There’s an image I cannot get out of my head this Ash Wednesday. It’s the image of 21 Egyptians … 21 Coptic Christians kneeling in orange jumpsuits on a beach in Libya in front of their executioners – ISIS terrorists in black jumpsuits with their faces covered. 21 men martyred because they were Christians and, as the ringleader of the ISIS executioners said, “They have the cross of Christ in their heads.” They were beheaded because they had the cross of Christ in their heads.
Zack Hunt wrote a blog post that I ran across today where he shares his feelings about this. He spoke of his sense of helplessness, sadness, but most of all rage: pure unmitigated rage. He writes:
"And yet, in my just wrath, I struggle to understand how I’m supposed to respond to the evil that is consuming the Middle East because every urge I have to see those barbaric executioners wiped off the face off the earth is met with a still small voice. It’s a voice I confess I don’t want to hear right now. I want to beat the drums of war and lead the charge to rid the world of these monsters. But as hard as I try to ignore it and no matter how much my heart fills with rage, that still small voice continues to haunt me with words like 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' 'Love your enemies,' 'Turn the other cheek' and “Pray for those who persecute you.'"
This, he confesses, is his greatest struggle with the gospel and I share this too. Because the gospel is hard and it is scandalous in its claim that Jesus didn't just show up to extend grace and mercy to me or even to the oppressed … but also to the oppressors. I won't lie to you … I hate that! The idea that Jesus Christ died not just for the 21 martyrs on that beach but also for their executioners is scandalous and sounds completely insane. And yet, as Jürgen Moltmann so powerfully states:
"The message of the new righteousness which eschatological faith brings into the world says that in fact the executioners will not finally triumph over their victims. It also says that in the end the victims will not triumph over their executioners. The one will triumph who first died for the victims and then also for the executioners, and in so doing revealed a new righteousness which breaks through the vicious circles of hate and vengeance and which from the lost victims and executioners creates a new mankind with a new humanity. Only where righteousness becomes creative and creates right both for the lawless and for those outside the law, only where creative love changes what is hateful and deserving of hate, only where the new man is born who is neither oppressed nor oppresses others, can one speak of the true revolution of righteousness and of the righteousness of God." – The Crucified God, pg. 178
Like Zack Hunt, there are days when this is so much easier to claim and proclaim – but right now, this is where the gospel just burns me and I suspect it may burn you too. It’s one thing to pray for those who gossip about you or stab you in the back figuratively, but what about praying for those who murdered your family? It’s easy to love “enemies” whose “crimes” against you are taking your parking space or disagreeing with your politics … but what about loving someone who would kill you if only they could? Everything in me doesn't want to love people like that. But if grace and mercy can extend to me, who am I to withhold the possibility of it extending to them?
Don't get me wrong. This isn't about letting these criminals off the hook. But it is to say that accountability and justice have to simultaneously coexist with the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for all. I don’t understand it and it isn't up to me … and on days like today, I confess I don’t even like it! But it isn't up to me, or you, is it? The response of the families of these men who were killed for their faith makes me ask myself if somehow grace showed up on that beach in a way I cannot fathom … and likely never will. Can I trust God’s grace can hold out the possibility of transformational conversion for the executioner as well as the executed?
As we come forward this night, we will be marked with the cross of Christ on our heads and remember this cross is in our heads too. While none of us will likely ever be executed because we are Christian, the cross of Christ in our heads will draw us to die to our ways of living and part of that dying is to the idea that Christ only died for some of us and not all of us. It is a scandalous God who can absorb all of this violence and, in some way I cannot understand, redeem it all.
This past week one of our members, Dawn Reid, had a close encounter of the “what was that??!!” kind. Last Wednesday, she and a friend were at the Silver Spring train station. They had to take a footbridge over the tracks and an elevator to the train platform. As they crossed the bridge to the elevator, they noticed a man standing at the elevator who seemed to be waiting for it. When they approached the elevator, they noticed the man had not pushed the button for the elevator. Dawn pressed the button and when the elevator arrived, all three of them got onto it – Dawn, her friend, and this man. The man said nothing to them and was dressed a bit differently. His suit was retro – like it was out of the 1930’s or early 40’s. He didn’t say a word and Dawn and her friend continued to converse. When the elevator reached the platform, the doors opened. Dawn and her friend exited the elevator … and her friend said, “Hey, where did that guy go?” Dawn said, “What guy?” Her friend said, “You know, the man who was on the elevator with us.” Dawn saw the man as did her friend, but when they looked around he was nowhere to be seen. Later that week, Dawn was showing this same friend some pictures of her grandfather, Theophilus Cain, who had died on Monday. Her friend pointed to one of the pictures and said, “It’s him! The man at the elevator at the train station!” Lo and behold … there he was. Theophilus Cain wearing the same suit as the man at the elevator and who had died two days before this encounter. Now both Dawn and her friend saw the man. Both of them could describe him and his unusual manner of dress. They both saw the same thing at the same time. But, by all reasonable and rational thought, Ted Cain could not have been there … or could he?
I think this story helps us enter into the rather odd story of the Transfiguration which we always hear on the last Sunday after Epiphany. And let’s be honest … the story is a bit weird. Jesus goes up on the mountain with Peter, James and John and they all see him talking to two dead guys?! Strains credulity, doesn’t it? Well, after Dawn’s encounter, maybe not so much.
The story opens by saying “after six days” Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up the mountain. What happened before six days? Well, six days earlier Jesus had the conversation with his disciples about his identity. “What’s the buzz in the street? Who do people say I am?” The answers come back “some say Elijah, others John the Baptist, and others one of the prophets of old.” While Moses is not specifically mentioned, he was considered among the great prophets of Israel as the story recounted of his death in Deuteronomy 34 says, “There has never arisen another prophet like Moses who knew the Lord face to face.” Jesus says, “Yeah, yeah, but who do YOU say that I am?” Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah!” He got that right! So six days after Peter confesses Jesus’ true identity, Peter goes with Jesus and two other disciples up the mountain to encounter Jesus, Moses and Elijah talking together. In an affirmation of Peter’s statement, we see that Jesus is clearly not Moses or Elijah – he is in fact, something more.
But now Peter, who earlier blurted out the right answer about Jesus’ identity, says something utterly clueless: “let us build three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Mark even tells us he didn’t know what he was saying for they were terrified. That seems to be one of the two responses we have in the face of witnessing something so extraordinary: total silence or say something stupid. Humans haven’t changed much. Then a cloud overshadows them and a voice says, “This is my Beloved Son, listen to him!” The phrase carries the connotation of “listen to him and keep on listening to him!” These are words that will be difficult to hold onto in the face of the crucifixion to come.
It is important to note that we are about to begin our Lenten journey together. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, a day marked by fasting and penance where we are marked with ashes and told to remember we are dust and to dust we shall return. The season is marked by introspection where we examine our lives, let go of things which draw us away from God, confess where we have fallen short, ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation where possible. It prepares us to enter into the dramatic events of Holy Week so that we can connect to the source of such perfect love as one who would come to lay down his life for each of us.
Today, on this last day of Epiphany, we hear the recounting of a glimpse of the glorified Christ – a glimpse seen by the disciples and one which we occasionally even get ourselves in this life. The glorified Christ is the resurrected Christ and this glimpse today is the promise of what lies beyond the cross and the tomb – a life greater than we can imagine. A life unbound by the limits of time, space, and physicality. You see, that is the glimpse Dawn received of her grandfather last Wednesday – a glimpse of a man no longer bound by time and space but who now lives in the nearer presence of the glorified Christ. And it is this glorified Christ who comes to us through the Sacraments.
Today, we will baptize Brianne Nicole into Christ’s One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. She will become part of Christ’s family – sealed as his own forever. It is the glorified Christ who comes to her through this sacrament and the same Christ who comes to us through the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist. This is the Christ who is present to us always and everywhere throughout the many little deaths and resurrections which we will experience over the course of our lives. This pattern, one of death followed by resurrection, is the Christian life. It is not an easy journey. I really wish we could get to the glory of resurrection without dying first. That would be awesome … but it’s not how life works. Resurrection only comes after death – whether the death be a loss of something in this lifetime, or the final Death of our bodies. It is the glorified Christ who promises through these sacraments to walk with us each step of the way – through our life, through our death, and beyond.
Last year I read a book by Frederick Schmidt entitled “The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times.” Fred is an Episcopal priest and the book is named after his brother Dave Schmidt who died after an eight year battle with brain cancer. Dave had been an ophthalmologist and surgeon whose brain cancer robbed him of not just his life but also his livelihood and purpose: he completely lost his ability to do surgery which gave the gift of healing and sight to so many people. His suffering was deep, raw and real as he not only spent eight years in a dying process but also lost his sense of purpose and life’s meaning in the loss of his vocation. Dave fell away from church because, in his words, he got sick of “stained glass language” and “people blowing sunshine up my ass.” His two best friends through this journey were recovering alcoholics who knew the hell of addiction and didn’t “blow sunshine” up anywhere.
Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of a theme – liberation through healing and the casting out of demons. Jesus, after casting out the demons from the man in the synagogue in Capernaum last week, continues this work of liberation by healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. To our ears this is a strange story because it’s easy to get annoyed that her first instinct is to get up and start serving everybody. Kind of like Johnny Cammareri’s mother on her deathbed in Moonstruck when, upon hearing her son will get married, suddenly recovers and starts cooking for everybody, right? But in first century Palestine, the social role and vocation of a mother would be to show hospitality to guests and being ill robbed her of her vocation and sense of purpose. Being healed by Jesus freed her from the bondage of illness and restored her vocation, purpose and meaning. She didn’t just experience freedom from illness; she also experienced freedom to live into her rightful place in society. This is one of the meta-themes in the gospels, and especially in the Gospel of Mark. Healing is liberation, whether it is healing from physical illness or release from spiritual demons. It gives both the freedom from bondage and oppression and the freedom to live fully into a greater God-given purpose and meaning.
As we continue this journey of Epiphany, we are now closing in on the season of Lent. The focus and the questions begin to get more introspective now. We still are exploring the question of “Who is Jesus to us?” but now it is getting personal. We also need to contemplate the ramifications of who he is to us. If he came to liberate people through the healing and casting out of demons, what does that look like for me? What is holding me in bondage? What does freedom from that look like … feel like? For what purpose does Christ want to free me?
This is where it all gets hard in the harsh light of real life. There’s a real temptation to blow sunshine … or smoke … up your butt in all this talk of freedom. And there are a lot of preachers who do just that … you know … the kind who, in Fred Schmidt’s words, “Smile so much it makes your face hurt” while telling you God has a purpose for you. Right … tell that to a young person dying of cancer. Tell that to a mother grieving the death of her child. Tell that to the alcoholic who killed someone driving drunk and the family of the victim. Where’s your healing and liberation there?
Well … I wish I had a snappy answer for that, but I don’t. Maybe the only thing we can honestly do in the face of the crushing blows of life which come and rob us of meaning and purpose is to say with all honesty “life sucks.” That’s the first question in the Dave Test … can you just admit that sometimes life sucks? Can we live in a space where we can hear today’s gospel reading and hold the tension that our life might just suck right now and the appearance of healing and liberation that seems to come so easy in the Biblical narrative may not happen that way in real life? Can we hold to the hope that healing and liberation will come, but maybe not in the way we want it? Maybe it will come in a different package? Can we let go of our desires to have liberation on our terms and our timeline? Can we accept that restoration, a reversal of outcomes or cure isn’t always possible but that healing can come anyway? This is where faith gets down and dirty because it means opening the eyes of our hearts to see beyond our own pain and suffering so that when healing comes (note I said “when”) we won’t be so mired in resentment, anger and hatred that we miss the moment when it gets here!
Dave Schmidt never did get the cure he wanted. He died from his cancer. He never went back to the vocation which had given him a sense of purpose and meaning in life. He had to leave that behind. That sucked. In truth, it will happen to all of us eventually and in some way or form. Throughout our lives, there are times when we have to leave things behind too – jobs, relationships, health, aspirations, dreams, loved ones – and it sucks, it hurts, and it feels oppressive and dark. The last thing it feels like is freedom.
In time though, if we hang on, stop blowing sunshine/smoke and spewing bogus religious platitudes, a deeper sense of the mystery of God emerges. In the midst of suffering, illness and loss, Dave did end up having a purpose. It’s one I hope to have when my life is ending. He taught others how to live in grace, cut the BS, and get real. He helped his brother be a better priest and, in so doing, he inspired a powerful book to teach us all more about a real faith in the face of a hard life. He didn’t get the healing and liberation he likely wanted initially but in the bigger picture he was freed to give a gift that would outlast his earthly pilgrimage: a witness to faith that’s more real and more sustaining than smoke blowing and stained glass platitudes - a faith which makes sense and, in its own way, heals and liberates me.
“Who do you think you are Jesus of Nazareth?!” That’s not exactly how our gospel reads this morning, but it could. We hear today the beginning of Jesus’ ministry where he enters a synagogue in Capernaum – in Galilee … Galilee of the Gentiles … that place where the known Jewish world collides with the Greco-Roman culture. Jesus isn’t from that town – he’s from Nazareth and we heard a few weeks ago the words of Nathaniel, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
So the stage is set and he’s teaching in this space and some guy blows up at him. Now Mark doesn’t tell us anything, but I’m always curious as to what Jesus might have said that pressed this guy’s buttons. The phrase he utters is actually kind of hard to translate from Greek. Our rendering this morning is, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” but the question in Greek, literally translated, is, “Who to you and to us, Jesus of Nazareth?” This can also be rendered, “Who are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth?” … or “Who do you think you are, Jesus?”
This demon possessed man goes on to ask if Jesus is out to destroy them and then, rightly, identifies Jesus as the “holy one of God.” Notice how the demon speaks the truth: Jesus is the Holy One of God. Demons know exactly who he is. Their job isn’t to deny the identity of Jesus at all. Their job is to get Jesus to question his own identity. You know, it can be done with a tone of voice – imagine the demon saying “you are the Holy One of God” in a mocking, sarcastic tone in front of all of these people. Who do you think you are? Indeed! The demon is attacking Jesus’ very sense of identity as God’s son.
We speak of Jesus as one who was tempted in every way as we are and, if you think about it, you have been assailed in the same way, haven’t you? It begins as far back as elementary school, right? You know, the time when you had the answer to the teacher’s question when nobody else did? What was the reaction of the others students? “You think you are so smart!” “Teacher’s pet!” Right? You likely were thrown nasty little barbs from others born out of petty jealousy and insecurity to knock you off your game. It’s an attack on your identity – meant to sow seeds of self-doubt and even loathing. Adults do it too and for the same reasons. They backstab you in the workplace, triangulate and spread malicious rumors or knock you down personally and professionally. All of this is demonic in nature – it is not of God and intended to make you doubt who you are and, more importantly, whose you are.
Jesus doesn’t take this guy’s bait. He doesn’t let this attack on his identity and mission knock him off his message. Instead, he rebukes the unclean spirit – he calls it out for what it is. We don’t hear his words exactly, but he commands it to be silent and come out. Now, for us in our modern scientific world, this sounds a little “woo woo.” But naming demons is still important. Calling out aberrant behavior, naming the dysfunction, and telling the truth takes the power away from demons. Oh sure, they don’t go down without a fight (even the story tells us they convulsed the man before leaving), but naming those behaviors in others which attack your identity and are not of God takes their power to hurt you away.
There are all kinds of people who will do their best to try and attack your identity, your gifts and your graces. In every case, their attacks speak volumes about their brokenness and often little to nothing about you. When the attacks come, especially when they are sneaky, backstabbing, and malicious, think back to this story and how Jesus responded. He claimed God’s power over his life and rebuked the demon who tried to make him doubt who he was and whose he is. When you are attacked, remind yourself that no person on earth can steal your rightful place as a child of God in Christ. No matter who you are or what you have done … nothing can ever destroy your identity as beloved in Christ. Thanks be to God.
Charles Dickens wrote a book comparing and contrasting the cities of Paris and London in the years prior to the French Revolution. Many of us read “A Tale of Two Cities” in either high school or college. Today’s lectionary selections from the Hebrew scripture and Gospel could be subtitled “A Tale of Two Calls” as they offer us a contrast of God’s call to action in our lives.
The first reading is from the very short Book of Jonah – one of the minor prophets. Jonah is only mentioned one other time outside of the book bearing his name in the Book of 2nd Kings. He lived during the reign of King Jeroboam II who reigned over the northern Kingdom of Israel from 789-748 BCE – just before the Assyrians invaded in 721 BCE and wiped Israel off the map. It was said of King Jeroboam II “He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.”
So this places Jonah as a prophet just prior to the Assyrian invasion. In those days there were really two kinds of prophets – the court prophets, or advisors, to the king and … well … the other guys who generally offered the alternative narrative, so to speak. The “other guys” were people like Hosea and Amos – and they were very critical of the kings and the economic oppression they were inflicting on the people. They said unpopular things which, in essence, said, “Hey, look to the north! The Assyrians are getting powerful! This will be big trouble for you if you keep your foot on the neck of the poor because when the Assyrians invade, who do you think the poor will side with? Not you!!” (OK … I’ve just summarized the basic message, but you get the idea). This was not a popular narrative and the court prophets, who generally were the “yes men” of the king, kept saying everything was just fine because we are God’s people and God will protect us. Some scholars believe Jonah belonged to this group of court prophets and have proposed that the Book of Jonah is actually a satirical jab at the court prophets themselves. I find this an intriguing idea and treating it as satire makes a lot of sense.
First, it gets us past that whole literal thing about his being three days in the belly of the whale (or big fish, which is a better translation). We can take that as metaphor instead of wondering how he could survive the stomach acid of the fish. It also sets the stage better for Jonah’s response to his call. Here’s the Sparknotes version:
God tells Jonah, “Go to Nineveh and tell those people I’m not happy with what’s going on there.” Nineveh is the capital city of … the Assyrian Empire (the empire which is rapidly coming to power in Jonah’s lifetime). Jonah essentially says, “Aw hell no! I’m going to Tarshish.” He books a passage on the next boat out and, while at sea, a great storm comes up. Jonah knows it’s because he bailed on God and throws himself overboard to save the rest of the people (a somewhat noble act given his overall cranky attitude). Big fish swallows Jonah and he spends three days there. In that time he offers up a lament which, quite frankly, is rather narcissistic. It’s all about Jonah and what a bummer it is that his life has come to this. Fish spits Jonah out and God says, “Go to Nineveh and do what I told you to do.” As a side note, Jonah has acquired some cred in this fish episode – the people of Nineveh worship a fish headed god called Dagon and anybody who survived an encounter with Dagon had to be taken seriously. Nineveh is a three day’s journey across, so he sets out, walks for one day which probably just got him inside the city gates … and he says, “God’s gonna get you if you don’t repent.” Then he turns around and leaves. Yeah, he did what God told him to do …by doing the bare minimum! Then he goes up on a cliff to sit down and watch the hellfire and brimstone rain down on Nineveh – because surely God was going to smite them. A plant springs up and gives him shade, for which he’s thankful. Then a worm comes and kills the plant. Jonah grieves over the plant and is kind of ticked off that the Ninevites get off the hook. God says, “Are you kidding me?! You cry over a plant but have no feelings for all of those people?! Seriously?!” … The End. (I told you that’s the Sparknotes version).
So Jonah is one cranky, selfish guy who only reluctantly does what God tells him to do. Contrast that with the reading from Mark about the call of the first disciples. Jesus begins his ministry by preaching repentance and believing in the good news. He sees Simon and Andrew and says, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” Intrigued, they drop everything and follow Jesus. James and John do the same. Mark gives us a hint about the ages of the disciples in this. The average life span in the Roman Empire was 40 years. James and John are in the boat with their father Zebedee. If Zebedee is still able to work, he’s likely in his 30’s … which would make James and John likely in their late teens. We often see Jesus and the disciples pictured in art as being roughly the same age but this narrative hints at an age difference. So what made them drop everything and follow immediately and willingly? Maybe the hint of an adventure – if you think about it, what future did these guys have? Fishing today, fishing tomorrow, fishing next week … pretty monotonous, isn’t it? And fishermen really weren’t highly regarded by anyone. So suddenly this guy comes along and invites you to follow … well … what have you got to lose, right?
The calls of Jonah, the reluctant follower, and the disciples as willing followers gives us two responses and, frankly, I find I’m usually some mixture of the two. Sometimes I am quick to say “yes” and other times I try to head for Tarshish. For me, ordination to the priesthood was my personal Nineveh. I didn’t spend 3 days in fish guts … more like 26 years of trying to find a way out. But here I am … and Nineveh isn’t so bad after all.
God’s call to each of us demands a response. Each of us in baptism becomes a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How we respond to that is the question. The good news is God uses our response, whether willing or reluctant, to work out the plan of salvation. God can use Jonah’s reluctant crankiness as much as he could the willingness of Simon, Andrew, James and John. None of them knew what they were going to get into by following their call. None of us knows exactly where God’s call will take us either. But God is faithful and never leaves us to face this adventure alone.
This year Epiphany fell on Tuesday, although our lectionary gave us a “preview of coming attractions” by touching on the visit of the Magi last Sunday. This Sunday we observe the Baptism of Jesus and the one year anniversary of “Baptizma-palooza” here at Grace where we baptized seven people this time last year. We don’t have any baptisms this morning but, as you can see, the holy water is on the altar and you all are sitting in the splash zone!
Anglicans still celebrate what is known as Epiphanytide. That was dropped from the Roman Catholic calendar during Vatican II and they call this “ordinary time.” Personally, I’m glad we didn’t drop the concept of Epiphanytide. Epiphany is also known as “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles” and our readings have to do with how Jesus was revealed as Christ to more than just the Jews – he is the Christ for the whole world. The focus of this time of Epiphanytide is focused on the question, “Who is Jesus the Christ to us?” In Lent, we will turn the question around to ask, “Who am I to Jesus the Christ?” It’s like these two seasons are two sides of the same coin. Borrowing from our Orthodox friends, there are three key stories of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles: the visit of the Magi which we heard last week, the baptism of Jesus who came from Nazareth in Galilee, and the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (which we only hear in Year C of our lectionary). The baptism of Jesus and the wedding miracle mention Galilee. This region in Jesus’ day was called Galilee of the Gentiles and it was where the known Jewish world ended and the alien world of the Gentiles, the “Others,” began. It is a reminder that if we think the Jesus story is only for a small group, we are thinking far too small!
We hear that John is baptizing people in the Jordan River in repentance for sin and the people came confessing their sins. In essence, John was repurposing the mikvah ritual bath of purity and extending it to mean more than bodily cleansing – it was now even more of a spiritual cleansing. This raises a very thorny theological question. If Jesus, as scripture says, was “tempted in every way we are yet did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15), then why did Jesus come to John for a baptism of repentance for sin? Yeah … the “sinless one to Jordan came” … but why? Honestly, this is a mystery we can never know. Some have suggested he did it in solidarity with us as humans. Perhaps. But maybe he felt moved to do this for some other reason … maybe it was part of his discernment process. We do know he was driven into the wilderness for a time of testing immediately following his baptism and we hear there was a voice proclaiming him the Beloved Son. Thus begins the earthly ministry of Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles.
We continue this ritual of baptism in the Church and speak of it as the means by which we enter the life of Grace and by which we renounce the power of Sin. In the early Church, people took this whole washing away your sins literally and would wait until the very end of their lives to get baptized. The rationale was that if I was on my death bed and taking my last few breaths, you could baptize me because there was no way I could possibly sin after that! Thankfully, we don’t wait that long anymore. But, we do recognize that baptism doesn’t magically shield us from sinning. We will sin after our baptism because the power of Sin (capital “S”) is something which “clings closely” (Hebrews 12:1) and will cause our stumbling over and over again. The promise of baptism is that we will never sin it is that Sin doesn’t get the last word.
And this week, that is powerful news. It’s been a hard week for the Episcopal Church, for the Diocese of Maryland, for all of us. On Tuesday, on the Feast of Epiphany, Bishop Sutton and the diocesan staff met with all of us clergy to discuss the terrible tragedy of Tom Palermo’s death and the involvement of our bishop suffragan, Heather Cook, in that collision. I cannot call it an accident. An accident is unintentional and I have trouble speaking of drinking and driving as “accidental.” Drunk driving happens when people make choices to drink and drive regardless of whether they are addicted or not and people make bad choices all the time … but they are not accidents. On Friday, Heather Cook was charged with manslaughter, driving under the influence and texting while driving. Heather’s blood alcohol level at the time of the collision was .22 indicating severe intoxication. Her blood alcohol level at her first arrest for driving under the influence was .27. To give you some perspective, if those of us who are not alcoholic had that level of alcohol in our system, we would be unconscious and possibly dead. This high level of alcohol in Heather’s system speaks to years of heavy drinking to build up a tolerance to the drug. She is alcoholic. She has a disease. But, she also had choices about whether or not to face and treat her disease. We must have compassion on the illness, but we can ask hard questions about why she chose not to treat it.
Like many of you, I have lots of anger, hurt, embarrassment, shame, and frustration. This horrible situation has raised many questions about how she could have been elected bishop and why weren’t the tough questions asked about her sobriety and what kind of program of recovery she was working. These are questions we need to ask because not only did Heather fail us in concealing her alcoholism, we failed her by not asking the hard questions and hiding that under the blanket of being “forgiving” and “pastoral.” There is nothing pastoral about not holding people accountable. There is nothing pastoral about setting Heather up to fail because we wanted to be “nice.”
Yes, the power of Sin has reared its head in this issue. It sucked us all in. Heather’s baptism didn’t prevent her from drinking and driving and it didn’t prevent the death of Tom Palermo because of her choices. But what Heather’s baptism did do, and what ours does for us, is mark us as Christ’s own forever so that Sin will never, ever get the last word. God always gets the last word. Think about it – scripture even tells us that Sin isn’t the last word. Remember that young Pharisee named Saul? The one who was an accessory to the murder of Stephen? Yes, he was an accessory to murder! And yet, Sin didn’t get the last word … he became Paul and spread the message of the crucified and risen Christ to the whole known Roman world. What about Peter, the one who when the chips were down denied Jesus three times? Sin didn’t get the last word … and Jesus returned to him after the resurrection asking “do you love me?” And Thomas who said he would “never believe” in the resurrected Christ? Sin that cause his unbelief didn’t get the last word there either … Jesus returned and Thomas proclaimed him “My Lord and my God!” Even before Christ came, Sin didn’t get the last word … Moses who murdered an Egyptian went on to liberate God’s people from slavery. Over and over the scripture tells us that Sin isn’t the last word and God isn’t finished yet! And if that is true for Paul and Peter and Thomas, and Moses, then it is true for Heather Cook … and you … and me.
Today is one of those days when our Episcopal readings do not follow the Revised Common Lectionary. We get three different options of gospel texts, so it’s “preacher’s choice” day. We are approaching Epiphany, which takes place on Tuesday this year and two of our readings are about the arrival of the Magi seeking the Christ child. The one we’ve just heard is what happened after the Magi visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus and returned to their country by another way so as to avoid returning to Herod. The verses omitted from today’s gospel tell of Herod’s rage and his orders to kill all of the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two in order to remove the threat of a rival king. For those of you who were here last Sunday for Lessons and Carols, you heard this reading in its entirety and sang the haunting Coventry Carol: “His men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay.” This gruesome story is a reminder that Jesus was a threat to earthly powers from the very beginning … and he still is.
The danger of story, especially those from the Bible which become so familiar, is that our minds and hearts tend to reduce them over time. When you hear something over and over, you tend to reduce the narrative and compartmentalize it, often with the effect of neatly categorizing the settings and characters into flattened images that do not convey the complexity of the human beings as they really were. It’s easy for us to reduce people into the categories of either being a hero or villain. When we do that, we can then divorce ourselves from identifying with the elements of the story and refuse to acknowledge parts of our own character – especially the parts we don’t want to own. After all, who wants to be like King Herod – a despotic, ruthless person who would do anything including kill to protect himself? Surely none of us are like that, are we?
Herod the Great was born in 73 BCE and died in 4 BCE. He was the son of an Idumean father and an Arab mother – he was decidedly not Jewish. Through a series of intrigues involving Julius Caesar, Marc Antony & Cleopatra, and Octavian he became a puppet king of the Judean district encompassing most of modern Israel, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. While Herod was powerful in some ways, he was also very vulnerable. He had a number of enemies including most of the Jewish religious establishment who rejected him even though he married the daughter of the former high priest John Hyrcanus. He lived in the precarious world of Roman politics where choosing sides in conflicts could cause you to wind up dead overnight. In many respects, Herod was a man who lived in fear which drove him to do whatever it took to protect himself – including ordering the death of his father-in-law John Hyrcanus, his wife Mariamme I (daughter of John Hyrcanus) and two of his sons. So when Magi arrive and inquire about a new king, Matthew tells us that Herod was terrified and all Jerusalem with him. In the absence of information, fear sets in and sets the stage for an explosion of rage.
This rival born in Bethlehem who would later claim his kingdom is not of this world challenges Herod and Rome itself – and it is still a challenge to us when we are tempted to protect ourselves at all costs. While we may not personally commit mass murder, there are times when our anger and rage born of fear or confusion can combine with that of others in mass violence. Just before the holidays arrived, our government released more detailed information about the torture and atrocities committed by our own troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report was damning and shed light on far more than waterboarding done in the name of truth, justice and the American way. Because of our fear of terrorism, our government and military carried out terrible atrocities against the Iraqi and Afghani people. We want to think we are not like Herod … but this evidence says we are not so different after all.
And it even comes more close to us than that. Although I have been away on vacation, I could not escape the horrible news of the death of Baltimore cyclist Tom Palermo and our own bishop suffragan being the driver of the vehicle that killed him. This news is devastating on so many levels and has stirred many emotions within me from grief, to confusion, to anger. There is a temptation with such strong emotions to rush to some kind of resolution. Often this resolution is born of fear and anxiety and leads us to jump to conclusions based on assumption which is what many have done on social media. The explosion of anger, name calling and figurative demands for our bishop’s blood by those who claimed to be Episcopalians sickened me. All of them justified their vitriol by saying they were “morally outraged” and “demanding justice.” In the absence of information rage exploded and was rationalized and justified … not so unlike Herod after all.
Christ’s birth challenges our own tendencies to want to play judge and jury, to lash out when we hurt or are fearful. He told us to pray for our enemies and even went on to pray for those who turned their violence on him. His example stands as a warning to us when we feel justified in lashing out in the name of moral outrage or demands for justice. The line between moral outrage and self-righteous pontificating is very thin indeed. We are called as people marked by baptism to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbors as ourselves – even when we don’t want to.
Yes, this sweet little Jesus boy is not so easy to take, is he? He’s still a threat to our egos, our desire to control, and especially to our desire to exercise superiority over others. This Jesus is dangerous even to us. But the danger comes with the hope of transformation for us too. We do not have to remain like Herod – fearful and prone to lashing out. Jesus invites us to be so much more. His death and resurrection provide the pattern for our own – and not just the final physical death, but for all the deaths we will endure in this life … especially the death of our false selves … our egos. Jesus meets us in our fears yet isn’t satisfied to leave us there with them. While the birth of the Prince of Peace did not eradicate sin, and this story reminds us of that truth, he did come so that the power of sin would never get the final word – not for us and not for the children of Bethlehem … or Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. Thanks be to God.
The late bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, The Right Rev. Thomas Shaw, posted a series of videos on YouTube called “A Monk in the Midst.” He was a brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist as well as being an Episcopal bishop. He spoke in one of these videos about an encounter he had with a man named Fred and his 6 year old son Sam about what they were going to do on Christmas. The father explained that they would get up and open their presents on Christmas morning and then go to church. The son replied, “Church?! On Christmas? We’re going to go to church on Christmas?” Fred patiently explained, “Of course, that’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about Jesus’ birth and God coming to us.” Sam said, “I know, I know, I know! But Christmas! Church wrecks everything!” The church wrecks everything. Yes, yes it does and tonight we come here to encounter not only the church that wrecks everything, but the child who was born to wreck everything.
I know that may sound a bit odd in the face of our culture’s approach to Christmas. It’s easy to be lulled by the sentimentality of it all, isn’t it? I confess even our own hymnody conspires to tame this feast day into something more palatable and … dare I say … nice. I mean “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie?” Really? I’m not sure that Bethlehem has ever been that peaceful … ever. And “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?” No crying? We’d call that a zero on the Apgar score and would start resuscitation! Seriously, those images aren’t helping. Neither are the emotional expectations of the holidays … you know those happy family get togethers that really don’t turn out so great or the longing for an estranged relationship to magically get better and be resolved in some kind of Christmas miracle? Then there’s the cultural pressure to over consume – whether it’s going overboard in buying presents and dreading the credit card bill in January or over eating and drinking and dreading what the scale will tell you in January. Yes, we’ve made Christmas quite something, haven’t we?
But the reality is we come together this night to pay honor to the one who came to wreck all of that. Yes … to wreck everything! This child’s birth was the plan of a subversive God who snuck into the back door of history on a mission to wreck everything. Coming as one of us – vulnerable, poor, and powerless – he came to upend the world as we have constructed it. He came to wreck our selfishness and narcissism so that we might be able to love and know the love of God and of others too. He came to wreck the political systems that choose winners and losers so that all of his children would be included in the kingdom. He came to break down our tendency of tribalism pitting one group against another. Oh yes, we still organize ourselves into tribes – we just call them political parties, faith traditions or denominations now. He came to tell us about a different kind of economy – one based on valuing the eternal rather than things which pass away. He came to break down our ideas of family to embrace a wider vision of God’s family which includes all people … not just the ones like us. Yes … he came to wreck every structure we try to build which put me first at the expense of everyone else. As he would later tell his followers, he came not to be served but to serve … and he calls us to follow in his path.
This is no small thing and for 2000 plus years people have come together to mark the birth of Christ as God’s subversive way of dwelling among us and wrecking everything for the sake of bringing about something greater than we could ask for or imagine – a vision of the kingdom of God unfolding right here in our midst. May this holy child, this holy one man wrecking crew, disrupt your life this season to plant the grace of God in your heart that you may come to know Christ’s love.
Well, we’ve all emerged from the “turkey coma,” plenty of football, the Macy’s Day Parade, the arrival of Santa, malls all decked out in glitter and glow, “ho, ho, ho and mistletoe and lots of presents for pretty girls,” … and then you come to church and hear about the end of all time! What a buzzkill, right? Seriously, if there is one thing the first Sunday of Advent does, it’s to jerk you by the collar back into reality with the sun darkened, the moon failing to give its light, stars falling from the heavens, the elect being gathered from earth and heaven … whoa! Christianity is so counter-cultural. We live not according to the pace of the world outside, but according to a different pace set by the heartbeat of God.
Last week was Christ the King Sunday where we heard the parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew’s gospel – the last teaching Jesus gives before entering Jerusalem. Today we begin Year B with readings from the Gospel of Mark and this is a teaching where Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and we are in Holy Week. So you can see that the end of the last liturgical year carries through to this one. Just as Jesus’ teaching last week was about the last judgment, today’s is a continuation speaking in apocalyptic language about the end of all time. We profess in our faith that every end signals a new beginning and every beginning is connected to an ending.
Apocalyptic language gives Episcopalians the yips because it so easy and so often misinterpreted. St. John the Divine did not sit in that cave on Patmos and wonder what he was going to say to the people of Brunswick Maryland in 2014. He was using highly symbolic language to speak to the people of his own day. So too was the prophet Daniel as well as Isaiah, from whom we heard this morning. Jesus’ words need to be understood in the context of how Mark is telling the story to his own community. Mark is often called the Gospel of persecution because of its emphasis on suffering and healing. It is believed Mark was written between 66 and 70 AD – during the time of the Jewish Revolt which resulted in the utter destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD and the annihilation of thousands of Jews. For those living in Jerusalem, witnessing the fearful and awesome power of Rome crush this rebellion and destroy the temple must have seemed like the end of all things. Jesus’ words “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” is best understood within the context of Mark’s audience. They witnessed this destruction.
But when we read these passages, they are a reminder that there will be an end to all things and in that grand cosmic scale, we are very small indeed. We become mindful of how small we are and the distance between ourselves and God. This distance brings to mind our sinful state. This is what Isaiah is referring to in the reading we heard today: “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” This state of Sin is one of the twin powers Paul speaks of in so many of his writings: the Powers of Sin and Death. These are not just the small failings of our everyday lives, these are powers beyond us which hold us in chains and hold our will in bondage. This is heavy stuff indeed! But the fact that we live in bondage to Sin and Death is not Gospel – it’s what I call “a page out of the Book of Duh!” It is what it is, but it reminds us that we have no power within ourselves to save ourselves. This is where the Gospel enters the story.
Dame Julian of Norwich said it best in her writings. Dame Julian was a 14th century mystic who lived in a small room attached to the cathedral in Norwich, England. She had two windows out of this small room: one which looked into the cathedral where she could contemplate the Blessed Sacrament and the other looked out into the town square so she could give counsel to all who came seeking spiritual guidance. Kings, noblemen and women, bishops, priests, laborers and farmers – many people from all over would come seeking her guidance. We know little about her life, but she left a beautiful legacy. She left us a book called “Showings of Divine Love” which was the very first book published in the English language. Now mind you, this was Middle English and for any of you who have read Beowulf, you know what Middle English is like! There are modern translations of Julians’ book. But in it she shares the visions she had from Christ himself telling her that everything of God was about love. She was shown that our sins are not counted against us but are the “stars in our crown.” She wrote that our sins are “behovely” – which is a Middle English word meaning necessary, advantageous and useful. That probably sounds strange to you especially in light of our Calvinistic and moralistic society. But it makes sense when she goes on to say they are behovely because Sin was the precise reason Christ came to us in human form. If we were not in bondage to Sin, there would have been no need for Christ at all! God could have stayed distant from the created order … but God did not do that. Rather, God humbled himself to become real flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. And this is gospel – because God in Jesus Christ could do for us what we could not do for ourselves … save us from the powers of Sin and Death.
And so, you see, in spite of the surface appearance of doom and gloom in today’s readings, they remind us our bondage to Sin and Death does not get the last word. We always have a way to turn back and return home to Christ’s heart. Advent prepares us not only to celebrate and remember that first Christmas over 2,000 years ago, but also to remember we are living into the Second Advent awaiting Christ’s coming again. It also reminds us that Christ is being birthed each and every day in this community of faith – right in our own hearts – as we seek to serve each other in his name. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again … thanks be to God.
Poet John Milton, most famous for writing Paradise Lost, was afflicted with total blindness when he was only 35 years old. For one whose livelihood depended on seeing, this was a devastating blow to his sense of purpose. He wrote these words about it:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."
Today marks the end of the Church Year. It is Christ the King Sunday and is kind of like a liturgical New Year’s Eve. Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent and we begin our pilgrimage once again as Christians on a pilgrimage of faith. Today we hear the last parable told by Jesus before he would enter Jerusalem and face the cross. This parable is commonly known as the parable of the sheep and the goats. It speaks to the reality of there being a final judgment where the sifting of good from evil will happen before the throne of God. At first read, there is an admonition that what we do to the “least of these” sisters and brothers is what we do to the King of Kings. It reminds us that Christ comes to us in unexpected ways and through the people the world would rather ignore or throw away. We are bidden to attend to their needs as in doing so, we attend to Christ himself.
But there is a troublesome twist in this story. We can get become obsessed with the aspect of what we “do to the least of these.” We live in a culture which values doing over being and our first impression of this parable could leave us thinking the emphasis is on being those who are “doers” of ministry. When we do that, we separate ourselves from ever being “the least of these.” There is a sense that the “least of these” is always someone else and not us.
A few weeks ago, we gathered to discuss our youth and adult formation programs. In so doing, Kathy Brown talked about the ebb and flow of our lives and the need for balance. Too much flow and we burn out. Too much ebb and we withdraw. This is the description of the balance between doing and being. Unfortunately, the values of our culture emphasize the doing over the being – and we end up over-stressed, under-rested, and over-caffeinated. This is not what God intends for us.
While there is merit in the surface reading of this parable and we are called to reach out to the “least of these” – those whom we and the world would rather ignore – we are also called to recognize when we ourselves are the “least of these.” In truth, we would rather not be the “least of these,” would we? We hate to ask for help or depend on others – this makes us vulnerable and we hate it! I hate it too. But all of us, in various times and places, are the “least of these” in some way. And the question is how do we respond to our own vulnerability? Do we graciously accept the help and care of others or do we lash out in anger and drive them away? One of the most common things I heard from my patients when I was a hospice chaplain was they felt useless and without a sense of purpose. I had to remind them that they still had a purpose – to teach their families how to die well and gracefully accept the ministrations of their loved ones. I would ask them, “If you cannot accept the ministrations and gifts of others now, how will you ever be ready to receive the grace and glory God has prepared for you in the life to come?”
As we think about the words of Jesus, we need to remember that for every one of those who are doing the clothing, feeding, and visiting, there is a recipient of that ministry who is being clothed, fed and visited. It takes both the doer and the receiver for the relationship to blossom and the love of Christ to be fully expressed. As Milton expressed, there is grace in being the one who "stands and waits" when one does so in the context of relationship and allows others to minister to their needs. I truly believe that the ones who will face the harshest judgment in the final analysis are those who cut themselves off from others – those who believe they do not need to be doers or receivers. Those who isolate and refuse to give to others or refuse to receive from others will relegate themselves to live in a hell of their own making.
We are all sheep … and we are all goats. We all have times when we are the doers ministering to others and times when we need to be on the receiving end of other’s ministrations. It is when we engage in the relationships of feeding, clothing, visiting, welcoming, and caring for each other that Christ enters into the space between us and the Kingdom of God gets a little more real and just a little bit closer.