Terror and the Kingdom of God: A sermon for Proper 7C

This sermon, offered at The Church of the Atonement in Fish Creek Wisconsin, is built around the Gospel reading for Proper 7C in the Revised Common Lectionary. 

You can find those readings here

 

In today’s Gospel reading Luke the Evangelist drags us right into the middle of what, for the disciples and for Luke’s readers, would have been a real nightmare.

On the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in a country populated by a foreign people, people who looked different, who spoke another language, people who neither valued or observed their religious traditions and customs, Jesus and his disciples are confronted by a man, bloodied and bruised by the chains used to bind him, who can’t even speak his own name because he is so tormented by the demons that afflict him.

In just a few short sentences Luke has set up a horror story better than most of the movies we’ll find on late night TV.

Now I don’t know where a boat trip across the water to a foreign land, populated by people who look different from us, people who speak a different language and worship differently than us, people who have spent time among the dead bound by chains would rank on your hierarchy of horror…

Come to think of it… I guess there are a lot of people today who do in fact find that pretty scary prospect…

But the demons, I think that the demons we encounter in this story have to rank up there pretty high on our list of scary stuff.

Now, that may be a hard line to swallow, talk about demons in church can make Episcopalians pretty squeamish, but just let’s just run with this for a few minutes.

We could spend a lot of time talking about what Jesus and his contemporaries meant when they referred to demons. And we could spend a lot of time talking about what we mean when we say a person is tormented by demons, and yes we do still use those words… but I’m not sure that either of those conversations would result in consensus or even general agreement. I am however, willing to bet that we could all agree just what those demons, whatever they are, just what the demonic, whatever that is, do to people and to communities where they manifest themselves.

Luke describes it pretty well. This man that we encounter today doesn’t live in a house. He lives in the tombs. He is separated from his family, from the community into which he was born, and is living with the dead. If the demons weren’t enough to drive him from his home, to disrupt his relationship with the people around him, his contact with the dead makes him ritually unclean and so people now want to do everything they can to avoid him. This man’s demons, the demonic within him have alienated him, driven him from his community. They have ruptured his communion with the people whom he loves and whom we may suppose once loved him. That should sound familiar to all of us. We’ve all seen that happen. And we all know that it gets worse!

When Jesus asks this man his name he can’t answer. The best that he can do is offer the number of demons that were torturing him… Legion… “Legion” was a unit of 3,000 to 6,000 men in the Roman Army. Those demons, the demonic, had obliterated his very identity, he no longer knew who his own name, he had lost his sense of who he was. The demons had ruptured his communion even with himself.

And now unable even to utter his own name this man is alone, in the dark, living among the dead.

 

It’s important to focus on the effect that these demons have had on this man rather than on the demons themselves because it is the person, the child of God standing before him with whom Jesus is concerned. He is much less interested in the demons than he is in the person in need… And by placing the emphasis on the effect that the demonic has on people we are better able to see just what it is that Jesus is does in the midst of a terrible nightmare like this.

Luke tells us:

“Then the people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”

Sitting at Jesus’s feet. In his right mind… By casting out whatever it was that was tormenting him Jesus has called him to remember who he was, Jesus has given him back his name, identity. He has restored this man to communion with himself and, as he sits there at Jesus’s feet, with God. In so doing Jesus has given him the opportunity to be restored to communion with his family, with his community, and with the world around him.

That’s not really surprising because that’s exactly what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to teach us a new way of being together, a new way of being in communion with God and with one another, a communion founded on the willingness to take care of, to sacrifice for one another; a communion that grows out of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Communion, community, establishing the kingdom of God… that’s what Jesus is about. Bringing God’s vision, God’s dream for creation to fruition here and now.

Confronted with this broken community and this man who was estranged, alienated, cut off from himself and the people around him… Jesus was bound to do something to reconcile them all, to themselves, to one another, and to God.

 

So now I have to ask… What do you think? Did it work? Was Jesus able to restore this person to the life God wanted for him? Was Jesus able to bring this tormented person back into communion with himself and with his neighbors?   The Gospel leaves that question unanswered. We know that the man, having been relieved of his torment, wanted to follow Jesus and Jesus sent him home to tell people all that God had done for him… but we don’t know how he was received by the people who had cast him out. Luke leaves us to wonder…

But while Luke doesn’t tell us the conclusion of the possessed man’s story… he does tell us something about the way the people in the city and the surrounding countryside responded to what Jesus had done. And their response leaves us with some pretty profound questions…

Luke tells us:

“Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”

Why weren’t they ecstatic that one of their own had been healed of the demons that tormented him? Why weren’t they celebrating the fact that someone who had been lost was found, that someone who had been living among the dead was now restored to life? Why in the world would they be afraid and ask Jesus lo leave? Why weren’t they lining up to bring others to Jesus to be restored to the life of the community?

Maybe, maybe it was that herd of swine that rushed down the steep slope and was drowned. Maybe the financial cost of saving someone, of rescuing them from the demons that tormented them, of restoring them to communion with themselves, with God, and with the community was just to high. Maybe they weren’t willing to make that kind of sacrifice for someone else’s sake.

Maybe they were afraid of the way that restoring this person to the life of the community might change the dynamics of the community itself. How would he fit in? What would he expect from them? Would his presence in their midst call them to change? How were they supposed to relate to this person whom they had so recently tried to bind with chains?

And speaking of those chains… If this person were restored to the community how would they live with the fact that they had, for years, tried to imprison and chain him? If it was actually possible to restore someone like this to communion with the community… why didn’t they seek help for him, why didn’t they do all in their own power to heal him? Why did they compound his misery by tossing him out and locking him away?

They were seized by fear and asked Jesus to leave. It seems pretty clear that the demons in this story were having an impact far beyond the individual person they were inhabiting. They asked Jesus to leave them.

 

Let’s be clear.

The threat posed by someone who is tormented by demons is real. That person may be a Gerasene who lives among the tombs or they may be a tortured, self loathing, hate filled person with an assault rifle. Either way, the immediate danger that person poses to us is real.

But the story of the people of Gerasene’s response to Jesus healing, Jesus restoring, Jesus reconciling someone who had been identified as a threat reveals an even greater danger.

God calls us to communion with God and with one another; a communion founded on the willingness to take care of, to sacrifice for one another; a communion that grows out of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like and that’s what Jesus came to bring.

The real danger in outbursts of the demonic and the terror they cause is that we will all become infected.

That rather than work for reconciliation and communion we will build walls that further divide us.

The real danger in moments like this is that we will hold tight to what we believe is ours, refusing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect ourselves and our children because we deem the cost too high. The danger is that we will pull back into our entrenched positions, allowing the status quo to continue to consume the innocent.

The real danger in a moment like this is that we will find ourselves too afraid to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves because someone has labeled that neighbor a threat.

The real danger in moments like this is that we will become so fearful and defensive that we refuse to examine our own culpability in our failure to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.

If we succumb to these dangers then the Demons, the terrorists, have won. Demons and terrorists aren’t nearly as concerned with their immediate victims as they are with the ripple effect of their deeds. Their real goal is to infect entire communities with terror, fear, anger, and hatred; to disrupt our communion with one another and with God. To make us forget who, and whose, we are.

 

We have to remember who we are and whose we are. We have to remember why Jesus came among us and what he taught us. We have to remember the promises we make every time we renew our baptismal vows. We have to fight to keep loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength and our neighbors as ourselves because…

Because the greatest danger of all,

in a moment like this

is that we will be so seized with fear

that we ask Jesus to leave…

 

Amen

If this Man were a Prophet: A sermon for Proper 6 C

This sermon offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on June 12, 2016, is built on the readings for Proper 6 in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.  You can find those readings here.

 

I remember sitting with Suzanne and her family at her Grandmother’s house one day when someone went to the coat closet in the front hallway and pulled down a large square package. Inside was a beautiful old bible bound in tooled leather, with a metal clasp that clipped into the cover to hold the book closed. That bible, deposited in my lap must have weighed at least ten pounds and I am sure it cost a small fortune when it was new.

Gently opening the cover we discovered an ornately ornamented announcing the date the Bible was given, the presenters and the recipients. There were pages that allowed you to keep track of important family dates: births and baptisms, marriages and grandchildren, and the deaths of members of the family. Having been printed by a Methodist press the family record and genealogy pages were followed by a page that offered the family the opportunity to sign a temperance pledge… interestingly blank in this bible… and then a piece of thin tissue paper, protecting the first full page illustration in the volume…

There he was. Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Palestinian of Semitic origin, a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeca, Jacob and Rachel, staring back at me with beautiful blue eyes and a head of long wavy blonde hair that would make any high fashion model proud!

I am sure that we have all seen this image of Jesus. He may be sitting peacefully under a tree with his hands in his lap looking at directly at us. He may be coming towards us with the newly recovered lamb on his shoulders. Or he may be standing there with his arms outstretched in welcome, a heavenly backlight ensuring that we know exactly who this attractive and welcoming figure is.

 

While Jesus, born to Mary and Joseph, in first century Palestine, in a town called Bethlehem, almost certainly didn’t look like the model in the shampoo ad that seems to adorn so many of the bibles on our bookshelves it’s really not surprising that we would portray him this way. Jesus, Emmanuel, God among us as one of us, belongs to all people, for all time, and his identity as the Son of God transcends any boundaries of race, ethnicity, culture, or country.

Google “faces of Jesus” and you will find representations of the one we call the Christ with the physical and cultural characteristics of pretty much every people in the world.

How do we experience Jesus today? It is only natural, and I might argue appropriate, that we would experience and depict him as one of us.

Natural and appropriate, that is of course, as long as we don’t try to claim that our representation is the only one that is valid and deny other people’s representations… as long as we don’t find ourselves feeling indignant or offended by portrayals of Jesus as black, and Hispanic, as Hmong… That is a real danger against which we need to be vigilant and aware.

 

I think that there is another danger though, one that is highlighted in our gospel reading from Luke today but in order to see it we need a quick review of Jesus’s ministry up to this point in the story.

At twelve years old Jesus stayed behind in the temple in Jerusalem while his family headed for home. Three days later when his panicked parents finally found teaching the teachers his response to their distress was, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

After his baptism in the river Jordan and temptation in the wilderness Jesus arrives in his hometown of Nazareth where he proclaims that in him, Isaiah’s prophecy describing the restoration of the kingdom, the year of jubilee is fulfilled. His people are understandably excited and proud.

But when Jesus points out that the people of Nazareth don’t have any special claim on him, and that God’s grace, mercy, and love extend beyond the people of Israel his hometown crowd tries to throw him off a cliff!

During his ministry in the Galilee Jesus regularly comes into contact and interacts with lepers defying the purity laws and risking being declared ritually unclean.

Word that Jesus is in town healing people, and the crush of the crowd to see him, leads a group of folks to tear the roof off a house in their efforts to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus and in healing him Jesus claims the authority to forgive sins.

Jesus eats with tax collectors, Israelites who are collaborating with Rome and calls one of them as a disciple.

Jesus defends his followers for plucking grain on the Sabbath and claims to be the Lord of the Sabbath.

Jesus heals the servant of the ultimate outsider, a Roman Centurion, and holds the centurion up as a paragon of faith.

And he offers harsh critiques of the people of Israel and their lack of faith.

 

Jesus has been pushing the envelope, breaking the rules, challenging people to examine themselves and their beliefs. He has been defying convention, disregarding tradition, and creating conflict between the people and the authorities.

I am sure that people were struggling with this man. Who is he? By what authority does he do and say these things?

I would guess that these were the questions on the mind of the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner today. He invited Jesus to his home so that he could see for himself, so he could question and examine this troublemaker who was gaining such a following among the people.

Given Jesus’s history to this point the Pharisee shouldn’t have been too surprised that Jesus’s presence at his dinner table caused a ruckus: allowing a woman to touch him in a public place, a woman who was notorious in her community. If Jesus was a true prophet he would have known all of that and rejected her.

But Jesus didn’t send her away. His actions made the Pharisee and his friends uncomfortable, he rocked the boat, he pushed them to, and eventually beyond their limits… He kept pushing them right up to the moment that they abandoned and crucified him. How could Jesus be a prophet, the Messiah?

 

Some two thousand years later, we are here today affirming Jesus as “The Prophet.” We are here today affirming Jesus as The Messiah: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the father.”

So here’s the danger in our blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus.

Do the blonde hair and blue eyes of a Jesus who looks like “us” mean that we have domesticated him, taken away the rough edges, anything that might be threatening?

Have we made him so beautiful and benign because we are afraid of a prophet who pushes the envelope, breaks the rules, challenges us to examine ourselves and our beliefs? Are we ready to embrace a Messiah who defies convention, disregards tradition, and creates conflict between the people and the authorities?

What if the full-page color illustrations in our bibles depicted Jesus wearing a hoodie with six inches of his boxers showing above his jeans? What if they depicted Jesus with tattoos on his arms and a mohawk, hanging out on the street corner talking to the homeless and the unemployed? What if those illustrations in our bible depicted Jesus in dirty ragged clothes eating at a soup kitchen, washing the feet of people who were in danger of losing hope…

If that’s the way our bibles depicted him would we be less likely to embrace the words of our creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the father.”

If Jesus didn’t look like “us,” but instead looked like “them” might we be quoting the Pharisee… “If this man were a prophet he would have known who and what kind of people he is associating with… He would have known that they are people who make us uncomfortable, who aren’t like us, who don’t get invited to dinner parties…”

 

Do we come to this table to be affirmed as we are and loved by a God who looks just like us, a God who just wants to fit in…? Or are we prepared to come to this table to be challenged, to be made uncomfortable, to have our boat rocked, to be changed and to be driven into the wilderness, called to live out our faith in the public arena; proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being?

 

Ok. So maybe I have a bigger problem with the blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus than I realized. Because if that’s the Jesus we had our hearts set on when we came here this morning then I am afraid we are going to be sorely disappointed.

If, however, we have our hearts set on the Jesus who walked the earth in first century Palestine, the Jesus whose presence calls to us through the Holy Spirit today, the Jesus who is still out there pushing the envelope, breaking the rules, challenging our understanding of ourselves and of God, and working to touch all of us, all of us, especially the lost and the broken, the disenfranchised and the forgotten, the marginalized and the oppressed… Then our hopes today will be met.

Because that Jesus, the first century Palestinian Jew shoes life, death, and resurrection changed the world is here, calling us to follow him into the neighborhood where we can ask folk who don’t look like us what Jesus looks like to them.

Amen

A Sermon for Ascension Day

A Mad City Episcopalian

The readings for this day offer us some interesting images….

In the Acts of the Apostles we read:

“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

From the Gospel of Luke we read:

“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).

Hmmmm….  Rising up into heaven on a cloud or slowly fading into the mist…  Do either of those images work for you?  How about Albrecht Durer’s wood cut showing the disciples gathered around looking upward, with Jesus’ feet just visible inside the frame at the top of the image?  Does that work any better for you?

There is a real risk that the difficulty that we experience with these images will keep us from exploring the meaning behind them.  That would be very sad…

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Jesus said to her, “Mary!”: A Sermon for Easter Day

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on Easter Day 2016 is built around the reading form the Gospel according to John appointed for Easter Day in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

What powerful and wonderful words they are that we claim and proclaim this morning; words that change everything.

Words that change everything…

It was just three days ago that we gathered to celebrate the last Supper and watched, and participated, as Jesus washed our feet and we washed the feet of others. We listened as Jesus instituted the sacrament, the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, the sign and symbol of Gods ongoing presence among us.

It was just three days ago that we stood numb and then fled in panic as Jesus was arrested and taken from us.

We gathered the next day at his trial and we shouted “away with him! Away with him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” And then we stood in shock as he died on a cross and was laid in a tomb.

But today we come here to this place, we duck down and walk through that threshold, and entering the tomb. Upon finding it empty we proclaim,

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

And everything is changed. Where we have been, what we once were, no longer defines or limits us, because the light has shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Love freely given has proven to be the greatest power of all. We are beloved and nothing

“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39).

Those words… the words that change everything, come at the climax of a story; a story that we have claimed and proclaimed for almost two thousand years; a story that today features some supporting characters with whom we are very familiar…

First there is Peter, one of the first to follow Jesus; Peter who was the first to name Jesus as the Messiah; Peter who was there at the Transfiguration; Peter who didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet; Peter who cut of the ear of the slave of the High Priest with a sword; Peter who denied Jesus three times in order to save himself…

Peter, who isn’t the first to arrive at the empty tomb but somehow manages to be the first inside…

Then there is the beloved disciple, the one who was reclining on Jesus’s breast at the last supper; the Beloved Disciple who Jesus, as he died on the cross, named as Mary’s son; the Beloved Disciple whom Jesus told to take Mary as his mother… The Beloved Disciple who was the first to arrive a the tomb and was apparently shouldered aside as Peter stumbled… first through the door…

And yet neither of these central figures get a speaking role in John’s Gospel today. John seems anxious to move them off the stage so that someone else can step into the light, Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene from whom Jesus had expelled seven demons; Mary Magdalene who was one of the women who followed Jesus and the disciples; Mary Magdalene who was one of the women who helped to bankroll the movement; Mary Magdalene who was there at the foot of the cross as Jesus died; Mary Magdalene who sometime in the middle ages acquired a reputation for a notorious, less than virtuous that is nowhere supported by the Gospel accounts…

It is Mary Magdalene who gets the starring role in today’s story, and it is her part in the story to which we, some two thousand years later, need to attend.

 

Mary is out in the dark, alone, in the middle of the night, before the sun has come up.   And she clearly expects to find the stone still blocking the mouth of the tomb. She hasn’t brought anyone to help roll away the stone. She hasn’t come with spices or ointments to anoint the body. She doesn’t seem to have a plan of action. She is there grieving, lost, in despair. All she can think to do in this moment is to come to the place where Jesus’s is laid in a desperate attempt to be near him.

When she finds that the stone is rolled away she doesn’t look inside. She doesn’t know that the body is gone but she runs to the Disciples and she says, “’they’ have taken the body away.” Mary’s greatest fear in this moment is that the powers of this world, that ill defined “they,” have triumphed once again; that the movement towards freedom that she had sensed; that the light that she thought she was seeing in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, had been extinguished. Mary is there in this moment fearing that all of the promises that she has heard and felt have come to naught. Mary is afraid that the light has come into the world and that the darkness has overcome it once again.

 

John tells us that Peter and the Beloved Disciple race one another to the tomb. He doesn’t tell us whether or not Mary runs back with them, but when Peter and the Beloved Disciple leave to go to their homes, Mary is there, weeping… It’s not until Mary is alone at the tomb that things really begin to get interesting.

Mary looks into the tomb, maybe for the first time, and sees two angels sitting on the bench where Jesus’s body had been laid. Angels! Dressed in white! Angles who speak to her and ask her why she is weeping!

Mary, confronted by this miracle, seems completely unmoved… She doesn’t fall to her knees. She doesn’t cover her eyes. She doesn’t flee in terror… She responds to them as if their presence was as commonplace as meeting a stranger in the market…

Then she turns and sees Jesus, her teacher; the one who had rescued her from a life of pain, suffering and misery; Jesus, the friend she had watched die a terrible and shameful death on the cross… and again, she seems completely unmoved. She doesn’t recognize his appearance or his voice, and she speaks to him in the same way she had just addressed the angels in white!

It’s not until Jesus “touches” her by speaking her name that she finally “sees” The Truth, but when she does… everything is changed!

 

We don’t know what was going in on the minds of the other two people who visited the tomb that morning. John tells us that the Beloved Disciple, when he finally gets inside, “saw and believed,” but he also tells us that Peter and the Beloved Disciple

“did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

How much did they understand? Was The Truth beginning to creep into their imaginations? We don’t know for sure because John moves them offstage right away. What we do know is that they left the tomb and they went home… They went home.

 

What was going on in Mary’s head? Why didn’t she react to the angels in the tomb? Why didn’t she recognize Jesus right away? It is possible that her grief had blinded her; that she was so numb, so worn down, that she wasn’t herself, and couldn’t see clearly…

But I think a better explanation lies in what happens next.

Jesus asks her to go and tell the others that he has been raised from the dead and is going to ascend to the God who loves us all. Mary becomes the messenger, the evangelist, the interpreter that we need to understand, to grasp, to believe.

Mary lived in a world where the dead were dead. Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. End of story. Full stop. She couldn’t see the Angels, she couldn’t see Jesus, because they were outside the realm of possibility, they were unimaginable. Her grief, her pain, and her understanding of the way the world works, kept her from seeing The Truth.

It was her name… her name, gently and lovingly uttered by The Truth that changes everything; that reshapes her imagination; that reshapes her understanding; that reshapes her world. And it was Mary Magdalene who was given the task of sharing The Truth that would reshape, re-imagine… that would change the world. She accomplished that task by sharing what Jesus had shared with her.

 

So here we are, sitting in the empty tomb. It doesn’t matter who we were when we came in… Peter, the Beloved Disciple, Andy, Dorota, Martha, Don…. We need to leave here this morning as Mary Magdalene!

Peter and the Beloved Disciple are out there; in the people we know, at home, at work, in the marketplace, filled with grief, remorse, shame, anger, dismay… blinded to The Truth that we proclaim. They are out there, in a world for which the dead are dead. End of Story. Full stop. A world in which a love so powerful that even death cannot destroy it is outside the realm of possibility, unimaginable…

This morning, gathered together in a tomb that has been empty for almost two thousand years, a tomb that will never again hold sway over us, we are called to be Mary Magdalene, to go out into the world and to proclaim in a loud and joyful voice

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

To Testify to The Truth: A Sermon for Good Friday

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on March 25, Good Friday, 2016 is built around the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.

You can find that reading here

 

“What is truth?”

I wonder how Pilate spoke those words.  Was he sincere?  Did he utter them with a plaintive longing in his voice?  Was it merely a rhetorical question?  Or…. Did he ask it with a derisive sneer?

The story would seem to indicate that, at least at first, Pilate was in search of the truth. He goes out to meet the crowd that is clamoring for Jesus’s death and asks, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” He comes back inside to question Jesus and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  “What have you done?”

He goes back outside and tells the crowd that He can find no case against him and offers to release him, but the crowd continues to insist that Jesus be put to death.

So, seeking to placate the crowd, Pilate has Jesus flogged, and, understanding Jesus to be innocent, again tries to release him.

But the crowd roars for Jesus’ death and tells Pilate the Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God.

Pilate returns to Jesus and continues to ask him questions, still trying to understand, still seeking the truth, almost begging Jesus to respond and spare himself the fate the crowd demands.

Pilate is frightened. The crowd’s charge, Jesus’ responses have him beginning to recognize that there is something going on here that is beyond him, something that he doesn’t understand… and he continues to work the crowd trying to find a way to have Jesus released…

And then something devastating happens… The crowd finds a way to turn their threats against Pilate…

“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

 

Pontius Pilate was a mid level bureaucrat, a career military man and politician whose position rested on his ability to curry favor with those above him, especially with the Emperor.

If word got back to Rome that he had released someone who was undermining Caesar’s claims to divinity, Caesar’s claim to divine kingship, if he released someone who was seeking to usurp the basis of the Emperor’s power… Pilate’s career, maybe even his life, would be over.

The fear that Pilate felt as he began to approach the truth about Jesus was suddenly supplanted by fear for his own career, fear for his status and rank in society, fear for his position in the only hierarchy he knew and understood.

So in this moment of crisis, Pilate turns his back on truth and condemns an innocent man.

He turns his back on truth…

Jesus told Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Apparently Pilate wasn’t listening.

Jesus told us that we are all, all of us, beloved of God. The truth he proclaimed has the power to break down the walls that divide us, the instinctual tribalism that causes us to see the world as “us” and “them.”

Jesus told us that we are all, all of us, children of the same God and that we are called to care for the weak and the poor, the disenfranchised, those on the margins, even those who have harmed or wronged us!

The truth that Jesus proclaimed has the power to bring our conflict, our police actions, our wars to an end.

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

And he taught us that the way to true life, a life that is shaped by and infused with the eternal, comes through loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and through loving our neighbor as ourselves.

When push come to shove, and the harsh political realities of listening to, and living by the truth to which Jesus testified became clear… Pilate stopped listening to the truth and bought into the false promises of demagoguery and empire…

Demagoguery and Empire cannot abide this truth and so, when it is confronted by The Truth, it seeks to destroy it…

 

It seeks to destroy The Truth

Jesus didn’t just give voice to truth… he himself IS truth.

Jesus, Emanuel, God among us. Jesus, The Truth manifest in our midst, trying to help us to grasp the reality, that we, all of us, with all of our scars, imperfections and flaws, are beloved of God, have value in God’s sight, and are worthy of dignity, respect, of love.

Jesus’s words, his testimony, his teaching countered the claims and lies of empire. Jesus, The Truth’s very presence among us, represents a challenge to the fear, competition, scapegoating, and the tribalism that fuels and under girds empire… so empire had him killed.

Rome killed The Truth to suppress its voice and oppress a people.

Pilate killed The Truth to suppress its voice and protect his own position, status, and power.

The temple authorities killed The Truth to suppress its voice and protect a way of life, their traditions, their religion, their heritage, … all of which supported their power and their privileged place in society.

 

Today, standing at the foot of the cross we look upon the work of empire and we are called to acknowledge and confess

The evil we have done

The evil that enslaves us

And the evil done on our behalf

Whenever we fail to care for the poor, the hungry, the naked, or the prisoner, we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.

Whenever we diminish, degrade, or dehumanize another in order to maintain our power, status or privilege… we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.

Whenever we scapegoat a person, or a people, in order to justify their oppression and our own acts of aggression… we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.

Whenever we deny our connection to, and responsibility for one another, whenever we deny a child of God the dignity and respect that, by virtue of our common origins, belong to all of us… we are here standing at the foot of the cross.

 

In just a few minutes we will sing, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” I think that we want to hear that song as filled with pathos and shared grief. We sing those words in search of others who share our pain and dismay at the spectacle of The Truth, dead, nailed to a tree, its side pierced, its breath stolen away.

But even as we stand at the foot of the cross and sing these words the voice of demagoguery and empire is ringing out, telling its lies, looking for people to devour in its insatiable appetite for destruction and death.

Where you there? Against this backdrop of fear mongering, of incitement, of tribalism; against empire’s howl of rage and confusion at the threat to its power and privilege, we must hear the words of this hymn as a call to action.

Will we be there when they try, again and again, to crucify our Lord?

Will we raise The Voice of Truth in protest?

Will we risk the wrath of empire and proclaim the kingship of The Truth?

Will we begin to heal the wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ…. by following his commandment and loving one another as he has loved us…

Or will God’s people someday look back at us and ask, “Where were they, when they crucified our Lord?”

Andy+

Remember Who You Are: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year C

This was one of those weeks that preachers love to hate…  It is wonderful when the spirit strikes but it sure would be nice if it didn’t wait until Saturday night.

I thought I was finished with this sermon on Thursday but on Saturday it was broken open, maybe even shattered, by a sudden insight and inspiration.  I went to bed thinking I had it under control and ready to go but on Sunday morning the revelation continued.  I was still struggling to put all the pieces together when I delivered it at the 8 am service.  It went a little more smoothly at the 10:30 service but was still evolving.

This text is a further refinement of the recording of the sermon I delivered at the 10:30 service on February 14th, the first Sunday in Lent 2016 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin.

It is built on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

 

“After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1).

“Full of the Holy Spirit.” Just imagine how full he was! He goes to the river Jordan where he is baptized. And the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form like a dove; and he hears these words,

“You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

If that’s not enough to fill you with the Holy Spirit I don’t know what is!   So here is, glowing, absolutely glowing with the Holy Spirit and he walks into the wilderness where the devil is waiting for him. Now this probably presents somewhat of a problem for the devil. You can’t have the Son of God, the Beloved, the one with whom God is well pleased wandering around so full of himself. And so the devil steps in to try and take care of this difficulty.

Luke tells us that Jesus is out there for 40 days being tempted by the devil but then Luke says,

He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished (Luke 4:2).

He hasn’t eaten for forty days and then the devil shows up to tempt them with these three questions. So he’s vulnerable. He’s tired, hungry. He’s famished.  If you are looking to attack someone then that’s the time to do it.  Right?  So the devil shows up and says,

‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread’ (Luke 4:3).

And Jesus says

‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone” ’ (Luke 4:4).

And the devil has to move on to plan B…

It seems in this first exchange there is a temptation and there is a response tells the devil that this line of attack isn’t going to work.

What is the temptation? It’s hard to figure that out. Is the devil saying “Display your magical powers. Subvert the laws of nature and change the stone into bread?” Is the devil saying, “Feed yourself. I know you’re famished. You are hungry. If you are the Son of God you can do it. God wouldn’t want you to suffer… Take care of yourself. Just wave your hands and meet your own needs…”

I think we find our answer about the temptation in Jesus’s response.

“It is written ‘One does not live by bread alone…’” (Luke 4:4).

That’s what we hear, but it’s almost like Jesus is speaking in shorthand. Jesus has only quoted half of a verse from the book of Deuteronomy here. His listeners, Luke’s audience would have know how to complete that sentence…

“One does not live by bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

So how does this shed light on the devil’s temptation? Think about this for a minute…

Jesus has been to the river Jordan and he’s received this “word,” “You are my Son the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In that moment his identity, and his vocation, his “belovedness” is established… And the devil, and the word devil, by the way, means “the slanderer” or “false accuser,” is trying to undermine that sense, that understanding, that identity that Jesus has received in that word.

So he says, “prove it!” “Prove it”? The devil knows who Jesus is! The devil doesn’t need any proof!   What the devil is doing, what the slanderer, the accuser is doing in this moment, is trying to sow some doubt. “If you really are… prove it to yourself… that you are the Son of God.”

Jesus responds, “I don’t need to do that because I am fed, I live on the word of God which I just received in my baptism. My identity is secure. I know that I am beloved.

 

So the devil tries again… Oh, okay don’t really believe it huh? Not willing to change this stone to bread…” still trying to sow that doubt… “because I tell you what. Let me give you something more concrete… Worship me and I will give you all of this, authority over all the world.”

Jesus response to him

“It is written, ’Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (Luke 4:8).

Again, Jesus answers with a quote from the book of Deuteronomy. This time it’s from chapter 6 where Moses is speaking to the people of Israel, giving them God’s instructions. He tells them “once you arrive in the promised land, the land of Cana, remember who brought you and don’t go after other gods, the gods of the people who live there. But worship only the Lord your God.

Jesus recognizes what’s happening. The devil is asking him to redefine himself, not as God, not as God’s beloved, but as the slanderer’s, the accuser’s, as one who belongs to the devil. Jesus declines.

 

One more time the devil attempts to tempt Jesus. He takes him to the highest tower on the Temple and says, “Throw yourself off. If you are who you say you are… prove it prove it to me and prove it to yourself.”

Once again Jesus quotes the book of Deuteronomy chapter 6.

“It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:12).

Jesus is speaking in shorthand again. This is only half the verse and while the rest of the story might not come immediately to mind for us today, it certainly would have for Jesus’ followers or Luke’s audience. The full line from Deuteronomy reads:

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deuteronomy 6:16).

“Massah”? Jesus’ followers and Luke’s audience would have known this reference right away. This time we are directed to the book of Exodus. Moses is leading the people in the wilderness and they are ready to stone him because there is no water. He strikes the rock with his staff, water comes out and,

“He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not’” (Exodus 17:7)?

There in the desert, in the wilderness, the people of Israel were asking, “are we really beloved of God? Is God really here with us in the wilderness?”

Jesus’s response to the devil is saying, “don’t put the Lord your God to the test in the wilderness by demanding evidence that he is there with you and that you are beloved.”

Well the devil apparently understands the Old Testament Scriptures, the Scriptures of the people of Israel, because this response does him in, and he leaves until an opportune time.

 

Jesus makes his way into the wilderness full of the Holy Spirit and he survives this time in the wilderness, these temptations, this trial, by refusing to let go of the word that he received in his baptism, by refusing to let go of his identity, by refusing to relinquish the truth that he is the Beloved, the Son of God with whom God is well pleased.   He goes into the wilderness “full of the Holy Spirit.” Luke tells us that he comes out of the wilderness

“…filled with the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).

During that trial, his time of testing and temptation in the wilderness, by claiming his identity and refusing to let it go, Jesus grows.

 

Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we hear this story of Jesus in the wilderness.   In this season we are called to a time of self reflection and examination. Lent is a time when we are asked to look within ourselves for the places, the times, and the ways in which we distance ourselves from the God who loves us, and from the God with whom we long to be in relationship. Every year during this season we are asked to do this difficult work so that when we arrive at Easter we might start again, setting aside some of the barriers that are of our own making and, come even closer to the God who loves us.

The wilderness is a dangerous place because when you’re in the wilderness the slanderer, the accuser is always close at hand, ready to try and steal away from you what you know, the word given you at your baptism.

A couple of weeks ago, when we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of our Lord we rejoiced in the fact that we participate in Jesus’s baptism and that the words spoken to him are also spoken to us.   When mother Dorota and I, at the peace, walked up and down the aisles with those branches and splashed water on people and said, “You are beloved. You are beloved,” everyone in this room was glowing, full of the Holy Spirit. That truth and that identity is something that fills us up and can light the whole world.

Here in the wilderness, when we’re examining the places where we’ve fallen short, the accuser will be standing there on our shoulder whispering, “Really? Prove it! Prove it!”  The accuser will be trying to sow doubt, trying to get us to relax our grip on that truth, in that identity, in that word; trying to steal it away from us… But maybe… maybe stealing is the wrong verb. That word on which we live, that feeds us in the wilderness can’t be taken from us unless we open our hands and let it go. So maybe the accuser, the slanderer is trying to trick us into giving it away! Here in the wilderness we need to remember who we are whose we are.

Last week I stood in this place and I invited us to add one practice to the practices suggested in the Invitation to the Observance of Holy Lent found in our Ash Wednesday liturgy. I suggested that this might be a good season for us all to listen, to work really hard to quiet the internal noise, to separate ourselves from the noise around us, and to sit quietly, attentively, patiently waiting for what God has to say to us. That is the way to be with Jesus in the wilderness; vulnerable, open, and ready to hear.   But we need to make sure that we remember who we are in case the accuser starts to whisper his little nothings in our ear.

So here’s a way to safeguard yourself, to prepare yourself for that listening. Whether you’re sitting in the perfect chair with the speakers positioned exactly right so you can hear the music that God is playing… Whether you’re sitting somewhere else trying to quiet the noise… Do this first.

Take a deep breath in, and while you breathe in pray, “I am a beloved child of God.”   Then as you let that breath out, let your body relax. Feel the tension drain from your shoulders and your neck. Feel yourself sink into that truth; “I am a beloved child of God.” Feel yourself relaxing into the embrace of the God who loves you.

Any time in this season when we’re doing this holy work, this work of self reflection and examination, when the accuser rears his ugly head and begins to whisper in our ear that we are unworthy, that we are unlovable, take that deep breath again. Claim the word, the identity, given to you at your baptism. Cling to it. Because if we can do that we will come out on the other side of this wilderness, into the light of Easter, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, having grown in the love of God.

Amen

Listen to Him! A Sermon for the Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C

This sermon, offered on February 7, 2016 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

My brother-in-law Scott, my sister Julie’s husband, is one of those lucky people who managed to turn his hobby, his avocation, into a job or a vocation. Scott writes reviews of high-end stereo equipment for an audiophile magazine, and companies all over the world send him this incredibly expensive equipment to test, to try out, to review, and to write about. Sometimes those companies want that equipment back and sometimes they don’t. So the last time I was at his house, and I was looking at this rack of stereo equipment that was just unbelievable, I started to lament the fact that when I was younger the first thing I did any time I moved was to set up my stereo. Great big speakers, a turntable, a tape deck, a receiver, an amplifier… all that equipment got put together before I even unpacked my bed. It was so important to me to have that stuff put together. And now when I want to listen to music I grab my iPhone in my little Bluetooth speaker that I carry around the house and I listen to music from little box that’s about that big…

Scott looked at me and said, “Well, lets talk about that for a minute. Andy when was the last time you sat down to listen to music?” I’m a musician. I listen to music all the time. He said “No, no. I don’t mean having music playing in the background while you’re making dinner, or folding the laundry, or doing something else. I’m talking about sitting down with no other intention than to listen to music.” I thought about that for a minute and it was true. When I had all of that stereo equipment I had a chair that was placed in just the right spot so I got the full stereo effect from my speakers and I would sit there for hours sometimes… just listening, just listening. The more I thought about that the more I recognize I was missing something.

When I was an undergraduate music student at Juniata College I took classes that taught me how to listen; that taught me what to listen for, how to appreciate what I was hearing, ways to anticipate, to remember, ways to incorporate what I was hearing into a larger pattern and scheme so did it all made sense. And the more I thought about it the more I realized that listening is an art in and of itself.   And it’s something that we can be taught. It is a skill that we can acquire.

Now if you’re wondering if that’s really true, is listening an art, I invite you to think for a minute about the last time you were with someone who had the gift of listening. People like that help us to understand or to know that we have their full attention, that they’re anxious to hear what we have to say, that they believe we have something to contribute to their understanding of the world, and they’re curious about who we are and what we think, believe, and feel. People with the gift of listening are a gift in and of themselves.

Think for a minute about the other side of that equation; people who step on you before you finish saying something; who can’t wait to hear what you’ve got to say because they’ve already figured it out, or they’ve anticipated what you’re going to say and so the jump in and respond before you’re done. Or maybe people who are so anxious to prove how bright they are in how much they know about the subject that they don’t let you finish what you’re saying before they start adding their brilliant and highly erudite points to the conversation.   And then, there’s the even worse case, people who clearly either don’t care don’t want to hear what you have to say. So they step on you. When you’re with people like that you sometimes just want to shake them and say “Listen to me! Listen!

“Listen,” that’s the rebuke that Peter got this morning in our Gospel reading. Jesus has just been transformed into his glory here on the mountain with Moses and Elijah their clothes transformed to dazzling white and before Moses and Elijah had even left… Peter has jumped in and said “Lord is good that we’re here! Let us build three booths, one for each of you, and we can just stay right here on this mountaintop.”

Peter thinks he knows what Jesus is about to say. He thinks he knows how this is supposed to play out. He’s got it all figured out so he’s not even going to let Jesus start to debrief this experience, or explain what happened, he’s just going to jump right in there with his in plan.

Peter, just a few verses ago, was the one who finally said to Jesus you are the Messiah of God. Jesus asked,

“‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God’” (Luke 9:18-20).

Peter was the star pupil! Jumped right to the head of the class. Maybe Peter has stepped on Jesus, not allowing him to speak because he assumes that his vision of the “Messiah of God” is right on track. Or maybe he’s not giving Jesus a chance to speak here because he wants to maintain that star status. He’s jumping in with what he is sure is the right answer so Jesus knows just how smart he is.

Or maybe… maybe Peter doesn’t really want to hear what Jesus has to say because just after Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah of God Jesus told them that

‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).

So maybe Peter doesn’t want to hear any more conversation about

“…his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).

Anyway, no matter what the reason, Peter has failed to listen. He’s interjected himself into a moment where he might have learned something and been transformed and changed by Jesus’s half of the conversation. And so he draws that rebuke.

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)

If my brother-in-law Scott, a trained and gifted listener, who by the way this past September entered seminary, and the question that he asked me two years ago “When he was the last time you down to listen to music?” comes back to my mind here in this moment. I think that if he were here this morning listening to all this, because I’ve now led him right to this spot (right?), might ask a different question… “When was the last time you sat down to listen to God? When was the last time you sent down to listen to Jesus; not just as part of the background noise, not just to keep your head from wandering into dark places while you’re washing the dishes or making dinner… but sat down intentionally to listen; in the chair that’s in exactly the right spot to get the sound from both speakers so that when God’s speaks you get the full color, texture, and tone of what it is that God is saying?”

Listening is an art. It’s a skill that we can acquire. It’s something that we can train ourselves to do. So here are a couple of things that might help, things that we’ve explored a little bit already.

Sitting down in that chair ready to listen to God don’t imagine that you already know what God is going to say. Don’t jump in to finish God’s sentences. When God starts to speak sit and listen. Know that God has something to add that’s more valuable than what you’re ready to interject in that moment.

Don’t when you sit down in that chair, carefully positioned so that you can hear what God is saying, don’t try to be the star pupil. Don’t jump in and start to explain to God how good you are, or how well you’ve done, or how much you know from all of the theological texts you’ve read, or about your study of the scripture that week. Sit quietly and let God speak first.

And then third, make sure that you really do want to hear what it is that God has to say. God doesn’t always say things that are easy to hear. God doesn’t always say things that we necessarily want to hear. But when God speaks there is the the possibility that we will be transformed, just as Jesus was there on that mountain top, so that we can show forth God’s glory and light and love in the world.

We’re about to enter the season of Lent and on Wednesday, on Ash Wednesday, we will be invited into the observance of a holy land we’ll be invited to self reflection, and prayer; to fasting, to the reading of Scripture. I think if I had the chance to edit that paragraph in the prayer book I would add one thing, to listen, to enter the season of Lent to seek that holiness by quieting the voices, by quieting the noise, by suppressing our own expectations and assumptions, and by leaving ourselves wide open to just listen.   A minute a day, two, five will make a difference. start small and gradually build yourself to the point then your in a dialog and conversation listening, listening, to him.

Amen.