Listen to Him! A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017


We have come to end of the season after the Epiphany. It’s been a long season this year—this is the 8th Sunday, so Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Magi, all of that is little more than a distant memory. Still, in this long season, we have been reflecting on all of the way in which God shows Godself to us, in Jesus Christ as well as in the glory of creation. The season always ends, in all three years of the lectionary cycle, with the story  we just heard, one of the gospels’ versions of the transfiguration. Continue reading

Holy, Perfect, The People of God: A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017


How many of you have ever read the book of Leviticus? Did it make sense? Did it put you to sleep? It’s a difficult text because it’s primarily legal material, and I’m guessing that even the lawyers among us don’t find state or federal statutes easy or enjoyable reading. Leviticus is the third book of the Bible, of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It’s complicated and confusing and while there are a few bits of narrative, it’s mostly like the material we just heard, a series of laws or instructions. What’s more, much of the material has to do with temple or tabernacle rituals, and priestly behavior. It’s only very occasionally, as in the verses we just heard, that the laws relate to daily life and ordinary people. Continue reading

You have heard it said of old: A sermon for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017


“You have heard it said of old…  but I say to you…”

Laws, rules, regulations. We don’t like them. They cramp our style, make life more difficult, arouse guilt and shame. For example, how many of us actually drive the speed limit? In fact, how annoyed do we get we when we encounter someone who is driving at or under the speed limit?

Who of us waits for the walk signal before crossing the street? I remember how amazed I was in 1980 in Germany to see university students waiting for the walk sign as they returned to the dorm after a night of drinking. There wasn’t a car on the streets, but still they waited for the walk sign before crossing. Continue reading

Salt, Light, Hope: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

A little over a year ago, Chaplain Christa Fisher preached at Grace and shared with us some stories about her work at the jail and challenged us to get involved with the Madison Jail Ministry. That challenge has weighed heavily on my heart over these last months. I toured the jail last May and in conversations with Christa since then we’ve been exploring together whether volunteer chaplaincy, one afternoon a month, might be a good fit for me.

On Tuesday, I went with Christa to see what volunteer chaplaincy might involve. We spent three hours in two different pods. She brought with her a bag full of things to hand out—from reading glasses to Bibles. We sat down at a table and waited as guys looked through what we had. As the crowd died down, individuals who wanted or needed to talk would sit down and talk.

Imagine the scene. They’re called pods, for whatever reason; perhaps because the men are packed in like peas in a pod.  Large rooms where the incarcerated men sleep, eat, hang out all day. There are a couple of television sets; several tables with stools attached to them so they can’t be removed. There’s a laundry area; but that’s only accessible if one of the guards unlocks it, and he relocks it as soon as you’ve put your clothes in the washer. There are no windows, no daylight. The only time you might see sunlight is if you are permitted to go to the exercise area (1 hr a week, and it doesn’t really meet the regulations for outdoor exercise).

You’re stuck there—and you probably don’t know how long. It could be a few days, a few weeks. It could be months. We talked to guys who had been there for six or seven months and still had not had a hearing on their case. There’s no privacy, no silence, no way to plan, because you have no idea when you might be moved. In fact, while we were there one of the guys we had talked to briefly earlier, was escorted out. He was going to Huber, for work release.

It’s not just the inhumane setting. It’s the uncertainty. At least if you’re serving a sentence, you have some idea how long you’re in for; but for most of these guys, they had no clue. They’re not supposed to be kept in jail for longer than a year, but from some of the stories I’ve heard, that rule is often broken.

The stories we heard were unsurprising, testimonies to the difficulties of turning one’s life around as well as to the arbitrary nature of the criminal justice system itself. What was surprising to me was to encounter hope in the midst of this demoralizing, dehumanizing place.

But it’s one thing to hope for oneself in such a context; it’s quite another to be an agent for hope for others. One of the men we spoke with, I’ll call him Jim, talked with us about his engagement with the other men in the pod. He prayed with and for them; he offered bible study; he offered encouragement to them. Even as he struggled with his own situation, he was able to support others, to bring hope in hopeless situation.

Today’s gospel reading follows immediately after last week’s—the Beatitudes. The two opening statements: You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world are as familiar as they are puzzling. We wonder what Jesus means by them, what their significance might be for his disciples. Are they commands? Are we somehow supposed to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world? If so, what would that look like?

Salt and light. I’ve been mulling over those metaphors all week, trying to think of something new and interesting to say about them, struggling to understand what Jesus might have been getting at. For all of their familiarity, the images, and Jesus’ sayings that make use of them, aren’t particularly clear at all. We can see that lack of clarity in the very way “salt of the earth” has been reinterpreted in our culture. I’ve heard it used a good bit over the years and it always seems by the speaker to mean, something like “he’s a really good guy, down to earth, dependable,” a “mensch” to use another term, a stand-up guy. And it’s pretty much always a guy who is being referenced in that usage.

Are they statements of fact, descriptions of Jesus’ disciples? They are declarative statements. Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” Not, “you should be.” Our impulse when asking these questions is to focus on what salt and light are. But perhaps to understand these metaphors, what Jesus meant by them, and also, what the gospel writer meant, we have to look at the larger context.

The lectionary makes the same break that most bibles do. In fact, if you look at a NRSV for chapter 5 of Matthew, it’s likely that in addition to a paragraph break between v. 12, which ended the gospel reading last week, and verse 13, which begins this week’s reading, there is some sort of heading “Salt and Light” for example, that suggests a shift in theme. It’s important to remember that there was another shift that took place in last week’s reading. Matthew’s version of the beatitudes has Jesus speaking in the third person: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, and the like. In v. 11, Jesus speaks directly to the disciples, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” He continues speaking to the disciples directly as he calls them salt and light. So the disciples, and by extension, all of us, who have been baptized into Jesus Christ, are salt and light.

By their very natures, salt and light do things. They transform the things they touch. Salt preserves, salt makes food flavorful, salt melts ice and snow. Light shines in the darkness, it makes the night livable for us, a time when we can be productive or sociable. So, if we, Jesus’ disciples, are to be salt and light to the world, what might that mean?

The obvious answer is that we are to be transformative in the same way that salt and light are. We are gathered here for all sorts of reasons, to learn, to worship, in search of the sacred or meaning, for healing, or hope, out of duty, necessity, or curiosity. We come to this place, to this table bringing all sorts of questions and burdens, seeking solace and help.

We come, and even as we grasp and yearn for solace and healing, Jesus challenges us to take what we receive here and offer it to others. Jesus challenges us to be salt and light. The reading from Isaiah puts it just right. In a passage that begins with criticism of the people’s tendency to put worship obligations—fasting—in front of ethical obligations, the prophet announces:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;

I think of Jim, stuck in what seems to be a hopeless situation. If he finally gets a hearing after all these months in jail, he might be sent back to prison for several years. He’s in the limbo of our mass incarceration system. He’s living in a demoralizing, dehumanizing place. Yet he greeted us with a big smile, a hearty handshake, and a loud hello. He talked about his life of prayer, the bible study he attends, the work he does in the jail. He talked about how he tries to encourage and mentor the younger men in the pod. Jim is salt and light. Jim is an inspiration to those around him. Jim inspired me. Jim is salt and light.

To be light, and salt, is to reach out to those in need, to share our bread, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless. To hope in what seems to be a hopeless or desperate situation. That is being light and hope. Those are the things we do as followers of Jesus. Whatever else we come hear for, for solace and healing, for hope, we also come to receive strength and inspiration to do those things, to be salt and light to the world.

















We are strangers and foreigners

I have struggled over the last months to find my voice as a pastor and theologian. So much of my fear, anxiety, and anger at our current situation is connected to my identity as an American citizen that it’s been difficult for me to separate out my commitment to following Jesus Christ and my calling as a minister of the Gospel from my concerns as an American. Last week brought an end to that struggle and provided clarity of vision as I live out my calling as a Christian and an Episcopal priest. I am to follow Jesus and to preach the Gospel.

The immigration and refugee ban is profoundly evil, a repudiation of Christian and Hebrew Scriptures and the very words of Jesus Christ. Throughout scripture, there is a consistent and powerful command to offer hospitality to strangers, to welcome the foreigner, and to treat foreigners and strangers as one would treat one’s own family.

One of the great biblical stories is of Abraham’s welcome of three strangers at Mamre. In the course of that encounter, it becomes clear that those strangers are messengers from God (Genesis 18). Two of them go on to Sodom, where Lot’s nephew welcomes them into his home and protects them from other Sodom residents who wanted to rape them (Genesis 19:1-9). The sin of Sodom was the failure to extend hospitality to strangers (Ezekiel 16:49).

In the law of Moses, there is a consistent and strong insistence that the Israelites treat strangers and aliens as if they were their own:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Jesus was himself a refugee. After his birth, his parents fled with him from Bethlehem. Herod had all of the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem executed in his rage (Matthew 2:13-18).

Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and our enemies. He broke bread with foreigners and told stories about reviled foreigners who helped Jews (Luke 10:30-37). Jesus commanded his followers to welcome the stranger, telling us that in helping strangers, we are helping Jesus, that in the face of the stranger we encounter Christ:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)

Hospitality toward the stranger and the foreigner is emphasized in different ways throughout the New Testament, most eloquently perhaps by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who wrote: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, in a reference back to the story of Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre)

That same author went a step further, reaching back to the key value expressed in the Mosaic law that linked Israel’s treatment of foreigners to their own experience of being foreigners in Egypt to assert that we followers of Jesus are strangers and foreigners here, that our allegiance is to God, not to the country in which we live:

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

To think of ourselves as strangers and foreigners requires an act of the imagination that challenges us to imagine ourselves in contexts outside of our control, experience, and comfort zone. But that is the gospel imperative.

The Christian tradition bears witness to the struggles of Christians to live out the words of Jesus and the values of scripture in vastly different and changing contexts but throughout Christian history one can detect an effort to embody those values. In St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, for example, the great theologian argues that Christians’ primary and true citizenship is to the city of God that includes people from every nation, the living as well as the dead.

Ironically, the very word “refugee” bears witness to both the cruelty and the magnanimity of Christians. It comes from the French word “refugie” which was first used in reference to French Huguenots, French Protestants, who were expelled from France after King Louis XIV revoked their religious rights. The Huguenots found refuge in many Protestant territories across Europe and in North America.

Refugees fleeing religious persecution or war need our assistance. Whatever their nationality, religious commitment, or ethnicity, they are, like us, human beings created in the image of God, whose lives are in danger. They have the right to food, shelter, and the opportunity to flourish. The faces of refugees are the faces of Jesus Christ. In our encounters with them, we meet Him face to face.

But there is another, deeper issue in the debate over refugees. Our fear of refugees is tied up with nationalism. The United States has a constitution that promises freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Yet most American Christians live a religion quite different from that articulated in the letter to the Hebrews or by Augustine in City of God. Most American Christians live a religion that has more to do with devotion to the United States than following Jesus. We view the United States as the greatest country in the history of the world. Our wars are always just; our democracy above reproach. We can do no wrong and those who criticize the US for its policies, its actions, or the continued injustice and oppression that occurs within its borders or in its names are heretics and traitors.

Such a view of the United States is idolatrous. As Christians whose allegiance is to Jesus Christ, we are called to name the sin of idolatry when we see it and repent of it when we commit it. As citizens of another country, “resident aliens” as Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas named us, we Christians know that our values and our lives are shaped by the cross and resurrection, not by political expediency or the idolatry of nationalism.

The future remains uncertain. One thing is clear. As the Christian martyrs of the Roman Empire showed us, we must refuse to worship at the altar of empire. We must show in our words and actions our allegiance to Jesus Christ, embodying in ourselves our love of our enemies, our love and care for those who are rejected and discarded by the nation in which we live, our embrace of the foreigner, the widow and orphan. We must make the love of Christ apparent to everyone we meet, following the example of Jesus Christ, who in his love for the whole world, gave his life. Our faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to his vision for the coming reign of God will fill us with hope, nourish us for the journey ahead, and transform the world and nation in which we live.

In the name of Christ, the stranger.



Where is Jesus calling us? A Sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017


Yesterday, we opened our doors during the Women’s March on Madison. It’s something we’ve done before—in 2011 and last year, during the Latino Day of Action. In response to people’s questions yesterday, including a TV reporter, I replied, “It’s what we do; it’s who we are.” Continue reading

Being disciples, staying with Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

We are in the season after the Epiphany. It varies in length depending on when the date of Easter, (and hence Ash Wednesday) falls. This year is relatively lengthy as Easter falls on April 16. The word epiphany comes from the Greek and roughly means manifestation, revealing, or showing. Usually it is connected with an appearance or manifestation, presence if you will, of the divine. In the Christian context, the feast of the Epiphany is the celebration of the magi coming to worship the newborn Christ at Bethlehem, although in ancient and Eastern Christianity, the Epiphany also connects with Jesus’ baptism, which is in part why we commemorated his baptism last Sunday, and with other miracles, like the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine, and as the gospel of John says, “revealed his glory.”

This season is a time when we celebrate and reflect all of the ways God is present in the world, in the glory and goodness of creation, but especially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And although this is the year in the lectionary cycle when we read the Gospel of Matthew, on this Sunday, as in every year on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we read from the Gospel of John. That makes sense in a way, because the themes of John connect very well with the themes of Epiphany, and nowhere is that more true than in this first chapter—the first 18 verses of which we heard on Christmas Day.

In today’s reading, we get John’s interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as the story of the call of the first disciples. Coincidentally, this past week I was reading two books that I purchased as possible subjects for Lenten study this year. Both of them began with a discussion of this encounter between Jesus, Andrew, and the other disciple as a way of getting at the meaning of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

You may recall the story of Jesus calling the first disciples from the synoptic gospels, especially Mark. Jesus is walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee. He sees Peter and Andrew, James and John repairing the nets on their fathers’ fishing boats. Jesus says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” The four get up, leave the nets, the boats, and their fathers behind, and follow Jesus.

There’s a completely different dynamic here in John’s gospel. In the first place, Andrew and the other disciple (We never learn his name, by the way) are already disciples, but of John the Baptist. John and his followers come across Jesus in their wanderings, and John points Jesus out to them, saying, “Look, there’s the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world!” The next day, the same thing happens, and two of his disciples, follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And they respond oddly, by asking “Where are you staying?” To that question, Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

“Where are you staying?” What kind of question is that? What might the disciples learn about Jesus by staying with him for the day? To understand what’s going on we need to put this question, and the event itself, in the context of John’s gospel. Staying… to use the traditional language of the Authorized Version, to abide… is one of those themes that is repeated throughout the gospel. In fact, we heard the theme sounded already in John’s testimony about Jesus. When he reports that he saw the Holy Spirit come down like a dove, he says that “it remained on him.” In today’s gospel the words is used at least four times in quick succession. Much later in the gospel, in the lengthy farewell discourse that John puts in Jesus’ mouth at the Last Supper, he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

These two questions, “What are you looking for?” and “Where are you staying?” get at the heart of what the Gospel of John understands by discipleship and the nature of faith. More than that, these two questions, and the understanding of discipleship they open up, invite us to a new understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in our present day.

Discipleship is a word we use a great deal in the church but is easily misunderstood or distorted. Indeed, to the extent that it is a grounding metaphor for the Christian life, it can be as misleading as it is helpful. For one thing, we often think that faith, our Christian life, is primarily concerned with knowing a certain set of ideas, or holding a certain set of beliefs. But note that Jesus did not ask Andrew and the other disciple, “What do you know or want to know?”, or “What do you believe? He asked them, “What are you looking for?” Or perhaps, “What do you want?”

Posed in those terms, Jesus’ question gets at the very core of our being, our deepest desires and hopes, who we are and what we want to be. It’s a question of identity

And the question Andrew poses to Jesus in response, while seemingly unrelated to Jesus’ question, is very much of the same nature. “Where are you staying?”

Andrew’s question is an expression not of a desire to receive a set of instructions, or learn a set of doctrines. Andrew wants to be with Jesus. He wants to stay with Jesus so that he can experience the relationship that Jesus offers him. By abiding with Jesus, by staying with Jesus, Andrew will begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus talks about throughout the gospel.

Thus for John, discipleship is about relationship, not right doctrine or the transmission of a body of knowledge. Discipleship is about being in community with Jesus, and with others who seek to follow Jesus. And there can be nothing more important than that, being in community in these uncertain and frightening times.

We have been experiencing a great number of shocks to our worldview over the last months. Many of us are confronting the fact that we are living in a very different nation than the one we thought we were living in. Institutions that used to function and create stability seem to be out of whack—like the news media. Old alliances are collapsing and being reshaped. We are afraid of what might happen to our healthcare and our planet. Many of us wonder whether we will lose basic rights that we hold dear or for which we or our parents or grandparents struggled mightily. Christianity itself seems to be on the brink of collapse in the US, and with so many conservative Christian leaders preaching a message of hate, we may not even want to be called Christian anymore.

In all of this disruption and disorientation, negotiating a path forward is perilous. We’re not quite sure what to do, how to act, how to be in the world. Here’s where this gospel reading offers a model. Relationship—abiding with Jesus. In the first place, we are called to open our hearts and our lives to deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and through that relationship begin to experience and to live in the presence of God’s love for us. To open our hearts to Christ’s love is to begin to know the love of the God who became one of us and loved us and the world so much that he gave his life for the world.

And as we open ourselves to Christ’s love, experience Christ’s love, abide in Christ’s love, we also will begin to open ourselves to those around us, to others who experience that love of Christ and abide in that love.

All of this is quite abstract and you may think it has little to do with our daily lives. But I wonder. In the midst of all that we have to do, do we take time to be with Jesus? Do we take time to be fully present to our loved ones? Do we really know our fellow members of the Body of Christ in this place? What might it be like for us to nurture deeper relationships with each other and with Jesus Christ in the coming months? What might it be like for us to take the time to get to know one another better, to listen to each others’ stories, to their hopes and fears? By nurturing those relationships, with Christ and with each other, not only would we be strengthened for the journey but the world around would catch a glimpse of the possibilities of new life in Christ’s love.