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.

Advertisements

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.

fe04c4-20180214-florida-school-shooting01
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.

Possession

Sermon on 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9 offered to the people of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Yesterday morning, I brought my three and a half year old to the playground for the first time in a number of months. It wasn’t exactly warm, but she was suffering from acute cabin fever and driving her mother crazy, so off we went. I was surprised to notice that there was nothing she couldn’t do on the playground. The last time we were there, she would start climbing an apparatus and, upon getting stuck halfway up, would call for me to help her. Yesterday, however, she climbed every rope ladder, climbing wall, and ramp without any assistance. When she announced her intention to get on the swings, I assumed she would run over to the toddler swings, but instead she made a beeline for what she calls “the big girl swings.” As she scrambled on the swing and I spotted her, I began to feel incredibly sad. This sadness stemmed from a poignant and deeply human recognition: if I’m lucky, there will come a time when my daughter won’t need me anymore. In fact, the best case scenario is that my little girl will grow up and move away from home. Of course, there’s a part of me that wants to prevent me from happening, but that would just be me trying to possess my daughter, instead of letting her become who she is meant to be.

There is something poignant and deeply human about the reading we heard from 2 Kings this morning. Elijah is moments away from ending his earthly pilgrimage, and his assistant and protege Elisha is trying to make the most of every last second he has with his mentor. Three times Elijah tells his traveling companion that he should stay put, because the LORD has sent the old prophet to some far off location; three times Elisha responds, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” There is clearly intimacy and devotion expressed between Elijah and Elisha, and it’s further highlighted by Elisha’s interactions with the companies of prophets at the holy places. All of the other prophets ask Elisha if he’s heard that his mentor is about to be taken away from him. Elisha responds, “I know! Be quiet!” It’s as if he doesn’t want to be reminded about the loss that he is about to experience. I think we’ve all been there at one point or another. When we have to say goodbye to someone we love, there are times when we are simply not ready to acknowledge the reality of their departure. In many ways, this whole sequence testifies to the friendship and love shared by these who prophets of the Most High.

At the same time, there is a shadow side to Elisha’s devotion. When Elijah asks his young companion what he can do for him before he is taken away, Elisha’s response is revealing: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this request. After all, Elisha is a prophet: why shouldn’t he ask to share some of the spirit wielded by one of God’s greatest prophets? He even says please! If we look a little deeper, however, there is something inherently self-serving about Elisha’s request. It’s not that he asked for a share of Elijah’s spirit. It not even that he wanted twice as much as his mentor! It’s the fact that Elisha’s request seems designed to nullify the effects of Elijah’s departure. “Give me a double portion of your spirit, so I can continue to operate as if you were still here.” This is, perhaps, a worthy goal, and an understandable one for someone about to lose a trusted teacher, but it also represents an attempt to domesticate Elijah, to speak and act on his behalf. It’s worth nothing at it’s not clear whether Elisha’s request was granted. A few verses later, some bystanders proclaim that the spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha, but we’re not told if it’s a double share. One wonders if Elisha was trying to co-opt Elijah’s authority instead of establishing his own prophetic voice. To put it another way, there was a level at which Elisha saw Elijah as something to possess.

We see a similar dynamic at play in this morning’s gospel reading. The Transfiguration is generally interpreted in one of two ways. The first option is to view it as a meditation on the urgency of discipleship. In this interpretation, the whole point of the story is that we are supposed to get off the mountain and get to work. Why else would Jesus ignore Peter’s question about building houses? With that said, the second option is to read this story as yet another episode of the “Peter completely missing the point” show. In his sincere effort to ingratiate himself to Jesus, Peter says and does the first thing that comes to mind, without thinking about whether it makes any sense. Even Mark tells us that Peter “did not know what to say.” In this sense, this story is a cautionary tale: an opportunity to sympathize with Peter even as we try to avoid his mistakes. Yet, while there is merit to both of these interpretations, neither fully captures the true essence of the Transfiguration. Ultimately, Peter does not err just because he wants to build houses for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. If anything, this impulse reveals that he recognizes the significance of the moment. As someone deeply familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, Peter knows that both Moses and Elijah had their own mountaintop experiences, and that they were up there for a long time. Peter is just being proactive when he suggests building houses for Jesus and these two prophets of Israel. Moreover, as far as Peter was concerned, this was the moment Jesus had been waiting for. He now had the endorsement of Israel’s greatest prophets: Jesus had arrived. Maybe the houses were just the beginning: perhaps Peter was daydreaming about establishing the “Jesus Christ Center for Spirituality” on this mountaintop and inviting people from all over the world to sit and learn at Jesus’ feet.

Even if this is an overstatement (which it probably is), the fact is that Peter’s response to the Transfiguration reveals that he saw Jesus a source of holy wisdom: someone who could provide him and others the tools necessary to make it through life. In other words, Peter’s error was that he saw Jesus as something to possess. This perspective is not unique to Peter. In the very next passage in Mark’s gospel, Jesus comes down the mountain and finds that his disciples are unable to cast a demon out of a young boy. After Jesus successfully heals the boy, the disciples ask why they weren’t able to do it. They behave as if they had missed that day in class or were somehow using the wrong words, when in fact they were misunderstanding the entire purpose of Jesus’ mission. Jesus did not come to teach us how to live; he came to reveal who God is. Jesus Christ came to reveal that God has power to raise the dead to life. Jesus Christ came to reveal that God’s love for creation transcends even the depths of human frailty and sin. Taken seriously, such a revelation should fundamentally alter the way we understand the world. In the end, Peter responded to the Transfiguration by attempting to domesticate Jesus, when the proper response would have been to transform the way he experienced the world.

We often think of faith as something to possess: a balm we can apply when we are feeling scared, discouraged, or sad; a tool we can use to justify our sincerely held beliefs or shame those with whom we disagree. In reality, it is our faith that is supposed to possess us. Let me be clear about what I mean, because I feel as though this statement can be misinterpreted. I am not saying that we are live in thrall to religious leaders or that our faith can be summarized with a list of religious requirements. After all, Jesus reserved his sharpest criticisms for the religious establishment. If our faith possesses us, it means that our entire lives are animated by a fundamental trust in the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It means that we make every decision with the knowledge that God has the power to raise the dead to life. It means that we nurture every relationship with the understanding that God’s love for us transcends even the deepest human frailty. Our faith is not about acquiring information or performing certain tasks; it is about allowing our lives to be transformed by the God revealed by Jesus Christ on the holy mountain, the God whose love possesses us and helps us become who we are meant to be.

The Redemption of Saint Peter

Sermon for the Confession of Saint Peter offered to the people of Christ Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky and the Reverend Rebecca Kello on the occasion of her ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests.

There is something instructive about the way the Church commemorates Saint Peter. For most of the apostles, the liturgical calendar is pretty straightforward: each apostle is assigned a particular day, and so we celebrate the feast of Saint Matthias or the feast of Saint Thomas or the feast of Saints Simon and Jude. In other words, the Church takes the day to reflect on the entirety of that person’s life and work. On the other hand, Peter, along with his friend and rival Paul, is remembered for a particular moment in his life. Tonight we celebrate not the feast of Saint Peter, but the feast of the Confession of Saint Peter. Next week we will commemorate the Conversion of Saint Paul. There are a variety of reasons for this. In the first place, we know a lot about Peter. He’s all over the New Testament, from the gospels, to the Acts of the Apostles, to the letters of Paul. He even has a couple letters attributed to him. With the other apostles, we tend to know one or two items of significance: Matthias was chosen by lottery, Thomas had that moment of doubt that we hear about every Easter, and Simon and Jude were…well…also there. Given his stature and influence in the early Church, it makes sense for Peter’s commemoration to be a little more focused than those of the other apostles. And if we are going to focus on an event in the life of Peter, then his confession of Jesus as Messiah and Lord is a pretty obvious choice. After all, this is the moment that Jesus’ true identity is revealed to his disciples and to the readers of the gospel. Moreover, it is the moment that Jesus ordains Peter as the means by which the Church will flourish and transform the world. In some ways, it’s no wonder that we take a day to commemorate this particular moment in the life of Peter, the rock upon whom Christ built his Church.

At the same time, there is a shadow side to the fact that the Church specifically commemorates the Confession of Saint Peter. Because by celebrating this moment in the life of the apostle, we can avoid paying attention to those moments in his life that are less worthy of celebration. Highlighting Peter’s confession allows us to forget that immediately following the passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel this evening, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” and accuses him of being preoccupied with human concerns. Our focus on Peter’s moment of faithful confidence permits us to ignore his hypocrisy at Antioch, when he is more interested in maintaining his position of authority than he is in doing the right thing. Perhaps most dramatically, remembering that Peter confessed Jesus as Lord and Messiah spares from remembering that he denied ever knowing Jesus, that he essentially annulled his confession when the going got tough. Don’t get me wrong; I understand this impulse. After all, why would we want to be reminded that this great hero, the rock on whom Christ built his Church, was so deeply human, that he was as susceptible to fear, sin, and faithlessness as the rest of us? In the popular imagination, our faith is supposed to make us better people; Peter complicates that assumption. Why shouldn’t we just overlook Peter’s failures and remember the moments when he got it right? After all, ignoring Peter’s faults allows us nurture the idea that we too can succeed on our own merits, that if we try as hard as we possibly can and ignore our human frailty, then we can earn our place in the world and in God’s kingdom.

As appealing as this notion may be, it is not the gospel. At its heart, the gospel is realistic about the nature of the world and the inevitability of human failure. For this reason, the defining moment of Peter’s life takes place not when he confesses Jesus as Messiah, but when he encounters the risen Christ in the final chapter of John’s gospel. You’ll remember that Peter, along with several other disciples, has returned to his former vocation as fisherman. After a fruitless night, a stranger appears on the beach and tells the former disciples to try fishing from the other side of the boat. As the net fills with fish, Peter realizes that the stranger is the Lord and swims to shore, leaving his comrades to haul in the abundant catch. Despite his initial excitement, Peter becomes quiet when Jesus invites him to have breakfast by a charcoal fire. The last time Peter saw a charcoal fire, he was in the courtyard of the high priest, the place where he denied Jesus three times. Peter had returned to his life as a fisherman to escape his rejection of Jesus, only to have Jesus return, reminding Peter of his faithlessness. And when Jesus finally disrupts the silence, he does so in the most revealing way possible. Fully aware of Peter’s guilt, Jesus turns to him and asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus doesn’t call Peter by the nickname he received in tonight’s gospel lesson; Jesus uses the name Peter’s mother gave him. When Peter responds, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus tells Peter to tend his flock. This happens three times, but Peter is too busy waiting for the other shoe to drop; he’s anticipating a torrent of vengeance and righteous indignation from the man he had so recently scorned. Peter wants to get these questions about love out of the way so that he can receive the punishment he so richly deserves. Jesus, however, offers no such punishment. Instead, Jesus offers Peter a love that redeems even his deepest infidelities, even his most shameful failure, even his rejection of God. With this love, Jesus also invites Peter to fundamentally reevaluate the way he understands the world, telling him, “If you love me, take care of my flock.” This is the defining moment in Peter’s life, not because it erases the mistakes he made, or because it prevents him from making mistakes in the future, but because it is the moment he is called to a new vocation. In light of the love revealed at the resurrection, Jesus instructs Peter to shift his vocation from that of a hunter to that of a shepherd, from one whose work depends on violence to one whose work is shaped by love.


Becca, nobody I know loves people quite the way you do. While we often joke that you are the “glue” that holds groups and institutions together, there is profound truth in that jest. People are drawn to you, and perhaps more importantly, you are drawn to people. Despite your introverted nature, you are genuinely interested in others and deeply concerned about their hopes and dreams, and people can see that in you. In this sense, there is an inevitability to what we are doing this evening. You have long understood what was revealed to Peter by the Sea of Tiberias: that love requires something of us. And so, you have been a model pastor for years, long before ordination was even a possibility. In fact, when I face a particularly complex or thorny pastoral situation in my own ministry, my first impulse is almost always to ask myself, “What would Becca do?” It’s an impulse that has rarely steered me wrong.

And yet, this evening hasn’t always been inevitable. The number of obstacles you have had to overcome on this journey would intimidate even the most confident among us: from growing up in a tradition in which being a woman in leadership simply wasn’t an option, to initially being told “no” by a community you love and who loves you, to undergoing not one, but two major surgeries over the course of the last few months. Heck, you even broke your foot the night you were confirmed in the Episcopal Church. You endured it all with unfailing grace and courage, with a supreme and quiet confidence in the irresistibility of God’s call and in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

It might be tempting to view your ordination as an erasure of all these obstacles. We can now commemorate this day as the anniversary of the Ordination of Becca Kello, and ignore or forget all those moments in your spiritual journey that are less worthy of celebration. But this is not the gospel. The gospel we proclaim, the gospel you will embody to everyone you serve as a priest, is ultimately about acknowledging God’s ability, God’s will to redeem our past, our present, and our future. It is about placing our confidence in a love that overcomes even our most shameful failures. It is about allowing our lives and vocations to be shaped by the insistent and persistent grace of God made known in Jesus Christ.


May you always find God’s call irresistible.

May your human frailty give you both compassion for those you serve and a profound understanding of your need for God’s grace.

May you, like Peter, remember that the love made known to us in Jesus Christ requires something of us, and may your work always be shaped by love.

Above all, may you trust God’s ability, God’s will, and God’s deep desire to redeem your past, your present, and your future.

I am honored to share this vocation with you. God bless you. I love you.

Surprised by Grace

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

One of the more intriguing shows on television right now is The Good Place. In the first episode, Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up in the afterlife and is informed she is in “The Good Place,” a utopian paradise into which only the most righteous individuals are admitted. Before long, however, she realizes that she is the wrong Eleanor Shellstrop: the one who actually belonged in the Good Place was a human rights activist during her time on earth; in her own estimation, the one who actually made it was “a selfish dirtbag from Arizona.” Predictably, Eleanor determines to keep her head down and pretend that she belongs, so as not to be sent to the Bad Place. As you can imagine, this situation yields a number of opportunities for comedy and raises some interesting moral questions, the most obvious of which is: what would we do if we were placed in a similar situation? I like to think of myself as an honest person: if the server at a restaurant forgets to charge me for something I ordered, I almost always call it to his attention. What happens, however, when the stakes are substantially higher? What happens when being honest costs us, not an order of chicken wings, but our very sense of self? I suspect that most of us would be inclined to follow her lead, concealing our suspicion that we simply do not belong.

Over the last three weeks, we have heard a series of related parables from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. On their face, these parables appear to be cautionary tales about responsibility and preparedness. The overriding message seems to be that we should avoid ending up like those bridesmaids who forgot to bring extra oil or the slave who buried his master’s talent in the ground. One could view this morning’s text through a similar lens: we need to avoid ending up like those people who failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. The underlying message of these parables appears to be this: at the end there will be those who are prepared and those who are not, and we should do as much as we can to be numbered in the first group, since those in the second group are in big trouble. As harsh as it can be, this interpretation has an appealing quality, because it assumes that our efforts to make our way through the world will be rewarded. If we prepare diligently, risk appropriately, and show some compassion every once in awhile, we will be successful in this life and in the life to come. If you think about it, this jibes pretty well with the way our faith is understood by shows like The Good Place. In the popular imagination, the Christian life is basically about holding ourselves to exacting standards in order to attain a heavenly reward.

The problem with this interpretation is that it misses the deeper point of these parables, and of the Christian faith in general. Under the surface, these parables have very little to do with preparedness. The key to understanding this chapter of Matthew’s gospel comes when the righteous, having been told that they would inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world, respond by saying, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food…or naked and gave you clothing?” If this series of parables is actually about preparedness, this exchange would look very different: the king would say to those at his right hand “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing.” And in this alternate version, the righteous would say, “Yeah that sounds about right!” Instead, we find that the righteous are not only ignorant of their righteousness, they are so surprised to be included among the sheep that they ask for documentation; they imply the king has made a mistake. Eleanor Shellstrop would have been furious; if you find that an error has been made in your favor, you do not call attention to the error! Yet, this unexpected moment is the key to understanding not only this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, but the entirety of Jesus’ ministry.

It is tempting to read Matthew’s gospel as an account of Jesus establishing a new religious tradition, one that replaces justice with mercy by substituting one set of requirements for another. It would be easy to read this morning’s parable through this lens: to assume that God’s favor is contingent not on following the Jewish Law, but on caring for the least of these. The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the fact that the righteous were surprised by their inclusion in the life of the kingdom. More than anything else, the surprise of those at the king’s right hand reveals that this fundamental truth: there is nothing we can do to guarantee our place in the kingdom. This series of parables is the climax of an argument that Matthew has been making since the Sermon on the Mount: despite any pretensions we may have, we are unable to save ourselves. Now, this may not seem like the most relevant conclusion, since I suspect that there are not too many of us who worry extensively about our eternal destiny. But this message applies to our daily experience of the world. Even as we blindly pursue success or notoriety, Jesus reveals there is nothing we can accomplish that will truly set us apart from others. Believe it or not, this is good news. In fact, this is the very heart of the Christian faith. Recognizing that we can’t save ourselves disrupts our compulsion to conceal our true selves and frees us to take our inevitable failures not as measures of our worth, but as opportunities to acknowledge our dependence on God alone. This, by the way, is why stewardship is such a crucial component of the Christian life: giving allows us to recognize that even our hard-earned money, the ultimate marker of worldly success, is not going to save us. Moreover, realizing there is nothing we can do to save ourselves allows us to be honest about our vulnerabilities, to acknowledge that there are times that we too are numbered among the “least of these.” No matter who we are or where we come from, we are all muddling our way through life, stumbling upon triumphs and tragedies along the way.

Right after this parable, Matthew begins his account of the passion, which at its heart is a grim reminder of what human beings are capable of. When given a clear choice, God’s people rejected God, proving their inability to save themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus went willingly to the cross and redeemed their betrayal in the Resurrection. Ultimately, this is what it means to acknowledge the kingship of Christ. It is about putting our lives in the proper perspective, recognizing that Christ reigns even in the midst of our foolish decisions and deliberations. The Christian faith is not about performance, nor is it about appearing to belong; it is about acknowledging our dependence on a grace that takes us by surprise.

Hypocrisy

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the world to the Kobayashi Maru scenario, a training exercise designed for cadets at the Starfleet Academy. In the simulation, a disabled civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, is stranded near the Klingon neutral zone (Klingons are the bad guys in Star Trek). The cadet has to decide whether to rescue the ship and risk a confrontation with the Klingon Empire or respect the fragile peace between the Klingons and the Federation and let the crew of the Kobayashi Maru perish in deep space. Now, for those of you who are not Star Trek fans, the only really important thing to know is that the Kobayashi Maru is explicitly designed to be a no-win scenario; it’s meant to assess a cadet’s discipline and character when facing an impossible situation. There is, however, one cadet who successfully completed the Kobayashi Maru scenario. If you know anything about Star Trek, you won’t be surprised to discover that it was James T. Kirk, the maverick captain of the starship Enterprise and protagonist of the original series. He reprogrammed the computer so it would be possible to beat the simulation. Though he technically cheated, Kirk defended himself by claiming he didn’t believe in no-win situations.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus also refuses to accept a no-win situation. The passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel has a deceptively straightforward quality, but there is great subtlety and depth in this interaction between Jesus and Pharisees. To begin with, the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor was far from a frivolous concern. In fact, this issue cut to the very heart of the religious and political assumptions of first-century Judaism. The religious authorities noted that paying taxes to the emperor violated at least two of the ten commandments: it not only required taxpayers to make use of a graven image, it also forced them to give homage to the emperor, who considered himself a god. Under the Law of Moses, in other words, paying taxes was tantamount to idolatry. Moreover, the Roman Empire was hated by the Jewish populace. Paying taxes was seen by some revolutionary zealots as a tacit endorsement of a brutal occupying power. At the same time, the only thing that prevented the Romans from bringing ruin down upon Jerusalem and the rest of Judea was the fact that the people paid the tribute required of them. The question that is brought to Jesus, in other words, was the Kobayashi Maru of first century Judaism: paying taxes represented a complicated ethical dilemma, one that could stymie even the sharpest intellect.

In response to this Gordian knot of religious and political nuance, Jesus does not offer a carefully worded opinion. Instead, he challenges the very premise of the question. He does this by saying that the Pharisees and their allies are hypocrites. This is not terribly surprising. Jesus calls people hypocrites a lot in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, Matthew uses the word more than any of the other New Testament writers combined. Calling someone a hypocrite is a powerful indictment, in part because it entails minimal risk. Accusing someone of hypocrisy doesn’t require us to share their moral vision or even to have a particular moral vision. All it needs is a vague belief that people ought to act in accordance with their own stated moral principles. We can remove ourselves from the equation and claim that we are blameless, even as we accuse others of failing to live up to the values they champion.

Jesus turns the definition of hypocrisy on its head. For Jesus, hypocrisy is not failing to live up to our own moral standards; true hypocrisy is allowing ourselves to be defined by human standards in the first place. The reason that Jesus does not provide a carefully worded answer to the question of the religious authorities is that he completely rejects the terms of the debate. For him, asking if paying taxes to the emperor violated the Jewish Law ascribed to the emperor authority that properly belonged to God. Indeed, Jesus could have put his position in this way: “Caesar isn’t God; why are you treating him like he is? Why are you giving him power over you that he does not have?” The instruction to give to the emperor the things that are the emperors is actually a way of dismissing the emperor’s power altogether. As far as Jesus is concerned, the emperor has mistakenly chosen to honor his own flawed humanity and earthly power. Jesus challenges us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. For Jesus, we are hypocrites when we forget who we are; when we fail to remember that, despite our flawed humanity, we bear the image of God, something no human being or earthly power can take away from us.

Last Sunday, the actress Alyssa Milano posted the following on social media: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Millions of people took this suggestion. It felt like every woman I knew posted #MeToo. Some shared wrenching stories of abuse, while others left the two words as a concise testament to the ways they had been made to feel worthless. The more #MeToos I read, the more I began to consider the ways I had been complicit in these stories of harassment and assault. To be honest, my initial, visceral reaction was to wonder how many of these were overreactions or misunderstandings. This response, however, represents the same hypocrisy displayed by the religious authorities in their interaction with Jesus: the hypocrisy of ascribing transcendent value to human standards: standards like “everybody does it” or “that’s just so and so being so and so.” Indeed, the whole #MeToo movement exposed our hypocritical failure to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. Our faith calls us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor those who bear the image of God by acknowledging their pain and refusing to make excuses for those who have taken advantage of them. At the same time, honoring the image of God requires us to hope for the possibility of redemption: to acknowledge that through Jesus Christ, God has wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. Our faith invites us to recognize that even when our sin or the sin of others prevents us from remembering it, we continue to bear the image of God. The ultimate message of the gospel is this: even when confronted with abusive forces that try to convince us that we are worthless, we must not forget who we are and whose we are.

Whether We Live, or Whether We Die

Sermon on Romans 14:1-12 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.” So begins The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss’s 1961 book about creatures who looked identical, apart from the presence of small green stars on their bellies. As Dr. Seuss explains, “those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small you might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all. But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.’” It’s a familiar story, one that really gets going when a fly-by-night huckster named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with two machines: one that will affix stars to Sneetch bellies and another that will remove them, both for a small fee. As Dr. Seuss observes, “from then on, as you can probably guess, things really got into a horrible mess.” The Sneetches paid to have stars affixed and stars removed until they ran out of money and, more importantly, had no idea who was originally a Plain-Belly Sneetch or a Star-Belly Sneetch. Dr. Seuss’s point is clear: while the differences between us may seem significant, they are ultimately inconsequential.

This is a lesson that most of us tend to learn at a young age, which is not all that surprising, since Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books. At the same time, there are ways that this message can feel naive when we consider the complexity of our world. Certainly, the superficial differences between us are less important than we tend to think. Though I am a Red Sox fan, I don’t actually think that Yankee fans are bad people. But sometimes there are fundamental questions of identity that can be very difficult to disregard. Occasionally, the values espoused by various individuals are irreconcilably opposed to one another. For instance, is it really possible for us to say that the difference between a white supremacist and someone who believes in racial equality is inconsequential? While the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not is ultimately trivial, there do seem to be differences between us that are important to acknowledge.

At first glance, the disputes in the church in Rome that Paul addresses in this morning’s epistle reading do not seem to be of any consequence. When Paul describes the differences among members of the community, they seem as insignificant as the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not: “some believe in eating anything, while [some] eat only vegetables” and “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” The way that Paul frames these arguments makes them seem like a matter of mere personal preference. His advice seems to bear out this assumption. Paul essentially counsels that we should not judge how other people practice their faith. Whatever you decide to do, he says, do it in honor of the Lord. Otherwise, live and let live. After all, these differences aren’t all that important in the end.

While the questions of what we eat and which holidays we observe may not seem controversial to us, they were actually fundamental questions of identity in the first century. Those who ate only vegetables did so in order to avoid meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Idolatry, the human tendency to worship something in God’s place, is the chief sin in the Hebrew Bible, the one from which all other sins stem. So one can understand the desire of devout Jews to scrupulously avoid eating meat if there was even a small chance been used in the worship of something that was not God. In the meantime, those who ate anything weren’t entirely sure it was worth even considering the dangers of idolatry. What one eats, in other words, was far from a casual issue in a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles. Moreover, the church in Rome was full of people who were accustomed to defining themselves in terms of what they did as members of their community: the Jewish community, for instance, could be defined as those people who kept kosher and observed holidays like Passover. If there weren’t any standard community rituals, how could the community define itself? In other words, when Paul instructs the Roman church not to let their differences be a source of division, he is challenging some of their most deeply and dearly held beliefs.

Significantly, Paul does not challenge these beliefs in the name of mere tolerance. Though it may seem like his argument boils down to “can’t we all just get along,” his appeal to unity is rooted in something much deeper than any fortune cookie wisdom. “We do not live to ourselves,” he writes, “and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Paul finds radical unity in our mortal nature: the fact that, no matter who we are or what group we belong to, we are all going to die someday. As consequential as our differences may be, all of them are overshadowed by our mortality. But Paul doesn’t leave us with this grim observation. Paul insists that this mortal nature we all share has been radically transformed through Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, Paul reasoned that it couldn’t have been significant for just one person or even one group people; it had to have been a defining event for the whole of humanity, and indeed, the whole of creation. And in light of the world-altering magnitude of the resurrection, questions of group identity, once so pivotal, now feel parochial and unimportant. The resurrection puts the differences between us into an entirely new perspective. It invites us to consider our identity not in terms of which group we belong to, but in terms of the fact that we belong to God. Indeed, there is nothing and no one that exists apart from the parameters of “whether we live or whether we die.” We are Lord’s no matter who we are or what happens to us.

It would be nice if we could pretend that the issues surrounding divisions in our society don’t really matter, that we could live in harmony with our neighbors if everyone just stopped being angry for a moment. Most of us would agree that this is naive: the issues that divide us are anything but superficial. Besides, as Arthur Brooks pointed out a few months ago,“the real problem in [our society] today is not anger, it’s contempt.” He went on to define contempt as “the conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” I find this diagnosis compelling, mostly because contempt has been the root cause of most of human history’s intractable divisions. We cannot defeat contempt by shouting down our opponents or even by making a more persuasive argument. As Paul implies, the only way to overcome contempt, the only way to acknowledge the worthiness of our opponents, is to recognize that we share something fundamental with those whose positions infuriate us. We must recognize that the Lord has laid claim to everyone who lives and everyone who dies. This is ultimately what loving our enemies is about: it is acknowledging the Christ died for them as much as he died for us. We are the ones who have to make this recognition. We are the ones who have to step out courageously and announce that even the differences that are fundamental fade away when we remember that we all belong to God.