Sermon – John 3.14-21, Numbers 21.4-9, L4, YB, March 14, 2021

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Our scripture lessons today offer two contrasts:  a story from the Hebrew Scriptures which might be unfamiliar to you or at least may seem wildly strange, and a story from John’s gospel that is so familiar, you can probably quote a portion of the text if I simply tell you the citation, “John 3.16.”  What is strange about this combination is the unknown, uncomfortable story is a window into the overly familiar, commonplace story.  If we have any hope of understanding either of them, we need to dive into both.

At the point where we join the story from Numbers, God has been infinitely patient with God’s people.  Some might argue too patient.  God has saved God’s people time and again, wresting them from brutal slavery, miraculously helping them flee through the Sea of Reeds, helping sweeten bitter drinking water when they murmured, granting them manna when they complained of being hungry, giving them water out of a rock when they grumbled about being thirsty, offering them birds to eat when they whined of manna-fatigue.  Grace and patience abound with God.  Until this day.  The Israelites throw yet another fit, and God snaps.  This time, God sends poisonous serpents among the people, and many of them die.  When the people beg for help to Moses, God instructs Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole; if people gaze upon the serpent, they will live.  For a God who asks the people have no idols or gods before God, a serpent on a pole is, quite frankly, just weird.

Meanwhile, we have a super familiar text from John.  “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son.”  We love this verse because the verse reminds of our abundant, loving, graceful God.  Of course, we sometimes gloss over the rest of the troublesome parts of this text.  The rest talks about how Jesus saves the world – as long as the world believes.  Here is where the questions start to pile up for us.  Do we really believe that some people are condemned?  Is God’s love conditional?  What happens if we doubt?  Does that count as not believing?  Can eternal life be given and taken away based on the seesaw of my behavior?  The trouble is if we focus on God’s grace, we can make salvation seem arbitrary, with no essential place for human response.  But if we focus on human faith, we may be in danger of making salvation a human accomplishment, restricting God’s initiative universally.[i]  The only thing that seems to be clear is that God gives us a choice.  When we commit evil deeds, when we deny God through our behavior, when we linger in the darkness, we are making a choice.  And the text tells us today that the consequence of that choice is condemnation.

The answer to so much in these texts seems to lie in verse fourteen of John.  Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  As scholar Debie Thomas writes, “In the Old Testament story, God requires the Israelites to look up.  To gaze without flinching at the monstrous thing their sin has conjured.  It’s the thing they have wrought, the thing they fear most, the thing that will surely kill them if God in God’s mercy doesn’t intervene and transform the instrument of pain and death into an instrument of healing and life.  In order to be saved, the people have to confront the serpent — they have to look hard at what harms, poisons, breaks, and kills them.”[ii]  The same seems to happen with Jesus on a cross.  Thomas goes on to say, “In the cross, we are forced to see what our refusal to love, our indifference to suffering, our craving for violence, our resistance to change, our hatred of difference, our addiction to judgment, and our fear of the Other must wreak.  When the Son of Man is lifted up, we see with chilling and desperate clarity our need for a God who will take our most horrific instruments of death, and transform them, at great cost, for the purposes of resurrection.”[iii]

The truth is, I am not sure either of these texts answer some of our basic questions, especially around those of belief.  But tying them together today, we do find an invitation – to change our gaze away from the judgment of others, the wondering about who is in and out, the questions about God’s retribution, and gaze on the cross – the body that reminds us of the goodness of God in spite of our sinfulness, that reminds us of God’s grace in spite of our lack of deserving, that reminds us of God’s unconditional love despite our inability to keep failing.  Our invitation is to take seriously the words of that old hymn, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.”  As we continue on the path of Lent toward the cross, today’s texts remind us of where we are going and why.  Our invitation is to look up at the horrible, wonderful truth of what Jesus does in the cross, and stand in the light of his glory and grace.  Amen.


[i] Joseph D. Small, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 118.

[ii] Debie Thomas, “Looking Up,” March 7, 2021, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2944-looking-up, on March 12, 2021. 

[iii] Thomas.

Sermon – Luke 23.18-26, People of the Cross, March 3, 2021

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This sermon was preached at New Zion Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of the Upper James City County Lenten Ecumenical worship series. The series was entitled, “People of the Cross,” a journey with the characters of the Stations of the Cross.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of this pandemic, we have begun to fall into some dangerous patterns.  The more time we safely spend in isolation from others, the more the notion sneaks into our psyche that we do not need others – that we are solitary actors in the world.  The more safety measures become recommendations as opposed to mandates, we begin to think we have power over our destiny – freedom to wear a mask or not, freedom to spend time with people when we want, freedom to take a vaccine or not.  The more time we spend not gathering in our worship spaces, away from our communities of faith, the more distant we can begin to feel from God, slowly no longer watching those digital offerings or joining those Zooms because we are just tired of everything.

Sometimes I wonder if Simon of Cyrene was a man who thought of himself in similar ways.  Now, we have to remember where we are in Jesus’ story.  Jesus has already been betrayed by Judas, arrested in Gethsemane, been shuffled around by religious and secular authorities, undergone trial with Pilate, been sentenced to death, and is heading toward Calvary with a cross.  This is the point in Jesus’ story where we meet Simon of Cyrene.  We know very little about Simon.  He is only mentioned in the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and even in those gospels, his story is told in just a verse.  Matthew says, “As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry [Jesus’] cross.”  Mark says, “They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry [Jesus’] cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.”  And finally, Luke, who we heard tonight, says, “As they led [Jesus] away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.” 

That is all we have.  One verse from each synoptic gospel.  We learn a few things though.  Simon was not from Jerusalem – he was coming in from the country.  Simone of Cyrene was a father of at least two sons.  And we know he did not volunteer for the job of helping Jesus.  He did not have compassion, see a man struggling, and offer to help.  He did not see the incorruption of the state and fight back or bravely step in to mitigate the injustice.  All we know is he was compelled or seized and put to work.  And Luke adds that he carried the cross behind Jesus.  The rest of the story we just do not know.

But here is what we do know.  We know the times where we have collided with Jesus, sometimes against our will or even our knowing.  The phone call from the needy friend when you just need some alone time.  The homeless person, who seems slightly unstable, who you know is going to ask you for something, even if they just start with conversation.  That person being bullied on the playground or in the board room, that if you stand up for them, the bullies may turn their evil on you.  The pastor who asks you to take leadership on a new ministry when you are already feeling overwhelmed.       

Author and Dominican brother, Timothy Radcliffe, reminds us that we Americans have a strange relationship with “the ideal of a self-sufficient person who does not need anyone else.   We should stand on our own feet.   It is humiliating to need others, especially strangers.”[i]  That very kind of thinking is what has led us to where we are in this pandemic – where my behavior, my choices, my agency to mask, socially distance, and vaccinate are my own, made in a bubble of self-sufficiency.  But in the heart of Simon of Cyrene’s experience with Jesus, we see how our own American ideals crumble.  We are not wholly autonomous peoples of self-sufficiency and self-actualization.  We are people who need each other.  Jesus shows us in this strange, forced encounter with Simon that vulnerability is not a burden to be scorned, but the place where holiness is encountered – where we see God.

Of course, Jesus taught us this lesson before.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told his followers that when they see a stranger, the least of these, and see they are hungry and give them food, they are thirsty and give them something to drink, when they welcomed a stranger, they clothed the naked, and took care of the sick, and visited the prisoner, they did these things to Jesus.  We know our wearing of masks is not for our own protection, but for the protection of others.  We know in our keeping distant from our loved ones, including from our beloved churches, we are protecting others.  When we get vaccines, we do not take them for ourselves, but for the power of herd immunization to stop the ravaging of our whole country. 

Julian of Norwich, the Middle Ages mystic, once wrote, “If I look at myself alone, I am nothing.  But when I think of myself and all my fellow-Christians joined together in love, I have hope.  For in this joining lies the life of all who shall be saved.”[ii]  Simon of Cyrene may not have wanted to be a part of Jesus’ story.  We may not want to be a part of the work of saving one another, this community, the commonwealth, or even this country.  And yet, here we are, a pandemic having stripped us of all notions of our self-sufficiency and self-actualization, being forced to look at each other in vulnerability and mutual dependence. 

We may not choose this reality, this time, this country in all its sinfulness, but this is where God has placed us.  But just like Simon of Cyrene, even in those times when we are forced into encounters with the holy One, our lives can be changed.  Several scholars have argued that Simon of Cyrene, in this forced encounter, in being forced to carry a stranger’s cross, becomes a disciple of that same stranger.  Pastor Patrick J. Willson argues, “Simon follows Jesus carrying the cross, thus becoming an icon of Christian discipleship. Luke’s vision is not that of an imitatio Christi; only Jesus is crucified. Simon follows the way Jesus has walked bearing the weight of the cross.  Jesus going before him makes discipleship possible.”[iii]

That is our invitation through Simon of Cyrene.  Simon’s story – his one moment with Jesus, his one verse in the entire canon of scripture – offers a powerful invitation to, even in this moment, take our cross of discipleship and follow Jesus.  We do not have to go with an eager spirit.  We may not even go willingly.  But the promise of going is radical transformation:  transformation from a people whose primary concern is for self to a people who know we will encounter Jesus when we finally realize that only when we look at ourselves as joined with fellow-Christians in love can we look to the world in hope.  Jesus humbled himself, making himself vulnerable enough to walk to Calvary and die on a cross for us.  Our invitation is to walk humbly behind and allow the weight of the cross to transform us into people of love and hope.  Amen.


[i] Timothy Radcliffe, Stations of the Cross (Collegeville:  Liturgical Press, 2014), 30.

[ii] Julian of Norwich, Stations of the Cross:  A Devotion Using The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich (Norwich:  The Friends of Julian of Norwich, 1998), 13.

[iii] Patrick J. Willson, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Pt. 1, Additional Essays (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 4.

On Finding Blessings among the Curses…

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Photo credit: Troy Mendez

Last week, a seminary classmate sent an email to a group of six of us who had travelled to Myanmar on a mission trip while in seminary.  The trip was a powerful, multiple week trip – for us as individuals, for us as a team (one of our members passed away a couple of years after seminary), and, when we returned, for our relationships with the Burmese students at the seminary.  The experience of that trip forever changed the dynamics between us – there are inside jokes that lead to ribbing; we know each other in ways that only fellow travelers can, leading to belly-laughs and understanding sighs too deep for words; and our connection to the Anglican Church in Myanmar and our spiritual experiences there created a brotherhood and sisterhood that is difficult to articulate. 

So, when the toughly-won democracy crumbled a few weeks ago in Myanmar, we all watched in horror.  The call to gather from my classmate was certainly an opportunity for us to catch up, but more importantly for us to pray – to pray for our Burmese classmates, the brothers and sisters in Christ we met there, and the countless people who simply want to live their lives free of the brutality of a military junta.  Over the course of this year, I have complained more times than I can count about the amount of time I spent on Zoom.  But as the six of us gathered virtually from around the country to tell stories, to laugh, to mourn, and to pray, I confess to you, I have never been more grateful for a technological tool.  Even in that virtual space, we were able to find the rhythm of a group established fourteen years ago, and slow down enough to put the needs of Myanmar above our own.

As we work to vaccinate our country and as churches begin to regather again, I find myself once again grateful for the ways God has made a way in the wilderness.  And although I will be thrilled to see people in person again, I am glad we will still have technological advances available to us – to facilitate community, care, and compassion.  Not once in the years since we left seminary has our mission team managed to get together in person.  But with technology, we were able to create a virtual space of real connection between us, and, perhaps more importantly, a place where God could move among us and beyond us.  I would never wish this pandemic on any of us, but I remain astounded at the way God has used the gifts God has given us to facilitate the spreading of the Good News. 

One year into this pandemic, I give thanks for the ways in which technology has facilitated fellowship, formation, worship, and pastoral care.  I wonder what graces this pandemic has gifted you over this last year.  What ways has necessity inspired blessedness?  As you reflect this week, I invite you to join me in offering gratitude for God’s grace in the midst of a very dark year. 

Please continue to keep Myanmar in your prayers as they struggle for the restoration of democracy, for the safety of innocent people being brutalized and disappeared, and for the encouragement and protection to keep fighting for justice.

On Glimpses of Togetherness…

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Photo credit: Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly; reuse with permission only

This evening, we are gathering with our local ecumenical brothers and sisters in worship.  These Lenten gatherings happen every year, usually preceded by a simple supper before worshiping together.  One of the eight churches hosts and a preacher from another church offers the sermon.  The freewill offering supports a local nonprofit.  The evenings allow us to see the broader movement of Christ in our community, remind ourselves of the wideness of God’s mercy, and inspire a sense of community and fellowship.

Of course, in the midst of a pandemic, things look a little different.  Instead of seeing each other’s worship spaces, we are getting to see each other’s virtual worship spaces (Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, etc.).  Instead of seeing faces over a meal, we are feasting strictly on the Word of God.  In some ways, we could see the gatherings as “less than,” lacking all the things we love about community.  But for me, it has been a tremendous blessing to see how we are all in this together – all finding our own ways through technology, all seeking to be closer to Christ in the midst of this chaotic time.  Tonight, I am “preaching,” though technically, I prerecorded my sermon last week.  Our time of recording – with just three of us in the room, and two others on Zoom – was a tender invitation into the space where their community has been making it work for months. 

If you do not have plans tonight, or for the next several Wednesdays through Holy Week, consider yourself invited to virtual worship with the Upper James City County Ministerium.  On a basic level, it will give you a chance to pray, worship, and hear a good word each Wednesday.  On a deeper level, it may help you get out of your comfort zone with an unfamiliar style of worship or a theologically different perspective on scripture.  But on an even deeper level, it will remind you of how widely we are all connected during this strange, seemingly disconnected time.  It is my hope that you experience a glimpse into the magnitude of how the Holy Spirit is doing some incredible work during this time that can often feel absent of God.  You are invited to come and see a different perspective!

On Being Apart While Together…

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As a priest, especially a priest in a pandemic, you do not always know how the things you plan are going to go.  Most of the liturgical things we do are about 90 degrees off from what we “normally” do, and we just keep hoping they capture the spirit of the original liturgies.  I am blessed to serve an awesome congregation whose DNA is wired to be creative, playful, and experimental, so I always feel like we are in this together.  But I still find myself holding my breath a bit each time we try something unusual.

Ash Wednesday was no different.  We did our due diligence, made ample opportunity for parishioners and neighbors to get ashes for home use, and we figured out how to synchronize our ashes through livestreaming.  What I did not anticipate was what it would feel like to put ashes on my own head.  Even when I was a solo clergy person, I always had a parishioner put ashes on me after I put ashes on them.  But putting ashes on my own head felt very solitary – suddenly I was very aware of how separated we all are from one another – and how lonely that sometimes feels.

I pondered that reality for a few days before I remembered something else from Ash Wednesday.  We decided in the pandemic to still offer Ashes to Go – a drive through experience at our location.  As we distributed containers of ash, we gave people three options – “ash” themselves as we pray with them, take the ashes home and say a set of prayers we gave them, or take them home and watch our livestream and “ash” with us.  One family drove through and I gave the mom the three options.  She decided I should go ahead and pray as she put ashes on the foreheads of her two preschool children.  As I watched her work – this mom whose story I could all too easily imagine – the stress of parenting for almost a year in a pandemic, making hard decisions about childcare, juggling work, children, and family, trying to precariously hold it together.  Here she was, taking on the work of the spiritual nourishment of her kids too. 

And that is when I realized the truth.  We are very separated, often alone, and sometimes lonely in this pandemic.  But we are all feeling those things together.  When we gather online together, we are together in our apart-ness.  When we swing by the property for drive-through experiences, we are acknowledging our togetherness in our apart-ness.  When things remind us of our apart-ness, we are collectively reminded together.  It is a beautiful, awful dichotomy, only made better by the fact that we are, in fact, together in this.  This Lent, I invite you to pause to look around, and observe the small, sometimes tiny, reminders that we are in this together.  Even in our apart-ness, we are with each other in Spirit.  And the Spirit is enough to hold us together while apart until we can be physically together some day.

Sermon – Mark 6:1-6, 16-21, Isaiah 58:1-12, AW, YB, February 17, 2021

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I have always thought the Ash Wednesday liturgy offers a strange contrast.  We engage in the very visible sign of having ashes spread across our foreheads.  And yet, our gospel lesson this day speaks very clearly of not showing your piety publicly.  But this year, the contrast of Ash Wednesday feels even more pointed.  Typically on this day, we talk about giving things up for Lent, fasting, and entering into a season of contemplation about not just our mortality, but the sinfulness that separates us from God.  But we have spent the last eleven months fasting – fasting from social gatherings, fasting from touch and uncovered faces, even fasting from receiving the sacred meal.  And for a large portion of those months, we have been in deep contemplation about the exponentially rising death all around us, the brokenness of our common life, the sin of oppression and racism.  The last thing I want to hear from the church today is how I need to give up more.

I think that is why I love the text from Isaiah this year so much.  God offers a mirror to God’s people.  On first glance, God’s people are certainly doing the things that are expected – in fact, the “things” that are often of Lent.  They are fasting and lying in sackcloth and ashes.  They are doing the work of penitence.  But the acts are not the problem – the motivation of the acts are the problem.  They are doing acts of contrition as sort of an exchange:  fasting so that God will give them favor; Sure, their behavior may end in the oppression of others, but they are doing the manual action called for in this moment. 

But God is having nothing of hollow spiritual practices.  If those practices are not leading to the loosening of the bonds of injustice, or the undoing of the thongs of the yoke, or the freeing of the oppressed, they are meaningless.  If the people of God are not sharing their bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into their homes, covering the naked, and caring for their own kin, then fasting is little more than act in futility, an action done without reflection, intention, or love of neighbor. 

So what do the words of Isaiah have to do with living in month eleven of a pandemic?  I am going to say something that might be a little controversial, but here you go:  the church is not asking you to fast this Lent.  Now, in a few moments, I am going to say these very words, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, …by…fasting, and self-denial…”  But you have already fasted for a whole year.  You have already been in a season of self-denial.  The ashes you will impose on your head later are not a reminder that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  You know that reality all too well now.  Instead, we are going to take a cue from Isaiah tonight.  You have already done the manual acts of Lent.  Now your invitation is the “so that” part of the action.  Our work this Lent is to reflect upon what has been a most difficult year and to ponder together what this past year of fasting is inviting us into.  How has this season of fasting, this season of struggle, this season of brutality transformed our sense of purpose and identity – a people focused on God’s work loosening the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, and sharing our bread?  How has the sobering nature of death, grittily rubbed onto our foreheads tonight, changing our resolve to lean into God, lean into this Christian community, lean into the work of sharing God’s love with those who do not know that love?

The rest of the invitation I will read in a moment says this, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer…and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  You have done the rituals of fasting and self-denial long enough.  As we look forward to these next forty days together, our work is to spend time with God, scripture, and one another and answer the question, “So what?”  What are we going to do now?  What are we going to claim and what are we going to let go?  How is the grit of ash this year not the sensation of defeat, but of invitation.  I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  Amen.

On Keeping Rituals Anyway…

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Photo credit: https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/03/06/ash-wednesday-2019-wearing-ashes-marks-beginning-lent/3064920002/

Today is Ash Wednesday.  It is the day we gather to kick off the beginning of Lent.  The main marker of this day are the ashes rubbed on our foreheads in the shape of a cross.  This ritual action is so powerful that churches typically offer multiple services in their buildings and they hang out in train stations, street corners, or parking lots so that people can grab their ashes on the go. 

But this year Ash Wednesday is happening in a surreal setting.  Reminding us we are dust and to dust we shall return seems a little superfluous when death is all around us from this pandemic.  Beginning a season of fasting seems like overkill when we have been doing nothing but fasting for eleven months – fasting from a way of life we once knew.  Asking us to give us something for Lent seems tone deaf when we have been giving up things for almost a year.  And with large communities having lost power for several days, churches still on lock down, and best practices prohibiting us from actually touching ashes to others’ foreheads, the whole idea of this day seems like too much.

So why are we even bothering with Ash Wednesday this year?  A couple of reasons.  One of the base reasons is we need to keep the rituals of life to help us feel some semblance of normalcy – some reminder of the things that have been meaning-giving in our lives.  Two, we need reminders that God is present in the midst of all this mayhem.  Some of us have never felt God’s absence, some of us have felt the abandonment of God in this time, and some of us have just felt so depleted that God feels distant – not absent, but also not vividly present. 

I don’t know how you are holding up this Ash Wednesday.  I don’t know where you are on your journey with God these days.  But what I do know is that the church is here to walk with you, comfort you, and create space for wherever you are on the journey – whether driving through,  watching online, or catching up by email, phone, or text.  We are in this together.    

Sermon – Mark 9.2-9, TRNS, YB, February 14, 2021

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I do not know about you, but lately, I have found myself at a weird emotional place with this pandemic.  Eleven months ago, the pandemic got so bad, our church buildings closed and our experience as church as we know was forever altered.  Then the rollercoaster began.  Cases went up and down.  Schools were in and mostly out.  Masks were optional, then required, and now even recommended to be doubled.  And then there is the death toll.  We went from a couple of thousand a week to lately as much as 25,000 a week.  The introduction of the vaccine feels like the great white hope.  And yet, just this week I learned of a dear family friend who died a rapid death from the virus.  And we know there will be more death before there is life again.

I think that is why I am struggling this year to find the Transfiguration to be a source of joy.  As I read the familiar words this week, I wanted to be mesmerized – by the dazzling white of Jesus’ clothes, the appearance of none other than the law and the prophets:  Moses and Elijah.   Even God speaks words of revelation to the disciples.  Despite all the wonder and awe on this last of epiphanies in the season of Epiphany, I find myself unable to rally in this epiphanic moment.

The good news is the tension I have been feeling this week might not just be a case of my own emotional journey through this pandemic.  The tension we feel today is intentional on Mark’s part.  If you can remember all the way back in Advent, when we read the very first words of Mark, we read, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark tells us right away who Jesus is:  Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus is the Son of God.[i]  First, Mark tells us Jesus is the Christ:  the Messiah, the person the people of God had been awaiting, the victorious redeemer of the people, the mighty restorer of the kingdom of God.  Since that day in December when we heard this brief introduction by Mark, we have been celebrating the Messiah who was born.  Even today, as Jesus’ clothes turn dazzling white, and Elijah and Moses appear, we are filled with anticipation:  this is what we have been waiting for – Jesus the Messiah!!

And yet, somehow in the birth stories, and the epiphanies, and the dramatic healing stories, we forget the other half of Mark’s introduction:  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  You see, just as Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus is equally something else:  the Son of God.  Now the Son of God is not a title of honor so much as a reminder of what will happen to Jesus.  The Son of God is destined to lay down his life for the people of God.  Jesus is the suffering servant we hear about in Isaiah – the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice so that new life might come.

So what does any of this have to do with the Transfiguration?  Pretty much everything.  You see, in this victorious Messiah-like last epiphany moment before we head into Lent, the temptation is for us to linger on the mountain, to stay with the Jesus who makes us feel good, who makes us feel powerful, who makes us feel victorious, who dazzles us with shiny clothes.  That euphoric feeling is not unlike the feelings stirred up by the hope of vaccines – a hope so strong that some governors in our country have lifted pandemic restrictions all together – no more masks, no more distancing, no more waiting.

But as we begin Lent this week, we descend this mountain and walk our way to another mountain – the mountain of Calvary that reminds us of the other truth of Jesus:  that Jesus is the Son of God, sent to redeem us through the darkness of the cross.[ii]   Even on the mountain of Transfiguration, God reminds us of this truth.  God does not shout to the disciples, “Jesus is the Messiah!!”  Instead, God whispers the gentle reminder, “This is my Son, the beloved.”  Even God knows we will want to linger on the goodness of who Jesus is – the brilliance of a Messiah.  But as Mark tells us from the beginning:  Jesus is both the Christ and the Son of God.

This week we will begin the long journey of Lent.  We will reflect on our relationship with Jesus, our failings and faults, and our gifts and goodness.  The work will feel hard and tedious at times, especially clouded by this unrelenting pandemic, and we may prefer to hold on to the Messiah on today’s mountain.  But as we walk from today’s mountain to Good Friday’s mountain, we also hold in tension with Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Son of God.  In our weakness, we find a savior who is also weak.  In our dark days, we find a savior mired in darkness.  In our despairing, we find a savior lost in despair too.  Jesus’ identity as the Son of God gives us as much comfort as Jesus’ identity as the mighty Messiah.  When we hold all of who Jesus is in our hearts, we can be more tender with all of who we are. 

I am grateful to walk the Lenten walk with you.  I am grateful to hear about your struggles and victories, your darkness and light.  I am grateful to be surrounded by a community of people – whether virtually or in person – working through valley of two mountains so that we can come through the redemption of the resurrection.  Today’s Transfiguration Sunday offers us sustenance for the valley, fuel for the work, fire for the renewal.  This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the son of God.  Amen.


[i] This understanding of Jesus’ identity was presented by Thomas P. Long at a lecture on February 9, 2018.

[ii] The idea of framing Lent between two mountains come from Rolf Jacobson, in the Sermon Brainwave podcast, “#768: Transfiguration of Our Lord (B) – February 14, 2021,” February 7, 2021 as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/768-transfiguration-of-our-lord-b-feb-14-2021 on February 10, 2021.

Sermon – Mark 1.29-30, EP5, YB, February 7, 2021

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This morning I want to let you in on a little secret:  I do not actually love all of the Bible.  Now I know, I am a priest.  I am supposed to love all of Holy Scripture, the tome of inspired words from God.  Even in our ordination, priests proclaim, “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”[i]  And while I do believe what I said in my ordination about Scripture, there are still things in Holy Scripture that make me cringe, and, quite frankly, make me dread preaching them.

Today’s lesson from Mark is one of those texts.  We read of the miraculous healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, and my immediate reaction is, “Great!  Here we go again! A woman gets healed, and what’s the first thing she does?  Go to the kitchen and make the men some food.”  I was bracing myself this week for how I was going to stand here and talk about a woman being healed – actually, not just healed, but the word in the Greek is “raised” – the same word used for what happens to Jesus in his resurrection in Mark 16.6.[ii]  I was all ready to go with my defensive theology when I read the words of one scholar.  He simply says about the mother-in-law, “Mark introduces the first deacon in the New Testament.”[iii] 

My daughters and I enjoy reading a periodical called Bravery Magazine.  Every quarter a new edition features a woman who has shown bravery in the course of her life.  The one my younger daughter and I are reading now is about Eugenie Clark, a famous marine biologist, sometimes referred to as “The Shark Lady.”  Eugenie broke all kinds of boundaries about what women could do, but throughout our readings about her, one quote from her stuck with me, “I don’t work at something because I think it’s important.  I work at things that, to me, are interesting.”[iv]  In other words, Eugenie did not set out to care for marine life because she wanted to prove women are equal to men.  She set out to love and care for marine life because she found that work interesting – or as we might say, she was living out her call or vocation.

The same can be said about the mother-in-law of Simon.  She is not simply serving Jesus and the men with him.  She is not even “bowing to cultural convention, keeping in her restricted place as a servant.”  She is being a deacon, a “disciple who quietly demonstrates the high honor of service for those who follow Jesus.”[v]  What those labeled as disciples do not understand, and as one scholar reminds us, will not understand until Easter, is being a disciple of Jesus means becoming servants.  These named disciples will fight this reality the entire life of Jesus, in fact, later in Mark vying for primacy and privilege.  But this woman, as scholar Ofelia Ortega says, this resurrected mother-in-law, “has overcome all the selfishness and restrictive teachings and has been close to Jesus; deep down she is already a Christian, diakonisa [deacon], a servant of the church gathered in her son-in-law’s house…her diaconal work is the beginning and announcement of the gospel.”[vi]

As much as I would like to argue we are all like the mother-in-law, no matter what our gender, I think most of us are more like the male disciples, who are still trying to figure out discipleship.  We are still busy trying to rush Jesus out of his time of prayer to do more work, to control or contain the work of the Messiah, and certainly to guard our dignity in our daily lives.  But what the mother-in-law reminds us this week, is that if we wish to seek Jesus, to know and feel the presence of God, to understand our call in this crazy world, our first job is to serve:  to return to our baptismal covenant promise of seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

So how do we do we do this?  How do we shake ourselves out of own sense of control, our own agenda, or even, especially these days, our sense of weariness about this world?  We claim our discipleship, our invitation to serve.  We may start very small.  Maybe we start in our families like the mother-in-law and serve – not begrudgingly emptying that dishwasher while muttering, but joyfully honoring the ways Jesus has raised us up and given us power to serve.  Maybe we start with our neighbors, those feeling lonely or anxious, and send them a card or make them a meal.  Or maybe we start with those unknown to us who are suffering and serve them through advocacy or our labor.  We do not have to fully understand our service, and we will likely fail at doing that servant ministry as faithfully as the mother-in-law.  But Jesus has raised us up so that we can start afresh each new day.  Amen.


[i] BCP, 526.

[ii] Ofelia Ortega, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 334.

[iii] Gary W. Charles, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 335.

[iv] Beard Elyse, editor, Bravery Magazine:  Eugenie Clark, vol. 13, The Prolific Group, 2020, 4.

[v] Charles, 335.

[vi] Ortega, 334.

On Cups of Sugar and Other Gifts…

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One of the things I love about our public library is the way they display children’s books to catch your attention.  We have our favorite characters and series, but our librarians always pick books you might not find if you were just looking at endless rows of books.  In our last trip, we picked such a book called Addy’s Cup of Sugar.  There was a girl and a panda bear on the cover, so I was sure it would be a winner with my young daughter.  It also said it was based on a Buddhist story of healing, which sounded intriguing.

Little did I know how powerful this children’s book would be.  For those of you who have not read it (spoiler alert!), the book is about a girl whose cat dies.  She talks to her friend, the panda bear, about bringing the cat back to life.  The bear says the only way to accomplish that is for her to help him with the supplies he will need – specifically a cup of sugar from a neighbor; but the cup of sugar must come from a home where no one has experienced death.  So off Addy goes, and slowly we learn through her visits and beautiful conversations with neighbors that not one single house in her neighborhood has been unaffected by death.  You can imagine the conversation Addy and the bear have upon her return at the close of the day.

After recovering from being sideswiped by the emotional power of the book, I began to reflect on my work as a priest.  As part of my vocation, I am entrusted with fullness of people’s stories – grief they might not confess to their loved ones, weariness they may not show in their tough facades, anger at God they are afraid to claim aloud for fear of judgment.  Every once in a while, one of those poignant moments of sharing knocks the breath out of me and I am at a loss for words – because words cannot heal some hurts. 

Although I experience the depth of humanity more regularly than some, we all have the opportunity to do the same with our family, friends, and neighbors.  As the duration of this pandemic lengthens, I have been wondering if we all might need to start taking our own cups for sugar around the neighborhood (masked and socially distanced, of course), offering the opportunity for others to share their hurts, their sorrows, and perhaps their own struggles to see God.  Once we begin to see the wideness of the human condition, we also see how we are not alone.  Our cups of sugar then become not just gifts for ourselves, but for others too.