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.  

Enough

25th Sunday after Pentecost – November 11, 2018 – Mark 12:38-44 – Trinity Church, Winchester, TN

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

These are hard words to hear, if you ask me. I for one, happen like special treatment. Don’t you?

Is there a place where people tend to roll out the red carpet for you? Or a special time? Maybe at a birthday party? Or a retirement party? For me growing up, it was the Toyota dealership. Whenever I went in to get my vehicle serviced, I was treated really well because people there knew that my dad worked for the corporate office. 

Whenever I get special treatment, whether it’s in a car dealership, or at a restaurant, or at my favorite aunt’s house, I really can’t help but reflect on this passage. And I feel bad. 

I should not want special treatment. After all, I’m a servant of God. We’re all servants of God. There is no greater joy than that, right? So why do I need special treatment? I confess this to you, not because I think I really am something special, but because I bet you’re the same. 

Doesn’t it feel good, at least sometimes, to get special treatment? Have you ever been to the spa for a pedicure? Or won an award and got to sit at the place of honor at the banquet? Doesn’t it feel, at least a little, good? 

Maybe we’re just not humble enough, those of us who like to be indulged from time to time. I know people who can’t stand to be the center of attention. They do exist, those types of people, who when you clap for them, their face turns red. 

There are some people who really do seem to shun he spotlight. There was a Sunday School teacher at my home church who was like that. Each year we had what we called “Promotion Sunday” when all the kids in Sunday School would move up to the next grade. They would always recognize all the teachers, too, and each year Mrs. Hayes would be recognized because she had taught the longest—30 years, 35 years, 40 years—the same grade. “Yes, OK, whatever,” she seemed to say, waving off the applause as she walked back to her seat, “It’s not a big deal.”

Yes, there are people who shun the spotlight. And I don’t know about you, but it’s those people I worry about judging me when I embrace it.

In those people, I see Jesus. Those people, I tend to think, have chosen the better part. It’s those people who volunteer to teach Sunday School, make Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless, mow the church lawn, and yes, even serve in the military, and never seem to need to be validated.

And here I am just happy to be recognized when I go in to get my oil changed!

There are people who do good deeds of wonderful generosity every day. We don’t know about it. They don’t even need—or want—to be known. 

When I was in college I remember they were redoing the science hall. Didn’t much matter to me, but they insisted. I remember the day they announced a $3.5 million anonymous gift for that building. Who in the world wouldn’t want credit for that? 

I’m telling you, it’s those people I worry about. It’s those people I just don’t understand. It’s those people who make me crazy. 

And I think I know why. I’m jealous. I’m jealous… because they get it. They’ve heard the message. They know that they have already received their reward just by being able to give it in the first place.

They’ve learned those things. You know those things that they’ve been trying to teach us since Kindergarten? “It’s better to give than to receive.” “It’s not about what other people think.” “You matter.” They get it. 

Think about what faith they must have, those people who don’t need applause. They’ve already learned this valuable lesson: that they are enough. What trust they have: that God will do what God needs to do through them. With the work of their hands they glorify God no matter if they are recognized for it or not. 

I think that’s a lesson worth learning. Those of us who like the special treatment, we’re not bad people. I promise. It just doesn’t come as naturally to us, this notion that we are enough. Sometimes we just want more out of this life. Sometimes we just want a little bit of reassurance that we matter. It’s only natural. There’s lot in this world that tells that we’re not enough. Politics tells us we’re not enough. Television commercials tell us we’re not enough. Sometimes we tell ourselves we’re not enough. 

But God, not so much. God’s job is to tell us that we are enough, and he’s really good at it. Take a look at the Gospel. 

Your couple copper pennies are enough. Your one vote this week: enough. Whether it went the way you wanted it to or not: what you did was enough. The one prayer you offered at the bedside of a dying friend: it was enough. Even that one little good deed you did the other day—or will do tomorrow day—is enough.

You are enough. You don’t need other people to recognize you to know that, even if it does feel good sometimes. 

Now, I’m not saying it’s not necessary to recognize our unsung heroes from time to time. It is! In a few moments we’ll do just that when during the prayers of the people our parish bell will toll in remembrance of those died in Wold War I and all veterans. Many of these people have been forgotten. Their portraits today are unrecognizable. But they are still enough. 

The truth is, even when you think your work goes unnoticed, it doesn’t, because God is there. Anything you do, any gift you give is filled with the power God and it has infinite power to change the world. Trust that, dear friends, and give all you have to give. It is, miraculously, enough. 

“Prisoner of hope”

Saturday after Proper 23 – October 20, 2018 – Mark 12:8-12 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

When I first read the final lines of this passage I was relieved. “Do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

I guess I don’t have to prepare a sermon, I thought, the Holy Spirit will take care of it when the time comes. Alas, that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. Jesus is actually talking about coming times of persecution. The full quote goes like this:  When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

He’s telling them that God will be with them, even when the evil days come. The Holy Spirit will aid them even when they think they have no hope. That’s precisely why blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is such a grave sin. 

The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells his disciples, is what will give them the power to stay faithful. These words are just as applicable to us as they were to Jesus’ disciples. In fact, they may be even more applicable on this side of the resurrection.

The Holy Spirit gives the Church the guidance to say what it needs to say and the power to say it. This is especially important to us during personal or corporate times of trial. If we denounce the Holy Spirit, or blaspheme against it, then we curse the source of the Church’s lifeblood. If we run around profaning the Spirit, then that will be fatal for the Body of Christ. 

The Holy Spirit is our hope, and hope is not to be mocked. If you give in to blaspheming the very life-giving Spirit of the Church then what other life will there be? What other hope will you have? 

This Holy Spirit stuff is serious business. It’s not just this thing that grabs ahold of the preacher when he preaches. It’s not just this thing that swoops down on the priest when she is ordained.

It is God, the holy and life-giving one, who sustains the Church on earth. His disciples didn’t know it that day, but we know it today; we know how the story ends. There will be persecution. But there will also be victory. There will be death, but there will also be glorious resurrection. 

I have a friend who wears a t-shirt that says, “Prisoner of Hope.” Prisoner of Hope. That pretty much says it all. It tell us that he knows the whole story.  You may be held hostage by the things of this world, but not me. The only thing that controls me is hope. That’s profound and hard. 

If you really know your bible, then you might recognize that phrase from the ninth chapter of Zechariah. “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” It speaks of God’s people who await a king who will speak peace to the nations. 

What if you heard that same word from God today? Could you claim that moniker for yourself? Are you a prisoner of hope?

Might as well be. What better option do you have?

Freedom to follow

21st Sunday after Pentecost – October 14, 2018 – Mark 10:17-31 – Christ Church, Alto, TN

We often hear today’s gospel passage cited as “the rich young ruler,” but that portrayal is the result of a mash up of all three different gospel accounts of this story. Matthew’s version calls the man both rich and young. Luke’s account calls him rich and identifies him as a ruler. Mark’s account, which we read today, really does neither. It does say he has a lot of possessions, and Jesus goes on to discuss wealth, so we take the point, but technically speaking, we make a lot out of this passage that is not actually there. 

Reading the passage as Mark has laid it out for us, I find nothing inherently entitled or snobby about the man who approaches Jesus. Some people identify him as pretentious; they think he’s trying to prove something. Those are largely editorial comments which we lay over the text instead of letting it speak to us as it is. 

Let’s review what we get from today’s text. Jesus is about to leave town and a man runs up and kneels before him. The man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

“You know the commandments,” says Jesus, “Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or defraud. Honor your father and mother.” “I have kept all of these,” says the man. 

Jesus looks at him lovingly and says, “You still lack one thing: sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.” 

The man goes away grieving because he has many possessions. Well, wouldn’t you? If after trying to live the best life you could someone told you that you still needed to get rid of all your material goods, wouldn’t that make you a little sad? 

It’s a lot to ask of someone, even if you’re not wealthy. Perhaps especially if they’re not wealthy. Material goods aren’t all frivolous; they provide us comfort and make living life possible (at least the way we are accustomed to living it). There’s nothing wrong with grieving the loss of the material things in your life. Right now there are thousands of people in the Florida panhandle doing just that in the wake of Hurricane Michael. 

My spouse constantly urges me to go through my closet. “You have too many clothes,” he says, “You don’t even wear them all.” He’s right. So a few weeks ago I went through them and donated a huge trash sack full. It did, I hate to admit, involve some grief. All change does, even if it’s just donating old clothes. 

What if we don’t think of the man in our story as a spoiled rich kid? Instead, what if we think of him as a man who comes to Jesus to ask a legitimate question? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In response, Jesus is honest with him. 

I think that’s a question we all struggle with. I do, even as a priest of the Church. What must I do? What must we do? (As if it’s in our control.)

When the man asks this question Jesus says, “You know the commandments.” “Yes, and I keep them all,” the man replies. 

We all know the Ten Commandments. Even if we can’t name them in order, we can probably get somewhere close. We learned as kids that these are rules to follow in order to follow God. We do our best to keep them. 

But there’s more, Jesus tells us. The commandments are only a part of the deal. You still lack one thing: “Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.”

If you ask me, that sounds like three things. Sell, give, follow. But I think Jesus is really getting at the “follow me” part. It’s just that those first two things—selling your possessions and giving the money to the poor—are prerequisites to doing the third thing well. 

In order to follow Jesus we have to give up the things that tie us to this earthly realm. We have to get rid of the things that distract us from the capital-T Truth. It’s ironic. The one thing we lack is getting rid of all the things we have. What we lack is what we have. 

People have been following this teaching for centuries. St. Francis, whose feast day we celebrated with a blessing of the animals last Sunday, is well known for casting aside his great wealth in order to follow Jesus. He famously removed all his clothes upon his conversion as a way of renouncing his reliance on material goods. To this day monks and nuns take vows of poverty in order to focus more singularly on a vocation of service to Christ. By unshackling themselves from the goods that bind them to realities of this world, they find a freedom to follow their God with everything that are, by giving up everything that they have. 

Their example is one for all of us. In order to follow Jesus we have to completely reorient our lives. If you really want to inherit eternal life, then go free yourself of all of the stuff that weighs you down—whatever it is—and then come back and follow Him.

We’ve seen this before in the Gospel. Remember when Jesus called his disciples? He said, “Leave your boats, leave your nets, leave your parents, and come follow me.” 

Your material possessions are just things, but Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. What you lack is what you’re hanging on to.

Peter heard it, Andrew heard it, James and John heard it. Maybe we would know this man’s name if he had done the same. Maybe he’s the would-be thirteenth apostle who couldn’t quite comes to terms with the real cost of following Jesus. 

What keeps you from realizing your freedom to follow Jesus? Is it something that you cling to? Is it something that you need to take out and put on the curb?

I imagine there is something, but I don’t say that to judge you. I think it’s true of everyone. It’s our nature. We cling to things instead of God. Those things can get in the way of our relationship with God. 

It may be money. Or it might be something else. For some people in this great nation of ours it’s their approval rating. For other people it’s always being right. Being able to prove that you are right and know more than everyone else, that’s the problem. Putting too much stock in your own opinion of your knowledge of the facts will get in the way of God. 

For some it’s fear, a palpable sense of dread that they face waking up every morning. Some can’t stand facing a world that they are convinced is utterly hopeless. 

Is it any of those things, or is it something different? I’m not telling you literally to sell everything you own. I don’t think that would be in our best interest, but I do urge you to think about what separates you from God. What do you lack? Go to a quite place this week, and search for the answer. When you find it, take it to the curb, tie it down, or burn it with a pile of autumn leaves, and be free.

Redefining relationships

20th Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2018 – Mark 10:2-16 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching on divorce may make us a bit uncomfortable. Divorce is a hard topic even without the lectionary rubbing our noses in Jesus’ thoughts about it. 

In public Jesus answers the Pharisees, “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

You may recognize that last part from the Prayer Book. (We got it from the Bible, not the other way around.)

What are we Episcopalians to make of this? We allow people to get divorced. Have we completely forgotten what Jesus told us? A marriage should last forever! 

If I were a pessimist, I’d say we got this one wrong. But lucky for me, I’m not. Rest assured, we still belong to a faithful church. Christians have never exactly been clear on divorce, even dating back to Paul and the first gospel accounts. 

In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul gives some conflicting advice about marriage between believers and nonbelievers and who is allowed to divorce whom. Matthew’s account of the same story we read today includes an exception for adultery to Jesus’ no divorce rule. 

Our understanding of divorce still varies widely today. In some traditions divorce is forbidden. In others annulment is required before remarriage is permitted. It’s important to understand what Jesus is telling us when he condemns divorce so that we know what to make of it. In order to figure it out, how about some context? 

In Old Testament times marriages were all about money. Marriages were largely arranged between the groom-to-be and the father of the bride. They were business transactions, and women had no say in the whole thing because they were treated as property. Divorce happened when a man wanted it. 

When Jesus quoted Genesis to the Pharisees I bet he surprised them. Jesus is doing what he always does, he’s turning expectations upside down. The Pharisees ask him if he agrees with the law of Moses, and he quotes back a different part of the scripture to prove a different point.

When a couple is joined together they become one flesh, says Jesus. This is not about money or property, this is about relationship. Marriages are about two becoming one flesh; marriages last for a lifetime, not just until the husband decides write a certificate of divorce. Marriage is about mutuality and respect, not obedience and inheritance. 

Sometimes when I read this passage and hear Jesus say, “No divorce allowed!” I hear him being unfair and close-minded. I hear Jesus prohibiting something that is occasionally necessary for healthy people in unhealthy relationships. I immediately think of the woman abused by her husband or the child that can’t escape the rage of an unfit or dangerous parent. Wouldn’t divorce be acceptable then? 

In my haste to prove how progressive I am, I list all the reasons why divorce is, at least sometimes, OK. Well, it may be. After all, Jesus is sensitive to those with irregular or damaging relationships. For proof of this we need look no further that his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. 

This much is clear: Jesus cares about our relationships and our unique circumstances as much as we do. He is not prohibiting divorce in order to force someone to stay in an abusive relationship. That’s a whole different situation and one that has its own tragic struggles a hard choices. Jesus doesn’t make these comments to prohibit people from getting out of bad relationships. Jesus makes these comments to redefine what marriage should be in the first place. It’s kind of ironic: through his comments on divorce, Jesus redefines marriage. 

Sure, the ancient Israelites had laws about marriage and divorce, just like we do. But Jesus says that those laws stem from hardness of heart, not desire for healthy relationships. 

Laws that formally govern legal relationships are necessary. We don’t want people entering and leaving marriages or business partnerships willy-nilly. Relationships are important to society, and we need to protect them for the very sake of the relationship itself, not for the sake of the selfish and the greedy who are only interested in an escape clause.

You can’t get divorced just because you find someone more appealing. You can’t abandon a commitment, just because you’re “over it.” The unity and mutuality that are the cornerstones of marriage mirror God’s relationship with humanity. You just can’t give up on that for any old reason.

Sometimes, even given the laws that exist, human relationships fail, and that’s OK. God’s grace can handle that, but that grace should not obscure our knowledge of God’s desire for our relationships in the first place.

How do you handle your relationships? That’s the question Jesus is asking us. How do we deal with honoring them, with nurturing them, with blessing them. How do we deal with them when they are broken? Do you just give up, or do you do the hard work of trying to fix them?

You’ve been part of a broken relationship, no doubt? It doesn’t’ have to be a marriage. We all get cross with people. Rumors spread, promises are broken. “I’m never talking to him again!” God asks for more from us. God asks us to view everyone as sacred. God asks us to recognize that people are not disposable. God asks us to act like relationships are two-way streets, because they are.

I have a confession to make, on Friday night I backed my truck into Walker’s car right in our driveway. I still feel bad. When I walked back in the house the first thing he said to me was, “I love you.” He wasn’t happy about it, but that’s what he said.

Can you imagine? I’m telling you this, not to put my own relationship up on a pedestal, but to illustrate a little piece of the kingdom of God, a piece that I didn’t necessarily deserve, but that Walker freely offered out of his commitment to me and to our relationship. 

That’s what the kingdom of God is like. That’s what Jesus is asking of us. 

Now, don’t get confused. Walker is not God—far from it! Neither am I, and neither are you. But when it comes to our relationships, we can all act like we know Jesus, because we do.

One such child

18th Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2018 – Mark 9:30-37 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

After hearing today’s Gospel passage we may be tempted to dwell on the image of the child. Young, sweet, innocent. Imagine the little ringlets of hair, the brilliant blue eyes, and the curious little fingers. The image of the child sticks with us for good reason. There is a lot to admire about childhood. It’s largely carefree. 

In one of my favorite TV shows, 30 Rock, Pete says to his cranky coworker Liz Lemon, “I hope you’re happy!” “Not since I was a child,” she replies.

Adults often long for the simplicity of childhood. No bills to pay. No working day. No headaches or office cubes under buzzing florescent lights.

Bring a child into the hustle and bustle of everyday life and everything gets better, even if just for a moment. A mother brings her newborn the the office to visit her daddy and it provides a nice break for everyone. “Oh my gosh she is so cute.” 

Take a baby into a nursing home, stand back and soak in the smiles and the memories cast on the faces of the elderly residents.

Whenever we see a child we get that beautiful feeling. Their energy is rejuvenating. Something in their rosy cheeks offers us a an escape. 

We’ve all seen the woman in the grocery store pushing her cart down the aisle. When she see a young father pushing his baby she stops to smile and wave, lost in infant’s gaze.

Maybe this is why so many stained-glass windows depict Jesus with children. They add freshness to our mundane lives. (At least as long as we’re not with the all the time.)

I really do think we idealize childhood. But—make no mistake about it—Jesus does not. Don’t let yourself get caught up in childhood sentiments. Pay attention to the rest of the story. Jesus is lifting up the virtues of childhood for a very different reason than sentimentality. 

His disciples argue about who is the greatest, and he gives them a reality check. The greatest is not the biggest or the strongest or the smartest. The greatest is the one who welcomes a child such as this. Jesus does not show off the kid because the kid is adorable. Jesus redefines the cultural hierarchy of his day by dramatically elevating the status of the child. 

“If you welcome a child you welcome me.” These words turn the value system of the day upside down. In ancient Palestine children didn’t have rights. A father could sell or trade his own child with no repercussion. 

This is not to say that parents didn’t love their children. I’m sure the opposite was true, but there were different economic realities. People didn’t have kids simply for procreation, they also needed people to work on the family farm or in the family trade. Jesus turns this child, much more than a helping hand, into someone who is honored and revered.

Today we may be more sentimental when it comes to kids, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we still have a tendency to devalue childhood. As far as our culture is concerned children exists to grow up. They are simply biding their time until they can function as productive members of society. They are in training for the “real world.” 

When someone fails to mature fast enough we criticize them. “Oh grow up!” “Get your head out of the clouds!” “I’m not always going to be here to clean up your mess!” “If you can’t even put your name on your paper how are you going to get a job?”

However, Jesus helps us reimagine the value of childhood.He doesn’t do it by highlighting their adorable characteristics or exploiting our emotions. Instead, Jesus illuminates the virtues of childhood. Jesus shows us that children are the receivers in life. They receive their life from others. Literally. 

They exist because others make it possible for them to exist. I new mom once who told me, “All I remember about the ride home from the hospital is how nervous I was.” The child completely depends on them. Sure, the parents create the child together but they also continue to give it life after it is born: fresh milk, clean diapers, loving touch. 

Adults are the givers life. They are the ones in control. They change the diapers and warm the milk. Adults earn the money, keep the lights on, make the beds, and drive the carpool. Parents offer punishment: Time out. No dessert. “Go to your room.” The grown ups are in control. But the children do what they are told. They can’t even walk for almost a year. 

Jesus reminds us in the presence of a child what it truly means to be child-like. It’s not about being cute and naive; it’s about facing the reality of our dependence.  To be child-like is to depend on others. 

We all depend on others. The farmers that grow our food, the teachers who teach us how to think, the friends who support us when we are alone. Even the water treatment plant workers, the electrical linemen, and most of all, God. 

If you want to be at the top the hierarchy, if you want to rank first in the kingdom of God, then you have to remember that you depend on others.

My mother has had the rare experience of her own mother becoming like her child. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and can’t care for herself like she used to. My mom to prepare her meals, dresses her, and combs her hair. 

Do you remember what it was like to depend on others? To really rely on others and be completely at their mercy? It may be a time when you were extremely sick or broke your leg and you couldn’t do anything for yourself. 

Jesus is urging us to remember what it was like to receive help from others so that we will will in turn be quick to serve others in return. 

Jesus says, “If you want to be greatest, don’t focus on yourself, focus on those in need. You need to recognize the holiness of the people on the bottom rung of society. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to serve others because people depend on you.”

A really good way to remember that is to remind yourself that you depend on others. “If you really want to welcome me, you’ve got to welcome this child. Not because the child is innocent, not because he child is cute or sweet, but because the child depends on you.”

A child of God is anyone who depends on others for survival. When you serve those who depend on you, you serve God. Serve all of God’s children in need. Anyone who is hungry, or thirsty, or naked. Serve anyone on the receiving end of life. Serve all who are controlled by others. Serve the powerless and manipulated. Serve the slaves. The widows. The orphans. The oppressed. The poor. The outcast. The refugee. The criminal. It is in the prison cell, the refugee camp, and the Social Security line that you will meet the God who himself ended up completely at the mercy of others.

So make haste! We don’t have much time. Even now we are passing away. We are people of a servant Lord who stooped to wash the feet of his disciples and in so doing taught us that whenever we wash someone’s clothes or buy someone’s lunch or help someone change a flat tire that we are serving Him who first served us. The One who taught us that by feeding our 88-year-old mother we might glimpse the One who gave himself to be food for others.

This is our loving God: the one we meet these beautiful moments of self-sacrifice. The very God that they disciples could not yet recognize, but that we have known all our lives. The very One who gives us greater joy than even the cutest little baby.

Our partiality problem

16th Sunday after Pentecost – September 9, 2018 – Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

Today the lectionary provides us with an embarrassment of riches. Today’s lessons at first feel and seem quite different from one another but upon closer examination, they work together to offer us a very important lesson about distinctions (or lack thereof) between God’s people. 

From James we hear, “If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say,  “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 

Proverbs is, perhaps blessedly, more brief. “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”

These two passages reveal a truth that we often forget. The distinctions that we make between people who are rich and people who are poor are our distinctions, not God’s. God created all of us. In America we sometimes hear it as, “All [men] are created equal.” 

Today we also have the Gospel according to Mark, from which we hear two healing stories—two miracles. 

One is about a Syrophoenician woman who goes to Jesus to ask for help for her sick daughter. This woman is a Gentile. In Jesus’ world, a world of Jews, she does not belong.  She takes the chance because she is desperate. He heals her daughter. 

In the next scene some folks bring Jesus a deaf man with a speech impediment. Because this takes place in the Decapolis, it’s likely that he is also a Gentile. They beg Jesus to lay hands on him. Jesus takes the man aside, puts his fingers into his ears, spits, and touches his tongue. “Ephphatha,” he says, and the man is healed. 

Jesus performs these saving acts on two people who do not belong to his community, two people who should never have belonged to his community. 

Knowledge of this, combined with what we have already heard from Proverbs and James reinforces what we are told again and again: God shows no partiality. God made both rich and poor. God loves all people equally, no matter what side of the tracks they’re from, no matter what community they belong to. 

You can’t believe in Jesus and give special treatment to the rich, or privilege members your own community. The Bible tells us and shows us that Jesus shows mercy to people who are *supposed* to be excluded. 

Jesus goes out of his way to help people that the religious leaders of his day are not to keen on. Even when he is tired, or wants to be alone, he makes time for people that the world has forgotten. 

Imagine that. It really was radical. And, unfortunately, it still is. I’ve heard people tell themselves, “Oh, I don’t see color” or  “I don’t judge,” but there truth is, they do. 

And worse than the stigmas, stereotypes, and snap judgments that we make, is pretending that we don’t make them at all. Instead of facing up to the realities of our participation in systematic oppression we find it easier to ignore any sense of guilt. 

The truth is, we still exclude— not just women, gays, and racial minorities. We exclude all kinds of people who are different than us. I know a student who is on the autism spectrum. He is not able to communicate clearly and confidently with others. He cannot interact socially to the same degree that his peers can. His peers struggle to relate to him precisely because he struggles to relate to them. 

It’s easier to give up or crack a joke to with your friends when he takes the whole class off on a tangent than it is to try to be supportive. 

The same is true when people get sick. Congregations often jump into overdrive When a member is diagnosed with a serious illness. Members bring mounds and mounds of cut up fruit, vegetables, lasagna, and cookies. 

But would you believe that sometimes after a person receives a bad diagnoses, that some people say nothing at all? Some people are afraid they will make a mistake or will not be able to relate. Some people fear that they won’t say the right thing, so they choose to say nothing at all. 

Typical. We all do it. 

Those are the rules of this world, but as Christinas we are called to be different. We know that God’s kingdom is not a kingdom of this world. We are called to live by the rules of God’s reign. No matter who wears what, or says what, or does what, we remember that God is the father and mother of us all. 

That’s hard work. It’s hard because we haven’t all been women, or queer, or a minorities. It’s hard because we don’t always understand difference—of any kind.

We haven’t all had direct experience with autism. We haven’t all been diagnosed with Leukemia or Parkinsons. When faced with differences fear gets ahold of us. Even around people we know and love, we don’t know what might help and what might make things worse.

We just refuse to treat people differently because we don’t want to give those who are different from us “special privileges.” In this country we think that if some people get special privileges then we might lose some of ours. We assume that there has to be inequality. But Jesus showed us that’s not the case when he died for us all. 

God shows no partiality. God’s saving acts are for everyone. Salvation is God’s work among all people. Jesus shows us that it belongs not only to Jews but to Gentiles, too. Even a Syrophoenician. Even a deaf man. Even poor people. Even rich people. 

We don’t obtain our salvation by ourselves. It comes from the one who loved us so much that he gave himself for us. The very same one who stands alongside those who are different from us and shows us that when we love them we love him. That’s salvation. 

James says, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” Yes, and the autistic, and the sick, and the queer, and the women, and the men, and the blacks, and the whites, and the Mexicans, and the Muslims.

God created us all, and he loves us more than we could ever ask or imagine.

Storms

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 24, 2018 – Mark 4:35-41

I had the privilege of serving the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Tracy City, TN today. Here’s my sermon. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus’ disciples are afraid. They are in the middle of the sea of Galilee in a crowded boat when a terrible squall gathers and jeopardizes their very lives. These men are not strangers to this lake. Before Jesus called them to fish for people they fished here often, no doubt risking the occasional storm for a good catch. 

But today is different. Today the waves are so big that they spill into the boat which sinks lower and lower into the water. Today the situation is out of control. Today they are afraid. Jesus, however, is not. The same waves that terrify the disciples have rocked Jesus to sleep.  He’s lying down on a cushion in the back of a boat, resting after a long day of telling parables. 

The rain and the wind don’t phase him. This scares the disciples. When their fear turns to anger they lash out at him. “Wake up!” they yell. “We’re about to sink! Don’t you care what’s happening to us?! Don’t you care that we are at the very brink of death?”

Storms are fearsome things. You know that. I know that. Storms gather frequently atop this mountain. We’ve even had a few this week. Dogs run under beds to hide from the thunder, children hug their mothers for fear of the lightning. 

We often use the metaphor of the storm to describe times of adversity in our lives. A stormy time in life is a time of sickness, divorce, or money troubles. I am reminded of a cartoon man in a television commercial. When depressing times come into his life, storm clouds gather over him, thunder rumbles, and rain falls on him. As life gets better the clouds part, the sun shines, and peace and contentment return. 

We all recognize stormy times in life, but we don’t always recognize the different kinds of storms. There are two kinds of storms in our lives. There are external storms and internal storms. 

External storms are storms that occur outside of us, storms that are inflicted upon us. These are political storms, economic storms, storms of  immigration policy, natural disasters, car accidents, gas prices, and bitter partisan disagreements. These are the storms we face when we get fired from our job or lose a loved one. These storms result in intense arguments, lost money, or personal injury. 

But there are also internal storms, storms that arise inside of us. These storms cause anguish and confusion. These are storms of mental illness, low self-esteem, or intense guilt. These are storms that lead to depression and lack of faith. These storms result in doubts and fears that we cannot always express. 

When we face external storms it is easier to assign blame, pass the buck, or seek solutions from others. But inward storms leave us even more vulnerable. Often, no one knows they are brewing but us. Inward storms are hard to talk about, hard to understand, and hard to admit to. 

The disciples are facing an outward storm, a struggle with a force of nature beyond their control. They get frustrated because Jesus is so calm. They lash out at him—“Don’t you care that we are perishing?!” When Jesus quiets the storm an eery, dead calm falls over the green water. The men in the boat are relieved. Their troubles are gone. (Or so they think.) The disciples think they are home free, but Jesus knows better. Jesus knows that their fear isn’t just about the tempest. This is about what’s going on inside of them. 

Jesus scolds them, “Why were you afraid? Do you still not have any faith? After everything I’ve taught you??” Some translations put it this way— “Why are you such cowards? After all the parables I’ve told you, and the miracles I’ve performed, have you no faith? Did you really think I would let you die?” 

Of course Jesus cared that the disciples were in danger. And he did something about it. Jesus always cares about the storms in our lives. And Jesus knows that just like the external storms that rage around us, we often face interior storms—we don’t feel whole, and we lack faith because we are not sure who in the world to listen to. We’re not sure who our friends are. We’re not sure who has our best interest at heart. And when we struggle with these things, we lose track of ourselves. And we lose track of God. 

I know an old man whose wife died and he was left as a young single father. He did everything for his children. Woke them up, made their breakfast, sent them off to school. After work he sewed their clothes, bookmarked bedtime stories, and prepared dinner. When they went to college he sent them care packages, and made special preparations for holiday celebrations. But now they are grown, scattered across the country, and he rarely sees his grandchildren. Adding insult to injury, when Father’s Day rolls around, no one calls. No greeting cards come. He feels lost, utterly scorned. The storm clouds gathered.  “Those ungrateful kids! Am I no longer a father?” he wonders. “How did it come to this?” His entire identity is wrapped up in the children. But now that’s in jeopardy. A part of him is missing. 

This is familiar territory to many of us. Sometimes, like the disciples, like the old man, we don’t know who we are. The danger of not knowing who we are makes external storms difficult to face, and we make bad decisions. 

The old man was afraid that he’d be alone forever, so he tried getting a cat for some company. But he hates cats, so that didn’t work. Finally he remembered his own father’s preferred bandage and reached for a bottle. Again and again he drank until he couldn’t stop. 

The disciples are stunned, shocked, and surprised by their circumstance. The storm caught them off guard. There were literary knocked off their usual course. They were not sure what would happen or how they would cope facing this new disruption. All they could do was fear.

Jesus tells them not that he doesn’t care about the external storms in their lives, but that as long their internal storms rage, as long as they don’t know who they are—or whose they are—they will not prepared to deal with the challenges that come their way. We can become so consumed with our fear, our anger, and self loss, that we fail to recognize that Jesus claims us as his own and no one can change that. The external storms make us doubt our worth. We’d rather argue and complain and blame others (to make them look worse than us) than we would say a prayer or read a our favorite passage of scripture, a passage that reminds us just how much we are loved.

Through his death Jesus gave us the power to do much more than assign blame, point fingers, or panic. Through his death Jesus gave us the power to live BECAUSE we are loved as much as God loves anyone. In living we no longer have to fear death. Jesus rose so that we might know, remember, and trust the power of God. 

That day on the lake the disciples knew Jesus was with them, but they forgot about his saving power and his calming presence. So he had to remind them. 

So it is with us. Jesus is always with us. Jesus always loves us. Jesus is always there to remind us of his saving power and his calming presence. Jesus is always at hand with a grace that gives us the ability to know ourselves more surely, to calm us in adversity, and to know who we are, and whose we are. 

Jesus has already done the hard part. Our job is to remember that.

First, follow

Second Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018 – Mark 8:31-38

I had the privilege of preaching at St. Mark’s in Little Rock, AR a few weeks ago. I was honored to receive the Anne Kumpuris scholarship from the parish, and I am thrilled that the parish hosted me. You can watch the sermon here. 

Let’s take a moment to set the stage for today’s gospel. In the scene immediately preceding today’s Gospel, as Jesus and his disciples enter Caesarea Philippi, it becomes clear that there is confusion about who Jesus actually is.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They reply, “A prophet. John the Baptist, Elijah.”

“And what about you? What do you think?” Jesus asks.

Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”

“That’s correct,” Jesus says to Peter, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Don’t tell anyone.

At that point, today’s Gospel begins. Jesus immediately tells his disciples that he will undergo extreme suffering and rejection.

That’s right. Immediately after Jesus affirms that he is indeed the Messiah, he tells his followers that he will suffer and die.

“I am the Messiah, and I will die.”  Those two things do not fit. Jesus’ followers have just confessed that they believe him to be the Messiah, and then he tells them that he is going to be attacked and killed.

We get it, but for Peter, this is shocking news. It just does not add up. Peter pulls Jesus aside and scolds him—“Don’t say that, Jesus! It doesn’t look good! “The Messiah doesn’t come to die! He comes to reign!”

Peter’s confusion is understandable. Jesus is not the type of Messiah that Peter, or any of the rest of Jesus’ disciples, have been expecting. The Messiah they are expecting and the Jesus who stands before them do not match.

The Messiah their ancestors died waiting on would never forecast his own death. The Messiah they expect is a warrior who will destroy their enemies before their very eyes, not someone who will submit to Roman imperial authority. The Messiah they are looking for will come in a triumphant blaze of glory to usher in the new age, not to die a criminal’s death outside the city walls.

Jesus needs to get his disciples to understand their tradition in a new way. They have long-expected a Messiah, but this Jesus before them doesn’t exactly match their expectations.

Jesus has made some progress with them so far. After all, Peter was able to identify him as the Messiah. Even though Peter got the answer right, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he understood the question.

We have all been there. If you have studied a language or taken a math class you might know that just because you answer correctly doesn’t necessarily mean you really “get it.”

Just because you fill in the blank with the appropriate verb conjugation, or write the correct number on the line, doesn’t mean you really understand why those answers are correct.

Likewise, just because Peter answers that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, that doesn’t mean that he understands all that it entails.

Peter and the others still have some learning to do.

That’s fine. We all do.

John and Debra have been married for 18 years. They have two children. John is a very successful accountant, a partner in his firm. Other than at church on Sunday, the family doesn’t get much time together. But John always tells them that he loves them. That’s sort of his thing. He always tells his wife and children that he loves them.

When he wakes up he says, “I love you.” Before he heads out the door he says, “I love you.” He works late nearly every day. On Saturdays when he inevitably misses soccer games and dance recitals he texts, “Good luck today, I love you!” On Valentine’s Day he sends his wife flowers and a card with this message. “I’m sorry I can’t make the reservation. I love you.”

John is very sweet, and it is clear that he knows the importance of telling his loved ones how he feels, but his wife and kids cannot help but think, does he really get it?

Just because you tell someone all the time, that doesn’t necessarily mean you really know what it means to love someone. Just because you write a sweet note, draw a perfectly shaped heart, and say, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” with the biggest smile ever doesn’t mean you really know all that love entails.

Just because you confess Jesus as the Messiah doesn’t mean you really understand what it means.

I remember as kid listening to my father talking to a traveling salesman who was selling a cleaning product—some sort of polishing solvent. This was the best product on the market, you understand.

This product could clean anything! This product was second to none!

“Well, what does it do.”

“This is the premier product on the market.”

“How does it work?”

“You won’t find a product as good as this one.”

“Yes, but what is it exactly?”

Just because you know something is the best, doesn’t mean you really understand all that it has to offer.

“You are the Messiah, Lord!” says Peter. “Don’t tell people you’re going to die!”

“No!” says Jesus, “You don’t get it yet, Peter.”

He even says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We tend to focus a lot on the “Satan” part of that phrase and not as much on the “get behind me” part. Satan means “accuser.”

Let’s not be more dramatic than we have to be. Focus on the “get behind me” part.

Jesus says, “Get behind me. You don’t get it yet. I’m in charge here. You need to get behind me and start paying attention.”

Well, behind Jesus is a pretty good place to be. It’s from there that we follow him.

“Peter, you don’t quite get this yet, so get in line. Get behind me. Let me be the leader now. You just keep following. There will come a time when I will be gone and you will have to lead, but right now, it’s my turn.”

Follow me, Peter, so that you can see difference between the one who you expect and the one who I am. The difference between the Messiah so long expected and the one who I embody.

Follow me and I’ll show the difference between the things you expect, and the things that God has in store. “For now, you don’t need to tell anyone who I am; you just need to follow me, Peter.”

That, brothers and sisters, is the gospel’s call to all of us. Follow.

Lent can be a disorienting season. Even in the midst of the challenges, Jesus calls us to follow him.

When you don’t understand why bad things happen, what are you to think?

When you want to throw up our hands after 17 kids get murdered, what are you to do?

When you lose a loved one, what are you to know from that experience?

Those questions, and so many more, can be answered first by following Jesus.

When bad things happen, we grasp at answers, we seek out solutions. We think if we can identify an answer, then we can solve the problem.

The truth is, having the right answers is not enough.

But Jesus does not call us to right answers, he calls us to follow.

Understanding and finding answers is good, but it is not where we start. Jesus calls us to discover why his way is the way. How do we do that? We follow.

We follow him all the way to Easter.

Follow Jesus.

Follow him into Jerusalem and learn what a parade for real king looks like. Follow him to the Mount of Olives and learn a lesson from a fig tree.

Follow him to Gethsemane and learn what it means to sweat blood. Follow him all the way to the cross and learn what it means to weep and wail and cry.

Even when you don’t know why.

Stand there. Behold the blackened sky.

Stand there. Watch him die.

Stand there. For three days. Wait on the Lord. And early one morning, it will be clear enough.

Help My Unbelief!

February 20, 2017 – Mark 9:14-29 

You can watch and listen to this sermon by clicking here.

Take a trip with me back to Mark chapter six. Jesus called the disciples, “and began to send them out two by two and he give them authority over unclean spirits.”

Their confusion is understandable, then, when in chapter nine they ask, “Why could we not cast it out?” It says right there that he gave the Twelve authority over demons.

So why didn’t it work with this boy?

Jesus’s answer is revealing: “This kind can only come out through prayer.”

“Teacher,” the boy’s father calls, “I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

Again, Jesus’ response is revealing. “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.”

“You faithless generation!”

We don’t know how exactly he said it. We don’t have any “non-verbal” clues. It can be tempting to manufacture our own, but forget any imagined tone of voice—just look at the words.

“How much longer much I put up with you?”

“This kind can only come out through prayer.”

The disciples and the scribes had been arguing, but their arguments only point toward themselves, a natural response when we feel like we’ve got something to prove.

While attempting to defend their own efforts, they forgot that it’s really about prayer.

“If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us,” the father cries.

He’s in an impossible situation. He’s come to a group of supposedly-certified healers and they’ve not been able to do anything for his son.

His faith it’s at the breaking point. “If you can do anything, Jesus, please just do it!”

That “if” language doesn’t exactly exemplify the unblemished faith that we all strive for, but nevertheless it is the reality of our own days and nights.

Every day we stare into the faces of faithless people, and we too lose faith. In an effort to reclaim that faith we often look to ourselves. Sometimes we are as sure as we can be that we will be saved by our own efforts, that we have all the prayers, all the faith—ALL it takes.

It’s not about winning an argument in order to *prove* that we have the ability. It’s not about us.

It’s about prayer, and faith, and God.

Jesus tells each of us: you have the power to be self-aware enough to recognize that it’s not about you.

He reminds us that we still need God.

He reminds us not of the basic truth that God can do anything through us, but rather he calls to mind the complex realization that we cannot do anything without God.

We depend on a God who wants what is best for us.

Do you hear it?

Our participation in God’s glory is not limited to our inwardly-focused testimony, “I believe.”

Rather it is more fully realized in the courage of our humble refrain: O God, “Help my unbelief!”