The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday 2021

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021 – Mark 11: 1-11; Mark 15:1-47 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

We squeeze a lot in on Palm Sunday. 

First, during the Liturgy of the Palms, we hear the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then, we shift gears rather abruptly during the Liturgy of the Word as we listen to the lengthy passion narrative.

Both stories are familiar to us, but they are still exceedingly important for us to rehearse year after year. They are important, in part, because they are conflicting. As we listen to them, the pendulum of our emotions swings from a delightful pride to a shameful humiliation when suddenly we are confronted once again with the tragic example of just how volatile our human nature really is. 

The juxtaposition between Jesus’ triumphant entry and his tragic execution reminds us of just how quickly public support can evaporate, fear can take control, and people can be convinced to sacrifice their hope for the future for a little bit of temporary security. 

These stories are also important because they refocus us on an essential plot point of the Christian story: the crucifixion. Today, by directing our attention to Jesus’ death, but stopping short of his resurrection, we are reminded that all life—even Jesus’ life—includes suffering. 

We do not ordinarily come to church to focus on suffering, but it is important to acknowledge it, especially this day and this week, because it is very, very real. For Jesus, and for each of us.   

We are all acquainted with suffering. Our lives include the pains that accompany loss, failure, disillusionment, and rejection. That’s part of what it means to be human. And so, as Christians, we turn our attention this morning to stories that take us from celebration to suffering because they are stories that speak to experiences of the flesh. And they are stories that tell us the extent to which God is willing to go to identify with us in the flesh. 

Of course, God’s identification with us in our humanity began at Christmas, when the Word became flesh, but today, on Palm Sunday, the “Sunday of the Passion,” we are reminded that that same flesh persists, even unto death. 

As we meet Jesus walking willingly toward the cross, we must understand that to preach Christ crucified is to preach Christ incarnate, for one is not possible without the other. So, even today, the 12 days of Christmas long past, we preach flesh, and for good reason. Listen again to what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself . . . being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

In other words, God became flesh in order to show us just how much flesh matters to God. Enough to suffer a state-sanctioned execution based on false accusations. 

In some paradoxical way, we might even find it comforting to dwell on Jesus’ painful last hours on earth. Comforting, not because we derive pleasure from making or seeing others suffer, but because we all experience suffering, and the image of Jesus on the cross reminds us that God identifies with us in our suffering. It is the ultimate act of divine solidarity. 

On the cross, Jesus teaches us that whenever we suffer, we are united with God. Does that mean that we should go around looking for ways to suffer? Absolutely not. Does that mean that we must thank God for seasons of suffering because they help us recall the divine presence? No. Not at all.  

God does not inflict suffering on us for our edification. Quite the contrary. On the cross, Jesus redeems our suffering for our salvation. And he does it by showing us, in no uncertain terms, that when times of trial inevitably come, we are not alone. God is with us. This is our Lord’s greatest miracle, is it not? A love so compassionate, so completely selfless, that it chooses to share even in the worst burdens of our fleshly existence?

We often speak of Jesus’ death on the cross as a sacrifice done on our behalf, or in place of us. That’s true, of course. What Jesus accomplished on the cross was done once for all people throughout all time. We cannot repeat it. There are some Christians who seem to be convinced that the proper response to this reality is guilt. But I don’t think that’s what Paul had in mind when he urged the Philippians to let the same mind be in them that was in Christ Jesus. I think Paul had in mind something more like embracing all that it means to be human, just like Jesus did.

Because of Jesus, we have the capacity to love selflessly, even in the flesh. Because of Jesus, we have the capacity to meet others in their suffering, their moments of deepest sorrow, not in some vain attempt to imitate his sacrifice, but because he willingly made that sacrifice in the first place. If we can do that, if we can meet each other at our lowest points, then we just might finally recognize—in one another and in ourselves—what Jesus has seen in us all along: the very essence of our humanity that is so worth loving.

It’s a tall order to be sure, and we may not be able to do it quite like Jesus, but if we take him as our example, then our fear of each other just might start to subside, our skepticism of each other just might begin to abate, and the barriers that we have erected between ourselves just might begin to crumble because we will have seen that which only God can make it possible for us to see: those little bits of the divine image, even in the flesh.  

We all suffer. If we remember that, and if we hold each other close when those times come, then we will be joined to God’s divine nature. In a sense, you might even say that, just like Jesus, we will be sharing in the world’s sour wine. And having tasted it, we will never be able deny someone a cold drink of water again.  

Holy Cross Day

Holy Cross Day – September 14, 2019 – John 12:31-36a – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

The cross is everywhere. Signed on our foreheads, across our chests, and on our hands. Laid in our stonework, etched into our windows, and even baked right into our communion bread.

The cross is the Christian symbol, and for good reason: Jesus died on the cross. As an instrument of torture, the cross carries with it the baggage of violence, shame, and death, but God took this sign of torture and made it a sign of new life.

Imagine. An instrument of death becoming a symbol of new life. Like all good Christian theology, it’s paradoxical to the core.

Over the centuries some folks have, unfortunately, used the cross to inflict shame. Some who grew up attending rigid parochial schools or fire-and-brimstone churches are still scarred by the guilt they felt when they were told that they were responsible for hanging Jesus on it.

You and I know that the cross is not an emblem designed to manipulate our emotions. The cross is a tangible reminder of the intersection of human and divine life.

When we see God enfleshed on the cross, we witness God identifying with human suffering in an unparalleled way. Even Jesus, born of a woman, yet one with his father in heaven, did not escape the cold reality of death.

God, at one with our human nature, gets it. God gets that we suffer, and God shows us on the cross that he is with us when we do. Most importantly of all, God shows us that suffering and death do not ultimately get the last word. That belongs to resurrection.

On the cross we see the hard reckoning of human pain with the promise of new life in God who loves us beyond measure. Ironically, by dying, Jesus shows us just how powerful his life is. We are inheritors of that life—eternal life—in Christ.

We remember the cross today because of its sacred place in that eternal life. I’m not sure what happened to the real one, though its purported fragments abound. But that’s okay. The reality of its power does not depend on its archeological discovery.

The cross still marks the spot of Jesus’ death and ensures us of the promise of eternal life. On our bodies. On this altar. Built right into the side of this building. Baked right into this holy bread.

Rejoice friends, for wherever Jesus’ cross is, there God is at work, transforming death into life. Thank God it’s grafted on our hearts.

Take him by the hand

The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene (transferred) – July 23, 2019 – John 20:11-18 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

Today’s gospel lesson is the same one that was read at my grandmother’s funeral in April. As all good Episcopalians know, the rite of Christian burial is a service of resurrection. Grandma was a Methodist, but she knew it, too.

What made this lesson all the more poignant was the fact that her funeral took place in Lent, during the week before Holy Week. It was as though we had arrived at Easter a bit early. The arduous passion-tide of Holy Week had been supplanted by a vigil watch over the bed of a dying family matriarch. 

The events of her death and preparation for her funeral were, as all deaths are, a holy time. But it was also an extremely sad time, a time in which the promise of resurrection was desperately needed. 

That’s exactly where we fine Mary Magdalene today. She’s in the still, quiet garden just before dawn, and she’s desperately in need of some hope. Boy does she find it. 

She sees the angels in the tomb and then turns to find the gardener and questions him about the whereabouts of Jesus’ body. “Mary!” he responds. Just like that she realizes that he isn’t the gardener at all, but the risen and living Lord.

We’ve all been to the garden before, perhaps in the dark days after the death of a loved one. We, like Mary, desperately needed some shred of hope. Maybe for you it was in the wake of a divorce, a job loss, or an injury. 

As Christians today, when we find ourselves in the garden we can rely on the well-worn promise of resurrection in all its 2000-year-old glory, but for Mary Magdalene it was all just beginning. She was the first one to discover this promise. 

There is a sense in which, even though we already know what awaits us on the other side of Good Friday, we too must discover God’s resurrection power for ourselves. 

My Grandma once told me that during the hardest time in her life, when she, like Mary Magdalene, stood weeping and alone outside of the tomb, “Jesus found me like a friend, took me by the hand, and never let me go.”

Her comment really puts things into perspective. Some Christians go on and on about how they’ve found Jesus, and they’ll ask you if you’ve found him, too. For Grandma it was the other way around: you don’t find Jesus. Jesus has already found you.

Jesus is already beside you. Even in your darkest hour, he’s there. Even when you might not see him very clearly, he’s there. Even when you mistake him for a lawn care professional, he’s there. 

Each of us may discover his presence in our own time, in our own way, but when that moment comes, it’s not that we’ve found Jesus, it’s that we are finally ready to take him by the hand.  

By God’s grace and God’s grace alone you are loved, forgiven, saved, and redeemed. God has been with you from the beginning, and God will never let you go. God even sent Jesus to take on your human nature, to show you how much you matter, and to take you by the hand.

In response to this amazing news, dear friends, you can come to the table again right now, take Jesus by the hand once more, and then go out and introduce him to everyone you meet.

The devil you know

Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2019 – Luke 8:26-39 – Trinity, Winchester

It’s that time again: Ordinary Time! We’ve made it to the Second Sunday after Pentecost. Last Sunday was of course, Trinity Sunday. 

After two principal feasts in a row, it is perhaps fitting that this morning is a bit more subdued. We are reminded that no matter the day, no matter whether there is organ music or hymn-singing, the risen Christ is with us. 

If you noticed anything weird about today’s gospel, you wouldn’t be the only one. There is, of course, the whole demon-possession thing, but I’m talking about this: Jesus is asked to leave town, even after he exorcised a man of a demonic spirit. 

What’s up with that? 

Upon his arrival to the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus is immediately confronted by a solitary, naked, demon-possessed man. A danger to himself and others, Luke tells us that the man is often restrained in shackles. 

Jesus does what Jesus does. He confronts the demons, who recognize him as the Son of God, and sends them, at their request, into a herd of pigs which run into the lake and drown. 

People from all around come to see what has happened and find the man fully clothed and of sane mind, seated next to Jesus. After hearing eye-witness testimony of the exorcism, you might think they would have invited Jesus to stay for dinner and given him the place of honor at the table, but no. 

Instead, the crowd’s fear takes over, and they ask Jesus to leave. “Go on, pick your stuff up, take your friends, and get out of here. We don’t need you making anymore trouble.” 

At first blush, their desire for Jesus’ departure doesn’t make much sense. Why would Jesus be asked to leave town when he has demonstrated that his power is greater than the demon’s? He has saved their countryman from demonic possession and restored the community to health and peace.

But if we ponder this unusual request for a moment or two more, their insistence that Jesus leave may start to make more sense. 

There is, of course, the economic factor. An entire heard of swine are dead. If I were one of the pig farmers, I would be pretty upset. How did insurance work in the ancient Near East, anyway? 

It goes much deeper than economics. To understand the Gerasenes’ desire for Jesus to leave, we have to look deeper into our own human nature. 

How does the saying go? “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t?” Or in this case, perhaps, “Better the devil you know than the Jesus you don’t.” 

The Gerasenes know evil. They are used to evil. They deal with evil everyday. They chain it up, post guards around it, and hang up those little signs that say “Beware of evil.” “Please don’t feed the evil.” “Must stay at least 20 yards from the evil at all times.” 

We, too, are well-acquainted with evil. We each have our ways of coping with it. Some of us are skilled at keeping it at arms length, while others of us simply choose to ignore it.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh, I just can’t stand to watch the news anymore!”? “Whenever I hear that voice I just—smack—turn the radio right off!”

On the other hand, the power of God—the power for good—often seems to allude us. The Gerasenes weren’t so accustomed to it, either. Jesus’ liberating power was unfamiliar to them. When something is unfamiliar, we often find it threatening.

Those among us who are more naturally competitive than others may recall the experience of meeting someone who shares our interests, but has talents that we perceive to be better than our own. We feel jealous of them because we feel threatened by them.

Grandma had the same experience with microwaves. She had no use for one. She cooked every meal from scratch and had perfected each one herself. If she wasn’t afraid of the new technology, she was certainly afraid of what it would do to her lifetime of cooking experience.

Likewise, when we encounter something new it can awaken in us a primal fear.

When a family member dies we know instinctively that things will be different. Fear is a big part of our grief. Who will carve the turkey this year? Who will drive me to the doctor’s office? What will I do with all my time?

Change makes us uncomfortable, even if it appears to be for the best. For some reason we prefer the chaos that we know to the chaos of uncertainty. In other words, our eyes are kept from seeing the good because the change itself is so scary. 

Take for example the woman who gave her husband a bottle of Jack Daniels for the first anniversary of his sobriety. She knew if he drank it he would become belligerent and abusive once again, but that’s the only life she knew how to live. With her sober husband she was lost. Her identity was changing faster than she could cope. 

She had no idea how to function as the partner of a stable person. Even though any bystander would observe that her life changed for the better, she didn’t know what to make of it. 

Even liberation can be threatening, scary, uncomfortable. It’s not so surprising, after all, the Gerasene response. When faced with uncertainty our first instinct is often to push the source of that uncertainty away. We just want things to be “normal.”

It’s hard to imagine new life when the only thing you know is death. At least death is concrete. At least we know what we’re getting with death. 

“At least when he lived out by the tombs—as good as dead—he could keep control of him. At least back then we knew what he was up to. Now, who knows what kind of funny ideas he’s going to have?” 

The story is not new. We hear it every year on Good Friday. We would rather reject God’s offer of transformative love by nailing Jesus to a cross than accept the promise of a resurrection that we cannot yet imagine.

Jesus comes to the Gerasenes today to give them a glimpse of what resurrection has to offer. It’s startling, it’s dramatic, it’s a lot to take in. 

We can’t blame them for asking him to leave. We are much the same. Take heart, there is still time to learn. Jesus is always right beside us, ready to remind us what new life—what resurrection—looks like. 

I’ve given you examples of it before: overcoming addiction, managing grief, asking for help when you hit rock bottom. I know you’re in the habit of spotting signs of life all around you. 

Whenever you realize God’s liberating power of love it’s only natural to want to take some time and bask in it. Like the healed man, you may want to stay all cozy right up next to the source of your resurrection, but there is a little time for that. 

Simply observing and enjoying these signs of life is not where we stop.

Listen to Jesus. He’s calling you to go one step further. He bids you still today, “Return . . . and declare how much God has done for you.” 

Good Friday 2019

Good Friday – April 19, 2019 – Trinity, Winchester

Pontius Pilate entered his headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” John 19:9-11


Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus remains silent. 

This utterly baffles Pilate. “Don’t you know that I have the power to either release or crucify you?” Jesus replies, somewhat calmly as I imagine it, “You have no power over me unless it was given to you from above.”

“You have no power.” 

Jesus is right. Pilate has no power. It is easy to see why Pilate thinks he has power over Jesus. In his mind, he can either have Jesus killed or he can set him free, but in reality, it’s not so simple. Nor does Pilate have power over the angry mob outside. He has no control over the hate welling up in their hearts and spewing from their lips.

Something far greater than human power is at work in the events of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Evil forces conspire to create divisions that Pilate and the angry crowd are completely unaware of. Only Jesus recognizes them as the work of Satan plotting to get exactly what he wants. 

Jesus sees Satan at work in the mob mentality. Tensions arise and instead of trying to discover their underlying causes, the group casts all the blame on one person: Jesus. They identify him as a scapegoat. He has been putting some crazy ideas in the minds of the poor, the widowed, and the sick. They consider him the source of their problems. If they can only kill Jesus, then all of their problems will go away.

Satan still works like this in the world. Truth be told, I get nervous throwing around words like “Satan.” Some of you might wonder, “What in the world is he talking about?”

I’m talking about systematic evil in the world. All around us the devil’s scandals run riot. Some develop quickly, others over long periods of time. They carry us unknowingly along with them, and all the while we are complicit in evils of which we are often unaware. [1]

This was the story of the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. “If only that black family would move back to their side of town! People would walk around the neighborhood again. Parents would let their children play in the yard. We could leave our doors unlocked.”

It’s still the case today. “If only we could keep the immigrants on that side of the border! Our jobs would be safe, our economy would be thriving, and our streets would be free of crime.”

That’s not the only example of our modern tendency to scapegoat. Think about the human impact on climate change or the societal acceptance of school shootings. Even as we cry out for solutions, systemic forces of evil keep us from working together to find them. 

We would much rather attack each other than work together to solve the problem. “If we got rid of Trump, everything would be so much better!” “If Nancy Pelosi disappeared, we wouldn’t have these problems anymore!”

As toxic partisanship takes over the political landscape it’s nearly impossible to have civil dialogue. Fear has become our only motivator. When we respond out of fear, we vilify people who are different from us. We lose sight of the real issues and instead mistake each other for the problem. We begin to think that if we can suppress our rivals, then all of our problems will be solved. [2]

As long as that’s our attitude, then the devil has us right where he wants us. As long as Satan keeps us afraid of each other, then we’ll forget about God. As long as Satan keeps us focused on destroying each other, then we won’t notice Jesus hanging over there on that tree. And as long as the devil keeps us at each other’s throats, then we can ignore the fact that we hung him there. 

Three years ago, during Holy Week of 2016, the House of Bishops issued a statement to the church reminding us to reject hatred and fear. They wrote, “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” [3]

Their sentiment is, unfortunately, still relevant. Even in a country that stands in the shadow of the lynching tree, we continue to turn against our neighbors. As long as we seek safety and security at the expense of others, and as long as we engage in dialogue only with those who agree with us, then we have not learned our lesson. 

It’s as if we have forgotten about Good Friday. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that today is a crucial part of our Christian story. Today Jesus teaches us one of his most important lessons: fear has no power. 

Today Jesus refuses to play by the devil’s rules. Today Jesus refuses to lower himself to cheap scare tactics and manipulation. Instead, he does the one thing that Satan never expected. He gets up on the cross and he dies. 

He dies. 

Not because he’s weak. Not because he’s stupid. Not even because his Father willed it. No, Jesus does not die out of guilt or necessity or coercion. 

Jesus dies out of love. Jesus dies to show us what it looks like when you refuse to fight fear with fear. 

By dying Jesus upends our worldly expectations. By dying he teaches us that what we consider to be power is not power at all. By dying he teaches us that no matter how afraid we are, we cannot solve our problems by eliminating our neighbors; by dying he teaches us that fear never gets the last word; by dying he teaches us that love triumphs over death. By dying Jesus teaches us that we have no power to save ourselves. 

No matter who we persecute, no matter who we lock up, no matter who we expel, we can’t save ourselves. 

Only God can do that. 


[1] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 41.

[2] Ibid., 38-41.

[3] The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, A Word to the Church (Holy Week 2016).

Proclaiming The Death

Maundy Thursday-April 13, 2017-1 Corinthians 11: 23-26

This semester I’m taking an elective called “Preaching Against Violence” which focuses on the church’s role in opposing state-sanctioned violence. Our assignments focus on Holy Week preaching. Here’s my first attempt at a Maundy Thursday sermon. 

We still gather to remember and reenact that which Jesus did on the night he was “given up,” on the night he was betrayed. This is that night of remembrance, but it’s not about pleasing reminders of familiar words.

This is one of the most difficult times of our liturgical year; we are forced to remember and acknowledge the truth of a text encoded with betrayal. In the Last Supper Jesus shares a meal and offers himself to his friends who are his betrayers.

Jesus looked in the eyes of one whom he loved and who he knew would betray him and fed him in the sacrament of his body and blood saying, “Remember this.” 

It’s a type of death.

“This is my body, this is my blood.”

Remember this. Remember what I have done.

Imagine the scene: “James, this is for you. And you too, James.

John, this is for you.”

It’s not so hard for us to imagine.

“You’ve always been close to me, Andrew, this is yours.”

What a kind soul.

“This is my body, Thaddeus.”

“Matthew, Bartholomew, Philip, and Simon, you’ve learned some important lessons. This is for you.”

“Thomas, you’re a bit of a pessimist, but here you go, this is my body. You will believe.”

Can you imagine that? It’s not so hard. Each of the twelve were flawed, made some mistakes, we can understand that.

“Peter, here’s yours.”

OK, this is getting a little harder.

“I know you’re going to deny me, but this is my body, this is my blood. I am for you in a new covenant. Remember this.”

And then Judas Iscariot.

It’s gets even harder.

“Oh, Judas. You’re about to set this whole thing in motion. Few can imagine the treachery, but Judas, this is for you. This is my body, which is given for you.”

Today, when we eat the bread and the wine of Holy Communion we are following Jesus’ command, a command given on a night when the evil of man’s heart dared to overthrow its God.

Through participation in this sacred mystery we proclaim death not simply by calling to mind the story of Jesus’ betrayal and the loss of trust with one he loved so dearly, but we are also forced to face our own experiences of pain, our own fractured relationships with our Christian brothers and sisters, and with Jesus.

By doing so we proclaim his death, a death that we too experience. After all, Judas was just the face of the betrayal.

Jesus shares his meal with us, too, a people whose hearts would still dare to overthrow him.

And we know it.

“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”

Each time we take the bread and wine we make present the ancient reality, and remembering our role as Jesus’ betrayers and our own broken and dysfunctional relationships with the saints of God.

The eucharist may keep us on the right track, but God’s divine action through it does not inoculate those of us who receive it from the dangers of sin, and just like those saints who’ve gone before we fall prey to the betraying forces of wickedness in the world.

I’m thinking about that movie, Places in the Heart. That final Communion scene. The whole cast of characters sits together in the pews of a little country church in Texas passing the trays of bread and wine—those who have died, those who have betrayed and those who have been betrayed.

There sits a husband and wife. He cheated on her. They’re there together. Their sits the local sheriff, killed in the opening scenes of the movie and along side him the young black man who accidentally shot him, himself the victim of a lynching. They’re there together. I don’t know how they sit with that, some of those things those people had done to each other. The racist things said, the humanity denied.

Remember the death.

I’m thinking about a gay couple in New York. Together 16 years, not married because you couldn’t get married, but committed, living together, combined bank accounts. Might has well have been married. And then one of them tests positive. How did this happen? I’ve been perfectly faithful, perfectly committed. But someone hadn’t been. How do you get through that? How to deal with that? The trust is gone, the relationship fractured. You have given me something that you can’t take back, done something that can’t be undone.

Remember the death.

We are really participating with all of them. Holy Communion is no easier than this: sharing the sobering recollections of destroyed relationships. It’s how we proclaim the Lord’s death and to make those events which we recall to happen again, to happen now.

Sitting down, giving thanks and breaking bread is no small thing—especially not after being so utterly disconnected from our trust and our loss human freedom.

But we’re called to do it. But can we? Really?

It might make more sense to us later, when we strip the alter of it’s adornments and when light is extinguished. Perhaps then we’ll get it.

All ornamentation is vain when darkness comes and uncomfortable silence fills our hearts and our pews. Uncomfortable silence that is, until the choir begins to recite Psalm 22.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

and are so far from my cry

and from the words of my distress?

O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;

by night as well, but I find no rest.”

“[But as for me] I am a worm and no man,

scorned by all and despised by the people.”

“Be not far from me, for trouble is near,

and there is none to help”

Bulls encircle me, packs of dogs close in, the jaws of the lion threaten me.

As uncomfortable silence gives way to uncomfortable psalmody, we wonder if we could really imagine serving a meal to our betrayer.

Could we sit next to them at dinner and offer them a piece of bread?

Well, no, I don’t think we could.

But the truth is, simply standing next to them to receive one is enough.