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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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.

The Kingdom of God is Still Near

For those of us who run in Episcopal circles, the past few months have been really topsy-turvy.  While it is true that Episcopalians span the political spectrum, it is equally true that the majority of Episcopal priests tend to sit left of center.  The old joke that Episcopal congregations have altar rails to separate the Republicans from the Democrat might not be as true as it once was, but there is still a statistically significant difference between the political balance of the church’s laity and her clergy.  As you might guess, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has brought with it much consternation.  In recent weeks there have been two major controversies around the decision by some congregations to cease the habit of praying for the President by name and around two decisions by the Washington National Cathedral to 1) hold the usual interfaith prayer service on the eve of the Inauguration and 2) to allow a choir to perform at the Inauguration itself.  I will not weigh in on any of those questions because, by and large, it has been yet another opportunity for the Episcopal Church to shoot itself in the foot by behaving badly in disagreement.  We should have learned our lesson in 2003 following the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but sadly, the rise of social media since ’03 has allowed us to be only more publicly cantankerous than we were before.

I will say this, however, that no matter what you think about what will happen when Donald J. Trump is sworn in at noon on Friday, the central message of Jesus is still true. The Kingdom of God is still near.  For my Republican friends, know that the Kingdom of God was near when the Affordable Care Act became law.  For my Democrat friends, know that the Kingdom of God is near even as it is being repealed.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent upon who is in office, but rather, its unveiling is the ongoing work of the Body of Christ, of which we are constituent members.

Our task, in light of the ongoing dis-ease in our country and the wider world, is to see Christ in each other, to be about building the Kingdom on earth, and to be discerning God’s will for the world in which we live.  It is that final piece that causes the most problems, since both sides of our current debates are good at claiming God is on their side, but if we work hard at the first bit, at seeing Christ in each other, and especially looking for Christ in those with whom we disagree, then the Kingdom of God comes even closer than it had been before.

As we approach an historic moment, with some who rejoice, some who mourn, and some who fear, I’m looking toward the Kingdom, looking for Christ in my neighbor, and committing now, more than ever, to work toward God’s dream for creation that God so loved that he sent his only Son not to condemn for its failures, but to save for its potential.  The Kingdom of God is still near, dear reader, pray that your eyes might be open to see your place in bringing it into reality.

Many will say “the time is near”

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Late last week, the Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian news site made in the image of the Onion, posted an article entitled “Second Coming of Christ Scheduled for Game 7 of Cubs-Indians World Series.”  Quite honestly, that Jesus didn’t come back during that rain delay is surprising to me, but who knows, perhaps God’s omnipotent plan for all of Creation doesn’t revolve around the decaying pass time of the current largest empirical economy in the world.  I’ve seen others who think that maybe tomorrow will be the day.  This is again an American-centric plan that suggests that the 2016 Presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might be the catalyst for Jesus’ Second Coming.

Of course, Jesus warned us about such foolishness. In Sunday’s timely and unavoidable Gospel lesson, we find ourselves jumping ahead to Holy Week.  Since most Episcopal congregations skipped over Proper 27, Presumably in order to transfer All Saints’, but likely because nobody wanted to preach levirite marriage, after almost four months of walking with Jesus from Mount Tabor to Jerusalem, we all of a sudden find ourselves in Jerusalem in the thick of Jesus’ struggle ahead of the cross.  Last week’s lesson was h the first of several encounters with the religious powers-that-be.  This week, we hear a portion of Jesus’ ongoing lament over Jerusalem, and how the central image of God’s steadfast love for his people has been sabotaged, and now has to be torn down.

Even then, Jesus says, even when God allows his very home to be destroyed in your midst, don’t let people fool you into thinking it is something bigger than it is.  There will be wars and rumors of wars.  We’ve got that.  Earthquakes.  See Kansas and Oklahoma.  Famines. Check. Plagues.  Isn’t Whopping cough making a comeback?  Portents in the heavens?  A Wrigley Field sign that reads “World Series Champs” would seem to qualify.

If you are looking for signs, they will no doubt seem to be there, and yet, we do not know the day or the hour.  Instead, rather than getting caught up in the signs and the scare tactics, Jesus invites us to trust that he will be by our side.  As we go to the polls tomorrow, fueled by a healthy dose of fear mongering from both sides over the past year or more, remember that even if the world were to end tomorrow, not that I think it will, God is still in control.