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.

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Bearing Fruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limitless

imgresOne of the most striking elements of the West Texas landscape is the almost boundless sense of space.  Driving north to Lubbock or west to Odessa, it is easy to be overwhelmed by how far one can see, by how little gets in the way of one’s vision.  Where I come from, the only place you can see any distance is near the ocean (there are too many trees or hills in the way elsewhere); but in West Texas, you can see for miles and miles wherever you turn.  Of course, the boundlessness of the landscape allows West Texans to experience a wide variety of natural phenomena that others have a hard time imagining: spectacularly terrifying thunderstorms that you can see coming long before they arrive, towering dust storms that blot out the sun, and glorious sunrises and sunsets that seem to fill the entire world with uncreated light.  The landscape of West Texas is beautiful not because of what it features, but because it is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries.

There is a level at which the boundlessness of the landscape shapes the way that West Texans look at the world.  As a result of the fact that, in the words of one humorist, “West Texas is the world headquarters of nothing,” residents of this area are inclined to believe that you have to make your own way in this world, that no one is going to show you what steps you have to take to move forward.  And since the landscape of this region is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries, West Texans are inclined to believe that nearly anything is possible, that there are no limits on what we are capable of doing if we set our minds to it.  Both the landscape and ethos of West Texas are shaped by an abiding sense of limitlessness, a belief that the obstacles in front of us are temporary, a feeling that nearly anything is possible.

Over the past several weeks, we have heard stories from John’s gospel that involve Jesus encountering another person in a significant way.  At the beginning of Lent, Jesus had his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus.  The following week, Jesus met and had a flirtatious conversation with a Samaritan woman.  And last week, Jesus healed a blind man, who proceeded to have a protracted dispute with the religious authorities.  It occurs to me that the theme running through all of these stories (apart from being very long and making us stand for long periods of time) is that these encounters with Jesus lead people to reevaluate the limited way they look at the world.  Nicodemus wonders why Jesus and the Pharisees seem to interpret Scripture in such different ways; Jesus encourages Nicodemus to change the way he understands his relationship with God.  The Samaritan woman lives in light of the shameful identity given to her by her community; Jesus tells her that the only identity she should focus on is her status as a child of God.  The man born blind is told by the religious authorities that his condition means that he is sinful; by giving this man sight, Jesus affirms that categories like “righteous” and “sinful” are far too simple to characterize the abundant love of God.  In these encounters, Jesus moves his hearers from rigidity to openness, from shame to acceptance, from simplicity to complexity, from limits to possibility.

And the encounter described in today’s reading from John’s gospel is also meant to encourage us to reevaluate how we look at the world.  You know this story well, because it is easily one of the most dramatic in the New Testament.  It’s no wonder that this story is a favorite of those who have chronicled the life of Jesus on film.  In several movies, the raising of Lazarus is the climactic end of the second act, the moment that demonstrates how important and powerful this Jesus really is.  In many ways, the story of Lazarus is the pivotal moment in John’s gospel.  Beginning in chapter twelve, Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for his death.  He and his disciples are no longer out in public, but are in houses and upper rooms.  And though John tells us that the authorities have tried to stone Jesus a handful of times in the previous chapters, it is after the raising of Lazarus that the authorities actually begin planning to execute Jesus.  This leads us to ask: what is so important about the raising of Lazarus?  What is it that changes after Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb?  What is it about this event that makes the authorities decide that Jesus is too dangerous to live?

On one hand, the answers to these questions seem pretty obvious.  After all, Jesus raised someone from the dead and demonstrated how powerful he really is.  Perhaps a lot of people heard about Jesus’ ability to raise the dead and decided to become his followers.  The authorities, in other words, were afraid of Jesus just like they would be afraid of any charismatic leader who bucks the status quo.  On the other hand, this answer seems a little simplistic.  Roman authorities were pretty good at quashing popular movements that questioned their power.  The idea that they would have been particularly worried about a Jewish rabbi, even one who could magically raise the dead, is fairly unlikely. There is a deeper reason for the apprehension of the authorities, and it is tied to the transformation that Jesus effects among the mourners gathered around the tomb of Lazarus.

Caravaggio's "Raising of Lazarus"
Caravaggio’s “Raising of Lazarus”

There are three moments in this story that we should pay attention to.  First, even before Jesus arrives at Bethany, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his disciples.  The disciples remind their teacher that the last time he was in Judea, the people there tried to kill him.  The implication of the disciples is clear: “You probably shouldn’t go, because you might end up dead. Worse still, we might wind up dead!”  Nevertheless, Jesus ignores the disciples’ fears, ignores the prospect of death, and travels to Bethany to meet his friend.  The second moment we need to consider occurs when Jesus arrives.  John tells us that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days; he is, in other words, good and dead.  The dead man’s sisters accost Jesus, telling him that if he had been there, their brother wouldn’t have died.  In the same way, the crowds say, “This guy opened the eyes of the blind; certainly he could have restored Lazarus back to health, but here we are, mourning his death.”  In response to all of this, John tells us that Jesus is greatly disturbed and begins to weep.  The crowds assume that he is weeping for his friend, but it is pretty clear that Jesus is weeping for the people around the tomb, the people who are completely paralyzed by the death of Lazarus.  Finally, notice that the climax of this story is not when Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb; rather, it is when Jesus tells the startled onlookers to “Unbind him, and let him go.”

These three moments in the story of Lazarus point to a meaning that goes beyond its surface. Sure, this is certainly a miraculous account of someone being raised from the dead, but there is far more to this story.  Throughout most of John’s account, the people surrounding Jesus are paralyzed by their fear of death: the disciples don’t want to go to Judea because they are afraid they might die, Mary and Martha tell Jesus that he could have prevented Lazarus from dying if he had just been there, and the crowds are lingering around the tomb even four days after Lazarus’ funeral.  For the most part, Jesus does not react to the fact that Lazarus has died; instead, he reacts to the fear of death exhibited by the people around him.  He goes to Bethany in spite of the disciples’ warning, he tells Martha to trust even in the face of uncertainty, and he weeps because the crowds are imprisoned by their fear of death.  And so, in the climactic moment of the story, Jesus tells the crowds around the tomb to unbind Lazarus, to free him from the prison of death, and by doing so he invites the people gathered around him to free themselves from fear, to let themselves be unbound from the specter of death.  In his encounter with Lazarus, Jesus moves those around him not from sorrow to happiness, not from despair to hope, not even from death to life, but from fear to fearlessness.

Ultimately, this is why the raising of Lazarus impels the authorities to execute Jesus.  As far as they’re concerned, the only unassailable power that tyrants have is the power to take people’s lives.  This is why the preferred method of execution in the Roman Empire was crucifixion: by executing dissidents in a public and humiliating way, the Roman occupiers instilled fear among those who might want to rebel.  But when Jesus comes along and liberates people from the fear of death, those in power are suddenly impotent; without the fear of death, tyrants have no power to control people.  By freeing people from their prisons of fear, Jesus instilled fear among the authorities of this world, demonstrating to them that their power is ultimately fleeting and is coming to an end.  By raising Lazarus from the dead and then going willingly to the cross, Jesus demonstrates to us that we have nothing to fear, that when we ground our lives in God, we are not enslaved to limits, but are empowered to embrace possibility.

There are many times in our lives that we are imprisoned by fear.  Sometimes, we are afraid to try new things because we’re worried that we might fail.  Sometimes, we are afraid to reach out to someone we’ve never met because we’re afraid we might be embarrassed.  Sometimes, we’re willing to arm ourselves behind locked doors because of some vague fear of the unknown.  But by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus reveals to us that our lives are not shaped by success or failure.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus invites us to risk ourselves and be in relationship with those who are different than we are.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus shows us that we have nothing to fear.  In these final weeks of Lent, I encourage you to embrace this fearlessness, to turn away from perceived limits, and to acknowledge that anything is possible.

Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Every Christmas Eve, millions of people around the world tune in to listen to a Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England.  HDR tonemappedFor those of us who are passionate about choral music, it’s always one of the highlights of the year, an opportunity to hear one of the world’s great choirs singing some of the classics of choral literature as well as some new compositions.  As much as I love hearing new and old favorites, however, one of my favorite moments of the service comes at its very beginning.  After the choir and congregation have sung “Once in Royal David’s City,” building from a single treble voice to a majestic wash of sound, the Dean of the Chapel intones the words of the Bidding Prayer: “Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.”  I love this prayer, not only because of its beautiful language, but also because it implies that this is a story we have heard before and need to hear again, that the story of Jesus’ birth is indeed good news.

The term “good news” is used quite a bit in our culture.  There are whole websites dedicated to the sharing of good news.  For the most part, all of this “good news” is the stuff of feel-good human interest stories, the last three minutes of the 6:00 news.  A sampling of headlines makes this pretty clear: “At 82 years old, finally the ‘it’ girl on campus,” “Canadian Lottery Winner donates $40 million to charity,” “Girl donates her American Girl doll to raise money for the troops.”  You get the idea.  While I’m sure that all of these are wonderful stories of compassion and generosity, this is not the “good news” that the Angels proclaim in Luke’s gospel.  The “good news” proclaimed to the shepherds on that Middle Eastern hillside twenty centuries ago has much broader and more significant implications.

If you think about it, the gospel according to Luke presents the birth of Jesus is kind of an odd way.  You would think that the evangelist would want to focus exclusively on the baby and his family, on their joys and trials, their triumphs and hardships.  But instead, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics.  In particular, he focuses on a peculiar decree made by Caesar Augustus.  The emperor wanted to take a census of his diverse empire so the appropriate taxes could be levied.  This makes sense; this is part of the reason that our constitution mandates a decennial census.  It gets weird, however, when we hear that everyone was required to return to his hometown in order to be counted.  That’s just bizarre.  Why would you force someone return to a place he no longer lives in order to conduct a census?  If you do that, you’re not going to get an accurate count.  Scholars have wrestled with this, and some have come to the conclusion that there was no census, that it is a literary device used by the gospel to make sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem so that the prophecy of Micah could be fulfilled.  But I wonder if Luke mentions this decree from Caesar Augustus to show us what the exercise of worldly power looks like.  The emperor used his authority to command people where to go, even when those commands didn’t make any sense.  By mentioning this decree, Luke exposes the way the world is: people are subject the whims of tyrants and forced to do their bidding.

It is within this context that the angels make their announcement.  Even as the known world is being subjected to the whims of a capricious ruler, an angel appears to a group of shepherds and says, “Do not be afraid, for behold: I am bringing good news of great joy that will be for you and all people.”  The word that we translate as “good news” or “good tidings” is euaggelion.  While both of the familiar translations are accurate, they do not capture the full scope of the Greek.  You see, euaggelion was not used for everyday good news; euaggelion was used specifically to announce the birth of a new emperor.  The angels are not simply telling us that something good has happened in Bethlehem; the angels are telling us that a new king has arrived.  Even as the rulers of the present age are forcing their will upon the world, the angels announce that a new ruler has been born and that the world is going to change.  The message of the angels is that this world can be transformed.  The message of the angels is that the days of the powers of this world are numbered.  The message of the angels is that God has come to dwell among us and has promised new life to the world.  When we hear the good news of Christmas, we are called to reevaluate our lives, reorient our priorities, and make ourselves ready for a transformed world.

Even though the angels’ announcement is ultimately a political proclamation, we must remember that today we celebrate the arrival of a very different kind of king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome today was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through oppression and violence, the king we welcome today reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome today gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Today we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and demonstrated how we are meant to care for one another.  We are not meant to impose our will on others, we are not meant to presume that we know better than our neighbors, we are not meant to turn anyone away because of who they are or what they have done.  God has taken our human nature upon him; thus, we are called to welcome as a gift from God anyone who shares our humanity.  We are called to humble ourselves before the one who humbled himself as we reach out in love to the world Christ came to save.

choir-service-bigPerhaps the most dramatic moment of Lessons and Carols takes place silently and away from the eyes of the congregation.  As the organist plays the final notes of the prelude, the choir gathers in the rear of that beautiful chapel.  As they prepare to sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” sixteen young boy trebles huddle next to one another, uncertain about which one of them will sing the first verse.  It is not until the choirmaster sounds an opening pitch and points to one of them that they know who will sing an unaccompanied solo for the hundreds gathered in the chapel and the millions listening around the world (no pressure!).  It’s a powerful and dramatic moment, one that requires the boys to be ready for anything.  But more importantly, that nervous child singing about the birth of Jesus for millions upon millions of people is an icon of the Incarnation, a celebration of the fact that God shared our frail humanity and came to bring us good news.

Witness

_66534685_66534683While the major story in ecclesiastical news over the past week has been the selection and installation of Pope Francis as the Bishop of Rome, Anglicans like me have been anticipating the enthronement of Justin Welby as the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The ceremony ended a few minutes ago and included some of the best that our Communion has to offer: the choir sang Britten’s glorious Te Deum in C, the gospel procession featured African dancers chanting about God’s renewing action in the world, and the congregation prayed the wonderful General Thanksgiving that refers to Jesus Christ as “the means of grace and the hope of glory.”  It was, in other words, a thoroughly Anglican experience.

At the same time, the enthronement spoke to all who call themselves Christians.  In his sermon, Archbishop Justin reminded the congregation that there continue to be people in this world who are martyred for their Christian faith.  After the service, a commentator remarked that there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than there had been in all of previous Christian history.  For those of us who have any contact with the Church in places like Sudan or China, we know that being a Christian in certain parts of the world can be a risky proposition.  We also might think that the Archbishop’s mention of martyrdom is not particularly applicable to those of us who live in free societies that value religious toleration.  It’s important to remember, however, that the word “martyr” comes from the Greek for “witness” or “testimony.”  Martyrdom is not just about dying for one’s faith (though this can be an important element of it); martyrdom is about making the world aware of God’s deep love, to which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ testify.  By highlighting the importance of martyrdom, Archbishop Justin reminded us of the importance of bearing witness to our Christian faith and testifying to what God has done in our lives and in the life of the world.

In some ways, Archbishop Justin is taking the helm of the Anglican Communion at one of the most turbulent times in its history.  The church is deeply divided over issues as diverse as episcopal authority and human sexuality.  Meanwhile, people are increasingly less likely to identify themselves as Anglicans or even Christians, as the number of people with no religious affiliation grows significantly.  For all of the pomp of the enthronement ceremony, the worldly prestige of the Archbishop of Canterbury has eroded in the face of a secularizing society.  Nevertheless, I got the sense that Archbishop Justin as a deep and abiding hope for the Church, because he understands that bearing witness to God’s great love does not require worldly power.  The Archbishop alluded to Paul’s observation that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.  We have only to look at the example of Jesus Christ to know that this is true: God’s new creation was not inaugurated with a conquering army, but with a man who had been stripped naked, abandoned by his friends, and hung on a cross to die.  At the weakest moment in his life, Jesus Christ bore witness to God’s great love for all of humanity.  During the season of Lent, we too are called to bear witness to God’s great love out of our own vulnerability.  We begin Lent acknowledging our unworthiness and being assured of God’s forgiveness.  And we do not spend the season trying to make ourselves more worthy of God’s love; rather, we engage in disciplines to become more aware that we have received the abundance of God’s grace in spite of our weakness.  When we do this, we bear witness to a God who makes his love known to us not through worldly power, but through weakness.