Monday, April 8, 2024

Forgiving & Retaining


John 20:19-31

Easter 2 / Year B

The first few weeks after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, along with the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, are pretty heady times for the early church.  Thinking Jesus is going to return soon to initiate his kingdom, those first followers come together often to pray and to watch.  Most give up their jobs and even begin to sell their homes.  The small group holds the proceeds in a communal fund which is used to pay for everyone’s living expenses as well as to assist the poor and needy. 

I have heard more than one preacher extol the model of the early Church.  Why can’t everyone be equal?  Why can’t we share all so no one has need?  Who wouldn’t want to live in this kind of Utopia?  Well, for the early church, two problems emerge.  First, Jesus doesn’t return in the timely manner believers expect and it doesn’t take long for the funds to dry up.  Yes, everyone has the same.  The problem is what each has eventually is not sufficient.

Does utopianism work?  Both Plymouth and Jamestown struggle mightily in their first few years as settlers work collectively for the good of all.  Shortages are common and hunger is rampant until families and individuals are given plots of land to work for their own benefit.  Only then do the settlements begin to produce enough food and crops to sustain each enterprise.

The need to get back to work is the first challenge to the early church’s communal enterprise.  Here is the second: Not everyone is honest with their sharing.  Enter Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who holds back some of the profit they make from selling their house and then lie to Peter about it.  You may be interested to know the Lectionary does not appoint this part of the story to be read, rather it ends with the happy part about everyone sharing and having everything they need.  I decided the rest of the passage provides a needed cautionary tale to the rosy beginning.

That the couple dies for lying feels harsh, to say the least.  After all, Paul was stricken blind for only three days and he was involving in arresting Christians and stoning them.  That everyone else is in the church is seized with great fear is understandable.  Imagine if people at St. Paul’s keeled over from time to time for their foibles.  We would be shaken too.

In our gospel reading we hear of Jesus breathing on his followers to impart the Holy Spirit on them.  He then gives this commission: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  The power to forgive and the authority to condemn are awesome responsibilities and, to be honest, the history of the Church suggests we have not always used them well. 

In this matter, John the Apostle, in his first letter, turns away from an institutionally-centric approach to one more personal:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness…  I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Here the emphasis is on the power each of us has to confess, to repent, to make amends, to be forgiven, and to be restored to fullness of life within the Christian community rather than on the community’s power to render judgment.

Here is what I make of all of this:

First, we all sin and fall short of who we are called to be and what we are called to do.  In just a few moments, as we renew our baptismal covenant, I will ask you, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you sin (not, in the extremely unlikely event you do sin) repent and return to the Lord?  You will respond, “I will with God’s help.”

Second, the Church is called more to forgive sins than to retain them.  When I was ordained to the priesthood I made a vow to “endeavor so to minister the Word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant, that the reconciling love of Christ may be known and received.”  For me, this means, in part, the opportunity to confess is less of a demand than it is an invitation.  My primary role as a priest is not to point out all the fallenness in our lives, but to hold up the opportunity for transformation.  We are, as I have said before (and try to embrace myself), not defined by our worst moments in life. 

And finally, there are times – and they are sad – when the church must hold individuals or groups accountable for their sinful actions.  We describe the threshold for this as being a “scandal to the community.”  I think about the time a woman was taking money out of our collection plate.  I sat down with her and said, “We really do enjoy having you be a part of our community, but I can’t have you taking money from the offering.”  It was, I thought, a welcome and an invitation to change; to conform to the basic requirements of being a member of a healthy church.  She has not been back since I spoke with her.

I don’t believe I have every preached about Ananias and Sapphira, nor have I ever attempted to tackle the whole thing about forgiving and retaining sins.  I trust my musings will cause you to think and to reflect and, as always, I would love to hear your thoughts on all of this.

Monday, April 1, 2024

A New Robe


Mark 16:1-8

Easter Day / Year B

We just heard the earliest written record describing Jesus’ resurrection.  It is taken from the Gospel of Mark and... it leaves a little bit to be desired.  First and foremost, there is no Jesus.  Second, the women who go to the tomb leave and tell no one.  Then, the entire gospel comes to a close as if someone has torn out the last part of the manuscript.  It is something akin to saying of Jesus’ birth, “Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem and there she had a baby”; with no stall, no manger, no angels, no shepherds, no magi, no star.  We want to say to Mark, “Give us more, please.”  If I was an English teacher and Mark turned this in as a composition, I would mark it with a big, red ‘I’ for incomplete.

Still, there is one detail in this version which the other three gospels do not include.  Only here do we find the mysterious young man dressed in a white robe and sitting in the tomb.  Who is he and why is he here?  And how is it he comes to know Jesus is risen and is the only person in Mark’s gospel to proclaim this good news?

If you flip back a few pages in your bible to chapter 14 you will find an easy to overlook detail from the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus is taken into custody and all the disciples flee:

A certain young man was following Jesus, wearing nothing but a linen cloth.  The arresting party caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.                                    (14:51-52)

Have you ever noticed this character before?  Who is he?  What is he doing following Jesus?  And what is the significance of wearing only a linen cloth?

The lone clue we have comes from the Greek word used to describe the wrap: sindona.  It is only used to describe a type of burial linen.  Symbolically, this young man is clothed with the shroud of death.  That he casts it off, leaves it with the authorities, and runs off naked suggests Jesus is going to take upon himself the death intended for the young man. 

This anonymous young “follower” appears to understand something the disciples never seem to get.  On several occasions Jesus tells them he must die, but each time either they reprimand him, change the subject, or remain silent.  This young man – who some scholars say may be Mark himself – becomes the first person saved by Jesus.  But who he actually is, why he follows Jesus, and to where he flees are subjects not addressed in the text. 

We might be inclined to forget about him altogether if it were not for his second appearance in the narrative four days later.  When the woman go to the tomb to finish the burial work so hastily begun on the Friday before the Passover, they encounter the same young man sitting in the open tomb where Jesus had been buried.  He is now dressed in a “white” robe (a word used in only one other place – in the story of the Transfiguration where Jesus’ clothes become radiant white).  The person who once wore the shroud of death is now clothed with a royal garment symbolizing the new life of the Resurrection. 

This bit player in the grand narrative of Mark’s gospel is given the role to make the greatest announcement in human history:

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised.  He is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.”

The young man directs the women to go and tell the disciples Jesus will meet them in Galilee.  They flee the tomb in terror and amazement (literally in trauma and ecstasy) but say nothing to anyone about what they have seen because they are afraid.  And with this Mark’s gospel comes to an unsatisfying end.  Most bibles include two possible alternative endings, but note both are not original, rather added some time later by well-meaning editors who want to give the story a proper ending.

So what are we to make of this young man?  Keep in mind the gospel writers are not as concerned about actual history as they are with meaning.  They feel free to play around with the details of an event in order to explain its significance.  Jesus himself holds to this approach.  It matters not to him he turns water into wine, what is important to him is what it means.  After he feeds the 5,000 he is critical of those who follow him merely because they want to be fed but are not able to discern the deeper implications he is the Bread of Life.

So this young man may be an actual person or he may be only a literary device – perhaps Mark inserting himself into a historical moment where he was not actually present in order to spell out with more clarity the implications of what has taken place.  What has taken place is this: Jesus is risen and has removed from us the shroud of death and clothed us with the robe of the power of the resurrection.

Friday, March 29, 2024

The Great Earthquake & the Cross


John 18:1-19:42

Good Friday / Year B

An ecumenical chapel sits on top of a hill overlooking a small town nestled around an ocean bay.  On its grounds there is a cross which stands at least 75 feet tall.  From this vantage point in can be seen for miles and miles.  To enter the chapel you must pass a baptismal font carved out of a stone wall.  Water flows from an unseen source into font which, based on its location, conveys the truth baptism is admission into the Church.  From there the water cascades down another series of rocks to fill a shallow pool in a crypt beneath the chapel.  Here the living and the dead are connected by baptismal waters.  The water then meanders in a stream running throughout the chapel grounds, slowly making its way to its journey’s end at the base of the tall cross. 

All of this provides very striking imagery.  We are on a journey through life and death.  We are connected with those around us in mysterious ways.  Together and individually, we are all moving toward the cross.  The final gathering space for the water speaks of the cross’ ability to receive all without ever reaching a limit or being filled up.  I visited this chapel and grounds only once years ago and remember it still as being a peaceful place, as it should be.

The cross is the most prominent and powerful symbol of the Christian faith.  That what Cicero called “the cruelest and most repulsive form of the death penalty” has become such a revered image is a testimony to the Resurrection’s ability to transform all things.  Gustaf Aulen, a Swedish bishop, said, “The eyes of faith are irresistibly drawn to the cross.  The reason for this is that the cross gathers up and summarizes the totality of life.”

Among the many things it stands for the cross represents the experience of crisis.  It speaks to the times and places when our faith is shaken to the core.  It literally is this for Jesus.  Months before his arrest, the gospels tell us Jesus points his face toward Jerusalem because he knows where and how he will die.  The night in the garden, waiting for Judas, he agonizes over his impending fate.  The cross represents this.  It represents all the uncertainty and all the fear.  It stands for every crisis which we know not if we will survive.  And, in the light of the Resurrection, it represents God’s faithfulness and power to bring us through all things.

Every one of us has faced times when we have been rocked to the core, when we have been tested to the limit; a time when we were refined by fire and our lives were changed forever.  These moments of terrible crisis can cause us to question the faith we have taken on as to its very validity.  Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, speaks of such an inevitable event as being the “Great Earthquake” in one’s life.  He speaks of the “terrible revolution which suddenly forces upon us a new and infallible law of interpretation of the facts.” 

The earthquake comes in different ways to each of us, but it comes.  For one person it may be a divorce, for another vocational troubles.  Some know this moment when health issues raise questions of mortality while others know it at the loss of a loved one.  One thing is sure, our lives will be rocked by earthquakes and we will not know if our faith can pull us through, or if it should.

For Jess Trotter, former dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, the earthquake came when his 22-year-old son committed suicide.  The experience taught him classroom ideas about God are fragile things.  He wrote about falling through them and falling not into nothingness, but into God as God truly is.  Dean Trotter called this “firm ground” on which we can stand.  It is the place where we recognize God is indescribable, yet clearly present.  In his last sermon at the seminary chapel, Trotter said these memorable words, “I have been to the depth, and God has brought me back.”  This is what the cross is all about.  It is the earthquake of Christ’s life.  It is a symbol of the depths and God’s power to bring us back.

On this day we watch and we wait gathered like the chapel water at the hilltop foot of the cross.  We watch and we wait.  We offer what Margaret Hebblethwaite calls prayers of simple regard, prayers of just watching.  She writes,

The extraordinary fact about the people gathered around the cross, who abandon all their duties for the day simply to be with Jesus, looking at him, is they are changed by the experience.  Just seeing, doing nothing, turns out to be for them a revolutionary experience, so that afterwards they see things differently and, no doubt, will act differently.  They have not wasted their time doing nothing, but they have allowed themselves to be changed.

In our silence and in our waiting, may we too be changed, prepared, and assured; assured as we gather at the cross God will bring back our Pioneer from the depths and we too will follow him in our time.  We too will be shattered.  We will fall… fall to firm, Divine ground.  We will stand, not because of anything we use to prop ourselves up, but because the God who has triumphed at the cross makes it possible.  And Jesus himself will be our guide.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Taking on Our Human Form


Mark 14:1-15:47

The Sunday of the Passion - Palm Sunday / Year B

Most of you know I grew up in another Christian tradition.  There, Palm Sunday was Palm Sunday.  There was no reading of the Passion story, just Jesus, a donkey, and throngs of palm waving people shouting ‘Hosanna.’  I viewed Palm Sunday as a warm up for the big celebration of Easter Day, kind of like stretching before the start of a game.  This memory comes back to me every year as our Episcopal liturgy takes us from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.  And, as distressing as this day is, I could never go back to simply observing Palm Sunday on its own. 

I have been mulling over a notion put forth in the passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi we read a few moments ago, which some scholars posit is actually the text of a hymn sung by the congregation.  It says, in part…

having emptied himself…

  [Christ] took on human form… 

That Christ set aside his divine place at God’s right hand in order to become human tells us many things.  One thing for sure, it affirms the dignity of our humanity and speaks to the worth of every human being.  “For God so loved the world…” Jesus tells Nicodemus in John’s gospel.  The world.  The WHOLE world.  Not just the people I love.  Not just the people I like.  Not just the people who look like me and think like me and act like me and pray like me and vote like me.  God loves the WHOLE world. 

I finished watching a documentary series detailing the history of the Cold War.  While it was not my intention, it is turned out to be a good way to prepare for the power of the Passion Story.  It has been sobering night after night to reflect on the human capacity to be inhumane.  Hitler’s regime exterminated over 6 million Jews, a staggering number which doesn’t even include other ethnic groups and minorities.  Stalin oversaw the execution of up to 20 million members of his own country.  At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, our military officials determined if both sides engaged in all out nuclear war over 600 million people would die just in the initial attack, over ¼ of the world’s population at the time.

Unfortunately, this series is not just a history lesson; a sad tale about something from our distant past.  Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, wrote this in an op-ed article in The Guardian:

We are currently experiencing a moment of profound human suffering globally.  A pandemic of inhumanity has taken hold, from Darfur to Ukraine, from the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan to the seemingly forgotten voices of the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, and now to the intolerable tragedy that is deepening in Israel and the State of Palestine and threatening to spread wider.  These human rights emergencies are interconnected.  At their heart they are driven by a common crisis: a failure to give value to the lives of all people.

As we listen to the Passion we ask ourselves how could they have done such a barbaric thing to Jesus?  If we look at ourselves we must ask how can we do such barbaric things to one another?

Former President Jimmy Carter made this observation:

In order for us human beings to commit ourselves personally to the inhumanity of war, we find it necessary first to dehumanize our opponents, which is in itself a violation of the beliefs of our religions.  Once we characterize our adversaries as beyond the scope of God’s mercy and grace, their lives lose all value.  

The Soviet Union fell in 1991 in no small part due to the influence Christian churches in Eastern Bloc countries.  They provided places for people to gather for prayer and the singing of hymns prior to going out on the streets and engaging in non-violent resistance.  It was common to see churches packed on a nightly basis as protestors sought spiritual and emotional support prior to engaging armed officials.   The church has been and still is an effective instrument for change because we know our Savior took on our human form and therefore every person is precious, every life is sacred.

Those of you who participated in last week’s Lenten program will recall I concluded the series with a brief quote from the historian Howard Zinn.  Here is a little more of what he said:

…human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.  If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.  If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act…  We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic acts to participate in the process of change.  Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.

On this day when we wail and lament the crucifixion of God’s Son let us also wail and lament the execution of any and every child of God.  And as we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ glorious resurrection, let us also be expectant and hopeful for a new day in our world marked by compassion and respect for one another.


Monday, March 18, 2024

Tell Me about your Heart


John 12:2--33

Lent 5 / Year B

“Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.” 

These are, of course, the words of what we now know as the 51st Psalm.  The author invites us to ponder the condition of our heart; not as a cardiologist would, but as God does – emotionally, morally, spiritually. 

Let me tell you about the heart of Morrieaux, a character in Michael Christopher’s play The Black Angel.  It tells the story of Herman Engel, a W.W.II German general who is sentenced to thirty years behind bars for atrocities committed by his army.  The play is set after Engel has been released from prison and is living in a cabin in a remote woodland location.  There, he and his wife hope to finish out their days in obscurity.

Waiting in the wings is Morrieaux, a Frenchman, whose entire family has been massacred by Engel's army.  Morrieaux has privately vowed if he ever has the opportunity he will take Engel’s life.  His personal death sentence is kept alive over three decades by the fire of hatred burning in his heart.  Now, with Engel free, the time has come.  Morrieaux stirs into a frenzy nearby villagers who plot to go to Engel’s cabin by night and burn it to the ground; the elderly couple trapped inside.

But even this is not enough to appease the hatred of the lead character.  As the play reaches its climax, Morrieaux poses as a reporter and goes to Engel’s cabin.  He grills the general about the details of the village massacre.  The years have taken a toll on Engel and in his feeble humanity he seems to Morrieaux less like the monster he had imagined and more like a tired old man.  Beyond this, some of the details of the Engel’s version of the story do not fit as neatly together as Morrieaux had imagined; opening the possibility the general is not the villain he has been made out to be.  Doubt begins to contaminate the place where only pure hate and vengeance have reigned for so long.

As the afternoon wears on, Morrieaux takes pity on Engel and tells him of the villagers’ plans for that very evening.  He offers to lead the general and his wife to safety.  “I will go with you on one condition,” Engel tells Morrieaux, “You must forgive me.”  In his fantasies Morrieaux has rehearsed a thousand different ways in which he would kill this man, now he is willing to cancel the execution, but not the hate.  He leaves the cabin and Engel, his hate-filled heart intact.  As he walks away we hear the villagers approaching who, with sacks over their heads, proceed to burn the cabin and murder the general and his wife.

The play asks the question why is Morrieaux unable to forgive?  Why is it easier to save a man’s life than to forgive him?  Why?  Because his hatred has been a passion too long lodged in his soul.  He cannot live, he can no longer be the person he is, without his hatred.  He has become his hatred.  His hate does not belong to him, he belongs to it.

Tell me about your heart.  What lies in its secret places?  Tell me about your heart.  What hides within its deepest recesses?  Is there hatred?  Bitterness?  Immorality?  Bigotry?  Rampant pride and conceit?  Vindictiveness?  Does your heart covet?  Is it consumed with shame?  Is it controlled by an addiction?  Does it ever boil over into violence?  Or perhaps your heart is mostly passionless and indifferent; lacking hope and purpose.  Maybe it is broken and, to your estimation, wounded beyond repair.  Tell me about your heart.

Our Gospel reading this morning records a one verse parable of our Lord:

“Unless a grain of wheat

falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone;

but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The meaning of the parable then follows: “The person who loves his life loses it and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  We don’t need the character of Morrieaux to show us how difficult it is to disdain the present condition of our heart.  If we seek validation of this truth all we need to do is take stock of the things which we do not want to turn over to God’s creative renewing.

I think back to the Hebrew Psalmist.  The text tells us he or she is lying close to death.  There is something about facing ultimate consequences which affects the human heart.  Either it can make a person callused and closed, or it opens the heart – often miraculously – to some new possibility; the vision of which is so overwhelming, so beautiful it brings to the heart restoration and renewal. 

The prophet Jeremiah, in our first reading, is at such a moment.  As he walks among the ruins of Jerusalem and the Temple and surveys all that his people treasure is gone, everything supporting them in their faith lost, he receives a breathtaking promise from the Holy One:

“There will come a day when My law will not be kept in a temple located in a holy city.  I will make a new covenant.  I will write My law upon the hearts of the people.” 

With this promise of God’s internal presence, the Hebrew religion, though it was in ruins, is reborn.

It is no simple task to keep your heart in this place, so says our collect this morning:

…among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found…

Tell me about your heart.  Better yet… tell the One who recreates and renews. 

Monday, March 11, 2024

The Nehushtan


John 3:14-21

Lent 4 / Year B

This morning we encounter one of most peculiar stories in the entire bible: the divine punishment of snake bites in the wilderness and healing power of the Nehushtan, an image of a bronze serpent crafted by Moses and mounted on a pole.  And if the cliff notes are not bizarre enough, wait until we dive into the details.  We Christians might care little about this story except Jesus himself identifies his own Crucifixion with it right before one of the most famous verses in all of scripture: John 3:16.

Here is what we can make of the passage.  It is one of the wilderness ‘murmuring’ stories where the people complain about the hardships they are enduring: no food and no water are high on their list.  God responds to previous murmurings by providing; first, water from a rock and then, on a nightly basis, a flakey substance so odd the people name in ‘manna’, a Hebrew word which literally means what is it?.  What it is? is crusty material similar perhaps to our communion wafers: bland, tasteless, and, if it is your sole dietary allotment, something you would tire of quickly.

What is it? figures prominently in today’s reading.   Our first text tells us the people complain to Moses saying, “We detest this miserable food.”  Robert Alter, in his translation of the first five books of the bible, notes the intensive sense of the first person-plural and all the words following.  He renders the verse as “we loath this wretched bread.”  What is it? is so bad people gag whenever they try to swallow it. 

So what is the divine response to the ‘murmuring’?  Wandering in the wilderness, the people suddenly find themselves in a snake pit – literally.  Creatures are slithering out of the rocks and striking out Godly retribution through their venomous bites. 

Serpents play an interesting role in the bible, don’t they!  In Garden of Eden the serpent is the agent of temptation and deception.  For Isaiah, a serpent-like creature places a flaming coal on his tongue as a part of the prophetic commissioning process.  Here, in the wilderness, the serpent is an agent of divine punishment. 

But the diverse role of the serpent gets even more weird as the story unfolds.  The people plead with Moses to intercede with God on their behalf.  “We have sinned,” they say, “Tell God we are sorry and ask God to get rid of these snakes.”  God responds by instructing Moses to fashion an image of a snake, mount it on a pole, lift it up, and show it to the people.  “Whoever looks at the snake will be healed,” God says.  “Whoever does not will die.” 

Moses, as if adding to the absurdity of it all, elects to craft the snake out of bronze.  He could have chosen any material – wood (easy to chisel), stone (he had already worked with it on the Commandment tablets), but in something of word play/pun Moses elects to make the snake (nehash in Hebrew) out of bronze (nehoshet).  He makes a nehash nehoshet, an object which, over time, comes to be known as “the Nehushtan”, and do you know what, it works!  The means of rejection, judgment, and punishment becomes the means of forgiveness, redemption, and healing because God’s power works through it.

It is this aspect Jesus picks up and connects to his eventual death on the Cross.  The instrument of his own rejection, judgment, and punishment will become the means by which the world will be forgiven, redeemed, and healed.  The curious episode in the wilderness becomes a looking glass into a wonder the whole world will eventually see when Jesus is lifted high upon the Cross.

Eventually the Nehushtan comes to reside in the Holy of Holies, the place in the Temple where God’s Spirit dwells.  It remains here, along with the Ark of the Covenant, for centuries until King Hezekiah has it destroyed around 700 BC because people are bowing down to it and worshiping it.  Over time, what had been given as a divine gift becomes an object of reverence apart from the Holy One who acted through it.

I suppose it is a good lesson to remember when we are in need of healing, comfort, or forgiveness.  In the healing service we hold in the Chapel once a month after the Sunday morning service I read the liturgy which at one point states:

May God make you know and feel that the only name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of Jesus Christ.

Every time I read it I think to myself, but don’t ignore your doctor’s advice and take your medications as directed.  Still, the medical profession, along with clinical counselling, the fitness movement, and a host of other vocations aimed at improving and prolonging the quality of life can become for us a Nehushtan; objects we revere devoid of an awareness of how it is actually God who works and through them.  Just like those wilderness murmurs who looked at the bronze snake on a pole and were healed, whatever our need and no matter where we turn for help, our response when we find it is always “Thanks be to God.”

Monday, March 4, 2024

A Shift in the Temple


John 2:13-22

Lent 3 / Year B

In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus drives out the merchants and money changers from the Temple on the day after Palm Sunday because he is appalled by their dishonest and corrupt practices.  Pilgrims comes from far and wide to make sacrifices at this holiest of places.  Once they arrive in Jerusalem they must convert their money into local coinage in order to purchase an appropriate offering.  What they encounter are financiers charging exorbitant exchange rates and peddlers selling sickly and deformed birds and animals when the offering required is supposed to be pure and unblemished.  (When it comes to giving to God, only the best will do.)  These three gospel record Jesus acts because his Father’s house has been turned it a “den of thieves.”  He is not attacking the Temple and its sacrificial rites, only those who are profiting by ripping off others.  Jesus’ actions, in these gospels, becomes the impetus for his arrest.

Now, as we heard moments ago, John’s gospel describes the same event but if you pay attention to the text there are subtle and not so subtle differences.  Not so subtle: John has this event taking place at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and not in Holy Week.  John is not concerned at all with holding his narrative to a chronologically accurate timeline.  Rather, he weaves events in such a way so as to reveal who Jesus is and what he is all about.  So by placing this story near the beginning, John is saying Jesus’ entire ministry has something to do with the Temple itself.  But what?

Well, the key to answering this question is found in a subtle detail.  In John’s gospel, when Jesus drives out the sacrificial birds and animals and overturns the tables of the money changers, he does not do so because they are a den of thieves.  Did you notice what he said?  Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace.”  He is not condemning unethical sales practices.  He is leveling an indictment on their entire system. 

When asked by what authority he acts, Jesus responds, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  Those who hear him take Jesus to mean the stone and mortar structure which has taken decades to erect and still is not finished.  But here, at the very beginning, John has Jesus shifting the entire focus and function of the Temple to himself.

It is a motif John will build on throughout his gospel.  Think about the conversation Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well.  At one point she asks him about the appropriate place to worship, either the Samarian site of Mount Gerizim or the Israeli location of Mount Zion in Jerusalem.  Do you remember how he answers?  “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.”  It continues the shift from an emphasis on an outer structure to one’s own inner devotion.

The way John tells Jesus’ story takes on even greater significance if we consider how his original audience would have heard it.  John writes some two decades after the fall of Jerusalem and total destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  Some of John’s readers grew up making pilgrimages to the Temple to offer a sacrifice, something no longer possible (think solastalgia – for those of you who attended last Sunday’s Lenten program).  Other readers had never been to Jerusalem, let alone the Temple.  To both groups, John has Jesus saying, “Forget about the Temple and the things of old.  I am the new Temple.  You no longer need to offer sacrifices of cattle, lambs, or doves.  Now you are to worship the Father in spirit and truth.”

If Jesus calls us to worship God in spirit and truth, what might he find in us which might lead him to make a whip of cords in order to drive it out of us?

Perhaps the first thing Jesus may find is what Erma Bombeck called “the gift that keeps on giving” – guilt.  David Grohl, founding member of the rock band The Foo Fighters, said “Guilt is a cancer.  Guilt will confine you, torture you, destroy you… It’s a thief.”  And yet, at least for some of us, our religious heritage has instilled in us a deep sense of unworthiness, of guilt.  We have absorbed a spirituality which holds God is exacting; demanding from us a standard of holiness beyond anything we can possibility achieve.  If this is where you are, Jesus wants to drive it out of the temple of your soul.

I suppose the flipside of guilt is self-righteousness; the notion you are good in God’s eyes because… you name the reasons… while others who do not meet the standards of your religious heritage are not.  Jesus said, “Why do you criticize the splinter in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in your own?”  Jesus makes a whip of cords to drive out of us any and every sense of judgementalism. 

And, while I could preach from now until next Sunday of this subject, allow me to name just one more impediment to worshipping God in spirit and true: fear.  While guilt infects how we remember the past, fear eats at the future.  Each shares the same power to cripple our ability to live in the present moment, which is the only place we can worship God in spirit and truth.  Do you know how many times the phrase “fear not” appears is found in the bible?  365 – one for each day of the year.  Jesus seeks to drive out all fear so that we might be free to live, to love, and to worship.

These are just a few of the building blocks and cornerstones which Jesus uses to build his new temple in us.  What other measures and messages resonate with you as Jesus drives far from us all that holds us back from coming to him in spirit and truth?

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Crux


Mark 8:31-38

Lent 2 / Year B

A police officer notices a car weaving in and out of traffic.  The driver appears to be highly agitated, screaming at other cars and making crude gestures with her hands and fingers.  The office turns on his lights and pulls over the car.  Asking for title and registration he asks, “Do you know why I stopped you?”  “I have no idea,” the driver replies.  “Well,” says the officer,” I noticed your bumper sticker says ‘Jesus is my Co-Pilot’ and based on your actions and behavior, I was worried the car is stolen.”

When people learn we profess faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior they will have certain expectations about who we are and how you behave.  Sometimes they say more about the other person than they do about us.  If, for example, they know a lot of judgmental and hypocritical Christians, they might just assume you are the same.  If they know Christians who are kind, loving, and trustworthy, they will be stunned if you go around gossiping behind the backs of other people.

I can’t tell you how many times, upon learning what I do in life, a person, caught off guard, has said, “You’re a priest!?!”  I suppose there are a myriad of ways I don’t conform to some folk’s preconceived ideas of what an ordained person looks like and does.  At the church I served in Iowa, someone once said to me, “You aren’t like Father Greg (my predecessor).”  “How so,” I asked.  “Well, he used to mow the lawn wearing his clergy collar.” 

This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark draws our attention to Jesus’ identity and to our expectations of him, or at least it used to.  For reasons unknown, the assigned lectionary passage has been shorted by a few verses.  Gone are the days when we heard Jesus ask his followers, “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?”  These are questions about identity.  Peter, this time at least, aces the test: “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus then goes on to teach the Messiah must go to Jerusalem to suffer, be rejected, and killed only to rise again on the third day.  This, in no way, conforms to Peter’s expectations.  He, and the other disciples, seem to believe the Messiah will deliver Israel from Roman occupation and then reign from the throne of King David.  They suppose they will be given positions of power and even argue about who among them will sit at his right and left hand.  This is their expectation for the Messiah, the Son of God.

We expect rock stars to trash hotel rooms, politicians to speak out of both sides of their mouth, Hollywood actors to be self-absorbed, clergy not to smoke a cigar (ask T.D. Mottley for the backstory on why I was dubbed ‘the Godman’), and we expect the Messiah to triumph over every obstacle and evil.  That this is a very tempting option for Jesus to choose is made clear in his response to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”

It is always tempting (a good Lenten word) to live into what other people expect of you, rather than to be who God calls you to be and to do what God calls you to do.  Now, I am not suggesting you show up to a wedding wearing pajamas because people expect you to be in a suit and tie.  I am saying you are to strive for God’s expectations of you.

Listen again to how Jesus describes it:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 

“Take up your cross and follow me.”  Most often we associate this phrase with some kind of sickness, sadness, or suffering we must endure cheerfully and bravely.  And, to be sure, each of us faces challenges like this and how we engage them can be a powerful witness to our faith and faithfulness.  But I think Jesus is getting at something different here when he instructs us to take up our cross and follow.

The word cross comes to us from the Latin root crux.  From this root we get such words as crucifix, crucifixion, crusade, and excruciate.  It also gives us the word crucial, the crux of the matter.  To pick up your crux and follow is to determine what is the most crucial thing you need to be about.  In its root usage, the word crux describes two things that cross, like a crossroads or the vertical and horizontal pieces of wood which make up a cross.  I think to take up your cross means to merge your God-given identity with God’s expectation of what you are to do given who you are.

Some people fast from eating meat on Fridays in Lent, and this is well and good, but is it crux?  Is it critical?  Absolutely not.  Now, it may be a helpful devotional aid as you ponder what is crux, but (like so many rituals and practices) it is a spiritual launching point and never an end unto itself.  Jesus’ call to pick up your cross and follow is an invitation to discern what is critical in your life and to pray over how you are to put it into the service of the work of the gospel.

What is your crux?  Honestly, I don’t expect you to have a coherent answer for this question.  I am not sure I do either.  However, I invite all of us to come before our Lord, Savior, and Guide seeking an answer.  The alternative, Jesus says, is to gain perhaps the whole world, but in the process forfeit your life… to live for something less… much less… than the crux.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Life Comes at You Fast


Mark 1:9-15

Lent 1 / Year B

If, upon hearing today’s gospel reading, you are feeling a sense of Déjà vu, there is good reason.  This is the third time we have read from this brief passage in the last nine weeks.  After this morning we will be free and clear of it for the next three years.  Only six verses long, it condenses a lot activity into a very tight description and it unfolds with great speed because Mark uses one of his favorite words to describe the pace: immediately…  For Mark, things happen fast and for a reason.

Think about Jesus.  He has led a quiet life since the fantastic events surrounding his birth.  Suddenly, he is baptized, blessed, possessed, tested, and comforted prior to launching into his public ministry; all unfolding in about forty days.   

The Stoic philosopher Seneca famously noted life comes at you fast.  Our days can turn from quiet to turmoil in the blinking of an eye.  One moment we are in the cool waters of the Jordon experiencing a spiritual high, the next we are in the barren wilderness being tested; seemingly with nothing and no one to support us.

In the year 1880, at the age of 22, Teddy Roosevelt married socialite Alice Hathaway Lee.  He wrote to his brother, “My happiness is so great that it makes me almost afraid.”  Having been married, written a book, attended law school, and elected to public office, Teddy wrote in his diary it was the best year of his life. 

And it only got better.  The winter of 1883 found the couple preparing for the birth of their first child.  Again he wrote in his diary,

I can imagine nothing more happy in life than an evening spent in the cozy little sitting room, before the bright fire of soft coals, my books all around me, and playing backgammon with my own dainty mistress.

On February 12, 1884, Alice gave to a birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl.  Two days later, on Valentine’s Day, Roosevelt’s mother succumbed to Typhoid Fever and died in his home.  Stunningly, just eleven hours later, Alice died from kidney failure; an ailment which had gone on undiagnosed.  The next day Roosevelt made a large X in his diary and wrote, “The light has gone out of my life.” 

Life comes at you fast.  

This is a truth many of you have been living with recently.  Since maybe December at least nine of our members have been in the hospital and have received a troubling diagnoses.  Immediately, as Mark would say, life is changed.  These folks, and those who care about them, have been driven into the wilderness.  It is not a choice they have made.  It is a journey which has been thrust upon them.  We don’t voluntarily choose periods of trial, temptation, struggle, they happen to us.

Here is what I want you not to miss about today’s reading.  Even though Jesus is alone in the wilderness God is with him throughout his trying ordeal.  Angels minister to him.  As a priest it is such an honor and blessing to visit people during their wilderness moments, to listen, to pray, to share the sacraments, to be a visible reminder all of us are holding them in prayer.  I am always humbled by how a priest’s presence expresses the never-failing presence of God.

This is certainly one way we expect God to be with us in the wilderness, but there are also blessings we could never imagine.  In Mark’s gospel this truth is conveyed through six words: “he was with the wild beasts.”  Surely among them are lions, jackals, bears, and snakes, but far from menacing, the text suggests Jesus has tamed them.  He has restored the shalom between humans and creation which existed at the beginning in Eden.  So too, when we are in the wilderness God is at work in and around us to make peace with those things which once were frightful. 

And when we emerge from the wilderness, we find ourselves proclaiming the good news: 

·    God has been with you to see you through.

·    Family, friends, health professionals, people from everywhere have rallied round you and supported you.

·    You have felt God’s power at work in you and you have been empowered by the thoughts, prayers, and expressions of compassion so many have offered.

·    You have found an inner strength you never knew you had.

·    You have become a herald of the good news. 

Teddy Roosevelt was devastated by the deaths of his mother and wife and, grief-stricken, was rendered almost unable to function for some time.  But two years later he fell in love with Edith Kermit Carow.  They married and had five children together.  Teddy ran for mayor of New York City and lost, but continued his life as a public servant.  As a Rough Rider, he played a decisive role in Battle of Kettle Hill in Cuba in 1898.  He garnered fame and popularity from his exploits and bravery, going on to be elected Governor of New York, Vice-President under McKinley, and then President after McKinley’s assassination. 

There is something about the wilderness which makes a person more than he or she could have been without its experience.  It is certainly true for Roosevelt.  It is true for Jesus.  And it is true for you and for those you love.  God is in the business of redeeming our every hurt, loss, and struggle.  Yes, life comes at us fast, but God and those who allow God’s Spirit to work in and through them, are with us to see us through.