Grace in the face of laughter – a Lent 2B homily

Last week was brutal, but I did write a few things.  Here is my homily from Wednesday using the Propers from Lent 2B.

Depending on traffic and left turn arrows, there are three or four different ways that I can go home from here.  One of the paths that I end up on most often takes me past a little church that always has something theologically provocative posted on the marquee.  Recently, they’ve been advertising some sort of revival event, but not long ago there was a phrase that caught my attention.  “Hope says, ‘God can.’ Faith says, ‘He will.’” I found this to be an interesting distinction.  It is certainly one I wouldn’t have made, and it always made me wonder, if faith, hope, and love remain, and if the greatest of these is love, then why aren’t they talking about that.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about faith this week, especially how hard it can be to have faith sometimes.  It seems to me that sometimes faith simply says, “I hope.”  I chose not to have the Romans 4 lesson read for us this afternoon.  It is one of Paul’s masterful run on paragraphs that would have left us more confused that when we started, but there is a kernel of truth in there that is worth our hearing.  He refers to the faith of Abraham, which we heard about in the Genesis lesson, and he writes, that Abraham “Hoping against hope… believed that he would become “the father of many nations.’”  Hoping against hope; that’s the kind of definition of faith I can get behind.  Even when it makes no sense, even when all seems lost, even in the pit of despair, faith says, “I hope.”

We often romanticize the story of Abraham.  God comes and tells Abraham that at 100 years old, he will be the father of many nations, Abraham believed him, and God’s chosen people were born.  That’s how the Lectionary tells the story, but if we were to read just one more verse, we’d hear this, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”  That doesn’t sound much like faith to me, and yet notice that in the midst of his laughter, laughing at the promise of God, Abraham called his wife Sarah, not Sarai.  He called her by the new name God had given her, Sarah, the Princess and Mother of Israel.

Sometimes faith is a small as a mustard seed, so small as to be almost imperceptible, but even the tiniest bit of faith is enough for God to move mountains.  I find the story of Abraham and Sarah to be a source of comfort in those moments when all hope seems lost, when the odds are stacked so high that a 100 year old man and a 90 year old woman having a child together seems plausible by comparison.  I think this story, romanticized as it has become, is one worth repeating, worth remembering, as a reminder that God lives up to his promises, even, and perhaps especially, when we find ourselves laughing in his face.  God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.  He brings back those who have gone astray, those who have lost their faith, and even those whose faith is laughable.  That’s what grace through faith is all about.  Even when our faith is lacking, God’s grace is there, holding fast to the promise of things hoped for.  Amen.

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Life, Soul, Self – a sermon

The audio of today’s sermon for Lent 2 is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Mark tells us that Jesus made this declaration not just to his disciples, but he made sure that the whole crowd was gathered ’round.  We’ve jumped our way through Mark’s Gospel since the Epiphany, so it is kind of hard to tell what’s been going on.  Let’s review.  We’ve heard how Jesus called his first disciples away from their fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee.  We’ve also heard how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and the whole city of Capernaum came to see what he was up to.  From there, Jesus went from town to town, preaching the good news, healing the sick, and casting out demons.  His fame spread and his followers grew until in chapter three, Mark says that “a great multitude followed him from all around.”[1]

Jesus’ ministry continued to flourish with only a small hiccup in his hometown of Nazareth.  By the time we get to chapter 6, the crowd following Jesus had grown to more than five thousand men, not counting women and children.  Some scholars suggest that there were upwards of twenty-thousand followers of Jesus at the height of his popularity, so when Jesus invites the crowd to gather ‘round, we’re talking lots and lots of people.  Clearly Jesus didn’t study marketing in Hebrew school as even the least business savvy person on earth would know that you don’t take advantage of huge popularity by making massive demands of your followers.  Take up your cross?  Lose your life?  This is not the stuff of church growth textbooks, and yet it is the very core of the Gospel message.

Remember way back to chapter one.  At the very outset of his ministry, Jesus made it clear what he was going to be about, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Following Jesus requires repentance and belief, which means, as Jesus says in our lesson for today, a complete change of life.  Jesus uses provocative language as he speaks to a crowd of thousands to let them know that following him isn’t going to lead them to fame, fortune, or cushy cabinet positions.  Peter didn’t get that, and he got called Satan.  Jesus wants everyone to know that following him means a complete identity change.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  As relatively comfortable, 21st century, American Christians, these words from Jesus can be hard to wrap our minds around.  Recent events by ISIS in Iraq and Syria have given us an idea of what extreme persecution and martyrdom look like, but here in the States, we are free to worship at any of our roughly three-hundred-fourteen-thousand churches.[2]  The biggest sacrifice the average Christian makes to follow Jesus in 21st century America is giving up one day of sleeping-in every two or three weeks.  Giving up our lives for the sake of the Gospel seems impossible and ridiculous all rolled up into one luke-warm cup of coffee-hour coffee.  So what are we to do?  How are we to be faithful disciples in a world where being a Christian is so dadgum easy?

Let’s take a deeper look at what Jesus is asking for in this morning’s Gospel.  He doesn’t want our lives, per se, but instead, he’s seeking after our selves, our souls and bodies.  “Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul four times in three verses.”  The NRSV translates the Greek word “psuche” as life throughout verses 35-37, but the underlying meaning is closer to soul or self.  “Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God.  If Jesus is who we Christians say he is… then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls.  After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place.”[3]

In its original context, Jesus’ language is intentionally provocative.  He wants people to realize just how difficult it will be to be his disciples as they head toward Jerusalem, but he isn’t suggesting that they all become martyrs for his cause, though some of them will.  Instead, he is inviting the crowd to think long and hard about who they are and whose they are.  He’s inviting them, and us, to repent and to change our primary identity away from me, myself, and I and toward the kingdom of God.  Jesus is inviting us to think no longer about our own selfish desires, but instead to put God and neighbor first.

My friend, Keith Voets, wrote an article for this month’s Anglican Digest[4] in which he told Delores Hart’s story of selflessness.  Delores was born in Chicago in 1938.  By age 11, she had moved with her family to the glitz and glamor of Beverly Hills.  At 19, she made her film debut in Loving You staring Elvis Presley.  That film, and more specifically, her giving Elvis his first on-screen kiss, catapulted Delores into stardom.  She starred in nine more films over the next five years, when in 1963 she stunned Hollywood, announcing that she would leave the movie star life to enter a Roman Catholic convent.  The Rev. Mother Delores Hart is now 76 years old and the Prioress at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.

As Father Voets writes, “Delores Hart gave up a life that many can only dream of: fame, fortune, and glamour. She seemed to have it all, and yet, realized she did not. Delores Hart, pulled by the Holy Spirit, decided to sacrifice it all so that she could serve God through a life of humility, poverty, prayer, and hospitality.”[5]  Like the call to martyrdom, Delores Hart’s call to become a Religious is a one that none of us will probably hear, but her example of giving up life and self for the Kingdom of God is one worth knowing.  Jesus calls us all to be faithful to him, no matter the cost.  He invites us to lay down the identity we’ve worked so hard to create for ourselves: intelligent, attractive, athletic, funny, gainfully employed, good parent, caring friend, charming party host, comfortably retired, you name it, Jesus invites us to hand over our carefully crafted identities to take on the only identity that really matters, beloved disciple and child of God.

The massive crowd that followed Jesus began to dwindle after this short speech.  He continued to predict his arrest, death, and resurrection.  He made more difficult demands, and he upset the religious and political powers that be.  Following Jesus became harder by the hour until one day, a Friday we call Good, when only a handful of women, his Mother, and one disciple followed him to the place of the skull where he was crucified as a traitor to Rome.  The good news for the disciples who ran scared, the crowd that lost interest, and we who struggle to give our lives over for the sake of the Gospel is that in laying down his life, Jesus opened the flood gates of God’s grace.  Each time we fail to follow him.  Each time we choose our life over the gospel.  Each time we try to fit God into our plans, we can receive forgiveness and enter again into the new life of grace that comes through Jesus who laid down his life for the sake of the gospel.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 3:7-8 (author’s paraphrase)

[2] http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#numcong

[3] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-2b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[4] “Lights! Camera! Action! A Life of Faith and Service” p. 29-31. Accessed on 2/26/15 http://www.scribd.com/doc/253532100/2015-01-SPRING

[5] Ibid., p. 29

Failing Lent

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Lent 2 is a challenging one.  Once a prayer for heretics and schismatics, that they might be delivered from their errors and return to the Church catholic, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer it takes on new life.  Marion Hatchett, in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, notes that “In its new context as a Sunday collect it refers to those who have abandoned the practice of Christian faith” (174).  In the 35 years since the 79 BCP was approved, I think this collect has taken on an even broader meaning.

According to a January 7th article in the Washington Post, somewhere between 25 and 30% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions have already failed at the one week mark.  Roughly 45% have quit by the 3 week mark.  Extrapolating that data to Lenten discipline, by the time Sunday rolls around, we will be 10 days into Lent, which means that nearly 1/3 of us will have already quit or failed our Lenten practice.  A night out calls for a glass of wine, I get it.  11″ of snow in north Alabama meant you didn’t run for a week, sure.  Morning Prayer out of the BCP is really hard to juggle for one person, and it just plain feels weird, I know.

Shocking as it may be to believe, Homer Simpson has been wrong before.  Failure at least means you tried, and that’s a good thing.  On Sunday, when we pray for all who have gone astray, maybe we’ll be praying for you.  Maybe it’ll be a chance to start again at deepening your relationship with God.  Maybe it’ll be a new invitation to a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  Maybe it’ll be a chance to experience the grace of God that forgives all our sins, all our failures, all our mess-ups.

Bring your goof-ups and your slip-ups and your failures with you to church this week.  I plan to.  That way, the Collect can be an invitation for all of us into God’s unending mercy.

Life, Soul, Self

There I was, sitting at my home office desk, minding my own business, reading my sermon notes for this week, when about halfway through Scott Hoezee’s post at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, I learned something brand new.  It hit me right between the eyes.  It was one of those things that changes the way you read scripture: one of those moments when you realize just how less than ideal English translations really are.

“But then comes one of the most famous things Jesus ever said [that he never actually said].  Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul, conveyed four times in three verses through the Greek word [psuche].”

The NRSV translates this word as life throughout verses 35-37, but the underlying meaning in Greek seems mean something closer to soul or self.

“Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God.  If Jesus is who we Christians say he is… then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls.  After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place.  Who would know better than Jesus how they work?”

Whether you choose to translate this word as life or soul or self (my preferred translation) the deeper meaning in Jesus’ words need to be highlighted.  He isn’t telling the crowd to martyr themselves beside him on the cross, though some of them will meet that fate, but rather to be aware of, as the well worn adage goes, “who they are and whose they are.”  Giving up life, soul, self, is about a change in identity that comes through repentance (to change one’s mind).  When we turn away from our own selfish desires and turn to God’s will for our selves, for our family, for our Church, for the world God created, we have, in effect, laid down our selves and picked up a new identity as a beloved disciple, a child of God.

Denying Self

Jesus called the crowd and his disciples and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

I’m about 99% certain that we have no idea what these words from Jesus really mean.  As 21st century, American Christians, we can’t even begin to imagine what it meant for someone to follow Jesus in 1st century Palestine.  This isn’t inherently bad, mind you, it is merely coming to terms with the fact that the circumstances of life in  America today are just so vastly different than they were 2,000 years ago in the Jordan River Valley.  The good people over at WorkingPreacher.org’s Sermon Brainwave did some digging into this point.  It is worth a listen.

They point out what many of us learned in seminary, but probably forgot, that the concept of the self has only developed into an individualistic idea over the last 400 years or so, and even then, only in the west.  Throughout most of the East and the Global South, selfhood is a communal concept.  In 21st century America, who I am as a person is the sum of me: my job, my family system, my living situation, my education, and my religious preferences.  I am Steve, a Low Church Episcopal Priest, a first-born to my parents, but a middle-child to my Father, and a married father of two who is 3/5th of the way done with a D.Min from the University of the South.  To deny myself and take up my cross in that context simply means to do that which I would not normally choose to do.  In the Ancient Near East, the self is defined by the sum of all the people with whom I am in relationship.  I am the son of Pat and John, brother of Ed, Mike, and Lisa, husband to Cassie, father of Eliza and Lainey, co-worker of Keith and Penny, Facebook friend of 1,270, and a priest to hundreds more.  To deny myself in that context is to brave the realistic possibility that you’ll be leaving behind family, friends, and job in order to take an entirely new identity as disciple of Jesus.

The only real opportunity cost for most American Christians is giving up the ability to sleep in [every-third] Sunday morning.  So how do we live into Jesus’ mandate to deny self and follow Jesus?  If denying self is, as I suggest, about a fundamental change in identity, then it would seem that following Jesus requires us to take on his characteristics.  This means doing the hard work of loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and the even harder work of loving your neighbor as yourself.  For example, loving the woman you cut you off in traffic this morning or loving the guy who didn’t wipe down the machine at the gym or loving that family member who always calls at the worst time to talk about nothing in particular or that coworker who smacks his gum in the cubicle next to you or the judge who struck down your state’s same-sex marriage ban or the judge who argues that his interpretation of God’s law trumps federal law, or… you get the idea.  Living in love is probably a good first step on the way to a fundamental change in identity from Steve to Disciple of Jesus: a first step that will probably take a lifetime plus to take.

Set your mind on divine things

My Transfiguration sermon was mostly spent telling the story of Peter’s confession of and rebuke by Jesus.  So it goes that two weeks later, we hear the story of that rebuke as we continue our Lenten journey through Mark’s Gospel.  The benefit of hearing it more than once, and especially of hearing it read from Mark the second time around, is that we have some familiarity with it already.  We’re ready, maybe, to hear Jesus call his right hand man, Satan.  Perhaps also, we’re more able to notice the scant few details that Mark offers in this story.

What I noticed this morning was exactly what Jesus rebukes Peter for.  Jesus fusses at Peter for setting his mind on human things, not divine things.  Or at least that is what the NRSV would have us believe.  I was struck by that word “divine” and went seeking to find out what it might have meant to Jesus, when I realized that it isn’t actually what he said.  In the Greek, and in pretty much every other major translation, Jesus actually says to Peter, “you’re not thinking about the things of God, but rather than things humanity.”  To convey it in a more popular idiom, “that’s not God’s will but yours.”

Peter gets rebuked because he refused to follow the will of God.  As I said in my sermon two week’s ago, choosing my will over the will of God is the very definition of sin.  That’s why Peter gets called Satan.  Satan sought his own will.  Peter sought his own will.  And often, I seek my own will as well.

To set our minds on God’s will requires that we set aside our own.  We must lay aside the devices and desires of our own hearts, repent, and seek after the devices and desires of God.  It isn’t easy.  Even Jesus’ right hand man, Simon Peter of Capernaum, failed from time to time.  Our invitation, especially in Lent, is to be intentional about laying down our own stuff to follow after God, or as the NRSV prefers to put it: to set our minds on divine things.