Transforming the Desert – Sermon for the Final Mass of St. John’s, Fort Hamilton (9/7/2014)

Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo by Kyle Laughlin, Licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0)

Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo by Kyle Laughlin, under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 License)

Numbers 11:16-17,24-291 Corinthians 3:5-11John 4:31-38

 

So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’

But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’  (Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29)

I was recently talking to a fellow priest, who serves as Rector of a parish right next to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. He was telling me about his idea for a Lenten Retreat. Those going on the retreat would spend most of one day in the near perfect and complete silence of Joshua Tree. After spending a day in the desert in pilgrimage and prayer, everyone would return to the nearby church and break the silence with Vespers. “If you can’t pray in the desert,” he told me, “…then you just can’t pray.”

His words have stuck with me over the past couple weeks, both on literal and metaphorical levels. The Desert – the wilderness – after all, is a powerful place in the imagination of the Church. After their deliverance from armies of Pharaoh at the Red Sea, Moses and the children of Israel moved into the desert, where they travelled for forty years. It is the place where they first celebrated their freedom, but also the place where they would later groan and wish to be back in bondage in Egypt. Isaiah’s prophecies speak of the barren desert rejoicing and blossoming, with water breaking forth in the wilderness when the people of Israel return from their exile in Babylon. The desert is where people flocked to hear the message of John the Baptist, drawn out from the safety of their shelters in the cities and on the river and lakeshores to receive a baptism of repentance, and to hear the kingdom of God was drawing near. After his baptism by John, the scripture tells us, the spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness where he both prayed and was tempted.

The desert is at once a place of trial and blessing – a place where the people of God are go to pray, and find themselves both tested and transformed. And so my mind wanders back to what my friend told me: “If you can’t pray in that place… if you can’t pray in the desert… you just can’t pray.” Sometimes the prayers of the desert are for deliverance; sometimes they are for perseverance; sometimes the prayers of the Desert are that we might feel God’s presence more closely, and sometimes, I suspect, they are that we might have God’s presence disturb us just a little bit less.

Our first reading today came in the midst of the desert experience of Moses and of Israel. The people are complaining, and in pain, and struggling with the place they lie, and are looking back at their time in Egypt with fondness – “If only we had meat to eat!” they say, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” It must be a particular talent of the people of God to look at a blessing – like the manna God provided for his people in their journey through the barren desert – and still be picturing all the things they could have had instead. And it is most certainly a sign of the goodness of God that in the midst of the people’s confusion and complaint, God becomes present and visible to them anyway.

God tells Moses to bring seventy elders of the people into the tent of meeting – the moving tent where the people of Israel, wandering in the desert, would go to meet the Divine Presence among them – and there they receive and share the spirit that was upon Moses, and they speak prophecy. Yet God also does something unexpected in that moment. Two men – Eldad and Medad, were outside of the seventy, and outside of the tent. Perhaps they were just going about their daily business in the wilderness. Yet the spirit of God comes to rest on them as well, and they speak prophecy as well – and, as the scripture suggests – they continue to do so. They speak so much that others become jealous of their abilities, and their gifts – because Eldad and Medad, they aren’t among the seventy known to be elders of the people or officers over them. But when these are reported to Moses, he speaks a word of wisdom we should hold with us this day, and every day: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

Would that all the Lord’s People were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them. All the Lord’s people – not just priests, or bishops, or deacons – but all of the people of God – would that each of them would be a prophet, dwelling in the fullness and in the spirit of God, and presenting that spirit out into the world. Would that each one of us would speak the word of God to a world that is so desperate to hear it. Would that each one of us would bear witness to the ongoing blessings and presence of God in the middle of the deserts of this life.

Through our baptism, we belong to a Lord who transforms our experience of the desert wilderness. In fact, our lesson today reminds us that all the Lord’s people are called to be prophets, and that the Lord put his spirit upon them. We hear the word “prophet” tossed around often in the church today. We hear it used to describe some of our leaders who make bold and difficult statements, to describe the crusaders who push for justice and peace. But ultimately, the call to prophecy is nothing more than the call to speak the word of God to the world around us – to enter into the labor of those who have come before us – and that call is not just given to the visionaries, the ideologues, and to the bold – but also to you and to me. To the people of God, sitting just outside of the tent of meeting, who Jesus happens to choose in this time and place to speak to the world around us.

Saint John’s – if you think I’m building up a grand analogy, to build to some great crescendo where I tell you that this Church has been living in the desert for the past ten years, and that we are now moving into the promised land – I’m afraid I will disappoint you. Because you see, as Christians, we are a pilgrim people, following after the footsteps of our Lord, always travelling, always pressing on, always moving toward the place where Jesus would have us and all of the world go. If you’re hoping that our decision to boldly move forward into a new chapter of our ministry will carry us across the Jordan River, out of the desert, and into the promised land – I’m afraid I will also disappoint you. Because while the kingdom of God is at hand, as Paul writes in his letter today, we are always building – building on the foundation that has been laid in Jesus Christ, and we will continue building for many years to come. We keep moving through the desert, ever onward, ever forward, ever following after our Lord, ever seeking to find the place he wants and needs us to go. We keep building, keep seeking, keep serving, keep praying.

But the promise of our scriptures today is that in this desert experience, we will meet God. And when we meet God, we will be changed, blessed, made into to prophets and witnesses of the work of Jesus Christ in the world around us. And not just some of us – all of us. All God’s people. And as we are changed, we will change the world around us. We will see the desert blossom and become a place of springs. We will build on the foundation that has been laid; we will enter into the Lord’s harvest.

Saint John’s, as we leave our ministry here to move to a new place, I know that today feels like we are wandering out into the desert without water – from a place of plenty into an empty and dry land. But the promise of the Gospel is that as Jesus died and rose again, we are raised too. The promise given to us today is that as we wander into the desert, God will meet us there – that the fiery, cloudy pillar will lead us all our journey through.

As we move out into the world, Jesus will meet us here, even in the deserts of this life, and there will pour out his spirit into our very souls, that we may be prophets – speaking the word of God to a world that so longs to hear it.

And so the challenge is given to us, as it has been given to all the saints before us and the saints still to come: to enter into the harvest, to build on the foundation that has been laid, to speak the word of God to a wanting world.

And so, Sisters and Brothers: Let us press onward, for the sake of our Lord, for there is yet work to be done. The desert beckons, longing to be transformed into a place of springs. And right here, in our own hands, we have all we need to make it blossom. Amen.

Good Friday, 2014

When we make our way to the foot of the cross, to that lonely hill outside of Jerusalem, our sense and reason often fail. This holy and sacred day always inspires deep questions among those of us who follow after Jesus. Foremost among them is “why?” Why did the worst elements of our humanity drive Jesus to the shameful death of a criminal? Why would a loving God have his Son die in order to save humanity? Good Friday is a day that seems to inspire many, many questions, but few answers. The cross is, it seems, truly scandal.

We face two dueling temptations every Good Friday, and we have faced them over and over again throughout the centuries. The first temptation is to lash out in anger and revenge, seeking out those who we believe to be responsible for Jesus’ death on the cross. But to do so is always to set up a straw man to receive our own guilt, rather than face the fickleness and brokenness that lies in the depths of our own humanity. And, as often happened throughout history and still continues to this day, such an inclination only creates more hatred and more violence. This is not where we are called to dwell on this day. And this inclination misses a larger truth: that the story of the cross is not simply about the process that led to Jesus’ death – but about the glory of God.

The second temptation is to impute all guilt to ourselves, and plumb the depth of our own souls in guilt. We recall our own sinfulness, our own brokenness, our own violence. To look inward is a far more noble response than to lash out in violence against our neighbors. And to be sure, as humans – imperfect, and sinful – we can always see outright signs – of the fear, hatred, and anger that we hear echoed in John’s passion today as Jesus moves toward the cross. But this, too, is not where we are called to dwell on this day, for the story of the cross, is not simply about the process that led to Jesus’ death – but the Glory of God.

The cross is the Glory of God, and Jesus’ ultimate glorification. “The message about the cross,” Paul writes, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The cross is not Jesus’ shame, but his glory. The cross is not Jesus’ weakness, but his power. The cross is not Jesus’ defeat, but his victory. In John’s passion, Jesus is fully in control as he moves toward the cross. In the garden, Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword and orders Peter to allow him be taken away by soldiers. He stands in silence in front of Pilate knowing that death lay before him. And even from the cross itself, Jesus’ life does not end with a loud cry, but in three quiet words: “It is finished.”

With those last words, we hear a Jesus has truly seen all of our humanity. He has seen humanity its best: the love of an official for his sick son who begs for Jesus to heal him, his disciples who have tried to follow after him as best they could, of Mary and Martha weeping at the loss of their brother Lazarus. And he has seen humanity at its worst on his way to the cross: our rage, spite, jealousy, mistrust, and fear. And finally, at the cross, Jesus, the Word made Flesh, encounters that last defining element of our humanity – our mortality. And in the face of death, he radiates love. As he is lifted high on the cross, Jesus draws all people to himself.

This truly is the foolishness and the power of God, that Jesus, the word made flesh, should face what the theologian Frederick Buechner called the ‘magnificent defeat’ – where Jesus’ wounds are “the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”  It is the foolishness and the power of God that Jesus, the Word Incarnate, should meet us here as we are, even though were we are is already place of death and shame, a place where, if we would have our way, we would never allow God to come and meet us. Yet God comes there anyway. At the cross, the place where we think we are sure to keep God far away from us, God shows true glory, meets us, and raises us to a new life of grace.

And so as we look to the cross on this day, even as we see death, we receive the stuff life itself. Even as we see our own hatred and evil, we see the love of God expressed in its fullest measure. We look at the cross, and we see God incarnate, God fully with us, God fully for us. And our response can be simply to adore. Here we glory in the Cross, by which joy has come into the world.  We sit, we adore, in wonder and in awe of the embrace of Jesus’ arms of love, stretched out for our lives, and for the life of the world.

Maundy Thursday, 2014

And during supper Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

I have often wondered what it must have been like to be Simon Peter, in that Upper Room during dinner. More specifically, I wonder about one specific moment – that pregnant pause right after Jesus has begun to wash his disciples’ feet. I imagine the room as completely silent, save for the sound of the splashing of water, and the cold hard “click” of pottery against the floor. What would it have been like for Peter in that moment?

Peter had been with Jesus since his brother Andrew had told him that he had found the Messiah; when he first met Jesus, the Lord had said he was to be called Cephas – Rock – and that was pretty much that. He followed after Jesus. And then almost immediately, Peter saw so many things he never would have imagined. A paralyzed man was made to walk in Bethesda; and 5000 people were fed from from five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus had walked across the Sea of Galillee to them in the midst of a storm, he had restored the sight of man who was blind from birth, and not a week before, he had spoken to Lazarus and Lazarus rose from the dead.

Having seen all those things – having been with Jesus through all that time – what, then, would have been running through Simon Peter’s mind on this night, in that silence, with only the sound of the splashing of water, and the cold hard “click” of pottery against the floor of the room?

I can’t speak for Peter, but his words make it very clear he was uncomfortable. “You will never wash my feet,” he insists. It feels like the right answer, the holy answer. He has a sense of how great the one in front of him is. It is only in that moment when Jesus looks him and says that “unless I wash you, Peter, you have no share with me” that Peter gives in, overcompensates, even, asking Jesus not just to wash his feet but his head and hands also. When Jesus says to the disciples: “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand,” it must be true – they can’t know what he is doing in that moment. After all, I’m not sure that even here and now, some two thousand years later, we really can comprehend what Jesus was doing in that instant. Do we understand what he is doing? What Jesus is showing us? Even now?

To have one’s feet washed is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. For most of us, it is infinitely easier to wash another person’s feet, to take on the mantle of service and abasement, then it is to sit in the chair and let ourselves be served by another person. And in Peter’s case, this service came from not just any other person, but from Jesus Christ himself. And it begs the question – have we ever truly sat in Peter’s place? Have we allowed ourselves to be in that room, in that chair, in that silence, with Jesus washing our feet?

Jesus tells the disciples the meaning of his actions in the silence of that night in the upper room. He says – both to us and to the disciples – “You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” It is this charge and commandment that gives tonight its name – the word Maundy in Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum – commandment: “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” But dare I say it, hearing and receiving this new commandment is often the easy part of the good news on this night. Just as Peter was eager to spring to action and wash Jesus’ feet, as Christians, our first instinct is often to get up and do things – to start another program or another ministry, to pick up another volunteer opportunity, to keep doing more, and more, and more. And in our excitement and enthusiasm – even as we seek to follow after Jesus – we often fail to sit and listen, even as he commanded Peter to do.

First, the gospel says, we must sit. Sit in our disquietude and discomfort as Jesus moves about in that silent room, where the only noise to be heard is the sound of the splashing of water, and the cold hard “click” of pottery against the floor of the room. We must sit, and listen, and obey the Jesus who fed the five thousand, and cured the blind, and raised the dead as he takes on the role of servant – and then, only then – take up the servant’s mantle, wash the feet of others, and reach out our arms in love in the pattern of our Lord. For it is in that moment of discomfort – that moment that we want to shout, “You will never wash my feet!” – it is there, when we look at Jesus, that we see just how powerful a thing it is to be in the presence of the Word made flesh. Because when we look down at Jesus, the servant, we see one fully God and fully human. And it is only then, as we see God taking on an act of service that we will never, ever be able to repay, that we are truly able see in Jesus the faces of our neighbors. It is then, as Jesus washes our feet, that we see the love of God fully expressed for all of humanity. It is in that moment that we understand how love transforms service into something bigger and greater than we ever could imagine. And it is from that moment we are propelled and sent, called to truly be servants of all, as Jesus first was servant of all.

On this night, Jesus Christ calls us to wash one another’s feet, just as he has washed ours. Jesus compels us to reach out our arms in loving service, even as his arms of love were stretched on the hard wood of the cross. Jesus commands us to follow the example that he has set. But first we must simply be still and listen. We must be present and sit in the still and uncomfortable silence of the Upper Room, with only the sound of the splashing of water and the cold hard “click” of pottery against the floor, and come face to face with Jesus, our God who serves.

“Are you the one who is to come?” – Sermon for Year A, Advent III

(This sermon was originally preached extemporaneously; what follows is a reconstruction from my notes.)

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

One of the many riches we find in Christianity is the wealth of spiritual traditions by which we approach God in prayer and contemplation. One of the spiritualities that has a deep resonance with me is the Ignatian tradition – those practices of prayer and of the Christian life that arise from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius is probably best remembered for founding the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – a Roman Catholic religious order that continues to follow a rule of life in the tradition of their founder.

Jesuit priest and author James Martin has described the core of Ignatian spirituality as “finding God in everyday life.” It’s a framework – a toolkit – that likes to rely on some of our fundamental traits as human beings as a way of deepening our relationship with Jesus Christ. One of those fundamental human traits that the Ignatian tradition pays attention to is our imagination. A spiritual director once reminded me that our imaginations are a powerful force. With our imaginations, we can look ahead to imagine a conversation or a “wildest dream,” or look back to recreate a memorable and meaningful moments in our lives. And, just as our imaginations may often give us insight into who we are, and what we need to do, we can also turn our imaginations toward the life of prayer.

My spiritual director once urged me to turn my imagination to the texts of the Gospel stories, and to imagine myself in them, and then to look and see what happens. And, often, I’ve done that, to great result – imagining myself coming to adore the infant Jesus with the shepherds, or walking alongside Mary and Joseph in the flight to Egypt. I’ve imagined standing in the crowds when five loaves and two fish fed five thousand people, or standing hearing Jesus speaking the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount (or on the plain, depending on the gospel!). During Advent, I’ve imagined going out to the Judean desert to see and hear John the Baptist – the wild man – as he preached and baptized.

I’ve let my imagination place me in the middle of the Gospels, in the middle of Jesus’ life and ministry. But I’ve always had one rule – spoken or unspoken. I allowed myself to imagine being at Jesus feet as he taught and healed. I allowed myself to imagine being present at the foot of the cross, or hunched in fear in the upper room. But it seems, as I rule, I never tend to allow my imagination to place me in Jesus’ place.

This is, by all accounts, a good thing. After all, clergy already have more than a bit of a Messiah complex – it takes a unique kind of chutzpah to be able to say that God has called you to a particular ministry in front of a large congregation at ordination – and, by in large, my ego doesn’t need any more nourishment. And the gospel we preach over and over is that we are not God – that we are participants in God’s world, partakers in God’s mission, and united to Jesus Christ in baptism – but that there is nothing we do to save ourselves – all of that comes from God.

But I need to make a confession. I must have let my imagination run really wild with this week’s scripture. It may have gotten out of hand. That’s because I could picture – clear as day – that question coming from John the Baptist back to Jesus. I could imagine someone calling and asking:

“Are you the one that is to come, or am I to wait for another?”

Now, let me restate what I just said moments ago – we are not Messiahs. We live, move, and have our being through God’s grace – unearned, and undeserved. That’s what I kept telling myself as my imagination seemingly took the express track to heresy-ville this week. But I could still hear that question echo… and could imagine being asked…

“Are you the one that is to come, or am I to wait for another?”

 That’s when I realized that here – back in the real world – this is a question that, in fact, we get asked all the time as the church. People are hungry for substance – for fulfillment – for the experience of grace; everyone is on some sort of spiritual journey. Some people jump from church to church to church looking for a sense of spiritual fulfillment and nourishment; others jump from the pursuit of wealth, to lives of service, to lives of seeking looking to plug those God-shaped voids in the heart that only Jesus Christ can fill. That question is asked over and over and over again.

Even John the Baptist – John the great prophet in fact, more than a prophet, as Jesus says in today’s reading, John the Baptist who scripture says drew all of Judaea to the countryside to listen to his preaching – if John the Baptist is asking this question, then we  are too. And the world definitely is.

“Are you the one that is to come, or am I to wait for another?”

We’re not individual Messiahs; we can’t earn salvation. But, as the church, we bear witness to something, someone special – we bear witness to Jesus Christ. We know of the great wonder of the incarnation – that, as Athanasius famously said – that God became human that we may become as God is. We believe that at our baptism, we are united with God incarnate – we are united with Jesus Christ – joined to Christ in his death, raised with him in his resurrection. When Paul speaks of membership in Christ’s body over and over again, he speaks beyond the realm of metaphor – he means it. Together – as the church – we are joined, knit together, made into the body of Christ. We are joined inseparably to our savior. And that joining, changes us. And it demands that we seek to listen to the world as Christ listens to the world; to see the world as Christ sees the world; to imagine the world as Christ imagines the world.

So if John’s question to Jesus stirs our imaginations – if we get a bit nervous when we hear that question – “Are you the one that is to come, or am I to wait for another?” – well, it should.

It should make us nervous because it’s still being asked today – only now, it’s Christ body, the church, that hears that question. And it should make us nervous because we know the answer:

No, I’m not the one that is to come. But I know the one who is. And I have been made a part of his body. And no, you shouldn’t wait for another.

Just as I can imagine hearing that question from John the Baptist in today’s Gospel text, I can also imagine hearing the words Jesus gives to John’s messengers to send back – go and tell.

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Go and tell – go and tell of the everyday miracles that occur in our lives, baptized and knit into Jesus Christ’s body. Go and tell of how we were dead and raised; go and tell of how we thought ourselves beyond repair only to be made whole; go and tell of how Jesus Christ took the mess of our lives and made it clean.

And don’t just go and tell – expect to be surprised. Because, just as the faithful John the Baptist asked this question – we will keep asking John’s question ourselves. We’ll ask it of our church, of our friends and neighbors, of our lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons. Because as Advent reminds us, we live in liminal, in-between space – the time between what God has done in the incarnation, and what God will do at the second advent – and in-between times can be hazy and confusing. But in those times that we ask again – we’ll meet Jesus again. We’ll meet the one who is to come yet again. And we’ll be surprised where – or in who – we see the image of Christ shown. But Christ will be there.

We aren’t the one who is to come – but we know him. Because we know Jesus Christ. And we see him again and again.

There’s a hymn that I love – one that, unfortunately didn’t make it into our hymnal, that ends like this:

Tell the praise of him who called you
out of darkness into light,
broke the fetters that enthralled you,
gave you freedom, peace and sight:
tell the tale of sins forgiven,
strength renewed and hope restored,
till the earth, in tune with heaven,
praise and magnify the Lord.

That’s our charge, not just this Advent, but each and every day of our lives. We’re to be stirred by the questions of the world – the hunger of the world – the desire of the world – and answer with the stories we have to tell. We’re to witness to the one who is to come, to tell of miracles we’ve seen and heard, and never stop looking, never stop seeking, never stop serving until that great and glorious day when all the earth, in tune with heaven, shall praise and magnify Our Lord. Amen.

 

 

 

Sermon for Proper 23C/Track 1

As many of my friends can tell you, I tend not to be a heavy user of the telephone. While I give my telephone number to acquaintances and friends as a means of getting in touch with me, for the most part, I tend to communicate best either in person or via e-mail.

That being the case, when my phone rings and a friend’s name unexpectedly pops up on the screen, I have come to instinctively anticipate two potential outcomes that may occur by the time I hang up the phone.

There is, on the one hand, news of great joy: a new baby born, friends getting married, a new job or impending retirement.

The other outcome is, however, quite stark: a family member has died, a surgery has had complications, a relationship has ended, a job has been lost.

One phone call bearing unexpected news always seems to fall at one end or another of my emotional spectrum – either leaving me exhilarated with joy or saddened by loss – with little room in between for other emotions. I suspect this has been the experience for many of us at some point in our lives.

 

As we continue our journey through the book of the Prophet Jeremiah today, we find a message sent by the prophet to all of Israel in exile in Babylon that touches both ends of the spectrum of emotion that we so often experience when picking up an unexpected phone call.

The Old Testament readings over the past several weeks have left us well aware of the situation the exiled Israel faced as it arrived in Babylon.

We have heard how Israel had come to believe that the relationship God established with David and the kings that followed him would deliver it from all threats, leading Israel to ignore the cries of the prophets.

We have heard of the deep pain felt by Israel when the walls of Jerusalem fell as they moved to exile and Babylon and sought to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, and seen the deep anger felt by the Psalmist as Israel wept by the waters of exile.  Indeed, Israel was left wondering if God could even hear their cries of pain and suffering when they were so far from the temple of Jerusalem.

All these experiences are in Israel’s collective conscience when it receives the unexpected phone call from Jeremiah that is today’s lesson.

Just as soon as Israel arrived in its exile, even more false prophets had arisen, predicting the swift demise of Babylon and the return of Israel to Zion.

The same covenant theology that led many to believe that Jerusalem could never fall was now leading to the hope among many that exile would be as short and sweet as exile could be – both without consequence and without pain.

Today’s message from God, sent through the mouth of Jeremiah, would then would likely have fallen upon the ears of the exiled Israel as the unexpected phone call telling us of sad news:

“Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”

This message brings disappointing news to Israel: not only is Babylon to no see a swift downfall as predicted by Hananiah and other false prophets, but the children and grandchildren of those exiled from Jerusalem can likewise expect for their homes to be in Babylon.

Israel’s exile will not be akin to a two week Mesopotamian luxury boat tour of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but a long, true and lasting exile – one that will span at least two generations.

The message from the prophet must have sounded to Israel like the unexpected phone call does to us – depressing and discouraging.  It sounds like what many of us (myself included) have come to hear over the last several weeks as “run of the mill Jeremiah” – a message that brings painful and yet needed truth – that Israel has fallen astray, and that for Israel’s disobedience and rebellion against God – for Israel’s sin – there are a real and lasting consequences.

 

However, today’s message from Jeremiah, despite its message of a long exile in Babylon, isn’t as bad as it seems. In fact proves to be more like that joyful unexpected phone call we so long to receive.

Today’s message requires Israel to change the way it thinks about God’s life and activity among them.

For centuries, Israel believed that the “glory of the Lord” was localized to the land of Zion, and seated in the temple. While we might use the term “glorious” today to describe the splendor and elegance of a worship space, or a beloved and beautiful landscape, for Israel, the “glory of the Lord” extended well beyond opulent magnificence. It was the very presence of God – the assurance that God sat with them, seated in the temple at Jerusalem. When the “glory of the Lord” was said to have departed the temple, it was to Israel as if God had deserted them completely and forever.

But today Jeremiah tells Israel that despite their expectations to the contrary, God is not localized to Jerusalem. God is active and present among them, Jeremiah cries, even in Babylon, miles away from home, and in a situation of deep pain.

Through Jeremiah, the Lord charges the captive Israel:

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The command to pray, even for the powers that have forced Israel away from their beloved home, also carries the comfort and affirmation that these will be heard, even in exile. Jeremiah proclaims to Israel that God’s love and mercy for them is not limited by the physical structures or spiritual boundaries with which they have long associated them. There is no place so far away that God cannot hear and reach the beloved people of Israel. God’s all-encompassing compassion for Israel is such that, at the very furthest reaches of their imagination, even there God’s hand leads them,   and God’s right hand shall hold them fast.

Listen to the God’s message given through Jeremiah once again:  “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

A word repeated again and again by the prophet is welfare – a word which to us has connotations of wealth and prosperity.

While I didn’t take any Hebrew classes in seminary, the world translated as welfare happens to be one of the very few Hebrew words I do recognize – shalom.

Shalom indeed implies health and wealth – but above that, shalom means peace.  Indeed, those famous words from the prophet Isaiah we hear every Christmas speak of the Prince of Shalom  – the Prince of Peace. The word given to the exiled Israel today is that in the peace of the place they find themselves in exile, they themselves will find their own peace.

As Israel settles into what will be a long exile in Babylon, it will find its own peace – one that was lacking before not only in Babylon, but even while Israel remained in Zion.   Indeed, just a few verses after today’s reading ends, the Lord promises the return to Jerusalem, and restoration to Israel, saying: “surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” But it will be a new return, a return of a people transformed, knowing that God ALWAYS hears, ALWAYS knows, ALWAYS loves and cares for them.

Here we return to the mystery with which we started today – the phone call that surprises us with unexpected news.

Today we hear, as Israel did, the simultaneous challenge and hope of the prophet Jeremiah: bad things will and do happen to us, and leave us in the deepest and darkest anguish and depression.  But our God is not confined to our good times, to our successes and finest moments – indeed, in our deepest distress, we are given the opportunity to seek our own shalom among the exile of our own lives.  Often, it becomes convenient to imagine that God is limited to a church building, or an institution, or the current realities that we hold most dear. But the message to us from Jeremiah is clear: God’s mercy knows no bounds.

In a story I was told, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was once asked what his favorite quotation was. He answered not with something from Shakespeare, or from Talmud, or from some other great source of wisdom. He gave only two words: “…and yet…”

We find ourselves plunged into deep depression and despair, separated from those we love and hold dear… and yet even there, God works out plans for our peace.

We wish to confine our world to the thoughts and ideals that have seemingly left things working out “well enough” for us for so long, building barriers between to keep us away from God… and yet God ever finds new ways to reveal the love and grace given to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We live in a confusing and fallen world… and yet God is always in the business of making things new, and enfolding us all in the arms of love which once hung upon the cross.

 

The Strange Calculus of The Dishonest Manager

I can’t think of a more frustrating parable to preach on than The Parable of the Dishonest Manager. It takes lot of work to try and overcome our offense at what Jesus seems to be saying, and to try and reveal a little bit of truth about the Kingdom of God in this one. I easily could have preached for forty minutes, trying to unpack everything that’s going on here. But this is what I’ve got.

(More notes on the thought process behind the sermon, and my own critiques, at the end)

I grew up at a medium-sized church in small town South Carolina, where I would go to Sunday School before Eucharist almost every Sunday during the school year. I’m pretty sure it was there that I first learned about parables. It was there that I learned that parables are simple and sensible stories used to make moral and spiritual lessons clearer, more relatable, and more understandable in the context of everyday life. The Prodigal Son teaches us about God’s forgiveness; The Good Samaritan teaches us how to care for one another; the Mustard Seed tells us a little bit about how the Kingdom of Heaven. Parables: easy stories, clear lessons, easily relatable.

So I can only conclude that some bozo made a major mistake when they titled today’s Gospel lesson “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.” Our gospel at first, second, and even two-thousandth glance is not a simple and sensible story, and it doesn’t communicate a clear moral and spiritual lesson, and it certainly doesn’t seem to easily relate to everyday life. Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” What? Seriously? Are we hearing Jesus right? Let’s hear the story again.

A man of great wealth has hired a manager to look after his holdings. After getting an accusation that his property is being squandered by the manager, the wealthy man summons the manager and instantly fires him. The manager has one last task before he goes out the door: to give the books back. The manager knows that his goose is cooked. He doesn’t really have any marketable skills, he’s too out of shape to do manual labor, and he doesn’t want to be a panhandler. He has access to his boss’s books for a limited amount of time, so he decides that his only choice is to try and curry some favor with the people that owe debts to the rich man. He cooks the books – and reduces the recorded amount that each of the debtors owes his soon-to-be former boss. He doesn’t take any money for himself; just the favor that he’s curried with the folks who owed his boss.

While the boss has been an absentee – absentee enough that he’s willing to fire the manager on hearsay evidence – he evidently knows enough about his finances to know what the manager has done when he reviews the books in a final audit. His response: “Hey, man, that was really smart! Way to look out for yourself as you’re on the way out the door!” And then Jesus communicates the lesson of the parable: “make friends for yourself like the manager did; but also, if you’re dishonest in little, you’re dishonest in many things. And don’t forget: you can’t serve two masters, God and wealth. Only one.” I feel confident saying that a second reading isn’t shedding any more light on this.

In order to make a little bit of sense of where Jesus is going in this parable, we first need to drop what has become one of our key methods for interpreting parables: assuming that everything stands for something else. With today’s lesson, we can’t assume that God is the wealthy owner, or that Jesus is the manager, and we’re the lucky debtors. Unlike many of Jesus’ other parables, this one isn’t allegorical; things don’t stand in place of something else.  We have to meet the characters in this story as they’re presented, in their various roles and places.  To engage this text, we also have to dig in a bit with the original context of our lesson in the society of Jesus’ day, and also with the original text of the scripture – in Greek. Don’t worry – I’ll keep the language bit brief, and to the point.

The parable focuses on is the manager, who works for a wealthy man, managing his property and money. He is, the text says, an οἰκονόμος (oikonomos), the manager of a household or an estate. The οἰκος (oikos) – or household – formed the basic unit of Greco-Roman society in Palestine during Jesus’ time. It consisted numerous people – a patriarch, his extended family, slaves, and freedmen attached the household. But the household was more than just people, though – it also was the basic economic unit of the society of the day – it would have included not just the house itself, but the agricultural holdings (nearby or at a distance) that supported its operations. The “household” of today’s parable, then, was an engine of economic production in and of itself. Our word economy comes from this system – the οἰκονομία (oikonomia) of the household was, in fact, its management.

It was this vast estate of holdings for which the manager of today’s parable is responsible. On behalf of the wealthy head of the household, he would have overseen the planting and cultivation of crops; the management and procurement of goods for the house; and managed its financial affairs. In all likelihood, the manager had little to no status in society; that resided solely in the wealthy householder – who would have been enjoyed the “good life.” The manager, for all his responsibility, would have been entirely dependent on the rich man for his life – for his food, shelter, and for any small salary he may have earned.

So in today’s parable, when the manager is fired, his entire livelihood disappears – not just his salary, but his home, his means of eating – in an instant, everything is gone. With no power or station in society, and no wealth of his own, the manager must find a way to live, and the only means for him to survive would be to join another household. So the manager alters the books, and curries favor by reducing the debts owed to his former master, so that, as he says in our gospel today, “when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their oikos – into their household.”

The manager takes none of the house owner’s wealth for himself, even though he has the means to do so. He does, however, trade some of the debt owed to his former boss for the relationships that will assure his ability to live. The manager – once powerless over his life, suddenly has something he can fall back on. He has a path forward, a way to live. His station won’t change; he won’t acquire any new wealth or power. He will have the chance to join another oikos, and to stay alive.

Luke’s gospel, from its beginning, is skeptical of wealth, and imagines that time – in the kingdom of heaven – when roles will become reversed, when to use the words of the Magnificat, God will “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and exalt the humble and the meek,” when God will “fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich empty away.” This gospel is one that loves to turn the tables on our expectations and our instincts. Not long after today’s Gospel, Jesus recounts the story of Lazarus and the rich man – and tell how Lazarus, once a beggar for crumbs at the gate of the rich man’s household, enters paradise as the rich man looks on wantingly. Jesus tells the parable of a rich man who stores up all his wealth in silos, even as his very soul is demanded of him on the same night. Over and over again, we are reminded that wealth does not determine status or standing in the Reign of God; that stations will be changed, and the lowly will be lifted up.

But Jesus is also aware that, while his presence and ministry is the inauguration of the kingdom of God come near to us, and present among us, that we live with the realities of the world as it is, and in fact, we are shaped by it. Luke has as a central concern the right use of money; the right orientation toward it. We will interact with wealth, money, and power everyday – Jesus knows this – but all too often, our lives are relentless pursuits to acquire more of it.  And our attitudes to wealth, power, and influence are often inculcated within our psyche without us even being aware of it – drilled deep into our souls to the point that it takes a deep jolt to remind us that our true value is grounded in love – love of God and love of neighbor, and not in the wealth of money.

Our parable today is just that – a deep jolt to our core, a lesson taught by unexpectedly turning the tables, and grating against our socially conditioned norms. Jesus – ever the expert storyteller – weaves the parable so that we immediately are made to sympathize with the owner who is deprived of a portion of the debts owed to him. Jesus tells the story so that it rouses our anger towards the shrewd manager for his dishonesty in dealing with that master’s wealth.  And when we reach the end of the story, and the wealthy man comes to read the books – boy, are we ready to see the manager get his just desserts. We can’t wait for him to be punished, and then hear Jesus’ extracted lesson from the story.  But the tables are turned. The wealthy man executes no punishment on the manager; instead, he commends him for his actions.  And then, what’s more, Jesus tells us to go out and be like the shrewd manager, and in doing so, tells us something about the kingdom of heaven.  His point seems so ludicrous that, in the verse after today’s gospel, Luke tells us that the Pharisees were mocking him for it!

So what is Jesus saying? Jesus is clearly not commending dishonesty in this parable. In fact, he’s very clear about it: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much; if then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches [of the kingdom of heaven]? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”  So at least that moral lesson is clear: honesty is, in fact essential. So what are we to make of the rest of today’s gospel? What is it about the manager’s action is Jesus commending to us?

What Jesus is teaching us is a lesson about economics. Not in our usual sense of profit and loss statements, gross wealth, and fiscal policy – but about the difference between the economics – the oikonomia – of God’s household and of God’s kingdom, as opposed to the economy of dishonest wealth, and of mammon. Wealth is not currency in the kingdom of God; it achieves no ends, it is not brought with us; it will always leave us unfulfilled. And in the household of God, wealth doesn’t have currency. But relationships do. And mercy does. The manager shrewdly – and from the debtor’s perspective, mercifully – dealt away something that was of no value in the kingdom of God – temporal wealth – for something of great value – relationship. And the relationships he forms – yes, even, by less than honest means according to the standards of the world’s economy – those relationships will be the way he has life.

He’s changing economies from the economy of wealth, to the economy of God. It’s this jolting turnabout in the parable, where Jesus confounds our mores and expectations, that tells us something about the kingdom of God: that relationship holds currency, and gives us root and security in God’s economy.

Jesus’ words push this home. In a turn of phrase, when he speaks of being welcomed into the “eternal homes,” when he speaks of the kingdom of heaven – he doesn’t call it an oikos, a household founded on wealth, and power, and privilege. God’s economy is found elsewhere – in what Jesus says is a σκηνάς (skēnas).  A mere place of shelter – a tent. In the language of the Old Testatment, this is the place that God dwells as Israel wanders through the desert, without wealth or power or privilege. Where Israel wanders in their vulnerability.  And so Jesus shows us that the kingdom of heaven is not like the household of the wealthy man – for it is not found anchored to the levers of power in the world around us. Instead, the home of the kingdom is found in souls of a wandering, pilgrim people, bound by their covenant into deeper relationship with the Living God. And we are bound by our baptismal covenant with Jesus Christ, and thereby to one another.

Relationship with God demands that we choose which economy we will invest in, even as reality demands we live in the midst of two visions of wealth: God’s and our own. It asks us to step up, day by day, and trade our stable houses of wealth for that place where God dwells – here, among those of us who gather in God’s name – in our relationship to one another, and in our relationship to Jesus Christ, who gives us the greatest possible wealth of all – the gift of life itself.

 

 

Postscript

Ok, so what do I like, and don’t like? A bit of self-critique… If you’ve ever been curious of how clergy are thinking as we put our sermons together, this is a decent example of my process. I run through a litany of thoughts like this every week – they become even more pronounced in this confusing morass of a parable… and they’re present even as I’m framing a final draft. At some point, Eucharist starts, and it’s just time to go with what I had…

  • I can’t help but wonder if I’m on the edge of eisegesis here. I really liked the idea that this is another of Luke’s “turned tables” patterns, and latched on to it pretty early as the framing device for my interpretation. That said, given Luke’s general use of “underdog” narratives, especially when it comes to money, makes me think it can hold.
  • I wish I had talked more about stewardship and our relationship to money, in the “already-not yet” kingdom of God. That said, the idea of the manager trading economies really stood out to me; most especially, speaking of the currency of God’s economy.
  • I decided early on that the commonly used explanation that the manager decided to hold back his cut of the debts didn’t sense to me, so I didn’t proffer that as an explanation. Yes, managers would have had leeway to take their own cuts in this time. So did tax collectors; but Luke finds a way to work that into his narrative about Zaccheus (19:8),  having Zaccheus himself admit that he’s taking a cut above his fair share. Why do it there, and not here, where that explanation would help clarify the parable infinitely more? (Remember, in 16:14, the pharisees ridicule him just as much – Luke says it’s because they were “lovers of money.”). I think the manager is genuinely cooking the books here. (After all, it wouldn’t be that dishonest of him to give up his ill-gotten cut!)
  • I wish I could suss out the literary mechanism that the parable employs – the abrupt turning of the tables and role reversal, and expounded upon it some more. I wish I had found a better way to express “yes, the dishonesty of the manager is real and wrong, but it’s not the main point of the parable.” It’s what draws our attention – especially because of our conditioning around money – but it’s not the key point made in the parable. That said, it’s hard to preach literary devices and composition: the idea that the manager’s dishonesty or deceit is used as a device to make the reversal of roles that much more stunning isn’t exactly soul-nourishing, or applicable to everyday life. Is it important to understanding the text? Sure. But it’s difficult sermon material.
  • Above all else, I wish I had more time to suss out the scholarship, especially around the likely role of the manager. For instance, the manager probably worked in a Roman domus rather than a Greek oikos, and even though they’re relatively analogous concepts, there are differences. I’d like to be able to be more sure of my assessment of the tools that were under the manager’s purview. Most of all, I’d really like to establish that the manager wasn’t a citizen, as I suspect. If he were a citizen, the argument falls apart.
  • I was only able to do a limited lemma search on the use of σκηνάς (16:9) in the New Testament, and mainly focused on Luke/Acts usage. I did suss it out, and I do think the contrast to οἰκος in verse 4 is intentional. In verse nine, Jesus could have used eternal οἰκος to describe the heavenly kingdom; he doesn’t. He chooses the σκηνάς. I think this is reinforcing the point on wealth, not appropriating the “heavenly tent” language of other parts of the new testament (most esp. Hebrews, and the Johannine literature). I want to do more research on this, but, alas, running a parish means I have to leave this to NT scholars.

That’s what I got. I’m certainly open to hearing about the merits and flaws of my exegesis on a scholarly level; this isn’t presented as high scholarship.

I’d also love to hear what other preachers did with this difficult text…

Sermon for Trinity Sunday (Year C)

Year C – Trinity Sunday
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 / Psalm 8 / Romans 5:1-5 / John 16:12-15

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come…”

rublev-angels-at-mamre-trinity

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard, writes in her novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

 Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery,
like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf.

We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape,
really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise. [1]

On this Trinity Sunday, the truth of Dillard’s words echo loud and clear to me. Because on this principal feast of our church year, instead of celebrating a significant event in the life of Jesus or the life of the Church, we celebrate God who is in Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

For me, there is no doctrine of the church that reminds me of the limits of my human reason as that of the Trinity.  When trying to describe the inner life of God whom we worship “in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance,” powers of analogy and language fail, and reason breaks down. We are left making those faint tracings on the surface of the mystery of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

But the Scriptures tell us over and over again of a God who wishes to be known. Today’s reading from Proverbs gives voice to God’s wisdom; a voice that does not whisper, but rather shouts out, standing in the crossroads of the busiest streets: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live… The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago; Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”[2] Wisdom’s call – God’s call – is to all that live.  God is not content to remain behind the veil of mystery.

God’s very nature is so effusive and so expressive, so relational that it demands the creation of the universe, of the earth, and of you and me: when the creation fell from that for which God dreamed, God’s very nature demanded its redemption. And as God continues to again make new the creation, God’s reaches out in the blessing and sanctification of the lives of the redeemed. God wants to be known – and indeed is known.  Our God in Trinity is not quiet, but rather, shouts out in the crossroads, wanting to be known.

“I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  Consider that final line again: “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”[3]

God’s glory is in being made known, in being revealed to those who follow Jesus.  Our God is not content to remain behind the veil of mystery.  We may lack the right language to describe how God exists in Trinity; and we may see our analogies about the inner life of the Trinity break down as we try to describe the essence of God’s being.  But through the lens of faith, we see that we are in relationship with God in the fullness of God’s being.  Each time we make our Eucharist together, we meet God in Trinity.  When we are joined to the new creation through the waters of Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – we meet God in Trinity.  When we feel God at work in the world and in the church – and see things that have grown old being made new and things that were cast down being raised up – we meet God in Trinity.

Our feast today – this Trinity Sunday – is not a celebration of a mysterious theological dogma that defies our powers of description and analogy; it is a celebration of the Living God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who is constantly shown to us, constantly present to us, and constantly revealed within us.  It is a celebration of a God who is bold and generous in God’s self-revelation to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery,
like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf.

We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape,
really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” [4]

When we take that wider view, it turns out what appeared to be faint tracings on the surface of mystery of the Trinity are actually a journey into the life of God, a life in which we are a part.  And so we choir our proper praise, until we at last see God one in God’s eternal glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, poured out for the love of all creation.

Amen.



[1] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

[2] Proverbs 8:4, 22-23.

[3] John 16:12-14

[4] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Sermon for Good Friday 2013

As many times I have travelled to the foot of the cross, I have never been able to make complete sense of it.  I am continually held speechless by the Passion – stunned and disturbed by what it reveals about humanity – our propensity toward violence, spite, anger, and hatred.  I am left wondering, from numerous perspectives, how things could have gotten so out of control – so beyond our better natures – that we could have crucified Jesus.  I find many questions, but few answers.  And still I come, year after year, along with the rest of the church, to the foot of the cross – to that Friday that we have called “Good.”

As often as we travel to the foot of the cross, I think there is always a temptation to focus on ourselves this day.  To recall our own sinfulness, our own brokenness, our own acts of violence.  There is a temptation to plumb the depths of our souls, asking how the world could ever possibly spin so out of control that humanity could crucify the Son of God.

But then we are reminded: the Passion is not the story about the excesses of humanity on that day two thousand years ago. It is the story of Jesus, completely in control. It is the story where the cross is not an instrument of torture and death but rather the means of Jesus’ ultimate glorification. “See, my servant shall prosper,” Isaiah says, “he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him – so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals – so he shall startle many nations.”

The cross does startle us. It startles us because what should seem to be an example of our depraved humanity is redeemed and transformed into the ultimate example of God’s supreme goodness.  John’s account of the Passion portrays Jesus as fully in control in his last hours – he orders Simon Peter to put away his sword to let him go with the soldiers. Jesus stands in silence before Pilate, knowing that death lay before him. In an act of love, Jesus entrusts his mother to the care of the beloved disciple. And at the end, Jesus is in control of even his final moments.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ life does not end with a loud cry. It does not end with him asking why God has forsaken him.  It ends with three quiet words: “It is finished.”

It is finished. Jesus has truly met the fullness of our humanity – even death itself.  In his final moments, Jesus’ arms, stretched upon the cross, stand in nothing less than a full embrace of our humanity.  Jesus has plumbed every depth of human experience – our fears, our joys, our sorrows and our hopes – and today, Jesus meets that last defining element of humanity – our mortality.

Because we know the rest of this story, we know that Jesus reigns from the cross instead of being defeated by it.  We know that what was meant to be an instrument of shameful death has become for us the means of life; and that the scars on Jesus’ body become what Frederick Buechner called signs of the “magnificent defeat” – that Jesus’ wounds the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”  We see Jesus lifted up, reigning, drawing all people to himself.  It is finished – our salvation is accomplished – within Jesus’ embrace.

We look at the cross, and even as we see death, we see life itself. We look at the cross, and even as we see hatred and evil, we see love in its fullest measure. We look at the cross, and we see God incarnate, God fully with us, God fully for us.

And so we come and adore. On this day, we don’t celebrate the Eucharist and make our Great Thanksgiving – because in the shadow of the cross, we can offer nothing but adoration.  And so we glory in the Cross, by which joy has come into the world.  We sit, we adore, in wonder and in awe of the embrace of Jesus’ arms of love, stretched out for our lives, and for the life of the world.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2013

“You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” John 13:13-15

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Before I went to seminary, during one of the many steps of the process leading towards ordination, I spent a day with a psychologist and vocational counselor reviewing the results of several personality tests I had been asked to take. One aspect of my personality that came out clearly in the test results was that I like structure in the world around me. I like to be able to take everything about the world around me, and place it into an orderly framework – to break down a situation into its core components, categorize them, label them, tag them, and file them. This is what made me an able Chemist – I was able, using underlying scientific principles, to see the predictable order in the world of atoms, molecules, and chemical reactions.

But this desire for order wasn’t – and still isn’t – limited to the realm of academic knowledge. Socially, I like to know where I fit – precisely where I fit – into a given system – which is why in so many ways the catholic order of our Episcopal Church just works for me – for example, I know that I’m bound by a vow of obedience to my Bishop; I know that I oversee the spiritual and sacramental life of this parish; that I share in the governance of the temporal administration of the parish with the vestry. There’s a framework, an order, a structure in which life in the church is lived – and when I know where I fit, I’m comfortable. When responsibilities and requirements are unclear, I become profoundly uncomfortable.

I suspect that the Apostle Peter might have shared this personality trait with me. In John’s gospel, Simon Peter – at least to the point he appears in our gospel lesson tonight – is a relatively uncomplicated character; he travels with Jesus throughout his ministry, and is a dutiful disciple. In fact, he is only mentioned twice in the fourth gospel before John’s account of the last supper. The first time Simon Peter is named is after his brother Andrew says of Jesus: “we have found the Messiah, the Christ.” It his here that Jesus says that he will be called Cephas – later translated Peter – the rock. The second time we see Simon Peter, it is when many of the crowds that had followed after Jesus have begun to turn away because of the difficulty of what they hear from Jesus. When Jesus asks the disciples if they, also, wish to go away, it is Peter who answers: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Simon Peter has been brought to Jesus by his brother, who has told him that Jesus is the Messiah. He has seen Jesus work miracles – changing water into wine, healing the sick, feeding the five thousand, and walking on water – and he has named Jesus as Lord.

Simon Peter has placed Jesus into a orderly framework, into an understandable “structure” by the time he sits down with the other disciples at their last meal with Jesus. When he has called Jesus “Lord,” “kyrios,” he acknowledges that Jesus is invested with power and authority. A slave would call his master “kyrios,” “Lord,” – rulers and officials of authority would be called “Lord” by their subjects. Peter has rightly recognized that he is not an equal to Jesus – he has called Jesus “Lord,” and made himself Jesus’ subject. But Peter’s framework breaks down at the last Supper, when Jesus, “took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel.” Even a slave would not have to wash his master’s feet – and yet Jesus, the Lord, the master – abases himself, degrades himself, lowers himself – to wash the feet of his disciples.

It is no wonder Peter revolts. His conceptual framework has broken down – it makes no sense – “you will never wash my feet,” he says to Jesus. “Jesus, you cannot debase yourself for me. You cannot degrade yourself for me. You cannot lower yourself to be like me.” But Jesus insists, that “unless I wash your feet, Peter, you have no share with me.” Peter tries to temper Jesus’ act of service – insisting that he should wash his hands and his head. At least take part an act that slave would do – Peter seems to beg – Jesus, don’t lower yourself to less than a slave. But Jesus does. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet – and their feet alone. Jesus – kyrios, the master, the Lord – engages in an act of lowly service that no slave would ever contemplate giving to their master. “Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks them. “You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Jesus’ final message to his disciples – to his servants – is that true power is found not in station in society, not in wealth, not in strength – but in humble, self-sacrificing, self-abasing, loving service. If Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Master, Kyrios, the Lord – if God himself has washed the feet of his disciples – then every boundary we can place between one another has long been destroyed. When the Lord, when God made human in Jesus, deigns to wash the feet of his disciples, then all barriers are broken, for all time, for all Jesus’ disciples, through all ages. Christ, in his acts of service, shows us love’s true measure, and gives us new unity with one another in his service. The disciples did not know what Jesus was doing – but now we understand: that true service is perfect freedom. And it is in this newfound freedom that Jesus reminds us: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

On this night, we remember Jesus’ final meal with his disciples; we remember that in the shadow of the cross itself, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. And we make our Eucharist – our thanksgiving – as Christ again makes himself present to us, and, in his lasting act of humble service, gives us his own self for our heavenly food. But above all else, we remember Jesus, the Lord who serves us his servants; who feeds us his children: God, who emptied himself as and became as a servant and slave for the sake of the world, and the love of creation.

Sermon for All Saints (transferred) – November 3, 2012

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14 Psalm 149 Revelation 7:2-4,9-17 Matthew 5:1-12 

Fra Angelico, The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, c. 1423-4
(Photo Credit: The National Gallery, London)

Who are these like stars appearing,
these, before God’s throne who stand?
Each a golden crown is wearing;
who are all this glorious band?
“Alleluia!” “hark,” they sing,
praising loud their heavenly King.

When I say the word “saint,” where does your mind turn?  Of whom do you think ?

Is it the twelve apostles – surrounding Jesus at the last supper, like in the icon that hangs in the sanctuary?

Is it Saint John – our patron – who gazes down at us from the icon on the choir loft – pen in hand as the author of scriptural texts? Or from the scenes of the triptych, drinking the cup of poison, as pious legend holds it, to prove the power of the Gospel?

Is it Saint Peter – so fickle and fiery in the course of the gospels – who deny Jesus three times before the crucifixion to save his own skin – only ultimately to die on another cross, on another hill outside of Rome, hanging upside down, because he proclaimed himself unworthy to die in the same manner as his  Lord?

Is it Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus? Stephen, stoned to death outside a city wall?

Is it the holy poverty of Saint Francis and Mother Teresa? The reforming zeal of Martin Luther or the seeds of contemplation of Thomas Merton?

Who are these of dazzling brightness,
these in God’s own truth arrayed,
clad in robes of purest whiteness,
robes whose luster ne’er shall fade,
ne’er be touched by time’s rude hand?
Whence comes all this glorious band?

Our observance of All Saints’ Day tends to lead us to think rather grandly about the saints. This is nothing new – the cover of our bulletin has vision of the saints given to us by the 15th century artist Fra Angelico.  He paints a grand vision of the saints – his painting contains no less than two popes, five bishops, three deacons, kings, abbesses, monks. “Let us now praise famous men,” the author of Ecclesiasticus writes, “The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles; those who led the people by their counsels, those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes– all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times.”

Yes, this is a grand, glorious list that is worthy of praise. We wouldn’t have the psalms without King David, we would not have a church without Peter and Paul; we would not have known how to express our yearning for God were it not for the words of Augustine; We wouldn’t have the comfort found in Julian of Norwich’s meditations, or even a (semi)settled date for Easter without Hilda of Whitby. Indeed we have much to thank them for, much to commemorate. But it does seem so remote, doesn’t it? A bit far beyond our grasp?

These are they whose hearts were riven,
sore with woe and anguish tried,
who in prayer full oft have striven
with the God they glorified;
now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.

During seminary, as part of my course work, I spent a summer doing chaplaincy work at New York University Hospital on the east side of Manhattan. The place was, in my kindly estimation, a dump. There were three elevators to serve the twenty floors of Tisch Hospital, which lead to unending lines. Patient rooms always seemed crowded, and there was little privacy, even by hospital standards. The hospital was one that tended not to recommend palliative care or hospice care at the end of life. It was a place that felt cold, didn’t give much comfort in the course of treatment, or seem to me a place where people could die with dignity.

But in spite of all of this, the staff was superb. They looked to their patients with fierceness and intensity that I seldom see people able match in their own work and vocation. And they did so even when the patients rejected their care, or didn’t want their help.  So it came as no surprise to me that, on Monday night, as Sandy bore down on our region, and the hospital building right by the East River became flooded and unusable, to see the news reports of those doctors and nurses carrying patients down the stairs, through the rain, and into the ambulances that would usher their patients to higher ground. And then they did so again, and again, and again.

I can assure you from my time there, that as they cradled infants in their arms down fifteen flights of stairs, their minds were fixed on a task in front of them that needed to be done. While I can’t be certain, I’d imagine that those doctors and nurses and aides didn’t decide to carry people down those flights of stairs because of their immense faith. In fact, I’d imagine that their minds would have been filled with what we’d imagine to be “un-saintly” questions: How could God allow something like this to happen? Who is responsible for this? Why must these people suffer, here, now?   How could this be?” In the midst of all of this fear, uncertainty, and doubt – they did the work that they had to do. They did it only because it was there, because there was a need that required a response. And in doing so, they became visions of God working in our midst.  Without any intention or thought, they, too, bore the imprint of God’s saints. They became visible saints without any intention of doing so.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says in our Gospel, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed are you, who are called to be saints. Blessed are you, who give witness to the world as God intended it to be. Blessed are you in your trials and tribulations. Blessed are you in the midst of the storm. Blessed are you in the midst of the wind and rain. Blessed are you in your doubts, and fears, and questions.

Blessed are you, because God is at work in you. Whether you know it or not. Whether you see it or not.

These, like priests, have watched and waited,
offering up to Christ their will,
soul and body consecrated,
day and night they serve him still.
Now in God’s most holy place,
blest they stand before his face.

Sainthood is ultimately not about our own deeds or achievements. It’s not about the words we speak, the sermons we preach, and dare I say to some extent, it’s not ultimately about the lives we live – because we all fall short. We all miss the mark at times. Sainthood, instead, is about vision – but not our own vision. The saints are the vision given to us of God working, both in ages past, and right here in our midst, right now. Sainthood is about God at work through his people. The saints show us that God’s work is never done, and God’s work is always ongoing. Indeed, as long as there are people in this world who are so bold as to wish for peace, who strive to be kind, who are open and vulnerable enough to love – there will be saints.  And, by God, that’s a vision – that’s a calling – that I can buy into.

So, as the old song goes, maybe I can’t preach like Peter, and maybe I can’t pray like Paul. I will never be an exemplar of heroic virtue, and dare I say it, I’m not sure I want to be. But, by God’s grace, I can ”tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all” – right here, right now, as I am.  I may never be what I picture a saint to be  – in fact, I probably won’t. But I can try. I can do the work that is set before me, living out the questions and doubts. Because the saints of God are just folk like me – and I mean to be one, too. Amen.