Seeing, Hearing, and Knowing

Sermon on Mark 7:24-27 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

There’s a beautiful scene in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting in which Will, a mathematical genius who works as a janitor at MIT, is sitting on a park bench with Sean, a psychologist who has been tasked with helping Will find direction in life. Noting that Will had never left Boston, Sean meditates on the limits of Will’s intelligence: “if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling…I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer…You don’t know about real loss, ‘cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.” Sean’s point is clear: while Will understood plenty about the world, there is much that he did not know. More significantly, the kind of knowledge that Sean holds up requires a measure of vulnerability and a willingness to love with abandon.

The passage we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning is one of the more uncomfortable in our lectionary. Those of us who call ourselves Christians expect Jesus to behave a certain way: he is kind and open-minded. When he interacts with the Syrophoenician woman, however, Jesus is callous, dismissive, and downright rude. This story does not jibe with our normal image of Jesus. Moreover, it’s difficult to explain away his behavior. Of course, this hasn’t prevented people from trying. Some interpreters have noted that the Gentile residents of the Decapolis profited from the exploitation of those who lived in the Galilee. According to these critics, Jesus was offering a visceral and understandable response to years of economic marginalization. Other commentators have noted that the word Jesus uses to refer to the Syrophoenician woman can be translated as “puppies,” implying that Jesus’ remark was not nearly as harsh as it sounds to our ears. As interesting as these interpretations may be, all of them represent attempts to explain why Jesus behaves the way he does in the first place, and not why he ultimately responds to the Syrophoenician woman. I think the reason we are so focused on rationalizing Jesus’ apparent xenophobia at the beginning of this interaction is that we are uneasy with the idea that Jesus has a change of heart. After all, Jesus is supposed to be divine, and divine things aren’t supposed to change. Unless we acknowledge that Jesus has something of a conversion experience in his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman, however, we fail apprehend the true power of this moment.

One could argue that the theme of Mark’s gospel can be found in the fourth chapter, when Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “they look, but do not perceive,” he explains, “and they listen, but do not understand.” In many ways, the rest of the gospel is about exposing the ways that the people around Jesus fail to understand what is happening; the ways that they look without really seeing and hear without really listening. While the people around Jesus may understand plenty about the world, in other words, there is much that they do not know. We see this theme play out in this passage. Surprisingly, however, it is Jesus who looks without seeing and hears without listening, at least initially. Jesus ignores needs of the Syrophoenician woman because he understood everything he needed to understand about her. He understood she was a Gentile, a covenant outsider, and therefore unworthy of and, in all probability, uninterested in his attention. Jesus dismisses the Syrophoenician woman on the basis of what he knew about her before she even entered the scene. It is the woman’s response, not necessarily what she said, but the fact of her response that allows Jesus to look at her and see her, to recognize that for all he may understand about her, he does not know her. This is why he says, “For saying that, go.” That is the moment of recognition; that is the moment Jesus sees beyond the prejudices of his time and place and acknowledges that this woman’s plight is universal. Now, the theological sticklers among us may object to the implication that Jesus has to learn anything. Significantly, however, this was not something Jesus had to learn. In fact, the language Jesus used earlier in the gospel seems to indicate that we are destined to look without seeing and hear without listening. In this sacred moment, however, Jesus articulates a new way forward. He reveals that we do not have to be hamstrung by our blindness to the people around us. Indeed, Jesus models what faithful engagement with “the other” looks like and demonstrates that the gospel empowers us to look at other people and truly see them.

We live in an age in which we understand a lot about the people around us. Tech companies can tell us everything there is to know about us on the basis of our buying habits. Political pundits can guess at our education level, our ethnicity, our age, and our income on the basis of who we vote for. If we’re honest, we too make judgments on the basis of what we already know about people. After all, what do you think when you see someone wearing gold rings and fine clothes, or dirty clothes, or a hoodie, or a short skirt, or a “Make America Great Again” cap? How many people can we say we truly know? Moreover, how many people can we say we have endeavored to know? How many people have we looked at and really tried to see? What might happen if we, the people gathered in this room this morning, made an effort to know the people around us: not to learn about them, but to acknowledge and look beyond our assumptions and prejudices and truly see another person? The objective of this is not necessarily to change our minds about things or even to discover what we have in common with each other, but to overcome the blindness to which we are all susceptible. My suspicion is that a community dedicated not to a particular worldview, but to the discipline of truly knowing other people, has the power to transform the lives of those around them. This isn’t easy: it requires vulnerability and a willingness to be rejected. But the gospel invites us, dares us to love with abandon. When we do that, we will know each other in a way that transcends what we think we already understand.

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I want to know what Love is…

Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Among scholars, the letter to the Ephesians is one of those biblical books that you either love or you hate. Certain commentators simply can’t get enough of it, suggesting that it is the paragon of epistles that articulates a soaring vision of what Church is called to be. Other interpreters are less complimentary, arguing that the text is overblown and lacks the apostolic clarity of other New Testament letters. If I’m honest, I tend to sympathize with this latter opinion. Ephesians is adjective-happy and sounds like it was written with a thesaurus at hand. Just listen to passage we heard this morning, which mentions both “the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” and “the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Phrases like this lack authenticity: the letter seems to be written the way one is supposed to write, rather than with a clear voice. More significantly, at least from our perspective, the author of Ephesians makes an enormous assumption about the way we understand God when he refers to Jesus Christ as “the Beloved.” This is not language we are accustomed to these days. Many of us would probably hesitate to refer to our spouses as “the Beloved,” at least in public. Calling someone “the Beloved” means that person is worthy of our love. But frankly, the concept of love has been so thoroughly sentimentalized that the notion of loving God feels downright foreign. So, what does it mean to love God?

One of the reasons the concept of love can be hard to grasp is that our culture tends to equate “love” with “affection.” Love is a romantic gesture, a tender hug, or a pledge of fidelity. It’s a little strange to apply this notion of what love is to our relationship with God (“giving God a hug” is kind of a bizarre image). In reality, however, love has less to do with affection and more to do with the way we order experience of the world. If we love someone, we have made room for them in our lives. Generally, we will not make room for another person in our lives for very long unless we believe they have also made room for us. The same is true of our love for God. Loving God with our whole heart, mind, and strength means that we have devoted time and space within our lives to our relationship with God. Significantly, loving God also requires us to believe that God loves us. This, of course, invites us to wonder what this means. What does it mean to believe that God loves us? This, as it turns out, is a more complicated question.

Last week, I was stopped at a light in North Philadelphia with my windows down. There was a guy going from car to car asking drivers if they could help him out. When he got to me, he asked if I had any food, and I told him, “No,” but that I could give him a couple of bucks. As I handed him the cash, he noticed my clerical collar and said, “Next time, I’ll ask you about my salvation.” I wasn’t quite prepared for this, but managed to say, “God loves you very much,” before the light turned green. He glanced at the crumpled bills in his hand, announced, “I believe that now,” and walked to the next car. Apparently, that’s all it took. All he needed was two dollars to believe that God loved him. As absurd as this statement was, however, I suspect that few of us have given significantly more thought to what it means for God to love us. We tend to take the fact that God loves us for granted, which is surely one of the reasons it was the first thing I thought to say to this guy. But the reality is that believing God loves us demands that we adopt certain perspective on the world, a perspective we are not usually inclined to engage. Invariably, when we talk about the love of God, the word “unconditional” comes up. God loves us without condition. This is one of the articles of faith that is dearest to us. It is difficult to appreciate the nature of “unconditional love” without first reflecting on what conditions there could be. The passage from Ephesians we heard this morning implies that the fruit of God’s love is the “forgiveness of our tresspasses.” In another place, Paul makes the connection between forgiveness and love explicit when he writes when he writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Indeed, this may be the central assumption of the Christian faith: God loves us despite our sins. Appreciating the love of God, in other words, requires us to recognize our sinful nature. Here’s the thing, though: do we really believe that we are sinners?

For the most part, sin feels like an outdated and outmoded concept that has little to do with the way we live today. The idea that we should be concerned about violating some abstract code of behavior is almost insulting. After all, when you get down to it, most people are good. Most people are just trying to get through life and do what makes them happy without hurting anybody. And yet, we know from experience that, despite our best efforts to make sure that no one is hurt by our actions, we frequently benefit, directly or indirectly, from activities that cause others pain. Now, we could dismiss this realization and argue that it’s not our fault, but this doesn’t prevent wrong from being done. We could try to boycott every system that causes people pain, but we would quickly find ourselves with few, if any, places to engage. The more one thinks about it, the more paralyzed one feels. This, ultimately, is what sin is. Sin is the fact that, no matter how hard we try, we are complicit in a widespread failure to honor God’s creation. At baptism, we renounce the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. Before we can renounce them, however, we have to acknowledge they exist. We have to acknowledge that we are in thrall to forces that are beyond our control or our comprehension, that there are moments when, despite our best intentions, we corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. But here is the gospel: even though we have all sinned and have all fallen short of the glory of God, God loves us anyway.

A love like this invites a response. When we both apprehend the magnitude and the inevitability of sin and understand that God loves us despite that sin, then calling God “the Beloved” no longer seems like such a stretch. Moreover, the recognition that we are all sinners increases our capacity for compassion. It is much harder to condemn others for their misdeeds when we appreciate our own susceptibility to sin. Ultimately, this is what it means to love God: to make room in our lives, not only for God, but for those other sinners whom God loves.

The Redemption of Saint Peter

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


May you always find God’s call irresistible.

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

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

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

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

Love and other unnecessary things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drowning out the Noise

Sermon on Hosea 1:2-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Casablanca, Michael Curtiz’ 1942 film about war and romance, may be the most quotable of all time. Every scene seems to contain at least one memorable line, from “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris.” In a film full of incredible scenes, one scene in particular stands out for what it expresses with almost no dialogue at all. During the scene in question, Victor Laszlo, an idealistic freedom fighter played by Paul Henreid, and Rick Blaine, a cynical expatriate played by Humphrey Bogart, are discussing the merits of resisting the forces of tyranny. Their conversation is interrupted by Nazi officers singing a German patriotic anthem. Laszlo indignantly strides over to the house orchestra and instructs the bandleader to play “La Marseillaise.” The band obliges, and everyone in the cafe stands and sings. Before too long, the singing of the German officers is drowned out by the triumphant strains of the French national anthem. It’s a stirring scene, and it’s especially powerful when you consider the fact that Casablanca was released in 1942, long before Allied victory in the Second World War was assured. This scene held out hope that the chaos and darkness of the world could be overcome, that we could raise our voices in song and drown out the noise of tyranny and oppression.

Yet that is not the most powerful part of this scene. Just before the orchestra begins playing the French national anthem, the bandleader looks to Rick for approval. Until this moment in the film, Rick has been the ultimate pragmatist; earlier in the movie, he excuses himself from a political conversation by saying, “Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon.” But, when the bandleader looks to Rick for guidance, Rick nods ever so slightly. If you aren’t paying attention, you’d almost miss it. Yet, that almost imperceptible nod signals a fundamental change in Rick’s character. It is the turning point in the story, the moment Rick’s perspective shifts from that of a pragmatist to that of an idealist, from self-interested cynic to altruistic hero.

A similar shift in perspective colors our reading from the prophet Hosea this morning. Hosea’s words are initially striking for their anger. In some ways, we expect this from prophets. All the Hebrew prophets have moments when they rail against the faithlessness and sinfulness of their people. Hosea’s anger, however, is unique for its uninhibited, no holds barred ferocity. The first verses of the book contain a withering indictment of Israel’s faithlessness. The prophet writes with a pointed rage that dispenses with social niceties: “The land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” Hosea goes on to insist that God’s wrath will be complete and merciless: God will “put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” and “will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.” Hosea goes so far as to claim that Israel has abdicated its role as God’s chosen people, that God’s people have nullified their covenant with God. His rant concludes with a devastating proclamation from the LORD: “You are not my people, and I am not your God.”

Though this language is uncomfortable, it is consistent with Hosea’s vocation. While “prophet” tends to be synonymous with “seer” in our language, the primary role of the Hebrew prophets was not to predict the future. It was, instead, to tell God’s people that continuing their current trajectory would yield exactly the results they would expect. In other words, the vocation of the Hebrew prophets was to tell people they would have to lie in the bed they had made for themselves. The people of Israel had made quite a bed for themselves: they refused to follow God’s commandments, they failed to act with righteousness toward the marginalized, and they persisted in worshiping idols instead of the one true God. The punishments that Hosea describes are simply the just requirements prescribed by the Law. The collapse of Israelite society is evidence of God’s righteous judgment. As far as Hosea is concerned, his people are getting exactly what they deserve for violating their covenant with God. Israel had repeatedly failed to hold up its end of the bargain, and God was finally fed up.

And yet, that is not where Hosea concludes. This chapter ends with a surprising and subtle shift. In fact, if you weren’t paying attention, you might even miss it. After a blistering litany of condemnations, the prophet writes, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’” Though this rhetorical turn is almost imperceptible, it is of enormous consequence. Hosea effectively nullifies the condemnation he pronounced in the preceding verses. Hosea insists that God’s love cannot be erased by the failures of God’s people. This is not an isolated moment. Several chapters later, the prophet offers these words from God: “How can I give you up?…O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal.” Even the noise of Israel’s persistent disobedience is drowned out by the urgent song of God’s grace and love. In the face of Israel’s inevitable and well-deserved condemnation, God offers a categorical “yet.”

One could say that “yet” is the biggest little word in the Bible. It is the word that promises hope when all hope seems lost. It is the word that affirms that God’s covenant with us cannot be nullified by our unfaithfulness. It is the word that raised Jesus Christ from the dead and defeated the powers of sin and death. It is a word that signals a fundamental change in the way we understand our relationship with God. God’s love is not contingent on our ability to follow God’s commandments; in fact, God’s love is not contingent on anything. Instead, God’s love is rooted in the fact that God is God and no mortal, that God will be who God will be. Hosea’s “yet” signals that even the deepest human frailty can be quenched by the even deeper well of God’s grace.

Though we understand the centrality of grace in theory, it is hard for us to put this knowledge into practice. This is especially true when we bear witness to the calamities that have been afflicting the world over the past several months. We tend to feel that we need an answer to all of the problems that plague us before we bother with the question of grace. What we fail to understand is that grace is an answer to these challenges. Grace is an antidote to the chaos and darkness of the world, because it empowers us to shift our perspective. Grace enables us to claim joy in every circumstance, at all times and in all places (always and everywhere). While this shift may be subtle, even imperceptible, it makes all the difference in the world. In the face of the deepest human frailty, we are called offer Hosea’s “yet,” and proclaim the unfathomable depth of God’s grace and love. We are called to sing of God’s faithfulness, trusting that our song can drown out the noise.

The Tenacity of Love

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

imgresA few years ago, the New York Times published an article titled “At First she Didn’t Succeed, but she Tried and Tried Again (960 Times).” The feature profiled a 69 year old grandmother from South Korea named Cha Sa Soon and chronicled her five year quest to attain a driver’s license. During this period, Ms. Cha traveled by bus from her home in the country to a testing center in the city several times a week. After failing the 700th time, she became something of a national celebrity, not only because she was a loveable underdog, but because of her dogged persistence. When she finally passed the test, Ms. Cha earned accolades from her countrymen and made international news. More importantly, she made it clear that her perseverance had been worthwhile. By outlasting the doubters, Cha Sa Soon became a symbol of what can happen when we refuse to give up.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was addressing a community plagued by conflict. Much of this dissension stemmed from the fact that there was a faction in the church who believed that they had discerned the only way to live an authentic Christian life. This group believed that they had it all figured out. In particular, they valued knowledge and spiritual gifts above all else. These Corinthians thought the ability to speak in tongues, to make prophetic utterances, and to understand the mysteries of the universe were all key components of the Christian life. As a result, church members who possessed these gifts disdained anyone in the community who lacked knowledge or spiritual charisma. Though it might seem that these gifted members of the community were just trying to prove that they were better than their less talented brothers and sisters, their disdain is actually slightly more complicated. These gifted members of the community believed that knowledge, tongues, and prophecy were the most effective way to commune with the divine, that they were vehicles for connecting with that which is eternal. Indeed, the Corinthians thought of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge as tools for addressing the fundamental human anxiety: how do we deal with the fact that we will die? These members of the Corinthian community believed that their mastery of human knowledge and their ability to speak in tongues and prophesy allowed them to escape the tyranny and inevitability of death. This is why those gifted members of the church regarded others in the community with contempt: the others weren’t trying hard enough to fix the ultimate human dilemma.

imagesPaul’s response to his congregation is intriguing. He does not methodically demonstrate that their way of thinking is flawed as we might expect; in fact, he declines to engage with their position at all. Instead, he implies that the spiritual gifts they so highly prize have no value in themselves. In spite of their knowledge, Paul suggests that the Corinthians have no idea how the world really works and that their preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual gifts will fail them in the end. Paul insists that there is a better way. He dismisses the Corinthian preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual charisma and instead offers a glimpse God’s ultimate purpose.

It is in response to the Corinthian conflict that Paul offers his famous meditation on the mystery of love. In this meditation, Paul’s implication is clear: everything we think is important pales in comparison to the gift of love. For Paul, love is what gives meaning to the things we value. Paul is at his most poetic when he tells the Corinthians that those who speak in tongues without love are noisy gongs and clashing cymbals and reminds them that those possessed of immeasurable knowledge and prophetic powers are nothing if they do not have love. This is not to say that Paul considers these spiritual gifts inherently useless. Indeed, Paul makes the startling claim that the faith to move mountains, a virtue that is celebrated specifically elsewhere in the New Testament, is worthless without love. For Paul, nothing can have value, not even the greatest spiritual gift, unless it is animated by love.

The reason for this is that love has staying power. The Corinthians deluded themselves into believing that their spiritual gifts could forestall the inevitability of death. Paul disabuses them of this fantasy: “But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” Paul acknowledges the painful reality at the heart of the human condition: all of the things we think are important will come to an end, all of the things that preoccupy us will cease, all of the things that we believe can free us from the tyranny of death will ultimately come to an end. The only thing that does not end, that will not end, that cannot end is love. Love persists; love abides; love doesn’t give up; love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.”

We’re on somewhat dangerous ground here, because it is possible to fetishize love, to turn it into one of the tools that the Corinthians imagined they could use to cheat death. This is what we tend to do when we sentimentalize love, when we think of it as a magic formula that can solve any problem. Hollywood loves to do this, to have every problem disappear when the protagonists realize their love for one another. Love, however, cannot solve every problem. Indeed, sometimes love makes those problems even more painful. The love of a wife will not necessarily cure her husband’s clinical depression. The love of a daughter will not heal her mother of cancer. The love of a parent will not necessarily prevent a child from spiraling into self-destruction. What love can do is endure every single one of these trials. Love won’t necessarily fix everything, but it can outlast anything. This is why the ultimate expression of love is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God proves that love truly endures all things, including death. In the resurrection, God affirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even the fact that we will die.

imagesIn just a few moments, we will baptize Charlotte Grace into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just after she is covered with the waters of baptism, she will be anointed with oil using these words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism is neither admission to a club nor a guarantee that everything will go well for us. Rather, baptism is an affirmation that God’s love for us can outlast anything. As Christians, we are called to manifest this love to the world, confident that God will never give up on us.

The Unimportance of being Earnest

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 and Mark 5:21-43 offered to the people of Marsh Chapel in Boston, Massachusetts. A recording of the sermon and the service where it was preached may be heard here.

In 1935, Thomas P. O’Neill, the legendary Massachusetts politician and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, ran for a seat on the City Council in Cambridge. In what was to be the only electoral defeat in his long political career, O’Neill lost the race by 228 votes. Though imgres-1Tip was understandably disappointed, he derived two important lessons from the experience of losing that city council race. One came from his father, a local legend in his own right who advised O’Neill that he did not spend enough time campaigning in his own neighborhood. “All politics is local,” he counseled with a phrase that was to become O’Neill’s trademark. The other lesson came from Mrs. Elizabeth O’Brien, a neighbor whom Tip had known since childhood. On Election Day, Mrs. O’Brien somewhat haughtily told her young neighbor, “Tom, I’m going to vote for you even though you didn’t ask me.” O’Neill was taken aback: “Mrs. O’Brien,” he protested, “I’ve lived across the street from you for eighteen years. I cut your grass in the summer and shovel your walk in the winter. I didn’t think I had to ask for your vote.” “Tom, let me tell you something,” she replied. “People like to be asked.” Tip got a lot of mileage out of this story; when O’Neill became Majority Whip in Congress, Hale Boggs of Louisiana heard the Mrs. O’Brien story so frequently that he would roll his eyes at the first hint of its coming. Even though it became a cliche, this story reveals an important truth, not only about politics, but about the human condition. No matter how earnest and talented we may be, it is our participation in the community that is most important. While assumptions and good intentions have their place, there is no substitute for reaching outside of ourselves and remembering that people like to be asked.

This morning we hear two passages from Scripture that would have met with Mrs. O’Brien’s approval. As you probably remember, we have been reading through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians for the past several weeks. Second Corinthians has some of Paul’s most eloquent language, from “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” to “ We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive.” In the first seven chapters of Second Corinthians, Paul is firing on all cylinders, affirming the power of the resurrection and the endurance of the Christian community. Today, however, Paul shifts gears a little bit, and begins to address some practical concerns, namely fundraising. You see, apart from proclaiming the gospel, the primary objective of Paul’s ministry is to raise money for the church in Jerusalem. It is one of the few directives he received from the other apostles, and he takes the responsibility very seriously. As such, almost every Pauline letter has at least some reference to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem: either thanking the community for its support or encouraging them to open their pocketbooks. Second Corinthians falls into the latter category. Paul tells the Corinthians how impressed he is with their enthusiasm for the gospel and the work of the Church, and further explains that their zeal ought to be matched by material support: “it is appropriate for you who began last year…to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” It sounds remarkably like an NPR pledge drive, doesn’t it? But Paul is not simply asking for money. Notice the way he frames his request: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Paul is not encouraging a mere redistribution of resources; he is framing financial generosity, as he frames everything, within the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s love; it’s the affirmation that God’s love truly bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, even death. And it is the resurrection that Paul has in mind when he says, “I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” Far from simply soliciting a contribution to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, Paul is suggesting that the Corinthians’ financial gift makes a profound statement about the way they look at the world. Yes, Paul is asking the members of the congregation to put their money where their mouth is, but he is also drawing a subtle, but crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between the desire to help and the will to help, between assuming and asking. Just as God’s love was revealed to be genuine in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul implies that our love is revealed to be genuine when we reach outside of ourselves.

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New Testament scholarship can make one hungry.

This is also the implication of today’s gospel reading. This passage from Mark’s gospel is a great example of an intercalation, known more colloquially as a “Markan sandwich.” A Markan sandwich is composed of two stories, which, when read together, reveal a larger truth. In this case, the “filling” for the sandwich is the story about the hemorrhaging woman, while the “bread” is the story about Jairus’ daughter. The similarities between these stories are obvious: both depict women who have their health restored, both feature the number “twelve” prominently (probably a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel), and both celebrate the power of faith. But the most interesting similarity between these stories is that they depict people reaching outside of themselves across social boundaries. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue; he comes from a caste that naturally distrusts Jesus and other upstarts. Jairus, however, reaches out to Jesus in spite of the social implications. Mark uses the imperfect tense to describe this interaction, indicating that Jairus kept asking Jesus, repeatedly violating social norms on behalf of his sick daughter. The hemorrhaging woman crosses an even more formidable boundary than Jairus. Not only is she a woman reaching out to a man in a patriarchal culture, her condition renders her unclean according to the Jewish Law. By reaching out to Jesus, she violates not only social convention but the Law of Moses itself. Nevertheless, she reaches out to Jesus, aware that her earnestness will only take her so far. Both Jairus and the woman Jesus heals understand that love is only revealed to be genuine when we reach outside of ourselves. With this intercalation, Mark illustrates the subtle but crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between desire and will, between assuming and asking.

Those of you who have spent any amount of time in the Church know that it tends to be a hotbed of earnestness. When faced with an issue, our impulse is to create a committee to discuss it and to conceive of possible solutions, all while assuming that we know best. Then, if we fail or do not achieve the desired result, we are inclined to give up, saying something to the effect of, “Well, at least we tried.” Earnestness has an incredibly short shelf-life. It is suited to the quick fix, to the cause celebre, to the armchair activist, to the easy answer. The gospel, however, does not call us to earnestness; it calls us to genuine love. Genuine love asks us to reach outside of ourselves, it asks us to violate social conventions, it asks us to acknowledge we do not have all the answers. And even when our efforts at communication and bridge-building fail, genuine love asks that we, like Jairus, keep asking, keep striving to be in relationship, keep forging the bonds of affection that build up the body of Christ. Above all, genuine love asks us to recognize what we share in common with the people around us. While earnestness demands that we see the world as a collection of causes, genuine love invites us to see the people of this world as sisters and brothers, as members of the same body, as those for whom Christ died.

Ten days ago, this country was appalled, angered, and saddened to hear about the murder of nine Black Christians at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Everything about this terrorist act was horrifying: the fact that it took place in a house of worship, the fact that the murderer exploited the hospitality of those he murdered, the fact that he left someone alive to repeat his hateful message. Naturally, people from every walk of life have expressed their outrage at this atrocity. They have clamored for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public buildings and for a dramatic reevaluation of our gun laws. There is no question that these are necessary steps to take: symbols of bygone rebellions have no place in the halls of government and our nation must examine its idolatrous preoccupation with firearms. Ultimately, however, these steps are symbolic. The problems that led to this massacre will not be solved when the stars and bars are taken down from outside the South Carolina state house, nor will they disappear when it is harder to purchase a deadly weapon. For all of our earnest desire to “do something” in the wake of this tragedy, we must adopt a perspective of genuine love, recognizing that the sin of racism cannot be undone through symbolic and legislative acts. Genuine love requires us to reach outside of ourselves across the walls that separate us. It requires that we be willing to ask our sisters and brothers about their experience of the world, recognizing that their answers may make us uncomfortable. All the while, we must trust in the God who is reconciling all things to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In short, our response to the tragedy in Charleston requires us to recognize the crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between desire and will, between assuming and asking. Earnestness assumes that systemic racism is confined to one part of the country. Genuine love recognizes that all of us are complicit in a racist system of oppression. Earnestness looks for quick fixes. Genuine love recognizes that the problems we face do not have easy answers. Earnestness is a solitary endeavor. Genuine love works toward Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community. Earnestness says “somebody ought to do something about this.” Genuine love asks if that “somebody” might be me. Most importantly, earnestness tells us to give up every time we fall short. Genuine love encourages us to keep asking, keep striving, keep working, keep trusting that the walls that separate us can and will be dismantled, because God has renewed creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to be more than earnest and well-intentioned; we are called to be genuine: we are called to build up the Beloved Community, to ask our sisters and brothers to share in the new creation, and to reach outside of ourselves with genuine and reconciling love.