Religious Energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Possession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Redemption of Saint Peter

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


May you always find God’s call irresistible.

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

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

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

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

Hypocrisy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and other unnecessary things

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas on the occasion of the dedication of their new fellowship space, Gerhart Hall.

There is a revealing photograph of Heavenly Rest that comes from just after the church building was completed. Since it was taken before the pews had been installed, this picture shows the nave filled with neat rows of metal folding chairs. It is my favorite picture of this church; it actually hangs on the wall of our house in Pennsylvania. There are several reasons I like it. For one, it makes me laugh: the contrast between the gothic beauty of Heavenly Rest’s nave and the stark utility of the folding chairs makes for an amusing visual. There is a deeper reason this photograph resonates with me, and that is the fact that it makes the church feel so empty. Part of what makes this church so wonderful is the people who inhabit it. Those rows of empty folding chairs are reminders that, as important as buildings can be, a church is only a church when its people are gathered there.

Our gospel reading this morning understands that the church can only be the church when God’s people are present. It also understands that when people get together, there is going to be conflict. As such, the gospel offers some practical instructions about managing conflict in the Christian community. Before we assume that we know how nasty conflict in the church can be, remember that Matthew was writing to a group of people who, until very recently, wouldn’t even be in the same room together. His was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted. With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable. As a leader of the church community, Matthew seems to assume that those who disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community. The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, he spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it. If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him. If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, Jesus seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful. This cannot be a rash decision. It’s not like someone can just get rid of someone they don’t get along with. The whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community. Not only that, the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right. Matthew describes a rigorous due process, one designed to be as fair and equitable as possible. In Matthew’s community, excommunication is a last resort. Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

While this verdict seems harsh, there’s a level at which I think we can understand the need for a process like this. We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community. There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships, the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him. These people will often continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg. Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues. In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can move on with our lives and live in harmony. But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This feels like a fairly definitive condemnation. After all, labeling someone a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel. But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles. Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus exhorts the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.” Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there are always seats available for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors. Matthew reminds us that the church exists for those outside its walls.

When Willis Gerhart stepped off the train in Abilene in 1920, he had an unusual dream. He believed that what this West Texas town really needed was a gothic cathedral. For someone as eminently practical as Parson Gerhart, this was unexpected. This, after all, was the same man who couldn’t pass a beggar without giving him money, who gave away his coat more times than anyone could count, and who wrote his sermons in the cold during the Depression because he gave the stove in his office to a family with 12 children. Surely, he could have imagined raising money to combat poverty or alleviate homelessness, instead of building a church, of all things. Parson Gerhart understood something that most of us fail to recognize throughout our lives. Most of us evaluate the world in terms of what is necessary or useful: will this event be worth my time? will this class prepare me for a career? Parson Gerhart, however, understood the things that truly matter in this world are not strictly necessary.

If you think about it, it is not necessary to reach out the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives. In fact, it would be easy and expedient to exclude those who have repeatedly failed to meet our expectations. As Christians, we are called to be guided not by necessity, but by love. In fact, classical Christian theology suggests that it was not necessary for God to create the universe, that creation is not intrinsically useful to God. The scholastic theologians argued instead that God created the universe out of love. There is something astonishing about this claim. Love has no intrinsic utility. It is not goal oriented. It cannot be quantified. It serves no useful purpose. But for this reason, because it is not strictly necessary, love is more powerful than any of those forces the world considers indispensable. Love is the only thing the world truly needs.

This is something the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have understood since the beginning. This beautiful church building, the bell tower, the parish house, Gerhart Hall; none of these are strictly necessary. There is nothing that would have prevented this parish from worshiping in the Quonset Hut for the last 70 years. But this parish recognizes the architectural marvels of which you are the stewards are not merely buildings: they are expressions of God’s love for the whole world. These structures point us away from our selfish preoccupations and toward the eternal. As one parishioner is fond of observing, you can’t help but look up when you enter this space. Moreover, these buildings remind us that this church was not built for the sake of those who built it, but for those outside its walls. They encourage us to consider those who are missing from our fellowship, those who ache to know the grace and love of God, and those who have rejected it. These buildings help us recognize that the world is bigger than anyone of us, and that the only way we can truly celebrate what we have been given is when all of us are at the table.

This is a momentous weekend at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. It is the culmination of many years of vision, dedication, and hard work. The sheer number of you who were directly involved in building Gerhart Hall is a testament to the amazing quality of the people at this parish. Many of you are justifiably proud of what you have accomplished. You are the next in a long line of faithful people who have served and built this parish. But even as we celebrate, we must not forget our call to reach out beyond these walls, to recognize that these buildings were built not for the sake of those who built them, but for the people of this community. Gerhart Hall is more than a building; it is an icon of who you are and who you hope to be. It is a sign of God’s reconciling love, a love that, in the end, is the only thing the world really needs.

One Liners

Sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 and Romans 8:26-39 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr. You can listen to this sermon here.

Not long before she died, Joan Rivers was featured in a documentary called A Piece of Work. In one of the best scenes, the legendary comedian thumbs through a silver file cabinet, the kind libraries once used for card catalogs. Instead of book titles organized according to the Dewey Decimal system, these drawers contained thousands of jokes organized under labels such as “Pets,” “Politically Incorrect,” “New York,” and “No Self Worth.” This scene is compelling because it reveals that Rivers was among the last of a dying breed: the comedian who actually told jokes. Most comedians these days tend toward observational humor; they tell long stories that build to a satisfying climax. Joan Rivers, however, preferred the zinger. She was part of a collective of one-liner specialists that included Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and, of course, Henny Youngman. According to his obituary, Youngman was “the most rapid-fire of rapid-fire comics. He could tell six, seven, sometimes even eight or more jokes a minute…Rarely if ever did a joke last more than 24 seconds.” Part of what makes one-liners irresistible is the fact that they are ruthless: you either get them or you don’t. There is no time to explain the joke or provide context or apologize when people are offended or even give people time to recover when they are laughing too hard. The effect of this pace is that the jokes themselves become less important than broader vision they represent: in comedy, nothing is off limits. While this broader vision may seem cynical, it is actually borne from a deep sense that everything in life, good or bad, is worth experiencing. At a dinner where Henny Youngman received an award in 1987, Whoopi Goldberg summarized the rapid-fire comic’s posture toward the world when she said that Youngman’s ability to make people laugh “gives us greater understanding of who we are, what we want, and how we stand with the world.”

In this morning’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, we see Jesus engaging in his own version of rapid-fire comedy, in the form of some the New Testament’s most fast-paced teaching. In the space of just a few verses, Jesus tells five parables, none of which are longer than a sentence or two. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, to yeast, to treasure in a field, to a merchant in search of pearls, and to a net thrown into the sea. Though the pace is not quite six parables a minute, it certainly feels close. Like the zingers of Joan Rivers and Henny Youngman, these parables throw us off balance. Jesus doesn’t wait to see if we understand what he means when he says “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field” before he moves on to the next parable. This is probably by design. We often make the crucial mistake of reading the parables of Jesus as allegories: we try to figure out who the various characters in the story are supposed to be. We saw Matthew himself do this in last week’s gospel lesson, when he explained “the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom,” you get the idea. The problem with this approach is that it misses the point of what the parables of Jesus are supposed to accomplish. By offering a series of clipped, seemingly unrelated parables in this passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus completely short-circuits our ability to allegorize them. It’s nonsensical and probably impossible to determine what the yeast represents or who the merchant in search of fine pearls is supposed to be. The pace of these parables helps us remember that they are not allegorical stories that describe the world as it is; they are lenses through which we can see the world in an entirely new way. Like the jokes of rapid-fire comedians, Jesus tells these parables in service of a broader vision.

If we slow down for just a moment, it is clear that the overall purpose of these parables is to challenge the way we understand the kingdom of heaven. For Jesus’ original audience, “kingdom of heaven” was a shorthand way of referring to the time when God would establish justice and, perhaps more importantly, wreak bitter vengeance on the enemies of God’s people. It was a term that allowed an oppressed people to fantasize that their oppressors would someday get their comeuppance. Of course, those political dimensions have faded over the centuries. For us, “kingdom of heaven” has simply become a synonym for “the afterlife,” which means it’s not a matter of much concern to us on a day to day basis. The series of parables we heard this morning challenges both of these views. For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is neither a political revenge fantasy nor a place we go when we die. Indeed, for all of their muddled imagery, these parables present a consistent theme: the kingdom of heaven is already among us. Now, given this message, it can be tempting to fall into the same trap as Pangloss in Candide: blithely claiming that is really is “the best of all possible worlds” despite all evidence to the contrary. This, however, is not what Jesus saying. For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is a truth hidden at the very heart of creation, buried deep within the muck and mire of human misery. Ultimately, the kingdom of heaven is a posture towards the world, a fundamental recognition that, even in the face of degradation and death, the grace of God abides: and that through God’s grace things which were cast down are being raised up and things which had grown old are being made new.

There is perhaps no one who articulates this posture more eloquently than St. Paul, when he writes: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In this remarkable passage, Paul captures the essence of what Jesus was referring to when he described the kingdom of heaven: it is a perspective on the world informed an unshakeable trust in God’s grace. It’s worth noting that this trust is not automatic. Paul himself explains that had been convinced of the power of God’s love. This is significant for those of us who seek the kingdom of heaven in a skeptical age. I have known people who told me they had to be utterly confident in the promises of God before they could even attempt to be faithful. Paul, however, implies that his confidence in God’s grace was the result of discernment. Even for Paul, the kingdom of heaven was not revealed all at once. The kingdom of heaven is revealed gradually, in the moments that we choose hope over fear, forgiveness over retribution, and joy over despair. Ultimately, it is these glimpses of the kingdom of heaven that help us understand who we truly are and how we are meant to stand with world.

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.