Inconvenient Discipleship

Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

This past Friday, my family and I ventured out to procure our Christmas tree. We were in a festive mood: we had a good friend in town, our 17 month old was happy and well-rested, and everyone was finally ready to decorate the house for Christmas. imgresBut when we got to the tree farm, our holiday spirit vanished pretty quickly. The weather was clammy and uncomfortable, the ground was muddy and covered with forsaken tree limbs, the remaining trees were scraggly and hard to come by, and somehow there were gunshots in the distance. It was a little like looking for a tree in a Cormac McCarthy novel. By time we had acquired our tree, I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling not at all festive. As it turns out, my Christmas spirit lasts only as long as it is convenient.

Or perhaps, that experience was preparation for this morning’s gospel reading. Today we return to the banks of the Jordan, to hear John the Baptist angrily call his people to repentance. In the gospel according to Luke, John’s wrath is particularly evident: “You brood of vipers!” he charges. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance, because every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” John, like the fire and brimstone prophets of old, is putting the fear of God into his audience, which is further illustrated by his chilling depiction of the coming Messianic judge: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This fear-based evangelism is not an unfamiliar strategy, and it seems to have been effective for John. Luke tells us that the people who gathered at the Jordan, even the tax collectors and soldiers, were moved to ask what they should do, how they might forestall the coming wrath. Given John’s rhetoric elsewhere, you would think that he would prescribe dramatic acts of contrition. Instead, John’s instructions are astonishingly straightforward. To the soldiers, he says, “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to everyone else, John the Baptist says simply, “If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have one.” The juxtaposition is startling. Here’s John the Baptist, in a pique of prophetic rage, telling those he has just warned about divine judgment that discipleship isn’t all that hard. In fact, there’s a level to which it is convenient: if you have extra, share what you have left over. It’s really that simple. If John were writing a self help book, it might be titled, “How to succeed in discipleship without really trying.”

John the Baptist shows up in our lectionary fairly regularly, especially during the season of Advent. This is interesting, because this season reminds us that there’s a level to which John got his prediction wrong. At the very least, he seems to have misunderstood the nature of God’s judgment. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus, the one John was preparing us for, wields neither a winnowing fork nor an ax. Later on, in fact, John’s disciples ask Jesus if he is indeed “the one who is to come,” implying that John was disappointed with how the ministry of Jesus was unfolding. In the other gospels, Jesus picks up where John left off, telling parables about separating the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the chaff. But in Luke’s gospel judgment occurs not when God separates the wheat from the chaff, but when people are confronted with and indicted by their failure to apprehend the grace made known in Jesus Christ. In other words, the proclamation of Jesus in Luke’s gospel is fundamentally different than that of his cousin John.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than their different approaches to generosity, particularly when it comes to coats. When John exhorts the crowds who come to be baptized, he tells them that discipleship isn’t all that complicated; it’s as easy as giving away your extra coat. But a few chapters later, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says “from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” imgresThe implication is that as the person who stole your coat is running away, you should call out and say, “Hold on; you forgot something.” John frames generosity this way: if you are warm and your sister is cold, you should do whatever you can to make your sister warm, as long as that does not make you cold. Jesus, on the other hand, frames generosity in a far more dramatic way: if you are warm and your enemy is cold, you are called to do whatever it takes to make her warm, even if you end up cold. For John the Baptist, generosity is about common sense; it’s about doing what anyone an ounce of compassion would do, about sharing what wouldn’t be difficult to part with. For Jesus, discipleship is an inherently risky proposition; it requires us to become vulnerable, to give of our very selves. Jesus calls us to look beyond what is convenient or safe and risk ourselves on behalf of others. This risky model of discipleship asks us to think about the humanity of Syrian refugees before we think of them as potential enemies. This is an inconvenient discipleship; it transcends common sense and fundamentally changes the way we understand the world.

One night in 2008, Julio Diaz got off the No. 6 train in the Bronx. Suddenly, a teenager brandishing a knife stopped him and demanded his wallet. Diaz immediately complied with the young man’s request, but as he ran away, Diaz called out and said, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” As Diaz removed his coat, the teen asked him what he was doing. Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money.” Bewildered by this astonishing demonstration of generosity, the would-be mugger accepted Diaz’s invitation to have dinner at the diner he visited every night on his way home. When the bill came, Diaz said that he would be happy to treat, but that the young man had his wallet. Diaz made him a deal though: he would pay for dinner and give the teen $20 in exchange for returning his wallet and handing over the knife. The young man complied without hesitation and went on his way. By risking himself, Julio Diaz saw the humanity of someone who had made himself an enemy. By thinking beyond safety and convenience, Julio Diaz was able to see the young man who robbed him, and indeed the world, in an entirely new way.

In these final weeks of Advent, we are called to reflect on the risk inherent in the incarnation: the fact that God came to what was his own, and yet God’s own people did not accept him. Yet in spite of this rejection, the Word became flesh, dwelled among us, and became the means for our redemption. When we recognize that the entire world has been and will be redeemed through the supreme risk at the heart of the gospel, we can see the world in an entirely new way.

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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.

On Mozart, Baptism, and Changing the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traversing the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hospitality

There’s a video making the rounds on various social media platforms.

For those who didn’t watch, the video follows a man dressed like a waiter as he delivers meals to homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles.  The meals are arranged on plate and require flatware.  As he delivers the food, he says things like, “Sorry about the wait, sir” and “Did you have the chicken?”  The people who receive these meals greet the guy with a mixture of surprise and appreciation.  Towards the end of the video, we see one recipient share part of his meal with an acquaintance.

On one hand, there is a very kitschy character to this video.  It’s dripping with sentimentality and a little self-congratulation, and was clearly designed to be shared as many times as possible (I’m just doing my part).  On the other hand, there is something very beautiful about this man’s service to the people in his community.  By dressing up as a waiter and serving a meal that requires a fork and knife, this man starts with the fundamental assumption that everyone is entitled to their dignity, no matter what their life circumstances may be.  More importantly, this video reminds us how important relationships are.  After receiving their meals, nearly all of the recipients introduced themselves to the guy dressed as a waiter.  Every encounter depicted in the video started a conversation.  Notably, it was typically the people being “served” who took this next step in building a relationship.

We often get caught up in the notion of doing things for those who are “less fortunate” than we are.  In some ways, there is nothing wrong with this.  If we have an abundance of something, we are called to share it.  But this is very basic discipleship.  This was the minimum standard that John the Baptist articulated to usurious soldiers and greedy officials at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.  Jesus calls us to a much deeper level of commitment.  Jesus tells us that if someone steals our coat, we should call them back and say, “Wait! Take my shirt too!”  I don’t think this is because Jesus wants us all to walk around shirtless (ahem, Matthew McConaughey); I think this is because giving someone our shirt after they have our coat requires us to build a relationship.  It requires us to call that person back and find out why they took our coat, to find out how we can work together to improve their experience of life.  Ideally, we are called to do things with those who need help, to recognize that we are all part of the same creation, to embrace the fact that we are all people for whom Christ died.

Invitation

The week between January 18 and 25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Heavenly Rest observed this occasion by having a pulpit exchange with First Central Presbyterian Church in Abilene, TX.  What follows is a sermon on John 1:35-51 offered to the people of First Central Presbyterian.

Indulge me for a moment, if you’d be so kind.  Think about the television show Wheel of Fortune.  What is the first image that comes to your mind?  While I’m no mind reader, I’d bet anything that for the vast majority of people, the first image that Wheel of Fortune conjures is Vanna White, clad in sparkly evening gown, revealing letters on a game board.  Am I right? 

For those of you who either haven’t seen or aren’t aware of this television show, Wheel of Fortune is a game show in which contestants solve hangman-style word puzzles to win cash and prizes determined by spinning this giant carnival wheel.  For the past 25 years, the show has been hosted by the aforementioned Vanna White, who reveals the correctly guessed letters from the puzzles, and Pat Sajak, who explains the rules of the game, makes small talk with the contestants, and is responsible for the giant wheel.  vanna whiteVanna is virtually silent and has very little to do during the course of the television show; all she has to do is point.  Pat, on the other hand, has to work the room like a small-town politician; he’s constantly encouraging people when they want to solve the puzzle or feigning interest in their mostly tedious anecdotes or consoling them when they lose.  It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that the person most associated with Wheel of Fortune is not the guy who communicates with the contestants and operates the eponymous wheel; it is the woman who shows us the answer.  Apparently this is a source of some consternation for Mr. Sajak.  I heard a hilarious radio interview with him a few months ago.  Evidently, when people see him on the street, the first thing they ask him is: “Where’s Vanna?”  Sajak intimated that he would like to respond, “Why are you asking me?  We don’t live together!  And why do you care?  All she has to do is point to the letters!  She doesn’t even have to turn them around anymore; it’s all computerized!” 

While I suspect Mr. Sajak was being somewhat sarcastic, his question is an interesting one.  Why is it that we are more likely to be interested in Vanna White than Pat Sajak?  Why is Vanna White the first person we think of when we think about Wheel of Fortune?  I don’t think it is just because she wears beautiful clothes and seems like a pleasant person.  I believe that there something deeper at play.  There something about the human condition that attracts us to people who reveal things to us.  There something deep within us that draws us to people whose job it is to say “Let me show you.”

A few moments ago, we heard the gospel of John’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  For those of us familiar with this story from other gospels, John’s account is decidedly unfamiliar.  There is no miraculous catch of fish, there is no abandoning of nets by the shore, there is no “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Instead, John tells us about these individual encounters with Jesus, and they’re all pretty strange.  First, John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Unlike the other gospel accounts, there is no conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist; there is simply a declarative statement that reveals Jesus’ identity.  In the next encounter, one of John’s disciples asks Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  It’s an odd question to our ears (why would this guy care where Jesus is staying?), but this is how student-teacher relationships started in the ancient world.  A potential disciple would ask a rabbi where he was staying, and then present himself at the threshold of that teacher’s door early the next morning, demonstrating his devotion to studying under his tutelage.  So while the disciple’s question seems strange, it is actually Jesus’ response that is odd; instead of waiting for the disciple to present himself as a supplicant the next morning, Jesus tells him immediately, “Come and see.”  It’s as if John is saying that what Jesus is revealing to the world can’t wait for morning; it has to happen right away.  Hot on the heels of this encounter is the meeting of Jesus and Simon. The moment that Jesus looks at Simon, he says, “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas.”  In John’s gospel, Peter doesn’t get his nickname after correctly identifying Jesus as the Messiah; Jesus reveals it to him in the first five seconds of knowing him.  The final encounter is easily the strangest one.  After wondering sarcastically if anything good can come out of Nazareth, Nathanael approaches Jesus, who says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  This statement eventually leads Nathanael to identify Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel.

In some ways, this whole sequence is absurd.  No one walks around exchanging declarative statements like this and no one ends every sentence with an exclamation point (unless that person’s name is Richard Simmons); it’s just not how human beings communicate.  I’m confident that John understood this, that he deliberately chose to present these encounters with Jesus in a bizarre way.  This leaves us to wonder what the gospel writer is trying to tell us.  It’s pretty clear that for John, the revelation of Jesus Christ is something that simply can’t be contained.  Carousel june bustinThose of you who are familiar with musical theater may know the song “June is busting out all over” from Carousel; in the first chapter of John’s gospel, revelations are busting out all over.  For John the Baptist the mere presence of Jesus points to the fact that he is the Lamb of God and indicates that God is manifest in him.  In a similar way, Peter’s encounter with Jesus is an opportunity for conversion and transformation; it represents a call to a new vocation that is informed by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.  So on one hand, it might seem as though John is telling us that if we truly encounter Jesus, the effects are immediate: we will immediately recognize him and our lives will be transformed accordingly.  Christian history is filled with dramatic conversion experiences like these, stories of people who have had epiphanies of Jesus Christ that have led them to change their lives completely.  Indeed, I think that there is a popular assumption that the only way you can experience God is if you have had a sudden and dramatic conversion.  Part of the reason for this is that our culture loves conversion stories.  We love to identify those moments that changed people’s lives; we love stories about people who reoriented all of their priorities after a single dramatic experience.  Why else would the notion of “love at first sight” be so universally compelling?  Sure, we love love, but more importantly, we love a good conversion story.  And from what we read this morning, it seems that John is suggesting that this is the way God operates, that our encounter with Jesus Christ should represent one of these conversion moments, that as soon as we experience the Word made flesh, we should feel inexorably motivated to reorient our priorities and transform our lives completely.

This is certainly how it worked for numerous people throughout Christian history.  The stories of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and Martin Luther, to name but a few, are all informed by this emphasis on conversion and transformation.  These men were living a certain way, had an epiphany of the living God, and then proceeded to live their lives in a radically different way.  As compelling as these conversion stories are, however, it is vitally important for us to recognize the other, more gradual ways that God can be manifest to us.  And while John gives us dramatic examples of conversion in his account of Jesus’ early ministry, he also gives us compelling instances where God’s purposes are revealed in a more subtle way.  There is, of course, the nameless disciple of John whom Jesus invites to “come and see.”  We do not read that this disciple felt compelled to change everything about himself; instead, Jesus invited him into a relationship, a relationship that wasn’t predicated on any particular result.  Even more powerful is the example of Philip and Nathanael.  After Philip tells Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,” Nathanael’s caustic response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nazareth was something of a backwater, not terribly well regarded, especially by those from the more cosmopolitan cities around the Galilee, like Bethsaida.  Nathanael’s question has particular resonance for me, as my hometown was a place that was not terribly well regarded.  hartfordI have heard a version of “Can anything good come out of Hartford” more than a few times in my life.  My response to remarks like this tended to be defensive and sometimes angry.  I would ball my fists and list all of the luminaries who had called Hartford, CT home, from Mark Twain to Katherine Hepburn.  I would, in other words, shut down the conversation.  But notice that’s exactly what Philip does not do with Nathanael.  Instead of responding defensively, Philip responds with an invitation: “Come and see.”  Instead of shutting down the conversation and telling Nathanael to go find his own Messiah, Philip turns to him and says, “Let me show you what good can come out of Nazareth.  Let me show you what God is up to in this Jesus.  Let me show how your life can be different.”

It occurs to me that in many ways, this is the nature of our vocation as Christians.  We are called to be like Philip, and if you’ll permit me, we’re called to be like Vanna White.  We are called to show the world the good that has come out of Nazareth.  We are called to show the world what God is up to in this Jesus.  We are called to show the people of this world how their lives can be different.  This is a challenging time in the history of the Church.  In the face of scandal, abuse, denominational infighting, and whole host of other issues, fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians.  People look at the plethora of Christian denominations and wonder whether there is anything that they can agree on, if there is any point to them trying to have a conversation.  More and more, the Church is regarded as an irrelevant artifact of a patriarchal past, one that is destined gradually to disappear.  In short, people are asking, “Can anything good come out of the Church?”  Even though we might be inclined to respond defensively, the God we serve calls us to invitation.  Even though we might want to avoid challenging conversations, the God we worship calls us to say, “Let me show you.”  Let me show you the Medical Care Mission, a ministry of this church that has provided people with low incomes with health care for thirty years.  Let me show you Christians of many denominations serving breakfast to the working poor over at First Christian before the sun comes up every day of the week.  Let me show you people from a variety of backgrounds worshiping together with silence and song as they gather for ecumenical Taize services.  Let me show you a group of people committed to serving their community and seeking Christ in everyone they meet.  Let me show you love.  It is in the moments that we acknowledge and celebrate our love for one another, our love for our community, and God’s love for everyone in this broken world that we most vividly show the world what good the Church can do.  Ultimately, the Church does not exist for itself; it exists for the transformation of the world.  In that regard, we cannot reach out to the people of world with the intention of getting them to become Episcopalians or Presbyterians; we must reach out to the people of the world with the intention of showing them how much God loves them.  This week of prayer for Christian Unity that we celebrate today is an opportunity to do just that, an opportunity for us to embrace our Christian vocation, our call to be in relationship with the world and invite the world to come and see. 

Endorsements

Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

A few weeks ago, the media was abuzz with news of corruption in Toronto, Canada.  It seems that Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, not only admitted to using crack cocaine in Toronto’s City Hall during “one of his drunken stupors,” but was also unrepentant and refused to entertain even the possibility of resigning.  When one watches some of the profanity-laden video of Mr. Ford vociferously defending himself on the floor of the City Council chamber, it’s easy to forget that this guy was elected to be the mayor of a city with 2.6 million residents.  But he was!  By 100,000 votes!

This led me to wonder how those people who supported Mr. Ford are feeling today.  I took a look at some of the editorials that endorsed Rob Ford’s candidacy back in 2010.  While none of them are terribly effusive, many of indicate that he was the right man for the job.  One newspaper noted that though some of Mr. Ford’s plans were unrealistic and not fully formed, at least he had a vision.  imgresThis editor somewhat prophetically concluded that “the risk in supporting Mr. Ford is what he might do as mayor,” but that at least he would do something.  Even more prescient was the evaluation of the National Post, which endorsed Mr. Ford by saying that “Toronto very much needs a proverbial bull in the china shop.”  I think the National Post got more than it bargained for.  Given what has happened in Toronto over the past month or so, I wonder whether these editorial boards wish they could take back their endorsement.  When the person they had identified as the cure to their city’s ills failed to live up to expectations, did these editors worry about whether people would ever take them seriously again?  Or did they simply retreat quietly to their offices and hope that the next candidate they endorsed would meet their expectations?

I think this dynamic of regret is at work in the words we hear from John the Baptist today.  Last week, we found John standing waist deep in the waters of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and admonishing his hearers to prepare the way of the Lord.  We heard John predict the coming of one more powerful than he, the one who will gather the wheat into his granary and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.  The John we heard from last week is the John of prophetic expectation, the great forerunner of the morn, the one heralding the advent of the Messiah.  Even though he is dressed in animal skins, lives in the desert, eats bugs, and can’t stop telling us what we’re doing wrong, I think that the John we heard from last week is the John we’re comfortable with.  Last week’s John is the self-assured baptizer, the one who is certain about the future, the one who is preparing us for the coming of God’s kingdom.

This week, however, we hear from an uncertain, self-doubting John.  We’ve fast-forwarded in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus has begun his ministry: he’s given the Sermon on the Mount, called the disciples, healed the sick, exorcised demons, and sent out apostles to preach the good news.  Before all of that, however, John baptized Jesus in the Jordan.  John determined that Jesus was the one he had been preaching about, the one with the winnowing fork and the threshing floor, and so he gives Jesus his endorsement.  According to Matthew, this was the last time that Jesus and John had any contact.  Since then, a lot has changed for both men.  Juan_Fernández_de_Navarrete_-_St_John_the_Baptist_in_the_Prison_-_WGA16467Jesus has begun a ministry of teaching and healing throughout Judea; John is in prison.  Jesus has been eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners; John has been rotting in jail.  So, when John hears about all that Jesus has been doing (the company he’s been keeping, the activities he’s been engaging in, the parties he’s been attending), John’s reaction is to wonder if he endorsed the wrong guy.  There are some scholars who hypothesize that John was a member of the Essenes, a group of Jewish monks who lived in the wilderness and were anxiously awaiting a Messiah who would throw out the Roman oppressors and restore true worship to the Temple.  If this is accurate, then it should not be surprising to us that John might be disappointed with the person he endorsed as the Messiah.  After all, if you expect a Messiah who will overthrow the Romans, you would expect that person to spend his time raising an army of strong and devoted warriors and rallying people to his noble and glorious cause.  You wouldn’t expect that Messiah to spend all his time hanging out with sick people and teaching in an inscrutable and sometimes alienating way.  Furthermore, if you expect a Messiah who will restore true worship to the temple and cleanse it of all impurity, you would expect that person to avoid those considered ritually unclean.  You wouldn’t expect that Messiah to spend time with tax collectors and sinners.  Perhaps most poignantly, if you are expecting a Messiah who will vindicate the righteous, you wouldn’t expect that Messiah to let you rot in jail.

Given John’s unmet expectations of Jesus, it’s no surprise that John sends two of his disciples essentially to find out whether he had made a mistake.  The two disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, the one we’ve been preparing for, the one we’ve been expecting, or are we still looking?”  The grammar of the question intrigues me, because it’s a little absurd to ask someone if he is the one who is to come.  It’s absurd to ask someone in the present if he is someone from the future.  “What do you mean, am I the one who is to come?  I’m here already!” There’s an element of this incredulity, this frustration in Jesus’ response: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  In other words, “The kingdom of God has come near.  What exactly are you looking for?”

The contrast between the expectations of John and the reality of Jesus is illustrated when Jesus turns to the crowds and asks what they expected when they went to see John in the wilderness.  Matthew frames these questions in such a way that the answer is self-evident.  What did you go out to see: a reed shaken by the wind?  No!  Someone dressed in soft robes?  No!  A prophet?  Yeah, a prophet!  Jesus, in other words, tells the crowds that John met their expectations, that John’s prophetic witness made sense within the context of the way the world works.  But, Jesus goes on to explain that though John is a prophet mighty in word and deed, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.  Why is that?  There is no one who was better prepared for the coming of the Messiah than John the Baptist; surely he should have pride of place in God’s kingdom.  There is no one who did more to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah than John the Baptist; why would he be left out of the conversation?

It seems to me that even though John the Baptist was prepared, he was not ready for the coming of the Messiah.  While being ready and being prepared may seem synonymous, there is a crucial difference.  We prepare with a specific goal or situation in mind: students prepare for tests, musicians prepare for recitals, football teams prepare for  specific opponents.  On the other hand, readiness implies a state of being, one that is not contingent on a particular situation.  If we are truly ready, we are ready for anything.  John the Baptist had a very specific idea about who the Messiah was and what he was going to do; he was prepared for the coming of that Messiah.  As soon as his expectations were not met, however, John wondered whether he was supposed to wait for someone else.  John wasn’t ready for what the coming of the Messiah truly represented.

I suspect that many of us can sympathize with John’s desire to know what to expect.  We live in a world that is so full of uncertainty and instability that we cling desperately to our expectations, hoping against hope that they will be met.  This is particularly true in our faith journeys.  Danger-ExpectationsWe are much more inclined to prepare for a Messiah who can be pinned down, a Messiah who will meet our expectations every time.  In a brief Internet search of “faith” and “expectations” last night, I found numerous websites that encouraged people to “Ask in faith and expect an answer.”  Popular religious figures encourage their hearers to tell God exactly what they want and expect it.  Examples like these demonstrate our deep preoccupation with certainty, our desire for a God who meets our expectations.  But Advent calls us to be ready for a Messiah who will challenge our expectations and call us out of our complacency.  We are called to be ready to encounter the Messiah in the places where we least expect to find him.

Many of you know Roz Thomas.  For those of you who don’t, Mother Roz was the Associate Rector here at Heavenly Rest for a number of years and has more recently served as the vicar of Trinity Church in Albany.  Those of you who know Roz know that she has a unique ability to defy expectations.  Though she was a tiny woman, one of her first purchases after arriving in Texas was a large Ford pickup truck.  When she was on the lot buying the truck, she found that there was a drawer underneath the driver’s seat.  She asked the salesman what the drawer’s purpose was; he responded, “Well ma’am, that’s for your gun.”  Roz was only taken aback for a moment before she decided that she would store her prayer book/hymnal in the drawer.

One of the things I have appreciated most about Roz’s example is how much she cared for the people of this community.  Roz has told me stories about emerging from the church offices and seeing a crowd of people gathered around her truck, all of them looking for a few dollars, a kind word, or a prayer.  Roz is one of the people responsible for the existence of Hands On Outreach, our emergency assistance ministry.  Roz knew how to look for Jesus in unexpected places.  She understood that each time she came in contact with a person asking for help, she was encountering the Messiah.

Roz died earlier this week.  This is a shock to all of us.  People who had seen her only a few days ago said that she seemed to be in good health.  Roz’s death was unexpected and I can’t imagine that she was prepared for it.  But I suspect that she was ready.  I suspect that her ministry of seeking out Jesus in unexpected places led her to be ready for the coming of the Messiah who defies our expectations.

Are you ready for the coming of the Messiah?  Are you ready for a Messiah who is found among the lost, the hopeless, the poor, the sick, and unloved?  Are you ready for a Messiah who shows us that the path of love is one of sacrifice?  Are you ready for a Messiah who defies your expectations?