn’t comprehend why he told the story. Then Jesus gestured to the sinner at his feet. “Do you see this woman?” he asked me.
Did I see her? Of course, I saw her. She was ruining my dinner. She was staining my house with her very presence. But sister, oh, his question does continue to fester. “Do you see this woman?” No. I did not see her. I saw “it.” I saw the spectacle: the weeping, the kissing, the impropriety of it all. I did not see her. I saw her sin – her usury, her taking advantage of the poor and desperate. I saw only her sin wrapped up around her like a costume.
But that is not how Jesus saw this notorious woman. He knew she had many sins, and he forgave them. He touched her face with his hand, looked her right in the eye, and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” An uproar went up around the table at these words, but I had no stomach to generate the appropriate outrage. Jesus’ words continued to echo in my mind, disarming me. And today, as I write you this letter, I find that those words have begun to sink down into my heart and into my gut.
Rather than seeing the woman, I saw only her sin wrapped around her. But Jesus saw her. He saw the person underneath the heavy layers of transgression and immorality. He saw the good creature that God created – before her sin distorted her. And in that act of forgiveness, I think Jesus removed those burdensome layers. Don’t ask me how, but he untwisted the distortion, and the costume fell away. Is it possible that Jesus never even saw the costume? Is it possible that he immediately saw the woman as she was going to be once he forgave her? And in his seeing beyond the distortion, did the costume simply disappear?
Oh sister, these thoughts are too much for my mind to comprehend. This provincial teacher understands forgiveness much better than I. Perhaps…perhaps Jesus has shown me a glimpse of how God sees us. Could it be that God sees beyond our sin from a place of total forgiveness? And because God sees from this place of total forgiveness, does not God grant us this same gift of vision? Could forgiveness allow us to see beyond the masquerade of sin that distorts our reality? If so, then forgiveness allows us to see others as they truly are, not as accumulations of sin, but as broken people in need of love.
Dearest sister, that is my sin: I see the transgression so I don’t have to see the person. I see the costume because I want an excuse to keep the person underneath at a distance. Jesus saw that in me right away. He called me out for my inhospitality. I didn’t wash his feet or welcome him with a kiss or anoint his head with oil. I brought him into my own home simply to stoke my own ego, not to form any kind of relationship.
But do you think he could forgive me like he forgave the woman? Or has he already done so? Yes, I think he has: in his act of forgiveness, I am able to see my own costume now. I see my sin. He must have forgiven me so that I might find the eyes to see myself as God sees me – without the distortion, without the costume. If I can see myself with these eyes, how could I ever again look at those around me and see only their sin?
Dearest sister, I pray for these new eyes. I pray for the capacity to see beyond the costume. I pray that, if Jesus ever again asks me, “Do you see this woman,” I can say without hesitation or equivocation: “Yes, I see her.”
(Sermon for March 28, 2010 || Palm Sunday, Year C, RCL || Luke 19:28-40)
“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones themselves would cry out.” So says Jesus to some Pharisees, who want him to corral his exuberant disciples. If we lived anywhere else, I would be tempted to take these words of Jesus merely as metaphor, as a turn of phrase intended to illustrate the remarkable nature of the event taking place. But in the month that I’ve been in Cohasset, I’ve walked on the beach several times, and I’ve heard a certain, special noise that has made these words come alive.
As you know, small stones populate the beaches here, stones that were once boulders and are not yet sand, stones made round and smooth by the ebb and flow of the tide, stones good for skipping on the ocean. Waves break over these stones and cover them with foamy surf. As the tidal forces suck the waves back out to sea, the water runs through air pockets between the round edges of the stones. And as the water vibrates the stones, they cry out. The stones sing with a quavering voice, a thousand violins playing the same note but each with unique rhythm and tempo. As the waves flow out, the stone symphony plays the chords of creation, joining the great company of all the myriad instruments in God’s terrestrial orchestra.
If we attune our ears and eyes and hearts, we can hear these chords and we can witness all of Creation praising God. This praise happens when God’s creatures fulfill the purposes for which God made them. The sun praises God by shining, the moon by reflecting the sun’s light. The thunder praises God by crashing, the rain by watering the earth. The gazelle praises God by running, the wolf by hunting, the rose by blooming, the bee by pollinating. Each member of the great symphony of Creation praises God in an unique way, and all work in concert to glorify the Creator.
Well, all except for one glaring exception. We humans are a thick lot. On our best days, we ignore the symphony, and on our worst days, we spend our time devising ways to silence Creation’s praise. Down through history, we have slowly but surely forgotten how to read Creation’s score, forgotten that we too have parts to fulfill in God’s orchestra.
We are able to join in praise to God when we remember that God created us to display one fundamental attribute: goodness. God created everything that is, Genesis tells us, and at the end of each creative session, God pronounced the new creation Good (and on the last day, not just Good, but Very Good). So, at the fundamental level of our human nature is goodness, which is a reflection of God’s delight in Creation. The manifestation of that goodness is our praise to God. We embody this praise when we sing and dance, when we laugh and pray, when we love, and most importantly, when we serve.
The trouble appears when we forget that goodness remains at the core of our human nature. Instead, we see all the malignant attributes that attack our goodness and mistake this tumorous growth for what defines us as humans. How often have you heard the following statements explained away by attributing the behavior to human nature:
“He’s just jealous because I won the office pool.” “Well, jealousy is just a part of human nature.”
“She’s so petty: who cares if we wore the same dress today.” “Well, pettiness is just a part of human nature.”
“I can’t believe he lied about where he was last night.” “Well, dishonesty is just a part of human nature.”
We make the worst mistake of our lives when we attribute these negative actions to human nature. Our fundamental nature is Good, and anything else is a perversion of the goodness by which God brought us into being. These perversions of our goodness (also known as “sin”) distort our relationship with God. We start playing our instruments out of tune, thus ruining the symphony of Creation.
But when Jesus rides that donkey’s colt down the Mount of Olives, he takes a step in the process of subverting all our tumorous perversions of human nature. On his way to the cross, which is the epicenter of the perversion the Good, he begins showing that goodness (and all of goodness’s positive emanations) still exist, despite the malignancy eroding the nature of humanity.
First, he tackles the perversion of power. Notice that his parade is rather incongruous. Anyone would expect a king to enter the city on an armored warhorse with weapons-laden legions flanking him. But Jesus rides in humility, on the back of a lowly farm animal. He displays that humility (which is one manifestation of goodness) has more majesty than any imperial power could ever muster.
While Jesus subverts the perversion of power, his disciples tackle the perversion of terror. While fear is sometimes a helpful emotion, terror is not simply “really big fear.” Terror is an extension of power meant to control. But at this moment in the Gospel, the disciples walk directly into the most dangerous situation in their lives unabashedly praising God with joyful voices. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” They display courage, another manifestation of goodness, and their courage subverts any attempt by the perversion of terror to control.
The rest of the Gospel plays out in much the same way. Jesus subverts the perversion of greed when he overturns the tables of the moneylenders in the temple. He subverts the perversion of fame when he tells his disciples that he is among them as one who serves. He subverts the perversion of revenge when he stops the retaliation during his arrest and heals the slave’s ear. And in his greatest display of goodness, Jesus defeats the perversion of domination by willingly giving up his life. Jesus brought all our perversions of human nature to the cross and died with them. And in his resurrection, he shows us that these perversions of our good nature have no ultimate power over us.
Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have the ability to access the goodness at the core of our human nature. We have the humility and courage necessary to let God excise all the malignancy that perverts our relationships with one another and with the rest of Creation. We have ears to hear the symphony of praise playing all around us, and we have the music within us to add our own harmonies to the orchestra of Creation.
And when we fail, when we once again forget our goodness, we can be silent, we can be still, and we can listen. And then we will hear the stones themselves crying out on our behalf, crying out their praise to God.
For the Internet versions of my sermons, I usually remove the specifics of place, but for this sermon, I really needed to preserve them for the imagery. If you ever make it up to the Massachusetts coast, listen for the sound I’m talking about.