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[Sermon preached on Sunday, April 22, 2018 (Easter IV) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota] [You can listen to the audio of this sermon by checking out the latest episode of the Word Made FRESH Podcast].

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
1 John 3:16

A few years ago, I had finally worn down the Children’s Ministry Coordinator at my former parish enough to convince her to let me tell a Godly Play story. I had just completed the Godly Play training and fell in love with the way the Gospel stories were told, particularly because the focus wasn’t on getting the story “right,” so much as it was about inhabiting the story in a particular way. In Godly Play, the words of the Bible aren’t words the exist in some far-off realm. They are incredibly present, in front of us, within us.

The first Godly Play story she allowed me to tell was the Story of the Good Shepherd. As I told the story of a loving shepherd who leads each of his sheep out into the wide, green pasture, and calls them all by name, I made a point of emphasizing the part of the story that says “the sheep know his voice and they follow.” One child raised hand the way only young children can, straining to get my attention. “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Pick my, Father Marcus! Pick me!” I was able to ask him to wait until the end of the story, which made him sit really still, as if he was really afraid that if he moved too much the question would escape fly away.

At the end of the story, he raised his hand and said, “Father Marcus, what does God sound like?” I was startled by the question and asked him to repeat it to give myself time to answer it. Finally, I remember that the point of Godly Play wasn’t to answer questions, but to trust the listeners of the story to find the answers for themselves. Finally, I was able to respond with my own question. “What do you think God sounds like?”

“I think God sounds like a fire-breathing robot.”

“Why you think that?” I asked.

“Ionno,” he shrugged. “I just think God is cool.”

Dear friends, what does God sound like to you? When you pray, what voice do you desire to hear? In a context wherein people from both sides of the political aisle claim to speak for God, how do you distinguish between what is authentically the voice of God and what is the voice of a hired-hand in shepherd’s clothing?

When I was in the last semester of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. All of my friends felt really sure that they wanted to be teachers or go to graduate school to be lawyers or physicians. Some of them decided to start their own businesses. But I was clueless. The chaplain of my small alma mater had been watching me for a few years and suggested that I go to seminary after I graduated. I had no idea what seminary was or even why I would go, but I found myself saying “yes” anyway.

Years later, after I had found my way into the Episcopal Church, I found myself in a similar conversation with a friend of mine who was soon to be ordained as a priest. She told me that I should talk to my rector about ordination. I told her that she was crazy and that I was in no way, shape, or form called to be a priest and that even if I was, God might want to try again. Eventually, on my way to a magic store with my rector, we began talking about ordination, and I found myself saying “yes” anyway.

About 18 months ago, when I was discerning my new call as a priest, I was faced with a choice. I could stay where I was, I could go back south to a congregation that was a lot like my old one, or I could go to Minnesota where I could stretch some new leadership muscles. I’m not going to lie: going south was really tempting, but when faced with that choice, I found myself saying “yes” to the most unknown of the choices.

I can’t pretend to know what God’s voice sounds like to you, dear friends. All I know is that, at least for me, God’s voice is the voice that summons up the best in me. God’s voice calls me to do the harder, more challenging thing. God’s voice is the voice that believes in me even when I am overwhelmed, or anxious, or fearful, or sad.  God’s voice is the voice that finds a way to penetrate the din of toxicity that is all around to speak love, and mercy, and compassion, and peace into my life. God’s voice is the voice that fills me with joy and reminds me of home.

What does God’s voice sound like to you? When is the last time you heard it? I wonder when was the last time God called you by name? Where were you the first time you remember hearing God’s voice and without a doubt you know that it was God?

Maybe you have a story, a moment where God spoke to you. Maybe it was during a really hard moment in your life when you thought it was all over and you just couldn’t go on. Maybe it was during a really happy moment, when your heart was overflowing with thanksgiving and gratitude. Maybe it was in one of the quiet times, when nothing big was happening, good or bad, but your soul had quieted down long enough to hear it.

Maybe you don’t have a story. Maybe you’ve never heard God speaking to you. Maybe you’re still wandering in the wilderness, waiting for a word from God to help you know where to go.

Rowan Williams suggests that we are a people who expect to be spoken to by God. To follow in the way of Jesus is to expect God to speak to us. What a blessing! What a burden! We pray, we read and hear scripture, we sing, we speak to one another, all hoping that somewhere in all those words, God will find a way of speaking to us, personally, a tailormade message from on high.

Because every last one of us is wandering, trying out best to make it home, and just one word from God would help us to take the next step in faith.

Because, when you’re 8 years old, God is like a fire-breathing robot, and life is so filled with wonder. But, when you’re older, life is so much scarier, even if we don’t admit it, and the wonder that allowed us to see God so clearly disappears.

But that doesn’t mean God disappears. We just have to identify what our fire-breathing robot is now.

[Sermon preached on Sunday, April 8, 2018 (Easter II, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota] [You can listen to this sermon by checking out the latest episode of the Word Made FRESH Podcast]

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

John 20:25b

This past week, on April 4, our nation marked the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King dedicated his life and ministry to the expansion of civil and human rights for those in this country who found themselves on the underside of political and economic power, particularly those who were experiencing racism and poverty. He rooted all of this work squarely in the Gospel – in the creation of what he called the “Beloved Community.” I think many of us know about his life and ministry and we know how it ends, with an assassin’s bullet, but I wonder how many of us know about how it began, about how Dr. King began his ministry.

In his own words, Dr. King describes his call to ministry as “neither dramatic nor spectacular.”[1] Unlike many of his biblical counterparts, this 20th century prophet didn’t experience some great vision or divine encounter. Instead, his call “expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that [his] talent and [his] commitment could best be expressed in the ministry.”[2]  What I appreciate the most about his call story is how, even though Dr. King achieved incredible levels of notoriety and fame, his call story is so incredibly ordinary. It almost seems that he entered the vocation or ordained ministry almost reluctantly, relaxing into God’s will for his life even though he didn’t have all the steps figure out beforehand.

I don’t know anyone who would suggest that Dr. King wasn’t a man of faith. In fact, he exemplified an incredibly pragmatic faith, one that embraced doubt, uncertainty, and, at times, a-belief. His life shows us that faith is not certainty. In fact, certainty is the opposite of faith. Faith isn’t a clear understanding of the historic creeds and Christian theology. It isn’t knowing the difference between homousias and homoiousias. It isn’t just “right belief.” Faith, at its root, is a system of life. It is about “right action” – choosing to follow the higher way of love even as we stumble through the questions life brings to us. Faith goes beyond mere knowledge. It isn’t an intellectual enterprise alone. Faith is meant to infiltrate and influence every aspect of our lives. To choose to follow Christ is to choose to do as he does – to love and serve and advocate and support and care for those around us who stand in need of grace. It is to pattern our lives after his life. That is what it means to believe in Christ.

After the Resurrection, John’s Gospel suggests that Mary Magdalene was the first person who encountered the Risen Christ. In the words of the Rev. James Martin, Jesuit and Roman Catholic priest, “Between the time Mary Magdalene met the Risen Christ at Easter and when she announced his Resurrection to the disciples, [she] was the church on earth, for only to her had been revealed the Paschal Mystery.”[3]All she knew what the Christ was risen! She didn’t know how. I’m sure she even knew why. She just knew that Christ had risen and because he lived, a whole new world was possible. She responds to this new awareness by growing the church through sharing the Good News with the disciples. “I have seen the Lord!” she says to them.

But when we encounter the disciples in today’s Gospel, we find that most of the Church on earth is locked behind closed doors, paralyzed by their fear of Temple authorities. Sure, they’ve heard from Mary Magdalene that she had seen the Lord, but that news wasn’t enough to overcome their own fears. The news didn’t make sense. Dead people don’t rise from the dead. Like Mary Magdalene, the other disciples needed to see the Lord in order to believe in him. And so their fear or disbelief or the ongoing grief or a mixture of all three kept them locked away, paralyzed in fear, wrestling with what must have felt to them not be Good News, but fake news.

Except that Thomas wasn’t there when the Risen Christ first appeared to his scared and fearful disciples post-Resurrection and when the disciples attempt to expand the Church even further by drawing Thomas into fellowship with those who had seen and therefore believed in the Risen Christ, he responds by saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”[4] Thomas responds the same way Mary Magdalene and the other disciples respond. Seeing is believing and until they see it for themselves, they will not believe.

In a 2013 article in The Christian Century, the Rev. Steve Pankey, suggests that, despite the unfortunate label of “Doubting Thomas,” Thomas didn’t actually doubt. Instead, Thomas a-believed. Doubt and a-belief are two different things. Belief, for John’s Gospel was not an intellectual enterprise. It was a relationship. It might seem like a small difference between words, but according to Steve, Thomas believed in Jesus. He had a relationship with him. He walked with him, saw the miracles, heard his teaching, witnessed the crucifixion, but that relationship died when the Lord of Life died on that old rugged cross. “Thomas believed Jesus,” Steve writes. “He gave him his heart and his hope, and that belief couldn’t live beyond the grave. Unless, that is, Jesus lived beyond the grave, and that is so hard to fathom, that Thomas wanted proof before he handed his heart over to be burned again.”[5]

Thomas believed in Jesus. Thomas had a relationship with Jesus. Thomas loved Jesus. I’m sure it didn’t always make sense, but Thomas’ relationship with the Lord was enough to bring him back again and again. When Jesus appears to Thomas after the resurrection, he is reentering their relationship. Death couldn’t kill it because love is stronger than death.

Thomas is the patron saint of those of us who have tried this faith thing again and again and still find ourselves with more questions than answers. Thomas is an example of how a pragmatic person can fall in love with the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not because we are convinced or argued into it. It is not because someone manages to answer all our questions and craft a convincing argument about the existence of God. Pragmatic people come to faith because they have an experience that they cannot quite explain, they have questions they can’t figure out quite how to wrestle with, or, like Dr. King, they stumble into it because it seems right even if they don’t exactly know where the next steps lead. Those tiny openings created by questions, or experiences, or curiosity is all the space God needs to break open new worlds.

Worlds where the dead rise from the grave.

Worlds where relationships and love transcend the thin veneer of death.

Worlds where diverse, questioning, and skeptical people can come together and bear witness to a loving force larger than themselves alone.

Worlds where simple elements of bread and wine speak to elaborate and divine banquets of welcome and grace.

Worlds where even the most devastating circumstances still possess the possibility of hope and newness.

Because if, against all odds and all logic, the dead do come back to life, what else is possible?

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “My Call to the Ministry”

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Martin. Twitter (@JamesMartinSJ). Accessed 7 April 2018.

[4] John 20:25b

[5] Steve Pankey. “Doubting Thomas Didn’t Doubt” in The Christian Century (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2013-04/doubting-thomas-didnt-doubt). Accessed: 7 April 2018.

[Sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018 [Year B] at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]. [You can listen to this sermon by tuning into the latest episode of the Word Made FRESH Podcast].

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Tell that to Mother Nature because, apparently, she did not get the memo.

Although the ground outside is covered in a fresh layer of snow and ice, Christian faith says that life, unconquerable life, is still stirring beneath the ground, waiting to flood creation with warmth and energy and a different, less cold, type of beauty.

That’s the way the world was created – a beautiful act of love. At least as far as the book of “Genesis” is concerned, our Creator created the world in and for harmony, abundance, and peace. We were created in the womb of love for the sake of love alone.

But love, by its very nature, cannot be coercive. You cannot make someone love you. It cannot be demanded. It must be a choice. Therefore, from the very beginning, although we were created in and for harmony, abundance, and peace, disharmony, scarcity, and violence were always possibilities lurking in the background. The tendency to be drawn away from love and towards selfishness is what the Bible calls “sin.” Sin is not a list of things we do wrong. It is a network of brokenness that constantly seduces us away from our true home in love. To call ourselves “sinners” isn’t a statement about our individual morality. It’s a cry for help. It is an act of resistance against a system that silences us and traps us, against a system that is destroying us, against a system that denies our ability to journey home.

Aretha Franklin, the one and only Queen of Soul, sings of this home when she sings,

I have heard of a land on the fay away strand,
‘Tis a beautiful home of the soul
Built by Jesus on high, where we never shall die,
‘Tis a land where we never grow old.

The Christian journey is about finding our way back to that “home of the soul” by following the One who pioneered the way even through the gates of death – Jesus Christ. It is ultimately about recovering our true identities as incredibly beloved, passionately creative, deeply compassionate co-partners in God’s continual work of creation. Each of us was created to sing in harmony with everyone and everything, but we have been seduced into disharmony and, for the sake of our own wellbeing and that of Creation itself, we must find our way back home. Because until then, we are exiles, wanderers, sojourners, and pilgrims in search of provision and grace to sustain our journey as we continue our mysterious search for freedom.

Perhaps that’s why our faith speaks so much of bread and wine, water and fire. They aren’t meaningless symbols in a meaningless ritual. They mainstays of our wanderings. These are episodes of grace, food for the journey, and divine protection. In Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God lights our way home and provides food and water for us along the way. These simple elements are what my dear friend the Rev. Broderick Greer calls reminders “that God’s liberating power isn’t just something that happens in stories told long ago. No. God liberates, breaks chains, and sets folk free even today. Right now, in this moment.” Dear friends, despite what it might look like around us, God is still recreating this world. Things that were dead are being raised to new life. What was once cast down is being lifted. What was old is being made new. And all of this by the power of God who created us in love and for love and will go to the ends of Creation and back to bring us back to love.

When the two Marys and Sister Salome visit the tomb of our Lord that first Easter morning, they were going fully expecting that Jesus was still dead. They were bearing spices to anoint Jesus’ body as was the Jewish burial custom. They had fully resigned themselves to his death, and with good reason. After all, they were there when they crucified the Lord of Life. They witnessed the sheer brutality of it all. They saw the violence. They experienced the trauma. Maybe it was grief, or common sense, or doubt or a mixture of all three, but for them, the story was over. Jesus was dead and, despite having been immersed in the stories of God’s salvation, they couldn’t see any other possibility on the horizon.

That is, until the tomb they expected to see closed and filled with death is found opened and overflowing with life. Rather than receiving a message that confirmed their expectations, they encounter a man, an angel apparently, who tells them that God has just blown their minds. In that brief encounter with the angel, the Marys and Sister Salome are reminded that you can count on God for a lot, but you for sure can’t count God out.

Beloved siblings in Christ, like the two Marys and Sister Salome, it is easy to take one look at the world around us and see death, and for very good reason. Our planet seems to be teetering on the abyss of climate disaster largely because of our exploitation and misuse of the abundant riches of creation. International relations seem poised for nuclear war as leaders gamble our common future with 240 characters or less on social media. Relationships within and between diverse communities in this country seem fraught with division, distrust, and hatred. Our own lives are filled with endless examples of tragic news like death, job loss, and devastating diagnoses. Death and violence stalk us all around.

But through bread and wine, water and fire, God is reminding us over and over again that the Creation, this blessed Creation, is still unfolding. In bread we are reminded of a God who will nourish and sustain our souls with grace in the midst of a world experiencing a famine of compassion. In wine, we are reminded of a God who will lean into the worst of humanity in order to reveal the very best of the Divine Nature. In water, we are reminded of a God who invites us to be family, a community, connected not by uniformity, but by diversity and difference. In fire we are reminded of a God who will protect us even as God lights our way home. Bread and wine, water and fire are signs of encouragement, foretastes of glory divine, and strength from above to do what seems impossible.

I think Paul MacCartney had it right when, in 1968, he sang,

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

God is not dead, but alive. God’s word is not death, but life. God’s gospel is not a negation of life, but an invitation to wade more deeply into who we really are – a people with a faint memory of a homeland, “the beautiful home of the soul.” In a culture that seems to thrive on death, we need regular reminders to celebrate life, life that flows like an unstoppable river. We need bread and wine, fire and water. We need to be reminded that we are, or we can be, a people who are fed and filled, baptized and redeemed. We need to be reminded that what we see around us is giving way to our true home.

We need to be reminded that, even in the dead of night, we can take these broken wings and learn to fly to that home by beating our wings for peace, beating them for joy, beating them for love.

[Sermon Preached on Sunday, March 25, 20178 (Sunday of the Passion) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota] [You can listen to this sermon as well as some additional thoughts by checking our the latest episode of the Word Made FRESH Podcast].

Holy Week begins with protest.

I am not simply referring to the hundreds of thousands who took part in the March for Our Lives demonstrations that took place yesterday in Washington, D.C.; Saint Paul, Minneosta; and in many other places around the country and indeed around the globe.

I am speaking of a series of protests that took place in Jerusalem almost two millennia ago – protests that continue to reverberate around the world to this very day. They are protests that point to us and ask: in what ways are we resisting or participating in culture of sin and death? What are we standing for?

On the Sunday prior to the Passover, Jesus and his closest disciples enter the Holy City of Jerusalem as the crowd around them yells “Hosanna, blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” These were cries for salvation. Dear friends, these were freedom songs. This was the 1st Century version of “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round” and “We shall overcome.” They were welcoming the one they thought, they hoped, would overthrow the Roman Empire and restore the ancient Jewish kingdom to its former glory. They would quickly change their tune when Jesus revealed that his kingdom wasn’t one of earthly power, but one of eternal significance. Not only did Jesus protest and resist the rule of Rome, he resisted the powers that would seek to use violence to drive out a culture of violence. A prophet almost 2,000 years later would say something like, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Shortly after Jesus enters Jerusalem in protest, he encounters an unnamed woman who has a protest of her own. She enters the house of Simon the Leper of Bethany with an expensive jar of perfume to anoint Jesus. Our modern ears might find this story odd, but this was both an incredible act of intimacy and a brazen act of resistance. This woman had to have known about Jesus to invest so much in an act of worship. She comes into the room, one governed by strict religious and cultural expectations about the behavior of women, and asserts her humanity and her dignity in a room that might have questioned it. Without saying a single word, she challenges the patriarchy of her day and Jesus weaves her story into his from that day forward. You cannot tell the story of Jesus without telling the story of freedom.

A few days later, as Jesus and his disciples gathered for what would be their last meal, Jesus resist and protests a narrative of inadequacy, scarcity, and death by the simple act of taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing. This pattern calls to mind the abundance of God in the midst of scarcity and the insatiable life of God in the midst of a culture of death. As he shares this supper, this Last Supper, he tells his disciples that they will share this meal again, but next time it will take place in the fully realized Reign of God.

After going out to the Mount of Olives, Jesus enters the final phase of his protest. In the face of a culture of violence and death, Jesus resists giving into the temptation. He willingly hands himself over to police, to the Temple Authorities, to the Romans. He accepts the cross handed to him by the corrupted justice system. He accepts the abuse. He accepts the pain. Not because suffering itself is redemptive, but because by enduring it, he proves one-and-for-all that it is ultimately powerless. His final protest reveals that violence cannot overthrow a culture of violence – only peace and compassion can do that.

But his final protest was deeper than a temporal showdown with a corrupt government. Jesus didn’t come to overthrow Rome; he came to overthrowing sin and death. Jesus’ final showdown was with sin, a malformed and misshapen creation, and the power of death. Jesus entered the messiness of a shattered creation, one that had long ceased to operate the way God intended, and brought it back right by leaning into the brokenness itself to prove it to be broken. He puts sin on trial and proves that scarcity, violence, division, fear, and hatred aren’t sustainable. Love is. Love is all powerful. Love has already won the victory. Sin might look powerful and all consuming, but Jesus’ final protest proves that it is anything but. It only wears the drag of power. It is ultimately feckless.

Holy Week begins in protest and those of us who follow the Way of Jesus this week, indeed any way, are called to follow in the way of that resistor from Nazareth, that protesting rabbi from Galilee, the community-organizing Son of God. Each of us is called to resist a culture of violence, dehumanization, and selfishness. Each of us is called to affirm with our lips and our lives that Jesus Christ is Lord, because if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar can’t be.

Holy Week asks each of us a question: Are we resisting a culture of sin and death or are we participating in it? How is the Reign of God being made manifest in our lives?

Holy Week begins in protest.

And the gates of Hell tremble at the sound.

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[Sermon preached on Sunday, March 18, 2018 (Lent V, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis MN] [The audio of the sermon can be heard on the Word Made FRESH Podcast.]

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

John 12:24 (NRSV)

I ran into a crisis of faith a few years ago, and I am only just now coming to appreciate it because I have had some time to process it and sit with it. After finishing my first year of seminary I came to see that the incredibly deep questioning caused by a formal theological education is meant deconstruct our systems of faith in order to help us build it again. In some ways, it is a manufactured experience that many people have any way. We all face challenges that cause us to question what we have come to know about God. Twelve months of seminary was just enough time to watch the pieces of my fragile faith fall into a million pieces with little to no hope that I could ever pick up the pieces again.

I couldn’t bring myself to believe the things the church had taught me to believe. Keep in mind, I was raised in an Evangelically-flavored-black-Baptist tradition. The Bible was literal and there was no room for doubt and questioning. There was only surety. I tried to conjure up the surety my faith demanded of me, but the amount of energy it took to do that was not sustainable. Soon, the tiny fractures in my faith became wide, uncrossable chasms. It was hanging on by a thread, so it didn’t take much questioning for it to simply all fall apart.

This is how I walked into the Episcopal Church – a young man who attended church purely out of habit but for whom the fire of faith had long been diminished. The first time someone handed me a prayer book, I was glad that other people had found faithful words when my own were scattered and lost. I said prayers I didn’t quite understand, said a Creed I’m not sure I believed, and engaged in a ritual I didn’t get from an intellectual level.

But when I knelt down at the altar to receive the bread and wine, for the first time in a long time, the posture of my body matched the posture of my soul – waiting, willing, receptive, and hungry. That alignment released something in me, and for the first time I felt a sense of peace and fulfillment that I hadn’t felt for a long time. And one I have only felt a few times sense.

Dr. Renita Weems, a writer, Biblical scholar, and minister, writes extensively about what she calls “the long silence between intimacies, the interminable pause between words, the immeasurable seconds between pauses, the quiet between epiphanies, the hush after ecstasy, the listening for God.”[1] This is where we spend most of our lives. It’s why we can get so weirded out when people talk about their transformative religious experiences – because, at least for some of us, there a deep sense of shame that we don’t have them all the time, if at all.

But a never ending spiritual experience is simply not how faith works. Our work is traveling through those in-between times, growing, stumbling, blessing, and mumbling along the way. That is what it means to live a life of faith – not that we live in surety and certainty all the time, but that you commit to this journey whatever might come.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted by some Greek visitors who want to see him. It is obvious that his fame has spread, so naturally folks want to come to verify what all the fuss is about. Philip and Andrew go to Jesus and tell him that some visitors are looking for him and Jesus is all: “FINALLY! I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS!” The visiting Greeks have come looking for a sign and, for once, Jesus isn’t shy about giving them one, just not in the form they are thinking. Instead of some miracle, Jesus tells them that the sign that he is who he says he is is that after he dies, his movement will grow. He is the seed planted by God into the darkess of the human condition in order to renew and recreate the world.

Now, I am no botanist and I only fancy myself an amateur gardener at best, but I do know that seeds oftentimes bear no resemblance to what comes out of the ground. I also know that, no matter how much sun, water, fertilizer, and expertise one has, it’s all a matter of chance anyway. No farmer is ever assured of a harvest. The bank on hope.

When I think of how Jesus responds to the Greeks, I find it fascinating that God has chosen to respond to the world’s brokenness and pain with hope. God sends Jesus into the world in hopes that, by leaning into the system hard enough to break it, what arises from the shattered forms of the previous world is something altogether new and different. Hatred, division, and despair no longer have the same power because we live in a new world, a world shot-through with holiness and saturated with the spirit of Christ who has ascended into heaven that he might fill all things. All that is waiting is for us to awaken to that reality and to partner with God to build the world that echoes that truth.

This past week I had the amazing opportunity to attend the 2018 Evangelism Matters Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. It was an amazing opportunity to learn and share, connect with old colleagues and build new relationships, engage in challenging conversations, and to have some good beer. But I also got to hang out a bit with the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism and Reconciliation. I have long admired Canon Spellers for her creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, but during this trip she became sort of like a big sister to me. We sat down to have a rather difficult conversation about something that happened during the conference but wound up talking about vocation and priesthood and its challenges. We both came away admitting what we feel to be true: God doesn’t call people to ordained ministry because they are such good and holy people. Perhaps God calls us because we are so terrible at this thing called faith that we need vows and structure to hold us accountable. We need reminders to pray even when we don’t want to or think we have the time to, because the communities we serve need our prayers. We need promises and vows to bind us to the spiritual life because many of us are so fickle that we’d walk away otherwise. I believe the same is true for all of us. We need regular reminders to set aside time for God, not because every time is this moment of spiritual ecstasy, but because each time we pray, leave open the possibility for awakening. Each prayer is a hope for awakening, an opportunity to open ourselves to the possibility of deeper belief.

I have learned to see faith as an amazing exercise in hope. Each time I pray, I plant another seed into God’s fertile ground, believing that it will bear fruit. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. What matters is that I am practicing hope, a resource in short supply these days. And here’s the thing that I’ve learned, even in moments when my own hope is in short supply, I am still called to plant and to pray. Why? Because, that’s what the spiritual life is – the disciple of faith, hope, and love even we find our own storehouses running empty. We practice faith, hope, and love until we feel them and known them.

It is hard to convince people that this is the path to peace in a society that seems addicted to instant gratification. The slow-brewed fruits of faith aren’t grasped overnight, but over a lifetime of planting and hoping, planting and hoping, planting and hoping. Every now and then, a shoot peaks up through the dirt and we are reminded that beauty and grace are possible even in those in-between moments.

Because some of the seeds we plant today might wind up being the trees under which our children will play on day, but if we plant nothing, we can rest assured that nothing will grow.

[1] Renita Weems. Listening for God (New York: Touchstone, 1999), p. 25.

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[Sermon preached on Sunday, March 11, 2018 (Lent IV, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis MN] [The audio of the sermon can be heard on the Word Made FRESH Podcast.]

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

John 3:19 (NRSV)

Gospel lessons like the one we just heard are hard to hear.

It starts our weird – something about Moses holding up a snake in the wilderness, makes a turn towards greatness with this wonderful explanation of God’s love sending Jesus into the world to bring salvation and wholeness, and then takes this nosedive towards what feels like incredible judgement. “All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”[1] Ouch.

I grew up in a church that seemed to perfect this level of judgment. Christianity, faith in Jesus Christ, was less about imperfect people coming together to bear witness to something greater than themselves. Instead, my experience growing up showed me a type of Christianity that was about people walking around with the thin veneer of perfection worried more about cracks in their facades than touching the world with God’s grace.

Harlem Renaissance poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote a poem called “We wear the mask” which says,

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask![2]

This poem speaks of vulnerability and what it means to walk around the world with a mask, never feeling safe enough to allow others to see us as we are. Often, it is simply easier to hide behind our masks than to be free. This is the judgment, that God, compelled by love, sent God’s Son into the world to crack our masks and bring salvation. God didn’t run away from our brokenness. God entered it. God saw us for what we were, for what we are, and still decided to give God’s self to us. This is a very different idea of judgment than what I grew up hearing. This judgment is not about condemnation, it’s about freedom. It is about offering us a new, better, more joy and grace-filled way of life. That is the judgment: that God sees us just as we are; but, here is the grace: God loves us anyway.

It’s probably a good thing that God loves us anyway because being a human being is complicated. Let’s be honest, this is not for the faint of heart. Even if we wanted to, living in the Light of God all the time would be impossible. The human experience is one of light and dark. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes this, “To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”[3] In other words, dear friends in Christ, to deny our darkness is to “wear the mask that grins and lies.” It is from this mask, this false self, that Jesus Christ comes to set us free in order to introduce us to our true selves. And maybe it is our true selves that we are really afraid of.

A few years ago, while serving as an intern at a campus ministry, I was tasked with working with someone on a team project. I can’t remember exactly what the project was, but I do remember that I was excited to do it. The priest in charge of the campus ministry asked that I mentor my partner so that, after my internship was finished, the work we began could continue. I began with this in mind, but as the work on the project developed, I began to shut my partner out more and more believing that if you want something done well, you just do it yourself. By the end of the project, I had completely shut him out. I was unaware of it until the priest called me into her office and told me that not only had I shut him out, but he was incredibly hurt.

At first, I resisted the idea, but the more I thought about it, the more my own heart began to break. I had to sit with the reality that I unintentionally hurt someone because I didn’t trust them. I had been selfish and it caused someone great pain.

This is the self I was afraid to encounter, the truth of myself I would have rather not seen. But by seeing it, I was able to offer it to God. I didn’t to be selfish. I wanted to be compassionate and I prayed to God to give me a heart of compassion.

The Light of our Lord Jesus Christ comes to set us free. It comes to destroy our masks so that who we are is laid bare before our own eyes because, let’s be clear, God already sees us and knows us and loves us anyway. God doesn’t need help seeing, knowing, and loving. We do. We are the ones who need help seeing our faults and foibles, our flaws and imperfections. We are the ones who need help knowing our own inner darkness, our own proclivity to hurt others, or to lash out against those who love us. We are the ones who need help loving ourselves and one another in all the messiness that makes us human.

We can do that by honestly naming the reality that we need help, that our lives are not as perfect as we present them to be, that we struggle.

And, we can trust that God loves us anyway, that God’s light isn’t a laser threatening to burn us into oblivion, but a light that invites us to see our unglamorous parts so that, with God’s help, we can take them off, one by one, to reveal our true selves.

Our beloved selves.

Our holy selves.

Our good selves.

It’s all there, beneath the “mask that grins and lies.” It’s there, beneath our insecurities and fears, beneath the false selves we project out to others to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of love, beneath the layers of past mistakes and regrets, broken relationships and unhealed wounds.

Your beloved, holy, and good self is there, but you have to take a step into the light in order to see it.

[1] John 3:20

[2] Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44203/we-wear-the-mask (accessed: 10 March 2018)

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), p. 24.

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[Sermon preached on Sunday, March 4, 2018]

Shalom, friends. I just came back from the temple, have you been yet? Yes, you went earlier? Did anything interesting happen? Same old-same old, just like every other time you’ve been to the temple? Hmm, nothing much to report or say, huh.

Well, have I got a story for you. You guys aren’t going to believe what happened.

You know how it usually goes, the temple is a bustling place; nobody can just show up and make their sacrifice, we have to do everything to get ready. Animals acceptable for sacrifice are for sale and there are so many out-of-towners exchanging their money to pay the temple tax. As usual, it was noisy, smelly, chaos of people and animals. But at the same time, there is a routine of to going to the temple, an expectation of what needs to happen and what will happen throughout the process. What? No, no, no, that’s not the wild thing that happened. Have patience, I’m getting to it!

I was waiting to purchase my doves, when this guy comes in. He was really angry and totally tore the place up. He chased the animals out with a whip, and toppled the tables. Money went flying everywhere. He was yelling and there was such confusion! He was saying stuff about his Father’s house and then he really started talking crazy. He told people who were questioning him that if we destroyed the temple, he will “raise it up” in three days. Yeah, you heard me, the temple that has been under construction for longer than most of us have been alive, he says he can build it in three days!

I feel so out of sorts now. Who do you think he could have been? Was he possessed or do you think he was a zealot from another region? Or was he something more? I just don’t know, there was something about him. He had some followers with him and when he spoke, there seemed to be an unexplained power and authority, not like someone who was out of his mind. Yeah, I just wonder who he was. Oh, look, the neighbors, I’m going to go see if they know about it all yet. Shalom!

How often do we hear stories that describe a normal event, but are suddenly exciting because of the unexpected? I was driving to work yesterday when… BAM, something exciting happened. Now the drive that you could not have cared less about a moment ago is suddenly important. My experience suddenly matters because it left the path of the routine and took an unexpected twist. Have you ever had an experience like the one I described in the temple? One where you thought you knew what to expect but something happened, good, bad, or indifferent, that made you stop in your tracks? Whatever it was, it made you want to share the experience and it made other people want to hear about it.

Jesus entered the temple in protest, but protesting was not the point. He caused money to go flying through the air, but money was not the point either. He was telling his disciples, and everyone else, that this place and what he says there is important! It is worth remembering!

Maybe that was the point. Life can, and let’s be honest, often does, get routine. We can start going through the motions, not really aware of what is really going on around us. The details of the sites and smells and how we feel during the experience does not make an imprint on our memories; it is the same as always, so why try to remember it. When something startles us out of that numb routine, it can leave us feeling confused, flustered, angry, frustrated, at a loss. Or maybe it can leave us motivated and inspired, energized to more fully engage with the world.

As we walk through life, we choose how to engage with the world. We all get to choose what is important to us and what does not warrant more than a passing glance. When Jesus entered the temple that day, he startled people out of the sleepwalking that many were undoubtedly doing each time they went to offer a sacrifice to Yahweh. He caused them to talk about their experience at the temple with their neighbors and friends. What was, for many, a droll task that was just another part of observing the law, became important again.

One day a woman was walking down the street, as she did every day. She listened to her favorite podcast and passed everyone by, often the same people, day after day. One day, as she walked, she noticed that there was a man who was quite obviously experiencing homelessness seated on the grass. She paused, and as she did, he looked up and smiled at her. Not a creepy, leering smile, but a genuine, warm smile. Startled, she hesitatingly smiled back. When she got to work, she told her coworkers about the heartwarming smile. The next day, she saw him again. She began to wonder how long she had been passing this man by without even noticing him. One day, she stopped and greeted the man. She told him that while at first he had startled her, his smile had made her day and she asked him his name. It isn’t important what his name was; the importance is that the woman asked for it, giving him an identity as a person, not just a man without a house, and from the connection made when someone experienced the unexpected. That man became important and worth second thought.

I don’t know how the story continued, but I like to think that they formed a sort of friendship, or at least a mutual respect and caring that made each matter in the other’s eyes. I also like to think that the woman stayed startled, and continued to notice what went on in the world around her. And all this, because a woman was startled out of her cozy bubble of normalcy.

Jesus was a disruptor. Not just in our Gospel reading, but throughout his ministry; his actions and stories were an awakening, sometimes a rude one, to many he encountered. He did the unexpected. When we encounter a disruption that catches us off guard, we can see it as a frustration, or we can see the face of Jesus somewhere in the disruption, whether it be in the disruptor, a victim, a survivor, a bystander, a responder, or someone after the fact. Good disruption or bad, Jesus is there. If we choose to reach out and be a positive disruptor in someone else’s life, we can be the hands and feet of Jesus, allowing others to see him in us. Maybe the disruption will lead to a connection that the person has been longing for. Maybe the work that God has been doing in the person’s life will be enhanced when you help that person to be startled into seeing what is important in their life.

Jesus made an imprint on the memories of his disciples, and probably others who were in the temple that day. This was the start of his public ministry and he wanted people to remember it. Right before this reading is the story of turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, but he did that quietly, at a private function. Nobody really cared who he was and he was not looking to ruffle feathers, at least not that day. If he had not made this day at the temple something to remember, his disciples might not have recalled the words he spoke so clearly.

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In their grief followed by amazement, those are the words the disciples remembered after the resurrection. They remembered the day when Jesus went berserk in the temple and recalled that they had thought he was talking about the physical temple they had been in. Now they realized that he had told them what was going to happen to him. Between the time of our Gospel reading and the time of the resurrection, Jesus did a lot of teaching in a lot of places and among thousands of people. Why should the disciples remember what he had said on that particular day in the temple? Whether he intended it or it was just a happy outcome, Jesus had effectively startled his disciples into remembering his words, which brought them comfort and confidence in his identity and in his resurrection.

Theologian and poet Thomas Merton is quoted in Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours, as having written, “The stars rejoice at their setting, and in the rising of the Sun. The heavenly lights rejoice in the going forth of one [person] to make a new world in the morning, because  [they have] come out of the confused primordial dark night into consciousness” (192).

As we progress through Lent, go into the world conscious of each new day. Allow yourself to be startled awake to the moments of our lives, even if it comes from an unexpected source or direction, as the disciples and those in the temple were. I also challenge you to be the startling factor that will bring about positive change in the world. Allow the world around you into your life in new and unexpected ways. Reach out to the person who might feel invisible. Share your story, which might empower someone else to share theirs, owning it in the process. Today, awake from the darkness of routine embracing every moment.

Creator of all, we thank you for the opportunities you offer us to be the change we wish to see in the world. We ask that you startle us into wakefulness, that you may empower us to more fully embrace your will and your ways in our lives and in the world around us. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

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[Sermon preached on Sunday, February 25, 2018 (Lent II, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minneapolis]

But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Mark 8:33 (NRSV)

I wasn’t always this tall and good looking.

There was a time when I was quite a bit shorter and, let’s just say, my appearance was a “work in progress.” And not to excuse it, but as kids are figuring out their way in the world and learning the what it means to live in community, sometimes those interactions involve hurting others. Bullying is not a new phenomenon and while we might suggest that “sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never me,” the truth is quite different. Words do hurt. Immensely. Particularly when you are in a vulnerable space of self-discovery.

One time, while playing with my friends on the playground, an older, more popular boy came up to me and began making fun of my shoes. I grew up in a house where my parents worked incredibly hard to provide for three young boys. This often meant that our clothes weren’t brand name and were more often than not hand-me-downs. It never occurred to me that this was not the norm until kids began making fun of me for it. I remember feeling small, worthless, and sad.

When my cousins and I went back to my grandmother’s house where we were visiting for the summer, she looked at me and could tell that something had happened.

“What’s wrong, Marcus?” she asked as she stirred a pot of spaghetti.

“Nothing,” I mumbled.

“I don’t think you’re telling me the truth,” she said.

“The kids were telling me that I am poor,” I responded.

She paused for a moment as if trying to process both incredible rage and profound sadness. “Don’t let them worry you, Marcus. Kids make fun of other kids because they are sad themselves. You don’t do the same back to them. You treat ‘em right anyhow. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

On February 1, 1960, Jibreel Khazan, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, four African American students from North Carolina A&T State University entered Woolworth’s Department Store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina and asked to be served. They were refused and asked to leave, but they remained in their seats. This simple refusal to move ignited student activism in the Civil Rights Movement. Later that same year, Ella Baker, who was at that point serving as the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized the first meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization created to foster and organize the younger activists of the Civil Rights Movement.

While the word “nonviolent” was in the name of the organization, and while they were an offshoot of Dr. Martin Luther King’s SCLC, these young people, who became known as the “shock troops of the movement,” slowly began to slip away from nonviolence as a way of life. Soon it became merely a political strategy and eventually it became completely optional. On the other side of the conversation was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a perpetual proponent of nonviolence as the way forward. To quote him, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”

Dr. King’s story is often reduced to his “I Have a Dream” speech and his refusal to engage injustice with violence. It can be easy to see this as passive when in fact it was incredibly active. In a book excerpt called “An Experiment in Love” where Dr. King lays out the six pillars of nonviolence, he says,

While the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and his emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.[1]

The nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement were intentionally disorienting for a system used to fighting strength with greater strength. It was guerrilla warfare. It threw water on circuits of racism and bigotry. For Dr. King, the fight against injustice had to be waged using a different set of tools. For him, those tools were rooted in his awareness of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, a life steeped in peace, reconciliation, and love.

The refusal to respond to bullying, pain, and violence with the same is counterintuitive. It is ridiculous. It is utterly foolish. And that’s the whole point.

When Jesus tells his disciples to “take up their cross and follow,” he is prescribing an altogether different way of living in the world. In a society too often characterized by violence, greed, selfishness, and a denial of our common human dignity, Jesus was instructing his followers to the opposite – to live a life of peace, sustainability, compassion, and community. He went so far as to say that this way is to be followed even unto death, to which Peter objected.

“Jesus, what are you talking about!? What are you suggesting will not work? It leaves us vulnerable!”

“Get behind me Satan,” Jesus responds. “You are thinking about earthly things. I am calling you higher to the things of heaven. I am calling you to the Way of the Cross.”

The Way of the Cross is the path to which Jesus invites each of his followers, each one of us. The Way of the Cross is a way of peace, and compassion, and justice tempered with mercy, and selflessness, and community strengthened by diversity. In the face of a world the privileges the opposite, the Way of the Cross seems like a silly, impractical experiment. The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”[2]

The message of the cross is absurd.

It is crazy.

And it will save the world from itself.

The world around us seems determined to build bigger walls of division, distribute more and more weapons, and push of us into a more diminished view of ourselves. They promise safety and security, but all we get is more bloodshed and violence. If we desire a different outcome, we must do something different. In fact, we must upset all the rules by doing what Jesus actually commands us to do: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[3] This is not a license to be mistreated. God doesn’t need doormats any more than God needs weapons.

It does mean that the rules of engagement are different for those of us who profess to have been changed by our encounter with our Risen Lord – the Prince of Peace. It means that even our most bitter enemy is worthy of human dignity.

Taking up the cross of our counter-cultural engagement with the world is an act of resistance. It says, loud and clear, that power is not where we think it is. It proves the existence of an alternate possible reality – one where love, and justice, and peace reign supreme. A place where, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “we shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks and we study war and violence no more.”[4]

We are a people of peace and, in a world filled with violence, living peaceably is what it means to take up our cross.

We are a people of compassion and, in a world filled with hatred, showing compassion is what it means to take up our cross.

We are a people of welcome and, in a world filled with walls and barriers, welcoming is what it means to take up our cross.

We are a people of faith and hope and, in a world of cynicism and pessimism, keeping the faith and hoping against hope is what it means to take up our cross.

It is ridiculous.

It is foolish.

It the power of God and it will save the world.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[3] Matthew 5:44.

[4] Isaiah 2:4

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[Sermon preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018 (Last Epiphany, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

Mark 9:5,6 (NRSV)

Years ago, before deciding to pursue Holy Orders, go to seminary, and become a priest, I was a member of my parish choir in Atlanta, Georgia. I am not sure if this is still true, but the choir of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta was one of the largest volunteer choirs in the entirety of the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t uncommon for the choir to feature fifty voices on a typical Sunday morning and anything from eighty to one hundred for major liturgies. Excellent choral music was a big deal for that parish and nowhere was this more evident than Holy Week. By the time I had come along, the choir had developed the tradition of offering John Rutter’s Requiem on Good Friday with the third movement, “Pie Jesu,” being sung as the offertory anthem.

If you have ever heard this piece you’ll know that it seems Rutter intended for this piece to leave the listener transfixed and in the heights of “wonder, love, and praise.” As the soloist, a fabulous soprano named Ann Marie McPhail, effortlessly progressed up the final note progression singing “sempeternam dona eis requiem” it literally felt like being borne on angelic wings and by the time she landed on her final high A, it felt as though eternity itself had stopped to take a breathless pause.

The silence that followed that moment was supposed to further accentuate the high drama to which everything about that liturgy was pointing. But instead, just as the room fell into a deep, vivid, rhythmic silence, a man sitting about halfway from the front of the chancel, stood up and, clapping loudly, began shouting, “BRAVO! BRAVO! ENCORE! ENCORE!”

Thoughtful, reflective, prayerful silence is hard for us, particularly in a broader cultural context that privileges constant activity as an outward and visible sign of our production-based value. This lack of spaciousness in our world, and in our own hearts, is made worse if you are someone like me – a fixer – someone hardwired to react and do, often without taking the proper time to think and plan. I often find myself reacting from fear, or discomfort, or, like that man all those years ago, from a place of being emotionally overwhelmed. It takes so much intentionally and purpose to simply hold silence and to allow it to do the speaking. But it strikes me that in a culture such as ours, a culture wherein we are regularly accosted by so much noise and half-baked responses to very real problems, we might do well to recover prayerful silence, inner stillness, what the Benedictines call “stability,” and what my grandmother was referring to when she would tell us “hush, child. God is speaking.”

Once, while facilitating an antiracism training in the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, a black woman stood up to share her story of experiencing racism in her own church, a church that took the basketball goals down from their outdoor basketball court because they had begun receiving complaints from the neighbors that basketball attracted “those people” (“those people” being that black children who lived a few blocks over) despite the fact that one of “those people” was the woman’s own son. As these stories often do, they lead from one thing to another, weaving a narrative of very real pain and hurt felt in very real people’s lives. What I instruct the group to do is to listen with space and to listen for moments of connection, because it is from those spaces of overlapping experience, those moments of “joining,” that change can occur.

Eventually another woman, a white woman, stood up to share her story of growing up in poverty, but attending high school in a wealthy school district. She talked about all the ways in which she was ostracized because of her hand-me-down clothes, or because she couldn’t afford to go on all the school trips, or because her parents were too busy working to take her to and from all the extracurricular activities. At one point in her story, she began to weep. The first woman stood up and shouted, “that has nothing to do with what I said! You have no idea what it is like to be black! You’re distracting from the conversation!”

Now, I don’t often directly intervene in conversations in this setting. I trust people to be able to find their way through difficulty towards a constructive conclusion. But this time I felt compelled.

“Can you try something on?” I asked.

“Yes,” she huffed.

“Okay. Try this on,” I said. “She may not know what it is like to be a black woman, but what if she does know what it is like to be ostracized and outcast for something beyond her control? What if she wasn’t trying to distract but instead was trying to join you?

She didn’t say anything. She only stared silently with that look that suggested she was thinking very deeply.

“This is what I want you to try on,” I continued. “When you share, share with openness, and trust that others are graciously listening for points of connection. When you are listening, it is your turn to graciously listen, not for how your stories are different, but first, for how they are the same.”

When Peter interrupts the Transfiguration of our Lord with his request borne of anxiety, he was responding from a place of narrowness. All through the Gospels, Peter is portrayed as one who is hasty and brash, and that personality is on full display here. In a moment when the full glory of Christ is revealed to Peter, James, and John; in a moment when the only proper response was awestruck silence, Peter responds with “Wow! This is a amazing! We must do something about this! We have to do something with this!”

Except that grace can neither be constructed nor contained.

Except that grace can neither be constructed nor contained. We can till the ground around it, water it, ensure it has plenty of sunshine and fertilizer, but ultimately grace is a gift. Grace is God’s job not ours. We are simply to receive its gifts with openness, with stillness, with spaciousness. Like gracious hosts, we are to keep space in our hearts ready, knowing that at any time, grace could visit us and change our lives forever.

This week we transition from the Season after the Epiphany into the Season of Lent – the 40 days of prayer and discipleship that lead us to the tragedy of the crucifixion and the mystery of the resurrection. It can be incredibly easy to do one of two things during lent. First, it is easy to treat Lent as if it, and the spiritual life it invites us into don’t matter. We do this by keeping a normal routine leaving little or no time for prayer and study. Second, it is easy to treat Lent like a fad diet, a forty-day spiritual bootcamp, or a spiritual cleanse. Rather than relaxing into the alternate rhythm of Lent, we construct a framework of anxiety and worry.

This year, I want to offer you a third way – one of thoughtful, reflective, prayerful silence. My prayer for each of us is that we would allow Lent to be for us a moment of spiritual spaciousness, a moment of prayerful reflection, a time to reconnect to the things that truly sustain and nourish our souls. I hope we will allow Lent to be the moment when we decide to take our lives back from endless lists of things to do, from voices that cause us to be afraid, from things that distract us from our goals. I pray that Lent will be a time when we hear of God’s profound love for us again and again and again.

I pray that Lent will teach us something about the stillness and space required to behold God’s grace and glory.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to thy God to order and provide;
in ev’ry change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
thro’ thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

[Sermon preached on Sunday, February 4, 2018 (Epiphany 5, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]

He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

Mark 1:31 (NRSV)

There is a story told of a man who lived in a house in a flood plain. One day, as thick, black storm clouds loomed on the horizon, a flood warning flashed along the bottom of his television screen. The warning advised all residents whose homes were in the flood plain to evacuate as soon as possible. “No need to hurry off,” he said. “If worse comes to worse, God will save me.”

The thick clouds soon blanketed the sky, horizon to horizon. Then the rain began to fall. After a morning of constant rain, the flood waters spilled over the banks of the river and quickly surrounded the man’s house. A police officer in a canoe came down the flooded street to evacuate residents who had stayed behind. “Thanks for stopping by, but I don’t need your help,” the man said. “God will save me.”

The rain kept falling until it had covered the man’s house. Just before the waters covered the second floor, he managed to scurry through an opened window and climb on his roof. After a long while, a National Guard helicopter flew overhead. When the pilot spotted the man on his roof, he circled back, dropped a rope ladder, and urged the man to get in. The man refused, but the piloted insisted, stating that the storm was forecasted to intensify and there would be no more rescue operations that evening. “No thank you,” said the man. “I appreciate you coming by, but God will save me.”

A few hours later, the flood waters covered the man’s house and he, unable to swim, drowned. When he got to the Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, the man said, “I would like to file a complaint.” Saint Peter, unaccustomed to such audacious language, was taken aback.

“To which divine department might I direct your complaint?”

“To God,” the man said.

“What is your complaint?” asked Saint Peter.

“Why didn’t God save me?!” the man asked indignantly. “I had faith that God would save me and God did not. What’s up with that?”

Peter looked at the man curiously. “Let me find your file.” Saint Peter pulled a stack of papers from under his golden desk. His eyes squinted as the poured over the parchment. “Ah. I see here that you died from drowning. My condolences. I also see that you received a news bulletin, and both the police officer and National Guard reservist tried to save you. The question is not ‘why didn’t God save you.’ God tried! There times! What exactly were you waiting for?”

Dear friends in Christ, I have a question for you: what are you waiting for? What holds you back from the work to which God has called you? What prevents you for taking the next steps to deepen your faith and your relationship to God? God tries to reach us over and over again. What are you waiting for?

Our Gospel this morning recalls the story of a Jesus on-the-move. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is in perpetual motion, moving from scene to scene, place to place, town to town, encounter to encounter on his way toward his ultimate destiny in Jerusalem. When we find him today, he is leaving the synagogue and entering the home of two of his disciples – Simon Peter and Andrew. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is ill, so when Jesus comes into the house, he heals her. Her response to her recovery was διακόνει, related to same word from which we derive the word “deacon,” a word that literally means “service.” Curiously, right after this exchange, Jesus goes away to pray and then convinces his disciples to leave Capernaum, even with so much ministry left undone, because they have work to do elsewhere. And thus he goes, on his mission, to his destiny, leaving the people of Capernaum behind.

When I initially read this story, I was troubled by it. I had a challenging time coming to grips with a Jesus who looks human need in the face and turns the other way. Compassion is not a zero-sum game, there is enough to go around, enough to meet every human need, and Jesus turns away, leaving the sick and hurting people of Capernaum with no help.

Or so I thought.

As I wrestled with this story, I kept coming back to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, a woman who stepped out of sickness and into a ministry of service. She never comes back into the text and we aren’t told what happens to her. For the writer of Mark’s Gospel, her purpose in the story is complete; however, for our purposes this morning, I want to draw out her story.

Hadassah had come to live with her daughter Miriam, son-in-law Simon Peter, and his brother Andrew after the death of her own husband. Ancient Roman and Jewish societies mandated the women’s lives be mediated through those of men. With the death of her husband and no living brothers or sons, Simon Peter was the closest male relative she had.

A few days prior, Simon Peter and Andrew had come home from fishing all abuzz about some teacher and “messiah” they had met on the shore who asked them to follow him. Hadassah had heard that there was a new teacher in town the last time she visited the well. She had never met him, but heard he was a student of John the Baptist and something had special happened when he was baptized. Could this be him? Could it really be him?

Following this new teacher, this messiah, this Christ, is as simple as this – being reached by Christ to reach out our hands in loving service to those around us.

Whatever the answer, Hadassah didn’t have time for such fantasies. She had to maintain the household for her family.

One morning, as she and her daughter rose to prepare lunch for Simon Peter and Andrew to eat when the went out fishing, she noticed herself feeling ill. By midmorning her fever left her bedridden. By the time Simon Peter and Andrew returned that evening, she was gravely ill.

The next morning, during the Sabbath, Hadassah was awakened by commotion across the street in the Synagogue. There was a lot of yelling, and she faintly heard the words “Holy One of God” before falling back into a fevered sleep. The next time she awoke, she was greeted by a man standing at the foot of her bed. His eyes were beautifully deep, brown pools that seemed to hold eternity in them. She couldn’t turn away. Something about this man called to her. When he extended his hand to her, she reached back, almost without a second thought. As he pulled her up, she could feel her fever breaking and by the time she was fully upright, she felt well, except that everything had changed. In that brief moment she learned a simple truth: following this new teacher, this messiah, this Christ, is as simple as this – being reached by Christ to reach out our hands in loving service to those around us.

When Jesus and his disciples left that next morning, Hadassah went to the town square. She saw all the men and women who had come from all over the region hoping to be healed. Her heart broke for them because she knew that Jesus wasn’t there anymore. But instead of allowing herself to be overwhelmed by the need, she knelt to the first woman she saw. Her name was Leah and she had a debilitating pain in her leg. Hadassah, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the woman whose life was changed when Jesus reach out to her, didn’t wait for someone else. She reached out to those in need.

What are you waiting for?

Your invitation to follow Christ is here when we gather around this sacred table. When we reach forth our hands to receive the bread and wine, it is Christ himself who invites us to do so. We reach back because Christ has first reached out to us. Each one of us is called to follow the blessed example of Hadassah, to reach out in compassion to those in need around us. Each of us is called to this servant ministry. Each of us is called to follow in the footsteps of the one who said, “the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve.”[1]

A hallmark of the Reign of God is that the Risen Lord leaves willing servants in his compassionate wake. The world is changed when Jesus passes by, not simply because of what he does, but because of what of what he leaves us to do. We are his hands, his eyes, his feet, his heart. Through us, Christ’s loving and saving presence is born anew into a world of darkness and anxiety.

Dear friends in Christ, there is really only one question: Jesus is reaching out to us today. What are you waiting for?

[1] Mark 10:35 (NRSV)

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