Inconvenient Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Fearless

Note: During the season of Lent, I will be publishing a devotional on this blog titled “Surprised by Grace,” in which I will write about my efforts to look for grace in unexpected places.

ASH WEDNESDAYToday, I told a bunch of people that they were going to die.  I wasn’t nasty about it; in fact, most of them we eager to hear the reminder.  I told older people who have been struggling with cancer, younger people who have recently lost their parents, and little children who barely understand what death is.  This is, of course, the Church’s custom on Ash Wednesday, a day when we are reminded of our mortality and our complete dependence on God’s grace.

There is unexpected grace in this reminder of our mortal nature, because just after we are told that we are going to die, we are invited to go out and live.  More importantly, we are invited to go out and live with the understanding that we will someday die.  There is no way of getting around it.  While this may seem depressing, it is actually intended to be empowering.  If we live our lives with an awareness of our mortality, all of our ultimately futile efforts to preserve our lives become silly. This is the genesis of Jesus’ admonition in Matthew’s gospel: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Our cultural preoccupation with wealth and security, our willingness to do anything to protect what we own crumbles in the face of the undeniable reality that our lives will someday end.

When we embrace this fundamental truth, it becomes clear that there is nothing of which we have to be afraid.  If we go through life with an awareness of our mortal nature, we are liberated to try new things, to care for people who cannot provide us with anything, to risk being embarrassed or hurt.  In other words, when we embrace our mortal nature,  we no longer have to fear failure.  In so many ways, this is what characterized the ministry of Jesus.  He refused to worry about what people thought about the fact that he ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He refused to be intimidated by touching someone with leprosy.  He refused to run away when it became clear that his ministry would end in death.  Jesus refused to fear failure.  During this season of Lent, I invite you to try new things, take risks, and embrace the fundamental truth that, by God’s grace, we have nothing to fear.

Wonderland

Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Though there’s nothing terribly impressive about the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, there is one thing about it that is almost impossibly romantic.  You may be wondering how there can be romance in a mass transit system; I will explain.  You see, the T, as it’s known, is comprised of five different lines, each designated by a different color: red, orange, green, silver, and blue.  On four of these lines, the names of the stops are fairly straightforward: they describe the location above drily and accurately.  On the blue line, however, the names of the stops are imbued with a romance that is unparalleled in any of the country’s other mass transit systems. From the jauntily nautical “Aquarium” to the pastoral sounding “Wood Island” to the impossibly exotic “Orient Heights,” the names of the blue line stops bring to mind images far more beguiling than the world we typically inhabit. Appropriately, the most romantic name of all is reserved for the end of the line: “Wonderland.”  The very thought of that name invites the rider of the blue line into a reverie of possibility and beauty, into a world that far exceeds our limited imagination.

Now, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Aquarium is not actually filled with giant fish, Wood Island is not a primeval forest sprouting from the middle of the sea, and Orient Heights is not filled with pagodas and rickshaws.  And while one knows intellectually that these stops could not possibly live up to the romance of their names, it is still incredibly dispiriting to discover that they are like any other place.  All of these stops are disappointingly mundane, featuring the same shops, same people, and same challenges that characterize the rest of Boston and the rest of the world.  imagesMost disappointing of all is Wonderland.  Though the name evokes images that transcend even our wildest imaginations, Wonderland is, in fact, home to a run-down amusement park and a dog track. When one emerges from the depths of Wonderland station, there is a moment of spirit crushing self-realization as one thinks, “Is that it?  Is that all it is?”  It is one of those disappointments that makes you want to go back in time and pretend you don’t know what you know, to remain on the subway car and dwell in the safety of your imagination rather than face the cold certainty of reality.

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration, the commemoration of the time Jesus took Peter and James and John up a mountain, was physically transformed in front of them, talked with Moses and Elijah, and then returned down the mountain as if nothing happened.  It’s one of the stranger moments in the gospel account, not because God’s presence is made manifest to mortals (that actually happens with some frequency in Scripture), but because it has so little to do with the rest of the story.  The Transfiguration is an event that takes place in nearly all the gospel accounts, and in none of them does it seem to be a terribly important part of the narrative.  This is strange, because these moments when God is made manifest to mortals, known as theophanies, are usually hinge points in the lives of those who have these experiences.  After Moses experiences God in the burning bush, he embraces his responsibility to lead his people out of Egypt.  After Elijah experiences God in the still small voice on the top of Mount Horeb, he sets off to find the remnant that had not bowed the knee to Baal.  After Jesus experiences God during his baptism in the Jordan, he enters the wilderness to begin forty days of fasting, prayer, and discernment.  Theophanies are typically moments of transformation, so it is strange that not much seems to change in the lives of Peter, James, John, or even Jesus after the Transfiguration.  In the very next passage, we find the disciples complaining that they are unable to cast out a demon, which is what we have come to expect from the often-clueless disciples; nothing seems to have changed.  This is made all the more confusing by the fact that the word we translate as “transfiguration” is literally “metamorphosis.”  The whole story seems to hinge on this notion of change, and yet we are told that things have quite deliberately remained the same; Jesus even tells the disciples not to say anything about what happened.  The Transfiguration is a deeply perplexing moment in the life of our Lord: Jesus is literally transformed in front of his closest disciples and yet doesn’t seem to want anyone or anything changed as a result.

Why is this?  Why would Jesus, who is so utterly focused on conversion and amendment of life, be so uninterested in the transformative effects of arguably the most dramatic moment of transformation in his life and ministry?  It might be helpful for us to consider the story from Exodus we heard this morning.  The echoes between the story of the Transfiguration and the story of Moses ascending the mountain to receive the tablets of the Law are obvious.  In both cases, people are enshrouded by cloud on a mountaintop.  In both cases, Moses figures prominently.  And in both cases, mortals encounter and experience the living God.  There is one distinction, however, that seems to be of particular significance.  In the reading from Exodus, notice how many times we hear that people had to wait.  God tells Moses to wait, Moses and Joshua tell the elders of the people to wait, Moses waited six days before he ascended the mountain, and the people of Israel waited as Moses remained on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights.  All of this waiting serves to underscore the significance of what was happening on the mountain.  The waiting allowed Moses and the people of Israel to anticipate what was coming.  The waiting represented a time of expectancy and hope, an awareness that this encounter with God, that this moment on the mountain was going to change everything.

We can actually see Peter exhibiting this familiar sense of anticipation and expectancy in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration.  As soon as Moses and Elijah appear, Peter seems to recognize it as a theophany, a moment when he will encounter the living God, and he makes appropriate plans: “Moses is here?  That must mean we’re doing Exodus all over again!  We may be here forty days!”  His exuberant reverie is interrupted, however, by a voice from heaven that says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased: listen to him.”  After falling on the ground (which is the appropriate and expected response to hearing the voice of the Lord), Jesus taps Peter on the shoulder, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  I can’t help but notice that at the first opportunity the disciples have to listen to Jesus, to obey the command of the very living God, Jesus gives them the surprisingly mundane instruction to “get up.”  Immediately after that, he tells them to keep their mouths shut about the events that have transpired.  Surely Jesus could have used the opportunity to impart some timeless spiritual truth or to issue some complicated command.  After all, the disciples were probably more than ready to listen after God himself told them to do so.  Instead, Jesus uses his newly imparted authority to get the disciples off the mountain, to point them away from the theophany, to point them towards the next steps of their journey.

In many ways, it’s not at all surprising that Peter wanted to linger on the mountain.  After all, just prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus informed his disciples that he would undergo great suffering and be crucified at the hands of the authorities.  imgresJust before his Transfiguration, Jesus had just made it abundantly clear that his glory would be revealed in the agony and humiliation of the cross.  So when Peter saw Jesus’ glorious transformation on the mountaintop, perhaps he wondered if another way was possible.  Perhaps he wondered if Jesus could bypass the cross by revealing his glory surrounded by cloud and situated between the symbolic arbiters of the Law and the prophets.  It seems that Peter wanted to stay on the mountain because he was afraid of what waited for him at its base.  It seems that Peter wanted to maintain his illusions about Wonderland and ignore its cold reality.  I think that all of us can sympathize with Peter.  All of us know what it feels like to put our efforts into hiding ourselves from the frightening realities of the world.  All of us know what it feels like to spend our time worrying about risk rather than trusting in possibility.  All of us know what it feels like to live lives shaped not by hope, but fear.  But by taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that the glory revealed on the mountaintop is fleeting, but the true depth of God’s glory is revealed on the cross.  By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that true transformation does not occur through cosmic special effects, but through God’s self-emptying love. By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that true theophanies occur not only on the mountaintop, but also on street corners and at homeless shelters, at rundown amusement parks and dog tracks, at places called the Skull.  By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus is telling us that we experience the way of life and peace not by dwelling in the safety of our limited imaginations, but by sacrificially risking ourselves in love for others and by refusing to be afraid of failure.

We are about to embark upon the season of Lent.  More than anything else, Lent is an opportunity for us to take those risks to which Jesus invites us as he tells us to “get up.”  It’s an opportunity for us to get out of our comfort zones, to step down from our hiding places on the mountaintop and encounter God in a new and perhaps surprising way.  It’s easy to slip into the fallacy that the season of Lent is a reset button for our New Year’s resolutions or a “spiritual Olympics” when we prove just how holy we are.  But attitudes like this miss the challenging beauty of this season.  At its best, Lent is about disturbing us in our complacency and impelling us to meet God in the unvarnished reality and brokenness of the world.  As we descend from the mountaintop and enter the holy season of penitence and renewal, I pray that all of us will have the grace to see Lent as an opportunity to embrace the hard realities of this world and experience the God who far exceeds our limited imagination.

Security

Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on December 1, 2013.

I have a deep appreciation for the situation comedies of the 1990s.  In all likelihood, the reason I am so fond of these sitcoms is because I grew up with them; watching Frasier or Friends or Mad About You was my reward for finishing my homework or practicing the piano.  At the same time, part of the reason I love these shows is because they hold up well even fifteen years later.  Nineties sitcoms were more sophisticated than their hokey and saccharine eighties counterparts, but they still had a charming innocence that the cynical, reality-driven shows of the last decade abandoned.  There are, of course, elements of these shows that did not stand the test of time, plotlines that simply don’t make sense in our current context.  For instance, every episode of a show in which two characters were unable to meet because of some earlier miscommunication could be solved very easily with a cell phone.  Also, every episode of a show where there was a misunderstanding about someone’s identity could be resolved with one of the characters looking her up on Facebook.  Perhaps the most obvious sitcom trope that no longer works is the two lovers sharing a tearful goodbye just outside of the airplane jet bridge as one of the characters is about to fly away.  Those of us watching in our post-9/11 world are saying to ourselves, “That could never happen anymore.  They would have to say goodbye at home or by the ticket counter, and that’s not nearly as dramatic.”

imgresThis particular nineties sitcom trope exposes how much has really changed since terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon twelve years ago.  We are now hyper-vigilant; we’re not willing to take any chances.  At the airport, you can no longer go through security unless you have a photo ID and a boarding pass, and I’m willing to concede that this makes sense.  You can no longer carry knives of any length onto an airplane, and that makes sense.  When you go through security, you have to take off your shoes and put them through the X-ray machine.  Why?  Because a guy once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that was in his shoes.  You can no longer carry containers of liquid larger than three ounces on the plane anymore.  Why?  Because someone once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that involved combining liquids hidden in shampoo bottles.  You also may have to go through a machine that allows the TSA agents to essentially look under your clothes.  Why?  Because a guy once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that was in his underwear.  Now I don’t mean to suggest that all of these are bad things.  Rather, these measures are indicative of not only our society’s intense concern with security, but also our very human preoccupation with protecting ourselves, our insistence on always being prepared for whatever comes next.

It is this very human impulse that Jesus taps into in today’s gospel reading.  Today, we hear what is frankly one of the more terrifying passages in Matthew’s gospel.  This comes from what scholars call the “Little Apocalypse,” which is Jesus describing what the coming of the Son of Man is going to look like.  Prior to this passage, Jesus appropriates a number of apocalyptic metaphors from Scripture, telling the disciples that “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its lights; the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”  This is dramatic, Cecil B. DeMille-type language that is meant to give the disciples at least a fleeting sense of how great and awe-inspiring the day of the Lord is going to be, that day when God will reconcile the world to himself.  This language is supposed to fill them with hope and expectation, because it describes a time when the righteous will be vindicated and God’s people will be restored.  Naturally, the followers of Jesus would like to know when this is going to happen so that they can be prepared for what comes next.  Jesus tells them, however, that the coming of the day of the Lord is a mystery at the heart of God, that no one knows about that day or hour, not even the Son.  In fact, Jesus says that it will take us completely by surprise, that it’s going to happen when we least expect it.  And here is the terrifying part of this passage: Jesus says that the Son of Man will come so suddenly that people who are working side by side will be taken away from one another and vanish from each other’s sight.

imgresAll of this underscores Jesus’ exhortation to keep awake and be ready for the coming of the Son of Man.  He tells us that we do not know on what day our Lord is coming, and it is here that he plays upon our preoccupation with security and preparedness.  Jesus presents us with a scenario to help us understand his point about readiness: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”  It’s a vivid and potent image.  The thief is not going to send us a note to tell us when he is going to try to break into our house.  And if we can’t prepare for a specific moment, it would seem that we’re supposed to be prepared all the time.  Perhaps Jesus is telling us to stay hyper-vigilant, to keep all of the lights in the house burning, to sit up straight and fight off sleep even as our eyes grow heavy peering out the window and looking for the thief.  I think this is the classic human response, the post-9/11 response to this scenario: we don’t know when the thing we’re preparing for is going to happen, so we have to stay awake forever.  Of course, there’s no way we could possibly stay awake forever; there’s no sustainable way for us to be that vigilant.  Perhaps we have to look at this image differently.  I think that when we hear this metaphor, we’re conditioned to imagine that we can prevent the thief from coming, but remember that Jesus is using this image to describe the coming of the Son of Man, and the day of the Lord is coming whether we think we can stop it or not.  In fact, Jesus tells us that this is the only thing that we can be truly secure about, that God is going to make things right through the Son of Man.  So if we follow Jesus’ metaphor to its logical conclusion, we don’t know when the thief is going to arrive but we also have no way of stopping him; perhaps, then, we’re not meant to worry about catching the thief in the act.  Perhaps Jesus is using this image to point us to a different way of looking for the Son of Man.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the time in the Church year that we not only prepare for Christmas, but we also affirm that God is going to be revealed and reconcile all things to himself on the great and terrible day of the Lord.  Now, I’m perfectly willing to concede that the coming of Son of Man tends to be a touchy, even uncomfortable subject for many Christians.  Many of us would much rather concern ourselves with the mangers and stables and sheep of Christ’s first coming.  Part of the reason for our discomfort is that throughout history, there have been two extreme approaches to preparing for the coming of the Son of Man.  imgresOn one hand, there have been numerous Christians throughout history who, in spite of what Jesus said in our gospel today, have proclaimed that they could pinpoint the exact date and time of the day of the Lord and Christ’s second advent.  While there are a whole host of issues with this, I think the desire to know exactly when Christ is going to return stems from the very human desire for security.  We want certainty, we want assurance, we want to know when to expect whatever we’re expecting.  On the other hand, instead of being hyper-vigilant about the day of the Lord, there are those who say that it’s never going to happen, that it was a mistake of the early Church, that Jesus only was on this earth once, and any talk of the coming of the Son of Man is foolishness.  Ironically, I think this impulse stems from the same desire for security.  We would rather assure ourselves that something is never going to happen, rather than living our lives with any kind of uncertainty.  As we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, however, we are called us to a middle way, one that is less secure, one that is riskier, but one that takes Jesus seriously and trusts that we are being reconciled to God and one another.

In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, just after we have heard three parables about the necessity for watchfulness, Matthew unfolds the judgment of the nations, the passage wherein people are separated as a shepherd separates sheep and goats.  Ravenna Last JudgmentStrikingly, Jesus introduces the passage with the phrase, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory.”  The last time Matthew uses the phrase “Son of Man” is in the passage we read this morning.  To my mind, this means the story about the judgment of the nations reveals something about the day of the Lord; the story about the judgment of the nations is meant to prepare us for the coming of the Son of Man.  You know the story well: when the righteous come face to face with the Son of Man, he says to them, “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  The righteous are surprised, because they don’t remember doing any of these things for the king.  But the Son of Man responds “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”  Jesus tells us that we encounter the Son of Man when we reach out and care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Advent, therefore, is not about pinpointing the precise day of the Lord’s return or saying “Christ will come again” even as we assume that it will never happen.  We are not meant to look for the false security of certainty; we are called to embrace the uneasy reality of risk.  Jesus calls us to risk ourselves, to take a chance and reach out to those in need.  In a moment, when we pray for those who have died, you will hear the name of David Dingwall.  David was a priest in the Diocese of Easton who died this week after a disturbed man set himself on fire and walked into a church’s outreach center. This tragic event highlights the risk we take when we care for those who cannot care for themselves.  Events like this might tempt us to close our doors and turn our backs on the world.  But I suspect that Fr. Dingwall knew the truth that we affirm today, that each moment we spend caring for other people is an Advent moment, an opportunity to encounter the Son of Man.  Every can of food you give to Hands-On Outreach, every hour you volunteer at Thrift House, every note you send to someone who is lonely, every time you welcome a newcomer to Heavenly Rest is an Advent moment.  So be ready and stay alert, because every person you meet could represent the coming of the Son of Man, the one who reconciles us to God and one another.