Lent 4

Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021 – Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

First of all, you need to know that it’s Jesus who’s talking in today’s gospel. The lectionary people omitted some important context when they separated the eight verses that we just heard from the preceding 13.

This passage from John captures only the latter part of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nevertheless, you may be familiar with how the conversation begins. It’s nighttime when Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Some commentators are critical of Nicodemus’ assertion. By emphasizing the words “we know that you are…” they cast Nicodemus in the role of a self-assured expert who flaunts his status as a “teacher of Israel.” Others suspect that Nicodemus meets Jesus under the cover of darkness in order to avoid being seen with him.

It’s true that we can glean from the text that Nicodemus is an educated man, a “pillar of the community,” we might say. Likewise, themes of darkness and light play a role in this passage and throughout John’s Gospel. But I don’t think that these details are meant to throw shade (pun intended) on the Pharisee.

Furthermore, if we immediately cast Nicodemus in such a negative light, we might be tempted to hear the remainder of his conversation with Jesus as an adversarial one when, actually, I think the opposite is true.

In fact, as Becky Wright noted in Bible Study earlier this week, Nicodemus shows honor to Jesus by coming at night, on his own time, after a full day’s work, which may indicate that he is motivated by a genuine desire to learn more, rather than a selfish need to impress Jesus with what he already knows.

If we understand their encounter this way, then the Nicodemus we encounter in this story is less a self-righteous teacher preparing to go head-to-head with a colleague and more an eager student visiting his teacher during office hours in order to clarify his understanding.

And so, in search of clarity he says, “It seems to me that we know that you come from God because, otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to do the things that you do.” However, Jesus’ response is anything but clear. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

If I’m honest, I’d prefer Jesus was a bit more affirming of Nicodemus. If you’ve ever been in a class with me, you’re probably familiar with my tendency to quickly affirm participation. “Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right . . . Great point! Very well put!”

Couldn’t Jesus say something like, “Yes, Nicodemus. I think that’s a great way to begin to think about who I am, but there’s more to it than that.”? Alas, that’s not really Jesus’ style. Another example immediately follows.

Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Again, we could read Nicodemus as adversarial or sarcastic, but I hear the question as an example of honest curiosity. Still, Jesus doesn’t exactly simplify things.

“Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus’ response may sound confusing to Nicodemus, and to us, but maybe that’s the point. Jesus is doing what a lot of good teachers do. Instead of providing a simple explanation or answer, he challenges his student to think more about it for himself. 

Perhaps you can remember a teacher in your life who didn’t answer your questions directly or simply so much as they helped you to develop the skills necessary to answer them for yourself.   

“Teach a man to fish,” right? That’s exactly what Jesus is doing for Nicodemus here, and the result is a first-class theological discourse.

Yes, like all theological discussions, it’s confusing. Jesus is attempting to reframe Nicodemus’ understanding of his relationship with God, and that’s not something that he can explain to him in simple terms. Jesus needs Nicodemus to be able to make sense of it for himself, and so he uses another tried and true teaching—and preaching—tactic: a real-life example.

You can’t see the wind, but you know it’s there because you can hear it rustling the leaves of the trees and see the branches bend and sway. Where does the wind start? Where does it go? I don’t know. It’s intangible, abstract. 

It’s the same with “being born from above.” How does that work exactly? It cannot be explained with a piece of chalk or an overhead projector. (Or a dry erase marker or “smart board,” for that matter.)

You can’t always see God working in your life or the world around you, transforming hearts, changing minds. But, if you begin to pay attention, every once in a while, you will realize that it’s happening.

This is precisely what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to do: start paying attention to the presence of God in his life. This is especially important because Jesus won’t always be with Nicodemus, at least, not in the same sense that he is on this night. 

Jesus hints at this very reality in the first verse of today’s passage. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

As 21st Century Christians, we hear Jesus’ words (which are an allusion to this morning’s reading from Numbers) in full knowledge of his death and resurrection. We can easily draw a parallel between the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up on the cross.

Nicodemus obviously doesn’t know what’s going to happen to Jesus, but he will find out. And when he does, he will learn for the first time the answer to his question, “How can somebody be born from above?” Because Jesus died and rose again. 

Jesus himself is the answer to Nicodemus’ question. That’s what Jesus is trying to teach him. But Nicodemus will not–and cannot–completely understand this until he develops a relationship with Jesus. For that matter, neither can we. 

Developing a relationship with Jesus doesn’t happen overnight. There is no simple how-to guide for the process, no matter what anyone says. It requires taking time to pay attention to Jesus the Risen Christ’s presence in our lives. That, my friends, is a central task of the Lenten season. 

Remember the words (from our prayer book) that we heard on Ash Wednesday. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” 

We tend to focus a lot on self-denial, but the rest is important, too. If we use the remaining days of Lent to lean into a period of self-examination, prayer, and scriptural meditation, then we will be walking with Nicodemus into a deeper relationship with the Risen and Living Lord. 

If you read through the rest of John’s gospel account, you will get a sense of Nicodemus’s own journey with Jesus. In chapter seven, he speaks in Jesus’ defense, even after several have turned against him. And in chapter 19, he joins Joseph of Arimathea, this time in broad daylight, to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. 

Remember, when he helped lay Jesus in the tomb, Nicodemus didn’t know what would happen in just two days’ time. We do. That’s all the more reason for us to be on the lookout for Jesus’ presence in our lives. If we do that, we will, right alongside Nicodemus, experience the joy of that beautiful Sunday morning all over again, even as if for the very first time. 

Easter Sunday 2019

Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019 – Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18 – Trinity, Winchester

Easter is a day on which we typically don’t pay much attention to our scripture readings. Like Christmas, we already know the story. We come wearing bright colors (and maybe dressed a bit nicer than usual) to sing glad hymns and shout “Alleluia!” My job is to remind you to never underestimate the power of scripture, no matter how familiar you may think it is. 

Each of today’s readings gives us a sense of the fullness of the eternal life into which we walk with the Risen Christ, this day and all the days of our lives. 

From the Acts of the Apostles we hear Peter’s brief message of God’s peace in Jesus Christ. Peter tells us that we carry on as witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

From 1 Corinthians we hear Paul working out one of the Church’s first theologies of Jesus’s death and resurrection. “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Paul tells us that just as we die daily in our sin, we are also continually raised by virtue of the fact that we have been baptized into the life of Christ, who claims ultimate victory over sin and death.

From the Gospel according to John we hear an account of this very morning involving Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. 

I commend to you each of these readings (and the psalm!) for further study. However, this morning I want to focus on this rich gospel account.

It reads to me almost like a game of human pingpong. Back and forth, back and forth. To and from the tomb. Stay with me here…

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. Startled that the stone has been rolled away, she runs away from it. She tells Peter and John, who decide they need to see it for themselves, so they run back toward the tomb. 

They find the tomb empty, as Mary said they would. They see the linen grave clothes lying inside, but there is no body. Then they go, you guessed it, away from the tomb, back to their homes. 

Somewhere in the course of these events (the scripture isn’t clear) Mary makes her way back to the tomb as well. 

All three of these characters have different reactions to what they observe at the tomb. The gospel tells as that, after seeing the grave clothes, John believed Jesus had been raised. That’s remarkable, really. He had no gospel account to clue him in. It was all unfolding right there before his very eyes. 

We’re not quite sure about Peter. Maybe he gets it. Maybe he doesn’t. Perhaps he has some more thinking to do.

Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t get it at all, which is totally understandable. Thinking his body has been carried away, she remains at the tomb to cry and lament the fact that she has lost Jesus, her Lord, for a second time. 

At this point, some of us might be tempted to identify with one of these biblical characters. You know, the sort of thing we do with Mary and Martha when we hear the story of Jesus visiting their home in Bethany. We tend to ask ourselves questions like, which personality is analogous to mine? 

There’s a danger in that, I think. It limits your perspective on the story. In fact, I think we can identify with all three of Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel. 

We are all John. We are all Peter. We are all Mary Magdalene. 

We are John when we see something, and believe it. We are John when all the puzzle pieces finally fall into place. “Oh, I get it now.” We are John when we arrive on Easter morning without one shadow of a doubt that Jesus is risen. 

We are Peter when we are unsure. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to sort this stuff out. I am reminded of a young girl, maybe about four years old, who went to church with her grandmother one Easter morning. Her grandmother explained to her the Easter story, including Jesus’ death on Good Friday. “Then, on Sunday morning,” the grandmother said, “he came back to life!” The little girl glanced up with a look of pure innocence, and said, “Yeah right!”

Finally, we are Mary when our grief overcomes our ability to make sense of eternal life. When someone we love dies, grief often overcomes our senses. We don’t have the ability to perceive what’s right in front of us, even if that something is the presence of God. 

Friends, we are all in different places on our Christian journey at different times, and that’s okay. Even on Easter. Whether you run toward the empty tomb with an open mind, or run away from it in disbelief. Whether you need to take a break and come back later, or if you just need a little more time outside to cry. The good news is, the Risen One is always by your side.

Although you may not always perceive him, he is there waiting to call your name—even when you least expect it—and to give you the confidence you need to run from the tomb one final time proclaiming the living God. 

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).

A mother knows

Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 20, 2019 – John 2:1-11 – Trinity, Winchester

Have you ever been to a wedding? This is one of the very few times in my career that I expect to incorporate audience participation into a sermon. Really, feel free to answer. Have you ever been to a wedding? 

I thought so. (That concludes the audience participation portion of the sermon. The following questions are rhetorical.)

At that wedding did the host run out of something crucial? Did the buffet or bar run low? Can you imagine the embarrassment? 

At my sister Erika’s wedding the prime rib (or whatever it was we had) ran out. Instead of replacing it with what she had ordered, the reception hall manager replaced it with beef and broccoli. My mother, keeping track of all such things, was not happy. 

She felt embarrassed. Were people eating more than we expected? Did the venue not prepare enough food? Or was it simply a case of miscommunication? Regardless of the reason, it was frustrating. It’s not that any of our guests were pretentious enough to care. It’s just not the way that my mom—not to mention my sister—had envisioned the evening going. It’s not what they had planned. 

Today, we hear that Jesus is with his mother at a wedding in Cana. Keeping track of such things, as mothers do, Mary says to Jesus, “They’ve run out of wine.” 

I imagine Jesus’ good mother brought this up because she knew the implications. This could potentially be embarrassing. Someone would need to intervene to help the hosts avoid humiliation.

“What business is it of mine, woman?” replies Jesus. This response seems a bit harsh. Some translations render it, “Woman, what have you to do with me?” or “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” I wouldn’t want to be caught talking to my mother that way. I wonder if I could even get away with it. Then again, I’m not the Son of God. 

“Oh woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus’ response to his mother indicates that he doesn’t think he’s ready for public ministry, but Mary is about to push him into it anyway.

God has plans for Jesus that few can fathom, but I think Mary must have an idea. Call it women’s intuition. I’ve heard it said, especially when it comes to the secrets of a son, “A mother knows.” 

Mary knows something about her son, his purpose for the world, and his power. She’s asking him to do something about the lack of wine because she knows and trusts that he can. 

“Not yet,” says Jesus. “My hour has not yet come.” But Mary doesn’t give into that. She shows us that she believes in her son from the very beginning.

The servants follow her example. They do what he tells them to. “Standing there were six stone water jars…each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’” They filled them up to the brim, and again at Jesus’ command they drew some out and took it to the chief steward who tasted that it was wine. 

This miracle story at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is an Epiphany story. It is a story of God made manifest by the working of a miracle in Galilee. This miracle revealed God’s glory in Jesus Christ. The text tells us that, because of this sign, Jesus’ disciples believed in him. 

But the disciples weren’t the first ones to believe him. For his disciples it may have taken the impossible act of turning water into wine to spark their belief, but Jesus’ mother trusted in her son even before the miracle occurred. Even before she saw the sign, she trusted that Jesus’ path was a greater path, and in turn she instructed the servants to obey him as well.  

Mary knows a little something about the life-giving power of Jesus, so she urges him to go public with it. Mary has been with him from the very beginning of his earthly life, and I’ll bet she’d seen signs of it before. Her unconditional faith in her son initiated a series of events that led many others to witness the revelation of the glory of God.

Just as the glory of God was present at the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God’s glory is present in this story. Today in its hearing, you and I are able to catch a glimpse of all that is possible with Jesus, the incarnate God. 

Just like Mary, we know the life-giving power of Jesus. And just like her, it is our job to spread it around by pointing to Jesus and trusting that he can handle the rest. 

Catching a glimpse of a miracle may provide the proof necessary to believe in Jesus, but I wonder if we, like Jesus’ dear mother, are willing to believe even when we haven’t seen it yet, even when it seems impossible.

Christmas has only just begun

First Sunday after Christmas – December 30th, 2018 – Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18 – Trinity Church, Winchester

You can listen to this sermon by clicking here.

Today is the sixth day of Christmas. You would likely know that, even if you weren’t an Episcopalian, because of the famous song that reminds us all. Not to worry, I won’t be preaching about any “six geese a’laying.” 

Nevertheless, I want to provide you with your annual reminder: Christmas is twelve days long. It’s not a day; it’s a season. 

Sadly, by the first day of Christmas, most people—most Christians even—are tired of it. The mall has been decorated since Thanksgiving. Christmas music has been playing since Halloween. New Year’s Eve is just around the corner. (I bet we’ll be talking about our plans at coffee hour.) 

By the time we’ve made it to church on Christmas Eve and unwrapped our presents on Christmas morning, we’re exhausted.

We’re tired of all the merriment, the holiday parties, the search for the perfect gifts, wrapping the perfect gifts, paying for the perfect gifts. Some of us adults might be tired of the kids who have already been out of school for a week. And some of us kids might be tired of being stuck at home. 

It’s understandable. There’s a rush getting ready for Christmas. There are lots of sugar-cookies to frost, lots of grandchildren to buy for, and lots of places to set at the table. 

It is human nature to throw ourselves into planning and preparing for events that, all of the sudden, are over. And it’s human nature to be (at least a little bit) glad when they are over. 

Ever gotten married? After planning a wedding for months and months it’s only natural for the happy couple to pause and in some brief moment to look at one another and admit, “I’ll be glad when this is over.” 

The same is true of pregnancy. At least, as far as I can tell. I’ve never experienced it, but I have heard expectant mothers say, “I just want this to be over.” Pregnancies are hard on the body, and they take courage and hard work to manage. A friend of mine who was on bedrest for several months of her pregnancy told me, “I can’t wait until this is all done.”

When we are in the midst of stressful and emotional times it makes sense to want them to end. Sometimes, though, we get so hung up on seeing things as endings that we forget that they are beginnings, too.

Brides and grooms may say, “I can’t wait until this is over.” But they also say things like, “I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you.” The wedding may be the end of the stress and planning and anticipation of the wedding day, but it’s the beginning of life together. 

A pregnant woman may say, “I can’t wait until this is over,” but I’ve also heard her say, “I can’t wait to hold this baby in my arms.” The birth is the end of the pregnancy, but it’s the beginning of a completely new chapter of life. One that will contain a toddler, a middler-schooler, a college student, and maybe even grandchildren!

The same is true with Christmas. There are plenty of reasons to be glad that your Christmas festivities are over. It’s stressful to coordinate family schedules. Christmas is hard to face alone, especially for the first or second time. And let’s be honest, it’s awkward to make small talk with relatives you hardly ever see. But now is the time to remember that Christmas is first and foremost a beginning.

Christmas is the beginning of Christ in our midst. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The transforming birth of Jesus changes our relationship with God forever. God put on flesh and walked among us in order to tell us in the most profound way possible that God loves us. All of us. 

The Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Galatians that Christmas is the beginning of our new relationship with God. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman . . . so that we might receive adoption as children.” We are all children of God, and God lives in each of us—even in our flesh—forever. Christmas is the beginning of all that. 

I know you’ve heard it before. “It’s still Christmas.” “Christmas lasts twelve days.” “We have until Epiphany, you know.” “Don’t undecorated the nave yet!” But I’ve decided that it is not the preacher’s job to worry about over-exposure to certain truths. Rather, it is the preacher’s duty to go right on preaching them. Today that truth is this: Christmas has only just begun. 

You already know that Christmas is more than at day, that it’s a season. But let me let you in on a little secret: that season never ends. 

Even next Sunday, when we come together to celebrate the Epiphany, it will still be Christmas, because the incarnate one will be with us. When Lent comes and our sins are heavy in our hearts, it will still be Christmas, because God will be with us. Emmanuel! When on Easter the joy of the Risen Christ fills the church with triumphant “Alleluias!” it will still be Christmas because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Every year of his life until this one, Walker has had the tradition of going with his mother to see Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on stage at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. For the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to go with them. 

There’s one thing about that performance that I always seem to remember above all else. Toward the end, when Scrooge is begging for his very life, he lands on his knees in front of the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” and he mutters, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, I will honor Christmas in my heart, I will honor Christmas in my heart.”

Friends, if you want to honor Christmas in your heart, honor Jesus in your heart, keep him there always, and look for him in everyone you meet. If you do that, it will be Christmas all the time.

Sacred

Feast of William Temple – November 6, 2017 – Exodus 22:21-27; John 1:9-18

Today I preached at the noon Eucharist for the Feast of William Temple in The Chapel of the Apostles. This sermon originally began as a poem, which I briefly considered reading during the liturgy, but as I adapted it I knew its essence had changed to a more traditional sermon. The preaching event you’ll see in the video is slightly different than the words on the page below. Watching or listening to a sermon is, in my opinion, always preferable to reading it because it keeps you closer to the spirit of the sermon as an event in time and not an object in space. If you chose to do that in this case, you might experience a *slightly* different piece of work.

You can watch me preach the sermon here. 

God took on flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

According to William Temple, because of the incarnation, “the personality of every man and woman is sacred.”

I beg to differ.

He obviously never went to diocesan convention. Or to a shopping mall on Black Friday. I guess he never walked down the halls of a seminary during midterms.

But he lived through World War, colonial expansion, and social tension. And surely crazed gunmen existed in his day.

So why didn’t he, like me, see that some of God’s people are barely tolerable?

I know people who check their phones while you’re in the middle of a conversation with them. I know people who commit and then don’t follow through. I know people who come to class unprepared.

As an arrogant, know-it-all seminarian, I’m sure that Temple would agree with me if he were here now. I wish that I could ask him about it.

I know just how it would go: I’d ask,“What annoys you most about other people?” And he’d answer, “They exist.” And I say, “Aha! Then what’s all this stuff about everyone having a sacred personality?”

And he’d reply, “Well, the truth is our common life together can be…exasperating.” And because that’s a word that I used last week to describe a crowded room of clergy, I’d feel really proud.

But then he’d say, “Sure, people are exasperating, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sacred.”

No one has ever seen God—it is God the only son—who has made him known. The Son was known in human form. Because of that our humanity is sacred. Our very beings and those of others are means by which God reveals himself to us. Even though they do things that are quirky, irritating, disagreeable, infuriating, and yes, even evil.

At this point in our conversation, I’d read the first chapter of John again, and realize what Temple is trying to tell me. And what he’s trying to tell you: Focus on Jesus.

But know this: You. Can’t. Live. Up. To. That. Because you’re not God.

But the good news is: You’re still sacred. Sacred doesn’t mean perfect. And sacred doesn’t mean best. Sacred doesn’t even mean good.

But Sacred does mean redeemed.

Eve of Michael and All Angels

September 28, 2017 – Eve of Michael and All Angels – Genesis 28:10-17, Revelation 12:7-12, John 1:47-51

There is something poetic about angels. They are abstract, not easily explained, and depicted in myriad ways. We often cast them in the role of guardian, but even that is ambiguous. Maybe it means that God gives his angels charge over those who sleep. Or maybe it refers to those little white-clad creatures perched on the shoulder of your favorite sitcom character. I’ve even heard it said, “That woman must have had an angel with her to survive a car wreck like that.”

Perhaps when you hear “angel” you think of a quilt that your great aunt made or, God forbid, one of those “Precious Moments” figurines. The word is also used as a term of endearment. You have likely been called an “angel” by your lover or your grandmother.

On greeting cards, coffee mugs, or page-a-day calendars, angels are portrayed as cartoon characters, chubby little babies, and choir members. They represent the gentle, graceful, light, and airy. Even though depictions of angels are ubiquitous in popular culture, they remain somewhat of a theological mystery.

The poet Billy Collins points out that of all the questions you might have about angels, the only one you ever hear is, “How many can dance on the head of a pin?” Nobody ever asks how they pass the eternal time. Do they circle the Throne chanting in Latin? Or deliver crusts of bread to hermits on earth? Do they guide boys and girls across rickety wooden bridges? [1]

You and I know that they hasten to a tap on the roof of the car. What do they do in the meantime? Swing like children from the hinges of the spirit world? What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, or their diet of unfiltered divine light? [2] Collins is on to something. Angels may be a mystery, but they trigger our imagination.

Our interpretations of angels have always been fueled by imagination. Look at our tradition. Angels have been organized into a hierarchy: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels. In worship hosts of angels leap from brittle hymnal pages to the spring board of our tongues and then into the air where they briefly trip the light before gathering in throngs over the altar for the eucharistic prayer. Angels are important to our faith. Not because they are detectable by our senses, but because they feed our imaginations.

I’ve been pulling out my beard for two weeks trying to answer questions about angels. What are they? What do they do? What are they for? Where do they come from? I was seeking concrete answers instead of using my imagination. With cameras in our iPhones and Google Image results at our fingertips, we often forget to use our imagination, but angels remind us how.

Nathanael has no problem recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, but that doesn’t stop Jesus from giving him a little something to imagine, “You will see heaven opened and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Such an image helps us imagine a God so beyond compare that his glory can only be depicted by thousands of heavenly attendants. “Glory to you Lord God of our fathers . . . glory to you seated between the cherubim.”

Sometimes during the Magnificat I imagine Gabriel illuminating the dark cave, his voice not quite as deep as you might think, informing Mary that she will bear a son. On Christmas Eve, I lean back in my pew and picture angels bringing good news of great joy: the flash of green light and the supernal noise, like no music on earth. During Lent I imagine the solace Jesus finds in angels attending him after his forty-day fast.

Imagine the relief Abraham felt when an angel appeared to him just in the knick of time and said, “Do not lay your hand on your son.” Imagine the apprehension Moses felt when an angel appeared to him in the burning bush. “Moses, the Lord has something to tell you.”

Angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven are a sign to Jacob that God is with him. “I will keep you wherever you go.” Jacob went to sleep trying to escape, but woke up imagining a future with the God of his father.

The poor, persecuted author of Revelation practically has a Roman noose around his neck. He’s forlorn. He’s depleted. He’s angry. Imagination is his only refuge. He pictures a battle of epic proportions. Michael and his angel army crush Satan and upend the cosmic order. Angels are much more that ceramic dolls or kinds words. They are conduits for our imagination. Angels find us asleep in our humanity and wake us up so we can catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

There will be times when your prayer life suffers or when you visit the hospital that God’s glory will not be as apparent to you as it was to Nathanael, and you will need imagination to see the Kingdom of God.

There will be times when you are called an S.O.B. for doing what you think is right and you pray for an army of angels to overwhelm your accuser.

There will be times of declining church attendance when you can’t see God working in our life as clearly Abraham and Moses did.

There will be times of war, economic recession, and racist commentary when God’s promise does not feel as close to you as it did to Mary and the Shepherds.

There will be times when you need little imagination to see the Kingdom of God.

Take heart, angels are here to help. If you don’t believe me just remember: when you come to the garden expecting to tend to the dead, it’s an an angel who tells you to go back out and proclaim the one who lives.

[1] Billy Collins, Questions About Angels (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 25-26.

[2] Ibid.

I was also helped along in this effort by Sam Portaro’s book Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts, especially his reflection on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. 

Satisfied

May 1, 2017–Feast of St. Philip and St. James–John 14:6-14

You can watch me preach this sermon by clicking here

Jesus said, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Then Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

And Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?”

Translation: “How could you say that? I just told you! If you know me, then you know the father. Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

We’ve all been let down by stupid comments and questions before. It’s nothing new to us.

“I seriously just explained this to you.”

“We just went over this.”

“It’s on. The. Syllabus.”

We’ve all been there—on both sides of it. That feeling when you raise your hand in class, you ask your question and the see the side glances and smirks.

“Um…Dr. Brosend, did we just talk about this?”

Uh, yeah, Warren. We did.”

“Oh…”

It’s a sinking, embarrassing feeling when we realize that we’ve missed something that we’re expected to know.

“Show you the father and you’ll be satisfied, huh? Have I been with you all this time, and you still don’t know me… I’ve been trying to tell you that all along!”

“Oh…”

“Don’t you remember that day on the lawn, Philip? I asked you where we were going to buy enough bread for all those people.” Ask James—I think he was there, too. You said, “It doesn’t matter, six months’ wages couldn’t even buy enough bread for all these folks. Do you remember that? Lucky for us that boy had packed a lunch. And do you remember when we left that day? The crowd was satisfied. Do you remember what I did?”

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you don’t, then believe me because of the works themselves. Believe me because of what you’ve seen. Believe me because of what you know to be true.”

We can’t explain all of God’s works, least of all this miracle, but Philip helps us get to the point of it. It’s not entirely clear how Jesus would multiply two loaves and two fish, but what is clear is this: seeing God doesn’t have anything to do with your line of sight. No visual experience is going to get you to that place. No, it’s about a much larger truth.

It’s about our journey with Philip to recognize that we already know God through our relationship with Jesus. It’s about taking stock of how Jesus has been working in our lives.

“Lord, show us the father and we will be satisfied.”

No, don’t you get it?

We already have Jesus. We already know Jesus. To know Jesus is to know God.

And that satisfies us greatly.

“You Have No Power”

Good Friday-April 14, 2017-John 18 & 19

My Good Friday sermon from “Preaching Against Violence” class.

Jesus refuses to speak.

[Pilate] entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore 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; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

Jesus refuses to speak.

“Where are you from?”

Silence.

“Don’t you know that I have the power to either release you or crucify you?”

Another pause. And then Jesus says, “You have no power … unless it was given to you from above.”

“You have no power.

“You may think you do, Pilate, but you don’t. Sure, you could have me killed, or you can set me free. If you set me free they will riot, and then they’ll find someone else to blame. You can have me killed, and they’ll be satisfied for a moment or two. It’ll buy you a few weeks, but they’ll be back. There will be something else, someone else.

“All of that out there—the angry crowd, the screaming, the hate welling in their hearts and spewing from their lips—you have no power over it; you can’t really control it. The only true power comes from above. My father has not given you that kind of power.”

Jesus knows that something far greater than human power is at work in the events of his crucifixion. Evil forces conspire to create divisions that Pilate and the angry crowd are completely unaware of. Jesus knows that the power of Satan is at work and its plotting to get exactly what it wants.

All around us the devil’s scandals run riot. Some develop quickly, others over long periods of time. Sooner or later those scandals envelope even us. They carry us unknowingly along with them, and all the while we are complicit in evils of which we are completely unaware. [1]

Don’t believe me? Take Jesus’ word for it. In John’s gospel he tells us, “If God were your Father, you would love me…you are of your father the devil and it is the desires of your father that you wish to do.”

“Your father, from the beginning, was not my father. My father you do not imitate, but you imitate the devil. You take after him. You’re using the devil as a model for your life, not God.”

We’re tempted to use the devil as a model for our life. Not God. Never has that been more apparent than it was on the day God died.

It is apparent because, we, in our frail human condition, have become rivals of one another. We, in our lowliness, have become living obstacles, stumbling blocks for each other. We, in our unworthiness have begun to think the worst of each other. When things get this bad, it starts to look a lot like our problems will be solved if we destroy each other. We begin to think that if we could just eliminate the enemy everything would be okay. We begin to think that if we can squelch our rival everything will be just fine. [2]

If only I could rid my side of town of that black family. It would be nicer. People would feel like walking up and down the sidewalks again and looking at the flowers. Parents would let their children play in the yard. We could leave our doors unlocked!

Satan wins when our rivals start to look a lot like our neighbors, and their rivals a lot like their neighbors, and in our effort to beat those rivals we all band together to take them on!

If we could just get rid of the Muslims then our country would be safe again! If we could just push the Mexican’s back across the border and build that fence high enough, then we’d have more jobs again. 

Satan’s winning.

And if we all group together and lynch our rival, that’ll fix it!

Satan’s winning.

Once we’ve gotten rid of the Muslims and the Mexicans we’ll oust the Catholics! We’ll identify a new rival in our community. One of those who used to be one of us no starts to look a lot like our arch-nemesis. 

Satan’s winning.

Boy, the devil’s really got us wrapped around tight, and we don’t even know it.

When we get rid of them, all will be right with the world! Yes! That’s right. And then we’ll take on the next, and the next, and the next and we’ll keep weeding out our enemies until until there’s nobody left to weed but God!

We have to understand that Satan gloms onto us like bacteria. He’s contagious. [3] We are infected with an evil that has no identity apart from its affect on us. It’s proclivity to make us sin is its lifeblood, and it’s detrimental to us and to the kingdom of God.

If we do Satan’s bidding, if we act as children of Satan instead of children of God, then why is Jesus silent? Why doesn’t he speak up? Well, I don’t know, but in his silence he says more than we could ever hope to understand, more than we could ever hope to be able to say out loud.

Where are you from?

Silence.

Why even dignify it with a response?

“You have no power,” he tells us. “You have no power unless it comes from God.” We have to understand that before we can understand what comes next. As long as we lead lives of service to spiritual forces of wickedness, to hatred, to that which stands opposed to God, then we have no power.

But we do! We do have power. We have power to drive out the Muslims and the Mexicans!

No, Jesus is here to tell us we don’t.

Last year the Bishops of our Church heard him loud and clear. They issued a statement critical of our nation’s political climate during Holy Week saying, “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” [4]

They told us that even in a country shadowed by the lynching tree we continue turn against our neighbors. We seek safety and security at the expense of others, and we think nothing of it. Satan has made an idol of our privilege. Satan drowns us so deep in death that we are willing to stand by while our Lord is killed.

We have no power to save ourselves.

No, of course we don’t.

Only God can do that.

 

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

[2] Girard, 38-41.

[3] Girard, 32-46.

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

Everything To God In Prayer

La quinta semana en Cuaresma 4 de abril, 2017 – Numbers 21:4-9, John 8:21-30

I preached this sermon at one of our biweekly Spanish Eucharists. What an honor to be asked! I’m grateful for the seminary’s pastoral Spanish program. (See both Spanish and English versions below.)

Frecuentemente nos volvemos insatisfechos con Dios; no creemos que, en nuestras circunstancias actuales, le importemos a él. Vemos ejemplos de nuestra inclinación a la insatisfacción reflejada de vuelta a nosotros en ambas escrituras de hoy del Antiguo y del Nuevo Testamento.

Los israelitas eran impacientes, no confiaban en Dios, y empezaron a quejarse (algo que no resultó muy bien).  En su impaciencia y desconfianza Dios les mandó serpientes para que les mordieran y muchos murieron.  Solamente ante su muerte inminente admitieron su pecado y le pidieron piedad a Dios.

Del mismo modo, los judíos, como fueron representados en el evangelio de Juan, no aceptaron lo que Jesús les dijo. Muchos no lo tomaron en su palabra. Ellos también sufrieron una muerte, pero no una literal como la de los antiguos israelitas.  Más bien es en su confusión y en su descuido que perecen.  Es en sus pecados, en la seducción de este mundo.

Jesús les dice que no es hasta que el Hijo del hombre sea levantado – en la cruz, de la tumba, al cielo – que se darán cuenta de quién es. No es hasta que la serpiente de bronce es erigida en el desierto que vuelven a temer de nuevo a Dios.

Tenemos que admitir que, como nuestros antiguos antepasados, hay veces en nuestras vidas cuando estamos insatisfechos con Dios.  La Cuaresma es un tiempo que puede traer insatisfacción al frente de nuestras mentes.  Puede ser particularmente difícil de ver las maneras por la cual Dios trabaja en nuestras vidas al caminar por el desierto de Cuaresma y al prepararnos para recomprometernos a Jesucristo. 

Cuando nosotros, como nuestros espirituales antepasados, nos volvemos impacientes, cuando no logramos entender lo que está haciendo Dios, cuando Dios parece estar lejos de nosotros, entonces tenemos que ser honestos sobre esto al orar.

Es en esta manera que somos llamados a observar una Santa Cuaresma.  Somos llamados a orar, especialmente en horas de profundo aislamiento.  Orar no es algo simplemente relacionado con agradecimiento o con júbilo.  No es aún algo relacionado con enfermedad o muerte.  Como me dijo un amigo hace varios años, somos llamados a orar el entero espectro de la experiencia humana.  Cuando nos sentimos abandonados, somos llamados a orar una oración de los abandonados.  Cuando nos sentimos olvidados, oramos una oración de los olvidados. Cuando estamos sin esperanza, oramos una oración de los sin esperanza.

No podemos simplemente apaciguar nuestras insatisfacciones recordándonos que “Dios está siempre con nosotros”.  Ese tipo de respuesta trillada es inútil para nosotros cuando afrontamos una angustia profunda.  Más bien, Dios nos llama a abrazar nuestros sentimientos de aislamiento, a ser honestos sobre como nos sentimos con nosotros mismos y con Dios, y asentarnos profundamente en una vida de oración a medida que nos preparemos para la mañana cuando podamos gritar, “¡Él vive!”.

_________

Often we become dissatisfied with God; we don’t believe that he cares about us in our current circumstances. We see examples of our propensity for dissatisfaction reflected back at us in both today’s Old and New Testament scriptures.

The Israelites were impatient; they did not trust God, and they began to complain (which didn’t turn out so well). In their impatience and distrust God sent snakes to bite them, and many died. Only in the face of their impending death did they admit their sin and ask God for mercy.

Likewise, the Jews as portrayed in John’s gospel, did not accept what Jesus told them. Many did not take him at his word. They too experienced a death, though not a literal one like that of the ancient Israelites. Rather it is in their confusion and neglect that they perish. It is in their sins, in the seduction of this world.

Jesus tells them that it is not until the Son of Man has been lifted up—on the cross, from the tomb, up to heaven—that they will realize who he is. It is not until the bronze serpent is erected in the wilderness that they come to fear God again.

We must admit that, like our ancient predecessors, there are times in our own lives when we are dissatisfied with God. Lent is a time that can bring dissatisfaction to the forefront of our minds. It can be especially hard to see the ways God works in our lives as we walk through Lent’s wilderness and make preparations to recommit ourselves to Christ.

When we, like our ancient spiritual ancestors, grow impatient, when we fail to understand what God is doing, when God seems distant from us, then we must be honest about it in prayer.

It is in this way we are called to observe a Holy Lent. We are called to prayer especially in times of deep isolation. Prayer isn’t just about thanksgiving or joy. It’s not even just about sickness or death. As a friend told me some years ago, we are called to pray the whole spectrum of the human experience. When we feel forsaken, we are called to pray a prayer of the forsaken. When we feel forgotten, we pray a prayer of the forgotten. When we feel hopeless, we pray the prayer of the hopeless.

We cannot simply placate our dissatisfactions by reminding each other that, “God is always with us.” That kind of trite response is useless to us when we face deep anguish. Rather, God calls us to embrace our feelings of isolation, to be honest about our feelings with ourselves and with God, and to settle deep into a life of prayer as we prepare ourselves for the morning we can cry, “He lives!”