The False Idol of Peace

It is startling to read it.  I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to hear.  The Rabbi who had made a career out of bringing people in, no matter what it was that had put them out, now stands before the disciples and says, “Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”  They didn’t even have 150 years of the Christmas Industrial Complex messing up their heads with saccharine images of radically counter-cultural events capped, without any sense of irony, with the phrase “Peace on Earth” boldly emblazoned above or below.

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This idea of peace has, in many ways, become an idol for modern, western Christians.  That following Jesus would mean power, privilege, and comfort is so beyond the pale of what it meant to be a disciple in the first three centuries after Christ’s resurrection that I’m not sure Jesus would have any idea what he was looking at if he met the average white, middle-class, American Christian on their way to church on a Sunday morning.

Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth.  Even before he said it, we should have known.  By breaking bread with notorious sinners and tax collectors, he challenged the status quo.  By healing on the sabbath, he challenged the status quo.  By talking with women, by challenging the religious authorities, by speaking in parables, bringing the dead back to life, and by preaching the Kingdom of God, he challenged the status quo.  Everything Jesus did and said pushed against the notion that God is supposed to work for us, making our lives peaceful, and challenged future disciples to be prepared for difficulties that would come when they tried to follow his example.

Living out the Law of the Kingdom that Christ came to inaugurate means loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  It means loving your neighbor as yourself.  It means laying down idols like peace, security, comfort, power, and privilege.  It means putting the needs of the other ahead of your own.  It means sharing with those who are in need.  It means calling to account systems of oppression and degradation.  I means voting based on something other than “it’s the economy, stupid.”  It means shopping based on something other than the cheapest price tag.  It means, as our exemplars in the faith like the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Jeremy Taylor, Florence Nightingale, and Clare of Assisi can attest, being downright uncomfortable because the living out of our faith puts us at direct odds with the leaders of our time.

As one whose livelihood depends upon the gifts of others, I’m preaching to myself here.  Peace is an idol for me because it means keeping my family fed, clothed, and housed.  I’ve not always said what the Gospel would have me say or lived the way that Christ would have me live, but day-by-day, my faith grows a little stronger, my trust grows a little deeper, and the ledge feels just a little bit safer.  May each of us find that place where the idol of peace can be set aside and the revolutionary Gospel of Jesus Christ can be fully proclaimed.

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Called to be better

At my ordination to the priesthood, I had to make several promises.  I declared before God, my bishop, and God’s people, that I felt called to a ministry that, among other things, requires me to “love and serve the people among whom I work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”  I vowed to “undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom I am called to serve, laboring together with them and with my fellow ministers to build up the family of God” I try, to the best of my abilities and with God’s help, to help make the “reconciling love of Christ be known and received” in the world (1).  I take this work very seriously as I pastor a community that is very diverse theologically and politically.  It is my duty as a minister of the Gospel to offer the kind of care, compassion, and love to the members of my congregation who are stringent supporters of the President and his loudest critics.  It is my sincere hope that anyone you might ask here at Christ Church, Bowling Green or back at St. Paul’s in Foley, AL would tell you that I treated them with respect and compassion.

Of course, I have my own opinions on things, but I work hard to keep them to myself.  My political inclinations are based on both my own life experiences and my reading of the Scriptures, especially the words of Jesus who summed up the law in two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  I don’t dare tell others how to vote, knowing that their life experiences and religious convictions will never be the same as mine.  I do, however, think that I am obliged as a minister of the Gospel to speak up anytime that the inherent dignity of any human being or group of people is being denied them.  I’ve done it before, at the death of Osama Bin Laden, after the Pulse nightclub shooting, and about certain draconian immigration reform policies.  I feel compelled to do it again as there seems to be a distinct uptick in the racist rhetoric of xenophobia, islamaphobia, and white supremacy spreading throughout our nation, beginning in Washington, DC.

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As a disciple of Jesus Christ, who believes that all are made in the image of God, and is called to be a faithful pastor to all I serve, it would be a violation of my ordination vows to be silent in the wake of language that denigrates whole communities of people from Somalia to Baltimore as being less than.  In line with the clergy at the Washington National Cathedral, I affirm that the language being used by our President and several of his supporters has no place in a country that likes to consider itself Christian.  God loves us just as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us there.  Instead, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to a higher calling, lifting up those in need, caring for the marginalized, and allowing the love which we have experienced in Christ Jesus flow out into the world.

In his letter to the Colossians that is appointed for this Sunday, Paul implores the community to follow the example of Christ by giving up their old ways of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.”  As the inheritors of that Christian tradition, all who claim to follow Jesus should endeavor to do the same.  So you, dear reader, whether a preacher, a dedicated lay person, or someone just dabbing into the waters of the Christian faith, I invite you to join in modeling for and expecting from our elected leaders a basic respect for all of our siblings in the human family.  We do not need to agree on everything to still love one another as Christ loves us.  Rather, in the renewal of our hearts and minds through the cleansing waters of baptism, all of us whether Republican or Democrat, recent refugee or Daughters of the American Revolution, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Roman Catholics are called to lives our lives following the example of Jesus Christ, who is all and in all, in the world that desperately needs the restoration and redemption that comes from God’s saving love.


(1) BCP, 531-2, emphasis mine.

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.”

A Key Missing Detail

The story of the Transfiguration occurs four times in the New Testament.  Each of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – have their own version, though it is likely that Matthew and Luke based their stories off of Mark’s original.  It also shows up in the Second Letter of Peter, one of only a handful of references to the ministry of Jesus in the letters.  On Sunday, we’ll hear Luke’s account, and there is plenty to be gleaned from what occurs in which version of the story, but what has really struck me today is that there seems to be a key detail missing in three out of the four versions of the Transfiguration.

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One of the surest signs in Scripture that one is having a true theophanic experience are the words “Do not be afraid” or “have no fear.”  We hear it again and again from the lips of angels, from the resurrected Jesus, and even the Lord God Almighty.  It is the first word of comfort to those who are, understandably, afraid of what they are seeing before their very eyes.  It seems only reasonable, then, that somewhere in a scene in which Jesus’ clothes are described as a flash of lightening, we might hear someone offer these words of comfort to the terrified Peter, James, and John.  Yet, Luke, Mark, and 2 Peter are all silent.

Matthew’s Gospel includes it, but only after the whole scene has ended.  Peter, James, and John, having all but fainted with fear, are met by Jesus, now all alone, who touches them and tells them to “be resurrected” and “have no fear.”  I can’t help but wonder, given that only eight days ago (in Luke), Jesus had told them about his death and called on them to lose their lives for his sake, why this particular phrase is missing.

Part of it, I supposed, is the reality that fear is an appropriate reaction to what they are seeing and experiencing.  In the thought of ancient Israel, to encounter God was to die, and not only were they seeing Jesus brought to glory right before their very eyes and Elijah and Moses standing alongside him, but the cloud of God’s presence was right there, looming right above them.  If they weren’t afraid, there was something wrong with them.  But to what end?  What purpose does their fear serve?  Is it, quaking in your boots fear and trembling?  Or, as is more likely, is it the holy awe that is often associate with the fear of the Lord?

Not a lot of answers today as my mind runs in 30 different directions, but I know this, there must be something to that fear.  Some reason that these words aren’t there.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the Proverbs tell us, and maybe that’s the gift the disciples received on that holy mountain: the beginning of wisdom.

Ironic Jesus

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a doozy, and reading it in context doesn’t seem to help.  After sending his Apostles out with the instructions we’ve heard over the past three weeks, Jesus returned to his own ministry of healing and preaching.  Matthew doesn’t reiterate Jesus’ message, but we know that on this missionary journey, like all the others, he has be proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near.  This is the same message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry at the Jordan (see Mt 3).  Interestingly, it is during this time that John, now in prison, sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It is in response to this question from John the Baptist that Jesus engages in the teaching we will hear on Sunday.  The seemingly random aside about children in the marketplace, the woes to unrepentant cities that the lectionary skips, and even this prayer to the Father about thing hidden from the wise, are all a result of John’s somewhat surprising questioning of Jesus’ Messiahship.  But what really strange about all of this is how Jesus wraps it all up by saying, ““Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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That’s a serious eye roll, Ironic Jesus!

Is Jesus being ironic here?  After a chapter of pretty difficult apocalyptic teaching, he’s going to end with “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”?  Has he not heard himself for the last five minutes?  He has literally just condemned Bethsaida and Capernaum, the home towns of several of his disciples, to a fate worse than Sodom for their unbelief.  What is easy about this faith if John the Baptist can’t handle it?  How light can the burden possibly be if these towns filled with faithful Jews can’t carry his teaching?

Preachers, and by that I mean, I tend to isolate this final verse from the rest of the lesson and talk about how a Rabbi’s yoke was his teaching, and how Jesus’ commandments to love God and love neighbor would seem downright easy compared to the teaching of the Pharisees, but in context, what Jesus is suggesting is downright heavy.  That is, until we remember that the task of the disciple is not to accomplish faith on our own, but rather to allow Jesus to carry it for us.  John was struggling.  In prison for his teaching and looking at the horizon of his own demise, he wanted to be sure that he had done the right thing.  His faith faltered, if only for a moment, and he looked for reassurance.  What he got was the word that being in prison was exactly where he was supposed to be, and that while his burden seemed heavy, God was there to help lighten the load.  His death would not be in vain.  His faith, unstable as it might have been at the time, would not fail.  The burden of following Jesus, even to death, is light because we are not invited to carry it alone.

Hope does not disappoint?

Borrowing from the Unitarian reformer (yes, such a thing exists) Theodore Parker, in several of his famous speeches, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered this reflection on the hope of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Given the time in which he lived, it would have been easy for Dr. King to give up that hope.  It wasn’t just your run of the mill racists who seemed to be working against the bend toward justice, but governments, and even entire denominations were working hard to keep this nation that was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” from ever making that foolish claim in the Declaration of Independence a reality.

Some 50 years later, Parker’s original quote seems more apt than even the Dr. King paraphrase, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”  In a nation where angry rhetoric is spilling over into actual violence, it is hard to see much hope beyond the horizon that the arc toward justice creates.  I can honestly say that in my own thoughts, at times, I wonder if there really is any hope in the sort of peace that comes when every human being is afforded the rights and responsibilities of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  I fear that my children will only know a world of bitterness, anger, vitriol, and violence.

Thanks be to God, that at just the right time, I am reminded to never give up hope.  This week’s short lesson from Romans, though used to great damage by religious leaders who send battered wives back to their husbands or keep whole peoples from rising up against oppression because “we should boast in our suffering,” can and should be redeemed by the telos of our collective suffering.  For all who struggle with hope, for all who wonder if justice will ever roll down, for all who lament the violence and the fear mongering, Paul offers these words:

“suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

The reason we continue to hope, despite growing evidence to the contrary, is because God’s love is at work in the world.  This isn’t some ethereal claim of ooey-gooey love without substance, but the reality that God’s love has hands and feet and hearts through the Holy Spirit given to each of us in baptism.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus are, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the agents of hope in the world.  We are they who should be calling for justice.  We are they who should be working for peace.  We are they who should be offering compassion.  We, who can see only as far as the horizon, with the help of the Holy Spirit, must continue to work to bring the end of the arc into focus.

In times like these, hope can be difficult, but with God’s help, we who continue to hope and work for a just society will not be disappointed.

Peter’s Resurrection Moment -a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below


It had been almost a week since that awkward encounter.  Jesus had probably long since forgiven Peter for it, but if Peter is anything like me, he had spent the last six days working those few minutes over in his mind again and again and again.  Six days ago, Jesus and his disciples were on the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi, a city on the coast of the Mediterranean that was 100% Roman: where Herod had built a Temple in honor of Caesar, and after his death, Philip the Tetrarch gave it the name Caesarea – Caesar Town.  There, in the shadow of an entire city built to honor the power of Rome, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

You can almost see them trying to avoid answering the question.  Like a classroom full of Middle Schoolers, no one wanted to make eye contact with Jesus.  Somebody muttered John the Baptist, which was a ridiculous answer.  John hadn’t even been dead a year; how could Jesus be John the Baptist.  Another person piped up, “Elijah,” which seemed more sensible.  Elijah was the one who was to return and prepare the way for the Messiah.  Another voice suggested “Jeremiah or some other prophet,” which was, again, not totally unreasonable.  Jesus pressed further.  With the Temple Complex of Caesar and Pan rising in the background, Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter, God love him, couldn’t contain himself.  He knew the right answer and wanted Jesus to know he knew it too.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter blurted out, without a care in the world as to where he was standing or who might hear him.  It just so happens that Caesar also carried the title “Son of God,” but that didn’t matter to Peter.   Jesus was the Son of the true God.  Jesus was the one who had been sent to rid Israel of their Roman occupiers.  Jesus was the one who would raise up an army, tear down the Temples built to pagan gods, and return the throne of David to its rightful place.  Jesus was here to rule with power and might, and Peter was ready to fight.

Jesus praised Peter for his forthrightness.  “Blessed are you, Simon… For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…”  Peter was riding high, but Jesus continued to speak, telling the whole group that the Messiah wasn’t going to be about power and might; that the Messiah wouldn’t be raising up an army; but that the Messiah, he, Jesus, their Rabbi and friend, would be going to Jerusalem where he would suffer at the hand of the religious leadership, and be killed, and, mind you, on the third day rise again.

“God forbit it, Lord!”  Again, Peter bowed up and blurted words out before he could even think.  This wasn’t right, it wasn’t how it was supposed to work.  Peter hadn’t left his wife and career to traipse around the Sinai Peninsula for years only to watch Jesus be killed, and so Peter balked.  He looked right in the face of Jesus and said, “No!”  And Jesus looked right back at him and said, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Talk about awkward.  The discernment that Peter had just done so well was flung right out the window.  From “my Father in Heaven revealed this to you” to “you have set your mind not on divine things but on human things” in the course of about 90 seconds.  The rest of the disciples went back to staring at theirs shoes, and for six days, it seems, nobody made mention of “the event.” Then suddenly, Jesus looked back at Peter and along with James and John, invited him on an afternoon hike up Mount Tabor.

Six days is a long time to stew on something.  I wonder just how down in the dumps Peter was feeling as they made the slow climb?  What did he expect when they arrived at the top?  Were James and John invited as witnesses for his further rebuke?  Was it a regularly scheduled prayer day?  Whatever Peter might have guessed was going to happen that day, the Transfiguration wasn’t it.  As Jesus’ face shone with the brightness of the sun and his clothes reflected a dazzling white, Peter again found himself speaking faster than his brain could work.  “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents…”  While the words were still making their way out of his mouth, a cloud enveloped them and a voice from heaven spoke to them, and Peter joined James and John in fear and trembling.  Six days of uncomfortable silence.  Six days of avoiding Jesus’ passing glance.  Six days of wondering if he had pushed past the point of no return, and now Peter was in the midst of a vision of God atop a holy mountain, and all he could do was sputter and stammer and kneel down in fear and trepidation.

Note what happens next.  God doesn’t rebuke Peter.  Jesus doesn’t call him out.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t smite him on the spot.  Instead, Jesus walked over to the three of them, touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  Well, that’s not exactly what Jesus said to them.  In the Greek, what Jesus really said as his reached out in loving care to his three scared-to-death disciples was, “be raised, and fear not.”  The word translated as “get up” in the NRSV is the same word the angel will later use to describe what happened to Jesus on Easter morning.  “He is not here, he has been raised.”  In the depth of his despair, after nearly a week of anxiety, stress, and dis-ease, there on that mountain top, Peter was still talking faster than he could think, but it was precisely in that moment that Jesus gave Peter his own moment of resurrection.

As the Season of Epiphany comes to a close and we prepare ourselves for Lent, the story of the Transfiguration serves as something of a bridge.  Starting Wednesday and for forty days, we will purposefully spend time paying close attention to our tendency toward sin.   We will be invited to take stock of the ways in which our wills are at odds with the will of God.  Marked with an ashen cross, we will be made keenly aware of our mortality and dependence upon God.  Some of us will fast, giving something up that distracts us from the dream of God.  Others will take something on, finding a new prayer practices, devotions, or scriptural readings that are meant to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to God.  No matter how you plan to spend your Lent, I pray that you will have a Peter experience, and I mean both sides.  I pray that at some point in Lent, either in your private prayers or on Sunday morning, you have a profound awareness of the sin that has separated you from God.  I’m not asking you to spend six days in that place, but maybe six minutes.  Feel the pain, the fear, and the awkwardness of knowing that sometimes your best intentions aren’t a part of God’s plan and then be ready to feel God’s hand upon your shoulder.  Listen for Jesus as he offers you a resurrection moment.  “Be raised, and fear not” for God loves you, forgives you, and wants to build the Kingdom of Heaven with your help. Amen.

If, somewhere in the next eight weeks, you can find your way there: from the depths of your sinfulness to the heights of your resurrection moment, you will have been blessed to have the glory of God revealed to you.  In Hebrew, the word for glory means “weight” or “heaviness.”[1]  By the grace of God, what starts as the weight of our sin is transformed into the weight of Christ’s hand upon your shoulder, inviting you to be raised and fear not.  My prayer for you this Lent is that you feel the weight of God’s glory so that you can join with Jesus on Resurrection Day.  Amen.

[1] Elizabeth Palmer, “Sunday’s Coming” Christian Century Email 20 Feb 2017.