Baptized and Set Free

       This week, on the calendar of saints in The Episcopal Church, we remembered St. Alban.  Alban is the first British Christian that we know by name.  While we do not know when Alban was born or even when we died, we know the story of how he died quite well.  It is believed that Alban was a Roman soldier stationed about 20 miles northeast of London.  A persecution of Christians broke out across the Roman Empire sometime during the early to mid-third century, making its way from the Continent to the British Islands.  One day, a Christian priest found himself at the door of a Roman Solider named Alban, desperate for safe lodging.  No one knows why Alban welcomed the priest into his house, but this priest made an impact on Alban.  After several days of watching the priest pray and give thanks, Alban was moved by his faith and became a Christian.

       Eventually, word that the priest was holed up at Alban’s home made its way to the prince in the area and a detachment of soldiers was sent to arrest him.  Quickly, Alban hid the priest, took the priest’s clothing, and presented himself instead.  Alban was taken before a judge who was standing at an altar making sacrifices to pagan gods.  The judge turned around and asked Alban, “What is your family and race?”  Alban replied, “How does my family concern you?  If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.”  “I demand to know your name,” insisted the judge, “Tell me at once.”  “My parents named me Alban,” he answered, “and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”

       The judge was enraged by Alban’s confident faith and, having figured out that he wasn’t the priest they had been looking for, sentenced him to the full torture and execution that the priest would have received.  He was scourged and, when he still wouldn’t renounce his faith, sent to be beheaded.  According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Alban was led to his death by several executioners.  They came to the river Ver, which was too fast flowing to cross on foot, and the bridge was clogged up and made impassable by a mob of townspeople.  Alban, wishing to “do his Christian duty” and be martyred, raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up, so that they could cross over on dry land.  The first executioner was so astonished by this miracle, that he threw down his sword and asked to be executed instead of or alongside Alban.  While the other executioners figured out what to do next, Alban went 500 paces up a gentle hill, covered in thousands of beautiful wildflowers, and awaited his fate.  He became thirsty and asked God to provide him a drink, which caused a spring to erupt from beneath his feet, and after he drank, he was beheaded alongside his first executioner.  In less than a week, Alban went from a pledged persecutor of the Christian faith to the first Christian martyr in Britain.  It is clear from Bede’s recounting of Alban’s story that he had fully been set free in Christ, and feared nothing, not even death, for the cause of Jesus Christ.

       I tell you this story, not because I think any one of us are going to be called to martyrdom anytime soon, but because I think it is the epitome of what Saint Paul was writing about in our lesson from Galatians this morning.  We who follow Jesus have been set free, not so that we could fall back into bondage to fear and sin and death, but so that we might use that freedom in Christ as an empowering force to work for the betterment of our world in the pursuit of loving our neighbor as ourselves.  This morning, we will welcome into that freedom little Zara Veletanlic through her baptism into Christ’s Body, the Church.  In so doing, on behalf of this congregation and the Church universal, I will pray that she experiences the fullness of her freedom in Jesus with an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage of Saint Alban to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

       It is important for us not just to pray this prayer on behalf of Zara, but to remember that this is a prayer for all baptized Christians.  While in sermons on baptismal Sundays, I often focus on the Baptismal Covenant as our calling to ministry, with this lesson from Galatians in our lectionary for today, with Alban on my mind, and with the growing sense of fear in our nation around gun violence, inequitable access to healthcare, and the threat of the loss of basic civil rights for some of our most vulnerable citizens, I’m convinced that this prayer for the courage of Alban is more important than ever.  In baptism, we have been set free in Christ Jesus to love our neighbors unconditionally, just as Christ loves us.  This means following the example of Blessed Alban in caring for the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, no matter the cost.  It means speaking out on behalf of those who are forced back into the yoke of slavery to fear because of who they have been made to be in the image of God.  It means, as Mother Becca reminds us in the blessing she so often uses, that we make no peace with oppression – in our community, our state, our nation, or in the wider world.

       How do you do that in a world so defined by fear and self-preservation?  Jump with me, if you will, to the end of the Galatians lesson for this morning.  After Zara is baptized with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I will anoint her with oil, and declare, on behalf of God, that she is sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  In so doing, we believe that Zara receives the Holy Spirit who will lead her as an advocate and guide for the rest of her days.  That same Holy Spirit, Paul tells us, is exemplified in the life every disciple by producing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Simply put, when we are living into the post-baptismal prayer, living into the freedom that comes from Christ, the fruit of the Spirit are present in our lives.  When those fruit are not, it is most likely that we have fallen back into the yoke of slavery to sin, fear, or corruption.  What fear has you in bondage, holding you back from loving your neighbor as yourself?  What is keeping you from embracing the courage of Saint Alban to follow Jesus no matter the cost?  In baptism, we have all been set free in Christ.  Be careful, dear friends, not to fall back into slavery to fear, but be led by the Spirit into hope, joy, and love.  Amen.

Strapping into the Trinity

Several years ago, Cassie and I joined her family on a vacation to Cocoa Beach, Florida.  At the time, her dad was considering buying and building an aerobatic biplane kit from a company that happened to be located twenty minutes south of our condo.  So, one morning Doug and I made the trip south to see the factory and take a tour.  It was a really cool couple of hours.  The owner of the factory took us around to learn all ABOUT the aircraft.  We saw the first ever prototype, and the CNC Machine that cut out the thousands upon thousands of struts, ribs, and connecting pieces that make up the kit.  We saw planes in various stages of construction and learned all ABOUT what made that aerobatic biplane special.  We learned ABOUT the engine that is made for a plane three or four times as heavy.  We learned ABOUT the wings, which unlike a regular plane wing that is curved only on the top to provide lift, is curved on both top and bottom so that the plane doesn’t care whether you are flying it right-side up or upside down.  I left that two-hour tour knowing a whole lot ABOUT this biplane.

The next day, we headed to the airport where their professional test pilot was going to give my father-in-law a test flight in their trainer.  I watched them from the ground, and after he was done, Doug told me all ABOUT the aileron rolls, barrel rolls, flips, and tricks they had done.  And then, something very unexpected happened, the pilot asked if I might like to go up.  I thought for about 2 milliseconds and said “yes.”  As he helped me put the five-point harness on, the test pilot said something to me that I will never forget, “if anything goes wrong, this is your ripcord, pull it.”  I quickly realized that it didn’t matter how much I knew ABOUT this particular aircraft because I was going to get to know it, intimately.

And boy howdy did I get to know that airplane.  We spun and flipped and spiraled so much that morning that it scrambled my equilibrium for a couple of years.

There is a tendency on Trinity Sunday to do a lot of talking ABOUT the doctrine and dogma of the Trinity.  Sermons ABOUT how the various points of doctrine were ironed out to make the Nicene Creed will be prevalent.  Various ways of thinking ABOUT our Triune God will be explored, and heresies will abound.  God will be described as water: ice, liquid, and steam; God as star: light, heat, and radiation; God as modes: creator, redeemer, sanctifier.  There is, without a doubt, a whole lot of talk going on this morning helping people know more ABOUT the Triune God that we, as Christians, profess to follow, and that is a good thing, but all the many ways we can concoct to talk ABOUT God will leave us feeling a little empty.  Quite frankly, we could talk ABOUT, write ABOUT, and read ABOUT God for the rest of our days and still not cover all that there is to cover.  More importantly, even if we could know everything there is to know ABOUT God, it still pales in comparison to knowing God.  And so, I believe that Trinity Sunday is celebrated each year, not to help us come to know and understand more ABOUT God, but instead, to call us into a deeper relationship with the Triune God who meets us and makes themself known to us, as Father, the one who creates, as Son, the one who redeems, and as Holy Spirit, the one who guides, protects, and sanctifies.  So, the question this morning is not, how much do you know ABOUT God, but simply do you know God?

I think this is what Jesus is getting at with his disciples in our Gospel lesson for this morning.  We’re back in the upper room on the night before Jesus died.  He has already had dinner with them – broken bread and shared the cup.  He has already washed their feet.  Judas has already left the room, and Jesus has already given them the new commandment, that they love one another.  At this point in Jesus’ long farewell to his disciples, he has told them everything ABOUT what is coming next, but, he says, there is more, and you can’t bear it yet.  At some point, it becomes impossible to continue to learn more ABOUT something, and you just have to experience it.  For the disciples, the next 72 hours are going to be a whirlwind of heartache, fear, confusion, and hope, and no matter how many times Jesus describes for them his death and resurrection, until they see it for themselves, or, for Thomas, until he touches Jesus’ wounds and puts his hand in his side, they just won’t be able to comprehend it.

Some two-thousand years later, we’re on the other side of the disciple’s conundrum.  They hadn’t experienced death and resurrection yet, so they couldn’t bear it.  We’re so far removed from Jesus’ time and place, that we can barely bear it ourselves, and so, we rely on the Holy Spirit, whom we met in great detail last week on the Day of Pentecost, to lead us into all truth.  It is through the guiding of the Spirit that we can experience the things about God which we simply cannot learn through sermons, Bible studies, and theology books.  It is through the Spirit of truth that we come to know the love of God, rather than ABOUT the love of God.  It is also through the Spirit of truth that we are able to share, not just ABOUT the love of God, but to help others experience the abundant love of God in a world that desperately needs it.

I spent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning with Bishop White and Canon Coultas as we toured the tornado’s path and met with community leaders.  I’ve talked with them dozens of times since December 11th, but until they were able to see it firsthand, they only knew ABOUT the devastation, now they have experienced it.  They were also able to experience in real-life terms, the amazing work being done by Habitat for Humanity, HOTEL INC, city leadership, the Long Term Recovery Group, and Christ Episcopal Church to help build hope on our community.  In those ten hours we spent together, they saw the love of God as it has been lived out over and over again in our community since the storm.  As they got ready to leave, they shared with me just how much they appreciate seeing God at work here, knowing that it is our faith in the Triune God of love that sustains us for this long and difficult work.

On Trinity Sunday, we are invited to strap into the aerobatic biplane that is the life of faith, to trust that the parachute will catch us should we need it, and to follow the Spirit out into the world to help others experience the love, grace, and mercy of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  May the Spirit of truth lead you into all truth, giving you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and to know, experience, and share the wonderful works of God.  Amen.

The Scandal of Particularity

       I graduated from seminary fifteen years ago last month, which is really hard to believe.  Some days, it feels like a month ago; others, it feels like fifty years.  The hard truth of being fifteen years out of seminary is that I don’t really remember much of what I learned.  Between two kids, two jobs, the BP oil spill, a two-year pandemic, and the December 11th tornadoes, I’m lucky to know my name most days.  Still, there are a few things that have remained stuck in the cobwebs of my mind.  One of them came floating back to the forefront of my thoughts this week as I prayed through the Acts lesson preparing to preach.  It is called the Scandal of Particularity.  This is the notion of the absurdity that God would choose to enter humanity as a particular person, in a particular place, at a particular time, among a particular culture.  That the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth as a Jewish male, in first century Palestine, born to working class parents from a backwater town is, in many ways, a scandalous idea as it puts so many limitations on the God of the universe that it is nearly impossible to believe.

       Yet, we do believe it.  We believe it because Jesus claimed it.  Even when pressed by Philip to just show us the Father, Jesus says, with all the confidence of God in flesh, that if you have seen him, this shaggy bearded, rough handed, occasionally grumpy, wandering rabbi, you have seen the Father.  That’s all well and good, but the further you get, in both space and time, from Jesus and his disciples, the harder it is to wrap your head around this very particular person actually being God incarnate.  That’s why, forty days after Jesus was resurrected from the dead, his disciples pressed him even further.  “Lord, now that you have been raised from the dead, now that you’ve made your resurrected body known to many who already believed in you, now that you’ve escaped time and space only to return to it again, is now the time when you will finally restore the kingdom to Israel and set everything right?”  The disciples want to know, definitively, when all this particularity is going to go universal.  When will the heavens open and God’s reign finally be known upon the whole earth?

       What happens next, however, is more of the same.  The heavens are opened, but instead of God coming down to earth to fix everything humanity had messed up, Jesus is lifted up and seated at God’s right hand.  Like it was on Good Friday, the disciples are once again left alone to figure out how what they learned from Jesus is going to change the world.  Jesus had told them to wait, that someone else was coming who would empower them to take the Good News and share it beyond the particularity of Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and, ultimately, the ends of the earth.  For ten days they waited, they gathered in prayer, and they wondered, “what next?”  In the meantime, the city of Jerusalem began to swell with tourists.  Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of the Jewish faithful came to celebrate the Pentecost Festival, an annual remembrance of the giving of the Law to Moses by the offering of the first fruits of the harvest to God at the Temple.

       The very ethnically Jewish city teemed with people from all kinds of different cultures.  Since the exile by the Assyrians in 733 BCE and exacerbated by the Babylonian exile in 597 and Roman occupation in 63 BCE, the Jewish diaspora had led to Hebrews living all over the known world.  They had intermarried, learned different languages, and settled into new cultures, even as they remained faithful to the Jewish traditions and festivals.  So it was that on the Pentecost, the fiftieth day after the Passover, faithful Jewish Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontins, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs were all in the holy city of Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and caused the Good News of God in Christ to move beyond its original, particular audience, to be heard by the whole world.

       The Spirit arrived with wind and flame, filling the house in which the disciples were holed up, and alighting on each of them, filling them to overflowing with the Holy Spirit: Advocate and Guide.   They began to speak, each in a language foreign to them, and tell the Good News.  What’s so awesome about this story is that even as the Church grew from 120 to thousands in a few hours, God’s affinity for the particularity of humanity never went away.  God didn’t make it such that everyone miraculously learned to understand Hebrew in order to join the Way of Jesus, but rather, God made the disciples each to speak the particular language of those gathered in the city to offer sacrifices.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles spoke across lines that have divided humanity forever: language, culture, ethnicity, race, gender, and politics, while never asking anyone to give up who they were as human beings to follow Jesus.

       That’s not to say that following Jesus won’t change us.  God loves us just the way we are, but God loves us too much to leave us that way.  Following Jesus will require sacrifices as we listen for the Spirit’s guiding, seek to love our neighbors, and grow in compassion.  Following Jesus will not cause us to give up who we are as human beings, however.  Straight or gay.  Trans or cis gender.  Black, white, Hispanic, Arab, or Asian.  UK, UofL, or meet and right Bama fan.  The particularities of who you are in the fullness of being made in the image of God is welcome into the Body of Christ on Pentecost Day.  What’s more, God doesn’t just welcome each of us into the fold but goes so far as to invite us in the particular language and idioms with which we are most comfortable.  The Body of Christ truly is open to all flesh.

       As we celebrate the Day of Pentecost and enter the long season to follow, I invite you to listen to what the Spirit is saying to you?  Amidst the particularities of your own life, where is the Spirit inviting you to change and grow?  Whom is the Spirit asking you to know and to love?  What is the new thing that God is up to in your life and in the life of this particular community of faith called Christ Episcopal Church?  Listen carefully and hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.  Amen.

The Good Shepherd

I’d like to begin this morning with a short meditation exercise.  It is not something I do very often, so I hope you’ll indulge me a little.

Find a comfortable posture.

Make sure your feet are firmly planted on the floor.

Close your eyes.

Become aware of your breath.

As you breathe in, feel your lungs expand.

As you breathe out, notice your chest easing down.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Now, bring to your mind’s eye, if you can, Jesus.

Allow him to stand before you.

Gaze upon his appearance.

There’s no need to say anything.

Just sit in the presence of Jesus.

Now, allow Jesus to leave.

On to his next encounter.

Grateful for the time you spent together.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Amen.

I wonder what Jesus looked like to you.  Was he a carpenter, complete with rough hands, and sawdust in his beard?  Was he on the lakeshore, cooking up a fish breakfast for his friends?  Was he standing in a natural amphitheater, offering a word of hope to the crowd?  If you pictured Jesus as a pink bear with hearts on his stomach, you are a child of the 80s and have conflated Jesus with love-a-lot bear from the Care Bears, and I think that’s probably ok. I think our primary image of Jesus says a lot about the kind of faith we have.  Jesus as a carpenter infers a very incarnational faith, one focused on the humanity of Jesus and what he came to teach us about how life in the Kingdom is to be lived.  Jesus the chef is the Jesus of compassion who cares deeply for his friends and shows us what it means to love our neighbors.  Jesus the teacher is probably a favorite among Mainline Christians, he is the one who came to earth to bring about change and to teach us how to be reunited with God.

The image of Jesus that has spoken to me of late is the same Jesus I preached about back in 2018, which is the image right up above me, Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Over the years and thanks to our lectionary cycle, it seems as though the image of God and/or Jesus as a loving shepherd seems to show up exactly when I need it.  Just a little over nine years ago, our nation was being held on the edge of our collective seats in the aftermath of the terror of the Boston Marathon bombing.  For four days, we eagerly awaited as law enforcement sought the suspects.  We watched the video of that backpack casually being set down time and time again.  We were all on edge.  I remember opening the same lessons we have for this week and being so very grateful for the Good Shepherd to arrive on my computer screen.  I needed Jesus to pick me up and carry me, for I knew I didn’t have the strength to find green pastures on my own.

My attention then, as now, was drawn especially to the 23rd Psalm.  Some of us prayed this psalm together just a couple of days ago as we stood with our friend Carroll and mourned as he buried his son, Hal.  Psalm 23 is closely associated with death, especially in the very familiar King James translation.  Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that it is actually a song of praise.  Listen to it with fresh ears from a different translation, the Contemporary English Version.

You, Lord, are my shepherd.
    I will never be in need.
You let me rest in fields
    of green grass.
You lead me to streams
of peaceful water,
and you refresh my life.

You are true to your name,
and you lead me
    along the right paths.
I may walk through valleys
as dark as death,
    but I won’t be afraid.
You are with me,
and your shepherd’s rod
    makes me feel safe.

You treat me to a feast,
    while my enemies watch.
You honor me as your guest,
and you fill my cup
    until it overflows.
Your kindness and love
will always be with me
    each day of my life,
and I will live forever
    in your house, Lord.

“You, Lord, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.”  Our God is a God of abundance.  God’s blessings are poured out upon us as both sunshine and rain.  The gifts of God include the very breath of life, the miracle of birth, the joy of relationship, and the hope of the resurrection.  God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who lays down their own life for all sheep.

“You let me rest in fields of green grass.  You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life.”  Here’s the crux of Jesus’ message in our Gospel lesson today.  As followers of the Good Shepherd, we hear his voice and follow him to eternal life, or what our Catechism calls, “enjoyment of God.”  Of course, we need not wait until the great by and by to enjoy eternal life.  The Psalmist, Jesus, and two-thousand years of Christian tradition are clear that eternal life happens when we allow God to refresh, restore, and renew our lives today.

“You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths.  I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid.  You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.”  There is, perhaps, no stronger a statement of faith in all of Scripture than this famous section of Psalm 23.  There is no inherent promise that evil will not befall us.  Accidents will happen.  Bad people will do bad things.  Illness knows no prejudice.  Thanks to a complicated tax code, death is the only true certainty in life.  However, amid all the challenges that life can bring, God is right there with us. Abiding. Comforting. Sympathizing. God is there. This is a helpful reminder today as the last two years have left us all somewhere in the dark valley.  God is there.  God is here.

“You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch.  You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows.  Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house.”  Psalm 23 ends with the Psalmist bringing us back to pondering the overwhelming abundance of God.  A feast has been laid out before us, and the invitation is open to all.  After more than a year without sharing the Eucharist, I know that I will never take the opportunity to join in God’s feast for granted. As we approach the altar and receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, it is helpful to offer thanks for the eternal promises of God’s goodness.

Psalm 23 is one of those amazing gifts that transcend time.  Like the Lord’s Prayer or the Golden Rule, we know it by heart because it is forever etched in our souls.  When times get tough, as they seem to so often, it is helpful to have things we can easily fall back on.  So today, I’m thankful for Good Shepherd Sunday, for the comfortable image of Jesus tenderly carrying a lamb, for the promise of the heavenly banquet, and the assurance of eternal life starting right now.  Surely, God’s goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.  Amen.

Believe like Mary

       One of the greatest gifts of serving a congregation with multiple clergy is that I don’t have to preach both of the big sermons every year.  Becca and I have the luxury of alternating Christmas and Easter, which gives us a couple of years between tackling the well-worn stories that we all know and love.  Still, every time my name does come up to preach one of the two biggies, I stress about it.  Big time.  I want to say something new, something brilliant, something that brings you all back next week.  Of course, it isn’t all about me, and after 2,000 years of sermons on the Incarnation and Resurrection, there isn’t much left that hasn’t already been said.  So it was, with great joy, that I read through my go-to sermon prep resources and found something I had never seen before.

       It was in a commentary published by Alicia Myers, Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Campbell University Divinity School.  Published in April of 2020, I had far too many things on my plate to read any commentaries that Easter, and so I’m two years late to this party.[1]  In her post over at Working Preacher, Professor Myers rehashes the various experiences of the empty tomb that Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved each had.

       Mary was the first to arrive.  Having violated the Sabbath laws by walking such a great distance before sunrise on Sunday morning, Mary found the stone rolled away and immediately assumed that someone had stolen the body of her friend and Rabbi.  John doesn’t say that she even took a second to look inside.  Instead, Mary did what any sensible human being would do, she took off running for help.  She went to find the two people who were closest to Jesus – Simon Peter and the aptly described, Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.  Breathless, she told them what she assumed to be true, “Someone has taken the Lord.”  Just as Mary had done, they started running.

       Some scholars believe that the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved was John simply because the Gospel that bears his name has him winning the race back to the tomb.  Whoever he is, upon reaching the tomb, he looked in and saw the burial clothes empty. Quickly,  the more impetuous Simon Peter flew through the opening in the rock and stood, shocked, by what he saw.  Crumpled up linens in one corner, the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ face nicely folded up in another, and not a sign of Jesus anywhere to be found.  The other Disciple finally entered, saw the same scene, and John says, “he believed.”

For as long as I’ve been hearing John’s Easter story, I have assumed this meant that in that moment, this Disciple suddenly remembered everything that Jesus had told them.  How, on at least three different occasions, Jesus had told them that he would die and rise again.  How, on that mountain where Jesus was transfigured, Elijah and Moses talked with him about the plan of salvation.  How Jesus had promised to go and prepare a place for them so that he might take them to his Father’s many mansions.  I have always thought that finally, in that empty tomb, everything made sense, and the disciple believed that Jesus was the Messiah, who died and rose again.

Here comes Professor Myers, who points out what actually happens next, a portion of the text that I apparently never hear.  John says, “he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  Then the disciples returned to their homes.”  *Mind Blown* They didn’t get it.  What the Disciple believed wasn’t that Jesus had risen from the dead.  No, he didn’t understand that yet.  Instead, he believed what Mary believed, that someone had stolen the body of Jesus, and totally unsure of what to do next, he just went home.  To sulk.  To mourn.  To worry.  To pray.

This response makes a ton of sense, of course.  Dead people don’t come back to life.  Dead people stay dead, and so, when they are famous, or infamous, as the case may be, and their body disappears, the first assumption probably isn’t, *snaps fingers* Resurrection.  The first thought is, logically, “Well, that stinks.  Somebody stole his body.  Let’s go home and figure out what to do next.”  For the first time ever, I finally see what is really happening in this story, and I’m flabbergasted.  Maybe you are too.

One person does stick around, however.  Mary is too shaken to just go home.  Stuck between grief and anger, Mary stands at the entrance of the tomb and does the other logical thing, she weeps.  As she wept, she took her first look inside the tomb and saw, not the crumpled up grave clothes, but two angels, who asked her why she’s crying.  “Someone took my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him,” she replies, still fully convinced that her dead Rabbi is still dead.  She turns around, sees a man she assumes to be the gardener, and answers his question in a similar fashion, “If you took him, please tell me where he is.”

It isn’t until she hears her name, “Mary,” that Mary Magdalene has the epiphany that I’ve always assumed that other Disciple had.  In an instant, she realizes the miracle that has happened.  Her friend, her Rabbi, her Lord has been raised from the dead.  Mary no longer believes that his body has been stolen.  She now believes that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.  Before she knows it, Mary is being commissioned as the Apostle to the Apostles, sent to proclaim the Good News for all the world, “I have seen the Lord.”

If it were left to Simon Peter and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, we might not be here this morning.  It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that they would have seen the empty tomb, believed that Jesus was gone, and headed back to Capernaum and a lifetime of fishing in the Sea of Galilee.  Something kept Mary at that tomb early Sunday morning.  Maybe she was paralyzed by grief, or maybe it was the Holy Spirit that kept her close so that she might see and come to believe.  Thanks to her, and generation upon generation of people like her, we are here this morning to share in the celebration that comes from believing in the unbelievable miracle that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Thanks to her, and generation upon generation of people like her, we have the privilege of taking our turn in building the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. May you be blessed with the faith of Mary Magdalene this Easter Day, and believe, deep in your bones, that love always wins, that hope conquers fear, and that joy comes in the morning.  Amen.  Alleluia.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord/commentary-on-john-201-18-11

The Busyness of Grief

       During my nearly fifteen years of ordained ministry, I’ve been honored to walk with dozens of families through the process of grieving the death of a loved one.  I’ve watched spouses, children, parents, grandchildren, and even grandparents ping pong their way through the stages of grief.  Some remain stuck somewhere along the journey.  Others, thankfully, have found acceptance and peace on the other side.  Everybody grieves differently, but there are a few hallmarks of grief.  As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first posited back in the late 1960s, we all experience, at some point and to varying degrees, denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.  Less commonly discussed, but true to my anecdotal experience of somewhere near 100 funerals, is busyness.

       The busyness of grief is real, and it is something the Church has been excelling at since the very beginning.  In our modern reality, a death activates all kinds of work.  There’s the clergy meeting with the family to offer pastoral care and to plan a service.  The organist and choir get to work practicing their music.  Administrative staff work on bulletins.  The Daughters of the King get busy with plans for visitation coffee and snacks.  The funeral committee works on the reception.  Friends and neighbors might start preparing meals.  Those closest to the deceased have the most work to do.  There are phone calls to make, documents to find, services to plan, travel, and any number of other details to iron out.

       The Passion narratives in all four Gospels show us that the busyness of grief is nothing new.  All four include details about rushing against the clock to retrieve the body of Jesus, secure a tomb, anoint his body, and lay him to rest.  Several also tell of the women who prepared more spices and oils to give Jesus a fuller, proper burial, after the Sabbath was over.  As is always the case in death, there was a flurry of activity in the minutes and hours that immediately followed.  In John’s Gospel, the version we hear each Good Friday, the spotlight is focused on two rather surprising characters, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus.  Two “secret” disciples arrive at the hour of death while the eleven Apostles are nowhere to be found.  Joseph whom we’ve never met before, is, apparently, known to Pilate and a very rich and influential man who was able to secure Jesus’ body before the sunset came and he would have to remain hanging on a cross through the Sabbath.  In other versions we learn that it was his tomb into which Jesus would be laid.  Nicodemus makes his third appearance in John’s Gospel.  We first saw him approach Jesus under the cover of darkness, and to him Jesus uttered those famous words, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that all who believe in him shall not perish but have ever lasting life.”  A brief cameo comes in chapter seven, when the religious authorities first try to arrest Jesus, but it is here where we get a fuller understanding of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who also believed in Jesus, brought with him one hundred pounds of oils and spices to anoint Jesus for a hasty burial.  It was their busyness that brings us to the end of the Good Friday story, where we are invited to catch our breath, to watch, and to wait.

The busyness of grief can be gift in those early days of loss.  Rather than meeting grief head-on, like a freight train, the distraction of work allows us to ease our way into grief.  For us, some two-thousand years later, reading the story from an ancient text, the end of the busyness and the beginning of grief seem to come quite quickly.  We don’t have time to bake cookies and make some tea.  No, the seeming finality of Jesus’ life and ministry hits us like a ton of bricks.  Except, of course, we know the rest of the story.  It would be easy to skip over the difficult emotions of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but I would encourage you not to get caught up in the busyness of the next few days, but rather to sit in the grief.  Try to understand the hopelessness of the disciples.  Try to feel the anxiety of Joseph and Nicodemus.  Try to appreciate the urgency of the women.  Try to feel the pain of Mary.

While we don’t re-crucify Jesus here today, we would do well to take some time to experience the grief of Good Friday.  The pain felt by human beings who were close to Jesus.  The forsakenness that Jesus knew too well.  Even the heartache that God felt at the death of love on the cross.  Anger, denial, bargaining, depression – they’re all there, if we look for them – and if we take the space to experience them over the next 36 hours, we can begin to know more fully what God really did for humanity, and for each of us, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It would be easy to skip past the grief, especially after two really hard years, but I pray that today, you’ll allow yourself some time to feel the pain of Christ’s death and to come to know that the very God of the Universe experienced that same pain.  In Good Friday, we come to understand that God knows hurt and heartache, even as God also knows the hope that sits just beyond the horizon.  Amen.

Palm Sunday Whiplash

       I have always struggled with Palm Sunday.  Theologically, liturgically, and practically, every year, Palm Sunday feels like whiplash to me.  The problem is right there at the top of your bulletin.  While we call it “Palm Sunday” colloquially, in truth today is “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” We might walk into it with an expectation of only hearing the shouts of joyful Hosannas, but the reality is that before it’s over, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is going to catch us all short.  One year, back in Alabama, Keith and I made the decision to avoid it all together.  We just didn’t read the Passion narrative, and instead invited everyone at Saint Paul’s to join us as we walked the whole week with Jesus.  Of course, that didn’t happen, and the vast majority of the congregation came to Easter services having not heard all that lead up to the miracle of the resurrection.  For a few years, we skipped the Passion Gospel in its normal spot, went through the whole service, and then returned to the spot where the Palm Sunday liturgy started to hear it at the very end.  I found that experience to be quite moving.  It gave enough space between the “Hosannas” and the “Crucify Hims” to not make my neck as sore, and, until two years ago, I would have told you it was my preferred pattern for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.

       After two years of disrupted Holy Weeks due to COVID, I am now fully committed to the Palm Sunday liturgy as it is printed in the Prayer Book.  I’ve come to realize that the whiplash is a necessary part of Holy Week.  It helps us in our own journey with Jesus to see that the same crowds that shouted “Hosanna” would, in no time at all, be crying out “Crucify him.”  Each of us has those same crowds within us, alternating between the “Hosannas” of living into the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus brought to earth and the “Crucify hims” of a life lived in fear, self-preservation, and sin.  The reason that The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday makes us so uncomfortable is because it is the story of our own lives – vacillating, sometimes minute by minute, between joyfully following Christ and selfishly following our own desires.  And so, at the entrance of the nave, in the moment of transition between joy and sorrow, we stop and pray, that this disjointed path we walk from a triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to trudging toward death on the cross on Good Friday might be for us the way of life and peace.  In that prayer, we confront those two very distinct parts within ourselves, seeking to follow Christ all the way to the cross, yet knowing that like Peter and the rest of the disciples, it is very likely we will stop short in fear, in discomfort, in hope of another way.

       For the first time in three years, we have the chance to walk the Way of the Cross together.  From waving palm branches this morning, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, foot washing, and the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, to somber prayers before the cross on Good Friday, to the Great Noise and the joyful proclamation of Easter at the Vigil, to brass, eggs, and alleluias on Easter morning, I hope that all of you will take the opportunity, in-person or online, to walk with us through the full range of emotions that this week will bring.  If the last two years have taught me anything, however, it’s that this just might not be possible, for any number of reasons.  If you can’t walk to and through the tomb with us this week, I hope that the whiplash of this morning will be enough for you to feel the emotional roller coaster that Holy Week invites us to experience.  I pray that as the week goes on, you’ll think back on the joyful “hosannas”, the frightful “crucify hims”, and the sorrowful last words of Jesus from the cross and see in them the very path of life, holding them in your hearts with joyful expectation of what is to come next Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection.

       Dear friends in Christ, this is The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday and the entrance into a most Holy Week.  I pray that you might find a way, anyway, to walk in the way of the cross this week, and that through the grace of God, it might be for you, nothing less than the way of life and peace.  Amen.

Spiritual Turkey Crap

       This week, my Facebook memories were full of pictures and reflections on life in the early days of COVID shutdown.  There were photos of Rick and Linda’s earliest live-stream setup right there in the crossing.  There was a post from outside Kroger, waiting with 25 others for it to open at 7am so we could buy toilet paper.  My favorite was the whiteboard in the Conference Room with a 90-day plan to reopen and blow the doors off with brass at Pentecost.  Oh, March 2020 Steve, how naïve you were.  This year, unlike last March when these memories rolled through, I found myself feeling a little bit nostalgic for how life slowed down, frustrated with how long it has taken us to get beyond COVID’s disruptions, and hopeful for what the future might hold.  That hope is built upon our ongoing work to bring this parish back to its active and full life.

       Of course, starting back from a standstill takes a while, and it requires us to use muscles that we haven’t used in a long time.  Like getting back into exercise, we are slowing building, being very careful not to hurt ourselves.  For example, the Alleluia banner that will beautifully adorn the nave on Easter Day, still isn’t fully colored in.  We haven’t been stressing about that because people are back in the building most days, and we can get some help from adults who like to color.  Monday night, I got a text from Karen Crabtree as EfM was wrapping up.  Marker had bled through the paper and onto the conference table that was just refinished last year.  I think most of us know Karen well enough to know that she was feeling a little anxious about the mess.   She had checked several times to be sure that the markers weren’t bleeding through, and yet, it happened.  My response, from the comfort of my own living room, was more joyful, “It means our church is alive.  I’ll take messy tables every day of the week,” I wrote back.  Karen, in her wisdom, quickly responded, “Life is messy.”

       Gosh if that isn’t true.  Life, in all its shapes and forms, is messy.  From birth to death and everything in between, life is messy, and while there are several different lessons we could draw from our Gospel lesson this morning, this week, my take is that Jesus knows all too well just how messy life can be.  The lesson begins with a classic question of theodicy.  Why do bad things happen?  More specifically, why do bad things happen to good people?  The Galileans whom Pilate had killed were offering their sacrifices to God.  How could God not have spared their lives?  The eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, why them?  In our context, I can’t help but think about the 475 families whose homes saw significant damage during the December tornado.  Were they somehow deserving of the heartache and headache while two blocks away, I had internet back the next morning?  Jesus won’t even entertain the question.  Focusing on what others did or didn’t do to deserve the hardships in their lives is futile, Jesus says.  His response is simply a call to repentance lest we too should die unprepared.  If life is as fragile as it seems given the stories of the Galileans killed by Pilate and the 18 crushed by the tower of Siloam, then we would do well to get to work producing the fruit of repentance: showing signs of a life committed to the Kingdom of God rather than self-preservation.

       In typical Jesus’ fashion, he makes his point by way of a parable about something in nature.  This time, it is a fig tree that after three years of growth, has yet to produce fruit.  The landowner, growing tired with a tree that is at least two harvests behind schedule, calls on the gardener to cut it down so that it no longer wastes the good soil in which it was planted.  The gardener, the one who has been tending to this particular tree for three years, knows its potential.  The gardener can see that it needs conditions that are just a little bit better than the other trees around it, and so they ask the landowner for a stay of execution.  Give it one more year.  I’ll dig around it, give it plenty of manure, and hopefully next season it will produce fruit.  The gardener put their money on dirt, manure, and sweat to bring about fullness of life – albeit messy, messy life – to that fig tree.

       I learned a lot about this kind of messy life back in 2008.  The grass in south Alabama is not like the beautiful, lush lawns we have up here.  Zoysia and Centipede might grow in the sandy soil, but they are rough, ugly, and hard to maintain.  So, when my parents moved down there, into a brand-new house with a freshly sodded lawn, my dad wanted to everything he could to maintain it.  He asked around at the Ace Hardware and learned that the best fertilizer he could use on the garbage grass in his yard was turkey manure.  Early in the growing season, so like February in south Alabama, dad spread a few bags of turkey poop on his lawn, watered it per the instructions, and waited for it to do its work.  What the helpful folks at Ace failed to mention was that no matter the season down there, the sun is really, really hot.  Do you know what turkey manure does when it is met by the really hot sun?  It stinks.  It stinks to high heaven.  It makes you want to sell your house and move a thousand miles away; it smells so bad.  While you didn’t want anything to do with that yard through most of the spring, it was as lush and as green as a builders’ grade centipede lawn could be.

Life is messy, and the things we use to bring about abundant life are even messier.  When Jesus uses this parable of a fig tree surrounded by manure, he is affirming the messiness of life and giving us permission to live into the mess.  Like our parish restarting after COVID shutdown, each of us have, in our own lives, gone through fits and starts in our discipleship.  Sometimes, fruit is being produced with ease, but often, our own spiritual lives need to be tended to with great care.  Sometimes, with just a little advice of the helpful folks at ACE, we can make these adjustments on our own.  At other times, like the fig tree, we need someone outside of ourselves to roll up their sleeves, offer their time and talent, and be unafraid to get dirty.

That second route is, I think, what congregations are here for.  We are here to support one another.  By we, I don’t just mean the clergy.  Nor do I mean just the staff.  Nor do I just mean those who are seen as leaders.  It is the job of all of us to support one another in the messiness of life; to pray for each other; and to encourage one another.  It’s messy, this caring for each other thing, but it is the gift of community.  Sometimes, marker will leak through.  Sometimes, the turkey manure might try to stink us out of relationship, but as good gardeners in God’s Kingdom, we are committed to sticking it out in the hopes of producing fruit that endures and becoming the beloved community that Jesus came to build.  Life is messy, but thankfully, we have help in each other to carry us through.  Amen.

Spiritual Eye Cream

       As you can probably tell by how I dress, how rarely I get my hair cut, and how often my beard gets unkempt, I’m not super keen on paying a lot of attention to my looks.  I would much rather be in a hat, hoodie, and a pair of jeans than anything else in all the world.  That said, I have subscribed to one secret beauty regimen during the dog days of COVIDtide that I feel like I need to confess to you.  As we are all well aware, this long pandemic has been extremely challenging on us all.  Personally, in my role as dad, occasional homeschooler, and rector, I’ve experienced my own fair share of stress, anxiety, and grief, and sleep hasn’t always been easy to come by. By the time the fall of 2020 rolled around, I woke up each morning looking like I had gone eight rounds with George Foreman.  I was, in the language of our Gospel lesson, weighed down with sleep, and my eyes showed it, when I found myself drawn to an ad for Eye Savior soothing eye treatment.  I already had a Lord and Savior but if something could resurrect the bags under my eyes it was worth a try.  Now, I use it every morning, and I feel like I can at least pretend that I slept well the night before.

       My Eye Savior routine came to mind on Thursday as what was supposed to be our annual diocesan clergy quiet day went from in-person to Zoom and, at least for me, was routinely interrupted by news stories coming out of Ukraine as Russian missiles, bombs, and tanks made their way into the country.  COVID-19, murder hornets (remember those), tornadoes, and now war in Europe, it’s no wonder we’re all exhausted.  It’s a miracle we’re not all zombies walking around in some permanent state between sleeping and awake, but we could all probably use a little Eye Savior at this point.

       For most of this week, I had been thinking I’d preach about the conversation that went on between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah this morning.  I had all kinds of deep thoughts about what Luke means by using the word exodus, which is translated as “departure” in the NSRV we heard this morning, but none of that seems to matter now.  Now, I’m way more interested in Peter, James, and John who, Luke tells us, were “weighed down with sleep.”  The Transfiguration story is told in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but only Luke includes this detail about the sleepy disciples.  The word that is translated as “weighed down,” is bareo.  It appears only once in each of the same three gospels.  In Luke, it is here at the Transfiguration.  In Matthew and Mark, it occurs on Maundy Thursday, as Jesus and his disciples go to the Garden of Gethsemane.  When Jesus went off to pray, the disciples’ eyes became heavy or weighed down.

       In all three instances, Jesus knows way more about what is going on than the disciples who are with him, and because of that, the disciples almost miss what’s happening due to sheer exhaustion.  I’ve never felt more like the disciples than I do right now.  I’m sure that God knows way more about what’s happening than I ever could, and I’m also afraid that my exhaustion will mean I’m going to miss something – possibly something really important.  What’s super interesting to me is that here in Luke’s Gospel, scholars can’t agree on whether the disciples actually fell asleep or not.  The verb is a passive participle in aorist tense, which people way smarter than me say can mean that they did or didn’t actually succumb to the heaviness of sleep.

       I’d like to imagine they did.  Here’s how I think the story goes, given my rudimentary understanding of Greek and the timeline of event.  Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus.  As is his wont, Jesus went off to pray by himself, and as was theirs, the disciples, exhausted from the hike, sat down to “rest their eyes.”  As Jesus prayed, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white, but the disciples didn’t notice, until suddenly, the three were jarred awake by the sound of voices.  Moses and Elijah had joined the now transfigured Jesus in his radiant glory, and they were discussing his exodus, which he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.  Peter, still not exactly sure of what was happening, exclaimed to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we were here to see this.  Let’s commemorate this miraculous event by building three booths.”  Before he could finish his disconnected thought, a cloud of darkness enveloped the whole group and the disciples trembled with fear, when a voice came from the cloud and said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”  Just as fast as it had arrived, the cloud was gone, and so too were Elijah and Moses.  Peter, James, and John were so awestruck by what they had experienced, they said nothing to anyone.

       Did you catch what happened?  If the disciples did fall asleep, or even if they were “resting their eyes” like I do every Sunday after church, they were brought back to awareness by something.  God wouldn’t let miss out on what was happening.  The whole universe made sure that they experienced the Transfiguration, overheard the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and were attuned to the voice from the cloud.  In my tired state, nervous that I’m going to miss something important, I take great solace in this.  For those who are paying attention to what God is doing in the world, God will make sure you’re awake when you need to be.  In fact, I think that might be what this whole season of Epiphany has been about.  God is going to show up in all kinds of ways, and God will make darn sure you’re awake to see it.

For some, God’s presence is most tangible in the quietness of centering prayer.  For others, God is in the wonder of a mountain stream.  Still others find God when they roll up their sleeves and get to work on a Habitat house or packing a hot lunch or laying down to try to sleep on a cot in the basement with Room in the Inn.  No matter where you experience God, God will make sure you are fully present.  Even if you fall asleep, God will make sure you get the full experience.  During our online retreat on Thursday, I heard an older priest say that the Desert Fathers used to teach that if you fell asleep while praying, it was a gift from God.  Maybe God offers some soothing eye cream for when you wake up in prayer as well.  We are all bone tired, and if you are weighed down with sleep and need to rest, that’s ok.  Take your time.  Get some sleep.  It isn’t very Lenten but maybe even pamper yourself just a little bit.  No matter what, rest secure, knowing that God will make sure you’re ready for whatever work there is to do, whatever epiphany there is to see, and whatever blessing there is to come. Amen.

A Sermon on and of Level Places

       Tradition tells us that the author of Luke’s Gospel was a physician from the Greek city of Antioch, situated in ancient Syria.  Given his obsession with level roads, however, I’m beginning to think that maybe he was a Dollar General executive who had his teeth rattled during his commute down I-65 every day.  This isn’t our first foray into level places with Luke.  Way back in Advent, we heard the story of John the Baptist coming onto the scene.  In it, Luke uses Isaiah’s prophecy of a great leveling for the Israelites living in exile in Babylon to describe what John came to do.  There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches, potholes, and deep ruts will be made smooth.  In Luke’s understanding of what God is all about, this leveling of the world makes it possible for all people, from all over the globe and every walk of life, to make their way to Jerusalem and the final victory of God.

       Fast forward a few months, in real time and in the Biblical narrative, and this morning, we hear another prophetic sermon on a similar theme coming from Jesus.  Often referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain”, I’d like to propose we retitle it “The Sermon on and of a Level Place.”  Either way, it is one of the longest recorded teaching discourses we have from Jesus, and the first chance he has to impart wisdom on the newly formed band of twelve disciples.  Having just spent the night in prayer atop a mountain, Jesus comes down to a level place, names the twelve, and immediately begins to teach them (and anyone who would listen) the basics of what the Kingdom of God will look like in reality.  The scene is a chaotic one.  There are people everywhere.  Jesus had spent the day before healing people, and the crowds that morning were swollen with people just hoping that some kind of power might fling off of him in their direction.  He doesn’t spend much time switching gears. His goal that morning was simply to lay the foundation for what he was hoping to inaugurate.

       I’ve mentioned in sermons before that Jesus, while a perfect Messiah, wasn’t a great church growth guru.  We see that again here, as the massive crowd pressed in on him, and he began to preach, saying, “Blessed are you who are poor.”  I can imagine several members of the crowd shifting uncomfortably on their feet.  “Blessed are you who are hungry… who weep… when people hate… exclude… revile… and defame you.”  I’m sure there were many in the crowd who knew hunger, poverty, anxiety, and exclusion, and I’m equally sure very few of them would consider themselves blessed.  He goes on, “Woe to you who are rich, full, and laughing now.  Woe to you when people speak well of you.”  There were certainly some in the crowd, even among the twelve he had just named as Apostles, who had experienced abundance and joy and were equally confused about what seemed like a curse coming their way.

       The opening lines of the Sermon on the Plain are, admittedly, pretty intense, but they are not without purpose, and they fit perfectly within the worldview of Luke’s Gospel and his affinity for level places.  We must be careful not spiritualize these words to assuage our guilt.  It would be easy to run over to the Matthew’s Gospel, climb up from the Level Place and into the more comfortable and familiar Sermon on the Mount, and rest as Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but that isn’t what he says to us this morning.  He simply says, “Blessed are the poor.”  It would be easy to look at the big picture and assume that Jesus just means that one day, after the resurrection, the poor will inherit the Kingdom of God, the hungry will be filled, and those who weep will find joy.  If only those who suffer are patient, they will get their reward, someday.  The Church has teamed up with the powers-that-be and used this passage to pacify the poor while it enriched itself on far too many occasions.  It would be even easier to look at the woes and rationalize our way out of categories like rich and full, so that we might catch an easy blessing and avoid an uncomfortable woe, but that doesn’t quite work either.

       Instead, we must take this Sermon on the Plain at face value, in the context of the themes of Luke’s gospel, and see that the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is envisioning here is the same one that God promised through Isaiah and John the Baptist.  It is the world as God intended it in creation, where there are no desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches, potholes, and deep ruts will be made smooth.  Here in his Sermon on a Level Place, Jesus anticipates a world made up only of Level Places.

       While I was on vacation last week, inside a beautiful, seaside resort surrounded by walls to keep the effects of generational poverty and Colonialism at bay, sitting by a pool that featured two water slides and a lazy river, waiting on our server, Kermit, who rode a bus an hour each way to serve drinks to relatively rich people from around the globe thirteen days out of every fourteen, to come back with my pina colada, I passed the time reading a book.  In an unintentionally ironic move, I was reading How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur, creator of shows like The Good Place, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  It’s a book on ethics, written by a comedy writer, and I highly recommend it.  Anyway, in his chapter on Aristotle, Schur translates eudaimonia, the Greek word that Aristotle used to describe the end goal of human existence, not as “happiness” as many modern English translators have, but as “flourishing.”

       Immediately, I was transported to several of the meetings we’ve had with our City Shapers cohort where we’ve discussed what it means for our entire community to flourish. What City Shapers, Aristotle, and, I believe, the blessings and woes in the sermon on the plain have in common is the understanding that flourishing, the telos, or end goal of all humanity, what Jesus would call “blessedness,” only happens in a world of balance: a level place wherein all thrive, and no one has too much, and no one has too little.  Luke’s Jesus invites us to work on filling in the gaps.  Jesus doesn’t go so far as to hand us a shovel but is clear that those of us who live in the luxury of the hills, dangerously close to woe territory, ought to get to work leveling out the playing field, working toward a more just society, and helping to smooth out the valleys that our neighbors live in every day.  In his Sermon on and of a Level Place, Jesus calls on all his would-be disciples, us included, to build a world in which all are thriving, all are well fed, and all find joy.  It is only in the level places that all can truly be blessed.  Amen.