Heritage

Sermon on Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.

The Federal gunline at Malvern Hill, the battle where my ancestor was killed.

Milton Hyman Boullemet served as a private in the 3rd Alabama Volunteer Regiment and was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill during the Civil War. He also happened to be an ancestor of mine (my great, great, great, great uncle to be precise). When I was a child, one of my relatives compiled the letters he wrote home to his parents during the war and distributed the collection to members of the family. As a student of history, I was pleased to have this volume on my shelf, but I never took the time to read it until a few weeks ago. For the most part, Milton’s letters are fairly standard wartime correspondence: he reports on the weather, complains about “muddy coffee and stale bread,” and asks after his family. At the same time, there are elements of these letters that are downright shocking. For instance, Milton uses racial epithets casually, as if he doesn’t realize what he is saying, which may very well be the case. Moreover, I was dismayed to read that when it came to the Confederacy, Milton was a true believer. Though he was from the merchant class and had little personal investment in the institution of slavery, he regarded the South’s war effort as holy cause. One could rationalize that he believed he was defending his home or that he simply got caught up in the spirit of the times, but the fact remains that an ancestor of mine fought and died to preserve the right to own other people.

Our lectionary this morning appears to provide two distinct, even competing visions of the Christian life. In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus articulates the profound cost of discipleship: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is dramatic, sacrificial language; the implication is that a truly meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ requires us to abandon everything we hold dear and give up our lives for the sake of the gospel. There’s a nobility in this vision of the Christian life. In fact, it is consistent with some of humanity’s oldest stories: we have always admired those who leave everything behind and devote themselves to a glorious cause. Certainly, this is one of the reasons my Uncle Milton volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. Now, this story has a shadow side: single-minded devotion to anything can lead to division, where we reject those who either aren’t committed to our cause or aren’t committed enough. But it’s easy to rationalize that this is just part of the sacrifice that we are called to make as Christians. In the end, the most important thing is how we have committed to taking up our cross and following Jesus.

The passage we heard from Romans seems to describe the Christian life in ways that are diametrically opposed to this sweeping, sacrificial vision. Instead of a call to martyrdom, Paul offers a series of straightforward and, frankly bland exhortations: “serve the Lord,” “persevere in prayer,” “contribute to the needs of the saints,” and so on. Paul seems less interested in the cost of discipleship than he is in the cost of maintaining the church. It appears that this passage bolsters the familiar narrative that Paul essentially co-opted the message of Jesus for his own purposes. Even if we don’t take it that far, this passage from Romans feels conventional, while the section from Matthew’s gospel feels revolutionary. Paul’s advice seems more focused on behaving correctly than on being who God has called us to be.

This is only a reasonable interpretation if we ignore Paul’s final exhortation: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This concluding remark places the entire passage within a larger context. Paul is not offering practical instructions about life in the church; he is articulating how to overcome the evil powers of this world. It’s noteworthy that Paul argues the way to overcome evil is by nurturing community: rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep, and outdoing one another in showing honor. Paul does not mention taking sides, digging in our heels, or shouting down the opposition. Paradoxically, he implies that overcoming evil is about transcending our divisions and striving to remain in relationship no matter what. In many ways, this vision of the Christian life is just as radical as the one outlined in Matthew’s gospel. While not a call to die for a glorious cause, Paul’s vision is more comprehensive: we are called to live out the gospel every day of our lives. Instead of a momentary, passionate decision, this vision invites a patient commitment to transformation. Moreover, it requires us to trust not in what we can do to advance our cause, but in the grace of God. This is precisely the same point that Jesus makes when he describes what it means to take up one’s cross. When Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” he is suggesting that our lives find their meaning, not in anything we accomplish, not in our sacrifice, but in what God has done through Jesus Christ.

In 1862, the year my Uncle Milton was killed in battle, the Episcopal Church held its General Convention in New York City. Though the Civil War was raging, the Convention kept to its usual business as much as possible. In its account of the proceedings, the New York Times reported “it was resolved…that all vacant seats of Dioceses not represented should be assigned to the delegates present.” While this seems like an insignificant piece of parliamentary minutia, it actually speaks volumes. Those “dioceses not present” were the ones in states actively rebelling against the union over the issue of slavery. Remarkably, General Convention made the decision that these rebels would simply be marked absent; it was assumed they would return. Indeed, two bishops from dioceses in the Confederacy were warmly welcomed when they arrived at General Convention in 1865. This is a distinct contrast with many other denominations, which split into northern and southern branches during the Civil War era. We can certainly criticize General Convention for not taking a more righteous stand against the injustice of slavery. And yet, we must also acknowledge that this was an earnest attempt by these representatives “to overcome evil with good,” to stay in relationship no matter what.

More than anything else, this kind of response requires the humility to recognize that sin is never somebody else’s problem. This brings me back to my Uncle Milton. As much as I would like to disavow him completely, he is part of my heritage. I had an ancestor who fought for the right to own people. This is part of who I am, and it is important I acknowledge that it is shameful, as much as I would like to deny it. And yet, if the gospel teaches us anything, it is that we are defined not by what we or our ancestors have done, but by what God has done for us, for all of us. For this reason, the Christian response to hate and bigotry cannot be to destroy those who would advocate such things; it must be to preach repentance even as we acknowledge our own sinfulness, all while putting our trust in the boundless grace of God. This is the “true religion” our Collect refers to: the ability to trust the power of God’s grace to transcend our divisions and transform our lives.

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Discovering our Inner Lost Sheep

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Like many of you, I spent a fair amount of time watching the Olympics a few weeks ago. While I am enthralled by the acrobatics of Simone Biles or the sheer dominance of Michael Phelps, I often find the less successful athletes much more compelling. One such athlete is Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea who competed in the 100 meter freestyle at the Olympics in Sydney. In many ways, Eric was the unlikeliest of contenders. He had only taken up swimming eight months before the start of the Olympic Games. To put that in perspective, that’s like, well, someone taking up swimming eight months before they compete in the Olympic games. Nevertheless, the International Olympic Committee had awarded Equatorial Guinea a wildcard draw as a way of encouraging participation by developing countries. Thus, Eric was competing at the highest level of his sport despite the fact he had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool until he arrived for his first heat.

There’s no question that Eric was deeply sensible of his inadequacies, but he decided to go through with the race anyway. In an extraordinary coincidence, all of his competitors false started and were unexpectedly disqualified. This left Eric to complete the race entirely by himself. In the Disney version of this story, Eric would have set a world record, but in reality the race was excruciating to watch. eric_moussambaniWithin a few strokes, it became clear that he had never swum any significant distance. By the time made the turn at 50 meters, people were openly wondering whether he would be able to finish or even survive the race. Ultimately, he completed the race, winning his heat (remember, he was the only competitor) with the slowest time in Olympic history. Though his performance initially elicited laughter from the crowd, the spectators gradually realized they were witnessing a true Olympic moment. We assume that the Olympics are meant to celebrate superhuman feats of athleticism, but Eric reminded us that in the end, these athletes are as frail and vulnerable as the rest of us.

This morning we hear two famous and related parables about human frailty: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. These parables follow essentially the same formula: something is lost, someone seeks and finds it, and there is much rejoicing. What is striking about both of these parables is the extraordinary effort that is put into finding the lost. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find just one. Even though Jesus seems to imply that this is standard practice, the fact is that losing sheep was part of being a shepherd in the first century. One lost sheep out of a hundred would barely register; it was the cost of doing business. In a similar way, this woman spends the day turning her whole house upside down in order to find the one coin she misplaced, potentially losing wages or time to run her household. At the very least she had to use precious lamp oil to look for something that wasn’t worth all that much in the grand scheme of things. When faced with similar situations, most of us would simply conclude that we could probably take the hit: we can live with the loss of a sheep or two. The implication of these parables, however, is that God doesn’t engage in this kind of calculus. As Henri Nouwen writes, “God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter…From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed…to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy.”

Now it’s important for us to consider Jesus’ audience. Even though the occasion for this teaching is the fact that Jesus has been criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus is not speaking to them. He is actually addressing the scribes and Pharisees, the people who supposedly have their life together and ostensibly have no need of repentance. We might imagine their impatient response to these parables: “It’s certainly a nice thought that God will seek out those poor sinners even when it is a waste of everybody else’s time. In the meantime, here we are, doing our very best to stay out of trouble and keep our noses clean. We have never left home and have always done what we are supposed to do. What do we get from this God who seeks out and finds the lost?” imgresJesus has a startling suggestion for the scribes and Pharisees: “What if you’re the ones who are lost? What if you are the lost sheep who has strayed from the flock? What if you are that lost coin that rolled under the sofa?” With these parables, Jesus insists that everyone needs to be found, because everyone is lost in some way. The message of these parables is as much for those who have wandered off as it is for those who think they never left.

The scribes and Pharisees aren’t the only ones who have had trouble understanding this. We know we have a generous God who reaches out to the lost and rejoices when they return. It has been burned into our brains by years of faithful church attendance. The funny thing about religious people is that for all of our talk about God, we would much rather be left to our own devices. We do everything we can to conceal our vulnerabilities, to hide our inadequacies, to imagine that we have everything under control. We all like to think that we are Michael Phelps or Simone Biles: confident that we will succeed as we prepare to knife through the water or soar through the air. But this is only true on the rarest of occasions. Most of the time, we are much more like Eric Moussambani: plagued by deep feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy as we stand before the largest pool we have ever seen.

This is the nature of our human condition. We are inadequate; we are broken, and we are lost. But we begin to overcome this condition through the practice of repentance. Repentance is often misunderstood. It’s not about pleasing God with acts of contrition. It’s not even about being sorry for our sins. Repentance is about acknowledging the fullness of God’s reality even as we recognize our own inadequacy. It is about trusting that God’s grace and love transcend the hopelessness and sinfulness that characterize so much of the human experience.

Nothing illustrates this practice of repentance better than the Eucharist. So many of you are struggling in some way. Some of you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of keeping your family together. Some of you are grieving the loss of a spouse. Some of you feel betrayed by someone close to you. Some of you are just coping with the day-to-day challenge of life. There are moments when all of us feel broken, inadequate, and lost. Even though we are fully aware of our lostness, we have the opportunity to experience the fullness of God’s grace every time we come forward to receive the Eucharist. When we come to the altar rail, we have the opportunity hear the sounds of divine joy as we recognize, even for a fleeting moment, that no matter how lost we are, we have been found by God.

True Repentance

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Byrn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Every time we renew our baptismal vows, we answer the following question: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” This question makes a somewhat surprising assumption, namely that falling into sin is inevitable and that repentance is something we will have to do over and over and over again throughout our lives of faith. This is not at all what we expect. As you probably know, “repent” comes from the Hebrew word for “turn.” Repentance, in other words, is about turning our lives around and starting with a clean slate; it is the means by which we turn away from our sins and live righteously. It is something that we should only have to do once. And yet, we know that this is not true. We know that no matter how hard we try, we will fall into sin. We know that no matter how much we want to give up self destructive behavior, we will invariably fall back into our old patterns. Moreover, our failure leads us to feel guilty and frustrated with ourselves. It’s enough to make us think that we should just give up the possibility of renewal, that any effort at living righteously is ultimately hopeless.

Repentance is a theme that appears repeatedly in the gospel narratives. All three of the synoptic gospels begin with John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus takes up this mantle: in both accounts, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry by announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God and saying, “Repent and believe in the good news.” In this sense, Jesus is the successor to John the Baptist. He is carrying on a mission that was begun by someone else. Though he transforms this mission and brings it to its conclusion in a way that no one before him could, the mission that Jesus fulfills in the gospels of Matthew and Mark ultimately originated with someone else. This is not true of Luke’s gospel. In fact, Luke does not mention repentance at all once John departs the scene. While this may just be a narrative quirk of Luke’s gospel, it is unlikely that Luke ignored a theme as significant as repentance for mere stylistic reasons. It is far more likely that Luke has a unique and challenging understanding of repentance.

We see a glimpse of Luke’s unique vision of repentance in our gospel reading this morning. Most interpreters of Luke note that the moment when Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem is the pivot point the gospel. This is no surprise. The idea of “setting one’s face” comes up pretty frequently in Scripture: the psalmist uses the expression to indicate resolve in the face of adversity, the prophets use the phrase to highlight their righteous indignation against their people. Even apart from the Scriptural allusions, Luke’s point is clear: Jesus has turned in the direction of his destiny. plowing-cottonEverything Jesus will do from this point on will be shaped by his inexorable march toward his crucifixion and death at the hands of the authorities. We see this play out immediately. Jesus plows through Samaria, refusing to address the ancient grudge between Jews and Samaritans and ignoring his disciples as they dwell on petty slights. He tells those who would follow him that they can neither bury their dead nor say goodbye to their families. To underscore his point, Jesus announces that anyone who puts a hand to the plow and even turns back for a moment is unfit for the kingdom of God. The only thing that matters now is the fact that Jesus has turned toward Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny.

It is in this moment that Luke very subtly returns to the theme of repentance. Though he doesn’t use the word, the physical act of repenting is there: the lynchpin of Jesus’ ministry is marked by a literal turning. Implicit to this moment is an understanding that Jesus is the only one who can do what he is about to do. Jesus is the only one who can submit to and transcend the violence of this world without looking back. Jesus, in other words, is the only one who can truly repent, once and for all. Only Jesus can turn toward his destiny without being hamstrung by fear, doubt, or regret. Only Jesus is truly fit for the kingdom of God.

This is enormously significant for us. We tend to assume that if we try really hard, we can turn away from sin, that we can make ourselves fit for the kingdom of God. The bystanders who would follow Jesus, however, demonstrate the folly of this thinking. No matter how dedicated we may be, something will always distract us from fulfilling our goal. None of us is able to put a hand to the plow without looking back. The fact is, any effort at living righteously that depends on us is hopeless. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. Every time we attempt to make ourselves righteous, every time we try to overcome our sins, every time we turn repentance into a self improvement project, we are setting ourselves up for failure. The great paradox of the Christian life is this: we can only turn in the direction we are meant to go when we recognize that we are powerless to do so on our own. It is God through Jesus Christ who makes us fit for the kingdom of God. It is God through Jesus Christ who empowers us to live in righteousness and peace. It is God through Jesus Christ who frees us to live the life we have been called to live.

To be clear, this freedom is not mere libertinism. Paul makes this clear when he reminds the Galatians not to use their freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence. Moreover, this freedom does not negate our responsibilities to one another. Paul highlights this when he tells the Galatians they should use their freedom to become slaves to one another. Rather, Jesus Christ frees us to be defined, not by what we have done, but by what God has done for us. The freedom God offers through Jesus Christ unshackles us from our failures and empowers us to hope for the future. In this sense, our repentance is less about what we have turned away from and more about who we have turned toward: Jesus Christ, the one who set off to defeat the power of sin and never looked back.

Baggage

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Mozart, Baptism, and Changing the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traversing the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disaster

I’m pretty proud of my ability to make pizza.

Since seminary, I have been perfecting my technique, refining my dough recipe, determining the best topping combinations, and figuring out how to get through the entire evening without the smoke detector going off.  The result is that I am a fairly competent home pizza chef.  It is only after years of trial and error, however, that I have been able to get to this point.  Along the way, pizzas have lost all their toppings, failed to cook all the way through, and turned into bizarrely misshapen piles of dough.  Of course, I accompanied all of these disasters with ranting and raving, using, in the opinion of a good friend, “words and sentiment completely inappropriate for a priest of God’s church.”  But all of this failure eventually led to success.  I don’t claim to make anything like what you can get at Modern in New Haven, CT (go, if you’ve never been) or Lombardi’s in New York, but I can reliably put together a tasty pie.

So it was with confidence that I accepted our Curate’s invitation to prepare pizza for the youth group last Sunday.  Not only did I think it would be fun to hang out with the youth, I figured I would teach them a new skill in the process.  I arrived with everything prepared: my carefully chosen toppings were ready, the dough had risen and been kneaded the appropriate number of times, and I had a generous amount of mozzarella and parmesan ready to go.  Members of the youth group showed up and I demonstrated how to stretch the dough and arrange the toppings.  Everything was progressing nicely until I went to slide the pizza in the oven.  I had committed the ultimate rookie mistake and failed to sprinkle enough cornmeal on the pizza peel.  I watched in horror as toppings fell to the floor of the oven and the pizza dough collapsed into a unwieldy mess.  It was an old fashioned disaster.  But for whatever reason, I resisted the urge to utter the few choice words running through my head and instead said, “We can fix this.”  I retrieved the pizza dough from the oven, laid it out once again (with the appropriate amount of cornmeal), and invited the youth to replace the toppings that now lay woebegone on the oven floor.  We slid the restored pizza into the oven and, ten minutes later, enjoyed an imperfect yet tasty meal.

Pictured: Hope for Redemption
Pictured: Hope for Redemption

It occurs to me that the willingness to say, “I can fix this” is what repentance requires.  When I first started making pizza, the disaster of last Sunday night would have impelled me to abandon the entire operation and call Dominos.  But after years of trial and error, after years of realizing that everything can’t be perfect, after years of failing, I realized that there was hope for restoration.  We often get caught up in the notion that our failures have insurmountable power over us, that we cannot possibly fix what is wrong with us.  We get overwhelmed by our problems and imagine that there is no place or no way for us to turn.  Lent, however, is a time when we are reminded that each one of us has the potential for transformation, that each one of us can be restored, that each one of us can, with God’s help, be redeemed.  But first, we must say to ourselves, “I can fix this.”