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.

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Disruption

Sermon on John 2:13-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

The incident we heard about in this morning’s gospel is one of the rare events attested by every gospel writer. All four evangelists make at least some reference to Jesus’ temple tantrum. While the incident is clearly important for all four evangelists; for John, it sets the tone for Jesus’ mission. This is at least partially illustrated by the differences in the way the event is recorded. The accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are brief and straightforward: each dispassionately describes the event and then offers a brief Scriptural warrant for Jesus’ actions. John, on the other hand, goes into painstaking detail, telling us that Jesus made a whip of cords, drove the sheep and cattle from the temple, poured out the coins and overturned the tables of the money changers, and told those selling livestock, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The effect of this lengthy description is to invite us to imagine the reactions of those witnessing Jesus’ actions. John doesn’t tell us that anyone attempted to prevent Jesus from making a mess of the Temple grounds, even though he apparently went on for a while. It’s worth exploring the reason nobody tried to stop him.

smirnov-alexander_cleansing-of-the-temple-001We often mischaracterize this event in the life of Jesus. In the first place, we often erroneously call it “the cleansing of the Temple.” The implication of this description is that Jesus is bringing a reforming impulse to the very heart of the Temple system. We assume that Jesus is violating something sacred and causing deep offense to the religious authorities and all who were attached to the Jewish tradition. Years ago, one clergyperson told me that this event was the equivalent of someone marching into a church and turning over the Communion table. This, however, doesn’t make any logical sense. The work of the animal vendors and the money changers wasn’t considered sacred; it was simply a necessary component of the Temple system. Instead of dragging a lamb across the wilderness or trying to keep two turtle doves alive on an extended road trip, pilgrims to Jerusalem would simply buy an animal to sacrifice when they arrived at the Temple. Since most money featured graven images of the emperor and thus violated the Second Commandment, pilgrims had to purchase coins that could be used in the Temple before they made their purchases. In other words, the money changers and animal vendors were there to make the worship of God convenient and practical; they were part of the routine. Jesus’ demonstration was a little like someone walking into the grocery store and knocking over the displays of oranges: surprising, but not particularly offensive. The fact that John doesn’t comment on anyone’s reaction to the Temple incident reveals that no one really understood what Jesus was doing. Why would he expend so much energy to disrupt such an innocuous routine?

The reason is that the routine in itself was corrupt. The fact that everyone had become accustomed to the way that the Temple system functioned reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of what it meant to be in relationship with God. Jesus’ demonstration was intended to expose the hypocrisy at the very heart of the religious establishment. The religious establishment assumed that the power of God could be circumscribed by human authority and that our relationship with God was somehow transactional. To be clear, Jesus is not just challenging the Jewish tradition; he is calling members of every religious tradition to account for the ways that we allow preserving the status quo to get in the way of true transformation.

This demonstration in the Temple prefigured a much more dramatic and unsettling demonstration three years later, when the Romans crucified Jesus at the urging of the religious authorities. I think we forget how routine crucifixion was in the Roman Empire. In the wake of insurrections or civil unrest, contemporary historians tell us that the imperial authorities would line the roadways with crucified criminals as a vivid warning to any would be rabble rousers. The anguished cries of the condemned could be heard for miles. At the same time, Rome’s chattering classes understood that this was a convenient and practical way to maintain control in a vast and often unruly empire. It might be unfortunate, but keeping that Pax Romana going required a little unspeakable violence from time to time. In other words, crucifixion was the cost of doing business. Even the Jewish religious authorities understood this. John tells us that Caiaphas the high priest once remarked that it was better for one man to die for the people. Better to weed out the troublemakers in order to maintain the status quo.download Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates the deep hypocrisy of this perspective. Indeed, Jesus’ Passion exposes the violence at the very heart of human society. The events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ reveal that the entire status quo was built on the perverse assumption that some lives, some human beings created in the image and likeness of God, are expendable.

There is only one appropriate response to this revelation, and that is repentance. Now, you’ve heard me say before that repentance is not simply about being sorry for our sins. It’s not about cataloguing all our misdeeds and doing our best to avoid them in the future. Repentance is much broader and more demanding. Literally, the Greek word means “to change one’s mind,” to change the way one thinks about the world. More specifically, repentance is about acknowledging that our way of looking at the world is flawed and needs to be transformed. It is about refusing to accept status quo that fails to honor the image of God in those around us. It is about allowing our routine to be disrupted.

A week or so ago, I heard a high school student remark that she is part of the “mass shooting generation.” There is something profoundly sad and distressingly apt about this designation. No one currently in high school was born when two students massacred their classmates at Columbine High School in 1999. The students currently in school know nothing of a world without active shooter drills and lockdown procedures. It’s not just kids who are old enough to understand who are affected. I remember how painful it was when I realized why my three-year-old’s preschool requested that, in addition to a change of clothes to keep in her cubby, we also send something that would keep her quiet. As we’ve all noticed, mass shooting in general and school shootings in particular have become painfully routine. Mass shootings have become so common that the only thing we feel like we can do is wait for the next one to occur.

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photo by Joel Auerbach

This is a routine that must be disrupted. The only way to disrupt it, the only appropriate response to this feeling of despair is the same repentance that Jesus invites from the cross. In the face of overwhelming tragedy, we are called to transform our flawed perspective on the world. We are called to reexamine the assumptions and principles we hold most dear, whether about guns or personal freedom, and ask ourselves if it is truly worth holding onto them. As important as changes to our gun laws or mental health policies may be, however, they will not address the deep spiritual crisis that lurks behind every one of these mass shootings. Repentance also requires us to acknowledge the violence that seems to exist at the very heart of our society, to ask ourselves what it is that leads someone to assume that the people around him are expendable.

I wish I had more practical good news in this sermon. I wish that I could say with supreme confidence, “If we pull together and collaborate, drawing on the best suggestions from across the ideological spectrum, we will be able to make meaningful headway in addressing the scourge of gun violence.” That may be true, and I am hopeful that we can sustain a conversation and find common ground in our approach to this issue. At the same time, no amount of well-meaning and collaborative policy making will be able to address the fact that violence lurks behind so much of our common life. In fact, once we have acknowledged the problem, the only hope of addressing it is also our ultimate hope: that the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that the God who made foolish the wisdom of the world, can and will redeem even us.

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.

Disruption

Sermon on John 21:1-19 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Warren_G_Harding-Harris_&_EwingThe presidential campaign of 1920 introduced a new word into the American lexicon. After years of political turmoil at home and abroad, Warren G. Harding promised that his presidency would signal a “return to normalcy” in the United States. No longer would Americans have to worry about world wars and Leagues of Nations; instead, they could return to what they knew before the world fell apart. Americans responded enthusiastically to this neologism: Harding earned 60 percent of the popular vote and 404 votes in the Electoral College. For a time, it seemed that Harding’s pledge came to fruition. The Roaring Twenties were a time of economic growth and relative domestic tranquility. Though the twenties failed to roar for farmers and racial minorities, many people assumed that Harding’s promised “return to normalcy” was a permanent state of affairs.

Before long, however, it became clear that this was an illusion. By the end of the decade, the stock market had crashed, touching off the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. Meanwhile, military dictators took power in Europe and Asia, setting the world on an inexorable path toward yet another global war. In some ways, it was actually the world’s haste to get back to normal that precipitated these crises. In the end, our collective desire to return to normalcy became part of the endless cycle of violence and retribution that has characterized all human history.

Returning to normalcy is what seems to motivate Peter and the other disciples in our gospel reading today. After years of following a charismatic and unpredictable teacher, the disciples returned to what they knew before they met Jesus. They returned their easy lives as fishermen. This is not to say that the life of a fisherman was easy in the first century: it was backbreaking, difficult work in which the line between starvation and subsistence was incredibly thin. The ease of this life could be found in its predictability. There was something familiar, almost comforting about the drudgery of mending nets, the stench of decaying fish, and the disappointment of a night without a catch. Peter and the other disciples understood how to deal with these challenges. As fishermen, they would not have to wrestle with the question of God’s purpose for them. They could live the rest of their lives governed by a predictable and timeworn routine.

Jesus disrupts this familiarity when he calls out to the disciples from the shores of Tiberias. Though they are initially excited, they become quiet when Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast by a charcoal fire. John implies that Peter and the other disciples eat their bread and fish in silence. Of course, there’s probably very little small talk to be made with someone who has been raised from the dead. There might be a deeper reason for this silence. Peter in particular may have been silent because the last time he 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.

When Jesus finally disrupts the silence, he does it in the most revealing way possible. Fully aware of Peter’s guilt, Jesus turns to him and asks pointedly, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus doesn’t call Peter by his nickname; Jesus uses the name Peter’s mother gave him. Three times Jesus asks this question and three times Peter responds. The implication seems clear: Peter erases his triple denial with a triple confession of love. While this may seem obvious to us, Peter doesn’t seem to get it. John tells us that he was hurt, that he was grieved by the repetition of Jesus’ question. On one hand, this may be a classic example of Peter’s thick-headedness: perhaps he just forgot what happened on that fateful night before Jesus died. On the other hand, we human beings have an extraordinary capacity to remember the times we failed. How often do we worry about how our relationship with someone has changed because of something we have said or done? Peter does not feel hurt because he has forgotten his failure; Peter grieves because he is apprehensive He is waiting for the other shoe to drop, he is anticipating a torrent of vengeance and righteous indignation from man he had so recently scorned. Peter wants to get these questions about love out of the way so that he can receive the judgment he so richly deserves. What Peter fails to understand, what we fail to understand is that the Resurrection is the judgment of God. What we fail to understand that the resurrection is the fullest expression of God’s love. In a way, the questions that Jesus asks Peter are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether Peter loves Jesus or not; what matters is that Jesus loves Peter. I don’t mean for that to sound glib, because it is of ultimate importance. Jesus loves Peter and all of us with a fullness that transcends all of our expectations. We would expect Jesus to punish Peter for rejecting him. We would at least expect him to require some extraordinary act of penitence. In the resurrection, however, God disrupts our assumptions about repentance and divine punishment and announces that even our rejection of God can be redeemed. In the resurrection, God liberates us from the endless cycle of vengeance and retribution and offers in its place a love that restores and renews all things.

Shepherd-and-SheepThis resurrection appearance is not just about Peter’s restoration. In his anxiety, Peter failed to recognize the true purpose of Jesus’ questions, which was to call Peter to a new vocation. Peter’s vocation changes in the other gospels, but only in its direction and emphasis.“You’re a fisherman? Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says at the beginning of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John’s gospel, however, Jesus invites Peter into an entirely new vocation: “If you love me, take care of my flock.” In light of 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. What difference does the resurrection make to us? How will this redemptive and restorative love change our vocation?

Our world once again seems to be falling apart. Between war, terrorism, economic disaster, and climate change, hardly a day goes by without reminders of how fragile life is. In the face of these calamities, it would be tempting to proclaim that we would like to go back to the way things were before everything fell apart. But that is not the gospel. The gospel calls us to come to terms with the realities of our fallen world. Indeed, the Church’s vocation is not to call for a “return to normalcy.” Our vocation is to proclaim the endless cycle of death has been marvelously disrupted by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are called to lift our hearts above shame, guilt, and resentment and embrace the resurrection love that Jesus shows Peter, a love that reorders and renews all things.

Honesty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagining the Future

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

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To listen to an interview with Fr. Greg, click here.

When Greg Boyle was appointed as the pastor of the Dolores Mission in the late 1980s, he recognized that it would be a challenging call. The Mission is located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which at the time was the epicenter of more gang activity than anywhere else in the world. Fr. Boyle understood that much of his ministry would be devoted to addressing the proliferation of gang violence in his community.  At the beginning of his time at the Mission, Boyle attempted to make peace through diplomacy. He was Henry Kissinger on a ten speed bicycle, shuttling between the various gangs and negotiating terms. Boyle would draw up treaties that stipulated rules about things like shooting into each other’s houses. The various parties would sign, and hostilities would cease for a time. Though these truces initially felt like victories, Fr. Greg gradually realized that they were ultimately hollow. Negotiation and diplomacy assume that there is conflict: that the parties involved have opposing goals and that there is the potential for a mutually agreeable solution. But Fr. Greg soon recognized that while there is lots of violence among gangs, there is no conflict. Boyle realized that gang violence stems, not from conflict, but from “a lethal absence of hope,” from the reality that the kids in his community “can’t imagine a future for themselves.”

We see a similar absence of hope among the disciples in today’s reading from John’s gospel. John tells us that it is evening, that the darkness is approaching. The bright sunlight of Easter morning has dissipated, the triumph and joy have faded into memory, and the disciples are now waiting with apprehension in the gathering darkness. Indeed, John explicitly tells us that the former companions of Jesus have gathered in the uncertain twilight of that locked room because they are afraid: afraid of those who executed Jesus, yes, but also afraid of confronting the harsh reality of their own faithlessness. The disciples abandoned Jesus in his darkest hour and are now paralyzed by guilt. Having lost their Lord and Teacher, they are uncertain about what they are to do next; indeed, they are uncertain about who they are now or what they will become. The disciples are stuck in that room because they are unable to imagine a future for themselves.

For whatever reason, Thomas is not with the disciples in that locked room. Perhaps he is scrounging for food, perhaps he is plotting the disciples’ escape from Jerusalem, or perhaps he just can’t bear to be in the same room with those who remind him so viscerally of the one he abandoned. Apart from Peter, Thomas was the disciple whose renunciation of Jesus was the most thorough. Remember that when Jesus announced he was going to visit the tomb of Lazarus in spite of the potential danger, Thomas alone courageously affirmed, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Thomas understood the danger of Jesus’ mission long before the road to Golgotha, and he claimed that he would remain with Jesus until the very end. And yet, just like the other disciples, Thomas fled from the authorities, stayed away from the one he claimed he would die for, and left Jesus to walk the way of the cross alone. Perhaps Thomas stayed away from the disciples because because he couldn’t stand the sight of those who reminded him so poignantly of his infidelity. Perhaps Thomas left that locked room because he simply could not imagine a future for himself when he had failed so completely.

This perspective would have given powerful and predictable shape to Thomas’ reaction when he returned to that locked room. Thomas would have been wallowing in the pain of his guilt when the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord. Jesus has been raised, they tell their friend, and he came to share share words of peace, reconciliation, hope, renewal, and love. Thomas refuses to believe it because he can’t comprehend the idea that Jesus would return to those who rejected him with anything other than words of retribution. Peace? There can be no peace for those who are so plagued by regret and shame. Hope? Hope is for people who can imagine a future. Thomas claims he won’t believe unless he sees the wounds that he and his companions had allowed to be inflicted; like most of us, he believes that there are some things that simply can’t be forgiven.

Immediately after Thomas demands to see the wounds of the crucified Lord, John sets a nearly identical scene. I say “nearly identical” because John tells us that this gathering takes place eight days later. Eight is the number of new creation: the signal that we are transcending the normal rhythm of the calendar, the promise that a new day is dawning, the implicit proclamation that the world has been given a new future. By setting this scene on the eighth day John indicates that the disciples are about to experience God in an entirely new way. thomassunday1ebayIndeed, when Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples breathing words of peace and renewal, Thomas recognizes the reality of the new creation when he exclaims, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas understood a fundamental truth: that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the complete manifestation of God’s very being. It is an affirmation of God’s deathless love, a pledge that all our past unfaithfulness has been forgiven, that our lives have been and will be renewed, and that our future has been redeemed. Notice that our participation in the renewal of creation is not about accomplishing particular tasks; it is about abiding in peace. When Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he does not commission the disciples to do anything. Rather, he invites the disciples into a place of love, a place where they can hope for a future that they could not previously imagine.

Jose is a young man from Fr. Greg’s parish who has been a gang member, a drug addict, and a prison inmate. When Jose was six, his mother said to him, “Why don’t you just kill yourself. You’re such a burden to me.” Jose’s mother beat him, to the point that he wore three T-shirts at a time in order to protect himself and hide the wounds his mother inflicted. Jose was ashamed of his wounds well into adulthood and he resisted every attempt well-meaning people made to help him. But when he met Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who was not ashamed of him and who didn’t prescribe a program to get him off the streets. In Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who loved him regardless of where he had been or what his mother had done to him. He began to turn his life around. Gradually, Jose realized that by recognizing his own wounds, he could help the wounded. For Jose, love made his wounds a source of redemption. For Jose, love allowed him to hope for the first time. For Jose, love empowered him to imagine the future.

 

Unbalanced

Sermon on John 3:14-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here

Astrophysicists tell us that after the Big Bang, the universe was a primeval soup made of light.  From this soup emerged particles of matter, the substance of everything that exists.  Because of a physical law known as the law of conservation of charge, equal amounts of something called antimatter were also produced.  Antimatter is measurably the same as matter, except for one important distinction: it has an opposite charge.  As a result, when matter and antimatter come in contact with each other, they are annihilated.  Now, you can probably see how this is a problem.  If there is an equal number of matter particles and antimatter particles, then the universe cannot exist.  But here’s the astonishing thing that physicists can’t quite explain: for every billion particles of antimatter, there are a billion and one particles of matter.  This infinitesimal bias toward matter is the reason we are all here right now.  To put it another way, the universe as we know it would not exist without this fundamental imbalance.

452a93d93e5e881b45afb170badc4de3This morning, we heard what is almost certainly the most well-known passage of the New Testament. John 3:16 is virtually ubiquitous in our culture. It can be seen on signs at sporting events and on fast food packaging. Many Christians consider it “the gospel in a nutshell,” a shorthand for the saving work of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the singular popularity of John 3:16 has caused us to forget that it comes from a much larger narrative.  And because this verse has been divorced from its context, it has also been robbed of its power.

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple and insisting that the house of God was not a marketplace. In this action, Jesus challenged one of the deeply held assumptions of the Jewish Law: the belief that the reconciliation of God to his people required the restoration of balance. The reason that there was a marketplace in the Temple was so that sinners could purchase the sacrificial animals and other materials necessary for them to pay the debts incurred by their sin and be blameless under the Law.  The entire Temple system was predicated on this specific understanding of judgment: the idea that sin upsets a delicate balance that must be restored through sacrifice and acts of contrition.  By disrupting the Temple economy, Jesus challenged this fundamental assumption about the nature of God.

In the passage we heard this morning, Jesus is speaking with someone who is thoroughly steeped in the worldview represented by the Temple system.  It’s no accident that the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee appears where it does in John’s narrative.  Immediately after Jesus challenges the Temple economy of balance, one of the representatives of that system comes to Jesus in order to discern the nature of his mission.  What Jesus tells him is nothing short of astonishing: “God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world.”  The word our version translates as “condemn” can more accurately be rendered “judge.”  In other words, Jesus affirms that God did not come into the world for the purpose of judgment.  While this statement may not seem radical to us, it represents an entirely new way of understanding the nature of God. Judgment was central to the Jewish Law, because the Law was all about maintaining the delicate balance between sin and righteousness. The Law was essentially about maintaining equilibrium; it prescribed specific acts of contrition for particular violations. Judgment was the underlying rationale for the Temple system, for the religious establishment, and for the way that people related to God. In this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus rejects this understanding of God and insists that his mission is not about restoring balance or somehow providing an antidote to unrighteousness.  God’s purpose in the incarnation was not to restore the balance between sin and righteousness or good and evil; it was to transcend these categories altogether.

It is here that we can begin to grasp the true power of John 3:16.  According to this famous verse, Jesus Christ’s mission is to manifest the love of God.  Love transcends the very idea of balance.  Judgment assumes symmetry, that the scale will be level.  Love, however, is asymmetrical, wasteful, unconcerned with the idea of balance. There is no counterweight to love.  brsnake1This is part of why Jesus appropriates the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.  In the passage from Numbers, the instrument of punishment and the instrument of redemption are one and the same.  There is no “anti-serpent” that will restore balance by negating the effects of the poison.  John uses this example to articulate that the cross, an instrument of shameful death and punishment, will also become the means of redemption. Jesus does not try to bring balance by combating or providing a counterweight to the evil powers of this world. Rather, Jesus overwhelms and transcends these powers by willingly subjecting himself to death on the cross. The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love because it is fundamentally unbalanced. This asymmetry invites us into a new way of being.

Most of the world’s religious and quasi religious traditions assume that the delicate balance of the universe has been upset and needs to be restored.  Good needs to be balanced by evil, righteousness needs to be balanced by sin, light needs to be balanced by dark.  All of these antitheses are a way of grappling with the great human dilemma: the harsh and unavoidable reality that life seems to balanced by death.  The problem with this balanced perspective is that it automatically leads us to think about the world in terms of categories.  We spend our time and energy discerning who or what is in or out, what side of the scale they represent.  The Christian witness, however, points to a very different understanding of the world. As Christians, we affirm that God’s asymmetrical love both transcends and encompasses all binary categories. There is no condition that is unaffected by God’s abundant and unbalanced love: not darkness, not sin, not even death.  This is the ultimate power of John 3:16: it is an everlasting pledge that there is nothing that can alienate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This week, our community has grieved the tragic death of Cayman Naib.  In many ways, our response has been predictable: we have tried to figure out why Cayman took his own life and we have asked questions about the pressure we put on our children.  These responses have their place, but they are ultimately rooted in a worldview predicated on balance. These questions assume that if we do everything right, we can restore balance and prevent this from happening again.  As Christians, however, we are called to view Cayman’s death not as a problem to be solved but as a tragedy to be mourned. More importantly, we are called to entrust Cayman to the God whose love transcends both life and death. In our grief, we are called to reaffirm our trust in the words of our burial liturgy: “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” We are called, in other words, to cling to the fundamental truth of the gospel, that there is nothing that has the power to separate us from God’s abundant and unbalanced love.