Readiness Revisited

Since preaching about Matthew’s parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids last Sunday, I have had several interesting conversations in which people have wondered (very politely) whether my interpretation played fast and loose with biblical text.  Most of the controversy has hinged on my argument that there is a difference between “preparation” and “readiness.”  While these terms tend to be synonymous in common parlance, I believe that there is a crucial distinction between the two when it comes to our relationship with God.

On Sunday, I noted that the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids appears in the midst of Matthew’s exhortation to be ready for the coming of God’s kingdom.  This section of the gospel begins with the “little apocalypse” in Matthew 24 and concludes with a series of three parables about readiness, namely the parable of the bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. This portion of Matthew’s gospel can be summarized pretty thoroughly with a line from the little apocalypse: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).

The Church has traditionally applied this sentiment essentially by encouraging the faithful to put their affairs in order prior to Christ’s return.  The logic behind this mode of thinking is pretty straightforward: we must do everything we can to prepare for our appearance before the judgment seat.  In his sermon on the parable of the bridesmaids, a friend of mine suggested the following ways to get ready:

Turn off the TV. Stop the endless hours you spend scrolling through Facebook. If you hate your job, quit it. Ask yourself, at every point in your day, “am I doing this for God’s glory?” And if you’re not doing it for God’s glory, why are you doing it? When you go to bed at night, say, “thank you God for another day.” If you’re squirming in your seat right now, then the Holy Spirit might just be telling you something. The fact that you’re uncomfortable talking about your own death, or about your own spiritual health, might just be a sign from God of what you need to be doing. Perhaps Jesus is calling you to prepare an extra flask of oil to carry with you; practice of prayer, a knowledge of the scriptures, a holy life, and a preparation for death.

In this understanding of the call to “be ready,” Christians are encouraged to live with the knowledge that the kingdom of God is somewhere in their future.  This is what I would consider “preparation.”

imagesThe issue with this approach is that it ignores a crucial component of Matthew’s gospel.  At the end of this sequence about being ready for God’s kingdom, Jesus describes the judgment of the nations.  When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will sit on a throne as a king, the nations will be gathered before him, and will be separated like sheep and goats.  Those who have cared for the Son of Man (the sheep) will be rewarded with eternal life, while those who have ignored him (the goats) will be punished.  The striking thing about this separation is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised by their status.  Both groups wonder when it was that they provided (or did not provide) for the king.  The king’s response is clear: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).  Caring for the vulnerable in this life is one of the ways we encounter the Son of Man.  In other words, we are not only called to live with the knowledge that the kingdom of God is in our future; we are called to live as if the kingdom has already arrived.  This is what I would consider “readiness.”

It may be that preparation and readiness look similar in their application.  Like preparation, readiness involves renewing our relationship with God and striving to radiate God’s glory.  The difference, however, is that readiness involves living in God’s kingdom here and now.  Readiness encourages us to experience God’s glory in our everyday lives.  Readiness helps us to recognize that God’s reign is not just a future hope, but an integral part of our present.

One of the most well-worn adjectives in Anglican circles is “proleptic.”  Simply put, a proleptic vision of life is one that is informed by the understanding that we exist in “the already and the not yet.”  We are already  experiencing the glory of God’s kingdom, even though that kingdom has not yet been fully revealed to us.  In this sense, we are not called to prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom accomplishing a list of spiritual tasks; we are called to live lives shaped by a readiness to encounter manifestations of God’s kingdom every single day.


Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX on November 24, 2013.

This past week, our country relived one of the most traumatic events of the past century.  jfk convertibleAcross the country, people commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and if the coverage of the anniversary is any indication, it’s clear that the country continues to be somewhat overwhelmed by the experience.  This past week, Jackie Kennedy once again graced the cover of magazines.  There were documentaries dedicated to the Kennedys and their impact on American politics on all of the major news channels.  And the Internet was abuzz with beautiful photographs of the youthful president and his family as they gave state dinners in white tie and tails and sailed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.  We continue to be haunted by the memory of JFK’s assassination.  More than Pearl Harbor or even 9/11, it is burned into the American consciousness, and I’m led to wonder why.

On one level, the Kennedy presidency had incredible promise.  Kennedy was a stirring orator who enjoined his countrymen to ask what they could do for their country and reach for the stars.  But for all its promise, Kennedy’s presidency didn’t accomplish much.  It was Lyndon Johnson who ultimately pushed through the legislation and initiatives for which Kennedy advocated.  Though Kennedy was undoubtedly inspiring, it is hard to imagine that this was the only reason we continue to be overwhelmed by his death.  On another level, the JFK assassination and its aftermath was probably the first experience to be completely televised.  Within hours of the shots ringing across Dealey Plaza, ninety percent of the people in this country knew what had happened.  Everyone was able to watch as Walter Cronkite emotionally announced the death of the president.  Everyone was able to watch as Caroline reached under the flag to touch the hard wood of the coffin as her father lay in state in Capitol rotunda.  john jr.Everyone was able to watch as John Jr., wearing a tiny blue peacoat, saluted the caisson as it passed by bearing the body of his dead father.  While all of this explains why the Kennedy assassination is burned in our collective memory, it doesn’t explain why we continue to be haunted by it.  It seems to me that the reason the Kennedy assassination continues to overwhelm us has to do with the aura of the Kennedy White House.  Kennedy assembled this group of beautiful young optimists working hard to make the world a better place.  Kennedy and his administration had panache, they had charisma, there were moments that were downright regal.  It was no accident that Jackie referred to her husband’s White House as “Camelot,” that mythical, idyllic kingdom where the sun always shined and the grass was always green.  Fifty years ago, an assassin’s bullet tore through that idyll and forced us to deal with the reality that even the bulwarks around the kingdom of Camelot cannot withstand the brokenness of this world.  JFK’s death haunts us because it forced us to confront the fact that our world is a sinful and broken place, one where even those who embody what we think is ideal can be cut down in their prime.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, which is one of the Church’s newer observances.  It’s only been around since 1925, when the Pope at the time declared the importance of acknowledging the reign of Christ and his kingdom.  It’s also an observance that tends to unsettle people a little.  As I was visiting with my ecumenical colleagues earlier this week, I asked whether they were observing “Christ the King” at their churches, and they all said, “No, we’re doing Thanksgiving instead.”  When I pressed them about their rationale, they all indicated somewhat vaguely that Christ the King tended to make people uncomfortable.  And I get that.  It’s always made me a little uncomfortable.  On one hand, the concept of kingship doesn’t really resonate with us much anymore.  We haven’t had a king in this country for a long time, and all of the monarchs in other countries tend to be figureheads.  Perhaps part of our discomfort with calling Jesus Christ our king is that the designation provides no frame of reference for us; we have no idea what it means to call someone king.  On other hand, kings are often tyrants, and that’s not an image we like to associate with the one we call the Good Shepherd.  We might be more comfortable with thinking about Jesus as a particularly well-liked president or prime minister, one who is in charge but answers to his people.

While these are certainly possibilities, I think the real reason for our uneasiness with calling Christ our King can be found in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel.  Today we hear a story that we generally hear during Holy Week, the culminating moments of Christ’s Passion.  We hear how he was crucified at Golgotha, how we was mocked by the crowds and derided by those who were crucified with him.  imagesIt’s a scene that is painfully familiar, one that fills us with anguish.  Yet Luke tells us that above all this tumult, above the derision and the mocking, above the pain and torture, an inscription hangs: “This is the King of the Jews.”  Luke offers this information without comment.  Unlike other accounts of Jesus’ Passion, Luke doesn’t tell us who hung the inscription, he doesn’t tell us if there was controversy about its wording; for Luke, the statement is self-evident.  What this indicates to me is that we are meant to read these words as a description of the events taking place.  Luke’s illustration of the torture and death of Jesus is captioned by this inscription that calls Jesus King: “This is the King of the Jews.  This is what Kingship looks like.”  In other words, Luke demonstrates to us that the kingship of Jesus is not revealed to us in his acts of power or the fact that he is divine; ultimately, Jesus is most fully “King” in his Passion and Death.  If we’re honest with ourselves, this is what makes us uncomfortable about calling Jesus Christ King.  Because when we do that, when we confess the kingship of Jesus, we are confronted with the same reality that the Kennedy assassination confronts us with: no one, not even God’s own Son, not even the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, not even the one we call King, is immune from the brokenness of this world.

Yet there is a distinct and vitally important difference between events like the one we commemorated this week and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  While both shake our equilibrium and force us to acknowledge our vulnerability, the passion and death of Jesus is distinct, even unique because he submitted willingly to the brokenness of this world.  He did not try to outflank his opponents, he did not try to outsmart the powers that crucified him.  Instead, he gave himself up on behalf of others, he willingly submitted to the sinful powers of this world and by doing so nullified their power.  The ultimate power that tyrants have over us is our fear of death.  By willingly going to death on the cross, Jesus Christ overcame that fear of death and thus made every tyrant, every evil and sinful force in this world powerless over us.  And not only did Jesus go willingly to the cross, he went in a spirit of love and forgiveness.  We would expect someone condemned to death unjustly to have plenty of vitriol to spare for those executing him.  We would expect him to shout over and over “You’ll see! You’ll get yours” or at least “You’ve got the wrong guy.”  But the words that Jesus utters from the cross are not words of retribution, they’re not words of protest, they’re not even words of triumph.  The only words that Jesus offers from the cross are words of love.  He forgives those who are putting him to death and he promises Paradise to a person who only a few moments before had been a selfish criminal.  At the cross and as our King, Jesus willingly submits to the sinful powers of this world and promises that the world, even with all its brokenness, can be healed.

What does this mean for us?  What does it mean to be subjects of a vulnerable king, a monarch whose power is revealed in powerlessness, a ruler whose primary weapon is love?  Ultimately, we acknowledge the kingship of Christ by refusing to fear those powers that Jesus defeated in his death and resurrection.  We are called to make it abundantly clear to this world that we are not enslaved to the power of death, that we refuse to live our lives in fear.  The fact that Christ is king means we do not have to fear pain or uncertainty or embarrassment or shame or any of the things that prevent from doing what we know to be right.  The fact that Christ is king means that we are empowered to follow Christ’s example of love for every one of our fellow human beings, no matter how they have hurt us.  The fact that Christ is king means that we do not have to fear even our own powerlessness, even our own vulnerability.  Above all, the fact that Christ is king means that love ultimately triumphs over evil and empowers us to heal this broken world.


Sermon on Luke 16:1-13 preached to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on September 22, 2013.

One of the realities of our digital age is that nearly every website gives its users the opportunity to comment on the website’s content.  Just about every article on the internet has a section below it where readers can offer their opinions about what they have just read.  This comment section is, in some ways, similar to the editorial page in a newspaper.  There is, however, a significant and important difference.  While the content of the editorial page is scrutinized and selected by an editor, there is no such filter in an internet comment section.  Literally everyone who can type (and quite a few people who can’t) is given the opportunity to make their voices heard over the information superhighway.  As you can imagine, there are some very disturbed, angry, ignorant, and downright crazy people who post in these comment sections.  If one spends any kind of time on the internet, one quickly learns that these comment sections rarely edify and frequently frustrate.  Responding to these comments is not an option, because the torrent of negativity unleashed by every minor disagreement is overwhelming.  It is better simply to ignore the comments.  The arguments are pointless and the unintended consequences can be catastrophic.  Brothers and sisters, I adjure you by God: for the sake of your physical, mental, and spiritual health, do not read internet comments; it’s simply not worth the anguish.

So while I was reading some internet comments the other day, I was reminded about a particularly annoying brand of internet commenter.  This is the person who wanders into a forum and makes a comment that is specifically designed to make people angry.  imgresFor instance, a University of Oklahoma fan may wander into a University of Texas forum and proclaim how terrible the Longhorns are.  Obviously, the person who does this is not even trying to contribute to the conversation; he’s just trying to get people riled up.  In internet parlance, this person is known as a troll, and the activity he engages in is known as trolling.  As frustrating as internet trolls can be, the most insidious thing about them is that they see what they do as a public service.  If you challenge an internet troll to contribute something of substance to the discussion, he will respond that he is: he’s being intentionally provocative, he’s causing us to moderate our position in response to his ludicrous opinion.  The reality, of course, is that this generally isn’t true: the internet troll is usually just being a jerk.  It’s interesting to me, however, that those who troll tend to embrace this narrative in which they are provocateurs, contributors to the internet symposium who force us to do the hard work of self-examination.

The reason I bring this up is that in our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus seems to be trolling us a little bit.  This is probably the most bizarre parable in all of the New Testament, because it seems to go against everything that we know about what Jesus did and taught.  This is especially true in the gospel according to Luke, in which Jesus is incredibly concerned with how preoccupied people are with money and influence.  To get a sense of how strange this parable really is, we need to take a look at some of the other moments in Luke’s gospel, many of which we’ve looked at over the past few weeks.  Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the great dinner, in which he warned us not to think to highly of ourselves, not to exploit the influence we believe we have in order to gain advantages over people.  A few weeks before that, we heard the parable of the rich fool, who built huge silos to store all his stuff and ensure his security, only to die that very night.  And next week, we will hear the story of Lazarus and the rich man, in which a man is thrown into Hades because of his obsession with his wealth and possessions.

So when we arrive at the parable in today’s gospel, the parable of the dishonest manager or the shrewd steward, I think we’re right to feel a little thrown off, perhaps even a little uncomfortable.  The story goes like this: a rich man has a business manager and discovers that the guy is mismanaging his boss’s assets.  Maybe he’s made some bad investments, maybe he’s skimming off the top, maybe he’s just incompetent; whatever the reason, the rich man demands an audit from his steward.  Instead of buckling down, getting the books right, and hoping that his boss will give him another chance or instead of updating his resume and hoping that he can get some honest work, the manager proceeds to go around to his boss’s debtors and reduces what they owe the rich man.  The thing is, he doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart, he doesn’t do this because his boss is unjust; he does this in order to get consideration from the people whose debt he’s forgiving, he does it for purely selfish reasons.  At this point, we can’t wait for the owner’s reaction.  This manager is going to get it!  He’s defrauded his boss; he’s been completely selfish.  There’s no way that he’s going to get away with this.  So imagine our surprise when Jesus tells us that the rich man commended the steward for acting selfishly.  Really?  Did you get that right Jesus?  Not only was the rich man not mad, but he praised this dishonest manager?  As if we weren’t confused enough already, Jesus goes on to instruct us to follow this manager’s example: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”


What is going on in this baffling parable?  Is Jesus really telling us to emulate this dishonest steward?  Are we really supposed to follow the example of a guy whose life is dictated by his own selfishness?  It’s hard to say.  One disadvantage of the study of Scripture is that we don’t have the tapes.  We don’t know how Jesus sounded when he said the things recorded in the gospels.  The result of this is that many of us tend to have a Scripture reading voice in our head (mine is some combination of James Earl Jones and Billy Graham).  Whatever it sounds like, it’s usually magisterial and full of authority.  But the reality is that Jesus probably had a variety of ways of communicating.  Sure, there were times in his ministry when a Scripture reading voice would have been very appropriate, like in the Sermon on the Plain.  But, what about when Jesus takes up a little child in his arms and says that it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs?  Are we supposed to think that he spoke to these children the same way that he spoke to the crowds?  Probably not.  sarcasm01In the same way, I wonder if we are mishearing this parable of the dishonest manager because we are assuming our James Earl Jones/Billy Graham voice.  What if we’re missing a note of sarcasm in Jesus’ voice: “Go ahead, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, because when it’s gone they’re totally going to welcome you into the eternal homes.  See how that works out for you.”  Now, I may be treading on some perilous ground here, but this interpretation seems more consistent with what we’ve heard before and what we’re going to hear in Luke’s gospel.  In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus makes it very clear that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with wealth because we can’t take it with us, because wealth is not eternal.  In the same way, it stands to reason that if we make friends with our wealth, that thing which isn’t eternal, those friendships won’t last very long.  Regardless of how we hear this parable, I think it’s clear that Jesus is being intentionally provocative, that Jesus is encouraging us to look closely at this dishonest manager and determine what we can learn from him.

On one level, I think we sympathize with the guy.  He’s in a position that too many of us have been in at one point or another; he’s about to lose his job.  And the only way he knows how to take care of himself is by being shrewd but also by being selfish, by looking out for number one, by worrying about himself first and about his impact on other people later.  This manager looked at his situation and was terrified, because all of his possessions, including his job, his friends, and his money are in jeopardy.  As one New Testament interpreter has remarked, possessions are our guard against nonexistence.  This manager was convinced that if he lost his possessions, if he no longer had what he once had, he would cease to exist, that he wouldn’t matter, that his life would be meaningless.  This manager defined himself in terms of what he owned, he defined himself in terms of what he could get out of other people, he defined himself in terms of things that are passing away.  But what Jesus reveals us to us in telling this parable, what Jesus reveals to us in all of the gospel according to Luke, what Jesus reveals to us in his death and resurrection is that we are not defined by what we have.  We are not defined by how much we make, by what circles we travel in, by how nice a car we drive, by who our parents are, by how much education we have, by who we voted for, by what we post on the internet, or by any of the thousands of other ways that our culture defines value.  We are not defined by what we have; we are defined by the fact that we are beloved children of God.  That’s it.  Jesus tells this story not to give an example of how not to behave; Jesus tells this story to remind us that what we have does not define us; Jesus tells this story to reminds us how much God loves us.  Jesus reveals the depth of God’s love for us on the cross.  By destroying the power of death, Jesus affirms the promise that nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ.  When we embrace our identity as beloved children of God, when we lose our preoccupation with what we have, then we will be empowered to share the love that God makes known to us in Jesus Christ, the love that transcends divisions and unites us, the love that reminds us of our eternal home.

Dona nobis pacem

Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

For a helpful summary of the situation in Syria, click here.

To help the Syrian refugees, click here.

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!  Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,  Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,  Into the school where the scholar is studying,  Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride,  Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering his grain, So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.

Walt Whitman wrote those words in the fall of 1861, just after the United States had embarked on the odyssey of carnage that was the American Civil War.  At that point, most Americans assumed that the war would last a few months at the most; Union partisans thought that the rebels would lay down their arms as soon as they went into battle, while Confederates were persuaded that their cause, which they felt was so righteous, would lead them to speedy victory.  Mathew-Brady-Battle-of-GettysburgDuring the fall of 1861, the war seemed distant; Americans felt that the war couldn’t touch their daily lives. In fact, well-to-do Americans often packed picnics and watched battles as if they were spectator sports.  Young men rushed to enlist, afraid that the action would be over before they got to the battlefield.  We now know that the war dragged on for four long years and took the lives of 600,000 young Americans, but during the fall of 1861, few could fathom the profound impact the war would have on the lives of every single person in this country.  Walt Whitman was one of the few who did understand how much the war would change the very soul of America.  In the poem he published during those early days of the war, he described the ominous and inescapable drums of war, avowing that no place was safe from their incessant pounding: not the school or the bridal suite or the farm or the church.  During the heady first months of the war, Whitman was one of the first to make it clear that no one could avoid the inexorable march of war, that no one could escape those terrible drums.

Over the past week, the drums of war have been beating once again.  Last Saturday, we saw the horrifying images of people in Syria who had been killed with chemical weapons.  The footage was eerie; it looked like the many bombing attacks that we have seen on television, except there was no blood.  Our hearts broke as we watched parents try to revive children who seemed to have drowned without any water.  Many months ago, our leaders averred that the use of chemical weapons was the “red line” for US involvement in the Syrian civil war that has been raging for the past two years.  This week, dozens of news outlets have explored what US involvement would look like, and we’ve heard about possibilities ranging from airstrikes to arming the rebel soldiers.  Even after commemorating the work of the modern prophet of nonviolence on Wednesday, the President warned the Assad regime about the likelihood of violent US attacks.  It has been a week in which the whirring of those terrible drums of war has become louder and more distinct, a week in which it seems that our country is marching inexorably to war.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable that doesn’t seem to deal with anything as earth shattering as the imminence of war.  In fact, there are elements of this parable that seem downright petty.  After all, if you are really worried about where you sit at a wedding banquet, you probably need to reorient your priorities.  It’s intriguing to me that, in this parable, Jesus plays not on our compassion or our righteous indignation or our desire to be loved by God.  Instead, he plays on our sense of embarrassment: “You wouldn’t want to be asked to move to another seat at the table in front of everybody, would you?”  Jesus tells this parable with the assumption that no one likes to be embarrassed in front of their friends.  And so, on one level, the instructions that Jesus gives in this story are just good advice for any social situation.  When you come to a party, make sure you sit a less honorable place, make sure you sit in a spot that is below your station, so that you can be exalted in front of everyone, so that everyone can be impressed with you.

There is, however, another, much more profound level to this parable.  This level requires us to enter the story as a guest.  In this scenario, we arrive at the home of the host, pleased to be invited to a cool party, pleased to have the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the prominent members of the community.  imgresBut as we enter the house, dripping with self-satisfaction, we notice that the other people who have been invited are not terribly prominent.  In fact, most of the people who have been invited don’t seem to travel in the same circles that we do.  Perhaps we’re here on the wrong night, or more likely, perhaps all of these people are gatecrashers.  We make our way to the host, who is having a conversation with one of these ruffians.  Without acknowledging this person who is obviously not supposed to be here, we say hello to the host, who greets us, and then turns back to the other person!  Doesn’t she know who we are!  Why would she snub us in favor of this person who is so obviously below our station?  You can see what’s going on here.  Our expectation is that we will be treated better because of who we are, but the host makes it clear to us that we are as worthy of her attention as everyone else in the room.  The opposite scenario is also true.  Say we’ve been invited to a party, but we are convinced that the invitation is a mistake.  These people would never want to spend time with us: they’re too hip, they’re too educated, they’re too wealthy.  Nevertheless, since we’re afraid of being considered rude, we put on our best suit (which is a little threadbare) and head to the party, planning to stand in the corner and keep as quiet as possible.  When we enter the house, however, the host immediately walks over and greets us, telling us that she’d like us to sit with her for dinner.  Though our expectation is that we will not be treated as well as everyone else, the host makes it clear that we are as worthy of her attention as everyone else in the room.  In other words, this parable is not about how to behave properly in social situations, it is about realizing that regardless of who we are, regardless of where we come from, we are all equal before God, that “places of honor” are irrelevant in God’s kingdom, that we are all worthy of God’s grace and love.

As the drums of war continue to sound, as our country seems to be marching inexorably toward war in Syria, it would be easy for us to judge those people involved in the civil war.  It would be easy for us to view the rebels as hapless victims crying out for the United States to ride in on a white horse and save the day.  It would be easy for us to view Assad and his regime as callous brutes whose only objective is to destroy innocent life.  It would be easy for us to adopt this simplistic understanding of the situation, but then we would be falling into the very trap that Jesus describes in the parable we heard today.  We would be making judgments about the fundamental worthiness of the people involved in this horrific conflict.  Jesus calls us to view those in this situation not as victims who deserve our pity or as thugs who deserve our condemnation; Jesus calls us to view them as people, to acknowledge the inescapable complexity of this situation and not assume that the only option we have is to start raining death from the skies.  I’m not suggesting that the United States does nothing in response to the carnage in Syria, but there may be non-military options that can make an enormous difference in the lives of those who have been affected by this terrible war.  During the course of the conflict, over two million people have fled Syria and are currently in refugee camps throughout the region.  The UN High Commission on Refugees has estimated that it needs 5 billion dollars to meet the basic needs of these Syrian refugees; so far the US has provided $195 million.  Before we intervene militarily, perhaps we can reach out from our abundance to those who fled Syria.  Perhaps this is the way we can acknowledge that those who are struggling in those refugee camps are as worthy of our attention as anyone else, that they are all equal before God.

Now, it may be that I am being naïve, that this is a world in which the only way to stop humanitarian crises is with a show of military strength.  But I hope for peace for one very tangible reason: I have seen it manifested in the community called the Church.  At its best, the Church reveals that peace of God which passes understanding, that peace which the world cannot give, that peace which transcends all of the conflicts that plague humanity.  And there is no example of this peace more powerful than the Eucharist.  Every Sunday, we gather in this place and we live out the truth that Jesus reveals in the parable we heard this morning.  Every Sunday, we participate in Holy Communion regardless of who we are or where we have come from.  Every Sunday, we share the Eucharist with one another regardless of our political views, regardless of our feelings about Syria, regardless of whether we even get along.  And by doing so, by receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in this place, we affirm the fundamental truth that through Jesus Christ, all people have been made worthy of God’s grace and love.  Everywhere that Christians celebrate the Eucharist, whether beneath the soaring arches of Heavenly Rest or behind darkened windows in a Syrian basement, is an outpost of that kingdom where no sword is drawn.  When we participate in the Eucharist, we are exalted to that place where the Prince of Peace reigns.  And it’s no accident that our Communion liturgy often includes these words: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; grant us your peace.”  In the coming days, I pray we will remember these words, and that by God’s grace, they will drown out even the drums of war.


Like many of you, my wife and I spent last Thursday evening watching Game 7 of the NBA Finals.  And like many of you, we were disappointed when the San Antonio Spurs lost after a valiant effort against the Miami Heat.  Our disappointment, however, was nothing compared to the despair of those who had grown up rooting for the Spurs.  In the aftermath of the loss, Spurs fans wept on sports radio and sank into deep depressions.  Interestingly, many fans wondered if they had done all they could to ensure a Spurs victory.  Keep in mind that these are not members of the Spurs organization; they are simply fans who engage in elaborate rituals they are convinced influence the outcome of basketball games.  I heard one such fan explain that he watched Game 7 wearing a Tim Duncan jersey, a David Robinson jersey, and three championship hats all at the same time, just to make sure he was doing all he could to contribute to the team.

Emergency RoomNow it’s easy to make fun of people like this, but I think all of us have a tendency to be superstitious about one thing or another.  When I served as a hospital chaplain, I noticed a common superstition among nurses in the Emergency Room.  Though usually a place of chaotic activity, there were occasional evenings when the ER at Saint Francis Hospital was quiet, as if people had forgotten to suffer catastrophic injuries that day.  I quickly learned, however, that no one was permitted to point out the relative lack of busyness, because as soon as someone said, “Boy, it sure is quiet tonight,” it seemed that ambulances and helicopters would start arriving and people with missing limbs would arrive at triage.  So on quiet nights, nurses, doctors, chaplains would wander around the ER holding their breath and refusing to say what was on everyone’s mind.  I don’t know about other people, but this quiet would lead me to worry about what could come through the doors of the ER, and what I imagined was generally much more dramatic than reality.  In other words, the enforced silence spoke even more loudly than the normal chaos of the Emergency Room.  I think that many of us feel this way about silence: it makes us uncomfortable, and forces us into a place where we are waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Often silence can overshadow even the most chaotic moments in our lives.

Today, we hear a famous passage from Scripture that shows us how loud silence can be.  Over the past several weeks, we have heard the story of Elijah and his pitched prophetic battle with Ahab, Jezebel, and the prophets of the false god Baal.  We heard how he embarrassed his opponents by demonstrating God’s power and how he executed God’s judgment upon prophets of Baal.  We heard how he persuaded a poor widow to assist him and how he brought her son back from the dead.  All of the stories we’ve heard have depicted a self-assured man full of prophetic power and charisma, a man who laughs in face of danger and is confident that he is going to succeed.  But today, we hear about a very different Elijah.  In the passage we read from Kings, we hear that Elijah is running away, escaping from Jezebel, running for his life, uncertain about whether he is going to live or die.  In fact, at one point, he collapses under a tree and asks God to take away his life because the pressure of his prophetic role is just too much for him.  After this, he takes a 40-day journey and eventually arrives at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, where he hides in a cave.

It is at this point that God comes to Elijah and says, “What are you doing here?”  God’s question has a very accusatory tone: “Listen, you have been given extraordinary prophetic powers and the authority to preach the word of God! Why exactly are you hiding in a cave?”  Elijah’s response is to feel sorry for himself and his lot in life: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.”  Elijah, in other words, says, “Even though I tried as hard as I could, the people whom you gave to me have utterly failed to keep your covenant; they’ve all gone over to the worship of Baal.  I have nothing left to live for.”  God’s response is interesting: he does not comfort Elijah in his self-pity or reject him and tell him that he’ll find someone else to be a prophet in his place.  Rather, God instructs Elijah to stand on the mountain before LORD as the LORD passes by.  The text then tells us that there was a great wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by a fire, but that God was not in any of these spectacular phenomena.  In the meantime, Elijah continues to hide in the cave.  It is only when it is quiet, when the earthquakes and fires have subsided, when there is a sound of sheer silence that Elijah finally steps out of the cave onto the mountain and hears the voice of God.

The traditional way to read this passage is to point out that God is not always present in those phenomena known to insurance companies as “acts of God,” but can also be found in silence.  This is clearly the interpretation embraced by the writer of the hymn: “Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm.  Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire O still small voice of calm.”  There’s nothing wrong with this interpretation; we all need to be reminded how important it is to be quiet in God’s presence.  At the same time, I think that this traditional interpretation misses the point of this story.  For instance, Elijah does not emerge from the cave until the earthquake, wind, and fire have passed, even though God had instructed him to stand on the mountain earlier.  I wonder if Elijah is not necessarily “looking for God in the silence,” but is emerging from the cave only when he thinks the coast is clear.  Moreover, it is telling that God and Elijah repeat their exchange from a few verses before as Elijah stands on the mountain.  Elijah responds to God with the same self-pitying complaint about being rejected by Israel.  If Elijah had been looking for God in the silence, then his response to God would probably have evolved from self-pity to self-confidence.  Elijah’s exchange with God reveals a man who feels abandoned and lost, a man who is living a life without purpose and is afraid of what will happen to him next.

In may ways, Elijah’s experience is captured well by the words of Psalms 42 and 43.  Most scholars agree that these psalms were originally paired together, which is the why we read both of them this morning.  One of the reasons that they were thought to be paired is this common verse that appears three times: “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?  And why are you so disquieted within me?”  This is a poignant summary of what Elijah was feeling on Mount Horeb; he was lonely, disquieted, and felt a crushing weight bearing down upon him.  He had every reason to be hopeless.  Each time this verse appears in these psalms, however, there is a response.  Even in the midst of despair, the psalmist interrupts himself by saying, “Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.”  Put your trust in God.  Put your trust in God.  Put your trust in God.  These are the words the psalmist utters every time his doubts creep in, and these are the words that Elijah needs to hear.  He had become so preoccupied with his inability, with his frailty, with his failures, that he forgot to put his trust in God, the God who created him and called him to be a prophet.  God reminds Elijah of this in their encounter on Mount Horeb.  Though our lectionary ends the passage with God instructing Elijah to go through the wilderness of Damascus, the passage actually continues with God instructing Elijah to anoint new and faithful kings over his people.  God tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to be a prophet and partner.  And finally, God tells Elijah that there is still a remnant of Israel that has not worshipped Baal and remains faithful.  In other words, God speaks out of the silence and tells Elijah that he is not alone, that God is with him, that he has received prophetic power, and only has to put his trust in God.

cave_07There are times when all of us can relate to Elijah.  There are times when we all feel lonely, frail, and incapable of doing what God has called us to do.  There are moments when all of us ask that plaintive question: “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?  And why are you so disquieted within me?”  There are moments when we forget how much God loves us, moments when we fail to honor the image of God in ourselves, moments when we turn away from God and hide in caves we have constructed for ourselves.  Sometimes these moments are fleeting, and sometimes they can last for years.  Sometimes the caves that we construct can be easily dismantled, and sometimes they are huge, hulking edifices that no one can penetrate.  We escape to these caves of addiction or infidelity or depression or anger or jealousy or resentment when the world and its expectations overwhelm us.  Yet, when Elijah hid in a cave to get away from his prophetic responsibility, God did not abandon him or give up on him; God reached out to him from the silence over and over and over again until Elijah understood how much God loved him and his people.  In the same way, God will reach out to us over and over and over again even when we hide in caves of our own making, even when we cannot hear God’s voice through the earthquakes of our lives.  God does not give up on us because that is not in God’s vocabulary.  When we come to the powerful realization of how much God loves us, then we, like Elijah, will be empowered to go forth and reach out to a world desperately in need of God’s redeeming love.  This isn’t always easy, but Elijah teaches us that God’s love empowers us to leave our caves, step into the silence, and put our trust in God.

People Pleasing

Sermon on Galatians 1:1-12 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on June 2, 2013.

A few weeks ago, one of the great television shows of the previous decade had its series finale.  Starting in 2005, The Office was one of the first sitcoms to dispense with the “live studio audience” format and was instead presented as a documentary that chronicled the story of a mid-sized paper company called Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  Michael1Though filled with ridiculous personalities, the show’s most memorable character was easily Michael Scott, Dunder Mifflin’s hapless regional manager who wanted nothing more than to be considered the greatest boss in the history of the world.  One of the running jokes is that he carried around a mug that reads “World’s Greatest Boss” that he bought for himself.  Michael, played uncomfortably well by Steve Carrell, was a famous people pleaser who tried mightily to get people to love him by constantly avoiding unpopular but necessary decisions.  He passed the buck, he waffled, he tried desperately to distract people from the issue at hand.  A telling line occurs during one of the shows signature producer interviews, when in response to a question Michael muses: “Would I rather be feared or loved?  Easy: both.  I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”  Michael’s need to please people is clearly taken to the point of absurdity, but I think that most of us can relate to his profound need to be liked.  If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that many of the things we do, many of the choices we make are made in an effort to please other people.  It’s human nature.  Our preoccupation with popularity when we are in high school points to a larger reality: ultimately, we care very deeply about what people think of us.

So when we hear Saint Paul make the claim that he really doesn’t care what people think of him in our reading from Galatians this morning, we’re inclined to pay attention.  Paul’s dismissal of human approval goes against a very human impulse.  It’s intriguing to me that the Church places such enormous value on Paul’s writings when he devotes so many of his letters to defending himself and his understanding of the gospel.  If you think about it, more than half of the letters that we have are adversarial and downright angry in tone at one point or another.  Nowhere is this adversarial tone more evident than in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  And Paul makes his anger and frustration clear from the very beginning of the letter.  As you know, Paul usually begins his letters by way of a complex and circular introduction: he starts by identifying himself, generally as called apostle or a slave of Jesus Christ or sometimes both, and then he identifies his audience, usually including some positive affirmation of what God has been doing among them.  In Galatians, however, Paul is much more abrupt: “Paul an apostle– sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.”  Paul makes it abundantly clear that his authority as an apostle comes directly from God.  After introducing himself in this abrupt way, Paul identifies his audience, but has nothing positive to say, no extra words of encouragement, calling them simply “the churches of Galatia.”  Already, Paul is making it clear that he is not happy with the Galatians.  And in case there was any doubt, Paul hammers it home in the next verses.  While all of Paul’s other letters include a thanksgiving paragraph, a series of verses where Paul gives thanks for all that God has done in the community, there is no thanksgiving paragraph in Galatians.  Paul implies that he has nothing to give thanks for when it comes to the churches in Galatia.

So what’s going on?  What is it that is irking Paul so much?  We start to get a clue in the next paragraph, where Paul says that he is astonished, mystified, blown away that the Galatians have abandoned the faith to which they had been called and embraced another gospel.  What seems to have happened is that after Paul left the Galatians, someone came along and claimed that his initial proclamation of the gospel was somehow insufficient, inadequate, incomplete.  In other words, someone came into Galatia and said that Paul was wrong.  Now, I don’t know about you, but when somebody talks behind my back and questions my integrity, my first reaction is to get mad, to defend myself, to enlist others in my defense: “How dare you call me a liar!  How dare you say that I’m wrong!”  My first inclination, in other words, is to take it very personally.  Maybe this is what’s going on with Paul.  Maybe he’s blowing off steam because he’s really concerned about whether the Galatians like him.  Unfortunately for this theory, the very next thing that Paul says is “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  If people liked me, then I would not be doing my duty as an apostle.  Paul makes it clear that his job as an apostle is not to be liked, not to be loved, not even to be respected; it is to proclaim a gospel that was revealed to him in an apocalypse of Jesus Christ, a revelation from God that changed his life forever.  Before Paul had his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he was probably pretty well liked.  He was respected as a zealous Pharisee and people took him very seriously when he warned against the Christian threat.  In spite of his opposition to the Church and the gospel, Paul encountered the Truth; he came face to face with the risen Christ in an extraordinary and transformative vision, and he spent the rest of his life and ministry trying to sort out exactly what this revelation meant.  Paul understood that his call as an apostle was to speak the truth and ensure that the truth of the gospel was proclaimed, regardless of whether people liked him for it.  After his experience of the risen Christ, Paul rejected the very human impulse to please people and strove instead to serve God and proclaim God’s grace made known in Jesus Christ with his entire being.

The other day I was in the line at Target and I noticed on the magazine rack that Reader’s Digest is currently featuring a list of the “100 Most Trusted People in America.”  I thought it was an odd designation for this kind of format, and so with piqued curiosity, I picked up the magazine.  Upon scanning the names, I discovered that the vast majority of the people on the list were actors or television personalities, people for whom trustworthiness doesn’t seem to be a crucial quality.  I realized that these people could more accurately be described not as the most trusted people in America, but as the best-liked people in America.  These were those celebrities who basically seem like nice people, those you want to have over for dinner, like Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington.  What was more striking is that there were only three publicly religious people on the list, including Billy Graham, Rabbi Arthur Scheiner, and Tim Tebow.  On one level, the absence of religious leaders on the list surprised me because most religious leaders strive to be trustworthy.  But on another level, if this was actually a list not of the most trusted but of the best-liked people in America, then we should not be surprised that there aren’t many religious leaders on the list.  If Paul shows us anything, it is that commitment to the gospel of Christ is not something that is necessarily going to win you friends and admirers.  If Paul’s experience at Galatia is typical, the gospel is not necessarily going to make people like us. And this is okay because rejection by the world is an important part of who we are called to be as Christians.  The grace, mercy, and abundant love made known by God in Jesus Christ are challenges to this world driven by greed and selfishness.  When we agitate for economic justice in a world that seems driven to keep the poor in their place, we are going to ruffle a few feathers.  When we affirm the promise that God’s grace is available to all in this world so obsessed with status, we are going to make some people uncomfortable.  When we proclaim Resurrection in a world laid low by despair and hopelessness, we are not going to be popular.  And yet, God does not call us to be popular; God calls us to speak and live out the truth.  Like Paul, we are meant to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in everything that we do, with our whole being, regardless of what the world thinks.  If you think about it, this is incredibly liberating.  We are called to build for the kingdom regardless of who’s in charge, we are called to be the Church regardless of who makes fun of us, we are called do the work of the gospel regardless of who tells us that we are attempting the impossible.  When we realize with Paul that serving Christ is not about getting people to like us, then we will be able to serve the world in God’s name, not because we are well-liked, but because we are participating in Jesus Christ’s work of transformation.


On the third Monday of every April, the City of Boston commemorates the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first official skirmishes of the Revolutionary War.  Known as Patriot’s Day, this holiday is a day when state offices and schools are closed and everyone has the day off.  Patriot’s Day, however, is not like other Monday holidays.  Under normal circumstances, one might try to get out of town for a three-day weekend, but everyone who lives in Boston seems to want to be in Boston for Patriot’s Day.  It’s the day of the Boston Marathon, it’s the one day each year that the Red Sox play in the morning, it’s a day when people celebrate the end of a long winter and rejoice at the coming of spring.  During a time of the year when we might expect college students to be on edge because of exams and the pressures of looking for jobs, Patriot’s Day defies those expectations and offers a welcome break, an opportunity to take part in a citywide celebration of history, athletics, and community.

I admit that I was feeling a little wistful as I drove to clergy conference in Amarillo this past Monday.  I thought of my friends and family in Boston, wondering how they were celebrating Patriot’s Day, wondering how they were taking advantage of this unexpected break in the calendar.  So I was shocked when I saw a text message from my sister-in-law that said, “In case you’re seeing footage of the explosion at the marathon, I just want you to know we’re home and okay.”  I tried calling her, but the network was overwhelmed.  I called my wife, who narrated what she saw on television: two bombs had gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just steps away from Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square.  Three people were dead and scores of people were injured in the blast.  Hundreds of runners were separated from their families and supporters, uncertain what had happened.  An entire city was on edge, worried about the possibility of further attacks.  A day that is usually filled with joy and accomplishment had been blighted with grief and terror.  Two explosions brought untold carnage and shattered our expectations of a day generally filled with life.  It was a sad and scary day, a sad and scary week, a week in which we simply did not know what to expect next.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus confounds the expectations of those listening to him.  One of the most important themes we find in John’s gospel is the question of identity.  Specifically, the religious authorities spend an extraordinary amount of effort trying to discover the identity of the Messiah, or the anointed one.  At the very beginning of the gospel, John the Baptist, the first charismatic religious leader who comes on the scene, is questioned by priests and Levites who ask him, “Who are you?”  John responds by saying, “I am not the Messiah.”  While it might seem that John evades the question, it demonstrates that the religious authorities were actively looking for the Messiah.  The religious authorities were looking for a spiritual leader who would drive out the Roman oppressors, punishing them and reestablishing home rule in Israel.  So when they encountered a charismatic guy who is attracting followers, their obvious question is, “Are you the guy we’ve been waiting for?”  When John says, “No” it is pretty clear that the priests and Levites are disappointed, because they ask him if he is Elijah or the prophet, one of the people who is going to herald the coming of the Messiah.  Once again, John disappoints them and tells them that he is the voice of the one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.  While the religious authorities want to give John a particular title, he confounds their expectations and instead points to what he has been doing, preparing the way of the Lord.

In today’s reading, the religious authorities are once again trying to discover the identity of the Messiah, and their expectations are once again confounded. This time, their questioning is far less subtle.  John tells us that they gather around Jesus and say, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  It’s important for us to pay attention to the context of Jesus’ encounter with these religious authorities.  John’s gospel tells us that this conversation takes place at the Festival of the Dedication.  judas-maccabeus-jewish-patriot-leaderNow this festival is a commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the foreign king Antiochus Epiphanes defiled it by sacrificing a pig on the altar in the holy of holies.  This festival is a celebration of Israel’s spiritual identity, recalls the victory of Israel over a foreign power, and celebrates the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, a spiritual leader who defeated and expelled an occupying enemy.  The Jewish people still celebrate this festival, though it is now known as Chanukah.  The Festival of the Dedication is a remembrance of the most Messiah-like person Israel has ever known, someone who expelled foreign rulers and reestablished home rule in Israel.  John wants us to have this in mind as the religious authorities question Jesus.  When they ask him to tell them plainly if he is the Messiah, they have a very specific Messiah in mind, one like Judas Maccabeus, a spiritually and militarily powerful leader who will kick the Roman occupiers out of Israel.  The response of Jesus, therefore, is completely unexpected.  The religious leaders ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one who will restore Israel to its former glory.  Jesus responds by saying, “I’ve already told you, and you do not believe!”  But here’s the thing: as of this moment in John’s gospel, Jesus has neither confirmed nor denied that he is the Messiah.  Instead, he tells the crowd that his works, the things that he has been doing testify to his identity. 

Good_ShepherdJesus is telling his hearers that their messianic expectations are misguided.  He refuses to identify himself as the Messiah because the crowds are expecting a Messiah who is a military leader, someone who will crush Israel’s enemies underfoot.  Jesus disabuses them of this notion through his reluctance to claim the title of Messiah.  At the same time, Jesus makes it very clear that he is not a military leader, but a shepherd, one who knows and lovingly calls his sheep by name, one who, in the words of the Psalmist, is with his sheep even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, one who pursues his sheep no matter how far they stray from the flock.  It’s a stark comparison that confounds the expectations of those listening to Jesus.  They are expecting a Messiah that will wield a sword and wreak vengeance on Israel’s enemies, but Jesus offers them a shepherd who gently holds a staff and guides the lost sheep home.  Jesus Christ confounds our expectations and calls us to move us from vengeance and retribution to acceptance and forgiveness.

There is no question that this has been a rough week.  On Monday, we bore witness to the marathon bombings in Boston.  On Wednesday, we watched in horror as a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, killing at least 12 people and injuring scores of others.  And on Friday, a whole city was locked down and a whole country held its breath as authorities cornered and apprehended a 19 year-old boy who allegedly committed a heinous crime.  And yet, even in the midst of this terror and tragedy, we saw people confounding our expectations.  Runners in Boston who had already run 26 miles ran to nearby hospitals in order to give blood.  Volunteer firefighters in Texas entered an inferno with little regard for their own lives in order to rescue survivors and extinguish the flames.  And volunteers at the Boston marathon, upon hearing two explosions, did not cower in fear but ran toward the blasts to see what they could do to help.  In the midst of terror and tragedy, the citizens of Boston and of West, Texas confounded our expectations and exhibited unparalleled bravery and sacrifice.  Even as the events of the last week shook our equilibrium, our communities came together as one. 

As we deal with aftermath of these events, we are left with many questions.  What possessed these two brothers who had lived in this country for years to terrorize the city where they came of age?  Were safety concerns at the fertilizer plant ignored in the lead up to Wednesday’s explosion?  And of course, what do we do with people responsible for these acts?  We may be tempted to stand with the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, clamoring for vengeance and retribution, expecting a Messiah who wields a sword.  We may feel that the person responsible for the Boston bombings has forfeited his right to live.  This may be a reasonable expectation.  But just like those who exhibited such bravery and sacrifice this week, we are called to confound the world’s expectations.  We are called to follow the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who pursues the lost sheep, puts him on his shoulders, and carries him home, no matter how far he as strayed.  I’m not suggesting that we do not seek to bring the people responsible for these acts to justice, but our goal cannot be retribution.  We are called to put away our desire for vengeance, recognizing that violence begets violence, and realizing that the Prince of Peace and Good Shepherd calls us to forgive.  This is not easy, but we affirm that Jesus himself walks with us on this journey through the valley of the shadow of death, accompanying us even when we feel utterly alone and incapable of mercy.  Even in the midst of tragedy and terror, we are called to trust in the Good Shepherd who knows all of us by name, even those who have rejected his love.  Even in the midst of tragedy and terror, we are called to trust in a Messiah who defies our expectations.


Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Sunday, April 7, 2013.

My favorite part of the house I grew up in is the second floor hallway.  The walls of this hallway are completely covered in photographs: ornately framed pictures of milestones like weddings, births, and baptisms from many generations and simply framed photographs of more mundane events like pool parties, Little League games, and dinners with old friends.  I think that my favorite photograph on the wall, however, is a grainy image of my great grandmother when she is in her late seventies.  In the photo she is wearing a carefully tailored dress with a subtle print and her silvery white hair is drawn into an elegant bun.  At the same time, the photo captures this tiny woman heaving a basketball at a backboard with all of her might.  In the picture, the ball is hovering a foot or so from her outstretched hands and she has a look of pure joy on her face.  I love this photograph because it shows a side of my great grandmother that I never knew.  By the time I was old enough to remember her, my great grandmother had had a stroke and could no longer talk very clearly.  During the final years of her life, she was essentially confined to a high-backed chair in her living room, having lost the youthful exuberance she exhibited that day she decided to shoot a basketball.  This photograph that hangs in my parents’ house, then, is a reminder of who my grandmother once was, a reminder of the exuberance and energy she once had, and it always makes me a little nostalgic.  It makes me want to go back to the way things were, back to a time when my great grandmother could talk coherently and move around and presumably play power forward for the Dallas Mavericks.  The thing is, this photograph makes me nostalgic for a person I didn’t really know.  It makes me nostalgic for a situation that might have been completely unique (after all, I don’t know of any other time that my great grandmother played basketball).  It makes me want to go back to a time that may never have existed.  This is the tricky thing about nostalgia; sometimes we want to go back to a past that we have completely imagined.

350px-Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThis dynamic is at play in our gospel reading for today.  Generally, when we read this story from John’s gospel, we focus completely on Thomas.  We read it as a warrant for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as a way to prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  We hold up Thomas as an example of either healthy curiosity or hardheaded skepticism.  We point out that Thomas has a change of heart when the resurrected Lord presents himself to the uncertain disciple: Thomas goes from saying “I won’t believe unless…” to “My Lord and my God.”  This is a perfectly appropriate way to approach this familiar story, but this interpretation ignores the vast majority of the people involved.  When Jesus first appears, he appears to the rest of the disciples.  It is what happens when Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples that is crucial for us as we strive to understand the meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

It’s important for us to remember where this story takes place in John’s gospel.  We always read this story of Jesus appearing to the disciples the week after Easter, and I think this deceives us into thinking that a significant period of time has elapsed since Peter and the other disciple discovered that the tomb was empty.  But this is the very same day.  Instead of going out and proclaiming that Jesus, who had been crucified, was no longer in the tomb, that he had been raised from the dead just as he promised, the disciples were hiding in the same room where they had met before Jesus had been betrayed.  They went back to where they started, because they weren’t sure what to do.  Naturally, they were frightened, and confused, and apprehensive; no doubt they had heard Mary Magdalene’s story of seeing the risen Jesus in the garden and they weren’t sure what to make of it.  In their haze of confusion and grief, they returned to that place where Jesus had explained everything, where he had had all the answers, and they locked the door.  The disciples did what so many of us do when faced with uncertainty; they returned to a familiar but imagined past, comforting themselves in the uneasy certainty of nostalgia.

John tells us that while the disciples were locked in their nostalgic fortress, Jesus appeared among them in the evening on the first day of the week.  Most translations don’t get this exactly right; in Greek, “on the first day of the week” is actually “on the eighth day.”  Now we all know that according to Genesis, God created the world in seven days, and so seven days is the normal pattern of creation.  The way that Jewish calendar was structured was based on a seven day cycle, which is why our calendar is based on a seven day cycle; when we get to seven we go right back to one.  But John signals to us that something entirely new has happened on this day, on this eighth day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  When John uses this phrase, we get the sense that there is something brand new and unprecedented happening, that a new creation has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  On the eighth day, Jesus shows up among the disciples, who are clinging to what they had known before, who are holding fast to their understanding of the old creation with its uncertainty and violence and degradation and Jesus informs them that all of that is passing away by saying, “Peace be with you.”  This is not the mere absence of conflict; this is a deep and abiding peace, a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that passes understanding, a peace that proclaims the reality of the resurrection and transforms the world.  Jesus then sends his disciples.  The resurrection is not a private event that is to be shared only among Jesus’ closest associates; it is meant to change the world.  The presence of Jesus among his disciples informs them that the old ways of doing things are passing away and that a new creation is coming into being.  Jesus sends his disciples out into the world so that they can live new lives of transformation and change the world in the shadow of the resurrection.

And yet a week later, a week after the eighth day, a week after the disciples had been given that peace which the world cannot give, a week after Jesus had commissioned them, a week after the resurrection, they’re back where they started, back in the upper room with the door locked.  Were they not listening?  Were they not paying attention?  The resurrection of Jesus meant that everything had changed and the disciples went along nostalgically pretending that nothing had changed at all.  They were in the same place doing the same things.  No wonder Thomas doubted!  The most important event in the history of the world had happened and the disciples acted as if it were business as usual.  They wanted to go back to the way things were and pretend that the world had not changed forever.  But Jesus returns, poised to commission the disciples, poised to send them out to proclaim the transformative power of the resurrection, no matter how long it took.  Jesus returns to shake them from their nostalgic devotion to the past and remind them that God has done and is doing a new thing through the resurrection.

We have just concluded that season of self-denial and fasting known as Lent.  And let me tell you, there are few things that the Episcopal Church does better than Lent.  We’ve got incredible liturgies, engaging educational programs, and glorious music.  We all work a little harder, sit up a little straighter, and pray a little longer.  We expend so much energy working on our personal holiness that by the time Easter rolls around, we are all completely exhausted.  After the marathon that is Holy Week, the most that some of us can do is say, “The Lord is risen indeed” and then take a long eighth day nap.  Gradually, we go back to the way things were before Lent: we spend less time in prayer, we are less focused on how we use our time, and we once again neglect our relationship with God.  In some ways this is understandable; it’s difficult to maintain Lenten intensity 365 days a year.  And yet, it’s important for us to remember that all the things we do during Lent, all of the prayer and discipline and intentionality are meant prepare us for something.  imagesEaster Day is not meant to be a finish line at the end of a marathon; it is meant to be a launch pad, an opportunity to do something completely new. After all, while Lent only has forty days, Easter has fifty!  The season of Easter is meant to be a time when we proclaim the resurrection with our whole beings, when we live transformed lives that are a part of the new creation that God inaugurated on the eighth day.  And so during this season of transformation and resurrection, I invite you to discern how you might live this resurrection life and how you might make the resurrection known to others.  Can you volunteer to drive for Meals on Wheels or to cook for Breakfast on Beech Street or to be a mentor to a local student in need of guidance?  Can you visit an elderly relative in their home or call your mother every day or write a note to a friend you haven’t seen in a long time?  Can you think of ways that we as a church community can make the new creation a reality right here in Abilene?  We must not be tempted to return to those familiar and nostalgic places, to those upper rooms in our lives where we can lock the door against a changing world; we must be willing to live lives transformed by the resurrection, and we must obey Christ’s call to proclaim that God has brought about a new creation in Jesus Christ.


Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Good Friday.

imgresOne summer while I was in college, I worked in a group home for kids with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses, and other special needs.  Most of the kids were high-functioning teenagers who had a difficult time adapting to mainstream academic and social settings; the group home was a place where they could be themselves.  While the work was enormously rewarding, it was also exhausting.  Not only were we responsible for all of the normal aspects of raising a teenager: cooking their meals, driving them to school, and making sure they did their homework; we also had to deal with some of the challenges unique to these young people: giving them their medications, supervising their hygiene, and dealing with the occasional catastrophic meltdown.  Every day had the potential to be physically and emotionally draining.  I remember that at the end of my first day, after all of the residents had finally gone to sleep, the woman I was working with, a veteran of the organization who was simultaneously maternal and tough as nails, handed me a cup of coffee and said, “Enjoy this.”  “Enjoy what?” I asked.  “The quiet,” she replied.  As I savored the bitter institutional coffee, a wave of relief spread over me as I realized that we were finished for the day.  The meds had been distributed, the residents were asleep, and everyone was safe.  We had done everything we had to do and my coworker invited me to acknowledge that accomplishment.  To this day, the taste of institutional coffee reminds me of that sense of accomplishment, the joy and relief I felt when I realized that for at least the next eight hours, all was right with the world, that for at least one night, the work before me was finished.

The gospel according to John tells us that the final word of Jesus from the cross reflects this sense of accomplishment.  Just before he bows his head and gives up his spirit, Jesus says, “It is finished.”  This actually translates a single word in Greek: “tetelestai,” meaning “it has been accomplished,” “the end has come,” or to put it another way, “my work here is done.”  In John’s gospel, we do not hear the agonized cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that we hear Matthew and Mark, nor do we hear the deeply comforting affirmation of “Into your hands I commend my spirit” that we hear in Luke.  Instead, the final word of Jesus in John’s gospel is ambiguous and a little unsettling.  What exactly has he accomplished?  There is a finality to “tetelestai,” a sense that everything is taken care of, that there is no more to be done, that everything that needs to be finished has been finished.  “Tetelestai” implies that there are no loose ends, that all is right with the world.

And yet, even as Jesus uttered this final word of accomplishment, very little was right with the world.  As Jesus hung upon the cross, struggling under his own weight, chaos swirled around him.  Though those closest to him had promised to stay by his side no matter what happened, his disciples had abandoned, denied, and betrayed him.  Though as the Messiah he represented the hopes and dreams of a subjugated and enslaved people, he had been executed as a rabble rouser by a cruel and powerful dictatorship.  Though he had affirmed that he was the incarnation of the almighty God, he died a criminal’s death, completely impotent and helpless.  As chaos swirled around him, it seems that there could not have been a less appropriate time for Jesus to affirm that everything had been accomplished.  The world was falling apart around him, questions were left unanswered, and his ministry seems to have been in vain.  Describing his work as “finished” seems to be a cruel joke worthy of the soldiers who mocked him.

urlJust before Jesus gives up his spirit, John’s gospel tells us that he addressed his mother and the beloved disciple, who were gathered at the foot of the cross.  As they stood in their grief, gazing at the gasping body of Jesus, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.”  To the disciple whom he loved, he said, “Behold your mother.”  John goes on to tell us that the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his home from that day forward.  Though this is a powerful message of love, an example of Jesus taking care of those he is leaving behind, there is more to it than that.  Scholars, for instance, have wondered why Jesus calls his mother “Woman,” which is not something that any of us would have been allowed to call our mothers as we were growing up.  While some have argued that “Woman” was actually a term of respect in first-century Palestine, I’m more inclined to agree with those who suggest that Jesus uses this word to recall the creation of woman.  By calling his mother “Woman,” Jesus is bringing us back to Genesis, back to the Garden of Eden, back to the first days of creation when Adam and Eve disobeyed the commandment of God and men and women were estranged from one another.  This is the reason that so many important events in John’s gospel, including the arrest and burial of Jesus, take place in a garden.  John wants us to remember that first garden, to return to the first moments of creation so that we can understand that God is bringing about a new creation through Jesus Christ.  The words of Jesus to his mother and the beloved disciple are words of love and affection, but they are also words of restoration.  By bringing these two people together, Jesus heals division, restores human relationships, and repairs what was torn asunder by our disobedience to the commandment of God.  By restoring the relationship between his mother and the beloved disciple, Jesus Christ restores all human relationships and inaugurates a new creation, a creation that is no longer subject to disobedience and death, but has been renewed by the self-giving love of God.  This is what Jesus accomplishes on the cross.  Jesus says, “It is finished” because he has completed this work of restoration; he has finished the work of recreating the world in the image of God’s redeeming love.  Even as the chaos swirls around him, there is a glimmer of hope, a whisper of restoration, a quiet promise that God will finish God’s new creation through the Christ who reaches out to us in love from the hard wood of the cross.

In a few moments, we will pray for a world that is in chaos.  We will pray for a world of geopolitical saber rattling, where countries threaten each other with nuclear weapons and refuse to engage in diplomacy.  We will pray for a world of political intractability, where politicians seem unable to communicate or find common ground.  We will pray for a world of suffering and affliction, where people are hungry, homeless, and oppressed through no fault of their own.  We will pray for a world where hundreds of millions of people do not have access to clean water, where tyrants massacre their people, and where children are killed in their classrooms.  In the face of these overwhelming challenges, we might be tempted to throw up our hands in despair, to conclude that there is nothing that we can do to alleviate such suffering.  We might be tempted to pretend that we do not care and turn away from those who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  But if the gospel that is proclaimed from the cross is true, then every act of kindness and generosity is a proclamation of God’s new creation.  Every person we feed, every child we comfort, every donation we make becomes a symbol of God’s great love revealed to us on the cross.  Not only that, every effort we make to reach out and participate in God’s work of restoration is an opportunity for the whole world “to see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.”  Jesus may have finished his work of restoration on the cross, but we are invited to share in that mission.  Even as the chaos swirls around us, we are invited to recognize and affirm that there is always a glimmer of hope, a whisper of restoration, and a quiet promise that God will finish God’s new creation though Jesus Christ working through us as we reach out in love to this world that needs it so desperately.


Note: Donald Romanik, President of the Episcopal Church Foundation and my father, preached on yesterday’s lectionary at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan yesterday.  Below is the sermon he offered to that congregation.

urlTwo years ago I had bilateral total knee replacement surgery.  In other words, I had both knees done at once. While it was a pretty rugged surgery and a very challenging recovery and rehab period, I was fully prepared for this ordeal physically, emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually. I planned for this elective surgery well in advance and all my business and personal affairs were in order. I was in good physical shape, spiritually grounded and had done extensive on-line research on all aspects of the procedure. I even arranged for appropriate pastoral care for both me and my family during the various stages of the process.  All I had to do was trust my surgeons, therapists and caregivers and put all my energies into getting, better, stronger, and back to normal. I became the poster child for bilateral knee replacement patients as my recovery was quick, successful and complete. I was fully confident that my knees were fixed for at least a twenty or thirty year period.

Seven weeks ago, I began to have flu-like symptoms, including swelling and discomfort which turned out to be a rare and unanticipated infection in my left replacement knee joint. Consequently, I needed immediate surgical and medical intervention.  While they didn’t have to replace the entire prosthesis, the surgeons did have to open up the knee, clean it out and replace some of the parts. More significantly, they put me on heavy duty, self-administered IV antibiotics via a PIC line inserted in my arm which resulted in very severe and annoying side effects. This type of complication, by the way, only occurs in less than 1% of knee replacement patients two years after the fact.  So much for odds.

Unlike my first knee surgery, this one was not planned. The physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual preparedness of two years ago was utterly and totally absent. I had no time to plan anything and had no control whatsoever. In fact, rather than the experience of a deep spiritual journey and time set aside for reflection and discernment which characterized the last surgery, this  time I very soon felt hopeless, frustrated , angry and, for a while, totally disconnected from God. I even railed against God with a few choice words.  This was truly a wilderness time for me – in a sense, a ready-made Lenten journey that I did not want to take. It was forced upon me totally against my will.

In this morning’s psalm, we proclaim that the Lord has done great things for us and therefore we rejoice. We are also reminded that those who sow in tears and go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy. While the message of the psalm is clearly meant to be comforting, I think it is often unrealistic especially in times of tragedy, illness, loss or total devastation. Do you really think that the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are finding comfort in these words, even three months after the fact? Six weeks ago, my mouth was not filled with laughter nor my tongue with shouts of joy.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians presents an alternative approach and point of view, at least for me. In the passage we read today, Paul begins with identifying those valuable things in his life that give him status among the people of Israel so much so that he has reason to be “confident in the flesh.” After all, at the time he was knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus, Paul had lived a good life and had all the credentials he needed for fame, fortune and influence. He was at the top of his game and recognized that fact even at this point in his ministry.  And yet, Paul goes on to say that whatever inheritance he shared with God’s chosen people, his social, religious and political status, he now comes to regard as loss, not gain, because of Christ. He even refers to all this as rubbish. Paul states that any righteousness that may be associated with him comes not from his status or the law but because of his faith in Christ, in other words, righteousness from God based on faith.

For Paul, nothing is more important to him than sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He even says that he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”  This is incredibly powerful stuff, and in essence, the very core of what it means to be a Christian. But isn’t this easier said than done? How can I, as a Christian, participate in the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ when I even have difficulty feeling some connection to God as I did during my recent illness?

Fortunately, Paul doesn’t stop there. Like me and you, even Paul hasn’t quite figured it out – at least not yet. He acknowledges that he has not already obtained or reached this goal of participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, but presses on to make it his own – forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. For me, these words of Paul are much more realistic than the seemingly comforting words of the psalm. Paul is basically acknowledging that we live in a world where bad things happen and people are oppressed and suffer needlessly, all of which often results in pervasive feelings of alienation, isolation and separation from God. In other words, we live in a world that has not yet been fully transformed by God’s ultimate plan of salvation. But still we are called to press on. We are called to strive toward the heavenly goal of God in Christ Jesus. We are called to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. That’s all that matters. That’s all that really counts. It’s really okay if we have not yet reached this ultimate goal.

The good news for me is that I am recovering from this medical ordeal and have completed the arduous and necessary regimen of antibiotics and other medications. The better news is that my feelings of frustration and abandonment are gone and my Lenten wilderness experience has morphed into something more anticipatory and hopeful. I guess I took Paul’s advice, whether I knew it or not, and forgot what lay behind and attempted to strain forward to what lies ahead.  For deep down inside, I ultimately realized that nothing can ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even infections, rashes, nausea, fever, chills or PIC lines.  I realize and appreciate that despite this setback, I am healthy, I am strong and, with some PT and exercise, I will be able to walk normally again and, hopefully, avoid any further complications in the future. God was indeed with me on this entire journey and will continue to be with me no matter what lies ahead.

urlWhich brings me to today’s Gospel from John. On first blush, this passage can be interpreted as a subtle endorsement of conspicuous consumption and even excess. Here we have Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing the feet of Jesus with perfume that was obviously worth a small fortune. We also have that famous quote from Jesus – “you will always have the poor with you but you will not always have me”. Clearly, that is not the point of the story. What is significant in this passage is that the perfume bought by Mary, pure nard, was to be kept for the day of Jesus’ burial, a necessary and important element in ancient Jewish funeral rituals. But Mary was not saving the perfume for Jesus’ burial, which at that point was about a week away. She was using it now. Perhaps, rather than being extravagant, Mary’s simple but poignant act of anointing his feet while he was still alive was a powerful symbol of  her active and ongoing participation in the imminent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After all, why waste expensive burial perfume on someone who is going to rise from the dead? You might as well use it now when everyone can appreciate its value and enjoy the fragrance wafting throughout the house. I think that Mary of Bethany from 2000 years ago is giving those of us gathered here today in Pontiac, Michigan an elsewhere some clues on what it means to be in relationship with the person called Jesus.

How do we as Christians in our own time and place actively, relevantly, practically yet completely participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ultimate goal and challenge posed by Paul in his letter to the Church in Philippi? Maybe the answer is simple – one small step at a time. Let’s go back to my knee replacement rehabilitation metaphor. Physical therapy is a process of small and often simple movements, stretches and exercises that with repetition, discipline and time ultimately result in the ability to walk again. I suggest that Christian discipleship is similar. Through simple acts of prayer, worship, fellowship, stewardship, outreach, empathy, sympathy and love, we, both individually and as a community, ultimately come to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As we approach the end of Lent and begin the powerful drama and pageantry of Holy Week, may we continue our journeys of forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead – again – one step at a time.