The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday 2021

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

We squeeze a lot in on Palm Sunday. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Conflict

Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 21, 2020 – Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” When you first heard this morning’s Gospel, you may have been caught off guard.

Jesus’ words reek of division, not harmony; they hint at war, not peace. Indeed, Jesus doesn’t sound like Jesus at all, but I think we can still figure out what he means. 

Perhaps, if we read this passage from Matthew in light of the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we might gain some perspective on it.

A portion of what we hear from Paul today will become part of the Pascha Nostrum (found on page 83 of the Book of Common Prayer). These words should sound familiar; we recited them together at the beginning of worship each Sunday during the Easter season. 

“We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

With these words, and those that precede them, Paul establishes a theology of the Christian life. He tells us that, as Christians, we are baptized into Christ’s death, so that we might be raised with him to new life.

In other words, we don’t have to wait until our physical deaths to be united with Christ. That unification first takes place in baptism, the ritual act that joins us to the Christian faith.

Submerged in the waters of baptism, we die with Christ, emerging from the font redeemed agents of the resurrection life. This is the Christian paradox: Jesus died, so that we may live, and so, in baptism, we die, so that we might live. 

Jesus took care of our sin on the cross. There is no guilt on this side of that great sacrifice. Sure, there is still sin—we see it all around: racism, bigotry, chauvinism, homophobia, and our refusal to take the perspective of others.

The difference is, through our life in Christ, we are freed from complacency to sin, no longer willing to submit to sinful behaviors, but instead empowered to fight against them.

In light of this understanding of Paul’s words, perhaps we will hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel anew?

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

It might seem a strange thing to preach on Father’s Day—Jesus’ words are indeed words of division, of enmity, but if Paul’s understanding of our Christian life tells us anything, it is that, sometimes, division can be a good thing.

Creation is full of helpful division—cell division, by which a parent cell divides into two daughter cells and creates new life; root division, by which perennial plants are divided at the root, planted separately, and propagated just as beautifully as ever; division of labor, by which tasks are shared among many in order to improve working conditions and promote efficiency.

So it is with division between life and death, sin and grace. 

Jesus is clear. Preaching the Gospel will cause conflict, even in our own households, but that “division” can be helpful.

Think about it. It’s a good thing to separate yourself from your weird cousin’s conspiracy theories, right? It’s a good thing to separate yourself from your aunt’s particular brand of homophobic humor. It’s a good thing to separate yourself from your racist grandpa’s musings about brainpans and bone structures.

This week, Jesus asks us, do we value our relationships with friends, our families, and our neighbors more than the Kingdom that Jesus calls us to strive for?

At Pentecost, God gave the Spirit necessary for us to do the work that God has given us to do. But what happens when that work comes into tension with our closest earthly relationships?

No simple answers to these questions exist. So it is with questions of faith, no one answer is right for all times, all places, or all people. Nevertheless, these are questions that we must consider, lest we make peace with oppression.

We must start by remembering that our old selves were crucified with Christ. Our bodies of sin were destroyed, that we might become active members of Christ’s resurrected body. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Now, we are ruled by the grace of God. Jesus came to show us that grace in human form because we need it when we preach the Gospel, especially to the people we love the most. 

As we question our role in causing conflict for the Kingdom, we may find that it really is a holy thing whenever we “set ourselves against each other,” as it were, to have the tough, yet civil, conversations that our baptism calls us to have.

These conversations do not include picking petty fights or complaining about pet peeves. Nor do they include name-calling or spitefulness.

They do, however, include respectful, Gospel-centered dialogue about fairness and dignity, liberation and love.

Division between ourselves and our loved ones is not meant to imply giving up on them or desiring for them sin and death. Rather, it is a means of differentiating ourselves from particular brands of sin and death, which can breed fear, violence, and hate.

It is holy distance that gives us space to remember that Jesus, by his life, death, and resurrection, shows us another way.

It is holy conflict that gives us space to take a deep breath, to get a little perspective, and to remember that our role as followers of Jesus is to walk with all people toward eternal life.

It is holy division, that creates the space necessary to build bridges of love and a grace.

Friends, from time to time Jesus will call you to have tough conversations with the people you love for the sake of the Gospel, and today he reminds us all that to refuse to do so is to deny the presence of God in ourselves and in them.  

And so he gives us the grace to do it, now and always.


Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 17, 2019 – 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 – Trinity, Winchester

Listen to this sermon here

Passages like the one we heard this morning from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians get right to the heart of the Christian faith: resurrection.

Paul assures us in the words of our triumphant Easter anthem: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Paul reminds us that Easter is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, the feast of feasts. The day of resurrection defines who we are as a community of believers. “Easter people, raise your voices!”

Each and every Sunday is the day of resurrection. Each and every time we gather, we gather in light of the resurrection. Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist as a community of the faithful we proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection.

Paul’s words may get right to the joyous heart of our faith, but they can also cause us to doubt. If there was no resurrection, then what are we doing here? It’s a scary question.

If Christ was not raised from the dead, then our faith is in vain. If Christ does not live, then we remain controlled by sin with no chance of escape. If there was no resurrection, then all those who thought they died in the hope of the resurrection actually had no hope at all. They simply perished.

How can we be sure that Christ was raised from the dead?

We live in a world that demands proof. We are a people greatly influenced by enlightenment principles, humanistic values, and scientific advancement. We like certainty.

We have proof that vaccines immunize us against disease, so we inoculate our children. We have experienced how caffeine increases stamina and alertness, so we drink coffee to wake up in the morning. We trust that gravity will keep us anchored to the earth, so we go about our lives free from the worry that we’ll suddenly float off into space.

It doesn’t quite work that way with resurrection though. Resurrection is hard to believe. We haven’t seen it. Of course there are stories of people technically dying on the operating table and coming back to life thanks to modern medical technology. But being executed, buried for three days, and then coming back to life? That’s preposterous. That is simply not plausible!

However, I’m not entirely sure it needs to be. At least, not in any historically or scientifically conceivable way. Our Christian belief in the resurrection does not depend on physical proof of Jesus walking out of a tomb on Easter morning. We’ll never have proof like that.

I don’t know that Christ was raised because I saw live footage last night at 11:00. I don’t know that Christ was raised because I saw a photo in the Tennessean. I don’t know that Christ was raised because I heard a first-hand account from one of the women who didn’t find the body.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m willing to believe it. In fact, I do. It’s just that we can’t prove that Christ was raised by studying a history book or scientific journal. Our proof is not provided by the kinds of sources that you might cite in a term paper.

Our proof is the Risen Christ himself who dwells among us. I know that Christ was raised because Christ is risen. Here. Now. And I know Christ is risen because I have seen resurrection all my life. I bet you have, too.

I’m not talking about tulips springing from amidst the dead leaves. I’m not talking about the return of the robin. I’m not talking about the first spring dew on the kitchen windowsill or a butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

As lovely as those images are, they pale in comparison to the woman who approaches you on the street. She takes a chance and asks, “Are you a Christian? I thought you might be. I work at the diner around corner and when I saw you I thought maybe we could talk. I’m really depressed, and I’m having suicidal thoughts. I’ve already broken two appointments with my therapist. I wonder if you would you pray with me. It’s all I can think of to do.”

You know resurrection exists because at the funeral of a loved one Jesus walks up beside you and puts his arm around you as you sing, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” In the space of a few moments you are reminded that life is changed, not ended.

You know resurrection exists because you love a man who struggled for years with addiction. Who lost a marriage, a child, a house, a job. Who went from six-figures a year to hanging out late at the soup kitchen hoping they might be able to spare some leftovers. One day after attending a church service he decided to stay for the 12-step meeting. Now he’s a counselor who devotes his life to helping people find successful paths to recovery just like he did.

You know resurrection exists because everywhere you look there are signs of resurrection, glimpses of the fact that the Risen One just passed by.

I remember that several weeks ago in this very space a woman arrived about 15 minutes into the service. She walked halfway down the aisle and found a seat on the west side. She wasn’t here long, maybe about five minutes. Before she left she looked up and smiled the warm and comfortable smile of someone who knows the love of God, as if she wandered in just to make sure it was still here.

That’s how you know. There are signs of it all around. Signs of the risen Christ.

In today’s passage Paul tells us that if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain. But we know Christ is risen. So, what if we flipped Paul’s argument around? In other words, since you know Christ is risen, then why do you lack faith? Every day that we walk around in the world we seem to forget that Christ walks among us.

We treat other people as a means to an end. We value money above relationships. We let a person’s political views determine whether or not we love them. We make little to no effort to care for the earth or sustain its resources. Any joy we have we keep bottled up inside instead of sharing it with the world.

You see, I think what’s truly preposterous is not that we believe in resurrection. I think what’s truly preposterous is that we believe in resurrection, yet we go on living like the risen Christ doesn’t exist.

Our job is to proclaim that he does. In thought and word and deed. Our job is to be living, breathing agents of the the good news. I assure you, it can be done.

You’re not responsible for resurrection. That’s God’s job. Rest assured, God does it over and over and over again. Your job is to look for it and when you see it to be grateful and let that gratitude spill out of you.

If you do that, someone just might notice.

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.

They remain examples

Thursday, June 29 – Feast of St. Peter & St. Paul – 2 Timothy 4:1-8

Today, June 29th, we gather to celebrate Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It is not January 18th, when we commemorate Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah nor is it January 25th when we commemorate the so-called “Conversion of Paul.” No, today we remember these two great leaders of the Apostolic Age because they were persecuted and died as martyrs.

Clement of Rome wrote to the Church in Corinth, “Because of jealousy and envy the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church were persecuted and competed unto death.”

It’s hard to say it much better than that. Peter and Paul were good at serving as witnesses to Jesus Christ. The fearful leaders of the empires of this world didn’t know what to make of their zeal for their God. Faced with the stark reality of a group of followers proclaiming a Lord who lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty, earthly authorities killed these apostles in an effort to ensure the continuance of their own power.

Both Peter and Paul took their place in glory as examples of God’s endurance, and today as we remember them because they glorified God in their death we can also learn from the example of their lives.

“I solemnly urge you:” writes the author of the second letter to Timothy, “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

Proclaim. Be persistent. Convince. Encourage. And rebuke.

Proclaim the message with persistence in good times and bad—whether surrounded by the Spirit’s rush on Pentecost, after your second trial, during the growth of the church in Rome, or during your seventh stay in prison. Encourage and convince—take heart, ask questions, and burst into doxology when necessary.

And yes, even rebuke. “For the time is coming,” says the writer to Timothy “when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Yes friends, we’ll have do some rebuking. It’s tricky to challenge those who wish to distort the faith, but luckily Peter and Paul show us that it is possible. Even they had differences of opinion. Their disagreement over the appropriate mission to the Gentiles is well known.

Paul wrote about his meeting with Peter in Antioch in his letter to the Galatians, saying, “I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong … he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when [men from James] arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.”

These saints help us see this good news: that rebuking doesn’t mean leaving someone behind, writing someone off, or breaking a relationship. Amid the strong words of bitter disagreement these two who seemed on the surface so different—a cosmopolitan Jew and a rural fisherman—kept always in common their unwavering commitment to Jesus, and they remain examples for us.

They remain examples of the importance of never losing sight of what binds us together even when our hermeneutical lenses or exegetical interpretations are at odds. They remain examples for us—no matter how we vote at General Convention or what we think of a certain church canon—of our one, sure foundation, the Lord of the Church. And they remain examples for us of the peace that passes all understanding, that peace that guards our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ our Lord. So may it ever be.