A Bent-Over Woman, a Bent-Over People: A Sermon for Proper 16, Year C

 

Have you been watching the Olympics? I didn’t think I would this year; the hype, the scandals, the doping, the over-politicization of them, the hyper-nationalism and flag waving have all gotten to me over the years. So the first few days came and went without me watching any of the events. But then, one night, we were tired and it was too late for us to begin one of the movies or tv shows on our watch list, so we went over to NBC. And then I remembered why the Olympics can be so wonderful, inspiring, and awesome. We watched men and women running, a little pole vault, and caught the tail end of the women’s gymnastic competitions. Continue reading

Jesus, Elijah, and the Hebrew Prophetic Tradition. A sermon for Proper 4, Year C

As we enter this long stretch of Ordinary Time that extends right up to the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I think it would be helpful to give offer you an overview of where our lectionary readings will take us over the next several months. We are in Year C of the lectionary cycle, so we are focusing this year on the Gospel of Luke. And today, we finally return to that gospel—we haven’t read from it since Holy Week and Easter, when we read the whole of the story of Jesus’ last days, his arrest, trial and crucifixion, on Palm Sunday, and read the story of his resurrection at Easter. Our readings since then have come from the Gospel of John. Continue reading

Weeping in and for Jerusalem: A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday, 2016

There’s an abrupt, shocking transition in our liturgy this morning. We begin in excitement, joy, and celebration with the liturgy of the palms as we re-enact what is called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Then suddenly, at the doors of the nave, our mood changes as I recited the powerful words of the collect:

“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Holy Week is a time of intense emotions for many of us as we find ourselves thrown into the midst of a familiar story nearly two thousand years old. As liturgy, as ritual does, the movement of our bodies this week, the familiar words and hymns evoke not only the events that took place in Jerusalem that year, they also evoke all of the other year that we have participated in this story and in a way evoke all of the countless other Christians who over the millennia and across the globe this week, participate in the same story.

There are so many ways to approach this week, the story which we have heard and in which we are participating. There are characters to whom we might pay close attention and with whom we might identify. There is the portrayal of Jesus himself—so rich in this gospel, a portrayal shaped profoundly by the gospel writer’s concern. We experience his calmness in the face of arrest and execution; his forgiveness, his healing power in the midst of the chaos of arrest; his final words, and the way he dies. Jesus is in control of everything around him, even while the violence surrounds him, the turbulent chaos of crowds and injustice impinge upon him, and from him flows love and mercy.

Of all the things I’ve noticed while reflecting on the text this week, the repeated presence of one emotion has caught my attention. Perhaps it was triggered by the gospel we heard a couple of weeks ago in which Jesus lamented over Jerusalem (Lk 13:34-35):

34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’,

Those verses foreshadow what we do today. Both in the acclamation during the liturgy of the palms: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and in the repetition of Jesus’ lament for the daughters of Jerusalem as he carries his cross to Golgotha. It’s an incident that only Luke records, and it’s worth repeating:

A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.”

But it may also be that Friday’s Downtown Stations of the Cross attuned me to the theme of weeping. This little episode is the theme of one of the stations in the traditional devotion of the Stations of the Cross, and it was one in ours as well which bring the traditional stations to life on the streets of our city and connect Jesus’ experiences and our devotions with the struggling and suffering in Madison. To think about the weeping women of Jerusalem in Madison is to be reminded of the plight of single mothers, of victims of domestic violence, of mothers who mourn the premature deaths of their children to the violence of the streets.

But that is not the only place in Luke’s passion narrative where weeping is present. After Peter denies Jesus, Luke tells us that he “wept bitterly.” And Luke adds that after Jesus’ death, the crowds who had watched his crucifixion went home, beating their breasts.

Weeping appears elsewhere in traditional devotions connected with the crucifixion. One of the most famous hymns to Mary, the stabat mater has as its first stanza:

At the Cross her station keeping,

stood the mournful Mother weeping,

close to her Son to the last.

Our liturgy may move us. As we wave our palms and shout hosanna, as we listen to the dramatic story of Jesus betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, as we sing the hymns connected with this day, we may find our emotions overwhelming us. For some, those depth of those feelings may have a great deal to do with things that are going on in our lives, or the lives of our friends and families. Some of us are grieving the death of a loved one, some of us are facing illness or the illness of a loved one. We may be struggling with work, or with difficult or broken relationships.

We bring all of that with us today. Some of us may be near tears, but those tears are for ourselves, or a loved one, and have little to do with the drama that is taking place here in our worship. For some of us, the emotions that are welling up in us are a product of our own brokenness, our sins, our personal shortcomings, our feelings of guilt. Some of us cannot name, cannot identify what in us is causing our pain. Others may be unmoved by all of this. We’ve enclosed our pain and suffering behind an impenetrable wall. Our hearts have grown cold and stony.

Whatever we feel, wherever we are today, the story we’ve heard invites us in. It draws us in, makes us participate. Whether or not we are weeping today, the story of the cross confronts us with our own brokenness and pain. It confronts us with the suffering, pain, and evil of the world. It shows us the oppressive power and might of imperial injustice, as well as the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus by his closest friends. It is a story that encompasses the human drama at its most grandiose and evil and yet, in some ways, at its most petty and small.

And still, through it all, we see Jesus, calm, peaceful, forgiving. In the midst of it all, the pain and suffering, the injustice and evil, Jesus offers his love to the world, and his forgiving word to his executioners. Through it all, Jesus offers his love to us and his forgiving word to us. May this day, this week, be for all of us a time when we experience that love and forgiveness in all its depth and power, that our brokenness might be healed, our tears wiped dry, and our joy complete.

 

 

 

 

 

Hens and Foxes: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, 2016

 

I don’t think anyone would deny that the general mood in our nation is particularly troubling. No matter what one’s political preferences might be, most of us, left or right, feel as if the country, our state, our culture is out of our control, that big money and political operatives are running the show and care little for the lives of ordinary people. It’s not just that we can’t seem to come together to solve intractable problems; it’s that the whole system is rigged for the 1% and their money and influence make it impossible for the rest of us—we end up fighting over an ever-smaller piece of the pie while the wealthy and powerful gorge themselves. Continue reading

Proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s Favor: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2016

 

 

As I’ve walked around our building the past few weeks, trying to negotiate my way around painters, tilers, electricians, and carpenters, I’ve noticed that my own feelings of anticipation and excitement are growing. I’ve heard others express similar feelings. Everything we’ve worked so hard for over the last years, all of the meetings, the conversations, the fund raising, the visioning, all of it has brought us to this point. It seems like the closer we get to completion—2 or 3 weeks away, the more our excitement is spiking as we look forward to taking ownership of and living into our newly-renovated and expanded spaces. We’re almost there.

At the same time, as I walk around Grace, I notice all the things we didn’t do, the product of decisions we made to limit the scope of our project to keep within our financial resources. In a way, I think that’s a positive thing, because even as we celebrate and enjoy all that we’ve done, we will have some very visible reminders of the work that remains ahead, the work we have to do in the years to come. We won’t be able to sit back and relax. Continue reading

One Faith, One Hope, One Baptism: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2016

 

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Each year on the Sunday after the Epiphany (which occurs on January 6), the church remembers Jesus’ baptism by John. It’s also one of the major feasts when we typically offer the sacrament of baptism. It’s an especially appropriate day for us to baptize newcomers to the faith, as it reminds us all of Jesus’ example.

With Epiphany, we have moved out of the Christmas season and into a period when we explore the ways in which we experience God’s becoming present among us and in the world. Our scripture readings, gospel, even hymns, during these weeks will emphasize God’s glorious presence in the world. There’s a sense in which the season of Epiphany is an extension of the season of Christmas, when we celebrate and experience God becoming one of us, God in the midst of us. But Epiphany is not limited to our experience of God in Christ, it encourages us to explore all of the ways God makes Godself present and real to us.

The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his public ministry. In none of those gospels do we hear Jesus speak before he is baptized by John. That should make attune us to the significance of this act, both for the gospel writers (and the communities for and to which they were writing) and for Jesus. In all three gospels, the description of Jesus’ baptism is accompanied by what we would regard as supernatural events—the heavens are opened, a voice speaks, and the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus. The details of these events differ from gospel to gospel. Luke emphasizes, for example, that the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the bodily form of a dove and that the voice speaks directly to Jesus, saying “You are my Son, the beloved.”

There are many questions we might ask of this brief account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke, especially if we were to compare it to the accounts in Mark and Matthew, but for today I want us to focus on the significance Luke places on the event. There are two things to note. First, the voice—“You are my Son, the beloved.” It’s significant that Luke has this statement addressed to Jesus (Matthew, for example, has the voice saying, “This is my son” in other words, the voice addresses the crowd, not Jesus.” In his baptism, Luke seems to be implying, Jesus becomes the one of whom John spoke; he is the one to fulfill the expectations of the people.

The second important thing is the coming down of the Holy Spirit. This points to one of the key themes in Luke’s over-arching narrative—the presence of the Holy Spirit. Luke organizes his two-volume work, the gospel and the book of Acts, by emphasizing the role and activity of the Holy Spirit. It comes down upon Jesus at his baptism. Jesus’ last words on the cross in Luke are “Into your hands I commend my Spirit” suggesting that the Holy Spirit departs from Jesus at his death. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon all of the disciples and goes with them throughout the world, as the brief reading from Acts reminds us. For Luke, baptism and Holy Spirit are linked, for Jesus and for everyone.

The two are linked in our practice as well. As I pour water into the font and pray over the water, I recall the Holy Spirit’s moving in creation and I invoke its presence in the water and in the lives of those being baptized. After I pour water over their heads, I will anoint them with the oil of chrism and tell each of them that they are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

I may say the words but I doubt many of us expect or experience the sort of supernatural events described by Luke at Jesus’ baptism. In our church, baptism usually occurs with small children, typically infants as is the case with Ella and Noah today. And while we celebrate the baptisms of babies, rejoicing with their families as we welcome them into the body of Christ, our modern sensibilities shrink back from the idea that something supernatural is happening when I pour water and say the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

But today we are also baptizing an adult. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Soon after Paula began attending services regularly, she and I had a conversation during which she told me she didn’t know whether she had been baptized. We could have left it at that. After all, if you were baptized as a baby, you couldn’t remember being baptized, and the chances that you would still have a baptismal certificate highly unlikely—we regularly receive requests from people for proof of baptism. There’s one sitting in my email inbox right now.

So today is a teaching moment for all of us. Paula wasn’t sure whether she had been baptized and wanted that certainty. So, I will be performing what’s called a conditional baptism, prefacing the usual formula with the phrase “If you are not already baptized…” The church has long taught that any baptism performed with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a valid baptism, no matter who performs it or wherever it takes place. In fact, rebaptism is considered heresy.

Paula’s desire to be certain of her baptism is a reminder to all of us of the importance and the power of baptism. It may only be water, and it may only be words. But the words and the water brought together have the power to save. Baptism cleanses us from our sins, brings us into the body of Christ and makes us Christ’s own forever. We bear the sign of the cross; the sign of Christ’s suffering and love, and we share that sign with the world. In baptism, we embark on the journey of becoming Christ’s own, of becoming Christ-like. Each time we witness a baptism, we are invited to recall and reclaim our own baptisms, to recall and reclaim our identity as Christ’s own and to recommit ourselves to becoming transformed into his image.

May the baptisms of each of these individuals be a powerful presence in their lives, as they share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. May these baptisms be a powerful presence in our lives, reminding us of Christ’s saving and life-giving power, inspiring us to repentance and newness of life, filling all of us with joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Singing Advent with Luke and Mary: A Sermon for Advent 4, Year C

 

We are in the third year of the three-year lectionary cycle and this year, the focus of our readings for our Sunday morning Eucharistic lectionary is the gospel of Luke. We will talk much more over the course of the year about Luke’s perspective—about his particular theological interests and the way he shapes the story of Jesus in light of those interests.

Today, I want to point to offer by way of background to the gospel one of Luke’s unique techniques or contributions to the story of Jesus’ birth. Throughout the first two chapters, Luke interrupts the story and inserts a song, placed in the mouth of key characters in the narrative. We’ve already heard, and said, one of those songs—the Song of Zechariah, which he sang (Luke says “prophesied”) after the birth of his son John. There are others-the song the angels sing to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest.” There’s the song of Simeon, which the aged prophet sings when he encounters Mary and the infant Jesus in the temple: “Lord, now you may let your servant depart in peace.” In today’s gospel, there are two songs—the Song of Elizabeth: “Hail Mary, full of grace.” And there’s Mary’s own song, the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

It’s likely that these songs were not composed by Luke himself. Rather, we think that he adapted them to his purpose from songs that were being sung in early Christian worship. It’s no surprise that they have become among the most familiar and beloved songs of the church—Ave Maria, The Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis—if you say morning and evening prayer regularly, you will know them by heart. But it’s important to note that they aren’t innovations. They draw on the language and imagery of songs, psalms, from the Hebrew Bible.

Think for a moment about the singers of those songs. An aged prophet, an elderly married couple that are rejoicing in the birth of a son, and a teenaged girl, pregnant in suspicious circumstances. How old was she? Twelve, thirteen years old (that’s the age most NT scholars suggest, given what we know about marriage patterns among Jews in 1st century Palestine). Twelve or thirteen years old, according to Luke’s story, she’s already heard from an angel that she is to give birth to a son. When the angel Gabriel appears to her and greets her, Hail Favored One, she is perplexed. When the angel tells her that she will bear a son, Jesus, who will be named Jesus and ascend to David’s throne, she asks, “How can this be?” The angel then tells her that her son will come from the Holy Spirit, that he will be the Son of God, and about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Then she responds, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

She then goes to visit Elizabeth where today’s gospel picks up with Elizabeth’s greeting, “Hail Mary, favored One!” and then her final words, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Before we reflect more on this little vignette, I would like to point to another passage in Luke’s gospel, a later reference to Mary. A woman shouts out from the crowd, in language reminiscent of Elizabeth’s blessing, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” To which Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” Similarly, Elizabeth’s blessing concludes by blessing her for believing the word that had been spoken to her.

This later episode helps us to understand what Luke is getting at, for Mary, in chapter 1 is shown to be someone who hears the word of God and obeys it. She accepts the responsibility of bearing Jesus, and we can assume that the angel’s mention of her cousin Elizabeth is a gentle nudge to get her to pay a visit. To put it bluntly, Luke depicts Mary as a model disciple, one who hears the word of God and obeys it.

But it’s easy to misinterpret what Mary’s discipleship means, how she is meant to be a model. The tradition has shaped her image in so many ways that’s hard to get back to what Luke is really about. We think of Mary as a passive recipient, someone who accepts what happens to her without complaint. The tradition has turned her into a model for a certain kind of discipleship, a femininity that is meek and mild, passive, receptive, quiet.

But that’s wrong. Listen to her song again:
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

These are not words of pious sentimentality, docility, or humility. The faith Mary proclaims is a faith in a God who takes decisive action on behalf of God’s people, a God who vindicates the righteous and condemns the wicked. The God to whom and of whom Mary sings is a God of liberation, a God who intervenes for the oppressed, the powerless, the poor and hungry. These are words proclaiming in a God who saves, but the salvation on offer is not for individuals, it is a salvation for all God’s people.

Indeed, so powerful is this God, so vivid the imagery in the song, that it is hard to imagine they are the words of teenager, a young woman who has just learned she is to be a mother by miraculous means. And the fact of the matter is that Mary’s words are not hers alone. They are also the words of another woman from the history of God’s saving acts, another woman who found herself with child, almost miraculously.

The Magnificat, Mary’s wonderful song, is a reworking of the Song of Hannah, which Hannah sang when she learned she would give birth to Samuel, a boy who would become judge, priest, and prophet over all of Israel. Like Mary after her, Hannah sang in praise of her God, confident of her people’s salvation through God’s continuing care for Israel, confident that God would bring justice and righteousness to the world.

Hannah’s words were put in the future tense. Her song of praise was a song of hope that God would one day make things right. Mary’s song is in the perfect tense, suggesting that God’s liberating action has already begun to take place, but that it is not complete. God’s reign, with its promise of justice for the poor and the oppressed still lies in the future, though Mary can see signs of that reign in the world around her.

God has scattered the proud in their conceit, cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has sent the rich away empty and filled the hungry with good things. It’s hard to hear these words without thinking of our own society and economy where income inequality is greater than at any time in a century, where the elderly and the poor risk losing what few benefits they have, where money equals power and our political class seems oblivious to the deep need in our nation.

When we sing or reflect on the Magnificat our tendency is to see these words as Mary’s words, not our own. We lack the imagination and faith to make these statements ours. But if we believe in a God who comes to us in a manger in Bethlehem, it shouldn’t be beyond our capacity to believe in a God who acts in history on behalf of the poor, powerless, the hungry and the oppressed. But more than that, we need to do more than sing the song, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Luke reminds us that a true follower of Jesus is one who hears his word and obeys it. This Advent and Christmas, this year and beyond, we should proclaim our faith that God is acting in history to vindicate the oppressed, and we should do all in our power to usher in God’s reign.