Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

At the end of every calendar year, social media and other internet sites are generally overrun with articles, tweets, videos, and other posts reviewing the year that is coming to an end. This year, the vast majority of these reflections have had a distinct and consistent theme: imgresnamely, that 2016 was the worst. In some ways, it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. This year saw the Zika virus, terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, and Berlin, and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. This year saw economic collapse in Caracas, political disaster in Ankara, and humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo. This year saw the deaths of Alan Rickman, Abe Vigoda, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, David Bowie, and Prince, to name just a few. This year saw arguably the most contentious election in this country’s history, one that devolved into a nightmarish carnival of fear, resentment, and despair. As we come to the end of this difficult year, it is hard not to buy into the notion that this was the worst year ever.

Human beings have experienced objectively worse years. There was 1348, when the Black Plague arrived on European shores. Less recently there was 72,000 BC, when a volcano in Sumatra exploded with the force of 1.5 million atomic bombs, resulting in the near extinction of the human species. Clearly, 2016 could have been much worse. Yet, it was an exceptionally difficult year. I think the main reason is that this year was so full of uncertainty. Nothing worked out the way we thought. Election results around the world defied the expectations of pollsters and prognosticators, the people who are supposed to be able to tell us what is coming. Traditional times of celebration were interrupted by terror and despair. Even the celebrities who died tended to be people whose presence signified comfort and stability: we lost veteran character actors, musical iconoclasts, and TV moms and dads, people we imagined would always be there. It’s no wonder Merriam Webster’s word of the year was “surreal.” This was a year of confounded expectations, one in which many of us experienced a profound sense of dislocation.

Rather than dislocation, tonight’s gospel reading begins with an almost radical sense of continuity. Luke begins the Christmas story by telling us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is one of the narrative quirks of this gospel. Luke loves to let us know who was in charge when the events he describes took place. This is about more than providing historical context. The world of Luke’s gospel was one in which the personalities of those in power had a profound effect on the lives of those they governed. The fact that the emperor could send people to their hometowns on a whim is evidence enough of that. Moreover, it was a time when rulers stayed in power for a very long time. By mentioning these world leaders, Luke strongly implies that the world is unlikely to change any time soon.

In the midst of this political stability, however, an angel proclaims to a group of shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.” The angel tells the shepherds that this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes represents something entirely new in the world. Moreover, the angel uses a politically loaded term to describe the birth of Jesus. The word we translate as “good news” is the same word that was used to announce when the emperor had a son. It referred to the birth of a new king. According to Luke’s account, the birth of this child represents a challenge to the present order. And yet, not much changes politically after the birth of Jesus. Augustus remains the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The sanguine expectations of the angels appear to have been confounded. Our refrain of “glory to the newborn king” seems tinged with irony. In this gospel reading, it would appear that we are experiencing a profound sense of dislocation.

But this reading ignores a small yet crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. After the shepherds left the babe alone with his parents, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured these things and pondered them in her heart.” theotokos_3_500Though Luke could be describing the pride that every parent feels when her child is adored by strangers, there is a much more powerful dimension to this statement. By pondering these things in her heart, Mary ensures that the affairs of the world, no matter how dispiriting or dislocating, will never diminish the good news of Jesus’ birth. This is that good news: unlike those leaders that history has mostly forgotten, Jesus is a different kind of king. Jesus is the one who rules our hearts. While this may seem saccharine, even trivial, it is actually of monumental importance. It signals that God’s claim on us transcends every circumstance.

For this reason, I think that the most powerful expression of the Christmas gospel can be found in the Burial Rite of the Book of Common Prayer. The opening anthem includes these words: “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live unto the Lord, and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” These words do more than comfort the bereaved: they demonstrate how the gospel frustrates the powers of the world. Most tyrannical regimes coerce obedience by threatening death. But, if we can say with confidence that we are the Lord’s whether we live or die, we have nullified the tyrant’s ultimate threat. The gospel we proclaim tonight is deeply and quietly subversive because it insists that those who claim worldly authority have no real power over us, that the only power that truly matters is that of the babe lying in the manger.

No matter how many times we may hear it, the birth of Jesus is always news, because the bad news is always changing. In the midst of a world that is filled with uncertainty, we must treasure this good news, confident that Jesus Christ is the one who rules our hearts.

A Letter to Donald Trump

Dear Mr. Trump,

It has been nearly a week since you defied pundits and prognosticators and became the President-elect of the United States.

I should probably mention that I am one of the more than 61 million people who voted for your Democratic rival. This is probably not particularly surprising. After all, I am a millienial priest in a progressive mainline denomination who lives in the suburb of an east coast city. My support for Clinton, however, was about more than mere demographics. Like many people, I was attracted by her experience, intelligence, and toughness. I appreciated that she campaigned as a realist and had a sense of how profoundly difficult governing can be. Also, after 228 years, I thought it was high time we elected a woman to the highest office in the land.

If I’m honest, though, I was also voting against you. Frankly, you made me very nervous during your campaign. It wasn’t just your erratic behavior, your limited acquaintance with our Constitutional system, your casual relationship with the truth, or your lack of scruples that gave me pause. It was what you awakened in my fellow Americans. You played to our basest instincts and encouraged us to vote out of fear, resentment, and despair.

Nevertheless, I would like to give you a chance. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am rooting for you. This has very little to do with you or the policies you have proposed, many of which I believe to be fundamentally inconsistent with this country’s ideals. It also has little to do with the people you are appointing to your administration. It has everything to do with the people who voted for you. I have lived in blue states, red states, and swing states. I have known, loved, and served with people who voted for you, people who voted for Clinton, people who voted for third party candidates, and people who stayed as far away from their polling places as possible on Election Day. I know that not one of these people is fundamentally evil. All of them love their mothers, want the best for the children, and, for the most part, are just trying to make sense of the daily struggles of this life. I hope that the people who supported you, people I know and love, did not do so in vain. I also hope that the people who did not support you, people I know and love, will not be marginalized by you or your administration. I stand with them, just as I stand with my brothers and sisters who pulled the lever for you.


In my post-election grief, I listened to the Broadway musical Hamilton a lot (I know, I’m a liberal cliche, but please bear with me). Feeling both bitter and a little snide, I assumed the song that would resonate with me most was the one that King George sings to the newly independent United States after the Battle of Yorktown:

What comes next? You’ve been freed. Do you know how hard it is to lead?

You’re on your own. Awesome! Wow! Do you have a clue what happens now?

Oceans rise. Empires fall. It’s much harder when it’s all your call

All alone, across the sea. When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.

I’ll admit that the cheekier part of me continues to find solace in the king’s biting sarcasm. In the wake of your election, however, the song I have found most meaningful is the one George Washington sings to Alexander Hamilton before he leads troops into battle:

History has its eyes on you.

History doesn’t care much about reality television stars. No one is going to be writing magisterial biographies of the Kardashians in a hundred years. History is also not terribly interested in whose names were on Manhattan skyscrapers. Even unsuccessful presidential candidates rarely merit more than a footnote in the history books (though, in fairness, yours would have been longer than most). History does, however, remember presidents. Moreover, history is pretty unsparing about them: presidents are either remembered as flawed statesmen of consequence, or their administrations are lamented as regrettable mistakes and cautionary tales.

You were noticeably more disciplined in the final weeks of the campaign. By the standards you established over the last eighteen months, your victory speech was astonishingly gracious. Moreover, in every interview you’ve given since your election, you have looked overwhelmed, even terrified. Perhaps you were just afraid you would lose. Perhaps you’ve realized how difficult this job will be. Or perhaps you’ve begun to comprehend that your presidency will be subject to the judgment of history. The presidency is a sacred trust. Though you managed to earn the trust of those who voted for you, you now have the trust of many, many more people. You must prove to the American people that you understand this and that you are worthy of our trust.

I want to congratulate you on your victory and wish you the best of luck. I will support you when I can and oppose you when I must. All the while, I will remain thoroughly committed to the glorious, frustrating American experiment in self-government. In the meantime, I will be praying for you, your family, your administration, and our country. More than anything else, I pray that you remember that history has its eyes on you.

Sincerely,

David

Discovering our Inner Lost Sheep

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Like many of you, I spent a fair amount of time watching the Olympics a few weeks ago. While I am enthralled by the acrobatics of Simone Biles or the sheer dominance of Michael Phelps, I often find the less successful athletes much more compelling. One such athlete is Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea who competed in the 100 meter freestyle at the Olympics in Sydney. In many ways, Eric was the unlikeliest of contenders. He had only taken up swimming eight months before the start of the Olympic Games. To put that in perspective, that’s like, well, someone taking up swimming eight months before they compete in the Olympic games. Nevertheless, the International Olympic Committee had awarded Equatorial Guinea a wildcard draw as a way of encouraging participation by developing countries. Thus, Eric was competing at the highest level of his sport despite the fact he had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool until he arrived for his first heat.

There’s no question that Eric was deeply sensible of his inadequacies, but he decided to go through with the race anyway. In an extraordinary coincidence, all of his competitors false started and were unexpectedly disqualified. This left Eric to complete the race entirely by himself. In the Disney version of this story, Eric would have set a world record, but in reality the race was excruciating to watch. eric_moussambaniWithin a few strokes, it became clear that he had never swum any significant distance. By the time made the turn at 50 meters, people were openly wondering whether he would be able to finish or even survive the race. Ultimately, he completed the race, winning his heat (remember, he was the only competitor) with the slowest time in Olympic history. Though his performance initially elicited laughter from the crowd, the spectators gradually realized they were witnessing a true Olympic moment. We assume that the Olympics are meant to celebrate superhuman feats of athleticism, but Eric reminded us that in the end, these athletes are as frail and vulnerable as the rest of us.

This morning we hear two famous and related parables about human frailty: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. These parables follow essentially the same formula: something is lost, someone seeks and finds it, and there is much rejoicing. What is striking about both of these parables is the extraordinary effort that is put into finding the lost. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find just one. Even though Jesus seems to imply that this is standard practice, the fact is that losing sheep was part of being a shepherd in the first century. One lost sheep out of a hundred would barely register; it was the cost of doing business. In a similar way, this woman spends the day turning her whole house upside down in order to find the one coin she misplaced, potentially losing wages or time to run her household. At the very least she had to use precious lamp oil to look for something that wasn’t worth all that much in the grand scheme of things. When faced with similar situations, most of us would simply conclude that we could probably take the hit: we can live with the loss of a sheep or two. The implication of these parables, however, is that God doesn’t engage in this kind of calculus. As Henri Nouwen writes, “God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter…From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed…to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy.”

Now it’s important for us to consider Jesus’ audience. Even though the occasion for this teaching is the fact that Jesus has been criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus is not speaking to them. He is actually addressing the scribes and Pharisees, the people who supposedly have their life together and ostensibly have no need of repentance. We might imagine their impatient response to these parables: “It’s certainly a nice thought that God will seek out those poor sinners even when it is a waste of everybody else’s time. In the meantime, here we are, doing our very best to stay out of trouble and keep our noses clean. We have never left home and have always done what we are supposed to do. What do we get from this God who seeks out and finds the lost?” imgresJesus has a startling suggestion for the scribes and Pharisees: “What if you’re the ones who are lost? What if you are the lost sheep who has strayed from the flock? What if you are that lost coin that rolled under the sofa?” With these parables, Jesus insists that everyone needs to be found, because everyone is lost in some way. The message of these parables is as much for those who have wandered off as it is for those who think they never left.

The scribes and Pharisees aren’t the only ones who have had trouble understanding this. We know we have a generous God who reaches out to the lost and rejoices when they return. It has been burned into our brains by years of faithful church attendance. The funny thing about religious people is that for all of our talk about God, we would much rather be left to our own devices. We do everything we can to conceal our vulnerabilities, to hide our inadequacies, to imagine that we have everything under control. We all like to think that we are Michael Phelps or Simone Biles: confident that we will succeed as we prepare to knife through the water or soar through the air. But this is only true on the rarest of occasions. Most of the time, we are much more like Eric Moussambani: plagued by deep feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy as we stand before the largest pool we have ever seen.

This is the nature of our human condition. We are inadequate; we are broken, and we are lost. But we begin to overcome this condition through the practice of repentance. Repentance is often misunderstood. It’s not about pleasing God with acts of contrition. It’s not even about being sorry for our sins. Repentance is about acknowledging the fullness of God’s reality even as we recognize our own inadequacy. It is about trusting that God’s grace and love transcend the hopelessness and sinfulness that characterize so much of the human experience.

Nothing illustrates this practice of repentance better than the Eucharist. So many of you are struggling in some way. Some of you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of keeping your family together. Some of you are grieving the loss of a spouse. Some of you feel betrayed by someone close to you. Some of you are just coping with the day-to-day challenge of life. There are moments when all of us feel broken, inadequate, and lost. Even though we are fully aware of our lostness, we have the opportunity to experience the fullness of God’s grace every time we come forward to receive the Eucharist. When we come to the altar rail, we have the opportunity hear the sounds of divine joy as we recognize, even for a fleeting moment, that no matter how lost we are, we have been found by God.

The only thing we have to fear

Sermon on Mark 13:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

History_Speeches_1147_FDR_First_Inaugural_Address_still_624x352When Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, the United States had been enduring the most significant economic crisis of its history for almost three and a half years. After the market crashed in 1929, the average household income plummeted more than forty percent. Half of the nation’s banks had failed, and crippling drought drove millions of people from their homes and livelihoods in the Great Plains. By 1933, one out of every four American workers was unemployed. It was, in other words, one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history. Roosevelt acknowledged this with astonishing candor in his inaugural address. He refused to sugarcoat or downplay the challenges of the Great Depression: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” he averred. This context makes that immortal line all the more surprising: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For Roosevelt, fear was more pernicious than any of the adversity we had endured or any of the calamities we had yet to experience. Fear was a bigger obstacle than unemployment, drought, or financial ruin. And so before the First 100 Days, before the New Deal, before he did anything, Franklin Roosevelt argued that that the biggest challenge our country faced in responding to the Great Depression was to cast out fear.

The gospel according to Mark was written during one of the darkest chapters in the history of God’s people, a time of great uncertainty and fear. Most scholars agree that the gospel was written around the time of the Jewish War, which was Rome’s final showdown with the recalcitrant residents of Judea. Though the Jewish people always retained certain privileges in the empire, including the freedom to worship their own God in the Temple, their repeated attempts to oust their occupiers finally exhausted Rome’s patience. While this was not the first time Judea had experienced violent retribution from the Roman authorities, most people in Jerusalem recognized that this time would be different, that Rome’s vengeance would be absolute. Mark captures the totality of the anticipated destruction when he quotes that ominous prediction of Jesus: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The situation was indeed bleak for God’s people: Jerusalem was surrounded by hostile forces, the Temple was about to be destroyed, and the Jewish way of life was about to come to a violent end. If ever there was a time to fear, this was it.

Yet, Jesus specifically enjoins his disciples not to be afraid. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars,” when you see armies at the gate, when you feel that your world is coming to an end, “do not be alarmed.” This advice is almost shocking, especially in light of the fact that Jesus goes on to list a host of other calamities, including uprisings, earthquakes, and famines. Nevertheless, Jesus asserts that the greatest trial God’s people will face is fear. This diagnosis seems almost laughably naive when we think about the state of the world. The calamities Jesus describes are painfully familiar: destructive weather events have become commonplace, millions of American children go to bed not knowing where their next meal with come from, and just this week, terrorists murdered hundreds of innocent people in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. It seems that every day our equilibrium is shaken, that every day we are reminded how truly vulnerable we are. As we bear witness to all of this human misery, devastation, and death, how are we not to be alarmed?

It’s easy to read the last line of this passage with a sense of dread: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” as if to say, there is much more to come, or “you thought this was bad, wait until what comes next!” But the word that Mark uses, the one our version translates as “birth pangs,” is very specific to birth. It is a word that connotes not only the agony of childbirth, but also the joy that comes with bringing another human being into world. Those of you who have children know: even though the process of raising a child can be difficult and painful, there is an persistent and inescapable joy that exists at the very heart of being a parent. The hours in labor, the sleepless nights, the disappointments, the feelings of inadequacy and failure, all melt away when you hold that child in your arms. This is why Jesus specifically refers to birth pangs: not so that we think about pain, but so that we think about birth, so that we remember the joy at the heart of the gospel. This is a joy that has the power to cast out fear. It is a joy that has the power to remind us that God is present even in the darkest moments of our lives. It is a joy that Jesus embodied on the cross, when he put his life and his death in God’s hands, when he trusted that both his life and death were part of God’s story. Indeed, by framing the end of the world as we know it within the context of birth, Mark affirms that God is present in all our beginnings and endings. This astonishing statement demands a mature sense of God’s Providence, a persistent and inescapable belief that everything; every beginning and ending, every victory and defeat, every life and death; that everything belongs to God. This fundamental truth of our faith is incompatible with fear; Jesus tells his disciples not to be alarmed not because he is naive, but because fear prevents us from recognizing that even the things we are afraid of belong to God.

On Friday, more than 125 people in Paris were killed by terrorists acting at the behest of ISIS. In the wake of the attacks, countless religious leaders from every tradition have condemned the attacks, giving voice to our collective grief and outrage. One imam in particular offered a particularly cogent reflection: “Terrorists have no religion whatsoever. Their religion is intolerance, hatred for peace.” The so-called Islamic State’s view of the world is warped, not just because it is predicated on violence and extremism, but because it assumes the world can be cleansed of anything inconsistent with its narrow and twisted interpretation of Islam, that the ap631649421158world God created somehow contains people who do not belong. This intolerance cannot exist in true religion, because true religion requires us to trust not in our own will, not in our own prejudices, not in our own power, but in the power of God. True religion requires us to recognize that nothing exists that is ultimately apart from God. This morning, it would be tempting for us to adopt a posture of vengeance or of apathy, to clamor for retribution or throw up our hands in despair. These responses, however, are ultimately rooted in fear, because they forget the all-encompassing reality of God’s Providence. The gospel calls us courageously to claim joy even in the midst of our darkest moments. It calls us to remember that the towers and temples in our lives, though built with toil and care, will fall to dust, but that our hope is ultimately founded on God. It calls us to put our trust in the God who is present in our beginnings and endings. Above all, the gospel calls us to cast out fear and remember this fundamental truth of our faith: that everything we are and everything we have belongs to God.

The True Compass

Sermon on Mark 10:46-52 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Lincoln_2012_Teaser_PosterIn 2012, Dreamworks released Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s film about our sixteenth president and his struggle to move the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery through the House of Representatives. Though Lincoln is at the height of his popularity during the period portrayed in the movie, he is hounded by people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Southern sympathizers in Congress consider the President an abolitionist tyrant, describing him melodramatically as the “Great Usurping Caesar.” Meanwhile, the more radical members of Lincoln’s own party accuse him of being uninterested in abolishing slavery, calling him an “inveterate dawdler” and a “capitulating compromiser.” In one memorable scene, Lincoln is discussing this discordant position with Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Congressman from Pennsylvania. Stevens lambastes the President for his apparent timidity and naive willingness to trust that the American people will vote to abolish slavery. “You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, North and South, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery,” he charges. With remarkable calm, Lincoln challenges the Congressman’s assumption that a compass is the only tool needed to direct our actions. “A compass,” he observes, “[will] point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?” This rhetorical question highlights not only Lincoln’s political philosophy, but also his sense of what it means to lead. Those who follow have the luxury of inhabiting the extremes; those who lead are required to move slowly and deliberately, sometimes to the point that they appear to be standing completely still.

Without question, the most conspicuous feature of Mark’s gospel is its astounding pace. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus hits the ground running at his baptism and then sprints through the Galilee at breakneck speed. Mark’s favorite word is “immediately” for good reason; the narrative gives us precious little time to ponder what has happened. This is particularly true when Mark describes a healing or exorcism. Each of those stories follows the same breathless formula: a supplicant asks Jesus for help, Jesus heals, the crowd is amazed, Jesus sternly orders the people to tell no one, and then he moves on to the next location. At first glance, the story of blind Bartimaeus seems to follow the brisk pace of Mark’s narrative. Mark even tell us that Jesus enters and leaves Jericho in the space of one verse, as if to remind us that this Messiah is on the move. Yet there is a striking difference between this and the other healing stories. Throughout most of Mark’s gospel, the crowds are usually dumbfounded when they encounter Jesus. In this story, however, they can’t stop talking: they go from angrily telling Bartimaeus to keep his mouth shut, to essentially patting him on the back and saying, “Don’t just sit there; get up! He’s calling you!” In the meantime, Jesus, who normally has quite a lot to say, is fairly reticent in this passage. Indeed, Mark tells us that when he hears Bartimaeus’ supplication, Jesus stand still. While this may not seem significant, it is the first time that Jesus stands still in the whole of Mark’s gospel. In this gospel of perpetual motion, in other words, this is the first time Jesus stops.

The significance of this is revealed in the crowd’s response to Bartimaeus. When Bartimaeus shouts “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Mark tells us that those around him “sternly order him to be quiet.” This happens to be exactly what Jesus generally says to those he heals. The implication is that the crowds finally get it, that they finally understand how they are supposed to respond to the presence of Jesus among them. When Jesus confounds their expectations by calling out to Bartimaeus, the people in the crowd have an immediate and dramatic change of heart. Like sycophants, they quickly race to the opposite extreme, terrified that they will end up on the wrong side of things. size1The crowd is capricious, uncertain where to stand. Jesus, however, is unaffected by this fickle response. In the midst of ambivalence and uncertainty, Jesus stands still, animated only by a profound sense of his mission. In many ways, this passage functions as a powerful prologue to the passion narrative, where those who greet Jesus with “Hosannas” as he enters Jerusalem are the same people who clamor for his crucifixion before Pilate. In the face of these extremes, Jesus stands still, unaffected by accolade or condemnation. Jesus moves deliberately and inexorably toward his fate, despite the fact that those around him cannot understand what he is doing. Unlike the political and religious authorities, Jesus does not inhabit extremes, he inhabits the kingdom of God.

Ask pretty much any political pundit, and they will tell you that, for better or worse, our politics have become increasingly polarized over the last several decades. Gone are the days when political parties worked together and compromised, or so the narrative goes. The reality, however, is not that our positions have become any more extreme (just look at the fight over the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865); it is that the popular attitude toward moderation has shifted. We no longer celebrate the collaborators; instead, we admire the principled partisans, those who are willing to defend their principles regardless of the consequences. Moderation, in other words, has fallen out of fashion. This is no surprise and probably necessary, if we think of moderation as a desperate attempt to be as inoffensive as possible. What the gospel reveals to us, however, is moderation at its best: a deliberate and powerful articulation of a truth that is neither fickle nor inflexible. imgresAs Anglicans, we embrace this middle way “not as a compromise for the sake of peace,” as the Collect for the commemoration of Anglican divine Richard Hooker puts it, “but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” The gospel is neither nostalgic nor novel, it is neither liberal nor conservative; the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ transcend all these binary categories because they are the fullest expression of love the world has ever known. Love does not inhabit extremes; it is an enduring center, it is a place where we can be perfectly still, indeed, it is an unfailing compass that can shape the direction of our lives. Everything we do: our worship, the stewardship of our resources, the ordering of our life, all of this is a response to the immeasurable love made known to us in Jesus Christ. When we make that love our compass, it leads us into a place where we can live not as inhabitants of this fickle world of extremes, but as citizens and inheritors of God’s kingdom.

The Disciple Abides

Sermon on John 15:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In 1998, Joel and Ethan Coen introduced us to the Dude, the main character in a movie called The Big Lebowski. I won’t summarize the whole movie for you (it’s really worth watching), but I will tell you that it follows the Dude as he gets caught up in an escalating series of predicaments in imageswhich he is used by various powerful people for their nefarious purposes. It is an homage to the film noir genre, but unlike those films, in which the protagonist tends to get so caught up in the spiral of events that he ends up in a ditch somewhere, the Dude is unperturbed and ultimately unaffected by the drama that surrounds him. Indeed, the Dude seems to practice the Zen art of detachment; nothing seems to bother him all that much. This works out well for him; by the end of the movie, in spite of everything that happens to him, the Dude is back where he started. He summarizes his resilience with a memorable phrase: “the Dude abides.”

“Abide” is one of those words that tends to show up only in very specific contexts. Even though it just means “stay” or “remain,” we tend not to use it in everyday conversation. It shows up in hymnody all the time: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,” “O come with us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” And as a result of its frequent appearance in hymns, “abide” has become something of an explicitly religious word. Perhaps this is why we don’t use “abide” regularly; it is reserved for loftier purposes. But I wonder if there is a deeper reason that abide is not part of the modern lexicon. “Abide” shares a root with “abode”; if we say that we abide somewhere, we imply that we are making that place our home. “Abide” implies permanence, contentment, a sense that we are not going anywhere for a while. Is there anything that is more at odds with our contemporary preoccupation with progress than a sense of permanence? Our culture insists that we shouldn’t stay in any one place for too long, that should move out of the starter home as soon as it’s financially feasible, that we should always be on the lookout for new job opportunities, that we should always be thinking about what comes next. This impatience for what comes next is motivated by a profound anxiety that there is much more to do, much more to strive for before we can achieve peace and contentment. In this anxious cultural context, the worst thing we can possibly do is abide.

This kind of anxiety is nothing new. When Jesus gathers with his friends prior to his crucifixion, the disciples are riddled with apprehension, uncertain about what will happen next. This morning’s gospel reading comes from a section of John in which everything the disciples say betrays their trepidation: “Are you going to wash my feet?”, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?”, “Lord, just show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” It’s no wonder that the disciples are anxious. After all, Jesus has predicted his execution; the disciples know that it is only a matter of time before the authorities come to arrest him. It is in the midst of this swirling anxiety that Jesus offers these startlingly simple words of assurance: “As the Father has loved me, so I love you; abide in my love.” These words are surprising because they do very little to alleviate the anxiety of the disciples; indeed, Jesus doesn’t even address their concern about what will happen next. Rather than engaging their concerns about the future, Jesus challenges the disciples to embrace the present.

This would have been countercultural for the disciples even if they weren’t worried about Jesus’ impending Passion. Much of the first century Jewish experience was about waiting for what comes next. There are two pivotal stories from the Hebrew Bible that gave shape to the way the Jewish people understood the world. One was the Exodus, the story of how God liberated God’s people from slavery and led them to the Promised Land. imagesThe other was the exile, the fact that God’s people were removed from the place God promised and forced to live in a strange land. The centrality of the exile meant that the Jewish worldview was one of yearning and expectation. This continued into the first century because even though the Jewish people lived in the land promised to them by God, they did not posses it; it was a territory of the Roman Empire. The centrality of both Exodus and exile meant much of the first-century Jewish experience was about looking to the future: the future when God would expel the foreign occupiers from the promised land, the future when the Messiah would rule with justice and equity, the future when God’s people would be free to live in peace.

So when Jesus tells his disciples to abide in his love, he challenges this worldview. And by telling his disciples to abide, Jesus taps into another deep tradition from the Hebrew Bible, one affirmed by the psalmist when he calls us to make “the Lord our refuge and the Most High our habitation.” Jesus taps into God’s promise that we will abide with God regardless of what happens to us. The story told in the Bible is the story of a God who abides with his people even when they have been cut off from everything they know. The Exodus, therefore, is not a story about a circuitous journey to the Promised Land; it is a story about a God who remains with his people as they fail and falter their way through the desert. The exile is not a story of mere deportation, it is the story of how God’s faithfulness endured even though God’s people had been removed from the promised land. Moreover, the incarnation is the embodiment of the reality that God abides among us, and the resurrection the affirmation that not even death can disrupt God’s abiding presence. Jesus challenges the disciples to recognize that God is with them even in the midst of their anxiety and uncertainty. Jesus challenges the disciples to abide in the knowledge that God’s love endures even the most difficult circumstances of their lives. Jesus challenges the disciples and challenges all of us to get out of the endless cycle of striving, to buck the culture of “what’s next,” and recognize that we have a home in God.

For many of us, the very idea of abiding is frightening. We think that if we stay in one place, the world will pass us by. We assume that in order to abide, we have to adopt the the Dude’s perspective, detached and disengaged from the world. But Jesus does not tell his disciples to abide in blissful ignorance; he tells them to abide in his love. Abiding is not just about remaining in one place oblivious to the realities of life; it is about being in a mutual, dynamic relationship with the one who created and redeemed us. We enter this relationship through worship, through the practice of sabbath. The practice of sabbath, the discipline of staying put, allows us to understand that God sustains creation even when we take a break. The discipline of sabbath allows us to understand that the time we have is a gift from God. At its best, our worship is about providing a space in which we can put away anxiety and abide in God’s love.

 

Strangers

Sermon on Luke 24:13-35 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on May 4, 2014.

My grandmother has never met a stranger.  I know that this is said about a lot of people, but my grandmother (Babci, as we call her, and as you are welcome to call her) has raised this concept to an art form. Whenever she visited the church where I grew up, for instance, she would invariably meet someone we had known for years and come away knowing more about that person than we did (“Did you know that Barbara’s sister is moving to Barbados?”  “I didn’t even know Barbara had a sister.”)  There is no one my grandmother won’t talk to.  There was the time that I found her talking amiably with a huge Teamster, one of these guys who would intimidate your average little old lady. He ended up showing Babci pictures of his grandkids.

In many ways, my grandmother’s approach to new people shapes the way she looks at the world.  For starters, she is very rarely lonely; she never lacks someone to talk to because she is willing to talk to anyone.  Second, it gives her what some might consider a skewed understanding of human nature.  She assumes that everyone in the world is friendly and helpful, because most of the people she interacts with are friendly and helpful to her.  She doesn’t consider the possibility that her experience might be somewhat unique, and I find that very charming.  Finally, Babci implicitly recognizes that true hospitality requires relationship.  She has very little interest in exchanging pleasantries about the weather; she is interested in knowing what is important to other people.  This is ultimately what people recognize in my grandmother; they understand that she is interested in talking with them about things that matter.  They recognize her deep conviction that being in relationship means that there are no strangers.

imagesToday we hear about one of the more mystifying moments in the post-Resurrection life of Jesus.  The story of the journey to Emmaus has an important place in Christian culture.  It has inspired countless writers, musicians, and artists, including the sculptor who carved the frieze above our high altar.  Some of you may have participated in the spiritual retreat weekend called the Walk to Emmaus.  Throughout the centuries, people have connected with the story’s themes of journey, transformation, and revelation.  In spite of its ubiquity, however, the journey to Emmaus is one of the more confusing stories in the gospel account.  Of course, the most mystifying aspect of this account is the way in which Jesus is revealed to the two disciples.  While Jesus is not immediately recognized in the other Resurrection appearances, it does not take the disciples too long to figure out who he is.  In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene does not recognize Jesus immediately (she thinks that he’s the gardener), but it’s possible that she is blinded by her grief.  Cleopas and his companion, however, have a lot of time to figure out who their mysterious companion is.  While they’re sad, it’s pretty clear that they are dealing with their grief.  In fact, they’re downright reflective, processing what has happened to them over the past several days: “Well you see, sir, we’ve been talking about Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet who was executed and has apparently vanished from the tomb.  Needless to say, we’re not entirely sure what is going on.”  They’re measured and rational as they recount the story.  So for all their introspection and careful observation it’s a little surprising that Cleopas never once nudges his traveling partner and says, “Amazing resemblance, isn’t it?”  Even as Jesus illuminates the Scriptures, teaching the way he did throughout his ministry, the disciples fail to realize that they are walking with their Lord and Master.  For whatever reason, Luke tells us that the eyes of these two men were kept from recognizing Jesus, that they were not aware that they were having an experience of the risen Christ until it was explicitly revealed to them.

What was it that kept the disciples from recognizing the true identity of their traveling companion?  When the passive voice is used in Scripture (as in situations like this), it’s very frequently a divine passive, a nod to the Jewish convention of refraining from saying the name of God.  In other words, Luke is probably suggesting that God is keeping the disciples from recognizing Jesus.  This leads us to wonder: why is this?  Why does God prevent the disciples from understanding that they are in the presence of the resurrected Christ?  I think we can begin to answer this question by looking at Cleopas’ very first response to the unknown traveler.  The hidden Jesus asks the men the what they are talking about; Cleopas responds by saying, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  Cleopas specifically calls Jesus a stranger, literally “one who is outside the household,” one who is not within the circle, one who would not typically be part of the fellowship of the community.  In Luke’s gospel, this is a significant word, because so much of Jesus’ ministry is with those who are on the margins of society, those who are outside the community, those who are strangers.  By calling Jesus a “stranger,” Cleopas identifies Jesus with those whom he served throughout his earthly ministry.  By calling Jesus a “stranger,” Cleopas inadvertently sets the tone for the whole conversation.  In other words, attentive readers of Luke’s gospel are invited to watch this interaction on the road to Emmaus and see how well the disciples of Jesus follow the example of their Lord and Master.

So when we get to the pivotal moment of this story, the moment when the disciples decide to stop for the evening as Jesus continues walking down the road, we should all be holding our collective breath.  Will they offer the stranger hospitality?  Will they reach out to this person on the margins?  Will they do as Jesus himself would have done?  We can breathe a sigh of relief as they exhort Jesus with those beautiful words, “Stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past.”  The disciples reached out to the person on the margins.  The disciples began building a relationship.  The disciples invited the stranger to the table.  Important things happen around tables in this gospel.  In Luke, tables are often where the community expands its understanding of who belongs.  It’s at the table of Simon the Pharisee, for instance, that Jesus offers forgiveness to the sinful woman in chapter seven.  And in some ways, the meal we read about this morning is the ultimate example of table fellowship reshaping the way we look at the world.  The disciples share a meal with a stranger, and that stranger is revealed to be Jesus Christ himself.  It’s important to notice that the disciples do not simply provide Jesus with food for his journey; they invite him to sit at table with them.  The disciples do not simply provide for the stranger; they invite the stranger into a relationship.

A few months ago I attended a conference where I heard a speech by the founder of the largest food bank in the country.  He was telling us about his history, specifically about his first job after graduating.  Whatever his official job description, he spent most of his time providing resources to people who came in off the street looking for help.  On one occasion, he was having a particularly productive day.  He was able to provide for everyone or at the very least point them in the right direction.  He was feeling pretty good about himself until a young woman with a small child came into his office.  She began to tell her story and shared some of the things she had been struggling with.  His response was to offer her a bus pass, to put her in touch with a free clinic, and to call down to the food pantry to pull together a sack of groceries.  He stopped in his tracks, however, when the woman said, “You don’t respect me, do you?”  Incredulous, he said, “Of course I respect you,” thinking “I’ve taken time out of my day to help you.”  Shaking her head, the woman said, “I know where to find bus passes.  I know about the free clinic.  I even know where to find food.  I came here because I hoped I could tell you what was going on with me.”  She was looking for a relationship.  Instead of seeing this woman as a human being, he saw her as a statistic.  Instead of inviting her to the table, he tried to send her on her way.  Instead of seeking to be in relationship with her, he treated her like a stranger.

There are moments in all of our lives when we fail to welcome the stranger.  So often, this failure stems from fear: our fear of the unknown, our fear of those who are different, our fear of coming in contact with the brokenness of this world.  When we are plagued by these fears, we are called to remember the most significant and dramatic moment of the Emmaus story, the moment that Jesus is revealed to his disciples in the breaking of the bread.  This moment is not significant because the breaking of the bread is somehow magical; it is significant because it points to the fact that Jesus Christ is revealed to us in brokenness.  Jesus Christ is revealed to us through the young mother who struggles to make ends meet.  Jesus Christ is revealed to us through the man in prison for crimes to heinous to mention.  Jesus Christ is revealed to us through the person whose lifestyle we cannot understand.  Jesus Christ revealed to us through the friend whose life has changed so much that she no longer seem to be the person she once was.  As Christians, we are called to see the face of Jesus Christ in the face of those who are different from us.  We are called not only to provide for those in need, but also to be in relationship with those who need our help.  Above all, we are called to recognize that in God’s kingdom, everyone belongs and there are no strangers.