Our own worst enemy

After a brief foray into Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we return to our regularly scheduled program in Matthew.  This week, we are gifted with one of Christianity’s favorite stories, the one that has made its way into pop culture more than any other, Jesus (and Peter, for a minute) walking on water.

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At Christ Church, we are using Old Testament Track Two, which, at least in theory, is supposed to offer thematic lessons in line with the Gospel.  Some Sundays, this is more true than others, but this week, the common thread seems rather obvious, even if it is undesirable.  Just as Peter causes himself to sink though doubt, Elijah crawls into a cave sure that he is the only faithful Jew remaining.  Both, it would seem, are their own worst enemies.

As much as I hate to admit it, I know this problem to be true in my own life as well.  Whether it is Peter’s sin of initially trusting myself too much, taking on too many tasks, and ultimately failing under the weight of my own hubris, or Elijah’s sin of frustration and lament over a situation that really wasn’t as bad as it seemed, I’m guilty, more often than I’d like to think, of placing too much trust in human beings and not enough in the power of the living God.

What are we to do in those circumstances?  Well, for both Elijah and Peter, salvation comes from God’s intervention.  The first thing to note in both stories is that the divine power of God is present, no matter what.  The voice asks Elijah, “what are you doing here?” because God is right there alongside him.  Jesus reaches out to catch Peter because he won’t let him go too far astray.  So often, when we think we’ve gone out on our own, we assume that in so doing, we have left God behind.  Sometimes, it might even seem like we have gone too far; that this time, God couldn’t possible save us.  And yet, there is no place too far from the love of God.  No matter who many times we set out on our own, no matter how far down the path we might go, no matter how close the water might be to overtaking us, God is there, ready for us to call out for help.  As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

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My Annual Plea for Thomas

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I grew up attending St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.  Underneath this grand stained glass window, I cut my teeth on the Book of Common Prayer, made a joyful noise in VBS, learned what it means to pray for one another, fell in love with that one note in “O Holy Night,” and even preached a time or two.  More than anything else, however, this window has remained in my memory.  It shows the risen Lord offering the wounds in his hands to Thomas with is usual symbols of the spear by which he was martyred and the carpenter’s square indicating his profession before joining the 12.

Despite the fact that neither Jesus nor Thomas appear to have eyes in this window, it seems clear that Jesus is looking at Thomas with compassion.  Despite what our common reading of the standard Gospel lesson for Easter 2 might try to tell us, I am convinced that the encounter between Jesus and Thomas is not one of rebuke by Jesus or doubt by Thomas, but of mutual affection and joy.  See, Thomas didn’t want anything more than what the rest of the disciples had received.  He wanted to see Jesus risen from the dead.  He wanted to know that it wasn’t some sick joke.  He needed to have some proof before he could give his life back over to the one in whom he had placed so much hope.  Jesus, for his part, seems more than willing to give Thomas what he needs.

His hope for Thomas is the same hope Jesus has for all of us.  “Don’t continue to be unbelieving, but believe.”  Jesus goes on to assure the many of us who would follow after Thomas and the others, that faith need not come from seeing and touching.  Instead, those who do not have the opportunity to see Jesus face-to-face are even more blessed by their faith.  Even so, we who follow Jesus may not see him physically, but if you stick around long enough, you’ll have the chance to meet him, to feel his wounds, and to know the power of his resurrection.

As you prepare your sermons for Easter 2, dear readers, please don’t wag your finger at Thomas.  Refuse to call him doubting.  Instead, offer him up as the example of all those who had the opportunity to see the resurrected Jesus in the flesh.  Remind your flock that while we don’t have that chance, each of us can meet Jesus in faith and be blessed.

Is Jesus the one? a sermon

You can listen to this on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


What a difference a few months can make.  It was just last week that we heard the story of John’s bustling ministry down by the riverside.  John was a baptizer, but more than that, he was a prophet.  To say he got it honest would be an understatement.  His father, Zechariah, was a priest, and his mother, Elizabeth, was from the priestly tribe of Aaron.  Even before he was born, John was already in touch with the power of God, leaping in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary the Mother of our Lord.  Thirty years later, John was out in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan River, baptizing people and calling them to repentance in preparation for the Messiah who was coming.  Matthew tells us that John’s life and ministry were the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier.  He was the one who was sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare a path.  As Bishop Russell told us, John’s job was to smooth out peoples’ hearts in preparation for the love of God that was enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

There on the shores of the River Jordan, John the Baptizer seemed so confident.  He was even willing to challenge, head on, the religious leaders of the time.  He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” right to their faces.  He promised them that judgment was coming upon them and upon the whole world.  The one who would follow him was coming with a winnowing fork, and the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire.  When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John balked at the idea.  He wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, and yet he was faithful in his call, and watched as the heavens opened, and the dove descended, and the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

If anyone had reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, it was John the Baptist, and yet here we are, just a few months later, and doubt seems to be creeping in.  Of course, a lot has happened in the meantime.  John is no longer working down by the river.  His brash preaching style went too far when he openly challenged King Herod’s marriage.  See, Herod’s wife, Herodias, had been married before – to Herod’s brother.  Aside from being generally uncool, this sort of marriage arrangement was unlawful, and John made sure Herod knew about it, which of course didn’t sit well with the King or his wife, and so John’s ministry came to an abrupt end when he found himself arrested and put in jail.  We can’t be sure how long John was in prison by the time our Gospel lesson for today takes place, but context tells us it’s been a while, and John has had plenty of time to think.  Too much time, in fact.

While it was the state that could put you in jail in Roman occupied territories in the first century, it wasn’t the state’s responsibility to take care of you once you were there.  Food and clean clothing came to prisons from their families and friends, which meant that communication lines with the outside world were wide open.  While John was behind bars, he was able to keep up with what his cousin Jesus, the Messiah, was up to.  The first thing he heard was that Jesus decided to set his basecamp in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, at least a four days hike from Jerusalem.  Why had the Messiah who had come to save Israel from her captors, to set her free from oppression, and to restore right religion in her Temple decided to set up shop so far from the seat of power?  John could not have been too happy with this turn of events.

Next, he would have heard of the crowd with whom Jesus surrounded himself.  Guys like Peter and his brother Andrew, James and John, all small-time fishermen from Capernaum and Matthew, a tax collector from the same backwater burgh.  Who were these people?  What could they possibly do to help Jesus in his role as Messiah?  They weren’t military strategists.  They weren’t men of much means.  There wasn’t anything about any of them that was particularly impressive.  What good could possibly come from Jesus hanging out with this ragtag group of country bumpkins?

Eventually, word came to John about Jesus’ ministry; how he was preaching repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Certainly this made John feel a little bit better, their messages were in agreement, Jesus must have been on the right track.  Not long after that, however, heard about a big sermon Jesus gave from the mountainside.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  “Blessed are the meek?”  Blessed are the peacemakers?”  No, no, no!  This wasn’t right at all.  If Jesus was the Messiah then he was supposed to come with power and might.  His message was to be one of revolution and God’s vengeance of those who had led Israel into sin.  What was Jesus doing?!?

Finally, he heard of the miracles.  There might have been just a little relief in John when he heard that Jesus was tapping in to his God given power, and yet, the miracles he was doing, what was the goal?  Healing a leper?  The servant of a Roman Centurion?  A couple of blind men?  Even raising the daughter of a synagogue official from the dead?  To what end?  What was Jesus up to?  Why was he wasting his time on these small time parlor tricks?  Why lavishly waste the power of God to help a Centurion or synagogue leader?

John had heard enough.  After months of bouncing around a jail cell with nothing but thoughts to fill his time, John needed some reassurance.  Was Jesus really the one he had been waiting for?  Was the scene at his baptism for real, or had he imagined it in a hope filled hallucination?  Is Jesus the Messiah or not?  And so John sent a few of his disciples to go and ask Jesus plainly, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus stops short of answering “yes” to the question, but this might be the closest thing we ever get to a straightforward answer from Jesus.  Note that his response is exactly what caused John to ask this question in the first place, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.”  What John has seen and heard has him doubting the whole enterprise, but Jesus turns it on his head.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.”  Like John in his ministry, Jesus goes back to the prophet Isaiah.  There, in the thirty-fifth chapter, Isaiah describes what the restoration of Zion will look like, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

John, like many others in his day and ours, had fundamentally misjudged what God was going to be up to when his Kingdom came to earth as it is in heaven.  Instead of coming with power and might, God comes to us in the form of a child, born in a stable, to a frightened, unwed mother.  Instead of overthrowing the religious and political powers-that-be with armies of men and violence, Jesus took down the power of evil by being crucified by those very same powers-that-be.  In the years in between, God didn’t coerce, he didn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he didn’t do favors for the elite.  Instead, Jesus ministered to the poor, the vulnerable, the meek, and the outcast.  Jesus brought the Kingdom of God to precisely those who never thought it could be for them so that he could bring the Kingdom of God for everyone: even John the Baptist, even a Centurion, even a Synagogue official, even you and me.  This Advent, we once again prepare for God to come to earth in a most unexpected way and to bring about his Kingdom for a world that desperately needs it.  We may doubt God’s way of doing things, and we would be in good company, but Jesus reminds to see, to hear, and to take part in his work in the world about us: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have the good news brought to them.  That is good news my friends, Good News, indeed.  Amen.

Doubting John?

Saint John the Baptist in Prison 19th-Century Print

Sick Eye Roll Bro

John the Baptist gets plenty of love.  Off the top of my head, I think he is featured in the Lectionary at least three times each year.  We hear the story of his ministry as a baptizer (often multiple times a year), his beheading at the hand of horny Herod, and, at least in Year A, the story of his crisis of faith in prison.  With all the love that we pour on John, I can’t help but wonder why this particular story doesn’t stigmatize him in the same way the story of Thomas’ doubt follows him around.  Why do we call Thomas “Doubting Thomas” but not call John “Doubting John the Baptizer”?  There are other stories about Thomas in the Bible.  In fact, Thomas is the disciples who proudly announces that he will follow Jesus to his death (John 11:16) and at the Last Supper inquires as to they might follow Jesus to the Father (John 14:6).  So why all the dap for John and no love for Thomas?

The answer, I think, lies in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, and it comes with the help of the Matthew, our narrator.  You see, Matthew uses this story to reintroduce a word that has been absent since the birth narrative, Messiah.  The scene is set this way: John has been arrested and while in prison he heard stories about what the Messiah was doing.  In Greek, Matthew uses the Greek word “Christ,” which essentially means the same thing.  Anyway, by choosing this story to be the first place he identifies the adult Jesus as the Messiah/Christ, Matthew sets this encounter up not so much as one of doubt, but of assurance.

John has heard the stories of Jesus preaching and teaching and healing all sort of people with all kinds of conditions, and he is hopeful.  John sends his disciples, at least as I read this story, in expectation of the answer.  He wants to be sure that the one who he saw as the Lamb of God really is the one that he was waiting for.  Even though the message and ministry of Jesus doesn’t quite look like burning the chaff with unquenchable fire, John seems to know, or at least that’s what Matthew wants us to think, deep down, that Jesus really is the one.

I’m not big on calling Thomas a doubter.  In fact, I don’t think he doubted at all.  Equally so, I’m glad we don’t put the weight of the doubter tag on John the Baptist either.  These were both good men, faithful disciples, who loved Jesus, but needed to see his Messiahship with their own eyes.  I, for one, can understand that.

Works vs. Work

The crowd that finds Jesus in Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is full of questions.  This seems only right, I mean it was just yesterday that he fed them, at least 5,000 of them, with five barely loaves and two fish handed over by a little boy.  Stranger than that, after it was all over, he seems to have disappeared.  They saw the lightening flashing on the Sea, they heard the thunder, the felt the gale force winds.  Yet through all of that, Jesus seems to have made his way, safely, across the Sea.  Their first question is obvious, “when did you get here?”  It couldn’t have been through the storm.  He couldn’t have walked here in time.  There seems to be another miracle afoot, Jesus, so when, exactly, did you get here.

True to form, Jesus doesn’t answer their question.  John tells us that after walking on the water, Jesus stepped into the boat and “immediately” the boat landed on the other side, but Jesus won’t be telling the crowds about that.  He’s not here to be a carnival show, boiled down simply to a worker of miracles.  No, Jesus has something else that he is about, the Kingdom of God.  In his response to their question, Jesus nudges the crowd in that direction, encouraging them to think not about the material needs of today, but rather the universal needs of the kingdom.  They start to get it, if just barely, and so their second question is much pointed.

“What must we do to perform the works of God?”  Jesus wants to talk about the bigger things of life, and the crowd, acting as appropriate foil, engages him on that level.  Or they try to, but still they miss the point.  Their question, literally, is “What should be do in order to go on doing the works of God?”  They are interested in the specifics of Kingdom living, the sort of things I wrote about yesterday: humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity, and peace; but here again, Jesus calls them to something deeper; something bigger.

It isn’t about works, Jesus says, but about work.  There is a single task through which the Kingdom of God will be made manifest on earth as it is in heaven, “go on trusting in the one whom God has sent.”  As is often the case in these sorts of interactions between Jesus and the crowd, the crowd just can’t quite handle what Jesus is asking of them.  Maybe they can’t see that the very act of chasing him down showed that they already trusted Jesus.  Maybe they couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the fullness of who Jesus really was.  Maybe they just really needed a checklist of things to do.  Whatever the reason, they can’t seem to handle this singular task, the work of God, and so they ask Jesus another question.  “What sign will you do that we might trust in you?”  The Feeding of the 5,000, the seemingly miraculous crossing of the Sea of Galilee, the deep call to discipleship and trust; it all flies out the window with the crowds insatiable need for something to do, something to see, something tangible to hold on to.

The work of God is impossibly simple.  Believing in the one whom God has sent seems to easy, and yet, without the ongoing miracles, the ever present high calling, the engaging preaching and teaching, it can be so hard to maintain.  So we look instead for works, for things to keep us busy, to keep us preoccupied over and against or worries whether or not this Jesus can be trusted.  It happened even as he walked the earth, and heaven knows it happens now.

That Pesky Mustard Seed

Get your Googles ready, everybody, because it is once again time to fill your favorite search engine with image searches of mustard seeds and plants.  Every year, I get the question from a farmer in our congregation about what sort of mustard plants Jesus was talking about because in LA (Lower Alabama) they just don’t grow into “the greatest of all shrubs.”  As the internet is ever expanding, I found a new image this year, that perhaps will help allay some of Mr. L’s concerns.

That’s not me in my cassock-alb.

What are we to do with this wildly contextualized image for the kingdom of God?  It is like a mustard seed, which if Wikipedia is to be believed, is awfully small.

Yet it grows into “the greatest of shrubs” according to Jesus, of the Middle Eastern equivalent of Kudzu, as some scholars have described it.  Either way, this tiny seed is a force to be reckoned with.  In the genre of parables, it seems that the details are only important insofar as they point you to the underlying meaning.  So, whether great bush or annoying weed, the truth that Jesus is sharing is that even when it seems that the influence of the kingdom of God is nearly imperceptibly small, there are big things brewing.

This makes sense, of course, here near the beginning of Mark’s Gospel.  Over the course of three years there will be great crowds and utter isolation; there will be cheers of joy and mocking jeers; there will be moments of profound influence and times when it seems as though the whole world is rebelling against Jesus and his message.  In the long-run, the kingdom of God will have its influence, will make a difference, will flourish beyond imagination, but in those moments of doubt, we can recall the mustard seed and know that God’s plan is larger than our momentary frustrations.

Joy and Disbelief

The Easter story is a story of perplexing dichotomies.  On Easter Day we heard the story of the resurrection from Mark’s Gospel which ends in a very ominous tone, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  On Easter 2 we found ourselves in John’s Gospel with the well worn story of Thomas and his disbelief, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  By Easter 3, you’d think everyone would be on board with the fact that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, but here in Luke’s Gospel we find the disciples with their hands on the wounds of Jesus filled with a mixture of joy and disbelief.  The aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is delightfully perplexing.

There is a tendency in the Church to idealize the apostolic age.  In liturgics, we look to it as if there was some sort of monolithic Apostles’ Book of Common Prayer to which we all should subscribe, but alas, it doesn’t exist.  In theology, we look to the Apostles, especially Paul, as the preeminent theologians, those whose theologies should never be questioned.  Even in faith, we tend to ignore the failings of Peter and the persecution by Paul and, to some extent, even the doubting of Thomas and assume that from the very beginning everyone was on board with this whole resurrection business, which is why, I think, the Lectionary spends three weeks reminding us that Jesus rising from the grave was not what the disciples thought was going to happen.

When doubts creep in, and they do for all of us, it is helpful to remember that even the Apostles struggled with faith.  When the world seems dark and gray, when the idea that Jesus triumphed over evil seems impossible to believe, when doubt seems a whole lot easier than faith, it is good to know that we are in good company.  Once we find solidarity with the Apostles, then it seems a bit easier to move back toward faith, to read the great stories of their Acts, to hear of their perseverance, to listen to their witness, and to know that even in the chaos and the darkness, the light of Christ remains.

The life of faith is perhaps best summed up in Luke’s Gospel as a life joy and disbelief.  The Good News is that God is in present in both.