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.

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.

Kids these days…

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Over the last few years, what one might call the “kids these days” genre has proliferated on the internet. It seems that every few weeks, there is a new article, video, or blog post that decries the entitlement, ingratitude, or laziness of the younger generations. While some of these raise legitimate concerns about how young people are interacting with the world, the vast majority have a tedious and scolding quality. For one, these manifestos often fail to describe reality. The best example of this is the frequent complaint that “kids these days don’t read anymore,” when the younger generations actually read more words more frequently than anyone in human history. Moreover, these complaints about the self-centeredness of “kids these days” are, ironically, awfully self-centered. The fact that individuals armed with nothing but an internet connection and an opinion can presume to lecture an entire generation of people for their perceived failures is a sure sign of narcissism. Of course, it’s not the inaccuracy or the egotism of these complaints that make them problematic. It is their assumption that any shift in the way we experience the world is automatically wrong. While we may rightly remember the “good old days” with fondness, nostalgia is often a way of avoiding the uncomfortable truth that we are called to conversion. Indeed, our eagerness to criticize “kids these days” may well be a sign of our refusal to do the work of self-examination.

It would appear that Jesus has adopted a “kids these days” attitude in today’s gospel reading. After only one of the ten lepers he heals returns to give thanks, Jesus complains, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” Jesus seems to be channeling Miss Manners, or Emily Post, or a parent dutifully encouraging her child to write a thank you note to his great aunt. “Kids these days never say thank you anymore,” we might imagine him writing on his Facebook page. It seems that Jesus has a clear expectation of what one should do when one is cleansed from leprosy.


codexaureus_cleansing_of_the_ten_lepers

As a matter of fact, the Jewish Law had a clear expectation of what one should do when one was cleansed from leprosy, which was to be examined by a priest at the Temple and make an offering to God. Under the Law, a priest was the only person with the authority to declare that a person no longer had leprosy. So when these ten lepers go to show themselves to the priest, they are headed off to get their clean bill of health. This was much more than a formality. According to Leviticus, those who had leprosy were required to wear torn clothes, let their hair be disheveled, live outside the city walls, and cry out, “Unclean, unclean” as people walked by. People with leprosy were utterly excluded from society. The only way they could be reintegrated into the community is if an agent of the Temple pronounced that they no longer had the skin disease. It’s no wonder that the lepers whom Jesus healed made a beeline for the Temple; they were thrilled that they were all about to get their lives back and return to the community.

Well, almost all. Luke tells us that the leper who prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him was a Samaritan. This is not an insignificant detail. We all know that Jews and Samaritans have a long history of not getting along. To the Jewish people, Samaritans were covenant outsiders: they did not share the promise Abraham and were not numbered among God’s chosen people. In practical terms, this meant that Samaritans were discouraged from having table fellowship with Jews, and, more importantly, were not allowed in the Temple. As the other nine lepers trot off to receive their clean bill of health and return to society, in other words, this Samaritan realizes that he will remain excluded from the community. Since he is unable to show himself to the priest, he returns to Jesus to thank him for making him clean, even though he can never be considered clean according to the Temple tradition.

The Samaritan’s quandary makes Jesus’ concluding declaration profoundly resonant: “Your faith has made you well.” Versions of this statement are repeated so often in the gospels that it is easy to lose sight of its impact. But it is important for us to recognize how revolutionary this proclamation is. In this statement, Jesus fundamentally rejects the authority of the Temple system. Jesus implies that belonging to the people of God is not contingent on the accident of our birth or our adherence to a tradition or the mediation of a religious authority. Instead, Jesus insists that we belong to God on the basis of faith.

We tend to misunderstand what this means. In the popular imagination, “faith” is usually synonymous with “belief.” If “faith” is just “belief,” however, it assumes that our membership in the community is somehow predicated on our affirmation of God’s existence. This doesn’t seem to be what is happening in the passage we heard from Luke’s gospel. The lepers do not make a statement of belief before they are cleansed. When the Samaritan returns to Jesus, it is not to say, “I see now that you are the Messiah.” Rather, it is to offer thanksgiving and, more importantly, to recognize what God has done in his life. There are many places in the New Testament where faith refers not to belief, but to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul suggests that it is Christ’s faith, his faithful obedience to God’s purpose, that saves us. When Jesus tells this Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus is referring to the Samaritan’s recognition that he had been transformed by God. This moment of recognition is nothing less than conversion. While the other lepers went off to be declared clean according to society’s standards, the Samaritan realized that he was defined, no longer by what society valued, but by the grace of God made known in Jesus Christ.

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Life is about more than this.

This invites us to do the hard and important work of self-examination and conversion. It’s awfully easy to assume that our faith is portable, a tool that we can pull out when we need encouragement, but can otherwise keep in storage. When faith is relegated to this utilitarian status, we can continue to live as though we are defined by what society values: how much money we make or how many degrees we have or how many people follow us on Facebook. When we understand faith as something that informs and enlivens everything we do, however, we experience the same conversion the Samaritan experiences. More than anything else, conversion is a shift in our perspective. It is a recognition that we are defined not by what society values, but by the grace of God, not by what we have done, but by what God has done for us. This recognition empowers us to change the way we experience the world: to put away resentment and entitlement, to give up our nostalgic desire to go back to the “good old days,” and to live our lives animated by a profound sense of gratitude, a faithful acknowledgement that everything in our life is a gift from God.

Winners and Losers

Sermon on Luke 13:10-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Despite my deep love of baseball, I have never been any good at it. Perhaps the best example of this is the fact that when I was a little leaguer, I had the ignominious distinction of striking out in T-Ball. Just to be clear, I had three opportunities to hit a stationary ball off a tee, and I missed every time. Needless to say, no one was particularly surprised when I abandoned the baseball diamond for the choir stall. Before hanging up my cleats, I attended our team’s end-of-season awards banquet at a local Italian restaurant. Even though I was objectively the worst player on the team, I received a trophy. In fact, everybody received a trophy at that banquet. Even if we rode the bench the entire season, missed every game, or struck out for every at bat, each of us would receive a gilded plastic baseball player mounted on a scrap of marble.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but those trophies were part of a larger conversation about how we as a society encourage our children. As early as 1992, Newsweek ran an article lamenting the hypocrisy of what the author described as “trophy syndrome.” If anything, this conversation has become more contentious over the last decades. Advocates for rewarding participation claim that the practice encourages cooperation, builds self esteem, and fosters psychological health.Screen-Shot-2015-10-12-at-11.57.58-AM Meanwhile, opponents argue that the participation trophy discourages competition and fails to prepare people for the realities of the world. One recent article casually notes that “inflated self-esteem has been found in criminals, junkies, and bullies,” apparently implying that giving a child a participation trophy will lead her to a life of crime. Other commentators are more measured, but no less insistent: “We have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner,” writes one critic. “It just isn’t true.” Ultimately, this is what the critique of participation trophy syndrome boils down to: if there are to be winners, there must in turn be losers. To put it another way: if everyone is special, then no one is.

This morning’s gospel reading makes an important contribution to this conversation. Though this passage seems pretty simple at first, a closer look reveals that this moment in Luke’s gospel is anything but straightforward. In particular, the dispute between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue speaks to the very heart of our faith. The controversy begins when Jesus heals on the sabbath. As we know, the Jewish Law prohibits performing any kind of work on the seventh day of the week. Jesus violates this injunction when he heals a woman of her infirmity. The leader of the synagogue’s indignance is palpable: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he charges, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” While this might seem unnecessarily callous and finicky, his point is actually motivated by a combination of compassion and respect for tradition. The leader of the synagogue certainly wants this woman to be healed, but he also wants his people to remember the sabbath and keep it holy. The sabbath is one of the ways that the Jewish people know who they are; they are the people who stop every six days and recognize that they are not the masters of the universe. They are a people who have a healthy understanding of their place in creation. Jesus seems to be disregarding this beautiful tradition for the sake of a fleeting gesture.

Characteristically, Jesus’ response to his opponents is both unapologetic and somewhat unexpected. He refuses to concede that he has done anything wrong. But he also declines to make the case that the rules about sabbath are outmoded and irrelevant, as we might expect. Instead, Jesus notes that even the Law permits some work to be done on the sabbath: “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” Even under the most stringent sabbath regulations, this was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, something this synagogue crowd would have understood. Jesus argues that the same logic applies to this “daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years.” Jesus insists that she shouldn’t have to suffer for even one more day. In some ways, this moment is merely an expression of one of Jesus’ more memorable aphorisms: the sabbath was made for people and not people for the sabbath.

Ultimately, however, this is not an argument about the finer points of sabbath observance. The leader of the synagogue is not primarily interested whether the healing of this woman qualifies as an exception to sabbath regulations; his primary concern is about dispensing with the commandments for the sake of just one person. healing_smJesus could have healed this woman any other day of the week; he could have remained in town another day or arrived early. Instead, Jesus heals this woman, this daughter of Abraham from this bondage on the sabbath. What made her so special? More to the point, what made Jesus so special that he could deliberately and provocatively undermine the fourth commandment? This moment in Luke’s gospel exposes one of the most challenging elements of the Christian faith, what some have called “scandal of particularity.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes the gospel known through particular people. He heals the sick, restores sight to the blind, and even raises the dead, but there plenty of sick, blind, and dead people who remain that way. Why does Jesus heal this person and not that person? Though some have attempted to offer explanations, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the way Jesus chooses who will experience the healing power of God.

Paradoxically, this is good news. The religious authorities wanted to know what made this woman so special that she should be healed on the sabbath. By freeing her from her bondage, Jesus provides a stunning and resounding answer: nothing. There is nothing that made her worthy of being healed on the sabbath. It was God’s grace, made known through Jesus Christ, that freed her from bondage. The religious authorities saw the healing of this woman in terms of winning and losing. If she was a winner, did that make them losers? By healing this unworthy, un-special woman, Jesus makes an astonishing claim: we are all losers. We are all unworthy. There is nothing that makes us special. All of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. And here’s the extraordinary thing: since none of us is special, since there is nothing we can do or have done to merit God’s grace, all of us are equally deserving of God’s grace. The critic who suggested we have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner had it exactly right, because none of us is winner. There can be no losers in the kingdom of God because we are all losers.

Our culture tends to make success a measure of our worth. Those who win, those who come in first, those who prove themselves to be special are accorded a superhuman status. Our fascination with elite Olympic athletes is proof enough of this phenomenon. But those who win are equally susceptible to failure. They are plagued by flaws and inadequacies, and a day will come when they will lose. The gospel refuses to equate success and worthiness. In fact, the gospel dispenses with the very concepts of success and worthiness. None of us is worthy of redemption; we are all equally dependent on the grace and mercy of God. In the end, all of the trophies we receive are meaningless; the only thing that truly matters is the extraordinary gift of God’s grace.

Honesty

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

FuneralI have been to a lot of funerals. Even before it was part of my job, attending funerals was a regular part of my routine. I have been to so many funerals, in fact, that I have become something of a connoisseur. While I would never want to say that there is any such thing as a “bad funeral,” there are certainly characteristics that make some funerals less meaningful than others. In particular, a funeral is less than successful when it is dishonest. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is when a funeral fails to acknowledge that someone has died. I have been a few “celebrations of life” in which no one mentioned that person being celebrated had died. It was as if they were in the other room. As a result, the congregation was deprived of the opportunity to deal with that fundamental human dilemma of mortality. There is also a more subtle way this lack of honesty is expressed, and it often takes place during the eulogies. As we all know, there tends to be an informal process of canonization that takes place as people are eulogized at their funerals. The deceased is described in glowing terms: he was the kindest, most generous, hardest working, funniest, most devoted, most patriotic person who ever walked the earth. The few flaws he had were humanizing traits that made him all the more lovable. It goes without saying that these plaudits can sometimes ring hollow. This is especially true when the circumstances of someone’s death are painful, when there is a sense that everyone is ignoring the elephant in the room. Of course, no one wants to dwell on the negative, and besides, there’s no reason to speak ill of the dead. We can choose to remember the good about a person without dwelling on their flaws. Nevertheless, this dishonesty can be deeply problematic. When we ignore very human failings of someone who has died, we deny something fundamental about our humanity. Indeed, when we choose to remember only what we want to remember about a person, we limit our understanding of God’ power to redeem all our days.

Today, as we do every second Sunday of Easter, we heard the timeworn story of Thomas and his doubt. This story is so familiar that we can almost rehearse it in our sleep. Jesus comes among the disciples (except for Thomas) after his Resurrection, wishing them peace and breathing the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas returns after Jesus departs, and the other disciples excitedly tell him that they have seen the Lord. Thomas refuses to believe it. About a week later, Jesus returns, but this time Thomas is there. Jesus invites Thomas to place his fingers in his wounds, and Thomas falls down in worship, saying “My Lord and my God.” It seems like a very simple formula: Jesus appears among the disciples, Thomas doubts that he appeared and demands proof; Jesus appears again, and Thomas believes. Thomas seems to be the hero of a skeptical age, a proto-agnostic who refuses to believe in the supernatural unless he is offered definitive proof. It would seem Thomas’ role in the gospel is to offer us concrete proof that Jesus was raised from the dead.

This interpretation, however, fails to acknowledge Thomas’ state of mind after the resurrection. Thomas makes an earlier appearance in John’s gospel when Jesus announces his intention to visit the tomb of Lazarus. The other disciples, full of trepidation, remind Jesus that this would be unwise, since the Judeans were just trying to kill him. But Thomas affirmed, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Thomas alone understood the danger of Jesus’ mission long before the road to Golgotha. Yet, just like the other disciples, Thomas vanishes when Jesus is brought before the authorities. Apart from Peter, Thomas is the only disciple who abandoned Jesus in spite of explicitly promising he would not. He was complicit in inflicting the wounds Jesus suffered on Calvary. Though we can only guess at what Thomas was feeling after the crucifixion, we can almost guarantee that he was a broken man, shattered by guilt over his infidelity.

All the disciples would have been experiencing some level of this guilt as they gathered in that locked room. They were paralyzed by fear and deeply aware that they had very recently abandoned their Lord and Teacher, the one who had called them friends. Yet John tells us that when the risen Christ appears in the midst of his friends, he addresses them, not with recrimination, but with words of peace. By way of illustration, he shows them his hands and his side. The wounds inflicted by the soldiers on Good Friday are part of Jesus’ resurrection reality. Christ’s dazzling resurrection body still bear the tokens of his passion. This is because the peace that Jesus proclaims is intimately connected to his wounds. Jesus does not use his wounds to condemn his disciples. He does not point to his hands and say “You did this to me!” Instead, he holds up his hands as if to say that God’s peace transcends even crucifixion, even the worst violence the world can inflict.

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThomas seems to implicitly understand this relationship between Jesus’ wounds and the peace he offers. Thomas doesn’t simply demand to see Jesus. He does not say “Unless I see Jesus in this room, I will not believe.” Instead, Thomas claims that he cannot believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead unless he puts his fingers in the wounds of Jesus’ hands and places his hand in Jesus’ pierced side. Thomas needs to see the wounds he was complicit in inflicting. In a way, Thomas does not doubt the resurrection; Thomas doubts that his faithlessness can be redeemed. It is only when Thomas sees the wounds of Jesus, when he traces the scars of his own infidelity, that he experiences the peace God offers in the resurrection, a peace that reorders and renews all things. The resurrected body of Jesus reveals something unexpected, yet elemental: God redeems everything about us, not just the parts we would like to have remembered at our funeral. In the resurrection, God redeems even our brokenness, even our wounds, even our deepest infidelity. The resurrection means that there is nothing in our lives that is outside God’s domain, that there is nothing we cannot bring before God, that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed.

Baggage

Sermon on Mark 6:14-29 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be heard here.

When it comes to cultural influence, few films compare with The Godfather. From lines like “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” to iconic scenes like the one where a movie executive finds a severed horse head in his bed, references to The Godfather abound in every aspect of popular culture. imgresPerhaps the most well-traveled trope from this genre defining gangster film comes from the opening sequence of the movie, in which Marlon Brando’s character is hearing requests and dispensing advice on the day of his daughter’s wedding. Robert Duvall’s character explains: “No Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter’s wedding day.” Though this idea has been thoroughly parodied, this statement sets up an important dynamic for the rest of the film: though this family is engaged in criminal activity, honor and reputation are very important to them. For the godfather, keeping one’s word is the highest good, trumping law, morality, even the preservation of life.

This morning, Mark’s gospel tells us a story about how keeping one’s word can lead to trouble. The first thing to notice about this story is its length. Of the three gospels that describe the execution of John the Baptist, Mark devotes the most space to the telling of the story. While this may not seem significant, Mark tends to be incredibly economical with his language. The fact that this story takes up as many verses as it does, in other words, means we’re supposed to pay particular attention to it. And this is surprising, because while this story is ostensibly about John the Baptist, a pivotally important figure in the gospel, all of the action centers around King Herod. Now, this is not the Herod from the Christmas pageant. This is, rather, his son, a client of the Roman Empire who has been given titular authority in Judea in exchange for his loyalty and obeisance to the emperor. King Herod is an empty shirt who can only exercise authority with the permission of his Roman masters. But Herod desperately wants to project the image of power and authority, as we see in the scene that Mark sets this morning. The king is throwing a lavish birthday party, to which he has invited all the leading citizens. He’s hobnobbing with the beautiful people, eating fancy food, and in all likelihood, drinking too much wine. As part of the entertainment, his step daughter dances provocatively for the assembled guests, leading Herod to promise that he will give her even half of his kingdom. Notice that he can’t keep this promise: remember, it’s not his kingdom; at best he’s a steward, at worst he’s an impotent puppet. Now Herod is hamstrung by a promise he should not have made and might not be able to keep. This leads to Herodias’ grisly request; in a Gothic twist, John doesn’t enter his own martyrdom story until his severed head appears on a platter.

CaravaggioSalomeLondonWhile Herodias’ gruesome demand for the head of John the Baptist may sound like a horrifying overreaction, it’s important to remember that first-century despots would kill people for even perceived slights. What is actually more surprising is Herod’s reluctance to execute John. The reason for his hesitancy is unclear; perhaps he was compelled by John’s charismatic authority, perhaps he feared a revolt among the people, as Matthew’s gospel implies. Regardless of the reason for his disquiet, it should have been enough to save John. It is striking that Herod, who wants people to think he is the master of everything around him, gets played like a fiddle by the people in his court. He is so concerned about saving face, about “having regard for his oaths,” about keeping up appearances, that he is willing to send an innocent man to his death. He could have very easily refused Herodias’ request; indeed, he could have easily released John. Instead, he abdicates his power in order to preserve the appearance of authority. This story is recapitulated when Jesus is brought before Pilate, who is also more interested in projecting the image of authority than he is in actually exercising authority.

In some ways, this story of John’s death feels like a non sequitur. After all, this salacious, tabloid-ready account of John’s grisly execution is sandwiched between two fairly straightforward and seemingly unrelated passages about the triumphant mission of Jesus’ disciples. But this abrupt narrative transition is not clumsy storytelling; it actually illustrates an important theme that runs through Mark’s gospel. For Mark, the death of John the Baptist and the mission of the disciples are deeply related. Indeed, by juxtaposing these two stories, Mark is making a profound statement about the nature of discipleship. Of course, his most obvious point is that being a follower of Jesus has a cost. Even as we hear about the dazzling successes of the disciples, we are reminded that the forerunner of Jesus was executed for zealously proclaiming God’s righteousness. But in addition to this observation about the cost of discipleship, Mark is making a subtler and more important point. You’ll remember from last week that when Jesus sent out the disciples, “he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” Moreover, he gave them no instructions about what they should preach, except repentance. When Jesus sends out the disciples, in other words, they are completely unencumbered by possessions or expectations. This stands in sharp contrast to Herod, who is imprisoned by the trappings of wealth, enslaved by the illusion of power, and hamstrung by his own vain promises. Even as he nurses doubts about killing John, Herod succumbs to the worst kind of legalism: he keeps his word only so that he can say he kept his word. Like Pilate after him, Herod is rendered powerless by his desperate desire to retain power. Mark’s point is clear: while Herod was weighed down by his oaths and kingly baggage, the disciples are free to go out into the world carrying nothing except Jesus’ proclamation of repentance.

imagesThis week, the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state house in Columbia. While this is yet another important step as our country continues to respond to the gruesome massacre at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, it’s important for us not to let the removal of the flag be the end of this story. We must continue the conversation about privilege and systemic racism. All too often I and people who look like me are too embarrassed to talk about race, too preoccupied with maintaining appearances, too ashamed to admit that we still benefit from a system that has historically excluded people who do not look like me. But Jesus’ proclamation of repentance calls us to look past our own embarrassment and acknowledge that we do not have to say or do anything explicitly racist in order to benefit from a racist system. This is an unsettling place to be, because the world we live in requires us to present a carefully curated and idealized self-image designed to be as inoffensive and “likeable” as possible. Admitting there is a racist system shatters this scrupulously cultivated persona. Normally, because of this pathological need to maintain appearances, we shy away from real conversations and refrain from asking difficult questions. But ultimately, this Herod’s way of looking at the world. Our preoccupation with the way that we appear to those around us leads us to dodge authentic conversations and avoid real relationships. Jesus calls us to something greater. Jesus calls us to repentance. Repentance requires us to leave everything behind, including our expectations of those around us and our preconceived notions about who we are. Our authentic proclamation of the gospel asks us to engage with the world unencumbered by the trappings of our idealized self-image. We are called to leave behind our attachment to power and privilege and proclaim Jesus’ message of repentance and transformation to a broken and hurting world.

If

Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1895, Rudyard Kipling offered some paternal advice in the form of a poem entitled “If.” The poem covers a whole range of topics: “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…If you can dream—and not make dreams your master…If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster…If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue.” This long series of increasingly challenging antecedents ends with Kipling saying, “then you will be a man.” Though this poem has become standard fodder for graduation cards, it has a wistful quality. These four stanzas articulate a nearly impossible standard; it is as though Kipling is saying, “I wish I had been able to do all this; perhaps you can.” This attitude tends to prevail whenever we ask “what if” questions. Invariably, we are asking them because we wish things had turned out differently, because we wonder where we went wrong, or because we know that nothing about our lives can really change.

This morning, we hear Jesus asking some “what if” questions while using one of his most well-worn teaching techniques. While parables were not an uncommon way to get one’s point across in the ancient world, Jesus raises them to an entirely new level in the gospels. Indeed, in the passage we read this morning, Mark tells us that Jesus speaks to certain audiences only in parables, that all of his teaching is packaged in these cryptic stories. The ubiquity of these parables has some interesting consequences for the way we interpret them. For the most part, we tend to read the parables of Jesus as allegories: we try to figure out who each character in the story is supposed to be. imgresOrigen, the great third century theologian, takes this way of reading parables to its logical extreme. In his allegorical interpretation the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, Origen suggests that the man who was going down the road is Adam, Jerusalem is paradise, Jericho is the world, the robbers are the hostile powers, the priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, the Samaritan is Christ, the wounds are disobedience, the pack animal is the Lord’s body, the inn is the Church, you get the idea. While this wooden way of interpreting parables can be interesting, even fun, I think that it misses the point of what the parables of Jesus are supposed to accomplish. The word parable comes from the Greek words for “toss alongside.” A parable is something we hold up next to a situation in order to see what unexpected truths might be revealed. The parables of Jesus, in other words, 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.

This is particularly true in the seed parables from the fourth chapter of Mark. Jesus himself indicates that these images are meant to be held up alongside the subject we are considering. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” he asks. “What parable will we use for it?” Jesus’ tone is intriguing. Rather than articulating definitively what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus offers propositions, asking his audience,“What if the kingdom of God is like this?” Now the kingdom of God is one of those biblical images that has become somewhat muddled since the time of Jesus. Most of us assume that it is simply shorthand for “heaven,” which of course, has become shorthand for “the place you go when you die.” The kingdom of God, in other words, is not something that we think about with any regularity. For Jesus and his hearers, however, the kingdom of God was an ever present reality, the hope of every faithful Israelite. It was the promise that God would break the yoke of oppression and rule with justice and equity. More than a few zealots attempted to bring the kingdom of God into being on their own, only to be violently thwarted by the Roman occupiers. “Kingdom of God,” in other words, was a loaded term that connoted rebellion and sweeping social change. So in many ways, the prosaic images Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God are unexpected, even shocking. First, he wonders aloud if the way that seeds germinate and grow overnight can help us think about God’s reign. With this parable, urlJesus invites us to consider whether the arrival of God’s kingdom is something that happens without our knowledge or influence, much to the surprise of Israel’s violent rebels. Jesus further ponders whether the kingdom of God can be compared with a mustard seed, which though very small, produces a significant shrub. Most gardeners consider mustard to be a weed; once mustard takes root, it is incredibly difficult to remove. By using this image, Jesus asks us to consider both the tenacity and the ordinariness of God’s kingdom. What’s interesting is that Jesus uses these examples not to make concrete statements about the nature of God’s reign, but to fire our imaginations, to help us envision how God is working in the world.

If this is what these parables are meant to do, we cannot stop there. If Jesus is asking “What if the kingdom of God is like this?” the implicit next question is “what difference would that make?” In other words, if these parables are meant to give us a new way of looking at the world, we have to ask ourselves what it means for us to see the world in this new way. What if the kingdom of God is like the sprouting of a seed? What if the kingdom of God is like an invasive plant species? How would that change the way we think about God? How would that change the way we live our lives? Would we be more attentive to the thousands of tiny ways that God’s glory is revealed to us? Would we look for signs of the kingdom in places we would not normally expect? Would we trust that God is working God’s purpose out? Would we be more confident that the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea?

Human beings tend to be creatures of habit. We like to find a routine and stick with it. We move through this life assuming that everything will essentially stay the same, that there is nothing new under the sun, that nothing about our lives can really change. For us, asking “what if” questions is generally an exercise in nostalgia. With these parables, however, Jesus challenges us think about how our “what ifs” can become reality. Jesus invites us to dream of a world that radiates the glory of God. He encourages us to wonder whether the most uninteresting moments of our lives can somehow be signposts for God’s kingdom. Jesus asks us to ponder how the world can change if we just look at it differently, if we see it not as a hopeless place of despair and suffering, but as a beautiful place that is charged with God’s grandeur. Jesus invites us to look for beauty in unlovely places, to claim joy in desperate moments, and to celebrate life even the face of death. Jesus invites all of us to wonder: what if the kingdom of God was like you and me challenging expectations and revealing God’s glory to the world?