Reacting to Jesus

As unremarkable as the miracle that Jesus performed in the Synagogue might have been, the focus of Sunday’s Gospel really seems fixated on the various reactions that people and spirits had to Jesus. Less than halfway through the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has already engendered several strong reactions. At his baptism, the heavens reacted to Jesus by being torn apart and a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The [Holy] Spirit responded by whisking Jesus into the wilderness, where Satan tempted him for 40 days. Simon and Andrew reacted to Jesus invitation by dropping their nets and following him. James and John, sons of Zebedee, did the same.

Our story follows, with Jesus in the Synagogue at Capernaum. He taught with a particular kind of authority, and the congregations reaction was, in the Greek, ekplesso, which literally means, they were blown away; not by what he taught, but how. Immediately, the scene cuts to a man with an unclean spirit. Just like it was with Satan in the wilderness, the unclean spirit knew something was up and their reaction is telling, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy one of God.” It seems the spirit could see beyond the flesh, and knew the heart of Jesus. The spirit was afraid of what Jesus might do, but we should be careful reading too much into the title that the spirit calls Jesus.

While most of us reading this passage would assume that the spirit knew that Jesus was the Messiah, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 61) notes that this phrase, “Holy One of God” mirrors a title given to Elisha in 2 Kings 4:9. Rather than a messianic title, it is a comparative title over and against the evil spirit. Instead, it makes clear that unlike the spirit, which belonged to the evil one, Jesus belonged to God. What follows is an example of how the power of God’s holiness is stronger than the power of evil, as Jesus casts out the spirit, leaving it disembodied and unable to act in the world.

The final reaction, then, is the crowd’s response to what they just saw. They were thambeo, astounded. Mark seems to use ekplesso and thambeo interchangeably, as both variously refer to the reaction people have to Jesus teaching and to witnessing miracles. Still, it is worth noting that even though the spirit saw Jesus as holy, the crowd is struck particularly by his authority. Their response isn’t worship, at least not yet. Instead, they are awestruck, flabbergasted, and astonished. It would behoove us, I think, to pay attention to how we respond to Jesus in our own experience. Are we amazed by the wisdom of his teaching? Are we astonished by his holiness of life? Are we fearful of his call upon our lives? How do you react to Jesus?

An Unremarkable Miracle

Due to a last minute scheduling change, I suddenly find myself preaching this week. With the need to write a sermon on my mind, I read the Gospel lesson for Sunday again this morning, and realized that in all my excitement at the word “authority” yesterday, I had totally missed what the story is about. Did you know that Jesus performs a miracle in this week’s text? Apparently, I didn’t until today.

My quick-and-dirty reading of the Scriptures notwithstanding, this miracle that Jesus performs does, in the grand scheme of things, seem somewhat unremarkable. First, it is the cleansing of an unclean spirit, which seems pretty common place among the Feeding of the 5,000, walking on water, and raising the dead. What’s more, in a Gospel that tends to be sparse on details, Mark tells us that this all happened in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, and nobody gave a darn about it. Normally, when Jesus performs a miracle on the Sabbath, everybody gets all up in arms about it, but here, nobody says a word. It’s not a thing. It’s totally unremarkable, well, kind of. I wonder why that is.

Rhetorically, it is probably because it occurs in Mark 1, and there is no need to raise the tension level between Jesus and the powers-that-be quite yet, but is there more than that? This unremarkable miracle didn’t get Jesus in trouble, but rather, is started the spread of his fame. He performed many other miracles that day, at least one, the healing of Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law, we’re told came before sunset. What does the preacher do, if anything, with this unremarkable miracle?

One with authority

I’ve spent this weekend on Zoom. Not like all weekend, but several hours, each day, from Friday through a meeting scheduled in about 15 minutes, on Zoom as a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church. Lots of words get spoken over the course of some 12 hours of online meetings, and not all of them are worth hearing, let alone repeating. Occasionally, however, you hear something through glitchy internet and bad audio that you want to remember. That happened to me on Saturday morning, during the presentation on the relationship between the Church Pension Fund and The Episcopal Church. Bishop Mark Hollingsworth, 11th Bishop of Ohio, noted that this purpose of our conversation was to clear up lines of authority, not for the purpose of one party holding authority over another, but rather, to clearly articulate responsibility for.

As I read about the response to Jesus teaching in the Synagogue, I can’t help but wonder if the astonishment that the people experienced upon hearing Jesus was because his teaching was based in “authority over” but “responsibility for.” That is, Jesus didn’t teach as a smug, know it all, who told people how to live their lives the right way. Instead, Jesus taught as one who cared deeply about the people who heard him, one who felt a responsibility for helping others to understand God’s love for them, and to help them see that that love was meant to be shared. His authority was based in compassion, not power; in grace, not judgment; in love, not strength. Human beings aren’t real accustomed to that kind of authority. It is no wonder the people who heard Jesus teach were astounded.

An Ironic Collect

Irony – a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, in which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…

In the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t been that long since we heard an excerpt from Jonah read on a Sunday morning. Portions of Jonah are only read twice in the three-year lectionary cycle, and the lessons overlap by a verse which reads “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

Back in the more Biblically literate times of the 1950s, hearing only a small portion of this story would elicit in the congregation’s mind the fuller context, but that can’t be assumed in 2021. While the preacher might chuckle at the irony of the Collect for Epiphany 3 being matched with a lesson that starts “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” not everyone will be in on the joke. Of course, maybe that gives us our entrance into the sermon. By helping our folks see how the prayer we pray on Epiphany 3 is basically one that says, “Give us grace, O Lord, not to be like Jonah,” we can help our people see two basic truths. First, that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. And second, that even one of the Lord’s great prophets struggled to share the good news of God’s grace at times. In an era of virtual evangelism, these might be helpful lessons for members of our congregations who are seeking to discern how God might be calling them to be evangelists.

So, tell the whole story. Let them in on the joke. It’ll be a great way to open the conversation.

2021 – Peace be with You

The following is my report to the People of Christ Episcopal Church at our Annual Meeting, held January 17, 2021.

If you’ve heard me say this once, you’ve heard me say it a dozen times.  The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  I believe in that mission with all my heart.  Seeking unity has been an overarching principle in my ministry since the very beginning. Bringing reconciliation to our sinful world is at the heart of every sermon that I preach.  Consensus building is how I choose to lead.  For the entirety of my ministry, however, disunity has defined the world in which we live.  In our nation, forces of evil have been stoking the fires of division since at least 2001.  In The Episcopal Church, those same forces of evil have been trying to rend us asunder since at least 2003.  I’ve seen, on too many occasions, faithful, thoughtful, considerate siblings in Christ choose to walk away from unity for any number of reasons, and I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that God’s Spirit is grieved every single time.  The painful and sometimes violent discord we have experienced over the last ten months is nothing new, but rather, the next logical steps in the Devil’s desire to sow division and destroy the Kingdom of God. 

Fundamentally, as a part of the Image of God within us, I believe we all desire to work toward unity.  It is core principle of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Shalom – peace, wholeness, unity – is said to be the foundation upon which the Torah is built.  After his resurrection, in John’s Gospel, Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper room, he breathed the Holy Spirit upon them and said, “Peace be with you.”  The Greek word translated as peace is Eirene, which is built on the root word meaning “to join” or “to be united.”  Unity may be at the center of who we are as human beings, but it is hard, and because it is hard, we often try find ways to make it easier.   When we “agree to disagree,” we cheapen unity.  Unity that says, “I’m ok, you’re ok,” is not unity at all.  True unity names evil when it exits, it calls out sin when it is apparent, and it invites all of us to take stock of the role each of us plays in causing division in our households, in our church, in our community, and in the wider world.  True unity is not possible without accountability, confession, truth-telling, and repentance.

The Catechism goes on to say that the Church pursues its mission of restoring unity as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.  In our corner of the Church, Christ Episcopal seeks to restore unity by way of worshipping God with joy and wonder, learning and growing together, and radiating God’s love to all.  In my written report for this Annual Meeting, I noted that I had long hoped to use John 20:21 as a theme for this year.  Sent in Love would have been a great rallying cry for 2021, but the ongoing pandemic makes that difficult.  Rather than lament this, today, I find myself grateful for it.  Over the past ten days, I’ve come to realize that by focusing on the second half of Jesus’ commission, I missed the more basic call, Peace be with you.  Shalom.  Eirene.  Wholeness.  Unity.  This is our mission.  This is the work to which we are all called.

We, as individual Christians, as members of Christ Episcopal Church, and as citizens of the United States, have an opportunity, in the face of a pandemic that has exacerbated the forces that separate us, a racial reckoning that has highlighted our historic division, and an election cycle designed to profit off of pushing Americans further to the extremes, to model a turn toward unity. I believe that we are called in this moment to repent from the echo chambers of intentionally divisive social media and news networks that profit off our disunity, and to turn toward God’s dream of shalom.

In conjunction with our 2021 theme, Peace be with you, today I invite every member of Christ Episcopal Church to take part in The Episcopal Church’s newest campaign in pursuit of restoring unity, “From Many, One.”  Formally launching tomorrow, on the day our nation sets aside to remember the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “From Many, One” is a process for listening and sharing across the many differences that would seek to separate us.  Echoing the Latin phrase on the seal of the United States of America – E Pluribus Unum – and following in the footsteps of Jesus, the spiritual practices of conversations across differences laid out in “From Many, One” can help to knit us all into a diverse, more perfect union.[1]  In his invitation to this practice, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry affirms that “Conversation with others across difference is not just a nice thing to do.  It is a spiritual practice of love in action.”[2]

More details about the ways in which Christ Church will facilitate these conversations are forthcoming, but you don’t have to wait for formal plans to begin to engage in “From Many, One.”  All you have to do is to pick up the phone and talk to someone.  “From Many, One” is a series of intentional, one-on-one conversations based on four questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What have you lost?
  • Where does it hurt?
  • What do you dream?

What do you love?  What do you value?  What will you struggle to protect?  So much of human action and thinking is driven not by hate or anger but by the urge to protect what we love. By asking and sharing our answers to “what do you love,” each of us has a chance to name and to hear what matters most to us and why. It’s harder to argue when we start from what we love.

What have you lost?  What keeps you up at night?  What do you miss?  People across the spectrum understand the experience of loss: the loss of money, jobs, status, national identity, cultural identity, a sense of security, a sense that they matter, etc. By asking and sharing our answers to “what have you lost,” we become curious about what each of us has lost, what we’re grieving, and perhaps what we’re trying hard to get back.

Where does it hurt?  How have you been wounded by life?  What makes you angry? Regardless of our race, gender, age, ballot choice, earnings, or location, we all know what it is to hurt. By asking and sharing our answers to “where does it hurt,” we become curious about how each of us has been wounded by life, by others, and by social forces, instead of assuming “others” are fine and only I or my group is hurting. We offer up our experiences and learn to offer one another compassion.

What do you dream?  What do you hope for the future – for yourself, your family, our community, and our nation?  We all dream of a better world, as we imagine it from our own personal perspective, but we don’t get to hear or share that vision very often. Instead, people often assume that their own ideal picture of life, community, and society is shared by everyone or that certain others can’t possibly want the same kind of future they do. By asking “what do you dream,” we become open to hear and share each other’s dreams for our families, communities, society, and ourselves.[3]

I am under no illusion that simply by talking to one another, we will fix the divisions that exist in our society.  I am convinced, however, that every time we hear the story of another, we move one step closer to unity and that in understanding where another is coming from, we are able to begin the process of reconciliation.  In so doing, we roundly reject the forces of evil that would tear us apart and instead embrace our calling in Christ to a ministry of reconciliation by reaching out to our neighbors and saying “Peace be with you.

[1] page 1.

[2] ibid.

[3] These four paragraphs outlining the questions are copied from ibid, page 2.

Choosing Peace

In her sermon last Sunday, Mother Becca reminded us that through baptism, all of us are made beloved children of God.  In our very best moments, we are beloved children of God.  In our mundane, daily routines, we are beloved children of God.  In our very worst moments, we are still beloved children of God.  That can be hard to remember when we are experiencing shame, guilt, and regret.  It can be hard to look in the mirror and say, “I am a beloved child of God.”  No matter how we might feel about ourselves, the truth remains, through our baptism in Christ, our worst moments are washed clean, our quotidian lives are made holy, and our greatest achievements bring honor and glory to God.

As hard as it might be at times to see ourselves as beloved children, often, it is even more challenging to look at our neighbors and say the same thing.  It is so much easier to define the other by their worst behavior, or what we perceive to be their worst qualities, and then to label and dismiss them, as if any of us is as bad as our worst moments.  As I see it, the hardest challenge of our baptismal calling is to live into the Covenant we have made with God and with each other to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Relationships are hard because sin is real. Human beings are constantly finding new ways to hurt one another.  Seeking Christ in our neighbor is easy when they act how we think they should and uphold the social contract, but when they fall short, as we all do, it can be pretty darn hard to love them, let alone believe that God loves them too.  Still, that is the job we signed up for in our baptism.  It is the choice that we are called to make, again and again, to seek the belovedness in all of God’s children.

I thought about how hard this all is on Wednesday afternoon as, like many of you, I tuned in to watch the impeachment debate in the House of Representatives.  To a person, every member of the House was willing to declare that what happened at the US Capitol last Wednesday was wrong, but there did seem to be a whole bunch of Nathanael’s coming to the microphone that day.  “Can anything good come out of California or New York?”  “Can anything good come out of Alabama or Kentucky?”  “Can anything good come from the left or from the right?”  The Democrats saw their colleagues as beloved.  The Republicans saw their colleagues as beloved.  Few were too keen to name belovedness on the other side of aisle.  Thankfully, the members of the US House of Representatives are not where we need to look for examples of Christian virtue.  Our focus should instead be on the one from whom our identity as Christians is drawn.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear an early example of Jesus choosing love over anger, fear, or hatred.  John’s Gospel is by far the most cosmic.  Jesus, while a living breathing human being in John’s Gospel, is often in tune with what is happening in places he can’t see.  He knows the hearts of those around him.  He performs great signs and miracles.  And in today’s lesson, it seems he can see through time and space.  After being invited to follow Jesus, Philip immediately ran away to find his friend, Nathanael.  I see a lot of myself in Nathanael.  He was a natural skeptic and a bit sarcastic.  I like that about him, but I’m also keenly aware that not every responds positivity to sarcastic skepticism.

Anyway, a breathless Philip, red in the face from running and excited at the news he had to share, found Nathanael under a fig tree, and exclaimed “We have found him!  The one about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote!  It’s Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth!”  “Psssh!” Nathanael responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Sarcasm aside, this is something of a valid question.  Philip invoked Moses and the Prophets, and any self-respecting Jew would know that the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  Nazareth was a back-water village of maybe 500 people located some 300 miles north of Jerusalem, and 50 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee.  Nathanael’s skepticism is understandable, even if his tone is not.  Philip simply responds, “Come and see.”

As Philip and Nathanael approached Jesus, it seems as though Jesus already knew what Nathanael was thinking.  Jesus knew that Nathanael was a man in whom there was no deceit.  Jesus knew that his skepticism would mean he’d always say what was on his mind.  Even though Jesus had good reason to doubt Nathanael’s faithfulness and to have his feeling hurt, Jesus didn’t respond with harsh words, anger, or frustration, but rather, he saw Nathanael as a beloved child of God.  He invited Nathanael into a relationship, and invited him to experience the freedom that comes from God’s love, grace, and forgiveness.  While I might imagine, after turning water into wine, Jesus looking at Nathanael through a wry smile and asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, the truth is that in the eyes of Jesus, Nathanael and, indeed, each of us, is a beloved child.

Discord, assumption making, and bigotry are nothing new in this world, but we all know from hard earned experience that nothing good comes hate. Nothing good comes from othering. Nothing good comes from ignoring the beam in our own eye while pointing out the speck in another. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation precisely because every person we meet is a beloved child of God. We don’t get to choose whom we love, we’re simply called to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This does not mean we’re all going to sit together and sing Kumbaya. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. It doesn’t mean becoming a doormat, letting folks do whatever they want, or even that we have to stay in relationship with everyone.  What it does mean is that we cannot assume that there is no good in one another. No one is beyond restoration. No one is outside the bounds of God’s love. When Jesus finally meets Nathanael, Jesus doesn’t assume him to be evil, but instead welcomes him into community, and to begin to work toward reconciliation. We are invited to do the same.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  Can anything good come out of Bethsaida?  Can anything good come out of California or New York?  Can anything good come out of Alabama or Kentucky?  Can anything good come from the left or from the right?  It isn’t all good, none of us are, but in Christ, the answer is an emphatic YES, all are beloved, all are made in God’s image, and all have good within them.  Amen.

Can Anything Good Come From…

As I type this, the United States House of Representatives has about 15 minutes left in the debate on the Article of Impeachment against President Donald Trump which accuses the President of “Inciting an Insurrection.” I’ve listened in, here and there, to the debate. As a church politics wonk, I find myself longing for the countdown clock and automatic mute that we have in the House of Deputies. As a citizen, I find myself profoundly saddened. As a preacher, I find myself hearing the words of Nathanael repeated again and again, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Can anything good come from New York or California?
Can anything good come from Texas or Alabama?
Can anything good come from the left or from the right?

Discord, assumption making, and bigotry is nothing new in this world, and we know from experience that is hard earned, that nothing good comes hate. Nothing good comes from othering. Nothing good comes from ignoring the beam in our own eye while pointing out the speck in another. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation. This does not mean we’re all going to sit together and sing Kumbaya. It doesn’t mean that people aren’t accountable for the consequences of their actions. What it does mean is that we cannot assume that there is no good in one another. No one is beyond restoration. No one is outside the bounds of God’s love. When Jesus finally meets Nathanael, Jesus doesn’t assume him to be evil, but instead welcomes him into community, and to begin to work toward reconciliation. We are invited to do the same.

Can anything good come from… ?

The answer in Christ is always yes.

Prostitution, Fornication, and Sin… O My!

On of the things I try to do early in a preaching week is to look for red flags in the lessons. Is there something that is going to be heard by the congregation that absolutely needs to be addressed? It is part of the reason why I never choose to go with the semi-continuous Hebrew Bible lessons in Track 1 during the Season after Epiphany. When the Old Testament lessons are disconnected thematically from the rest of what folks hear, it can mean the sermon never gets heard while people sort out why Moses got so ticked off he beat a rock with his stick until water came out. There are just certain stories, certain words or phrases, that might need some nuance.

We have one of those lessons, this time from 1st Corinthians, this coming Sunday. It is a rather salacious passage, in which Paul admonishes the Corinthian Church to avoid sex with prostitutes and to shun fornication as the only sin that one can commit against one’s own body. Ignoring for the time being how wrong that second statement is (see also, gluttony and drunkenness, for example), in 21st century America, these words from Paul carry a lot of baggage, and will most certainly set off some alarm bells in the ears of some who hear this lesson read. Especially in the context of online church, while we are still unable to be together in person, the disconnected face behind the screen saying, “Shun fornication” might require some explanation on the part of the preacher.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have not intention of preaching this text this week, but the need to spell out how the Greek word for fornication means both sexual immorality and idolatry is certainly on my mind today. The reality that while Paul is probably speaking to the open sexual culture of a cosmopolitan Greek city while also reminding this fledgling Christian community that becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ means giving your whole life over to God’s will could certainly be worth pursuing. In a nation that has, during these 10 months of pandemic, shown itself to be 100% committed to the idolatrous worship of power, wealth, and privilege, these words from Paul deserve to be heard and explained. But, its Annual Meeting Sunday, and sometimes, the Word God invites us to preach is simply one of encouragement, of God’s call to discipleship, or Jesus’ invitation to “Come and See.”

The old familiar story

With apologies to my friend EFel, I have to admit that by Epiphany 1, I’m pretty sick of hearing about John the Baptist. As if two straight weeks of JBap in Advent isn’t enough, we hear pretty much the same story yet again around the Baptism of our Lord. Yes, the focus is supposed to be on what happens to Jesus at his baptism, but the Gospel accounts are so lacking there, we’re forced to once again hear about a wacky prophet who wears camel hair and eats bugs while proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Maybe it’s almost two decades of Lectionary preaching or misdirected anger after 9 months of pandemic restrictions, but God help me, I’m over JBap.

Of course, maybe that’s the point. In his Crucifixion altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald sets history aside and makes John the Baptist present at the foot of the cross. As you can see, with a wildly elongated finger, John is pointing at Jesus and the words printed above his arm read, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John’s whole purpose in life was to draw attention to the Messiah who was coming and then to get out of the way. I don’t want to attribute too much thought or purpose to the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary, but I wonder if hearing about JBap three out of six Sundays does the job of reminding us of John’s mission and then getting us so annoyed by the old familiar story that he has no choice but to move along having done his job.

Again, I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions, but there seems to be some merit in hearing, repeatedly, someone say, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” only to have them disappear from the scene when the one who is greater shows up. There’s probably a lesson in here for those of us who follow Jesus as well. Rather than getting so focused on how difficult we might find evangelism, on how much we think the Gospel depends on us, maybe we’d do well just to point to Jesus through our words and actions and then get out of the way and let God take care of the rest.

The Spirit?

I think I can understand how the Ephesians felt when Paul asked, “Have you been baptized in the Holy Spirit?” That gut sinking feeling that goes with feeling out of the loop or unable to keep the conversation going is one of the worst, in my opinion. This is a silly example, but one that I’ve experienced more than once recently. I have a friend who has really enjoyed the Disney+ series The Mandalorian. A month or so ago, he asked me about it, excited to talk about the season finale, but I hadn’t seen it. We were talking last week, and, still excited, he asked me about it again. I still haven’t watched it.

It stinks to not be able to share in someone else’s excitement. My friend can’t simply lay hands on me and impart two seasons’ worth of content in my brain, but Paul was able to pray for the Ephesians and God willingly poured the Holy Spirit upon them with power and might. All it took was a willingness to experience the joy of God and Paul’s willingness to share the gift he had received.

I wonder if the general shyness Episcopalians have around evangelism is in part due to our limited comfort with the Holy Spirit. As a Church that was focused in the Apostles Creed for most of our existence, we’ve had very little liturgical pedagogy in the Spirit. This underdeveloped understanding of the Spirit has, for too long, robbed us of the joy of the the Spirit’s gifts and the desire to share them with others. Rather than living lives imbued with the Fruit of the Spirit like patience, kindness, humility, and self-control, we take to Twitter to rip one another’s pandemic liturgical choices and puff up our own liturgy and enlightened theology.

Perhaps this Sunday, as we recall the Baptism of our Lord, we should pray for some of that Spirit that descended upon Jesus at the Jordan and upon the Ephesians when Paul laid hands upon them. God is always willing to share the Spirit with us, and we should be ready to do the same.