Cassie and I have joked over the years that we might have two of the most guilt-inducing careers in the world.  When people find out that Cass is a dental hygienist, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to the dentist as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain they should probably floss more often, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how she could possibly look inside people’s disgusting mouths all day, every day.  When they find out that I’m an Episcopal priest, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to church as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain how they find God in the woods and are spiritual but not religious, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how I could possibly listen to people’s problems all day, every day or how I could possibly think of something to preach about.  On occasion, we’ve dreamed of other answers we might give to avoid the awkwardness of it all.  In Alabama, we lived very close to a large outlet mall, and we determined that the career least likely to produce any follow up questions was assistant manager at the Corningware store.

       It isn’t that I am ashamed of what I do.  I love being a priest.  I love walking with people through moments of joy.  I even find that walking with folks through sorrow to be peaceful.  I might be ashamed of the guilt my vocation produces in so many people.  I am certainly ashamed of what others have done to make being a Christian be associated with hate or being a priest be associated with abuse, but I’m certainly not ashamed to be a follower of Jesus who is called to ordained ministry.  Still, this morning’s Gospel lesson brings me to pause.  “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  “Those who are ashamed of me and my words… of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.”  These words make the collar feel tighter than the COVID-19 quarantine pounds ever could.

       How often does my desire to be liked belie my faith in Jesus Christ?  How often do I act as if I’m ashamed of the teachings of Jesus in the way I treat my neighbor?  How often do I lament the cross of Christ, preferring instead to put myself first?  When Jesus first spoke these words to Peter and the other disciples, it was in relation to what was to come.  There had been plenty of revolutionary faith leaders, so-called Messiahs, who had come and gone before him.  Their trajectory looked a whole like Jesus’s. They appeared in the wilderness with a new kind of teaching.  They amassed a crowd of followers.  Their popularity threatened the powers-that-be, and in some cases, their violent actions incited riots, and so they were killed, often left to die hanging on a cross for their transgressions.  Peter and the rest couldn’t stand the thought of Jesus ending up in the same predicament.  He had to be different.  They had staked their own lives on that.

       Jesus is crystal clear, however, that he too will die at the hands of the powers-that-be.  It is, quite simply, what the system of power and privilege does to those who challenge it.  Jesus goes beyond that, however, to let them know that unlike all those so-called Messiahs who had come before him, his story wouldn’t end there, and that after three days, he will rise again.  The cross that he will bear is the cross of the powerful, but it is in Christ’s willingness to become weak, that he will bring about the redemption of the world.  That, Jesus tells his disciples, is nothing to be ashamed of.

       Two thousand years later, the scandal of a crucified Messiah is long gone.  We don’t have the memory of a dozen other messianic figures hung on crosses, never to be heard from again.  Yet, as 21st century American Christians, our shame still rests in the apparent weakness of it all.  For nearly all of Christian history, the Rabbi who died on a cross because he took on the cause of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed has been used by those in power to subjugate the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  The shame of the Church has been the shame of Peter, that God might deign to become weak in order to save the weak.  The Church has long preferred a strong Messiah who will align us with power, affirm our wealth, and cast down those who would challenge the status quo.

       Jesus is crystal clear, however, that if the Church is ashamed of his teaching, then he will be ashamed us.  The cross of Christ that we are asked to carry is to put God first and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It is to care for the marginalized, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to seek fullness of life for all of God’s creation.  Whether you are a dental hygienist, the assistant manager at a Corningware outlet, or an Episcopal Priest, the call to discipleship is all the same, deny yourself, take up the cross of love, and follow in the Way of Jesus.  It may never lead to power and privilege, in fact, it probably shouldn’t, but it will lead to the Kingdom of God, a better existence here on earth, and, ultimately, thanks to the Cross of Christ, the joy of eternal life.  Amen.

But who do you say that I am?

In the list of Top 5 Moments in the ministry of Jesus, the average disciple would probably list, in some order:

  • The Baptism of Jesus
  • The Temptation
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Resurrection

Number six would probably have some significant variation.  Some might include the Ascension.  Others would think of Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, feeding the 5,000, or walking on water, but I would like to submit that event #5a in the ministry of Jesus should be Caesarea Philippi, which we will hear this Sunday.

Before the Transfiguration solidified for Peter, James, and John just how special Jesus really is, this moment in a Roman resort town built to honor Caesar, commonly called the son of god, is the first real opportunity that Jesus and his disciples had to unpack everything they had seen and heard.  Miraculous healings, profound teachings, and all kinds of run-ins with the religious powers-that-be had already happened.  Surely, the disciples were constantly talking amongst themselves, wondering just how powerful this man was to whom they had hitched their wagons.  Could he be Elijah?  Was it somehow John the Baptist, back from the dead and disguised like former Mets manager, Bobby Valentine?  Or was this Jesus character another in the long line of prophets God had sent to proclaim a word of challenge and hope to the people of Israel?


JBap, is that you?

It is during this intentional time away, the world’s first vestry retreat, that Jesus invites his disciples to dig deep into that conversation.  “Who does the world think that I am?” he asks them first, to get the ball rolling.  And then, he dives in by asking this group of faithful souls who have dropped everything to follow him, “But who do you say that I am?”  Who do you think you are following?  What does your experience of me suggest is happening here?  Are you able, unlike my own people in Nazareth who tried to stone me, that God’s hand is at work here?

I’m always caught short by this encounter between Jesus and his disciples because I wonder what my answer might have been.  More accurately, I wonder what my answer to this question is.  Yes, I believe in my heart and confess with my lips that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but do I live that reality every day?  Do I choose to follow Jesus as Lord in each moment?  No, of course I don’t.  No one does.  In those moments when I’m following my own path, when I focused on my own selfish goals – when I’m feeling jealous or frustrated or bored or burned out – in those moments, who do I say Jesus is?  This difficult question that Jesus poses to his disciples is a helpful one for us all to remember on our daily journey of faith.  In this moment, as I do this thing, make this decision, walk this path, who am I saying Jesus is in my life?

Gains and Losses

As Pumpkin Spice Season returns, congregations around the globe are turning their attention to the next great liturgical season, the Annual Stewardship Campaign.  More than the start of school marking a new program year, or the beginning of Advent marking the new liturgical year, or even Ash Wednesday marking the start of the long journey toward the cross, the Annual Stewardship Campaign holds a, no, more likely, THE MOST prominent place in the congregational life cycle.  This makes sense, of course, because a church cannot pay its bills without income coming in.  So, we plan elaborate processes by which we will invite our members to support the budget, which is mostly clergy salaries, for another year.

As is well evidenced on this blog, I am not one for pulling the words of Jesus out of context to use them as proof texts for one’s theological position.  However, occasionally, as I’m reading a text, it happens naturally.  As was the case this morning, as I read the passage from Mark appointed for Proper 19B, which has nothing, at all, to do with the Annual Stewardship Campaign, and yet, rang so true to the wider experience of “fundraising” in the church.


It seems to me that the pendulum swing away from stewardship as spiritual discipline to fundraising to make the budget is an exercise in gaining the world while losing the very life of congregational ministry.  It is, as others have suggested, another step in the process of the church becoming nothing more than a social services agency that holds weekly meetings.  If the goal is simply to bring in enough money to pay a clergy person, keep the lights on, and make sure my church is here for me when I need it, then we might as well funnel that money into the Rotary Club or United Way’s coffers and close up shop.  Instead, it seems to me that the goal of the Annual Stewardship Campaign ought to have very little, if anything, to do with budgets, and should instead be focused on the spiritual discipline of giving.  It should be rooted in giving from the abundance of God rather than filling holes of scarcity and fear.  It should be aimed at giving life rather than staving off death.

What does this have to do with the scene at Caesarea Philippi?  Not much, except that maybe when we come to follow Jesus as the Messiah, who gave his very own life out of the abundance of God’s mercy, we might take a moment to consider what we are seeking to gain and what we might lose in the Annual Stewardship Campaign.

Let it Go

My sermon for today can be found on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

One of the things that comes with being a priest in the 21st century is email forwards filled with bulletin bloopers, YouTube videos, and funny anecdotes.  I read most of them, unless it’s obvious that I’ve seen it 20 or 30 times before, because you never know where a sermon illustration might be hiding.  This week’s Gospel lesson reminded me of one of those emailed  stories that takes place on a small, five passenger airplane.[1]  While flying high above the earth, the engine malfunctioned and the plane was going down.  The pilot came out of the cockpit with a parachute strapped to his back and said, “Folks, there is good news and there is bad news.  The bad news is that the plane is going to crash and there is nothing I can do about it.  The good news is that there are several parachute packs on the wall back there.  The other bad news is that there are only four of them and there are five of you.  Good luck.  Thank you for choosing our airline, and we hope you have a good evening, wherever your final destination may be.  He then gave the shocked passengers a thumbs up, opened the door, and jumped for safety.

Immediately, a woman jumped out of her seat and said, “I’m one of the most prominent brain surgeons in the world.  My patients depend on me,” and she grabbed a pack, strapped it to her back, and leaped out.

Then a man stood up.  “I’m a partner in a large law practice, and the office would fall to pieces without me.”  He grabbed a pack, strapped it to his back, and leaped out.

Another man stood up and said, “I am arguably the smartest man in the world.  My IQ is so high I won’t even tell you what it is, but surely you understand that I must have a parachute.”  He grabbed a bundle, strapped it to his back, and jumped.

That left only two people on the plane, a middle-aged pastor and a teenage boy.

“Son,” said the pastor, “you take the last parachute.  You’re young; you have your whole life ahead of you.  God bless you and safe landing.”

The teenager grinned at the older man.  “Thanks, pastor, but there are still two parachutes left.  The smartest man in the world just grabbed my backpack.”

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find Peter clinging to a backpack for dear life.  It is easy to poke fun at Peter because so often in the Gospels, he appears to act like the so-called “smartest man on earth.”  Peter is impetuous, always quick with a word or action.  In the story of Jesus walking on the water, he is Dumb-as-a-Box-of-Rocks Peter who jumps out of the boat only to sink in terror after a few brave steps.  On the Mountain of the Transfiguration, he’s Let’s-Build-Some-Booths Peter, trying to make sense of the amazing sight happening before him.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, he’s Sword-Wielding-Maniac Peter, lopping off the ear of Malchus as the soldiers come to arrest Jesus.  Later that same night he’s I-Don’t-Know-the-Man Peter, three times denying that he even knows Jesus, let alone is one of his closest disciples.  And on Easter morning, as the women tell of what they’ve seen, he’s Run-Forest-Run Peter, sprinting to the tomb to see it for himself.

Today we have Quick-to-Speak-and-Slow-to-Listen Peter, clinging tightly to his expectations of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah, while Jesus invites him to let go and let God.  Like I said, it is easy to poke fun at Peter, but if we are really honest with ourselves, Peter’s reaction is probably not that unlike what ours would have been.  Think about what has been going on as of late.  It wasn’t that long ago that Peter had been invited along with James and John to watch Jesus raise a little girl from the dead.  Peter was among the 12 who had been sent by Jesus to preach and heal and performed amazing miracles through the power of Jesus’ name.  He was there as Jesus took five loaves and two fish and fed 5,000 men, plus women and children.  Now here they were, near the northern-most edge of the former Kingdom of Israel in a town called Caesarea Philippi, or in English, Philip’s Caesartown, a city that had only recently been completed.  It was built by Herod the Great’s son, Philip II, to honor Caesar Augustus, who was variously called the king of kings and the son of god.  It featured a set of grottos and shrines dedicated to the worship of Pan, the Roman god of the wild.  With all that he has done and all the excitement surrounding who he might be, Jesus brings his disciples to the boarder with Rome, to a city dedicated to the Emperor and asks, “who do people say that I am?”  More importantly, he asks his disciples “who do you say that I am?”

It is here where Peter grabs what he thinks is a parachute pack, stands at the opening, and jumps.  “You are the Messiah,” he says.  Right there, out in the open, for the entire world to hear, “You are the Messiah.”  By that, he of course means that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One who has come to set God’s people free from their oppression at the hands of Rome and to restore the throne of David forever.  Peter has galactic expectations of Jesus.[2] That’s where this parachute becomes a backpack.  Peter has spoken the right word, but it doesn’t mean what he thinks it means.  Jesus is the Messiah, but by that Jesus means that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, AND AFTER THREE DAYS RISE AGAIN.  It seems nobody heard that last part, especially Peter.   Still clinging to what he thinks is a parachute, he pulls Jesus aside to remind him of where they’ve been, of how much he and the rest of the disciples have given up to follow him, of what amazing things he has done, and that here, standing on the edge of something great, he ought not be talking about his death, but rallying the troops for the great battle that is to come.  “Surely you can’t mean what you are saying Jesus, there has to be another way.”

Jesus is clear that there is only one way, to let go of the useless empty parachute we have built for ourselves and embrace the love of God that sustains even in the midst of great hardship.  It is the way that God has been going about things all along.  Throughout the course of history, God has worked at bringing salvation not through power and might, but through a love that even conquers death.  The same God who will save the world through death on a cross made a great nation from 99 year-old Abraham and his 90 year-old wife Sarah.  That same God chose to save his people from bondage in Egypt through an exiled, stuttering murderer named Moses.  That same God established a kingdom that would bring about the Messianic age through David, an adulterer who sent his pregnant mistresses’ husband off to die in battle.  That same God invites us, sinful as we may be, to take part in his plan for salvation by giving up our lives for the sake of the Gospel.  Like Peter, we are invited to let go of the parachute we think we are holding, the safety net of a one way ticket to heaven, and to risk reaching out in love for our neighbors and in care for the poor and the outcast.

God shows us what it looks like to give up our lives in the life and ministry of Jesus.   It won’t always be comfortable.  We might end up rubbing shoulders with undesirable people of all sorts.  We might be asked to give of our time, talent, and treasure beyond our comfort zone.  We might be invited to share the love of God with people we don’t like.  Heck, maybe sharing the love of God with someone you do like is scary enough.  God promises to be there with you.  Those who aren’t ashamed, who refuse to live in fear, who are willing to let go of what we think is a parachute and let God carry us; we will be brought to the joy of abundant life beyond our wildest imaginations.  And like it was for Peter, all we have to do is let go.  Let go and let God.  Amen.



Tongues of Fire… The Other Kind

As I’ve said before, I love the book of James, but it can, at times, be a real Debbie Downer.  In this Sunday’s lesson from the third chapter, he takes an image that is well known and much beloved, tongues of fire, and turns it into something fairly lamentable.  Most people, when they think of tongues of fire, picture the Pentecost story as the Holy Spirit arrives with power and might to change the whole world.  Through that powerful in-breaking, God undoes the Babel story and makes many tongues speak one language.

In contrast to God’s amazing use of the tongues of men and women to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ far and wide, James sees the tongue as nothing more than a necessary evil.  He goes so far as to say that “the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

No, really, thanks for the image James

Clearly there is some context missing here.  The author is addressing something in particular, and we are not privy to the details, but we can certainly guess what is going on.  The Church, even when it is filled with people filled with the Holy Spirit, is not immune from the tongue being used to burn.  There’s the gossip that pours out at coffee hour.  There’s the quiet murmuring of parking lot conversations.  There the grumbling over music, preaching, outreach, or, God forbid, somebody sitting in my pew.  The tongue is the outlet for many of the growing pains that happen in the life of the Church, and wise leaders know how to hold their own tongues and respond to the fires that can be set by the tongues of others.

These are tough words from James, but I’m thankful that the RCL Divining Rod decided to have them read.  We need to be called to task every once in a while.  Scripture offers reproof even 2,000 years later because human beings do what human beings do, no matter the context of space and time.  In response to this difficult teaching, we have the Collect for Proper 19B with its invocation of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps it could be slightly reworded this Sunday, “Send tongues of fire upon us, Lord, that in all things your Spirit may direct and rule our hearts and tongues to the honor and glory of your name…”  Amen.

Peter’s Utter Reasonableness

It is really easy to throw good old Peter under the bus.  He’s always the perfect foil to Jesus’ goodness, wisdom, and gentleness.  He’s Dumb-as-a-Box-of-Rocks Peter as he sinks in terror after taking a few steps atop the water.  He’s Sword-Wielding-Maniac Peter in the Garden on the night Jesus is betrayed.  He’s I-Don’t-Know-the-Man Peter around the charcoal fire early on Good Friday morning.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we have another chance to poke fun at Quick-to-Talk-and-Slow-to-Listen Peter as he takes Jesus aside to rebuke him for the whole “I’m going to be handed over, killed, BUT ON THE THIRD DAY RISE AGAIN!” thing.

2015-09-09 10.42.27

But here’s the thing.  I’m not sure how unreasonable Peter’s response is.  Think about it.  If you were in his shoes.  If you had given up everything to follow Jesus around the Judean countryside, had finally started to piece together that he was more than just a great Rabbi and a Prophet, but the long-awaited Messiah, wouldn’t you want Jesus to hush up with the “I’m fixin’ to get killed” talk?  Over at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, Scott Hoeze offers a perfectly reasonable, and well worded, explanation for Peter’s response.

“If Peter was a reflection of the other disciples, then they had collectively concluded – or started to conclude at least – that Jesus was no less than the long-promised Messiah of God, the Anointed One, the Chose One, the Christ who would make all things new.  That’s no small thing to suspect of someone!  And it carries with it some expectations that are a little on the galactic side.”

Peter’s expectations are on the galactic side, and if we are honest with ourselves, ours would be too.  In all actuality, Peter is being utterly reasonable, which is what makes this story so powerful.  God’s love surpasses all human understanding.  His plan for the salvation of the world has included Abraham and Sarah, both well beyond the reasonable age of procreation; Moses, a murderer turned shepherd; and David, an adulterous king who used a war to kill his pregnant mistresses husband.  Why, then, are we surprised that ultimately, God chose to send his only Son to show us what Kingdom living actually looks like, and that in doing so, he’d end up dying at the hands of the powers-that-be?

God does extraordinary things out of his love for us, and sometimes they are wildly incomprehensible.  Peter raised concerns.  All reasonable human beings would, but God is beyond reason because God is concerned first and foremost with love.

Get Behind Me!

I feel like shouting “Get behind me” to the Revised Common Lectionary divining rod that decided we need to hear the whole “Who do people say that I am?” story on a regular basis.  Honestly, it feels like we hear this lesson at least twice a year, which makes it so hard to preach.  I’m fully aware that most people can’t remember what the sermon was about before Sunday brunch is over, but that doesn’t ease my soul.  I want to offer something fresh every Sunday, but how many different ways can you spin this story?

Over the years, I’ve preached this sermon in various different ways.  One year, I spent some time unpacking what it meant that this story takes place in Caesarea Philippi.  Mark is notoriously sparse on details so when he tells us that this encounter between Jesus and his disciples takes place in Philip’s Caesartown it is worth noting.  There are strong political ramifications that come along with Jesus first being called the Messiah in a city built on a whim by a Roman Tetrarch to honor his boss who happened to carry the title, Son of God.

If political intrigue isn’t your cup of tea, then perhaps you might want to preach a sermon on the second paragraph in which Jesus first predicts his impending arrest, crucifixion, and the promise of resurrection that doesn’t get heard.  You might want to preach a sermon about evangelism, following the model of Jesus who said these things “quite openly.”  Maybe you’d rather look at the exchange between Peter and Jesus and dig into what it means to set our minds on divine things rather than human things.  There’s plenty of material to tackle grace, faith, sin and redemption through the lens of Peter, if you were so inclined.

Or, you could read still further, and unpack the famous third paragraph.  What does Jesus really mean when he says we should deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him?  How do we lose our lives while we are still very much alive?  Better yet, in a world where politics have overrun religion, how do we discern what God’s will is for our lives while the left and the right are trying to draw and quarter Christianity for their own purposes?  The bravest of preachers might even tackle the last sentence, and what Jesus means when he uses the word “ashamed.”

There is lost of material to pull from in Sunday’s Gospel, and even though most of it feels pretty stale, I’m certain there is something to be gleaned from it.  Even in a short preaching week, with prayer and study, the Gospel can come alive again with a fresh word for God’s people seeking to live the life of faith.  Send your Spirit, Lord, and open the minds, hearts, and lips of your servants as they seek to speak your word.  Amen.