Winning, Losing, and Becoming Saints

Sermon on Luke 6:20-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

cubsIt finally happened. After 108 heartbreaking seasons, the Chicago Cubs are World Series champions. When the Cubs were last champions of baseball, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were major geopolitical powers. The first Model Ts had just begun rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly lines in Detroit. In the 108 years between Cub championships, Pluto was discovered and subsequently lost its planetary status. Even the venerable tradition of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch didn’t begin until almost thirty years after the Cubs’ most recent title. In other words, it has been a very long time since the Cubs were winners.

Despite their long history as baseball’s loveable losers, the Cubs were actually favored to win it all since spring training. Between a potent offense, a lights out pitching staff, a savvy front office, and a sagacious coaching staff, Chicago was the team to beat this year. Indeed, they dominated the competition, winning 103 games during the regular season. Nevertheless, more than a few people considered the Cubs underdogs as they entered the postseason. Despite their dominance during the regular season, many wondered whether the Cubs could overcome their long history of losing. This is to be expected in baseball. The fact is that the worst teams win games from time to time; the best teams occasionally suffer a loss. As a result, baseball fans are required to be comfortable with failure. They can’t get too exercised about wins or losses. Baseball teaches its fans to take winning and losing in stride. More than any other sport, baseball recognizes that both winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

The Beatitudes in the gospel according to Luke provide a sharp contrast to their more famous cousins in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew records eight “blessed are” statements. Luke, on the other hand, balances four blessings with four corresponding woes. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus declaims, but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, but woe to you who are full.” Luke’s point seems obvious: those in the first group are in good shape; those in the second group have work to do. To co opt the language of the day: those in the first group are saints; those in the second group, not so much.

This interpretation, however, misses a crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. In his list of blessings and woes, Jesus uses the word “now” half the time. Moreover, there is a precise rhetorical symmetry between the blessings and the woes. Not only are there exactly four of each, they are set up in direct contradistinction to one another: blessed are you who are hungry now; woe to you who are full now; blessed are you who are weeping now; woe to you who are laughing now. While this temporal detail may not seem all that significant, it is actually the lens through which we are meant to read Luke’s Beatitudes. As we noticed a moment ago, our first inclination is to assume that each blessing and each woe describes an existential condition: there are those who are hungry and will remain hungry, and there are those who are full and will remain full. By adding the word “now,” however, Luke signals that these conditions are actually temporary: those who weep will someday laugh, while those who laugh will someday weep. These beatitudes, in other words, are not a catalog of who’s blessed and who’s cursed, who’s in and who’s out. When read together, they provide an honest description of the human condition. Jesus tells those who are listening that if they feel poor, they shouldn’t get down on themselves too much because a day will come when they will feel rich. Meanwhile, those who feel rich shouldn’t get too cocky because a day will come when they will feel poor. In his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus articulates what baseball fans understand implicitly: winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

Now if this is where Jesus concluded, Luke’s Beatitudes would not be terribly unique or all that earth shattering. In fact, they would fit very nicely into the traditions of Zen Buddhism, which encourages adherents not to get too excited about positive experiences or too depressed about negative ones. But Jesus doesn’t end with this this list. In fact, Jesus makes a crucial rhetorical turn. After describing how winning and losing are part of the human experience, he offers a corrective: “but I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Jesus outlines the stark inevitabilities of the human condition, the weeping and laughing, the hunger and satisfaction, the winning and losing, and then shows us how to transcend them. To be frank, the way Jesus recommends transcending the endless cycle of winning and losing looks an awful lot like losing: loving your enemies? doing good to those who hate you? turning the other cheek? Jesus must think we’re a bunch of saps! Yet there is a crucial difference between losing because of circumstance, losing because someone got the best of you, and losing because you have chosen a different path altogether. That’s exactly what Jesus offers. Jesus invites us to live as though binary categories he describes don’t matter. Instead of being imprisoned by the uncertainties and vagaries of the human experience, Jesus encourages us to take control of our lives by surrendering control to God. Jesus calls us to transcend the binary categories of this world with a third way, a way that’s not about winning or losing, but is shaped by a profound sense that we belong to God no matter what.

This past Friday night, the 233rd Convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania gathered for Eucharist at the Cathedral. richard_hookerAmong many other things, we commemorated the life of Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian who lived during the late 17th century. In the face of the bitter controversy between those English Christians who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and those whose allegiance belonged to the Reformed theologies of Luther and Calvin, it was Hooker who conceived of the Anglican middle way, a sense that the Church of England could embrace both the catholic and reformed religion. Hooker believed the Anglican vision could transcend binary categories. In the words of the collect for his feast day, Hooker was given grace to “maintain the middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” This is the third way that Jesus describes in Luke’s gospel. This third way is not about splitting the difference or making the best of a bad situation. It is about transcending binary categories altogether. It is about lifting our hearts above the bitter controversy and tribal allegiances that are so destructive of our common life. Jesus calls us to reject and transcend every binary category: rich and poor, winner and loser, even life and death. The path to sainthood, (the path that Anna is embarking on this morning), the path that we are called to walk, is about recognizing that winning and losing do not matter and understanding the only thing that matters is that we belong to God.

True Repentance

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Byrn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Every time we renew our baptismal vows, we answer the following question: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” This question makes a somewhat surprising assumption, namely that falling into sin is inevitable and that repentance is something we will have to do over and over and over again throughout our lives of faith. This is not at all what we expect. As you probably know, “repent” comes from the Hebrew word for “turn.” Repentance, in other words, is about turning our lives around and starting with a clean slate; it is the means by which we turn away from our sins and live righteously. It is something that we should only have to do once. And yet, we know that this is not true. We know that no matter how hard we try, we will fall into sin. We know that no matter how much we want to give up self destructive behavior, we will invariably fall back into our old patterns. Moreover, our failure leads us to feel guilty and frustrated with ourselves. It’s enough to make us think that we should just give up the possibility of renewal, that any effort at living righteously is ultimately hopeless.

Repentance is a theme that appears repeatedly in the gospel narratives. All three of the synoptic gospels begin with John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus takes up this mantle: in both accounts, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry by announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God and saying, “Repent and believe in the good news.” In this sense, Jesus is the successor to John the Baptist. He is carrying on a mission that was begun by someone else. Though he transforms this mission and brings it to its conclusion in a way that no one before him could, the mission that Jesus fulfills in the gospels of Matthew and Mark ultimately originated with someone else. This is not true of Luke’s gospel. In fact, Luke does not mention repentance at all once John departs the scene. While this may just be a narrative quirk of Luke’s gospel, it is unlikely that Luke ignored a theme as significant as repentance for mere stylistic reasons. It is far more likely that Luke has a unique and challenging understanding of repentance.

We see a glimpse of Luke’s unique vision of repentance in our gospel reading this morning. Most interpreters of Luke note that the moment when Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem is the pivot point the gospel. This is no surprise. The idea of “setting one’s face” comes up pretty frequently in Scripture: the psalmist uses the expression to indicate resolve in the face of adversity, the prophets use the phrase to highlight their righteous indignation against their people. Even apart from the Scriptural allusions, Luke’s point is clear: Jesus has turned in the direction of his destiny. plowing-cottonEverything Jesus will do from this point on will be shaped by his inexorable march toward his crucifixion and death at the hands of the authorities. We see this play out immediately. Jesus plows through Samaria, refusing to address the ancient grudge between Jews and Samaritans and ignoring his disciples as they dwell on petty slights. He tells those who would follow him that they can neither bury their dead nor say goodbye to their families. To underscore his point, Jesus announces that anyone who puts a hand to the plow and even turns back for a moment is unfit for the kingdom of God. The only thing that matters now is the fact that Jesus has turned toward Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny.

It is in this moment that Luke very subtly returns to the theme of repentance. Though he doesn’t use the word, the physical act of repenting is there: the lynchpin of Jesus’ ministry is marked by a literal turning. Implicit to this moment is an understanding that Jesus is the only one who can do what he is about to do. Jesus is the only one who can submit to and transcend the violence of this world without looking back. Jesus, in other words, is the only one who can truly repent, once and for all. Only Jesus can turn toward his destiny without being hamstrung by fear, doubt, or regret. Only Jesus is truly fit for the kingdom of God.

This is enormously significant for us. We tend to assume that if we try really hard, we can turn away from sin, that we can make ourselves fit for the kingdom of God. The bystanders who would follow Jesus, however, demonstrate the folly of this thinking. No matter how dedicated we may be, something will always distract us from fulfilling our goal. None of us is able to put a hand to the plow without looking back. The fact is, any effort at living righteously that depends on us is hopeless. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. Every time we attempt to make ourselves righteous, every time we try to overcome our sins, every time we turn repentance into a self improvement project, we are setting ourselves up for failure. The great paradox of the Christian life is this: we can only turn in the direction we are meant to go when we recognize that we are powerless to do so on our own. It is God through Jesus Christ who makes us fit for the kingdom of God. It is God through Jesus Christ who empowers us to live in righteousness and peace. It is God through Jesus Christ who frees us to live the life we have been called to live.

To be clear, this freedom is not mere libertinism. Paul makes this clear when he reminds the Galatians not to use their freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence. Moreover, this freedom does not negate our responsibilities to one another. Paul highlights this when he tells the Galatians they should use their freedom to become slaves to one another. Rather, Jesus Christ frees us to be defined, not by what we have done, but by what God has done for us. The freedom God offers through Jesus Christ unshackles us from our failures and empowers us to hope for the future. In this sense, our repentance is less about what we have turned away from and more about who we have turned toward: Jesus Christ, the one who set off to defeat the power of sin and never looked back.

The Full Stature of Christ

Sermon on Galatians 1:11-24 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Though he loved performing as a young man, Gary Stocker’s career initially took a very different path. After excelling in school, he studied at Oxford and became a lawyer. By the time he was thirty, he was living very comfortably: he had a lucrative salary and a house with a pool in the London suburbs. By any objective standard, Gary was walking an enviable path: he was well-respected and almost guaranteed to have gainful employment for the rest of his working life. imgresThat changed when a friend of his made an unusual request: he wanted Gary’s help building a cannon suitable for a human cannonball stunt (I suppose everyone needs a hobby). For several months, the cannon languished in his backyard until another friend, who was starting a circus, wondered whether Gary, who never quite lost his love of performing, would close the show with a human cannonball stunt. With that invitation, Gary Stocker abandoned the job security, predictable salary, and social prestige of the law for a career as a human cannonball.

For the most part, we tend to admire people who do what Gary did. We often tell our kids how important it is for them to pursue their passions, just like Gary. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life,” we repeat with confidence. In some ways, Gary Stocker is the embodiment of this truism. His own words are revealing: “the elation I felt the first time I performed the stunt in public was incredible.” This is clearly a man who has found his passion. At the same time, one of the reasons we admire Gary is because we recognize we could never do what he did. His career change seems irresponsible at best and reckless at worst. It’s one thing when someone makes a dramatic career change after losing everything, but Gary willingly gave up everything to venture into the unknown. Most of us can’t imagine giving up everything he gave up: not only the predictable salary and job security, but also the years of study and work that went into becoming a lawyer. Sure, he’s doing what he loves, but how could throw all that away?

Like the lawyer turned human cannonball, Paul also experienced a significant change in his vocation. This morning, we hear Paul remind us of that vocational shift when he tells the Galatians of his “earlier life in Judaism.” “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it,” he recalls. But as we all know, Paul went from a zealous persecutor of the Church to its most enthusiastic apostle. He left everything behind to become a minister of the gospel. And lest the Galatians think that Paul converted because he lost everything or hit rock bottom, he is careful to explain, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Paul had everything going for him; he was respected by his peers and was cultivating a position of authority in his religious community. His future was secure. Paul wasn’t looking to change anything about his life when he received his revelation of the gospel. In fact, he couldn’t have imagined being an apostle to the Gentiles. Therein lies the crucial difference between Paul and others who have changed their vocations, like Gary Stocker. While Gary had always nurtured a passion for performance, Paul had never considered that his vocation would be to proclaim good news to the Gentiles. Gentiles weren’t even on Paul’s radar. Prior to his conversion, Paul, like all first century Jews, understood the world to be divided between Jew and Gentile, between covenant insiders and covenant outsiders, between those who followed the Law of Moses and everybody else. Gentiles simply did not belong. This deeply held belief was a fundamental element of the Jewish tradition. In other words, the revelation Paul received from God not only forced him to abandon a secure future, but also to reevaluate the way he understood the world, to give up everything that made sense to him, to empty himself of everything he thought was important for the sake of the gospel.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that for Paul, it is this act of emptying that defines what God does through Jesus Christ. In another letter to another community, Paul articulates that though he was in the form of God, Christ Jesus emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross. It is easy to miss the significance of this statement. There are few things in this world that we value more than security. Whether it is the basic yearning for physical safety, or the impulse to predict what will happen tomorrow, or the desire to know that our lives are meaningful; security is an elemental human aspiration. Yet this is what Jesus Christ gives up at the most fundamental level. He gives up the deeply human desire for security and willingly submits to the evil powers of this world. He forfeits the one thing that all of us cling to with everything we have. And in spite of his death at the hands of the authorities, Christ Jesus was vindicated in the resurrection. In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ accomplishes something that no one else can accomplish: he nullifies the power of the death and frees us to live in the shadow of God’s grace. This is animating force behind Paul’s conversion. Through the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord, Paul was able to give up everything he thought made him secure and gave his life meaning and recognize that his true worth came from God alone.

In our baptismal service, the parents and godparents of a child about to be baptized are asked a curious question: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” This is an unusual term, and it would be easy to assume that growing into the full stature of Christ is about acting like Jesus, which is ultimately an impossible goal. I wonder, however, if the meaning of this phrase can be found in the words of Paul. Before he explains how Christ emptied himself, abdicated his desire for security, and became obedient to death, Paul invites us to “let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.” In other words, Paul suggests that we too are to give up our preoccupation with security, to let go of our desire for predictability, to recognize that our true worth comes not from what everyone else thinks of us, but from God alone. Growing into the full stature of Christ is about letting this mind of Christ be in us. It is about recognizing that everything we think is important, everything we think is worthwhile, everything we think defines us, everything we think will guarantee our security is not worth comparing with the grace that has been made known to us through Jesus Christ.

On Mozart, Baptism, and Changing the World

Sermon on Mark 1:4-11 offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Kansas on the occasion of my goddaughter’s baptism.  To view the scene from Amadeus, click here.

Every once in a while, a scene in a movie perfectly encapsulates the rest of the film.  In Amadeus, it is a scene that illustrates how Mozart’s outsized talent completely dwarfed that of his contemporaries.  For those who haven’t seen it, Amadeus is the Milos Forman film that chronicles the deadly rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.  Though the story is largely fictional (Salieri and Mozart were actually friendly), it accurately depicts Mozart’s incredible talent and demonstrates how his work in many ways represented a new musical language.

During the scene in question, Salieri and several other courtiers have been summoned by the emperor, who wants to commission an opera from the young Mozart.  Salieri, who is the court composer, tells his employer that he has written a “March of Welcome” in Mozart’s honor.  As the talented young composer enters the room, the emperor doggedly stumbles through Salieri’s pleasant, but otherwise unremarkable piece on the piano.  After negotiating the commission, the emperor reminds Mozart not to forget the manuscript for Salieri’s “Welcome March.”  Mozart demurs, claiming that he has already memorized the piece.  Incredulous, the emperor insists that the composer prove himself.  Of course, Mozart proceeds to play the piece flawlessly.  It is what he does next, however, that sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Mozart improvises a variation on Salieri’s piece that is compelling, memorable, and brilliant.  It incorporates the themes of the original piece but transforms them into something completely new.  In one scene, the movie illustrates that Mozart was not just talented, but transcendent.  In one scene, Amadeus reveals that Mozart was not just making music; he was changing what music could be.

The lectionary this morning gives us a similar scene from the gospel according to Mark.  It was only a few weeks ago that we heard about John the Baptist’s ministry by the banks of the Jordan.  This morning, we return to our old friend, who is still up to his old tricks: wearing camel hair, eating bugs, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Once again, we hear John predict that one more powerful than he is coming after him.  This morning, however, we hear about how that promise is fulfilled when Jesus of Nazareth is baptized.  The baptism of Jesus is one of the few events that is attested to by all the gospel writers, and all of them imply that it is enormously important.  As Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, we get a sense that the gospel writers see this moment as turning point in the life of Jesus and the life of the communities to which they wrote.

In spite of the weight that the gospel writers and the Church give to the baptism of the Lord, it is a little difficult to discern why it is so significant.  Even though the evangelists treat it like a major biographical touchstone in the life of Jesus, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of his ministry.  In fact, the fact that Jesus was baptized by John never comes up again.  Even when John reappears in the gospel narratives, his baptismal relationship with Jesus is not addressed.  If the baptism of John is as important as the evangelists imply it is, it stands to reason that they would mention it more than once.  Instead, the baptism of Jesus by John is a non sequitur; it feels more like a piece of trivia than anything else.  Not only that, it’s hard to know why Jesus was baptized in the first place.  As we all know, John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins.  But if Jesus was sinless, as the Church claims, being baptized seems a little redundant.  Matthew, of course, attempts to deal with this problem by describing that byzantine exchange between John and Jesus: “You should be baptizing me,” “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness,” “No, after you, I insist,” etc.  While this exchange acknowledges the tension, it doesn’t do much to resolve it.  And so we’re left in a bit of an awkward place: the evangelists and the Church insist that the baptism of the Lord is crucially important to our understanding of who Jesus is, even though it seems to have minimal impact on the rest of his life and work.

Part of the reason for this is that our image of the baptism of Jesus tends to be very static: Jesus rising from the water, the Spirit descending beatifically as a dove, and the voice of the Lord resonating from heaven.  It is a scene almost tailor-made for a Caravaggio painting, one that can be hung in a museum and forgotten.  But if we look at the language that Mark uses to describe the baptism of Jesus, it is anything but static.  Mark is notoriously straightforward, even abrupt, and we get a sense of that in this passage.  Jesus arrives at the banks of the Jordan and there is no polite exchange between John and Jesus; Jesus comes from Nazareth and is baptized during the course of one sentence.  As he emerges from the water, the heavens are literally torn open when the Spirit descends.  It’s a dynamic, violent image, one that recalls Isaiah’s plea that God would tear open the heavens and come down.  It is an image, in other words, that points to something utterly new.  And indeed, Mark tells us that the life and ministry of Jesus represent a complete departure from what has come before.  Just a few verses after the passage we read today, Mark tells us that Jesus also begins preaching repentance.  While Jesus drew on the same themes as John the Baptist, his proclamation of repentance is fundamentally different from that of the one who baptized him.  John the Baptist preached repentance as a way for sins to be forgiven; Jesus preaches repentance as a way to live as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  For Jesus, repentance is less about being sorry for one’s sins and more about living a transformed life.  Through his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus inaugurates a new way of being, one that is shaped by the reality of God’s presence among us.  Just as Mozart changed the way people thought about music through one improvisation, Jesus changes the way we understand repentance, sin, and grace through his baptism.  This event at the Jordan is less a significant moment in the life of Jesus and more the announcement that this world has been and will be transformed by the grace made known to us in Jesus Christ.

In just a moment, we will baptize Kason and Eirnin into Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  Our hearts will melt as one Fr. Funston welcomes a new member to his parish, while another Fr. Funston baptizes his granddaughter.  Babies will coo and cry, parents will beam, and if history is any indication, godparents will fight back tears.  It will be a beautiful moment, one that will be captured on our cameras and in our memories.  But we must not be distracted by the loveliness of this moment.  Just as Jesus’ baptism is about far more than his immersion in the Jordan, Eirnin’s baptism, Kason’s baptism, our baptism is about more than the moment someone pours water over our head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  As we baptize Kason and Eirnin today, we are affirming that something new is happening in their lives and the lives of their families, that they are citizens of God’s kingdom, that God is empowering them to live transformed lives of grace and love.  Baptism is not an isolated event, a piece of trivia that gets added to our biography; baptism is the acknowledgement that our lives have been and can be fundamentally changed through what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a celebration that God is changing what the world can be.

On Fruitcakes and the Incarnation

Sermon on John 1:1-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here. To hear an abridged version of Truman Capote’s story read by the author, click here.

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Photograph of young Truman and his cousin taken by “the young Wistons.”

In 1956, Truman Capote published a short story about his childhood called A Christmas Memory.  It is a wonderfully evocative tale of how young Truman and his aging cousin, Miss Sook, celebrated Christmas in Depression-era rural Alabama.  The story centers around the pair’s Christmas preparations, the most important of which is the baking of thirty fruitcakes for “friends” across the country.  Capote describes how he and his cousin collect windfall pecans, purchase candied pineapple at the general store, and procure illegal whiskey from the unsmiling and terrifying Mr. Haha.  He also points out that the fruit of their considerable labor does not necessarily benefit their neighbors or relatives.  “Indeed,” he observes, “the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter…Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch.”  At one point in the story, Miss Sook wonders if Mrs. Roosevelt will serve their cake at Christmas dinner.  Of course, we all know that there is no way that that could happen, that the vast majority of recipients probably didn’t know what to do with this fruitcake from these people they barely remember, and I suspect that Capote and Miss Sook understood this at some level.  Every year, however, Truman and his cousin would pool their meager savings, invest an incredible amount of time and effort, and send more than thirty fruitcakes around the country to people who might not even want them.  From a common sense perspective, this whole enterprise seems inefficient and pointless.  If Capote and his cousin were to do a cost benefit analysis, it would be very clear that that this particular Christmas ritual is a waste of time.  And yet, they embrace this task with such joy, with such enthusiasm, with such delight that everyone can see why the process of making and sending fruitcake continues to be part of their Christmas experience.

This morning, we heard the extraordinary prologue to John’s gospel.  This passage is foundational to the Christian faith, which is part of the reason that it is always read on the first Sunday after Christmas.  This text describes the fullness of God’s creative power and then proceeds to illustrate the astonishing surprise of the Incarnation.  This passage invites us to meditate on one of the central Christian mysteries: that God became one of us, that the author of all creation became part of that creation, that the Word became flesh and lived among us.  But even as John describes the incredible power of the Creator becoming part of creation, he acknowledges that not everyone recognized the Word made flesh, that not everyone embraced the reality of God with us.  John tells us that the Word, Jesus Christ, came to what was his own, but that his own people did not accept him.  It’s a peculiar reference, particularly in John’s gospel.  John’s personality is somewhat unique among the evangelists.  While Matthew, Mark, and Luke are perfectly content to depict the humanity of Jesus (all three have Jesus doubting, getting annoyed, and even getting hungry occasionally) John’s portrayal of Jesus is otherworldly and divine.  In John’s gospel, Jesus knows exactly what is going to happen to him; Jesus is initiates his own mission and he is in control of his own life and death.  So it is surprising, then, that in the sweeping introduction to his gospel, John would mention that people rejected Jesus.  The fact that people rejected the Word leads us to wonder about the purpose of the Incarnation.  The triumphal tone of John’s gospel seems to suggest the point of the Incarnation was to make Christians, to bring as many people into relationship with God through Jesus Christ as possible.  Why else would John make the distinction between those who do not receive Jesus and those who “believe in his name”?  Surely, the way to understand this distinction is that those who “believe in his name” are those who are part of the Church, whereas those who reject the Word are those outside the body of the faithful.  In this view, those who recognize the presence of God in Jesus Christ are “Incarnation success stories.”  But this leaves us wondering how it is possible for anyone to ignore the very presence of the living God among them.  If the Incarnation is all about persuading people to adopt a particular religious perspective, then the fact that some people rejected Jesus is problematic.  In fact, it means that the Incarnation was a failure, that God’s participation in history was for naught, that the Word becoming flesh was a waste of time.

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Many take great solace in the fact that Jesus knew how to throw a party.

This limited understanding of the Incarnation is only accurate from a human perspective.  John, however, makes it very clear that the Incarnation is about much more than getting people’s names on the rolls.  At the end of the prologue, John articulates the true fruit of the Incarnation: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  The Incarnation is not a means of classification, it is the outpouring of God’s own self, the sharing of an unfathomable grace.  John affirms that God’s fullness is poured out abundantly, without regard for who receives it or what impact it may have or whether it will be rejected.  The Incarnation is not strategically targeted where it will be most effective; it is an extravagant, inefficient outpouring of everything that God is.  We see this illustrated in the miracle at Cana in the very next chapter of John’s gospel.  Jesus is told that the party has just run out of wine, and his response is not to make a per capita estimate based on consumption trends, but to produce more wine than anybody could possibly drink.  Like Miss Sook’s fruitcakes, the Incarnation is not about precise calculation; it is about the expression of joy and delight.  The Incarnation cannot be a failure because its only objective is to bring the fullness of God’s abundant grace into creation.

We live in a time when the message we proclaim during this Christmas season is not always well received.  If people are not hostile to our proclamation of “good news,” they are often indifferent.  For many people, the central figure of the Christmas season is not Jesus, but Santa Claus.  Our tendency is to respond to this situation either diagnostically or defensively.  Either we attempt to calculate exactly who we need to attract and how we can market the gospel to them or we angrily respond with “Merry Christmas” when people wish us a happy holiday.  Today, however, we are reminded that we are not called to diagnose or defend, but to live our lives with joy, to experience life aware of the abundant grace that God has extravagantly poured upon creation.  We are called to be beacons of this grace, and we are called to embrace this Christian vocation with such joy, with such enthusiasm, and with such delight that everyone can see how we have been shaped by the fullness of God’s grace.

Traversing the Wilderness

Sermon on Mark 1:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

unnamedIn the Redeemer churchyard, there is a pretty, though otherwise unremarkable headstone marking the grave of Alexander Cassatt.  Before his death in 1906, Cassatt served as the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad during some of the headiest and most productive years in its history.  His brief tenure saw the Pennsylvania expand its reach in every direction and cement its status as one of the most powerful corporations in the United States.  These accomplishments, however, seem trivial when compared to his plan for the railroad to cross the Hudson River into a magnificent new terminal in New York City.  Prior to the construction of Penn Station and its subaqueous tunnels, the trip from New Jersey to Manhattan was frustratingly unreliable, involving ferries that would frequently be stymied by the roiling and uncertain tidal waters of the Hudson.  Though railroad executives had dreamed about traversing the Hudson with tunnels or a bridge since the 1870s, many considered it impossible, due to the instability of the silt that comprised the riverbed.  In spite of the skeptics, Cassatt made crossing the Hudson his number one priority from the moment he took office in 1899.

Part of the reason for Cassatt’s dogged optimism was that he was an engineer.   Engineers tend to look at the world differently than you and me. What we might consider an insurmountable obstacle is a mere challenge to overcome for an engineer.  Thus, while most 19th century commuters were convinced that the only way to cross the Hudson was by unreliable ferry, Alexander Cassatt and the engineers of the Pennsylvania Railroad were confident that they could make the trip easier.  While most of us tend to assume that impediments are permanent, engineers look for ways to transcend those barriers.  While most of us are perfectly content with the way things have always been, engineers wonder if the future can be different.

imgresToday we heard the very first verses of the gospel according to Mark, wherein the evangelist describes the ministry of John the Baptist.  Mark’s gospel is unique among its counterparts in the sense that it contains minimal introduction.  While the other gospels begin with backstories, genealogies, and theological treatises, Mark begins with a single sentence fragment: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  From the very outset of Mark’s gospel, in other words, we are told that we are about to experience something completely new.  After this terse preamble, we are abruptly dropped by the banks of the Jordan and introduced to John the Baptist, a striking figure who lives off the land, wears rough clothing, and proclaims repentance in the wilderness.  Moreover, Mark tells us that John is the one Isaiah prophesied would prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.  In this gospel account, John’s ministry is the startling inauguration of something entirely new.

In the years since John the Baptist was wading in the Jordan, we have tended to downplay his revolutionary nature.  We have focused his quirks (his diet of bugs, his interesting wardrobe selection) rather than the radical quality of his proclamation.  We have domesticated John, treating him as we might treat an eccentric uncle rather than a prophet of God’s new way of being.  In part, this is because we have failed to understand how transforming John’s message truly is.  On the surface, John’s “baptism of repentance” seems like simplicity itself: all God wants is for us to be sorry for our sins and change the way we behave.  Even Luke, writing only a few years after John’s ministry, implied that John’s message essentially boiled down to common sense: if you have an extra coat, give it away; if you’re a tax collector, collect no more than the amount prescribed for you; if you’re a soldier, don’t extort money from anyone, etc.  As early as the first century, in other words, the Church was already running away from John’s proclamation.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that we have domesticated John’s message.  If repentance is simply about being sorry for our sins and trying our best to behave in the future, then it means that our lives don’t have to change all that much.  We can add repentance to our list of occasional tasks, like cleaning the gutters or purging our inbox; it simply becomes part of our routine.  John’s understanding of repentance, however, is anything but routine.  In fact, it abolishes the very idea of routine altogether.  The prophecy from Isaiah that Mark associates with John’s ministry illustrates the radical nature of repentance and the utter newness of John’s proclamation.  Isaiah was writing to a group of people in exile, a group of people who had been removed from their homeland to a strange place across a forbidding desert, a group of people who believed they had been alienated from their God.  These people had essentially given up the possibility of ever returning to the place where their ancestors worshipped.  And yet, Isaiah promises to this hopeless generation that they will be comforted, that their exile will end, that they will traverse the wilderness and return home.  To illustrate how radical this transformation will be, Isaiah announces that Israel’s return from exile will take place on a highway through the desert, that God will empower his people to traverse even the impenetrable wilderness.  This is John the Baptist’s heritage.  His proclamation of repentance is not about mere contrition, it is about liberation from exile.  For John the Baptist, repentance is not about saying “I’m sorry,” it is about acknowledging that all things are possible with God.  In this sense, John the Baptist would have made a good engineer, not because he proposed building tunnels under the Jordan River, but because he refused to concede that the past has power to shape our future.  Repentance is about turning away from the status quo and recognizing that transformation is possible.  Repentance is about realizing that our lives are not determined by who we are or what we have done and affirming that through Jesus Christ, we can live new lives of grace.

For all of the lip service we pay to the concept of free will, the fact is that most of us behave as inveterate determinists.  We are convinced that the course of our life is governed by our family of origin or our ethnic background or the mistakes we have made.  We refuse to consider the possibility that we or anyone else can change.  But the Christian witness is that the status quo can be transformed, that the most pernicious injustice can be redeemed, and that even the power of death can be defeated.  John’s proclamation of repentance urges us to live our lives in light of this witness.  Repentance urges us to affirm that God’s justice will ultimately prevail in Ferguson, Missouri.  Repentance urges us to refuse to make judgments about people based on who they are or what they look like, no matter what “side” they represent.  Repentance urges us to abandon our confidence in the status quo and trust that God is making this world new through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As Christians, we are called to follow God’s highway in the wilderness, to look at insurmountable obstacles as challenges to overcome, and to trust in the transforming power of God’s grace.

Bearing Fruit

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the backyard of the house where I grew up, there was an enormous pear tree.  Regrettably, this did not mean I got to eat fresh pears regularly.  Since the tree was so large, the fruit it produced was completely out of reach until it dropped from the branches to the ground.  imagesUnfortunately, once the pears hit the ground, they either rotted almost immediately or were consumed by squirrels.  Thus, around this time every year, my family had to collect these inedible pears and throw them away.  This task had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  The air would be redolent with that sickeningly sweet smell of rotting fruit, we would stoop until our backs ached, we would tenuously pick up those squishy pears so that the rotting flesh wouldn’t explode all over our clothes, and we would throw the woebegone fruit into battered aluminum trash cans that became so heavy they required three people to move them.  Picking up pears is easily the most thankless, uncomfortable, and mind-numbing chore that I remember from my childhood.

It goes without saying that my younger brother and I dreaded the day we had to pick up pears.  We dealt with the arrival of this day in different ways.  My brother, who is more confrontational by nature, tended to shout something like, “I’m not picking up another pear as long as I live,” at breakfast, only to drift outside by midmorning in order to be helpful.  I, on the other hand, would dutifully acquiesce to my parents’ instructions, saying something like, “Of course; it is my joy to serve you,” only to fritter away the day procrastinating.  By the time I would emerge from the house, my exhausted family would point to the trash barrels full of pears, while I had nothing to show but my empty promises.

Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators.  His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.
Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators. His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.

Given my history of procrastination when it comes to household chores, today’s gospel reading resonates with me.  In fact, the parable that Jesus tells was a favorite of my father, especially on days when I was particularly lazy.  In his interpretation, I was the son who said “I go, sir,” but did not go, whereas my brother was the defiant, yet ultimately obedient son.  It would seem that my father’s use of this parable was effective; I still feel pangs of guilt when I hear this passage from Matthew’s gospel.  But I wonder whether there was a level at which we both missed the point of Jesus’ parable.  Our understanding of this story assumed that it was akin to one of Aesop’s fables, that it had a self-evident moral.  Fables, however, are very different from parables.  While fables tend to be literally minded and focused on proper behavior, parables hold a mirror to our lives.  Parables expose something about who we are rather than how we should behave.  Jesus uses parables not only to illuminate and expand his teaching but also to reveal to us something about the character of God.

So, what is it that Jesus is trying to illuminate with this parable?  He relates this story in the midst of an exchange with the religious authorities, who begin by asking Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”  Keep in mind that the “thing” they are referring to is the Temple incident, when Jesus turns over the tables of the moneychangers.  Their question about Jesus’ authority, in other words, is not entirely unreasonable or unwarranted.  “Who do you think you are?” is essentially what the chief priests and elders are asking.  But in typical fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  His point is clear: well, where did John the Baptist derive his authority?  Like the good politicians they are, the chief priests and elders plead ignorance.  As a result, Jesus refuses to tell them where his authority comes from and continues with an apparent non sequitur, telling his audience a story about two brothers who are sent to work in the vineyard.

imgresThough Jesus seems to change the subject, however, there is one key detail about this parable that connects it to the rest of the exchange.  Notice that the two brothers are sent out to work in a vineyard, to cultivate and bear fruit.  And remember that in Matthew’s gospel, the theme of bearing fruit comes up over and over again.  For instance, John the Baptist’s charge to those who gather by the Jordan is to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  Then there’s the moment the moment when John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the one who is to come.  Instead of saying “Yes, absolutely; I’m the Messiah,” Jesus points to the fruit his ministry has borne: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have good news brought to them.”  So by telling this parable of two brothers sent to cultivate a vineyard, Jesus affirms that his authority is derived from the fruits of his ministry.  Ultimately, this is Jesus’ response to the initial question of the chief priests and elders.  He explains that his authority emanates not from his title or his lineage, but from the fact that the disobedient, the tax collectors and prostitutes, have turned from their sinful ways and have reoriented their lives in relationship to God.  This authority that is derived from bearing fruit is set up in contrast to authority of the chief priests and elders.  The traditional religious authorities assume that their position of power is unassailable, that the mere accident of birth empowers them to mediate between God and humanity.  Jesus challenges this assumption, insisting that true spiritual authority is derived from the fruit we bear.  Just as I thought the empty promise of labor would cement my status as the obedient son, the chief priests and elders imagine their membership in a particular family guarantees their authority.  And just as my brother actually showed himself to be the obedient son with that full barrel of pears, Jesus demonstrates his true authority by pointing to those whose lives have been transformed by the gospel proclamation.

Now, it might seem that the message of this parable is that one must accomplish a certain set of tasks, that one must bear a certain amount of fruit in order to be considered spiritual.  Remember, however, that the primary purpose of Jesus’ parables is to reveal something about the nature of God.  And just as the authority of Jesus is made known in the fruit he bears, in the lives he transforms, God’s nature is made known in the fruit God bears, and that fruit that is ultimately revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the cross and empty tomb, our God experiences the beauty and pain of human life, but also promises that there is hope even in the midst of despair.  Thus, as a people who have been redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, a people renewed by the fruit of God’s redemptive love, we are called to bear fruit that is shaped by the reality of the resurrection, to recognize that there is always hope, to build for the kingdom even in the midst of devastation, to insist that joy can conquer despair.  Our lives are meant to be signs that point to the power of God’s resurrection love.  In the end, we are meant to be the fruit by which others may know the promise of God’s redemption.