Wonder Bread: A Sermon for Proper 13, Year B, 2018

Bread. Think about all the different types of bread there are—the mundane, for example, the ironically-named “wonder bread.” Or what passes for bread in our celebrations of the eucharist—little discs of hard, tasteless, baked wheat. Think of the best bread you’ve ever had—home-baked right out of the oven, or crusty French baguette, eaten with olive oil and a glass of wine. Bread comes in many shapes and sizes, made with thousands of different ingredients, deriving from vastly different cultures and culinary traditions. Life without bread is unimaginable, even for those who are gluten-intolerant, or have celiac disease. There are breads made for them as well. Like wonder bread or the hosts we use in the Eucharist, bread can be industrialized and standardized. But at its best bread reflects the baker, the ingredients, the oven, and the community in which it is baked and the community which, when bread is broken, it creates. Continue reading

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Feeding bodies, sharing God’s presence: A Sermon for Proper 12, Year B, 2018

Jesus worked miracles—signs, to use the language of the Gospel of John. This fact is the sort of thing that can make twenty-first century Christians squirm in their pews. Oh, I know, most of us probably would say sure, Jesus did some amazing things, but magically creating so much bread and fish that 5000 people were fed, that there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets, is just a little bit beyond the realm of belief. And that Jesus walked on water? That story is so farfetched that it’s become symbol of unbelievable holiness or perfection. We say of someone who’s just perfect in every way, “They walk on water.” Continue reading

Are we prophets? Are we prophets’ children? A Sermon for Proper 10B, 2018

I get uncomfortable whenever I hear progressive Christians talking about being prophetic. In my experience, it usually means little more than making political statements that have more to do with American partisan politics than with the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that’s only one of the ways in which Christians misread the traditions of biblical prophecy.

We tend to see the prophets through the eyes of Handel’s Messiah or the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. On this view, the prophets were mostly about predicting the coming of the Messiah, and their importance for Christians lies in the fact that the appearance of Jesus is both a confirmation of their predictions, and that they offer key insights into who and what Jesus is.  Continue reading

St. Paul’s conflicts and our own: A sermon on Prayer Book Revision for Proper 9B, 2018

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church is gathering in Austin, TX. It takes place every three years, bringing together bishops, lay and clerical deputies from every diocese to oversee the life of our church. It is the ultimate governing authority of the Episcopal Church, so it has the final say over matters of doctrine, governance, and even our worship.

On Friday, the House of Deputies passed a resolution authorizing comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Last accomplished in 1979, prayer book revision is always challenging, time-consuming, full of conflict. While the current timeline suggests the completion of the work in a decade or so, it may be that like our conversations and conflicts over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including marriage, will dominate our common life as a denomination for the next decade. It’s worth pointing out that for this process to move forward, the House of Bishops will also have to approve the resolution for prayer book revision.

If you are interested in these matters, I invite you to join me later this morning in the library where I will answer questions and offer opportunity for your reflections. In the meantime, I would like to ask you a few questions:

  • How many of you own a book of common prayer?
  • For those of you who own one, do you know where it is? When was the last time you opened it?

In my experience as an Episcopalian, lay and priest, it’s my sense that we tend to have a great emotional attachment to the book of common prayer as a symbol, and also to the language of the liturgy, but that most of us don’t engage with it in any significant way in our personal spiritual lives or with the theological perspectives offered there. That is to say, we are not “shaped” by its theology and spirituality, as we are intended to be.

The presenting issues for revision are fairly clear. Many of us struggle with the gendered language in the liturgy and in the Psalter, and we also struggle with the patriarchal and hierarchical language. In addition, there are debates about the revising the marriage rite in the BCP to make it inclusive of same gender couples. But once you begin looking at revising the text, certain theological debates will quickly explode—the atonement, for example.

So, we are going to be enmeshed in conversation and most likely conflict in the coming years as we discuss and implement liturgical revision. It’s going to be heated, both on the denominational level, and quite likely, here at Grace, and thinking about how we have those conversations, how disagree with each other, will be an important part of the process.

It’s fortunate, then, that we have before us this reading from Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth. For in it he discusses both his own spiritual experience and addresses the deep and bitter conflict in which he has been engaged with this little group of Christians he founded years earlier.

We are coming to the end of a series of selections from this text. I’ve not referred to it in past sermons because, well, it is a complicated text in its theology, in its underlying context, and in its very construction. Most scholars agree that it is a composite text, made up of portions of several letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthian community. They also agree that what we read in this letter is evidence of a deep and painful conflict between Paul and the community in Corinth which he founded. The conflict was personal, having to do with the nature of Paul’s authority and personality.

Today’s reading gets at the heart of that conflict. Part of what was at stake was spiritual experience and the role of spiritual experience in establishing one’s religious authority. The Corinthians, or at least some of them, seemed to believe that unless one had the sort of ecstatic experience that expressed itself speaking in tongues or the like, one had no basis from which to preach the gospel.

This is Paul’s response. It began in the previous chapter with Paul speaking ironically about boasting about his spiritual gifts. Now, he is speaking directly about his own experience. He describes a mystical experience, perhaps even a vision, or a mystical journey to the heavens, where he encountered Jesus Christ and received private revelations. But, he says, no matter how wonderful or powerful that experience was, it isn’t the basis for his proclamation of the gospel or his authority.

He then describes something else, something very different. It’s some sort of physical ailment, a thorn in the flesh, that troubled him for many years. Repeatedly, he prayed for deliverance from this affliction. Instead of healing, he received another message from Jesus Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

If there is any phrase that could encapsulate Paul’s understanding of the gospel, it is this: “power made perfect in weakness.” It is central to his understanding of the cross. Paul writes eloquently about this in 1 Corinthians when he talks about the foolishness of the cross, “For God’s foolishness is s wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

This understanding, this paradox, is the heart of the good news. We want Jesus to perform deeds of power in our midst, we want our prayers answered, our lives, our world changed by the encounter with the good news of Jesus Christ. We want, yes, we do, we want to get the kind of spiritual high at church that Paul describes. And if those things don’t come, we are disappointed and disheartened.

Like the people of Jesus’ hometown, we want him to do the kinds of things among us that we heard about him doing elsewhere. And when that doesn’t happen, our faith wavers. But the cross reminds us that Jesus’ power and victory are not according to the world’s standards. The cross is foolishness and a scandal, power made perfect in weakness.

We want Jesus to be a superhero, or at least a superstar. Instead, we follow one who carried his cross to Calvary, and stumbled along the way. We want miracles, deliverance, a problem solver, a fix-it man. Instead, we have Jesus, who couldn’t work deeds of power in his own hometown.

So what’s the point, you ask. Precisely that. Scripture, the gospels bear witness to a Jesus, a Messiah, who doesn’t swoop in from outside and fix everything, a Messiah who doesn’t call on legions of angels to rescue him from execution. The gospel, Paul, proclaim a Messiah who is born like we are, frail and needy, and died just as all humans die. In that Messiah, in his incarnation and death, we see God, power made perfect in weakness.

We see a God, born like us, with our flesh and blood, with all that it means. We see a God who knows us in our frailty and humanity, comes to us in our frailty and humanity and says to us, “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Sometimes, we think we know it all. Sometimes, we think our perspective is the right one, the only legitimate one. Certainly, Paul thought that a great deal of the time. But at the heart of this text is a very different experience and understanding—that power is made perfect in weakness; that in Christ’s weakness and suffering, we see God. Paul was trying to say that what mattered most was not education, or background, or intellectual capacity, or ability to debate and score points. What matters most is Christ crucified.

It’s an important, perhaps the most important thing to comprehend as we try to grow more deeply in our Christian faith; but it may also be the most important thing to remember as we engage in conversation and find ourselves in disagreement with our fellow Christians. To be open and vulnerable to them, to recognize, like Paul, that whatever the experience and knowledge we have from Christ, there are things about it we can’t share with others, parts of it we can’t describe or name.

And to bring that openness and vulnerability as we listen to each other, as we hear their experiences, their joy and pain, may help us all of us to grow more deeply in the knowledge and love of God in Jesus Christ. I hope we experience this next season in the life of our congregation and the larger church as an opportunity for growth and building deeper relationships among ourselves and through those experiences to welcome and embrace those who seek to walk with us on this journey.

 

Transgressing Boundaries: A Sermon for Proper 8, Year B, 2018

As we work through the Gospel of Mark this year, two key structural themes worth attending to are geography and boundaries. One of the challenges presented to us when we read the gospel primarily, perhaps only by means of the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary, is that it’s often difficult to grasp the significance of these larger themes.

So, for example, geography. Today’s gospel provides us with precious little geographical orientation, only the phrase “When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side.” Continue reading

Job’s accusations and God’s response: A sermon for Proper 7, Year B,2018

As the horrific tragedy continues to unfold before our disbelieving eyes, perpetrated by men and women claiming to act on behalf of the nation of which we are citizens, my grief and anger continue to mount. We are learning a great deal about the values of our fellow citizens and the commitments of fellow Christians. In shock and disbelief, and growing fear of the future of our nation, indeed our planet, I feel my faith in God begin to waver, certainly my faith that “justice will roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-rolling stream,” is shaken by the growing tide of hatred, injustice, and oppression.

In times like this, the book of Job offers not a comforting, but a challenging read. It’s not a book that comes up often in the lectionary—I went back through my files and discovered that it’s been more than five years since I’ve preached on it, so it’s worth taking the time to take a closer look at it. In the first place, if your only encounter with Job is through a Sunday School class decades ago, or through the still fairly common phrase, “the patience of Job” try to erase from your mind anything you might think you know about the story or the book.

Let me offer a brief overview of the text as a whole as background to the verses that we read today. Job is a complicated text that in its in present form reflects a good bit of editing. It begins and ends with narrative; in between are many chapters of dialogue and poetry. The basic story is quite simple. It begins in heaven, with a member of the divine court, the Satan, the adversary or prosecuting attorney, discussing with God the righteousness of God’s servant Job. The adversary asserts that Job is righteous only because he’s had it easy and is wealthy. God invites the adversary to test Job. Job’s daughters and their husbands are killed, his herds and flocks destroyed. But Job continues to assert his faith in God. Finally, Job himself is beset with boils on his skin. He sits in the middle of the street, scratching the boils with  a potsherd, a fragment of pottery.

His wife tells him to curse God and die, but Job refuses. In his terrible distress, three friends come to comfort him, or perhaps gloat over his reduced circumstances. They tell him repeatedly, over several chapters, that Job is punished for some sin he has committed, that he should repent of that sin, and ask God’s forgiveness. But Job persists in claiming his righteousness, refuses to accept his friends’ assessment of his situation.

Finally, in his despair and frustration, Job changes tack and the book becomes something of a trial. Now God is in the dock and Job is the prosecuting attorney. Again, over a series of lengthy speeches, Job demands to know of God why all this has happened to him. Throughout all this, God has been silent since first allowing the Satan, the Adversary, to test Job. As Job presses his case, leveling the charges against God, God remains silent, absent even. This brings us to the end of chapter 37.

After all of that, after all of Job’s suffering and anguish, after chapters of Job’s charges against God, finally God replies:

The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.”

And that’s that.

After all of that suffering, after all of the insufferable comments from his wife and so-called friends, after his anguished speeches appealing to God to explain why all of this was happening, now finally God speaks. And what is God’s answer?

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”

What kind of an answer is that?

Well, I would like to go back and lay another level of interpretation on this drama. The book of Job is a challenge to our assumptions that our lives and the world make sense. In the biblical tradition, there’s a strong tendency to equate faithfulness to God with material prosperity. You see it in the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs especially. They are faithful, and they are rewarded with land, flocks and herds, abundant wealth, even offspring. The book of Job, although it was written rather late, seems to be set in the patriarchal period, and in the beginning of the story, Job as a righteous man is also wealthy.

In so many ways the worldview, the theology of Job and his friends is not that different from our own. We believe that if we work hard we will be rewarded, that our success is a sign, not only of who we are but is also a sign that God has blessed us. And when we see people less fortunate than ourselves, we often attribute their fates to the decisions they made. We look for rational reasons for personal success and failure, and even something like illness, cancer, can be viewed as punishment—what did I do wrong that caused this? What behavior led to this?  What is God punishing me for?

 

It’s a seductive theology, pervasive not only in the recesses of our minds, but perhaps, like Job’s friends, when we judge the situation of others. It’s a theology, a worldview, as I said, that assumes the universe operates according to laws, that things happen for a reason, that we can make sense of it.

But then something comes along that calls such a rational, well-ordered universe into question. It could be a natural disaster, a profound injustice, or a personal setback. And suddenly none of it makes sense, and we’re with Job, calling God into the dock, trying to bring God to explain why things have gone so wrong for us or the world, or perhaps, our faith is so utterly shaken that we begin to doubt God’s very existence.

We want the world to make sense. We want evil to be punished, good to be rewarded. We want the arc of the universe to bend toward justice. But it may be that all of that is only our fondest hopes, grasping at straws as we’re fleeing a sinking ship. Maybe the universe is chaotic, arbitrary.

But there is a certain faithfulness in questioning God. Job might have taken his wife’s advice early on his ordeal. He could have “cursed God and died.” He might have accepted his friends’ assessment of his situation, sought in his past behavior some key to explaining his plight. But he did neither of those things. He questioned God; he challenged God.

And in response, God came to him in a whirlwind and spoke. Job had a profound, moving, life-changing encounter with God. Later on, Job will say, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5)

The answers that the book of Job offers to the perennial questions of human existence: Why do bad things happen? Why is there injustice and suffering in the world? Does any of it mean anything? May not be particularly satisfying or reassuring, but they also don’t try to candy coat or evade the difficult issues.

God responds to Job in two ways: first by reminding Job of the vast gap between Job and God: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?” God tells again the story of the creation of the universe, and of God’s power in creating it. God is omnipotent, and far beyond our comprehension.

But there’s another response in God’s words. As God describes the act of creation, God uses language and imagery that emphasize its plan and orderliness: “Who determined its measurements, or who stretched the line upon it? … who laid its cornerstone…”

It’s not only that God created the universe in its beauty and mystery, and human beings in it; it is also that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is in charge, God is working God’s purposes out. Those purposes may be opaque, hidden to us; they may confuse and confound us; they may leave us in despair and doubt.

But they do not leave us alone. God answered Job, and God speaks to us. God is present with us in the midst of suffering and chaos. Job learned that God comes to us in our suffering, doubt, and need. Nothing need shake our faith in that. Thanks be to God!

Are we as crazy as Jesus? A Sermon for Proper 5 Year B, 2018

I was walking around the square a few days ago, on my daily round that ends up at a food cart, when I passed the Solidarity Singers. It was a nice day and they had gathered as they have almost every day since 2011, to sing their songs of protest against the policies of Governor Walker and the republican led state legislature. As is typical on days like this one, tourists, business people and state workers were out as well, and their were large groups of school children gathered at the Capitol or at the top of State St, enjoying field trips in the last days of school before summer break. As I passed the singers, I thought to myself, what do all these people think of this little group of singers? I know what I was thinking, “They’re crazy! How can they keep it up for all these years?”

A couple of weeks ago, I was here at Grace to welcome and host participants in the Poor People’s Campaign Wisconsin. They’ve been gathering at Grace each week since May before rallying at the State Capitol, some of them risking arrest by performing acts of civil disobedience. This group is part of a nationwide movement led by the Rev. William Barber, drawing on a movement MLK jr began in the last year of his life. In this political and cultural climate, with little chance of effecting policy changes, this movement seems futile, unlikely to change the opinions of policy makers who seem to be focused on finding new ways to punish poor people, people of color, and other marginalized people. They’re crazy, what’s the point? I was tempted to think.

Then, I thought about us, about this congregation. Here we are on a beautiful Sunday morning, when there are so many other things we might doing—watching the triathlon, eating brunch with friends, reading the Sunday NY Times. Those of us who attend church are in the minority, increasingly so. We’re out of step with culture, with the zeitgeist. So why do we still do it? Are we crazy?

Well, hold that thought. I’ll get back to that later in the sermon, and if all goes well, at our congregational conversation at coffee hour, we’ll have a chance to talk about that question.

But first, let’s take a look at this gospel story, or stories, in which Jesus is called crazy, or out of his mind.

Let’s back up a bit, because this is really the first time I am talking about the gospel of Mark since Palm Sunday and Easter. It’s important to remember that Mark was very likely the first of the gospels to be written. It’s the shortest and in many ways, it’s the most puzzling. The portrait of Jesus that emerges from Mark’s gospel is quite unlike that of the Gospel of John, for example, but this portrait is even strikingly different from Matthew and Luke, who were written a decade or two after Mark, and probably used Mark as a source for their own work.

The Gospel of Mark is written with an extreme sense of urgency. One of the words that appears most often is the word “immediately.” The urgency is eschatological. Jesus preaches the nearness, the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, and by that very preaching the forces, cosmic and human that are opposed to the coming of God’s reign, take action to silence him. So, here, we are very early in the gospel. Jesus has just called his first disciples. After his baptism, and the arrest of John the Baptizer, Jesus himself begins public ministry of preaching, healing, and casting out demons. In last week’s gospel reading, from a bit earlier in chapter 2, we see the Pharisees criticizing Jesus, and then beginning to conspire with the Herodians, a group they would have generally opposed, to take Jesus down.

In today’s story, we see more conflict, more opposition. I want to draw your attention to the importance of location and family here. First off, our reading picks up in the middle of a sentence that begins “Then he (Jesus) went home;” literally, into his house; where the crowds gather and press in so much that he and his disciples aren’t able to eat. Then, his family shows up and the text probably should read here: “they (his family) were saying “he has gone out of his mind” literally, “he has stood outside”—we might say he is really out of it. Note the importance here, of who is inside and who is outside.

As if to emphasize the importance of the imagery of house here, in the next little episode, Jesus tells a story about how a house divided against itself cannot stand. And then, the story ends with Jesus’ family outside, calling to him, asking Jesus to come out. Here, Jesus underscores the point—it’s not those people, standing outside, claiming he is crazy, or outside of himself, who are his family, but rather, it is those people gathered around him, listening to him, whoever does the will of God, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

The response of Jesus’ family is only one part of the opposition Jesus faces here. The scribes, the consummate religious insiders, the pundits, if you will, the gatekeepers, the monitors of acceptable teaching, are on his case as well, charging him with satanic influence, even satanic powers. Such language can be off-putting to those of us with modern sensibilities but it’s important for us to be able to name evil, to recognize its power, and to confess all the ways that we are in bondage to it. In our day, such clarity is a moral necessity, key to our being faithful Christians.

Who is inside, who is outside? Who belongs, who doesn’t? Who is family? These are questions we should be asking of ourselves, our community, our nation. When families are being torn apart, people marginalized and attacked for the color of their skin, their national origin, their sexual orientation, it is incumbent on us to ask these questions.

As a congregation seeking to be faithful to the call of Jesus Christ, seeking to share the good news of the love of Jesus Christ in our neighborhood and the world, these questions should be at the center of our reflection. Are we among those seated around Jesus, listening to his words, seeking to do the will of God? Are we so on fire for Jesus Christ, so ready to take risks, experiment, name and combat the evils that beset us, so committed, that others looking at us claim we’re crazy, or demon-possessed? Or are we those people looking in from the outside, offended by the risky, risk-taking behavior of the true followers of Jesus, rejecting them, worried about our status or popularity, or standing in the community?

We are having conversations about risk-taking, experimenting, developing new programs or ministries that will reach out and connect with our neighbors. We are blessed with so many good things here at Grace, stable finances, a beautiful building in the best location in the city, amazing people with incredible gifts, skills, and commitment. May we have the courage and creativity to imagine new possibilities for ourselves, our congregation, our city.

In a season when Christianity is on the decline in our culture, when our nation is so deeply divided and for so many of us going in a dangerous direction, Jesus calls us to follow him into that uncertain future, to recognize and name the evil that opposes him, to embrace all those of whatever nationality, or color, or sexual orientation, who would join us, as we build a community of inclusion, welcome, committed to do God’s will.