This is one of the weeks of the Eucharistic lectionary when I have had to struggle extensively as I prepared this sermon. My struggle wasn’t with the dearth of material—over the years I’ve preached on both today’s gospel reading and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. And as you know, I have a particular fondness for the Gospel of John, for vineyards, and for that good old word “abiding, so I began working on the gospel reading, and was thinking about including a hefty dose of material from the epistle reading as well.” But I was struggling because I was trying to discern which direction to go, what the Spirit is saying to our church, Grace Church today. In fact, as I prepared for the Wednesday eucharist at Capital Lakes, I decided to focus on the gospel and epistle reading. A member who attended that service, joked that he enjoys seeing how my thoughts develop from Wednesday to Sunday. Well, he’s I for a surprise today. Continue reading
There may be no day quite like today. It is a day on which the church observes one of its most solemn days, certainly its most penitential days as we mark our foreheads with ashes and begin the season of Lent. All the while, around us in the secular world, and in our own lives, many of us will go about the business of Valentine’s Day, celebrating love and relationships, enjoying romantic dinners, and above all, chocolate.
And while our minds may be elsewhere, thinking of Valentine’s hearts, in a few minutes we will read together the words of Psalm 51:
“The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit,
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
There’s nothing wrong with that juxtaposition. There’s nothing wrong with coming here on this day, reciting the powerful words of the litany of repentance and Psalm 51, hearing the words that I will say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and returning to your daily lives and relationships. We live complicated and conflicted lives and even as we seek to grow spiritually, we also have jobs, and families, and relationships, and other matters that demand our attention and time.
I began writing this homily yesterday and continued working on it this morning, thinking about the challenges of understanding ourselves as we stand before God on this day. We are called to remember who we are, that we are dust and to dust we shall return, that we are created by God, in God’s image, yet that we experience ourselves as fundamentally broken, far short of the human beings God intends us to be, needing not only to confess our sins and repent, but to experience God’s never failing grace and mercy, and God’s power to remake us, recreate us, in God’s image. To use the language of Psalm 51 that we will recite in a few minutes:
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure,
Wash me, and I shall be clean indeed;
Blot out all my iniquities,
Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.
I was writing these words, pondering the meaning of this day as I heard reports of yet another mass shooting at a school in Florida. According to the Gun Violence Archive, this is the thirtieth mass shooting in the US this year, the 9th mass shooting at a high school.
And as I reflected on this horror, on our willingness to stand by as we watch the carnage, I turned from the penitential psalm 51, to the more ominous words of Joel. We are, as a nation, a culture, a people, at, or even beyond, a turning point. With the violence and hatred in our midst, the racism, the attacks on immigrants, the sexual assault allegations that have struck at Hollywood, Corporate America, the Church, and yes, the White House, we are witnessing the collapse not only of our institutions, but of our moral fiber, our civil society. We have never been in more need of the message of Ash Wednesday, never more in need to be honest with ourselves as individuals and as a nation, that there is evil at our very heart, evil we need to repent and turn away from.
There are in these two readings two very powerful verses that move me deeply—the first is from Joel,
“Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.”
There have been times over the years that I have been nearly in tears as I approached the altar—times of personal crisis, tragedy in our congregation or in my own family. But more often I have been near tears because of events in our community, nation, or world. Sometimes, the tears were tears of grief or mourning, often, especially recently, they have been tears of anger and frustration. Such tears can be a sacred response to events in our lives and world—the tradition of lament, of calling out to God in times of distress, and giving voice to our doubts, fear, and anger is one of the most familiar forms of the Psalms. We see some of that language here in Psalm 51.
But the other powerful verse that has deeply moved me over the years, perhaps entered into the marrow of my faith, my understanding and experience of God, is from Psalm 51:
Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.
For me, this verse speaks not only of suffering and lament, of the consequences of sin, and the effects of punishment, but that in the crucible of this experience of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, we come, at the end to a place of joy and gladness, having experienced the miracle of God’s forgiveness, grace, and steadfast love.
We lament a nation that will not protect its children from the gun violence and hatred. We mourn the senseless and meaningless of so many; grieve the trauma of those who survived shootings and will be forever marked deep in their souls by the horror. There is so much in our world and nation that we regret, and mourn, and lament.
Sometimes, our faith falters, we wonder whether God still hears our prayers or acts in our world. Sometimes, our words seem empty, our gestures meaningless, the knees we bend in supplication futile attempts to invoke God’s mercy and action. Sometimes, perhaps most of all today, we identify with those hypocrites whom Jesus criticizes for making a show of our fasting, for drawing attention to our almsgiving, for praying publicly and loudly.
This day, of all days, calls us to remember—who we are, where we came from, whose we are. Today is a day to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Today is a day to lament, and weep, and mourn, a day to grieve for the dead and injured, to pray for those whose lives have been shattered by gunfire.
Today is also a day to repent, to ask God’s forgiveness and to experience God’s love, grace, and mercy. I hope that this evening as we remember that we are dust, and ask God’s forgiveness for our sins, that we experiencing the transforming power of God to remake us in God’s image that our broken bodies may rejoice.
May this day, may this Lent be a time when we experience anew God’s power to transform and change us, and being changed, may we help God bring change to this broken and sinful world.
A friend of ours, our former Yoga teacher, was back in town over the holidays, and over lunch as we caught up on our lives, she recommended a book to me: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. It’s written by Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has served in the LA projects for over 30 years. He works with gang members, helping them get off the street and leading productive lives. It’s a book full of powerful stories of redemption, forgiveness, resilience, and suffering. For most of the men and women in these neighborhoods, gangs provide the only family and community they have ever known. Continue reading
Is there anything quite so wonderful as a Christmas Eve service? The church is decorated beautifully with poinsettas and wreaths and greenery. Our beloved and beautiful crèche stands where it does each year at the foot of the altar, with its wonderful hand-carved figures. We have heard our choir and organ perform music familiar and new. Some of us have already begun to celebrate Christmas, having come here from parties or gatherings. Others are looking forward to late night festivities, or to lavish dinners tomorrow with friends and family.. Continue reading
In these dark days of Advent, as the days grow shorter and the sun’s light grows dim, the mood of our nation and our world seem very much in synch with the season. It’s difficult for us to ignore all that is occurring around us and focus on the season of Advent, and the coming of Christ at Christmas. Sometimes I feel as though the festivities and hoopla, whether it’s the parties we throw or attend, or the glitz of stores and the blitz of marketing are all intended to distract us from what’s happening—global warming, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, the continuing assault on our constitutional liberties, on democracy itself.
It’s hard to find our way through it all, it’s hard for us to find perspective, to keep our faith when there is so much profoundly wrong and unjust, and the forces of good seem impotent in the face of the evil that surrounds us.
On top of it all, many of us struggle to make sense of, let alone, proclaim, the message of Jesus Christ in this context. When Christianity has been coopted by extreme nationalists and white supremacists, when there seems no connection between the message of love, peace, and reconciliation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the dominant voices of Christianity in America, we may want to hide our faith, to keep quiet. We fear being associated with the Franklin Grahams and Roy Moores and silence our voices, out of fear that we might be accused of supporting them. Let me just add, if you are not deeply troubled by the cooptation of Christianity by a certain political agenda in this country, you should examine your beliefs and commitments, for the very soul and future of Christianity is at stake, the gospel is at stake.
Our lessons today remind us of where our focus should be, where and how we should proclaim Christ, where and how we should work for justice.
The reading from Isaiah, the first verses of which provide the text for Jesus first public proclamation in the Gospel of Luke, offer both reassurance and command. As Christians, we read these words as promise of Christ’s coming, of the future reign of God that he proclaimed and for which we hope. We see ourselves as recipients of that good news, and of the promised healing and release.
At the same time, we must see ourselves in this story, not just as recipients of God’s grace and justice but as participants in the coming of that justice. We are called to rebuild the ruined cities—and here we might think not only of literal cities, but of all the ways that human community, the common good, have been undermined and attacked in recent years.
Even stronger are the words from the Song of Mary. It’s always helpful to remember just who she was—a young woman, likely a teenager, mysteriously, shamefully pregnant, as vulnerable in her historical context as a similar young woman would be in our day. Yet from that small, unlikely, reviled person, comes this powerful hymn that witnesses to God’s redemptive power:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
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.
This familiar hymn has suffered for its popularity and familiarity. Its use in worship over the millennia has numbed us to its revolutionary power. We need to reclaim it today, sing it with meaning. We need to do more than sing it, we need to work so that it comes into being. We need to imagine the possibility that God is working in this way, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of all our fears, doubts, and despair. We need to believe that the words of a first-century teenaged single mom can inspire to see God at work in the world around us. For remember, the world in which she lived was unjust and violent as well, and for many people hopelessness and terror were ways of life.
And finally, the gospel…
We heard the story of John the Baptizer from the Gospel of John. It’s a brief excerpt of a larger narrative, and on the surface it’s rather strange, although you might not have thought anything odd about this when hearing it. In the Gospel of Mark’s description of John that we heard last week, the focus seemed to be on his lifestyle, his clothing and diet choices (camel’s hair, locusts and wild honey). According to Mark, he preached a message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Now in John’s gospel none of that is present. While some of his preaching message is consistent, at the heart of John’s portrayal of John is something else, the fact that John was a witness to Jesus Christ. In a rather odd formulation, John writes that “
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”
For that is John’s purpose and role in the fourth gospel—to point toward Christ. John is a witness, the witness. And more than witness, for the Greek word behind the English “witness” and “testify” in the first few verses of the reading is word from which we get our English word “martyr.” John came to bear witness to the light, to testify about Jesus Christ. Later in the first chapter, John sees Jesus passing by, points to him, and tells several of his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The disciples then leave John and follow Jesus.
These are questions of identity and purpose. The priests and Levites asked John who he was, in a scene that is reminiscent of the scene in the synoptic gospels where Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. John directs their attention away from him toward Christ.
John offers us an important lesson, not just about who he was and who Jesus Christ is. He also reminds us that one of the most important things we do, in our words and in our lives, is point to Jesus Christ. It is in and through us that others learn what it means to follow Jesus and also learn Jesus’ message of love, peace, mercy, and justice. In this time, when so many others proclaim a different gospel, and very different message of Jesus, our witness to him is more needed than ever. May we witness, testify, and point, clearly, unequivocally, and boldly, to the Jesus Christ who stands with the poor, the oppressed, the captive, and the God who casts down the mighty from their seats and fills the hungry with good things.
Last Sunday, Jesus asked his disciples two questions: “Who do people say that I am?” And “Who do you say that I am?” I invited you to reflect on those questions and am looking forward to hearing from some of you what you’ve thought as you’ve wrestled with them. In today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, Moses asks God a question. At its heart, it’s a simple one: “Who are you, God?” But God’s answer is anything but simple and opens up to us an infinity of questions. In a few minutes I will invite you to follow Moses’ lead and ask questions of God. But first, let’s explore the text. Continue reading
Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1966
We’ve been reading the story of Abraham these past few weeks, and today we hear the most dramatic episode in his story. Indeed, this may be one of the most dramatic stories in all of scripture. It confronts us with a horrific dilemma and its implications concerning God’s nature and the nature of the relationship between human beings and God, the nature of faith, are deeply unsettling. Continue reading