Seeing, Hearing, and Knowing

Sermon on Mark 7:24-27 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

There’s a beautiful scene in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting in which Will, a mathematical genius who works as a janitor at MIT, is sitting on a park bench with Sean, a psychologist who has been tasked with helping Will find direction in life. Noting that Will had never left Boston, Sean meditates on the limits of Will’s intelligence: “if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling…I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer…You don’t know about real loss, ‘cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.” Sean’s point is clear: while Will understood plenty about the world, there is much that he did not know. More significantly, the kind of knowledge that Sean holds up requires a measure of vulnerability and a willingness to love with abandon.

The passage we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning is one of the more uncomfortable in our lectionary. Those of us who call ourselves Christians expect Jesus to behave a certain way: he is kind and open-minded. When he interacts with the Syrophoenician woman, however, Jesus is callous, dismissive, and downright rude. This story does not jibe with our normal image of Jesus. Moreover, it’s difficult to explain away his behavior. Of course, this hasn’t prevented people from trying. Some interpreters have noted that the Gentile residents of the Decapolis profited from the exploitation of those who lived in the Galilee. According to these critics, Jesus was offering a visceral and understandable response to years of economic marginalization. Other commentators have noted that the word Jesus uses to refer to the Syrophoenician woman can be translated as “puppies,” implying that Jesus’ remark was not nearly as harsh as it sounds to our ears. As interesting as these interpretations may be, all of them represent attempts to explain why Jesus behaves the way he does in the first place, and not why he ultimately responds to the Syrophoenician woman. I think the reason we are so focused on rationalizing Jesus’ apparent xenophobia at the beginning of this interaction is that we are uneasy with the idea that Jesus has a change of heart. After all, Jesus is supposed to be divine, and divine things aren’t supposed to change. Unless we acknowledge that Jesus has something of a conversion experience in his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman, however, we fail apprehend the true power of this moment.

One could argue that the theme of Mark’s gospel can be found in the fourth chapter, when Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “they look, but do not perceive,” he explains, “and they listen, but do not understand.” In many ways, the rest of the gospel is about exposing the ways that the people around Jesus fail to understand what is happening; the ways that they look without really seeing and hear without really listening. While the people around Jesus may understand plenty about the world, in other words, there is much that they do not know. We see this theme play out in this passage. Surprisingly, however, it is Jesus who looks without seeing and hears without listening, at least initially. Jesus ignores needs of the Syrophoenician woman because he understood everything he needed to understand about her. He understood she was a Gentile, a covenant outsider, and therefore unworthy of and, in all probability, uninterested in his attention. Jesus dismisses the Syrophoenician woman on the basis of what he knew about her before she even entered the scene. It is the woman’s response, not necessarily what she said, but the fact of her response that allows Jesus to look at her and see her, to recognize that for all he may understand about her, he does not know her. This is why he says, “For saying that, go.” That is the moment of recognition; that is the moment Jesus sees beyond the prejudices of his time and place and acknowledges that this woman’s plight is universal. Now, the theological sticklers among us may object to the implication that Jesus has to learn anything. Significantly, however, this was not something Jesus had to learn. In fact, the language Jesus used earlier in the gospel seems to indicate that we are destined to look without seeing and hear without listening. In this sacred moment, however, Jesus articulates a new way forward. He reveals that we do not have to be hamstrung by our blindness to the people around us. Indeed, Jesus models what faithful engagement with “the other” looks like and demonstrates that the gospel empowers us to look at other people and truly see them.

We live in an age in which we understand a lot about the people around us. Tech companies can tell us everything there is to know about us on the basis of our buying habits. Political pundits can guess at our education level, our ethnicity, our age, and our income on the basis of who we vote for. If we’re honest, we too make judgments on the basis of what we already know about people. After all, what do you think when you see someone wearing gold rings and fine clothes, or dirty clothes, or a hoodie, or a short skirt, or a “Make America Great Again” cap? How many people can we say we truly know? Moreover, how many people can we say we have endeavored to know? How many people have we looked at and really tried to see? What might happen if we, the people gathered in this room this morning, made an effort to know the people around us: not to learn about them, but to acknowledge and look beyond our assumptions and prejudices and truly see another person? The objective of this is not necessarily to change our minds about things or even to discover what we have in common with each other, but to overcome the blindness to which we are all susceptible. My suspicion is that a community dedicated not to a particular worldview, but to the discipline of truly knowing other people, has the power to transform the lives of those around them. This isn’t easy: it requires vulnerability and a willingness to be rejected. But the gospel invites us, dares us to love with abandon. When we do that, we will know each other in a way that transcends what we think we already understand.

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The Grandeur of God

Sermon on John 6:1-21 (and Ephesians 3:14-21) offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

There is an interesting tension among the various accounts of the event we heard about in our gospel reading this morning. As you probably remember, the feeding of the multitude is one of the handful of events that is recorded by all four evangelists. While most of the differences in the accounts are superficial (e.g., which disciples played important roles, where the bread and fish came from, the relative cost of feeding the crowd), there is one disparity that seems worthy of investigation. In the synoptic gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the evangelists tell us that the impromptu wilderness picnic came to an end after “all ate and were filled.” John, on the other hand, tells us that the disciples collected the leftovers after those in the crowd “were satisfied,” or “when they had enough” in another translation. This is a subtle, but significant distinction, one that is illustrated by a former supervisor of mine, who would describe restaurants with buffets not as “all you can eat,” but “all you care to eat.” This subtle shift meant that the objective of eating out was not to consume everything that wasn’t nailed down, but to eat enough. In the synoptic gospels, it appears that the multitude ate until they could not eat anymore; while the crowd in John’s gospel seems to have exhibited a little more moderation. Frankly, this difference wouldn’t be quite as significant if it weren’t for the fact that fullness is such an important theme in John’s gospel. In the very first chapter, John writes of Jesus: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” In other words, of all the evangelists, we would expect John to be the one who told us that the crowds “ate and were filled.” Yet, when the crowds by the Sea of Tiberias come face to face with Jesus, the one “in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” their response is to take only what they need.

This detail can lead us to think of God as a cosmic vending machine: God is there to provide a little bit of comfort when we are desperate, a little encouragement when we are in need of validation, or a little food when we are hungry. Apart from this, God isn’t terribly relevant to our day to day experience. Of course, this is how many people experienced Jesus: they were looking for him to address their immediate individual needs (e.g., “heal my daughter,” “cure my leprosy,” “mediate this dispute”). In the meantime, Jesus seemed to have another agenda entirely. This dynamic is at play in today’s gospel reading. Jesus was offering something that the gathered multitude couldn’t possibly fathom. They ate until they were satisfied, but there was so much more that was available to them. They couldn’t see beyond their individual desires and parochial concerns: they simply couldn’t apprehend the fullness of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

There are strains of Christianity that claim to apprehend this fullness. While called by many names, this tradition is broadly known as the “prosperity gospel.” The central assumption of the prosperity gospel is that “God will give you your heart’s desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness.” Kate Bowler is a professor of church history at Duke University who wrote her doctoral dissertation about the prosperity gospel. When she began the project, she thought she was writing about a movement that was foreign to her experience. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that someone who grew up among Mennonites in Manitoba would have put much stock in the grandiose claims of the prosperity gospel. Yet the more Bowler studied the movement, the more she realized the prosperity gospel is not primarily about Bentleys, private jets, and multimillion dollar homes, despite the habits and preferences of its most famous preachers. Rather, Bowler came to recognize that most of the people who subscribed to the prosperity gospel were looking for “an escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives were leaky buckets.” The prosperity gospel offers a seductively clear explanation for these problems. According to the straightforward logic of the prosperity gospel, the only reason one could possibly be excluded from the abundant promises of God is that one lacks faith, that one fails to apprehend what God is offering. When the problem is so simply stated, the solution is just as simple: be more faithful. As Bowler points out, “the moral and logical flaws in this theology are all too evident; it explains away misfortune as something that can and ought to be held at bay through faith and prayer.” Yet she also concedes that, despite her theological sophistication, there were ways that she was also in thrall to the prosperity gospel. As Bowler put it: “I felt the lure of the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand on my successes. No matter how many times I rolled my eyes at the creed’s outrageous certainties, I craved them just the same.”

This became most apparent to her when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in her thirties. As she pondered her situation (a happily married new mother who had just gotten her dream job), Bowler realized that she had assumed cancer was something that happened to other people, that her life was, in her words, “something [she] could mold, or at least correct with a surge of determination.” If we’re honest, I think we all feel this way to a certain extent. While I doubt that there are few people in this room who would claim to be adherents of the prosperity gospel, I suspect there is something familiar about its logic. When we hear that someone has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, our first impulse is often to wonder what about their life had led to this calamity: had they failed to take care of themselves in some way? More importantly, are we leading a healthier lifestyle? We seek to explain misfortune, failing to recognize that sometimes, there is no explanation.

Here is where the gospel really speaks. Here is where the fullness that is revealed in Jesus Christ becomes completely and desperately relevant. The message of the gospel is not that things will go our way if we are faithful enough. At its heart, the gospel invites us to recognize that we, who are created and redeemed by God, are part of something much larger than ourselves, that our lives have meaning no matter what calamities befall us, that we are the Lord’s whether we live or die. Moreover, the gospel requires us to adopt a larger perspective on creation and acknowledge the ways we are connected, not only to our fellow human beings, but to the entire cosmic order.

Our faith attempts to express the infinite in finite terms. Conversely, the dominant voices in our culture these days tend to use the most grandiose terms possible for matters that are insignificant, even petty in the grand scheme of things. We must do our level best to counteract these impulses. We must, in the words of our Collect, “pass through things temporal,” and “lose not the things eternal.” If we take our faith seriously, then we must recognize its grandeur, the ways it lifts our hearts above our individual desires and parochial concerns and fills us with all the fullness of God.

I want to know what Love is…

Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Among scholars, the letter to the Ephesians is one of those biblical books that you either love or you hate. Certain commentators simply can’t get enough of it, suggesting that it is the paragon of epistles that articulates a soaring vision of what Church is called to be. Other interpreters are less complimentary, arguing that the text is overblown and lacks the apostolic clarity of other New Testament letters. If I’m honest, I tend to sympathize with this latter opinion. Ephesians is adjective-happy and sounds like it was written with a thesaurus at hand. Just listen to passage we heard this morning, which mentions both “the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” and “the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Phrases like this lack authenticity: the letter seems to be written the way one is supposed to write, rather than with a clear voice. More significantly, at least from our perspective, the author of Ephesians makes an enormous assumption about the way we understand God when he refers to Jesus Christ as “the Beloved.” This is not language we are accustomed to these days. Many of us would probably hesitate to refer to our spouses as “the Beloved,” at least in public. Calling someone “the Beloved” means that person is worthy of our love. But frankly, the concept of love has been so thoroughly sentimentalized that the notion of loving God feels downright foreign. So, what does it mean to love God?

One of the reasons the concept of love can be hard to grasp is that our culture tends to equate “love” with “affection.” Love is a romantic gesture, a tender hug, or a pledge of fidelity. It’s a little strange to apply this notion of what love is to our relationship with God (“giving God a hug” is kind of a bizarre image). In reality, however, love has less to do with affection and more to do with the way we order experience of the world. If we love someone, we have made room for them in our lives. Generally, we will not make room for another person in our lives for very long unless we believe they have also made room for us. The same is true of our love for God. Loving God with our whole heart, mind, and strength means that we have devoted time and space within our lives to our relationship with God. Significantly, loving God also requires us to believe that God loves us. This, of course, invites us to wonder what this means. What does it mean to believe that God loves us? This, as it turns out, is a more complicated question.

Last week, I was stopped at a light in North Philadelphia with my windows down. There was a guy going from car to car asking drivers if they could help him out. When he got to me, he asked if I had any food, and I told him, “No,” but that I could give him a couple of bucks. As I handed him the cash, he noticed my clerical collar and said, “Next time, I’ll ask you about my salvation.” I wasn’t quite prepared for this, but managed to say, “God loves you very much,” before the light turned green. He glanced at the crumpled bills in his hand, announced, “I believe that now,” and walked to the next car. Apparently, that’s all it took. All he needed was two dollars to believe that God loved him. As absurd as this statement was, however, I suspect that few of us have given significantly more thought to what it means for God to love us. We tend to take the fact that God loves us for granted, which is surely one of the reasons it was the first thing I thought to say to this guy. But the reality is that believing God loves us demands that we adopt certain perspective on the world, a perspective we are not usually inclined to engage. Invariably, when we talk about the love of God, the word “unconditional” comes up. God loves us without condition. This is one of the articles of faith that is dearest to us. It is difficult to appreciate the nature of “unconditional love” without first reflecting on what conditions there could be. The passage from Ephesians we heard this morning implies that the fruit of God’s love is the “forgiveness of our tresspasses.” In another place, Paul makes the connection between forgiveness and love explicit when he writes when he writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Indeed, this may be the central assumption of the Christian faith: God loves us despite our sins. Appreciating the love of God, in other words, requires us to recognize our sinful nature. Here’s the thing, though: do we really believe that we are sinners?

For the most part, sin feels like an outdated and outmoded concept that has little to do with the way we live today. The idea that we should be concerned about violating some abstract code of behavior is almost insulting. After all, when you get down to it, most people are good. Most people are just trying to get through life and do what makes them happy without hurting anybody. And yet, we know from experience that, despite our best efforts to make sure that no one is hurt by our actions, we frequently benefit, directly or indirectly, from activities that cause others pain. Now, we could dismiss this realization and argue that it’s not our fault, but this doesn’t prevent wrong from being done. We could try to boycott every system that causes people pain, but we would quickly find ourselves with few, if any, places to engage. The more one thinks about it, the more paralyzed one feels. This, ultimately, is what sin is. Sin is the fact that, no matter how hard we try, we are complicit in a widespread failure to honor God’s creation. At baptism, we renounce the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. Before we can renounce them, however, we have to acknowledge they exist. We have to acknowledge that we are in thrall to forces that are beyond our control or our comprehension, that there are moments when, despite our best intentions, we corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. But here is the gospel: even though we have all sinned and have all fallen short of the glory of God, God loves us anyway.

A love like this invites a response. When we both apprehend the magnitude and the inevitability of sin and understand that God loves us despite that sin, then calling God “the Beloved” no longer seems like such a stretch. Moreover, the recognition that we are all sinners increases our capacity for compassion. It is much harder to condemn others for their misdeeds when we appreciate our own susceptibility to sin. Ultimately, this is what it means to love God: to make room in our lives, not only for God, but for those other sinners whom God loves.

I’m not okay; you’re not okay”

Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In the first episode of Mad Men, AMC’s long-running drama about 1960s advertising executives, the protagonist makes the following observation about the nature of their work: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.” There’s a profound irony to this statement, especially since the rest of the show is devoted to the various ways that the characters in the series are not okay. Indeed, everyone seems plagued by a deep sense of despair, even as they project to the world that everything is under control. This desire for reassurance did not originate on Madison Avenue. Human beings have always sought confirmation that whatever they are doing is acceptable.

This deeply human impulse is in the background of the reading we just heard from Mark’s gospel. This passage arguably describes one of the more relatable incidents in the life of Jesus. Returning home after leaving the nest and discovering that the people you left behind aren’t all that impressed with you is a rite of passage. Indeed, Jesus’ observation that “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown” feels roughly equivalent to that well-worn bromide: “you can’t go home again.” Despite its innate familiarity, there is also something mystifying about this moment in the life of Jesus, especially in the way that Mark records it. The gospels according to Matthew and Luke both include versions of this incident. In Luke’s account, the crowd is initially impressed with Jesus, but turns on him when he suggests that Gentiles might be equal to Jews in the eyes of God. Matthew’s account is closer to the one we heard this morning, though the crowd’s main objection is that they don’t understand how Jesus could presume to speak with authority, since they know his family and where he came from. Mark, on the other hand, offers minimal explanation as to why the people who grew up with Jesus take offense at him. We’re told nothing about the substance or the form of what Jesus said on that sabbath day. Now, it could be that this is an oversight on the part of Mark’s gospel. Mark, after all, is economical with his words. Perhaps we’re meant to extrapolate from the other gospels and assume that Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 and announced that the Scripture had been fulfilled. I wonder, however, if there is a deeper and, frankly, a more unsettling reason Mark tells us so little about what Jesus said that day, one that is illustrated in the way that Jesus sends out the twelve immediately after the incident in Nazareth. When Jesus commissions the disciples, he doesn’t even offer vague instructions about what they should say. Instead, he spends most his time preparing them for the possibility, and in fact the likelihood, that they will be rebuffed: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you,” he counsels, “as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” In other words, going out in the name of Jesus sets one up for rejection. There doesn’t seem to be any ideological reason for this. Mark tells us nothing about the political content of what Jesus said in that synagogue in Nazareth; the fact that Jesus spoke at all was enough for those closest to him to reject him. Just so we’re clear, the word we translate as “take offense” is about more than being offended. It denotes categorical separation; in fact, it is the same word Jesus uses when says that all will become deserters when he is handed over to be crucified. This unsettling passage is a reminder that the gospel is not always received with enthusiasm.

The reason for this, the reason that Jesus was rejected for simply opening his mouth, is that his message so often failed to conform to people’s expectations. People were looking to Jesus for reassurance, for a sense that their best efforts were good enough, for confirmation that they were okay. This isn’t the first or the last example of Jesus failing to meet these expectations. The gospels provide numerous examples of people trying to get Jesus to confirm that their way of looking at the world is the right one. Think of all the people who probe Jesus with questions in order to get him to betray his political biases. It probably goes without saying that these efforts were fruitless. No one successfully pinned Jesus down during his lifetime, but that hasn’t prevented us from trying to do so ever since. As an example, I’d point to a quotation that circulates on social media every so often. I’ve seen it in several forms, but the gist is something like this: “Jesus was a radical, nonviolent revolutionary who hung around with lepers, hookers, and crooks; was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer; but never mentioned abortion or birth control, never called the poor lazy, never asked a leper for a copay; and was a long-haired, brown-skinned, homeless, community-organizing, Middle Eastern Jew.” It’s pretty clear that whoever wrote this is portraying Jesus as an advocate for a particular worldview, one that presumably dovetails nicely with the author’s ideological assumptions. While there is nothing technically incorrect about this statement, it doesn’t offer the whole picture. As a colleague of mine observed, one could just as easily write, “Jesus was a rural born, pro-Israel nationalist who dined with rich people and government bureaucrats; told off-color jokes about foreigners; and said poverty was incurable. He advocated rigorous religious observance and personal responsibility. He never mentioned civil rights, feminism, or equal pay, and never advocated for government intervention in business or social issues.” There is also nothing incorrect about this statement.

What do we make of this discrepancy? Is Jesus a two-faced flip-flopper who will say anything to get ahead? Leaving aside the fact that Jesus’ ministry ended in crucifixion and death (which is about as far away from “getting ahead” as one can get), looking to Jesus for a political platform misses the point of his life and ministry. First of all, the obsession with absolute ideological consistency is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of ideas. More significantly, the animating force behind the life and ministry of Jesus transcends ideology. Jesus was not terribly interested in the politics of his day, because he knew that politics come and go. Jesus was not a martyr for a cause, because he understood that people eventually lose interest in causes. Jesus’ purpose was to reveal that God’s will is to reconcile everyone to God. This simple, yet powerful mission is inherently disruptive, because it challenges our innate tribalism, our sense that it is God’s will for our team to win. The moment we think God is on our side is the moment that God will confound our expectations. Jesus is rejected at Nazareth because he refuses to allow the expectations of those around him to interrupt God’s mission of reconciliation. The mission of Jesus was not to tell us all that we are okay. The mission of Jesus was not to confirm our biases. The mission of Jesus is to transform the world through a knowledge that God’s love for creation transcends our narrow understanding of it.

Open wide your hearts

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

I take a small measure of comfort from knowing that people have been getting the apostle Paul wrong since the very beginning. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in his letters to the church in Corinth. In the Corinthian correspondence, Paul is addressing a community that has heard the gospel, but has interpreted it in some unique and problematic ways. In first Corinthians, Paul cajoles, scolds, and encourages members of the community to put aside their prejudices and tribal loyalties and embrace the transcendent and unifying truth of the gospel. First Corinthians is a masterpiece of pastoral theology that culminates in one of Scripture’s most powerful descriptions of the resurrection. It’s hard to imagine that it would have been received with anything other than enthusiasm, but apparently, the Corinthians were not as impressed as they might have been. Their reaction to Paul’s exhortations was, essentially, “Who does this guy think he is?” Their skepticism was abetted by some rivals of Paul, who, in so many words, told the Corinthians that Paul was weak, feckless, and untrustworthy. These rivals accused Paul of unprofessionalism, noting that he had not only failed to provide any references who could vouch for the efficacy of his religious worldview, but that he also refused to accept payment, implying that he had a guilty conscience and couldn’t possibly be considered a “real” religious teacher. Moreover, these critics of Paul observed that he had been beaten within an inch of his life on one of his missionary journeys, clearly indicating that he was nothing more than a transparent charlatan who was ignominiously driven from town by an angry mob. It’s worth noting that Paul probably didn’t help matters when word of what these interlopers were saying got back to him. During his next visit to Corinth he made his displeasure known, and followed up with a letter that, in his own words, he wrote “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.” By the time he gets around to writing Second Corinthians, in other words, Paul and the church in Corinth are decidedly at odds with one another.

Under these circumstances, one might expect Paul to explain that the charges leveled by his critics were false, or at least overstated. One could imagine him saying, “I wasn’t beaten up; my enemies are lying to you” or “People are saying I’m one of the best preachers they’ve ever heard.” Instead, Paul confirms the accusations made against him. He admits that he has no letters of recommendation from people of influence, but that he bears only the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, in the passage we heard this morning, Paul poignantly describes the physical trials that have been features of his ministry: not only was he beaten within an inch of his life, he has endured “afflictions, hardships, calamities… imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.” Lest we think this is just one of those Pauline lists that are so easy to gloss over, it is worth noting that Paul probably had a specific instance in mind for each and every one of these trials. For Paul, his weakness, physical or otherwise, is not something to be ashamed of. In fact, it is something to boast about, because it reveals the power of God. Paul’s critics got it wrong; in fact, they fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his ministry. Ultimately, Paul was not interested in converting people to his worldview. Rather, Paul was committed to proclaiming the grace of God that has been revealed in Jesus Christ. For this reason, Paul’s priorities are radically different from those of his rivals, a fact he illustrates when notes, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see–we are alive.” In the eyes of his rivals, Paul and his coworkers were unknown impostors who were as good as dead, while in the eyes of God, they were true to the gospel and alive to a grace that is incomprehensible by the standards of the world.

To be clear, this dispute is about more than which spiritual teacher is more popular among the Corinthians. The disagreement between Paul and his critics is representative of a larger conflict about the very nature of the Church, namely: does the Church exist to enforce a particular way of ordering human society? Or is the Church’s responsibility to witness and respond to what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? It will come as no surprise that Paul’s critics were of the former persuasion. They thought the primary task of the Church was instructive: to provide a collection of rules and regulations that governed how one should approach the world. They weren’t the first or the last to think of the Church in this way. Throughout church history, there has always been a temptation to systematize the gospel: to make God’s self-disclosure in the person of Jesus Christ primarily about human behavior. The pitfalls of this anthropological approach are obvious. If the gospel is primarily about rules, then the Church will quickly find itself enforcing and defending societal norms, no matter how sinful or unjust they may be. Yet the Church has always been tempted to turn the gospel into a religion. I hope it’s clear from my tone that that’s not a good thing. In words of Karl Barth, a theologian who saw the church in Germany almost entirely co-opted by the Third Reich, religion exists when “the divine reality offered and manifested to us in revelation is replaced by a concept of God arbitrarily and wilfully evolved by man.” It is religion in this sense that leads to the insidious practice of proof texting, where the Bible functions as little more than propaganda. It is religion that seeks to justify the actions of those in power and uses the Bible to defend an immigration policy that, no matter when or with whom it originated, is extreme at the very least and cruel at the very worst. In fact, it is religion that permits the existence of concept like “zero tolerance.” Religion doesn’t have much room for compassion, because it is primarily concerned with whether people are acting correctly.

Paul never wanted the gospel to become a religion in this sense. Like many New Testament writers, Paul was pretty unsparing in his criticisms of those who practiced religion for its own sake. Paul understood the gospel as the revelation of God’s deep love for creation. Moreover, he argued that this revelation should transform the way we perceive and experience the world. For Paul, in other words, the Church’s primary task is not to order human society, but to respond to what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul gives us a glimpse of what this looks like in the final verses of the passage we heard today. “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians,” he writes, setting them up for one final rebuke. Instead, he continues, “our heart is wide open to you.” It’s difficult to fathom the vulnerability required to write these words. But Paul has a deep confidence: that, because God’s strength was revealed in the shame of the cross, the same strength will be revealed in Paul’s admission of his own weakness. Paul doesn’t make his case or seek to justify himself. He has opened his heart to the Corinthians and has but one request of them: “open wide your hearts also.” Open wide your hearts. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate and urgent invitation for our time. Open wide your hearts to the refugee and the immigrant. Open wide your hearts to those with whom you disagree. Open wide your hearts, not because you have been commanded to, but in response to the revelation of God’s deep love for you.

Religious Energy

Sermon on John 12:20-33 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

A few years ago, I went to Boston’s Museum of Science on a Friday evening to view an exhibit about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I assumed that I and my party would be among the few people there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the Dead Sea Scrolls aren’t fascinating; it’s just that I would suspect that most people have better things to do with their Friday nights than examine ancient religious manuscripts. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered a long, snaking line to enter the exhibit hall. Hundreds of people had come to the museum to learn about a two thousand year old ascetic religious community and view its sacred texts. While there were plenty of people who taking respectful stock of the Bronze Age knick knacks the museum had acquired to supplement the show, the vast majority of the museumgoers were in the room that contained the scroll fragments. There was a palpable energy that has stayed with me ever since. It was striking that on a Friday night in one of the most secular cities in the country, people were squinting to decipher the name of God on these ancient religious texts.

Paradoxically, the secularization of our culture has done little to dampen religious fervor. In fact, the more secular our culture has become, the more it has become clear that human beings seem to have an innate religious energy, a need to be wholly devoted to something. As faith has become less prominent in people’s lives, they have found other outlets for their religious energy. What once would have been mere interests or even passions have taken on an altogether different quality. Consider the zeal with which we pursue our fitness goals these days. No longer are we content to hit the gym every so often: now we have to keep track of every workout and try to achieve personal bests everytime we lace up our sneakers. Fitness programs like Crossfit have been jestingly compared to cults. marathon-car1Next time you’re driving around, count how many “26.2” stickers you see: I’d wager it’s more than the number of bumper stickers advertising a faith community. This ardor is not limited to our physical health: it extends to our professional accomplishments, political preferences, and a whole host of other matters. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with caring about our health, our careers, or the state of our country. The problem arises when we wholly devote ourselves to these things that are, by their nature, passing away. Our bodies will eventually break down. No matter how indispensable we are at work, we will be replaced someday. And there is no government in the history of human civilization that has not ultimately collapsed. Many of us are locating our religious energy in that which is ephemeral, rather than that which is eternal.

This morning’s gospel reading is one of the stranger passages from John’s gospel, which is saying something. The most jarring aspect of this passage is the apparent incongruity between what is asked of Jesus and how he responds. John tells us that some Greeks approach the disciples and tell them that they wish to see Jesus. This request is pretty much out of the blue. We have no idea who these Greeks are. If we think about John’s intended readers, however, the situation becomes a little clearer. One of John’s primary tasks was to make the story of Jesus, a relatively uneducated rabbi from the frontier of the Roman Empire, compelling and intelligible to a sophisticated audience. In the first century, there was nothing classier or more sophisticated than Greek philosophy. These Greeks who wish to see Jesus, in other words, are stand ins for John’s audience. Moreover, it seems that their purpose is to evaluate Jesus, to get a sense of his philosophy and see how it compares with the other ones. Is he more of a Neoplatonist? A Stoic? A Cynic? Something else entirely? We can safely assume that these Greeks were looking for something that would help them make sense of the world.

If this is the case, then they were almost certainly disappointed. The juxtaposition between the Greeks’ request and Jesus’ response is almost comic. The disciples approach Jesus and say, “Hey, there are some Greeks who want to see you.” Jesus replies by saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” But arguably it is only through the starkness of the comparison that we begin to see what Jesus is trying to say. As he haltingly wrestles with the reality of his imminent death, Jesus finds deep comfort and confidence in the integrity and faithfulness of God. Because God is God, there is no need to fear. When God’s name is glorified, the fruit is eternal life. Jesus, in other words, does not offer a worldview; he offers a perspective informed by eternity, a sense that there is something about us that will endure. All of the philosophies the Greeks would have had in mind were ephemeral: limited in their scope and unable to shift our perspective on the world. Jesus offers something fundamentally different: not a way to make sense of the world, but a way of looking at the world differently.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a parishioner who hadn’t been at church in a little while. He described weekend trips, family responsibilities, and the challenge of getting children out the door on a Sunday morning; things that often stand in the way of church attendance. But throughout the conversation, he kept saying, “I’m just so glad I came today.” The very same day, I had a conversation with another parishioner who pulled me aside and said, “Where is everybody?” I started to explain that some people were still recovering from the Nor’easter, that some people had the flu, didn’t have power, when she interrupted me: “No. Where is everybody? Everybody needs to hear the message the Church is proclaiming.”

Whether they knew it or not, both of these parishioners understood how important it is to locate our religious energy in that which is eternal. We no longer have the authority to compel or coerce church attendance. This is probably a good thing, but it also means that other activities and responsibilities often take precedence. Gradually, we begin to devote ourselves entirely to ephemeral concerns, and we think of the eternal only on occasion, if at all. I hope I don’t sound like a scold, because that’s not my intention. I suppose the question I would like you to ask yourself is this: where are you locating your religious energy? What if we thought of Church not as another obligation, not as another place where we can try to make sense of the world, but as a place where we go, week by week, to hold eternity in mind? I suspect we would be glad we came. More importantly, I suspect we would look at the world differently.

Disruption

Sermon on John 2:13-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

The incident we heard about in this morning’s gospel is one of the rare events attested by every gospel writer. All four evangelists make at least some reference to Jesus’ temple tantrum. While the incident is clearly important for all four evangelists; for John, it sets the tone for Jesus’ mission. This is at least partially illustrated by the differences in the way the event is recorded. The accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are brief and straightforward: each dispassionately describes the event and then offers a brief Scriptural warrant for Jesus’ actions. John, on the other hand, goes into painstaking detail, telling us that Jesus made a whip of cords, drove the sheep and cattle from the temple, poured out the coins and overturned the tables of the money changers, and told those selling livestock, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The effect of this lengthy description is to invite us to imagine the reactions of those witnessing Jesus’ actions. John doesn’t tell us that anyone attempted to prevent Jesus from making a mess of the Temple grounds, even though he apparently went on for a while. It’s worth exploring the reason nobody tried to stop him.

smirnov-alexander_cleansing-of-the-temple-001We often mischaracterize this event in the life of Jesus. In the first place, we often erroneously call it “the cleansing of the Temple.” The implication of this description is that Jesus is bringing a reforming impulse to the very heart of the Temple system. We assume that Jesus is violating something sacred and causing deep offense to the religious authorities and all who were attached to the Jewish tradition. Years ago, one clergyperson told me that this event was the equivalent of someone marching into a church and turning over the Communion table. This, however, doesn’t make any logical sense. The work of the animal vendors and the money changers wasn’t considered sacred; it was simply a necessary component of the Temple system. Instead of dragging a lamb across the wilderness or trying to keep two turtle doves alive on an extended road trip, pilgrims to Jerusalem would simply buy an animal to sacrifice when they arrived at the Temple. Since most money featured graven images of the emperor and thus violated the Second Commandment, pilgrims had to purchase coins that could be used in the Temple before they made their purchases. In other words, the money changers and animal vendors were there to make the worship of God convenient and practical; they were part of the routine. Jesus’ demonstration was a little like someone walking into the grocery store and knocking over the displays of oranges: surprising, but not particularly offensive. The fact that John doesn’t comment on anyone’s reaction to the Temple incident reveals that no one really understood what Jesus was doing. Why would he expend so much energy to disrupt such an innocuous routine?

The reason is that the routine in itself was corrupt. The fact that everyone had become accustomed to the way that the Temple system functioned reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of what it meant to be in relationship with God. Jesus’ demonstration was intended to expose the hypocrisy at the very heart of the religious establishment. The religious establishment assumed that the power of God could be circumscribed by human authority and that our relationship with God was somehow transactional. To be clear, Jesus is not just challenging the Jewish tradition; he is calling members of every religious tradition to account for the ways that we allow preserving the status quo to get in the way of true transformation.

This demonstration in the Temple prefigured a much more dramatic and unsettling demonstration three years later, when the Romans crucified Jesus at the urging of the religious authorities. I think we forget how routine crucifixion was in the Roman Empire. In the wake of insurrections or civil unrest, contemporary historians tell us that the imperial authorities would line the roadways with crucified criminals as a vivid warning to any would be rabble rousers. The anguished cries of the condemned could be heard for miles. At the same time, Rome’s chattering classes understood that this was a convenient and practical way to maintain control in a vast and often unruly empire. It might be unfortunate, but keeping that Pax Romana going required a little unspeakable violence from time to time. In other words, crucifixion was the cost of doing business. Even the Jewish religious authorities understood this. John tells us that Caiaphas the high priest once remarked that it was better for one man to die for the people. Better to weed out the troublemakers in order to maintain the status quo.download Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates the deep hypocrisy of this perspective. Indeed, Jesus’ Passion exposes the violence at the very heart of human society. The events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ reveal that the entire status quo was built on the perverse assumption that some lives, some human beings created in the image and likeness of God, are expendable.

There is only one appropriate response to this revelation, and that is repentance. Now, you’ve heard me say before that repentance is not simply about being sorry for our sins. It’s not about cataloguing all our misdeeds and doing our best to avoid them in the future. Repentance is much broader and more demanding. Literally, the Greek word means “to change one’s mind,” to change the way one thinks about the world. More specifically, repentance is about acknowledging that our way of looking at the world is flawed and needs to be transformed. It is about refusing to accept status quo that fails to honor the image of God in those around us. It is about allowing our routine to be disrupted.

A week or so ago, I heard a high school student remark that she is part of the “mass shooting generation.” There is something profoundly sad and distressingly apt about this designation. No one currently in high school was born when two students massacred their classmates at Columbine High School in 1999. The students currently in school know nothing of a world without active shooter drills and lockdown procedures. It’s not just kids who are old enough to understand who are affected. I remember how painful it was when I realized why my three-year-old’s preschool requested that, in addition to a change of clothes to keep in her cubby, we also send something that would keep her quiet. As we’ve all noticed, mass shooting in general and school shootings in particular have become painfully routine. Mass shootings have become so common that the only thing we feel like we can do is wait for the next one to occur.

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photo by Joel Auerbach

This is a routine that must be disrupted. The only way to disrupt it, the only appropriate response to this feeling of despair is the same repentance that Jesus invites from the cross. In the face of overwhelming tragedy, we are called to transform our flawed perspective on the world. We are called to reexamine the assumptions and principles we hold most dear, whether about guns or personal freedom, and ask ourselves if it is truly worth holding onto them. As important as changes to our gun laws or mental health policies may be, however, they will not address the deep spiritual crisis that lurks behind every one of these mass shootings. Repentance also requires us to acknowledge the violence that seems to exist at the very heart of our society, to ask ourselves what it is that leads someone to assume that the people around him are expendable.

I wish I had more practical good news in this sermon. I wish that I could say with supreme confidence, “If we pull together and collaborate, drawing on the best suggestions from across the ideological spectrum, we will be able to make meaningful headway in addressing the scourge of gun violence.” That may be true, and I am hopeful that we can sustain a conversation and find common ground in our approach to this issue. At the same time, no amount of well-meaning and collaborative policy making will be able to address the fact that violence lurks behind so much of our common life. In fact, once we have acknowledged the problem, the only hope of addressing it is also our ultimate hope: that the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that the God who made foolish the wisdom of the world, can and will redeem even us.