Shattered Certainty

Sermon for Sunday, March 16, 2014 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17

NicodemusFull disclosure: the chapter of the Gospel I just read to you easily makes my Top 5 list of favorite passages of scripture. Nicodemus is my favorite recurring character in the entire Bible. Even the name of my website – – has its roots in this chapter. I love John 3; I’ve read these words many hundreds of times over the years. I barely needed to look at the Gospel book while reading just now, because these words have carved out a space within me. I know them by heart. I knew what they said before I even sat down to work on this sermon. I was certain of their content; just as certain of their content as Nicodemus is of his knowledge at the outset of his conversation with Jesus.

But such certainty comes with a price. Such certainty is dangerous. The moment I declare I am certain about what this wonderful story says is the same moment I stop looking for new wisdom within it. The moment Nicodemus says, “We know,” at the beginning of the conversation is the same moment he signals to Jesus he has no desire to listen to Jesus’ teaching. For his part, Jesus hears this “We know” and starts rolling up his sleeves. He has his work cut out for him. As their conversation progresses, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’ certainty and replaces it with a tentative, yet ardent, curiosity – an uncertainty that will lead to new ideas, new growth, and new life, an uncertainty that will lead Nicodemus from darkness to light and deliver him to the foot of the cross.

Like Nicodemus, we all crave certainty. It’s biological. Our ancestors moved from hunting and gathering to farming and homesteading because the latter was so much more predictable. We follow the same instinct when we allow the salesperson to tack on the three-year warranty when we buy new electronics. And who hasn’t gotten annoyed at the meteorologist who was certain it wasn’t going to rain the day of the big game?

We crave certainty. But each of us learns sooner or later that nothing in life is certain. The crops of our ancestors surely suffered droughts. The computer sometimes breaks the day after the warranty expires. And there’s a reason there’s an expression: “As variable as the weather.”

We crave certainty, and yet we live with uncertainty each day of our lives. What then should our prayer be? Should we pray for more certainty? Or should we pray for peace amidst uncertainty? Judging by Jesus’ side of today’s Gospel story, he invites us to walk hand-in-hand with him into the ambiguity of the uncertain, only to discover there truer, brighter, and more abundant life.

But let’s get back to our friend Nicodemus. As a Pharisee and leader of the Jewish council, Nicodemus would have been something of a judge or arbiter for his people. Rather than asking questions, Nicodemus would have been used to answering them. Rather than embracing uncertainty, Nicodemus would have seen it as his duty to project an air of certainty about everything, for the noble cause of keeping public morale high in the midst of foreign occupation, if for nothing else.

And yet, there’s something about Jesus that penetrates Nicodemus’ certainty. After all, this Pharisee undertakes a scandalous nighttime journey to rendezvous with such an upstart rabble-rouser as Jesus, who has just recently made a spectacle of himself in driving the moneychangers and animal sellers out of the temple with a whip. But Nicodemus comes just the same. Something compels him to come. Even the desire to see Jesus must have made a small chink in Nicodemus’s certainty.

But when he arrives, his programming kicks in, and he projects that ingrained air of certainty. Even though he calls Jesus “teacher” twice in his opening statement, he proceeds to try to teach Jesus something: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Right away, Jesus attacks Nicodemus’s certainty. He might as well have said, “You know, do you?” What he actually says is this: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Well, that’s sort of what he says, because the same words might mean this: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

In this response Jesus reaches for intentional ambiguity in order to start breaking Nicodemus out of his certainty. Jesus’ words could mean either thing, and I think that’s just the way Jesus wants it. His ambiguity achieves just the result he’s hoping for: Nicodemus asks not one, but two questions! If you’re certain you don’t ask questions. Perhaps there’s hope for this fellow yet, I imagine Jesus thinking.

And so Jesus feeds him more ambiguity: “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Not only do we not know from whence comes the wind, but even Jesus’ choice of word – wind – could mean breath or even Spirit. Jesus pulls Nicodemus deeper and deeper into delicious ambiguity, and disused synapses begin to fire in Nicodemus brain. When Jesus is finished, there’s a new fire in Nicodemus’s eyes as he asks the most sincere and uncertain question in the entire Gospel: “How can these things be?”

In one short conversation, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’s unrealistic and leaden certainty and replaces it with the true and natural uncertainty of life. When next we meet Nicodemus he is testing out his newfound uncertainty. He takes a risk in speaking out against members of the council, who want to break their own rules to put Jesus to death. He doesn’t quite declare himself as a follower yet, but he’s on his way. The third and final time we see Nicodemus, he is standing in the broad light of day helping Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus from the cross and bury him in the tomb. In that moment, nothing is certain. Nothing is sure. Because their Lord has died. And yet they serve him anyway.

From his first appearance to his last, Nicodemus models the life of faith. He sheds the armor of certainty when he meets Jesus and pulls on the armor of faith – for certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith.

We crave certainty, but in this life we will never achieve it. Jesus knows this, and so he offers us something even better than certainty. He offers us the gift of himself. A good friend of mine once defined “peace” as the “deep and abiding presence of God.” This is the gift Jesus offers us – his abiding presence, his peace, a peace that thrives in the midst of shattered certainty.

When you feel the uncertainty of life threatening to overwhelm you – what the Book of Common Prayer calls the “changes and chances” of this life – I pray you might remember Jesus teaching Nicodemus to embrace such uncertainty because in such uncertainty we discover our faith. And when we discover our faith we also find the promises of God for our lives – the promise that the deep and abiding peace of Christ will always and forever be traveling with us along the way.

*Image — Nicodemus and Jesus, sketch by Rembrandt

Do You Love Me?

(NOTE: I completely forgot to post my sermon on Sunday, so here it is, two days belated. Devo180 will be back tomorrow.)

(Sermon for Sunday, April 14, 2013 || Easter 3C || John 21:1-19)

I can only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts roiling in Simon Peter’s head in the weeks following Jesus’ resurrection. At the last supper, he promised Jesus: “I will lay down my life for you.” He was willing to draw blood when they came to arrest Jesus in the garden. He followed Jesus all the way to the gate of the high priest’s house. And then everything fell apart. People began recognizing him and he felt afraid and in his fear he did something he never dreamed he would do, not even in his worst nightmare.

But this was worse than his worst nightmare. “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” I am not. “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” No. “You are one of his disciples.” I am not. And at that moment the rooster crowed, signaling the dawn. But Simon Peter remained in the night with his denial – afraid, ashamed, broken. The nickname Simon received from Jesus when they first met – the nickname Peter, “Rock” – must have haunted him from that moment on. How could a rock be so inconstant? He was supposed to be steadfast, strong; but in the moment of decision, he crumbled. As I said, I can only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts roiling in Simon Peter’s head in the weeks following Jesus’ resurrection.

So to quiet the storm raging within, even for just a short time, it makes sense for Peter to suggest a fishing trip – something normal to take his mind off things. He and his friends fish all night but catch nothing. Even though Peter has met the Risen Christ, Peter himself is still shackled to the night, where his shame and fear have kept him since his denial. No wonder he didn’t catch any fish. But then day breaks, and Jesus calls to him from the beach. He and his friends let down the net one more time and catch more fish than they know what to do with.

They bring the catch ashore and have breakfast around a charcoal fire with Jesus. Peter gazes into the flames, and suddenly his maelstrom of thoughts transports him back to another charcoal fire, around which he warmed himself – and denied his Lord. He is still lost in the night of his regret, his fear, and his brokenness. Though a new dawn has come, Peter cannot bring himself to step into the light. He sits around the fire with Jesus and the rest, but he himself is far away, reliving the nightmare.

And so when Jesus says his name, Simon Peter flinches out of his daydream and returns to the present. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks him. Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Do you love me?” And with the third question, a wave of sadness washes over Simon Peter because he realizes what Jesus is doing. The sadness is the echo of the nightmare, the last vestige of the darkness Peter has been mired in. Lord, you know everything (including my shame and my guilt and my brokenness); and you know that I love you.

Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to affirm their relationship three times, once for each denial; and with that, they are reconciled. Peter’s love for his Lord trumps his fear and his brokenness, and he finally steps from the night into the day. This reconciliation shines with the good news of the resurrection. The Risen Christ meets Peter in his brokenness and reaffirms their relationship. The Risen Christ meets us in the same place – in our fear and our brokenness – and affirms that nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from his love.

sheepBut Jesus is only half done with Peter and with us, because Jesus takes this reconciliation one step further. Jesus doesn’t just heal Peter’s brokenness and leave it at that. If he had, then Peter would have no direction to travel, nowhere to bring his healed heart. So Jesus renews their relationship and then gives Peter a mission. “Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.”

Jesus knows that Peter, despite his nickname, has shown inconstancy in the past. Jesus knows that Peter once crumbled because of fear. Jesus knows that Peter isn’t perfect. And still, Jesus affirms their relationship, binds himself to Peter in love, and gives him a mission. The Risen Christ gathers to himself all of Peter’s fear and brokenness and says, “This stuff will not hold you back from doing my work. This stuff may rear its head from time to time, but it will not win. This stuff is now mine, and in its place you can have my love and the promise of eternal relationship with me.”

Sounds like a pretty good deal. Imagine someone coming up to you and saying, “You give me all your junk, everything about yourself that you don’t like or you don’t want, and I’ll give you the most precious thing in the world.”

That’s what Jesus did on the beach with Peter after breakfast. And in the power of the resurrection, that’s what Jesus does with each of us. And after we make such an unbalanced trade, Jesus invites us to join him in a mission. Feed. Tend. Listen. Support. Help. Love. Serve.

If we listen for the Risen Christ’s call in our lives, we will each hear something a little different because Jesus knows what sets each of our hearts on fire. And Jesus knows where the world most needs us to serve. He combines the two and then sails these unique calls to us on the wind of the Holy Spirit. And if we listen for that wind whispering in our hearts, we will hear the call. Peter heard the call to feed God’s sheep. I hear the call to proclaim God’s presence in our lives. What do you hear? What is Jesus healing you to do?

In our story today, Jesus heals Peter with love. This love propels Peter into service. And this service brings healing to all of God’s people. And thus the cycle renews. On down through the ages, God has propelled this cycle of healing, loving, and serving. Now we are the inheritors of the legacy of this chat on the beach after breakfast. The Risen Christ sits with us across our kitchen counters after a bowl of oatmeal – the most ordinary of moments, mind you – and offers us his love, his healing, and his mission.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then notice me healing your brokenness.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then feel my love binding us together.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then go out and serve in my name.

You are my Beloved

 (Sermon for Sunday, January 13, 2013 || Epiphany 1C || Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

tide2013Last Monday evening, I sat down to watch a very entertaining football game. Now, I know up here is Pats’ country, so many of you probably didn’t even realize the college football championship game was going on. But I grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so I was ready for my Crimson Tide to take it to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. (Which they did, by the way.) Because I was watching a live sporting event, I didn’t have the opportunity to fast forward through the commercials. One commercial aired several times, and I became more and more uncomfortable every time I watched it.

The commercial is for a new smartphone, the “Droid DNA.” The thirty-second spot begins with a man being strapped to a chair. A lab-coated technician secures the phone to the man’s chest, and over the thirty seconds of the commercial, the phone “rewrites” the man’s DNA. A mechanical voice announces that the man’s “neural speeds” are increasing and his brain is upgrading to a “quad-core processor.” At the end of the commercial, a voiceover says, “Introducing Droid DNA by HTC. It’s not an upgrade to your phone, it’s an upgrade to yourself.”

Now, perhaps I was uncomfortable with the idea of a phone taking the place of my brain because ever since I wrote Digital Disciple I have been fighting this tendency tooth-and-nail. Or perhaps I was uncomfortable because by the end of the commercial, the man looked like one of the Borg on Star Trek. These two surely played a part. But I think I was uncomfortable mostly because the commercial let me know something about myself that I didn’t know before. According to the commercial, I am due for an upgrade. I am deficient in some way, and only the Droid DNA smartphone will make up for that deficiency.

This is how marketing campaigns work. 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 are bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn: the TV, magazines, Internet ads, the sides of buses. 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. At one point or another, our society as a whole started believing in our supposed deficiencies, hence why Americans aren’t very happy people.

But we have been deceived.

Today’s Gospel reading uncovers the deception and offers the supreme truth that has the potential to scrub away all the battering our self-esteem has taken over our supposed deficiencies.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is baptized. After he rises from the water, he prays, Luke tells us, and the heavens open. And the “Holy Spirit descends” on Jesus in “bodily form like a dove.” The voice of God speaks from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Now, you might be wondering what these words have to do with counteracting our supposed deficiencies. After all, God is talking to Jesus, not to us, right? Of course, God would be well pleased in Jesus, who has no deficiencies.

Ah, yes, we who have been programmed to think of ourselves as hopelessly deficient beings wouldn’t possibly presume to think that God might be talking to us as much as God is talking to Jesus. But we would be wrong.

Remember that the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. This same Spirit dwells within each one of us, animating us and speaking life into our souls. Thus, we are connected to the God who spoke those words to Jesus. But we are not just connected to God. Hear what Paul says to the church on 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).

Not only are we connected to God, we are God’s children, and not only God’s children, but heirs right alongside Jesus. So God’s words at Jesus’ baptism are not just for Jesus. They are for us, as well. You are my son. You are my daughter. You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.

With you I am well pleased. Notice that God loves Jesus, God is pleased with Jesus, even though Jesus has done nothing yet to earn God’s love and pleasure. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, we are at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. All of his miracles, his sermons, his death and resurrection – they are all ahead of him. Before any of that happens, God showers upon him God’s love and pleasure.

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.

At Jesus’ baptism, God took the opportunity once for all time to tell all of God’s children that we are loved and that we are a delight to God. We can ignore these fundamental truths. We can choose to think they don’t apply to us. But we cannot undo them, no matter what.

That God chose Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan as the opportunity to reveal these truths to us is simply wonderful. What is the one thing in this world that is more prevalent than advertising targeted at our supposed deficiencies? That’s right. Water.

So the next time you take a shower, the next time you wash your hands, the next time you take a drink or get stuck in the rain, I invite you to feel the water touch your skin. Remember your own baptism. Remember that all of our supposed deficiencies, which teach us to think we are defective or substandard, are no match for the fundamental truth that God has built into the fabric of life. You are God’s children. You are God’s beloved. And with you, God is well pleased.

Runaway (Davies Tales # 10)

Aidan Davies knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what. Several nights over the last couple of weeks, his father, Alastor, had arrived home, walked straight into the kitchen without a “hello” to anyone, slammed the door of the microwave (in which Lucy had placed his cold dinner), and stabbed the buttons with enough force to make the microwave hop back, as if trying to protect itself from his fingers.

The morning after the most recent of these nights, Lucy told her son that his father had been meeting with various factions of the church’s leadership. “What’s a faction?” asked Aidan, as he pushed around the oatmeal in his bowl.

Lucy held tight to her warm mug with both hands. “It’s a group within a bigger group that doesn’t agree with the rest,” she said.

“And there are factions at church?”


“And they don’t like Dad anymore?”

“Some don’t.”

More questions clambered to the tip of Aidan’s tongue, but a long sigh from his mother told him that she wasn’t up for an interrogation. So he chose just one final question to ask, one that meant more than all the others.

“Are we going to have to move again?”

At these words, Aidan noticed tears brimming in his mother’s eyes. Lucy put down her mug and ran the sleeve of her bathrobe across her face. Then she stood up, pulled a brown paper sack from the counter, and handed it to Aidan. “Here’s your lunch,” she said. “You’re going to be late for the bus.”

She kissed her own fingers, touched his cheek, and gave him a long look. Again, he saw her eyes swimming. Then he watched her wander away in the direction of her bedroom. I wonder if she’ll still be in there when I get home, he thought.

That afternoon, Aidan put his schoolbag down on the kitchen table and poked his head into the master bedroom. “Brigid?”

Aidan’s sister looked up from making their parents’ bed. “I just put her in the shower,” she said, nodding toward the bathroom.

Aidan moved to the opposite end of the bed and began stuffing the sheet between the mattress and box spring. “No, no.” said Brigid. “You never do it right.” She untucked the rumpled sheet and made a perfect hospital corner. “Like this.”

“Look at you two, making my bed.” Lucy came out of the bathroom wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, with a towel wrapped turban-style on her head to keep her hair from dripping. “My babies are so thoughtful.” She pulled Brigid and Aidan into a hug.

“Mom, we’re not babies,” said Aidan.

“Oh, I know that,” said Lucy. “But you’ll always be my baby.” She reached for his cheek, but he swatted her hand away. She reached again. Another swat. Lucy switched tactics and came at him with tickling fingers. Brigid joined in and soon the master bedroom, so still and stagnant and quiet for hours on end, was filled with laughter.

Then the doorbell rang, and the laughter ceased. Aidan saw Lucy’s eyes widen and then shut tightly. “Brigid,” she said. Her voice was clipped, commanding. “Take you brother upstairs.” She stood up. “Please.”

On his way up the back staircase, Aidan could hear the door opening and his mother’s voice sounding too bright, too controlled. Then he was safe in his room surrounded by LEGO bricks until a few hours later when he heard his father’s voice roaring in the kitchen downstairs. He could hear every word even through the layers of walls.

“I told them that if they ever came to the house, I would, I would…” Alastor’s voice trailed off. Aidan crept out of his room and perched at the top of the stairwell. Brigid sat next to him and held his hand. Just then Alastor found his train of thought again. “I come home to find my wife crying on the floor in the kitchen. Who do these people think they are? My wife, curled up in a ball. I told them that if they ever disturbed you, I would, I would…” He trailed off again, but this time he punctuated his words with what sounded like a punch to the side of the refrigerator.

Then there was silence. Aidan and Brigid tiptoed downstairs and found their parents both sitting with their backs against the dishwasher. Lucy’s face was tearstained, but she wasn’t the one crying now. Alastor was sniffling and hacking and wheezing and all Lucy could do was stroke his cheek with a trembling hand.

Two days later, Aidan walked across the street to the church. It was a crisp morning, but he didn’t put on a jacket since he lived next door. He slipped into the sacristy and donned his acolyte robe. He lit the candles on the altar and retrieved the big cross, which he wasn’t able to lift last year but could now. Alastor joined him at the back of the church and they walked in together. Three-dozen or so parishioners stood as they entered.

When it came time for the sermon, Aidan settled himself in his customary seat in the chancel. His father gave him a faint smile before taking a deep breath. “John the Baptist called the people he talked to a ‘brood of vipers.’ Well, you know what? It seems we have a similar brood here. On Friday evening, I came home to find my wife sobbing on the floor because someone had come…”

Just then, a man stood up from a pew in the middle of the church. “Why don’t you just sit down and shut up,” he said.

Alastor fell silent, and the man’s voice echoed throughout the nave. Then Aidan could hear his father whisper, “So…you, too.” Aidan looked from the man to his father and back again. And then he burst into tears. Alastor walked the few steps to Aidan’s seat. “Do you want to go home, son?” he whispered.

Aidan couldn’t find words, so he just nodded numbly. His father pulled him from the seat and embraced him. Then he carried him to the side door of the church. And Aidan ran away, his tears streaming and the skirt of his vestments flapping in the wind. He wished his house wasn’t so close by. He wished he could go home and be safe. He wished he could run until the church and those factions and those people hurting his family would disappear on the dark side of the horizon.

On the Road

(Sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2012 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52)

He can’t see them, but he knows they are coming. As he sits by the roadside, he tastes the dust cloud stirred up by their approach. He feels small tremors in the ground caused by their steady, tramping steps. He hears the snorts and bellows of animals, the jingle of bells, the laughter of people. He smells fresh bread and wet animal hair. He can’t see them, but he knows they are coming.

They begin to pass him by, a large crowd: cajoling, telling jokes and fish stories, brushing his knees with rough, hand-spun garments. They begin to pass him by, Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. They begin to pass him by, and he is as invisible to them as they are to him. They are walking on the road to Jerusalem; he is sitting by that road—just sitting, waiting for a coin or a cup of water. But soon some people mention Jesus as they pass him, and in a few moments, Jesus transforms Bartimaeus from this passive sitter by the road into an active follower on the road.

Bartimaeus probably sits in the very same spot by the road every day. Other beggars probably know that is Bartimaeus’s spot. He probably sits down by the road early in the morning and spreads his cloak over his crossed legs, making a basket to catch whatever travelers’ spare from their purses. I’m sure Bartimaeus can hear the coins jangling from their hips. By the sounds different amounts of money make, I bet he can tell how much people will toss onto his cloak. Too few coins in the purse—or too many—and he will get nothing. Bartimaeus sits by the road, waiting for that dull thud of coin on cloak. Day by day, from dew-laden morning to scalding midday to shadow-stretched evening, he sits by the road, waiting.

You might notice that I keep saying that Bartimaeus sits by the road. At first glance, Mark telling us this innocuous detail sounds like the blocking for the scene; if Mark were directing this encounter for the stage, he would plop Bartimaeus down next to, but not on, the road. Now, Mark is usually in a hurry to tell his story, but in detailing the blind beggar’s location, he slows down and sets up a profound encounter with Jesus. Before we get to that encounter, let’s go back to the seemingly insignificant detail of Bartimaeus sitting by the road. I’ll tell you about the road part now, and I promise I’ll get to the sitting part in a bit.

In Mark’s Gospel, road turns out to be a very significant word, indeed. At the beginning of his Gospel, Mark quotes the prophet Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” Now, you might be confused here because, unless you were translating that passage into Greek on the fly, you didn’t hear me say the word road. Let me try the same passage again: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your road; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the road of the Lord…’” Not as poetic, perhaps, but the point is in the original language way and road are the same word. So Bartimaeus is sitting next to the way, which we might think of as the way of the Lord. I suspect that some of you are now thinking: come on, Adam, you got all that from Mark telling us Bartimaeus is sitting by the road? Isn’t that a bit of a stretch? If you’re thinking that, just bear with me for another couple of minutes.

Okay, so Bartimaeus is sitting by the road. He is just sitting—no movement, no motion, just monotony. All too often, we are sitting by the road, too. We sit by the road when we let opportunities to serve our neighbors go by. We sit by the road when we choose not to forgive others and when we reject the forgiveness of others. We sit by the road when we rely only on ourselves and not on God to move our lives. The road is the way of Jesus Christ. When we sit by that road, we know the road is there, but we choose not to journey down the road in the company of our savior. We just sit—no movement, no motion, just monotony.

But Bartimaeus’s monotony is about to end. As he sits by the road, he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. He shouts out and Jesus halts the moving crowd. Jesus stands still and calls the blind beggar forward. While Jesus takes no physical actions at all in this story, his mere presence catalyzes Bartimaeus into action. First he shouts out from his sitting position by the road. He shouts out again because he hears that Jesus is near. When Jesus calls to him, he throws off his cloak. He literally tosses his cloak aside, probably scattering coins in all directions. Then he springs up, he jumps to his feet and comes to Jesus. Each of these actions portrays an exuberance that cannot be controlled, an excitement that cannot be contained. The very presence of Jesus, even a Jesus who just stands motionless, causes Bartimaeus to leave his motionless sitting position by the road.

Imagine how odd the scene would be if Bartimaeus were politely to ask if he could talk with Jesus rather than shouting at the top of his lungs while people tried to silence him. Imagine how odd the scene would be if Bartimaeus were carefully to fold his cloak and set the garment aside before calmly standing up. No, these staid actions won’t do. The exhilaration Bartimaeus feels at being in Jesus’ presence translates into such evocative actions as throwing off his cloak and springing to his feet.

When Bartimaeus, in all his enthusiasm, comes to Jesus, Jesus asks him what he wants. I hear Bartimaeus say his next line with breathless excitement: “My teacher, let me see again.” And with a word, Jesus immediately renews his sight. When Bartimaeus regains his sight, does he go back and sit down cross-legged by the road with his cloak over his legs? Does he go back to a life of no movement, no motion, just monotony? No. Mark tells us that Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the road. Bartimaeus is now following the way of the Lord. The very presence of Jesus transforms Bartimaeus from a passive sitter by the road to an active follower on the road.

We follow that road when we take the opportunities to serve our neighbors, and when we forgive others, and when we accept forgiveness from others, and when we rely on God and not only ourselves to move our lives. This road is the way of Jesus Christ. When we follow the way we participate in God’s movement, in God’s motion, in God’s majesty. We know the way we are to follow by the presence of Jesus on the road. Like Bartimaeus, the presence of Jesus causes us to shout out and refuse to be silenced. The presence of Jesus causes us to throw off our cloaks and spring to our feet. The presence of Jesus causes us to be healed and follow Christ on the way.

When the power, when the passion, when the presence of the living God, of Jesus Christ, of the Holy Spirit erupt in and around us, we cannot stay sitting by the road for long. This eruption of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ flows into and out of us; God heals each of us and gives us the strength to spring up and follow on the way.

Letting Go of the Grail

(Sermon for Sunday, September 30, 2012 || Proper 21B || Mark 9:38-50 )

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Paramount, 1989)

The floor of the ancient structure splits open, revealing a gaping chasm. Nazi sympathizer Elsa, the treacherous blonde bombshell, who earlier in the film skewers the heart of our hero Indiana Jones, falls in, only to be caught at the last second by Indy. But he has a dubious grip on her gloved hand and, over the next tenuous seconds, his grip starts slipping. If only she would reach up with her other hand. But no. The Holy Grail has also fallen into the chasm and is even now perched on a ledge mere inches from Elsa’s reach. “I can’t hold you,” shouts Indy. “Give me your other hand!”

“I can reach it,” she screams back, all the while groping for the cup. “Give me your other hand,” Indy shouts again. Another pulse-pounding moment flies by, punctuated by the an eerie silence in the glorious John Williams score. Elsa reaches a final time for the Grail. And then she’s gone. She falls, screaming as she goes, and vanishes into the mist that obscures the endlessness of the chasm.

Indy stares after her, but he has only a moment to grieve because the floor buckles again, and Indy finds himself thrown into the chasm. His father, Henry, slides across the floor just in time to catch Indy’s hand, but his grip is just as dubious as Indy’s had been moments before. Of course, the Grail is still perched on the ledge. Indy has longer arms than Elsa. “I can get it. I can almost reach it,” says Indy.

Then Henry, who has spent his entire life chasing the legend of the Grail, calls his son’s name: “Indiana,” he says, and then again with more gravity, as only Sean Connery can. “Indiana.” Indy looks up and their eyes lock. “Let it go,” says Henry, “Let it go.” Indy doesn’t give the Grail another look, but instead flings his arm up. Henry grasps both of Indy’s hands in a tight grip, and a moment later they are running from the ancient structure, soon to ride off into the sunset.

This scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade flawlessly illustrates what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples in today’s Gospel lesson. Now, every commentary I read about the passage made sure to note just how harsh Jesus sounds in all the talk about cutting off body parts and going to hell, so I’d bet that my reading of Jesus’ words a minute ago made us all a bit squeamish.

And for good reason. I think Jesus is going for far more than squeamish. His disciples have demonstrated time and again that they just can’t grasp the kind of life that Jesus is trying to teach them to live. As their utter thickness becomes more apparent, Jesus gropes for more and more outlandish imagery in an attempt to reach them.

Jesus has tried telling them point blank what’s going to happen. He has tried the object lesson of putting a child among them. He has even been transfigured into a dazzling being. And yet the disciples still try to dissuade Jesus from his chosen path, they try to figure out which of them is the best, and they try to stop someone not in their group from doing Jesus’ work. Finally, Jesus has had enough. “Listen up,” he says. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”

Here’s another way to read this same verse: “If your hand causes you to separate yourself from God, then separate yourself from your hand instead. If your goal is to live the kind of abundant life that God yearns for you to live, then you would be better off having only one hand than to have two and wind up in the refuse dump, where they burn trash all day long.”

Jesus reiterates the same point using feet and eyes, and I imagine the disciples stand there dumbfounded and maybe a little sick to their stomachs. But perhaps Jesus’ point has finally hit home. There are so many things in our lives that we cling to, which impede us from living the kind of abundant life that God yearns for us to live. Therefore, we have a choice. We can choose the impediment, as Elsa does in the movie when she reaches and reaches for the Grail, only to fall to her death. Or we can cut ourselves off from the impediment, as Indiana Jones does when he ignores the Grail in favor his father’s strong grasp.

Jesus makes his point in a visceral, ugly way, but that seems to be the only way his disciples will hear him. The severed hand and foot and the torn out eye are parts of ourselves that seem integral, but you know what? Life can go on without them. Of course, Jesus only uses these bodily features to make his point. Physical body parts are not what cause us to separate ourselves from God. So the question is: what does? What about our choices or our actions or our way of looking at the world does separate us from God? What part of ourselves do we continually and erroneously reach for, even when our grip on God is failing?

I can’t answer these questions for you. I can only answer them for myself. And there are so many things that I should amputate from my life in order to participate more fully in my relationship with God. My anxiety is one – I know I should trust God enough to let go of my fears for the future and my stress for today, but I’m so used to feeling anxious that I tell myself I don’t know what would happen if I asked God finally to sever anxiety from my life. To tell you the truth, I do know what would happen. I’d find a more abundant, more peaceful life. So why do I keep reaching for the Grail of anxiety? Because I always have, and the inertial force of complacency is a strong foe.

Anxiety is one. Pride is another old standby. Apathy. The craving for security, which leads to chances never being taken. Perhaps the thing that Jesus calls you to amputate is on my list, or perhaps your list is full of other cancerous impediments that would best be excised like tumors rather than clung to like pieces of wreckage in a storm-tossed sea.

Jesus’ strong, visceral language in today’s passage is a wake-up call to the disciples and to us that the barriers we erect between us and God do nothing but hurt us and keep us from living the kind of abundant life that God yearns for all people to live. The good news is this. As we continue to reach for our favorite impediment, for our Grail perching so tantalizingly on the ledge just out of reach, God is clinging to our other hand, clinging with a grasp that will never slip. And God is whispering, “Let it go. Let it go.”

The Spotlight

 (Sermon for Sunday, September 16, 2012 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38)

I put the guitar down on the wooden bench, dropped my right knee to the root-strewn ground, and produced the ring from my pocket. The green light that shone through the trees of the outdoor chapel glinted off the diamond and sapphires, a perfect analog for the light that I felt sure was bursting from my own chest. The last words of the song I had just finished singing clung to the hot, humid, late-July air and surrounded us with the most important question I have ever asked: “Leah, darling, will you marry me?” She nodded her head once, unable to find her voice. Then, after an eternal moment during which I could feel in the depths of my soul the momentum of our entire lives converging on that one point in time, she whispered the single word I longed to hear: “Yes.” My hand trembled so much that I had trouble finding her finger with the ring. And as we embraced, I realized something profound – profound and wonderful. I realized that I was no longer the main character in my own life.

For the first 27½ years of my existence, my chief concern, whether I acknowledged it or not, was me. I was Numero Uno, first in line, the Big Cheese. I was in the spotlight. Sure, I lived my life with a dollop of self-sacrifice, of serving the other at my own cost, but this behavior was much more garnish than entree. I was the main character of my life: the rest of the cast never really could rival me for my own attention. Then I met Leah and everything changed. Suddenly, not only did I desire to share the spotlight, I would have been excited to give the prime spot to her alone. A whole new world of service opened up to me that I don’t think I was ever aware of before. When we came together as a couple, I finally understood the joys of self-sacrificial love.

Looking back on those days two years ago, I chuckle at God’s sense of humor and rejoice in God’s providence. I can just hear God the Father saying to God the Son: “You know that Adam Thomas fellow? He’s my beloved child, he’s even a priest of the Church, but he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand your words, Son, when you said to your friends: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ”

“You know what we should do?” says God the Son. “We should get him to Massachusetts so he can meet Leah Johnson. I think she will clue him in.”

You see, I spent 27½ years – that’s 93.2% of my life, by the way – trying to have my cake and eat it to. I tried to follow Jesus and remain the main character in my own life. But Jesus’ words and his own self-sacrificial love show us a different way.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We Americans are programmed to cringe at the thought of “denying ourselves.” We want giant SUVs that have great fuel economy. We want the beer to taste great and be less filling. We want to treat ourselves to chocolate desserts that don’t have any calories. We want to pursue our happiness, and we don’t seem to mind advertisers telling us just what our happiness should look like. These marketers know they will rake in so much more money if they continue convincing us that being the main characters of our own lives is the best way to live.

Until I met Leah, I bought into the hype. I’ll let you in on a secret: when I was in elementary school, my parents sent me to a session or two of therapy because of how awfully and brutally I insisted on getting my own way. The temper tantrums I threw if we didn’t go to the restaurant I wanted to go to were the stuff of legend. One of these tantrums happened on my mother’s birthday. While that behavior faded as I got older, I still succumb all too often to our me-first consumer culture. I’d be willing to bet that you do to.

But when we deny ourselves and stop striving to be the main characters, we no longer feel shortchanged when Jesus spins the spotlight away from us and shines the light on others. These others are always the ones that Jesus desires us to see: the ones who seem to us to be the ensemble, those brought in just to fill out the cast, the extras. In our film, these extras are those who have no roof over their heads or who have no money for food or who lay in the nursing home with no one to visit them. But in God’s film, these extras are the stars. When we insist that the spotlight stay on us, these others remain in the shadows, too unimportant to garner any attention. But when we follow Jesus Christ as he yearns for us to, we let go of our stranglehold on the spotlight and finally see those whom he would have us see.

And when we see in this way, when we notice those outside our own spotlights, something happens that the advertisers and marketing directors never prepared us for. We discover a latent desire that Jesus’ words planted within us when we were looking the other way. We discover the desire to be generous and welcoming to those who never enjoy the spotlight. We look the ensemble cast members in the eye and realize that we want to know their names and where they grew up and what their hopes and dreams for the future are. We turn out our pockets and volunteer our time and invite the stranger to become friend because by doing so we notice clearly the footsteps of Christ walking one step before us. We feel the life of Christ welling up from within us and connecting with the life of Christ welling up from within the other, who now shines in the spotlight.

Jesus Christ is always walking one step before us, but we don’t always walk one step behind him. We stray, we go off on our own, we set up camp rather than continue following. But even with all of our wilderness wanderings and our prima donna tendencies, he continues to stay one step away, calling us back to his path. His path is hard: the way of denial, of self-sacrifice, of cross-carrying. But his path is also the way of true joy.

When we walk down Jesus’ path, the spotlight is never on us, but on those around us, those walking with us. Now that God has blessed me with a partner to remind me that I am not the main character of my life, I have crept slowly and haltingly onto this path and found the joy of stepping out of the spotlight, the joy of generosity and welcoming and service. Perhaps you have, too. Perhaps, as we turn the spotlight on each other and on those Jesus would have us see, together we will notice, there marking the ground in front of us, the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

Christ be with Me, Christ Within Me

(Sermon for Sunday, August 12, 2012 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51)

I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid. Last week, I was excited to go and see the new Batman movie. But then a self-proclaimed Joker – Batman’s chief enemy – calmly walked into a midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado and filled the theater with tear gas…and then bullets…and then dead bodies. Fear – and grief for the victims and their families – replaced excitement, and I haven’t darkened the door of a movie theater since.

This week, I was excited to come to church to celebrate communion and praise God with all of you. But then a white supremacist calmly walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and filled the temple with bullets of his own…and more dead bodies. Fear – and shock and more grief – once again replaced excitement, and I would be lying if I told you that I feel completely comfortable right now exposed like I am in this pulpit. I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid.

And so, as I sat down to write this sermon, fear was on my mind. And I started wondering just why fear is so debilitating. And as I wondered about that, the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel started seeping into my consciousness. And I found that, while my fear didn’t evaporate just like that, someone had sidled up next to the fear and made the fear seem very small in comparison.

But I get ahead of myself. First, why is fear so debilitating? Well, fear has a way of unmaking us. When God created you and me, God made our default position one of loving and trusting. Think of the toddler who will go up to any stranger and say, “Hello.” Then think of the frantic mother who grabs the child by the wrist and yanks him away. Or here’s another example. While on vacation, I met my two-year-old cousin for the first time (which was a real treat, let me tell you) and within half an hour of meeting me, he was flinging himself into my arms from the top platform of the playground. God programmed us to love and trust, not to fear.

So when fear inevitably takes hold, the fear overrides our initial programming. Love and trust move down the list of conditioned responses, and we are no longer the whole people that God intended us to be. Fear motivates people do all sorts of things, the kind of things that unmake us. Some people hole up in their bedrooms never to venture into the world. Some lie to their parents about where they’ve been. Some never settle into mutual, meaningful relationships. Some cheat. Some bully. Some abuse drugs and alcohol. And some go on shooting rampages through temples containing people who look and think differently than they do.

Fear is so debilitating because fear keeps us from being the people God made us to be. Fear hollows out our identity as God’s children. Fear replaces the loving and trusting identity with one that longs to isolate and control. When our identities are tied up in fear rather than in God, we lose who we are; we lose ourselves because there is nothing sustaining or life-giving about fear.

When we feel fearful, when we feel like we are being unmade, what is really happening is that we are losing our connection to our identity as those loving and trusting children of God. And this where the words of Jesus begin seeping into my mind. This is where we make the turn and place Jesus next to the fear and notice how small the fear seems in comparison.

Jesus spends much of his time in the Gospel according to John telling people who he is. His identity is a subject that crops up every other chapter or so, and Jesus signals to us that he is talking about his identity with a special coded phrase. He says the two simple words: “I Am.” But these two simple words carry a lot of weight. By saying “I Am,” Jesus essentially quotes God’s words to Moses. At the burning bush, God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt. Moses wants some insurance to let people know he really met God, so he asks for God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. When Jesus borrows this phrase, he reveals to his listeners and to us his divine identity.

Jesus uses these “I Am” statements over a dozen times in the Gospel according to John. Two of them happen in the story that runs the length of Chapter Six, a part of which we read this morning. I’ll get to the first one in a moment, but before that, let’s talk about the one in our passage today. “I Am the bread of life,” says Jesus. With these words Jesus reveals a piece of his divine identity.

As followers of Jesus, our identities are wrapped up in his. When he discloses a piece of his identity, we discover a piece of ours. When he says, “I Am the bread of life,” he invites us to imagine what bread can tell us about God. Bread nourishes us, just as being in relationship with Jesus nourishes us. Bread in the wider sense of food sustains life, just as through Jesus (as “the Word made flesh”) all life has come into being.

But this is no normal, everyday metaphor. I might say my wife’s smile is the sun on a rainy day, but we all know her smile is not actually the sun. Jesus doesn’t idly compare himself to bread. Jesus is the “bread of life.” Normal, everyday food and drink will satisfy for a time. But eating the food of the bread of life brings us into relationship with Jesus, who is that bread. One of the Eucharistic prayers says this beautifully, praying that we “may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, and [be] made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”

In the Eucharistic meal, which we will share in a few minutes, we take Jesus in, and the Bread of Life opens our eyes to the wonderful reality that his presence surrounds us and penetrates us always. The wonderful hymn known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” describes this ever-present reality:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

When Jesus reveals that he is “the bread of life,” he invites us into the reality that his presence sustains us wherever we are and whatever has happened. This is part of his divine identity, and our identity finds a home in this sustenance.

Whenever fear debilitates us, whenever fear threatens to unmake us, Jesus Christ is there sustaining us, nourishing us so that we can continue on our way, surrounding us with his steadfast presence. We were not made to fear, but to love and trust. The more we rely on the sustaining presence of the Bread of Life, the less of a foothold will we give to fear.

I told you that I would mention Jesus’ other “I Am” statement from an earlier part of this morning’s story. The night before today’s lesson, the disciples row across the sea in their boat. But a storm comes up and threatens to swamp them. Then they see Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water. And do you know what he says to them? He says: “I Am; do not be afraid.”


(Sermon for Sunday, July 15, 2012 || Proper 10B || Mark 6:14-29)

Today’s Gospel reading gives us an entire story about one of the antagonists of the Gospel. Antagonist. This is a tricky word because often in current culture “antagonist” is simply synonymous with villain, enemy, or bad guy. Famous antagonists – a Jeopardy category, perhaps? Darth Vader. Javert. Lex Luthor. Vader wears black, breathes heavily, and uses the “Dark Side” of the Force – definitely a villain. Javert hunts for a man whose crime doesn’t warrant such obsessive and destructive investigation – a perfect enemy for Jean Valjean. And in the first Superman movie, Lex Luthor attempts to destroy California in order to raise his land’s property value – total bad guy.

Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor.

But dismissing these fellows as mere villains ignores their roles as the antagonists of their respective stories. A good antagonist doesn’t simply serve as the proverbial immovable object against which the hero’s unstoppable force must contend. A well-drawn antagonist helps reveal the good things about the protagonist. Often, facets of the main character remain in shadow until a skeptical or adversarial or malevolent character brings them to the light. Lex Luthor’s greed stands in contrast with Superman’s selflessness and so on and so forth.

The antagonist in our story today falls into the same Jeopardy category as Vader, Javert, and Lex Luthor. He is none other than King Herod, to whom Mark dedicates a precious fifteen verses of his short account of the Gospel. If you thought today’s reading felt a bit weird and out of place, then you’re not alone. The Gospel writer Matthew greatly abridges the tale, and Luke and John give the story a miss entirely. But Mark, who usually barrels his narrative ahead at a breakneck speed, oddly stops for a massive chunk of Chapter 6 and treats us to a banquet with one of the bad guys. So, my question is, “Why?”

Well, I think that Mark is a good storyteller, and good storytellers understand what antagonists are for. If antagonists exist to shed light on the good things about the protagonist, then we can ask ourselves, “What does Herod teach us about Jesus?” The easy answer is without Jesus, innocent people get beheaded at dinner. But I think we can go a little deeper than that. Jesus’ absence in this passage is truly conspicuous. Indeed, if the Gospel of Mark were cut up into a season-long television series, the actor playing Jesus would get this episode off. But still, I’m pretty excited because for one week, we get to look at the story from the other side. We get to see the actions of the bad guy and contrast them with the actions of the good guy. And boy, do we have some contrasts to make.

What Mark gives us is really a flashback to an earlier event. Herod thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead, which is bad news for our bad guy because Herod wound up signing John’s death sentence in the first place. Mark tells the tale of why Herod found himself in such a predicament.

The story begins at dinner. And at dinner is where we make our first contrast between the good guy and the bad. This isn’t just any dinner, either. This is Herod’s birthday dinner, and when you’re a puppet king of the Roman Empire – a lackey, really – you don’t have much power beyond spending your citizens hard-earned tax dollars on extravagant banquets for you and your friends. Mark describes these friends in detail: Herod’s guests are “his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee.” Not a bad turnout for the red carpet. You can see them in your mind’s eye, right? There they are reclining at table and congratulating each other for being part of such an impressive coterie.

Of course, if Jesus had been hosting such a banquet, whom would he have invited? That’s right: the outcasts, the sinners, the tax collectors – those people who wouldn’t have a chance in a million years to be on Herod’s guest list. The very people at Herod’s banquet are more than likely the ones who excoriate Jesus for eating with the unwashed poor, the street urchins usually labeled as “bad.” And yet, we know who the good guy in this story is.

So the who’s who of society arrives for Herod’s birthday, and his little daughter dances for the assembly. Her acclaim is so great that Herod swears to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” With the girl’s conniving mother in the background, we know this cannot go well. Swearing an oath was a big deal back then, akin to a legal contract today, but with more honor at stake. And swearing a blind oath was like writing a blank check.

Of course, if Jesus had watched the little girl’s ballet, what would he have done? Joyfully praised her for her creative expression, no doubt, but he sure wouldn’t have sworn an oath. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” In other words, there’s no need to swear an oath; just be trustworthy all the time and you won’t need to make guarantees.

And still, we have one more contrast to make – the biggest one yet between the good guy and the bad. On her mother’s prompting, the girl asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod is deeply grieved, Mark tells us, but apparently not too deeply grieved because he goes through with his oath anyway. In order to save his honor, his pride, his standing in society, Herod has an innocent man killed.

Of course, when Jesus was in a similar situation, what did he do? When he could have saved himself from public humiliation, scorn, pain, and death, what did he do? He gave himself up willingly. He gave no regard to his own honor and pride, but emptied himself and humbly chose the road that led to the cross. Society mocked him, the empire killed him, and yet he won in the end, and yet he won in the end when God raised him from the dead on the third day.

Our antagonist today, foolhardy and power-drunk King Herod, shows us the other side of the story, the shadow side, the side that exists in the darkness when the light of the world is offstage. He prizes his standing, his honor, and his pride above all else, even to the point of committing homicide.

I don’t know about you, but I suspect that all too often I place myself on the wrong side of the story. I look at myself in the mirror, and I wonder when the good guy decided to take the episode off and let the bad guy take center stage. I ignore Jesus’ dinner guests because they are so much easier to ignore than to include. I swear oaths to myself about how I will live my life, and then I fail to live up to them. I let my pride stand in the way of doing the right thing. If you’re anything like me, then we all occupy the antagonist’s role in our own lives far too much of the time.

But the good news is this: even when we occupy the bad guy’s role in our own stories, there is always and forever someone occupying the role of the good guy. Our protagonist is Jesus Christ, and as any good guy would, he calls us to come to him, to shed ourselves of our antagonism, and to live our lives as his followers. When we confess our sins in a few minutes, when we once again give up to God our villainy, we will be ready to recognize Jesus as the protagonist of our stories. And as he nourishes us with his Body and Blood at his dinner banquet, we will be strengthened to go out as the good guys and serve the world in his name.