Sermon: July 3, 2016

This sermon was delivered at my home church as part of a sermon series on “The Cloud of Witnesses,” or saints in the church life. My focus was Evelyn Underhill, a 20th century Anglican mystic. I highly recommend her books for further reading!

July 3, 2016
“The Cloud of Witnesses”
Evelyn Underhill
Wisdom 7:24 – 8:1

[Light] is succeeded by night, but against Wisdom, evil does not prevail. In September 1914, the modern world was in the first frenzy of the outbreak of the horrific conflict that would become known as the War to End All Wars. At the Hague Conference for Peace in 1907, people from around the world declared the utter impossibility of ever going war again, while they were busy talking about how to do it properly. Now, the powers of Europe welcomed war as a way to invigorate their sissy younger generation and re-establish their pre-eminence. Young men signed up in droves; poets wrote verses like “Now God be thanked who has matched us with this Hour.” And in the middle of the calls to arms and patriotic fervor, a young woman wrote a book. That woman’s name was Evelyn Underhill, and the book was called “Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People.”

If you snorted just a little after hearing that, you aren’t alone. Underhill herself acknowledged the book might be a hard sell: “Many will feel that in such a time of conflict and horror … a book which deals with that which is called the ‘contemplative’ attitude to existence is wholly out of place.” But, she went on to say, “…’Practical’ Mysticism—means nothing if the attitude and discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone. … On the contrary, if the experiences on which it is based have indeed the transcendent value for humanity … then that value is increased rather than lessened when confronted by the overwhelming disharmonies and sufferings of the present time.”

Evelyn Underhill was born in England in 1875, and in her early life was an unusually optimistic period of history. She was a pacifist, lived through the Great War and the beginning of the Second World War.

She flirted with Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, but ultimately remained a member of the Anglican Communion. She was especially notable for her insistence on the importance of lay ministry, and for her fascination with theosis, a thoroughly Orthodox idea that describes union with God.

Her writing, I think offers an answer to the question “When evil is in the world, what can I do to have Wisdom prevail?”

That’s what I struggle with when I see this passage. Nothing defiled gains entrance into Wisdom, but we live in a world where defilement is evident every day; Wisdom is a spotless mirror that shows the workings of God, but we often struggle to see God in our own lives. When I’m faced with war, massacres on our doorstep, people being drowned in overcrowded boats, or even just the homeless people I see on the side of the road day after day, I see two temptations. The first is to see the suffering as a permanent and inseparable part of our broken world, and as part of God’s plan. The world is broken, but Jesus has made us whole, and one day we’ll be in a place where sorrow and suffering are no more. The second temptation is to focus only on the practical, the next available right thing to do, without acknowledging that God is even there. Whether it’s a shooting or a broken friendship, I have to rely entirely on what I can do, because God is all that is good and lovely, and therefore is nowhere present in my grief.

Both the temptation to rely on this existence of some unseen Plan, and the temptation to rely only on what I can do are understandable–and rejected completely by the author of Wisdom. Wisdom is more mobile than any motion;…she penetrates and pervades all things. All things. Both temptations are failures of vision. As Evelyn Underhill puts it, “Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond.” We can’t possibly know God’s Plan, and because our sight is so limited, and we’ll make ourselves crazy trying to add up all of our experience to make it fit. But without recognizing a Love, and a Reality that’s far beyond anything we can understand, our actions won’t have meaning, and we’ll be working in the dark.

So, how do we avoid those temptations? Not entirely coincidentally, that is exactly what Underhill claims practical mysticism is all about. “The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man’s life; and until he has realized it, he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers.” When we don’t put God in a box by requiring Him to stick to a plan we’ve made up, God becomes intimate and real. When we are determined to see things as they are, not as we wish they would be, we can love them as they are. That love should spur us to action to make the Perfect Love known—even in the midst of exceptional adversity.

What was true in Evelyn’s time is true in ours as well. We are more closely linked with one another than ever before: through trade, through communication, through policy; and yet we look at each other with fear. We have so much, and we’re so afraid of it being taken away. God forbid one more country acquires a nuclear weapon; or that we accept more refugees onto our shore.

But if we know Wisdom, we don’t have to be ruled by fear. When we know one another fully, we don’t have to keep up our prestige, because we know that we don’t need to put up a false face to be loved. We’re fully connected, and when one of us gains, all of us gain. When we recognize our kinship of love, and pursue that kinship, rather than the alliances that we make so that we don’t stab each other in the back, we pursue union with God. Our Christian life calls us to actions that banish that fear. By doing what our baptismal vows tell us to do–continuing in teaching and fellowship, persevering in resisting evil, proclaiming the good news by word and example, seeking and serving Christ all persons, by striving for justice and peace—we can replace that fear, that limited vision, with love.

If we can look at one another as lovingly as God looks at us, we are truly wise.

Amen.

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Sermon: January 10, 2016

This sermon was delivered at my internship church on the First Sunday after Epiphany, also known as the Baptism of Our Lord.

First Sunday after Epiphany/ Baptism of Our Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I love baptism Sundays. As any of my friends will tell you, I am a sucker for babies, and I get to meet a whole lot of adorable babies on those days. I love the feeling of community that surrounds those Sundays, with everyone eager to welcome the newest Christians in Christendom. And I love the chance that we get as a parish to renew our baptismal vows, and to take a moment to think about what it really means to be Christians in the worldwide communion. While we aren’t celebrating any baptisms on this particular Sunday, the first Sunday after Epiphany is the day we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and it’s a great day to explore baptism as belonging and becoming.

Let’s set ourselves in the scene for a moment. If this Gospel sounds familiar, it’s because the last time we visited Luke’s depiction of this scene at the Jordan a few weeks ago, John the Baptizer was bringing the crowds, bringing them the good news of the coming Messiah, and we were waiting with joyful expectation in the last stretch of Advent. When this reading starts, we’ve just heard John tell the crowds to share what they had with the poor, and to reform their lives. And then, as now, we hear people questioning among themselves: this man speaks with authority. Could he be the Messiah? And John says no, I am not. I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire. And he warns that the Messiah is coming to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Our Gospel reading today skips a couple verses, but oddly enough they don’t include an account of Jesus and John’s meeting at the Jordan—or at least, it’s odd for the author of Luke, who loves incorporating prophetic conversations between people in his Gospel; this is after all the Gospel where Elizabeth tells us that she can feel her unborn child jumping for joy at Mary’s arrival. Instead, we rejoin the scene at the Jordan after all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying. We see the heavens open, and a dove descend on Jesus—that’s interesting because as the author of Acts, Luke describes the Holy Spirit elsewhere as tongues of fire or rushing of wind—and a voice audible from the heavens: a voice that calls Jesus beloved child, a son with whom the voice is well-pleased.

And that’s it, really. The very next thing that Luke tells us is that Jesus was about thirty when he started his ministry, and who his ancestors were. By the time we reach the moment of Jesus’ baptism, we’ve heard how Jesus and John were born, something of their childhoods, and a lot about John’s ministry; after this story, we hear about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but we won’t hear from John again until chapter seven of Luke’s Gospel, when he sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, or if they should be looking for another. This is one of John’s last visible episodes of his public ministry, and one of the last times that we see Jesus before the beginning of his. So, what does this encounter change for Jesus, and what does it mean for our public lives as Christians?

First, let’s look at the question of belonging. Both Jesus and John’s stories, until this moment, are closely intertwined in Luke. They are special, and their parents know it; they are marked out by prophecy for great works; people around them recognize and proclaim their specialness. And Luke strongly emphasizes that both families are faithful adherents of the Commandments and of Mosaic law. But once we get to the baptism, oh my goodness do their lives diverge. John, in the limited time that we have with him, seems to be using baptism as a tool for repentance and recommitment to the spirit of the Torah: he rebukes the crowds for trusting in their identity as children of Abraham to save them God’s wrath, which, though radical, is in the best tradition of prophetic preaching in the Hebrew scriptures. Instead, he urges the crowd to discern what is true justice, commands them to share out of their abundance, examine their lives to see how they have exploited others, and begin again to repair the world around them.

In Luke’s gospel, we have no idea why Jesus is there at the river. Maybe, as we’re told in other Gospels, he came because he felt that’s what God required of him. Maybe he was moved by John’s preaching, and wanted to proclaim publicly his adherence to the spirit of the Torah. Maybe his mother asked him to check on his crazy cousin John. In any case, by the time we get to the river, we’ve heard a lot about Jesus. We’ve heard Jesus speak about his relationship to God. But this is the first time that we see God speak directly to Jesus—and he names him his beloved Son, with whom he is well-pleased.

Beloved. No wrath, no question of winnowing forks, no unquenchable fire. No repudiation. Beloved. How much—how unfathomably much–must God love and rejoice in this man to call him beloved. In that moment, no desire for repentance, no fear: a declaration that God is well-pleased with Jesus as he is.

The Gospels don’t always agree, but every single one has a story of the baptism of Jesus, and every one except John the Evangelist’s gospel describes this perfect moment of claiming and rejoicing. And each one describes Jesus coming into his own—through prayer, ministry, or recognition—immediately afterwards. So it isn’t just a question of belonging. Through Jesus’ baptism, through God’s wonderful proclamation, we draw strength for the hard part in our public lives—for John’s baptism of becoming. In the words of our Presiding Bishop, “discipleship is about following Jesus until his footprints and ours become indistinguishable.” And that’s where the hard work comes in—because proclaiming a baptism of belonging, of adoption as God’s children, as we so proudly do in our Book of Common Prayer, requires the hard work of a theology of welcome.

What is a theology of welcome? It’s hinted at in our readings today, as we see the disciples of the early Church receive the community of Samaria, and when we hear Isaiah’s joyful proclamation that God is gathering Jerusalem’s people from every corner of the world, everyone who is called by My name. It’s in Jesus’ example, as we see him call both Matthew the tax-collector and Simon the Zealot—the equivalent of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders–as his disciples. And it’s in my mind what makes our public lives as Christians distinct, and hard, because it requires us to overcome some ugly natural impulses, and welcome everyone as our adopted sisters and brothers.

God calls us beloved, and we can rejoice in that love. But if we are called beloved children of God, if we are called to live out our five great baptismal vows as we make that love known to others, it’s not enough to rejoice in our own good fortune. It’s not enough to share what we have. We have to love. And how can we love our fellow jerks? People who disagree with us? Our annoying co-workers? Our irritating family members? People who have excluded us? People who have hurt us beyond telling?

Howard Thurman, in Jesus and the Disinherited, describes this terrifying task so well. The threat of physical, moral, or spiritual violence causes us to separate others from ourselves, to see them as not-human, to degrade them, to hate them. We make our own “in-groups” and “out-groups” to protect ourselves. If I am not like that person, then I can have a good life. If I don’t do what that person did, then the bad thing that happened to them won’t happen to me. It is a separation and violence that, as Thurman says “served originally as a safety device..[and] finally becomes death for the self. … He who fears is literally delivered to destruction.” There is only one answer, and it is found in our baptism: “A man’s conviction that he is God’s child…recognizes at once that to fear a man…is a basic denial of the integrity of his very life. … The awareness that man is a child of the God of religion, who is at one and the same time the God of life, creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy.”

And now we see the union of John’s baptizing and Jesus’ baptism. We have the consolation of being a beloved child of God. That “profound faith in life” sustains us as we walk in imitation of Jesus’ life, as we try to repair the world in imitation of his ministry, and trust that even in his crucifixion and death, life prevails in his triumphant resurrection at Easter. That identity, and the recognition that we share it with everyone—everyone–gives us the conviction that to show that love, we must begin again as John said, and fearlessly go out into the world, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and loving our neighbor as ourself; proclaiming the good news of God in Christ; striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being; continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; and when we fail, give into fear, and fall into sin, as we will, repenting and returning to God.

It’s not an easy call. At times, it may be more than we can bear. But when it is, we can remember Jesus, who claims for us this profound example of life, this beautiful belonging, and John, who gives us a path, the next step forward, to sustain us. And we can remember what God has told us:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, and you are mine.

Amen.

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Sermon: December 13, 2015

This sermon was delivered at my internship church for the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday.

Third Sunday of Advent

Luke 3: 7-18

One thing that I absolutely love about Advent is the drama that’s built into the liturgy, and particularly into the Scriptures. Last week, we heard that from Micah that God is coming like refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap: things that scorch, and burn, and purify. This week, we start off with intense excitement: God is restoring Israel’s fortunes and giving her justice, and then—bam!–in strides John, comparing us all to a brood of vipers. Israel is fleeing from the wrath of God; the ax is at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. A fire that burns unquenchably. And yet, Luke ends this passage by telling us that “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Good news. Good news?! The good news is that the people of Israel may lose their heritage and flee before the God of their fathers? People burning in unquenchable fire? Is that the good news that John is proclaiming?

Oh yes! And the good news is that we’re saved, but it’s gonna be hard work.

We have heard so much in these last few weeks about faithfulness to God in good times and bad, about signs and wonders of scary times ahead. As we look around us at our communities, our nation, and our world, we see acts of hatred, and fear, nightmarish things that seemed designed to break our bonds of community and humanity.

But I’m not talking about disintegration and fear today, or about holding steady in faith. Today is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday during Advent when we suspend for a moment our attention on the darkness and waiting and instead celebrate with the nearness of God to us. Today, we are called to abundant joy and delight. And yes, we are called to it through this singular Gospel.

For the last two weeks, we’ve heard that the Lord is coming soon, that we need to watch, and wait, that we need to be on guard, that there is work and preparation involved. And this week, for the very first time in Advent, we hear someone ask, what does preparing a way for the Lord look like? John doesn’t talk about animal sacrifices, or obeying the Law more closely: he commands people to make immediate changes that need resolve, involve a radical change of heart, and require great personal sacrifice. And it’s here that the drama of the reading plays out.

Let’s listen again to what John says. Standing in front of the crowd, he tells them that being children of Abraham won’t save them, and that they are in imminent danger of God’s wrath. Okay, say the people, what then should we do? Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, John replies, and whoever has food must do likewise. Well, sharing out of our abundance is pretty manageable, right? A small price to pay for security in God’s mercy and love. When I first read this Gospel, I was reminded of the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus and says, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a little boy, Lord, now what should I do to inherit eternal life?

But then the tax collectors and the soldiers come to John, and they say, Teacher, what should we do?

And again John’s answer, on its face, is pretty simple, right? Don’t collect excess taxes—advice I imagine we’ll all be wishing the government had followed when we get our forms in a few weeks—don’t extort money by force or threat, and be satisfied with your wages. Is that really any different from sharing what you have?

Well, yes. First, and most importantly, the soldiers and the tax collectors are, as we know, the hated and despised representatives of Rome, instruments of occupation and oppression. They have a well-deserved reputation for cruelty and greed. They are betrayers of their people, or perhaps unrighteous foreigners. They are not part of the Hebrew community, and yet here they are, asking John what they should do.

The civil rights activist Howard Thurman discusses this problem in his powerful book, Jesus and the Disinherited. To love our enemies, he says, “requires the uprooting of the bitterness of betrayal, the heartiest poison that grows in the human spirit. … the only way to redeem them for the common cause [is] to penetrate their thick resistance to public opinion and esteem and lay bare the simple heart. This man is not just a tax collector; he is a son of God. Awaken that awareness in him and he will attack his betrayal as only he can—from the inside.”

As Luke tells it, I think John is requiring us to look deep within ourselves, and attack the betrayal of our communities, of our neighbors, from inside, though complete and total sincerity.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a tax collector, or a soldier, who hears John’s words. You have been baptized by John. You’re ready to start a new life! A time to build a new life, an opportunity to create new relationships!

And then John says, go back to your old place and your old job, and do the things you have always done, but be a new person in them. Make right what you did wrong. Rebuild those relationships. Imagine, as a tax collector, going back to the people you exploited. Seeing the wariness, fear, or hatred in their eyes as you knock at their door to collect the Roman tax, the temple tax, and whatever share for yourself that you’re collecting on top of that. How do they react when you tell them the good news, that they don’t owe quite as much this time, that you stole from them, but you won’t anymore? Are they grateful? Happy? Angry at you, because you were unashamedly cheating them all this time? Bitter about the money they have given up to you? Where is the strength, the comfort of your baptism then?

No wonder we’d maybe rather flee from an encounter with God, and trust in our heritage, or our record of service, or our church affiliation, to keep us out of trouble. To turn and face ourselves, and how far we fall short in our relationships with our neighbors and with God, is so hard. But, and I’m going to quote Thurman again, when we deal with one another with complete and devastating sincerity, “instead of a relationship between the weak and the strong, there is merely a relationship between human beings. A man is a man, no more, no less. The awareness of this fact marks the supreme moment of human dignity.”

But the vulnerability of that sincerity, the pain of acknowledging the dishonesty and hypocrisy in our relationships, whether obvious like the tax collector and the soldier, or hidden like the ways that we hurt one another, is impossible to bear without a deep sense of joy in God’s presence. And so thank goodness that along with the difficult work that’s outlined in this Gospel, we have the joy and promise of Jesus’ coming. Thank goodness we have the examples in Zephaniah and in Philippians, which command us to be joyful.

John tells us the hard work that we have to do, but our other readings today tell us that the hardest work has already been done: God has taken away the judgments against us, he will gather us, and we will know peace that passes all understanding. Because God isn’t just offering us a relationship where he crosses off our debts, but we are as we were before: he’s offering us a completely new relationship, where he puts himself in our hands, and arms, as a little child. This is not the accusatory God of the Hebrew Scriptures, who tells the Israelites through his prophets that they will be destroyed for their disobedience. This God says, I have wiped out your debts, I have rescued you from your enemies, and instead of telling you what lousy human beings you are, I exult over you, I rejoice with you, I will renew you, for you are my beloved children, and I will give you peace.

John is offering a baptism of water, for strength to begin the hard work, but he promises us a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire to carry it through. It’s hard work, but that hard work means that God is near, and that we don’t have to do it by ourselves. And when we lose touch with each other,—as we will—when we hurt one another,—as we will—when we become discouraged—as we will—we can remember the question of the tax collectors and the soldiers—what should we do?–and do it, joyful in knowing that God has already shown us the way.

So let us rejoice, for the Lord is in our midst, and we shall fear disaster no more.

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Sermon: November 22, 2015

Sermon delivered at my internship church for the Sunday of Christ the King, the last Sunday in Pentecost (Ordinary Time if you’re Catholic) and the last Sunday before the season of Advent.

Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King

November 22, 2015

John 18:33-37

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Whoa, wait, back up. Why is Pilate even asking this question? He’s a Roman governor faced with a peasant from Galilee. Sure, the peasant has been drawing crowds for a while, and maybe Pilate has heard some rumors about a really strange procession into Jerusalem, but the guy’s a rabble-rouser, someone who’s been hauled in by Jerusalem’s religious leaders and handed over to Pilate for sentencing. In fact, the religious leaders haven’t even told Pilate what Jesus is guilty of. He’s been taken, arrested, locked up, given a show trial, and then handed over to the bureaucracy to be put to death. Pilate is just relieving the religious faithful of the responsibility of having to think about someone’s blood on their hands. So, why is the governor of Jerusalem asking this man, this criminal, if he’s a king?

Maybe Pilate is genuinely curious. Maybe he’s playing cat and mouse with Jesus. Maybe he enjoys the idea of getting someone’s goat by taking Jesus seriously. But whatever his motivation, Jesus takes him seriously. And he asks Pilate, “why do you want to know?” Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?

I think Jesus’ question for Pilate is an equally good one for us. Why do we want to know about the Christ the King? Why are we celebrating Jesus as King?

I’m curious because if you read the New Testament, and in John’s gospel in particular, it seems pretty clear that kingship is the last thing that God wants for his people.

Last week, we heard the beginning of the story of Samuel, the prophet who anoints Saul, the first king of Israel. In Samuel, when the Israelites ask God for a king, God begs the Israelites to reconsider. A king, God says, will take their land and their crops, and they’ll have nothing left. He’ll take their daughters for his own, and their sons for his army. And in fact the books of the Old Testament are full of unjust kings who plunder their people, who wage war, and who turn the Israelites away from the God of Abraham to worship false gods.

In the New Testament, Jesus avoids kingship and power. When people acclaim as anything other than “teacher” or “Messiah,” he denies it. the disciples ask for greatness and power, Jesus swats them away. Be like children, he tells them. Ask God for anything you need. Don’t maneuver for a courtier’s position: a place is already prepared for you, whether or not you deserved it. And as we heard last week, when the disciples are awed by the size or magnificence of the temple, or anything to do with the ruling elite, Jesus reminds them that it can’t last.

Even earlier in John’s Gospel, right after Jesus feeds a crowd of five thousand with five loaves and two fish, the people cry out “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” and John says “Perceiving that they were about to take him by force and make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself.” You can almost see him running for the hills with a horde of enthusiasts running after him.

So, I think it’s safe to say that Jesus isn’t really into the idea of kingship and power. And yet here he is in the praetorium, facing Pilate, and Pilate’s first question to him is: Are you the King of the Jews?

And in response, Jesus doesn’t talk about the instability and corruption of kingship, or proclaim resistance to Caesar, or anything else that would make him a threat to Rome. He doesn’t even say, “no.” He asks Pilate: Do you really want to know? Or are you looking for me to say I’m guilty? Pilate says, Your own people handed you over, so you tell me. What did you do to make them so angry?

And here’s where it gets interesting. Unlike when he’s in front of the religious leaders in the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t stay silent, or go around in circles, or say “whatever I did, it was done in the public eye.” Jesus answers Pilate in the language of power. My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.

If I had power that you, Pilate, understood, what makes you think I would be standing here in front of you, waiting to be condemned?

It’s a good question. Over and over again, in all the Gospels, we hear that Jesus’ presence on earth signals something completely different than anyone that has come before him. And now, as we listen to this exchange with Pilate, we have a long history in mind of ineffective and unjust kingship, of conquest and re-conquest, of misery. And when yet the people of Israel encounter Jesus, instead of trying to understand, they insist on putting him in the same old box: here, finally, is the king with the power to deliver us from the hands of the conquering Romans. Or, here is a man who is challenging our position of power, and threatening the status quo. Get him out of the way, quick!

And in this answer, Jesus says, I don’t have that power that you’re trying to give me. My kingdom is not of this world. I don’t belong in this relationship that you’re setting up. I’m not putting might on display. I am not a conquerer. I am not a new king of the Jews—I am here to announce a new relationship with God.

But Pilate doesn’t give up. He seizes on that “my kingdom” and asks again: “So you are a king?

What kinds of things do we associate with a king? Divine right? Absolute power? Wealth? Military might? The way that we talk about kingship is soaked in power. A king embodies the law. A king is victorious in battle. A king can change the course of history. A king is the pride of a nation on display, consolidated into one person. A king is ego.

Is that the quality we associate with Jesus, the man who washed his disciples’ feet, the man who said “You are no longer slaves, I call you friends”? Is that the kind of relationship we’re called to as Christians?

In his response to Pilate, Jesus says “NO”: “You say that I am a king.” Pilate and the religious leaders call Jesus a king, because that’s the only way they can name the challenge that they see to their power, and put Jesus in his place. But here, Jesus tells Pilate that For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Not to put power on display, but to bear witness to God’s love. Jesus doesn’t need oppression, or adoring subjects to bring his kingdom to fulfillment—everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Jesus has come to make all things new, to proclaim a vision of God that sets us free from our selfishness and the prisons that we create for ourselves. If we truly belong to the truth, if we are listening to Jesus’ voice, how can we follow Jesus’ example in a way that displays that truth? In our lives, are we proclaiming the kingship of Jesus? Or the kingship that Jesus was upending?

And perhaps that’s the reason we hear this Gospel, and these readings, right before Advent. We have an example here, in front of us. We contemplate the power, and the glory, and the wonder, and the terrible awe of God on this feast day…and then watch as He quietly lays it aside to become a weak and vulnerable child, and later, to die on the cross. Not triumph, but humility. Not tribute, but sacrifice.

Not power, but love, visible.

Amen.

 

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Sermon: August 8, 2015

So, I’m training to be a baby theologian, and as part of that, I write sermons occasionally. I preached five times in the last year, and I’m posting the sermons here. Critiques welcome (as long as they’re constructive).

8 August 2015
1 Kings 19: 4-8

Elijah is in deep trouble.
His country is torn apart.
He is a prophet to a hard-hearted people.
He’s hiding from Israel’s rulers, Ahab and Jezebel—and not because he represents a cult they despise.
In what should have been his greatest triumph, Elijah just held a contest between the God of Israel and Baal to summon rain and relieve a punishing drought.
God brings rain, and in the aftermath of the storm, Elijah slaughters 450 priests of Baal.
Jezebel is furious, and she orders Elijah’s death.
So, Elijah’s on the lam, and looking to get as far as he can from the reach of the queen and her soldiers. He runs into the wilderness and stops under a broom tree.
Exhausted and dispirited, he cries “Lord, it is enough! Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

It is enough. Not “it is finished,” not “my work is done,” not “I have failed.”
Elijah can bear no more. Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.
Do not ask me to continue. Do not call me to something else. If I can’t do this task anymore, if I can’t bear it, the only thing left is to die.

What is God’s response?

An angel. An angel comes and shakes Elijah awake, and tells him to “get up, and eat.

Elijah looks around, and sees food and water. God hasn’t heard his prayer! He asked to die, and not only is he obviously not dead, he’s expected to feed himself! Who wants pancakes when they’re overwhelmed with grief? He eats and then he “lies down again”.

But when Elijah rolls over and hits the snooze button, the angel is even more insistent: “Get up, and eat, or else the journey will be too much for you.”

This time, Elijah does obey. He does get up, and he does eat, and he walks and walks and walks—forty days and forty nights towards Horeb, the place where the Israelites first encountered God and heard the law.

The prophets have always called the people of Israel to know and worship God. But the dream of Israelite kingship is shattered. Ahab and Jezebel are merely the latest in a long line of mostly unjust rulers, who either inflict horrifying crimes on the people of Israel and Judah or who encourage the worship of other gods. Jezebel, as a priestess of Asherah on the throne of Israel, is perhaps the most visible, but she’s not unique.
And yet even in the midst of civil war, famine, and injustice, the Israelites will not turn towards the God of Abraham.
Elijah’s contest with the priests of Baal is show of force, power made manifest, but it doesn’t bring the Israelites any closer to knowing the God of their fathers. And when in a moment of great despair and pain, Elijah asks to die because it’s the only way he can stop being a prophet, God’s response is, essentially: I will not take this burden away—in fact, I will ask even more of you.

What do we do when we’re given a command like that? What does this story tell us?

First, that we can’t face trouble alone. Elijah is a prophet and a wonder-worker. The whole point of his vocation is making God’s presence visible to the Israelites! But when he’s rejected and hunted by the same people he’s trying to call, he intentionally makes alone-ness. He sends his servant away, he goes a full day’s journey into the wilderness, he sits under a “solitary broom tree,” and finally, he asks to die.
God takes the alone-ness away, not by speaking directly to Elijah—that comes later—but by sending a messenger. It’s not an intimate moment between Elijah and God, it’s a re-orientation towards others. The love and care of our community recalls us to ourselves and reminds us that no matter how hard we try, we are totally inseparable from God’s love.

Second, that we won’t survive trouble without real help. I think it’s important that this story isn’t about God telling Elijah not to be afraid. Instead, while the story of God working a large ostentatious miracle is still fresh in our minds, we see God work the very smallest of miracles: water, and a cake “baked on hot stones.”
I think it’s especially helpful to bear this in mind as we meditate on today’s Gospel. God knows Elijah is exhausted and grief-stricken, and sends him food.
God knows we are exhausted and grief-stricken in our troubles, and sends us the Bread of Life.
I love this immensely practical nourishing God.

Third, that when we are in trouble we flee closer to God—even if we don’t realize it at the time. After Elijah has eaten, he doesn’t rush back and confront Jezebel and Ahab. Instead, he runs even further into the desert, towards the mountain where Israel has always encountered God. Instead of a day’s journey into the wilderness, he’s traveling 40 days. This is the man who asked to die, who will tell God that there is nothing that he can do for the Israelites.
But Mount Horeb is where Elijah finally meets God face-to-face. And it’s only after his encounter at Mount Horeb that Elijah returns to the Israelites, takes a disciple, and anoints another king.

Though we may feel we are being asked to continue on when we know we can’t, we move closer to God when we try anyway. Though we move deeper into darkness, we may still find God at the heart of it. And though we may feel cut off and utterly alone, we are anchored by the love of God, the people near us, and the Bread of Life we all share.

So. Let us get up, and eat, so that the journey isn’t too much for us.

 

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Weekly World War I Poems: January 3, 2016

Pozières and Passchendaele (Oscar Walters)

A hot sun hung in a brazen sky,
And the fields we trampled were brown and bare,
And our throats, you remember, were parched and dry
When you got your issue at Pozières

But earth and sky were a sodden mess.
And the mud was churned ‘neath a leaden hail;
And we lay in a muddle of filthiness
When I collected at Passchendaele.

Summer and Winter, the seasons pass.
Spring and Autumn, they come and go.
Skies of lead turn to skies of brass,
And where are the Diggers we used to know?

Faster and faster with each swift year
The Diggers go on their last lone trial,
Since you got your issue at Pozières,
And I collected at Passchendaele.

And it may be near, or it may be far,
And it may be a season of sun, or rain,
When we say farewell to the things that are,
With a hope that it has not been all in vain.

And it may be that everything will be clear
When we meet the Diggers beyond the veil.
And we’ll find the reason for Pozières
And we’ll know the purpose of Passchendaele.

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Weekly World War I Poems: December 13, 2015

“The Pity of It” (Laurence Binyon)
 
I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”
“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.
Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between folk kin tongued even as are we,
“Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”
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