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Sermon: RSCM Evensong

Last night I had the great pleasure of preaching at one of the RSCM Newport Course Evensongs.  The service was held at Grace Episcopal Church in Providence.  For the service we used the Propers for Social Justice: Psalm 146, Isaiah 42:1-7, and Matthew 10:32-42.  Below is a recording and manuscript for the sermon.  As always, comments welcome. 

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Photo taken by The Rev’d Grace Swinski

 

preaching

Photo by The Rev’d Gillian Barr

Music inspires movement.
When there are no words to raise the spirit in despair, music lifts us to new heights.
When all seems lost, music can restore us to hope and return us to our center.

 

Throughout the entirety of human history, humanity has turned to music to propel it forward. From our own historical moment all the way back to the song God spoke to usher the world into being – music has moved us.

Songs have the ability to express the hopes and aspirations of social movements. Just try to think of a movement that does not have a playlist. Music is the source of inspiration and power for liberation. No wonder that in the midst of the despair and anguish of exile God would offer the people of Israel hope through song.

The passage from Isaiah we have heard tonight is known as the First Servant Song. It is the first of four times throughout these latter chapters of Isaiah that we hear about the servant of God in very particular ways. In this introductory song we hear God describe the servant and then issue the servant a charge – God gives the servant purpose.

The Lord calls out and says,

I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

The purpose of the Servant is to be an instrument,
to implement the vision of God,
to faithfully and diligently work to make the justice of God reign on earth.

 The purpose of the Servant is to take up the fast that the Lord has chosen, the fast that is proclaimed just a few chapters ahead: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free. To share bread with the hungry, to house the homeless, to clothe the naked, to let the light break forth and shatter the darkness.

What an unbelievable and seemingly impossible task – to make God’s reality, humanity’s reality. How could the servant possibly do this?

For over a century, biblical scholars and preachers have debated who exactly this servant is. Is the prophet writing about a particular person, or is the prophet describing all of Israel? Is the prophet prophesying for the long awaited messiah – the one we will come to know as Jesus? Or is the prophet doing something else?

Frankly, and with all due respect to those preaching and scholarly giants, I think we miss the point of the servant songs when we focus so much on the true identity of the servant. Because by focusing on the identity of the servant, we are claiming that the servant is someone other than ourselves. We are claiming that this work is for someone else, from some faraway place, from a long, long time ago.

You see the practices that the prophet Isaiah called the people of Israel to cherish captured Jesus’ imagination and they ought to capture ours as well. Israel, the chosen people of God, received from the prophet Isaiah what the Church received from Christ, and that is what we the Church must testify to the world – the revelation that the God who creates is a just God who restores sight to the blind, freedom to the captives, and gives strength to those who serve.

We the followers of Jesus, taken from every family, language, people, and nation; taken from across every boundary, every line of division, every category of humanity have been set apart to be servants of God. To restore sight to the blind; to set the captive free; to use our freedom in the maintenance of justice in our communities and in our world.

What, my friends, have we gotten ourselves into?

It would be easy for us to say that the world today is too divided, too hateful, that relationships are too broken for this servant work to become reality. All you have to do is turn on the news, open a newspaper, login to Facebook and scroll past the cat videos to see just how divided we are. It seems as if fear, hatred, and judgment rule the day. It seems the walls and barriers around us are just too strong for us to set the captives free. The world has just changed too much from the time of Isaiah for us to take on this servant work. Things must have been easier back then.

While this might be easy for us to say, or a convenient excuse to use, we would be wrong in doing so. Things were not easier for the people of Israel. Their world was not less complicated than ours. This servant song we hear tonight was given to the people of Israel while they were in exile.

They had been cast out of their homeland
gripped with fear and anxiety
left to wonder if they would ever make it home.
And the reality is that not everyone would.

How easy it would have been for the people of Israel to give up on the work of the Servant. To say this is just too hard. To say that hope is lost.

But that is not what they did. They, through toil and struggle, hung on to that hope – trusting that somehow, someway, God would prevail. They would be restored. They would receive salvation. So they kept on singing.

The word given to us by God
The word prophesied by Isaiah
The word championed by Jesus
The word put forth in a song
Is a word that scares the world, because it offers a new reality.

Walter Brueggemann, biblical scholar and theologian, once wrote, “Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”

You choristers, you congregation here gathered, are those artists. It is our job, despite the pressures from society, to keep imagination alive. To never forget the words that we have sung this night, the words that scare the world: “The Lord looseth men out of prison; the Lord giveth sight to the blind. The Lord helpeth them that are fallen; the Lord careth for the righteous. The Lord careth for the strangers; he defendeth the fatherless and widow,” “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.”

That is the imagination,
the word,
the prophecy,
the song we must keep alive.
This is the servant work we must embody.

We hear from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel that if we take on the work of the servant, the work of the prophet, the work of the righteous; if we carry on the ministry established by Jesus then we will receive our reward. But claiming this work, singing this song, will not be easy

We hear Jesus say:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father . . . whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me . . . whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Jesus is warning us that there is a great cost to this life of discipleship. That his followers will be persecuted, that households and families will be divided, that followers of Jesus will be asked to give their lives for the sake of the Gospel.

In this warning, in these startling words, Jesus is offering to those listening to him then – and to us today – a life altering invitation

An invitation to follow
to persevere with Christ through hardship and division
to preach the Gospel message at all times
to give up everything the world tells us is important in order that we might truly and finally learn what is means to live.
To fully live into the intentions God has for us from the beginning.
2To be servants of God, to be lights to the world, to set the captive free.
To never stop singing.

The exile of the people of Israel is not the end of their story.
The death of Jesus on the Cross is not the end of his story.
Our present day of division and strife does not have to be the end of our story.

For in the cross we have a sign that all things are have been, are being, and will always be made new. There is always hope for restoration.

The miracle of the cross is that death itself dies
That we have been redeemed
That we can keep on singing.

Through the miraculous grace of God, through that never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love of God the people of Israel returned home, Jesus was raised from the dead, and we are claimed as servants of God.

Therefore it is our responsibility to claim the servant song as our own.
It is our responsibility to share in the peace of Christ.
It is our responsibility to make no peace with oppression.
It is our responsibility as artists to keep God’s imagination alive, to never give up hope.
It is our responsibility to sing.

AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sermon: Easter 7A

So I’ve been a little slack in keeping up here.  My hope is to change that, and to start writing more here than just sermons.  In the meantime, I’m playing catch up.  Below is a sermon preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer, on Easter 7 (28 May 2017).  The readings can be found here, and you can listen to it below or over on the parish website.

About a year ago, I heard a story about the Ascension that captured my imagination.

Legend has it, that this was a story told by one of the desert fathers. No one really knows where the story comes from, but some say that St. Anthony told it to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nyssa told it to Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus as they sat around the campfire. I do not know the facts behind this story, but I know it to be true. Following in their footsteps, I want to tell you an Ascension campfire story:

As Jesus began to rise, John just could not bear it. He reached up into the cloud and grabbed a hold of Jesus’ right leg, refusing to let go! To make matters worse, when Mary saw John’s plan, she too, jumped up, and grabbed hold of Jesus’ other leg. His glorious exit ruined, Jesus looked up into heaven and called out, “Okay, Father . . . now what?”

A voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance. “Ascend!” the voice said.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, dangling John and Mary behind him. Of course, the other disciples could not bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board, and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in mid-air. Then, before anyone really knew what to do next, all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere – friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who had heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people whom he had fed. They, too, refused to be left behind, so they made a grab for the last pair of ankles they could see and hung on for dear life. Above all of this scuffling and scrambling the voice of God kept calling out, “Ascend!”

But then suddenly, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.

“Wait!” he shrilled, “I’ve lost my dog! Wait for me.” But Jesus couldn’t wait. The little boy wasn’t going to be left behind, and he was determined that his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might. For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air, but Jesus could not stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling Jesus back up to heaven.

It looked as if the tree would uproot itself, but then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. The soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on. As Jesus ascended into heaven, he pulled all of creation – everything that ever was, everything that is, everything that will ever be – Jesus pulled it into heaven with him.

This story, at least for me, expresses a deep and profound truth of Christian theology in a rather playful way. The vivid imagery of this campfire tale allows the fullness of our incarnational theology to come to life and be accessible in new ways.

In the Ascension, that miraculous event we hear about in today’s lesson from Acts, the incarnation cycle is complete.

The Word we heard proclaimed in the Prologue to John’s Gospel on Christmas Day;
the Word that was made flesh;
the Word that came into the world so that all who received him, who believed in his name, could become children of God;
the Word that God gave to humanity, out of love that is so profound it is indescribable, so that we might inherit eternal life;
has in fact redeemed us.

The ascension is so important to our salvation history because that “which is not assumed is not redeemed” to quote St. Gregory of Nazianzus.

Jesus takes the fullness of our humanity and ascends into heaven, thus elevating our sinful nature to the place it was intended to be from the beginning of creation. For when Jesus ascended into heaven, humanity became divine.

This is one of, if not the, most important tenants of our Christian theology and identity. St. Athanasius, whom many of you have heard me talk about before, is the Early Church theologian who first articulated this understanding of incarnation theology. Here is what Blessed Athanasius wrote:

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured.

Not only does the divine become human so that the human can become divine, but Jesus takes on our humanity that we might be able to see and know God. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Through the Word becoming flesh, we can see the unseeable, we can touch the untouchable, we can know the unknowable. As we hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel lesson: “and this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

To know God,

to be in relationship with God,

to see, and hear, and touch God in the person of Jesus,

is to have eternal life.

Throughout the entirety of John’s Gospel, eternal life is not just something acquired in the end of days – it is not simply an eschatological reality.

For John, eternal life is available in the here and now.

Right here, on Hope Street, in this very place, we have within our grasp eternal life. In this place we come to encounter God.

We come to learn and know God through the person of Jesus.

As we grow together as a community, as people of faith, we come to know God, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

In those moments,

in that intimate relationship with God

we experience eternal life.

All of that is made possible, because God sent his Son into the world.

Because divinity took on humanity.

Because Jesus made God known to us in word, deed, and Sacrament.

Because Jesus died on the Cross, rose on the third day, appeared to his disciples for 40 days, and then ascended into heaven.

Because that which is assumed is in fact redeemed.

No wonder the disciples gazed with awe into heaven as they watched Jesus ascend.

As the disciples were gazing toward heaven, watching Jesus ascend, “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”

Take a moment and imagine what it must have been like to be one of the disciples on that day.

You’ve just watched your teacher, your friend, your God rise into the clouds.

I do not know about you, but if I were there on that day and two random people asked me, “why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” I might have a rather sarcastic response.

While this dramatic encounter has inspired artists through the centuries, I find the end of the passage far more interesting and important:

When they entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers (Acts 1:13-14).

After witnessing the ascension the disciples, and the other followers of Jesus, went off and prayed together. This is the life of the disciples during this in-between period – during this time between the Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This is the formation of the first congregation in Jerusalem.

This group gathered in the room upstairs is our role model for what it means to be Church. Gathered in that room were real human beings, with names, identities, histories, and hopes – with fears, anxieties, and uncertainties.   They followed Jesus as far as they could; then they waited for the coming of the Spirit as Jesus promised.

We too are a community of real human beings, with names, identities, histories and hopes. We come with fears, anxieties, and uncertainties. We strive every day to follow Jesus as far as we can, and when we can go no further we wait for the Holy Spirit to inspire and strengthen us that we might continue to fulfill our call as followers of Jesus. As we wait for the Spirit to descend into our lives we gather and we pray.

That is the gift of this in-between time. We are given the space to pause.

To gather as a community, to pray together, that we might listen for the Spirit of God in our lives and in this community. Through this prayer and discernment we prepare to act when the time comes.

There will be time for us to act – to go out and turn the known world upside down. But, we do not need to rush to get there – the time is coming – Pentecost will be here before we know it. We can stop, and sometimes we should stop, to gather together and pray.

What we learn from the disciples, what we can trust from the promises of Jesus, is that waiting in anticipation is not a bad thing. We can trust that God will do something in our midst. God will work in and through us to achieve God’s purposes on earth. We can trust that the Church – that all of us who make up the hands and feet of Christ in the world – will be empowered by the spirit to work and witness for the kingdom of God.

But for now, in this in-between time, we gather as a community to devote ourselves to prayer and contemplation.

We come in this posture of anticipatory prayer that we might know God more fully.

We gather together so that we might experience eternal life now.

AMEN

 

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Sermon: The First Sunday in Lent

Below is my sermon from the First Sunday in Lent, preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer.  The lessons can be found here.  The recording can be listed to below, or over on the parish website.  The manuscript is also included below.  As always, comments and feedback welcome. 

This being the First Sunday in Lent, it seems a fitting time to make my confession to all of you. I love binge-watching TV: sitting for hours, zoning out the rest of the world, getting immersed in a show, and savoring those moments of escape from reality.

At the moment one of my favorite shows to binge-watch is the Fox comedy series Lucifer. lucifer_s2_1536x2048

In the show, Lucifer, the original fallen angel, has become dissatisfied with life in Hell so he retires to Los Angeles where he becomes a famous nightclub owner. Eventually Lucifer teams up with a female detective and becomes a consultant for the LA Police Department. Throughout the show, Lucifer has this mysterious way of finding out peoples deepest, darkest secrets.

He leans in closely.
Stares them directly in the eyes, and in his smoothest voice he asks;
“What do you desire?”

While this motif is frequently used in the show to get criminals to confess their crimes, or informants to give up information, I find it to be a deeply theological question. In fact, the question, “What do you desire?” is the primary question we wrestle with in our lessons today.

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” This opening verse to the third chapter of Genesis introduces us to a new character – the serpent. The serpent is a wild animal, not a demon or the devil, who can speak to humans, and has understanding of divine things. The serpent bridges the boundaries between animals, humans, and God and effectively elicits the desire to break the boundary between human and God. In the exchange between the serpent and Eve we witness the unfolding of the human desire to be like God. The serpent, through this conversation, intentionally manipulates this desire and offers humanity an invitation to question the commands of God.

The serpent encourages Eve, “no you will not die if you eat this fruit, you will see.”
You will be able to stand in God’s place and determine what is good and evil.
You will be able to make decisions that, until this point, have been left for God alone to make.
You will be able to make decisions based on your desires.

When Adam and Eve give in to their desires to have their eyes opened, to gain more knowledge, to have power like that of God’s, there is a break in the relationship with God and humanity. The innate desire of humanity to desire God above all else becomes obscured by temptation. In this way, both the serpent and God are right in their declarations of consequences from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Indeed the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, but that new vision leads to sin, their expulsion from paradise, and ultimately it leads to death. From the very beginning of creation we see the human capacity to give way to temptation and choose something other than God.

This struggle is one for all of humanity: from that moment in the garden until this very day. No one escapes the dangers of wrestling with temptation. Not even Jesus.

This morning’s Gospel passage focuses on Jesus facing the very same temptations that all of humanity struggles with. It focuses on Jesus encountering Satan in the wilderness. But who exactly is this Satan character Jesus encounters?

Commentators have noted that Satan in this passage, is the same as the Hebrew Satan found in other parts of scripture particularly in the opening chapters of Job. This is actually a very important distinction. The Satan we encounter in Job, the Satan we encounter here in Matthew, is not the same Satan that has captured our contemporary culture’s imagination. It is not the character with horns, a pointed tail, and a pitchfork. It is not the mythical beast associated with the Book of Revelation that torments and tortures sinner for all eternity.

It is Haśśatan.
The Accuser.

Haśśatan, translated the Satan, is an agent of God. In the Book of Job we learn that the job of Haśśatan is to test humanity on God’s behalf – to see who will stay faithful to God and who will fall to temptation. If the Satan that Jesus encounters in the wilderness is in fact this same Satan we encounter in Job that means Jesus is being tested to see if he will truly stay faithful to God or become trapped by the weight of temptation. This testing is an important aspect of where this story falls in Matthew’s narrative.

This morning’s passage is the final part of a section in Matthew sometimes referred to as The Commissioning of the Messiah:

First, the coming of the Messiah has ben heralded by John the Baptist.
Second, Jesus has been Baptized and proclaimed the Beloved of God.
Now, before Jesus begins his public ministry he must be tested.
Can Jesus stay faithful to his call – to his identity – as the Divine Son of God?
Can Jesus be tempted in every way as we are – sharing fully in what it means to be human – and not sin?

Prior to the completion of his commissioning, Jesus shows us exactly how we are to respond to temptation. Jesus shows us that as children of God – as beloved of God – as baptized persons it is our job to stay faithful to the call God has given each and everyone of us.

In the first temptation, after Jesus has fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, Satan tempts Jesus with food, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to becomes loaves of bread.”
Jesus refuses.
In this response Jesus faithfully remembers that he is totally dependent upon God.

In the second temptation, Jesus is transported to the top of the mountain where Satan tempts him to test God – to see if God will really protect him. Satan even quotes scripture to try to trap Jesus.
Again Jesus refuses.
Jesus’ answer points to the reality that honoring God excludes every kind of manipulation, including putting God to the test.

In the final temptation, Jesus is yet again taken to the top of a very high mountain and is offered the power to rule over the entire world in exchange for worshiping Satan.
One final time, Jesus refuses.
In this Jesus’ commissioning is complete. Jesus has proven his undivided loyalty to God.

The very same things that Jesus is tempted by tempt us as well: food, protection, power. But beyond each of these individual categories the underlying temptation is to treat God as less than God. To take on power that belongs to God alone. To make ourselves like God. To have our eyes opened that we might decide what is good and evil based on our own personal desires.

Jesus’ witness through these temptations offers us the perfect image of our humanity. Jesus shows us what is possible if we only trust in God with the fullness and entirety of our beings.

This is the struggle we are forced to wrestle with in this Lenten season. Our Lenten penitence engages the dark places in our lives – the places where we choose to see through the lens of our desires instead of choosing to see through the eyes of God – that we might come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them. It is not about guilt. It is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us all. Lent is the most brutally realistic liturgical season of the year – it is a time when we tell truth about ourselves, our brokenness, our mortality, and nevertheless trust in God’s redemptive love. This is exactly what Paul is trying to draw our attention to.

In this section of Romans, Paul gives a powerful reflection of the magnitude of sin and death, and on the even greater abundance of God’s grace in Christ. Paul writes, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” It does not matter how many times we choose to be like Adam, God’s saving grace through Jesus redeems us all. Through the saving act of love on the cross, God takes all of our sinfulness, all of our brokenness, even our morality and transforms them into righteous and everlasting life with God. Paul is reminding us that through the abundance of God’s grace we have the ability to no longer choose ourselves but to live as servants of God and inheritors of eternal life.

This is the completion of the journey that began with Adam and Eve eating a piece of fruit. From the moment of that initial division between God and humanity, God has desired for us to return to our full and right relationship with God. It is a return that is made possible in the person of Jesus, but will not be completed until the Kingdom of God has been fully realized, until we enter the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem; until we return to the garden.

As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage again, we ask God to strength us that we might not fall into sin nor be overcome by adversity. We ask God to transform our desires so that they might be God’s desires. We ask God to be with us in our prayers and in our fasts that we might experience once again the grace and joy of seeing the face of God. May our journey never end, may our hearts never be satisfied, until we are fully restored in God’s image.

Amen.

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Sermon: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Below is my sermon from the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer.  The lessons can be found here.  The recording can be listed to below, or over on the parish website.  The manuscript is also included below.  As always, comments and feedback welcome. 

 

Nearly three years ago, I found myself sitting in the common room at Yale Divinity School for Admitted Students Day. The day’s formal activities began with remarks from the YDS Dean and President. I have, I’ll admit, forgotten most of what Dean Sterling had to say on that April morning, but there is one thing that has stayed with me. I remember hearing about the school motto: Faith and Intellect

divinity_1At our very best we live each day in the balance of Faith and Intellect. We study with world-renowned scholars. We take seriously our call to common worship. Even our architecture is governed by Faith and Intellect. As you stand at the foot of our quad and look out on that lovey Jeffersonian architecture your eye is drawn to a grand marble staircase that leads to the doors of Marquand Chapel. And lest we loose sight of the balance of Faith and Intellect, directly below those large white doors of the chapel is the main entrance to the library. In our schedule, in our community life, in our architecture we are Faith and Intellect.

This is YDS at its very best.

Now if you’ve spent any time in any institution – school, church, or otherwise – you’ll understand what I mean when I say: very best is often very far from reality.

There is tension in faith and intellect. There is a struggle for priority. Chapel gets skipped for a little extra study time. Parish internships take priority over paper writing. There is an instinct to use the power of the mind to rationalize, justify, even minimize any question of faith. I don’t understand, I don’t agree with, I don’t like what the Church has believed for centuries; what Jesus teaches in the Gospels so let me problematize it, let me ignore it, let me explain it away. Let me use human knowledge to make sense of God.

So when I read today’s epistle, having lived in this tension for nearly three years, I can’t help but get a knot in my stomach.

Paul writes: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I love being at YDS. The formation in Faith and Intellect I have received there has been instrumental in forming me into the person of faith I am today, and God willing, the priest I will be in the future. But I cannot help but wonder, what if Faith and Intellect misses the point.

In writing to the community in Corinth, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to think more clearly about what it means to be the Church. He is writing to a community that is struggling, and focused on internal fighting. They are weighed down by misdirected priorities, and cannot agree on whom the head of the Church is. The Church in Corinth lacks unity.

Just as Paul reminds the Corinthians, we too are reminded that the foundations of our lives are not to be determined by our preferred political or religious leaders – the foundation of our life is Jesus Christ. No matter where we fall in the debates that preoccupy our lives we are to be unified because we all share one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. We are all built upon that foundation which is Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul is urging the Corinthians to live with a particular sense of intentionality that stems from their foundation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul is urging them to be mindful of their unity and the importance of living as a community of faith. When a community lives into this foundation, the wisdom of God – that which is seen as foolishness to the world – can be found. This is where Faith and Intellect come into tension for Paul and the Corinthians.

The Corinthians lived in a time and place where eloquence stood in a place of great honor. The eloquent were deemed the wise of society, and their rhetoric was their gift. Corinthian wisdom was grounded in human intellect, while Paul’s wisdom was grounded in the Cross. This human intellect and this faith in the cross of Christ cannot be balanced together. How can we make sense of God who honors the death of a condemned criminal of the Roman State by using it as a means to bestow redemption and eternal life on humanity? Instead of balance there is tension.

If we can, even if only for a little while, put our human inclination towards intellect aside, we might be able to glimpse the wisdom of God. We might be able to see more fully the reality of the Cross. For in God’s wisdom – in the Cross – God’s love is found.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is not the only place where human intellect and reason must take a back seat to God’s wisdom. Both our lesson from Leviticus and our Gospel reading from Matthew draw our attention to God’s wisdom as opposed to our natural human instincts.

Leviticus is one of those Biblical Books we do not read from very often on Sundays. In fact, Leviticus only appears twice in the lectionary cycle and on both occasions we read the same passage. The words we heard today are the only words we hear from this book, which leads me to think that there must be something important for us to hear in this passage.

This passage is part of what is known as the Holiness Code – a list of laws that tell the Israelites how they are to live and act in the world – a way of being that honors their relationship with God. What we hear today is in many ways the summation and culmination of the entirety of Israelite theology.

In everything they do, Israelites are reminded of their relationship with God. More importantly they are reminded that as a result of that relationship, how they behave is an indictor of how they understand God to act in the world:
When you reap the harvest of your land . . . I am the Lord.
You shall not steal . . . I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin . . . I am the Lord.

In all that they do, they are to remember that they are to be in the world the way God is in the world. For “you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” This declaration of their holiness – by virtue of their willingness to live as God’s people in the world – distinguishes them from the rest of the world. In their likeness to God they are set apart as otherness to humanity. In being faithful witnesses to God they defy what human intellect begs them to do.

As Moses speaks to all the congregations of the people of Israel, Moses also speaks to us, and it is not just Moses who calls us to model our lives on God. For Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Here is Matthew Jesus sets up parameters that turn societal norms upside down.

“Jesus said, ‘You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you.” Jesus takes a system that is set up to make sure retribution is equitable and tells the people of God to give up their right to retaliation.

I can imagine these words causing significant anger in those who heard them. They are living in a world of political unrest; a world where they are being oppressed by the Roman authorities. Instead of fighting back, Jesus calls on them to leave vengeance to God. Jesus was not calling them; Jesus is not calling us, to give into evil. By resisting the urge for retaliation, by keeping away from ourselves that self-destructive bitterness, we join Jesus is breaking down the very system that allows oppression to exist. These words are meant to shock the imagination and instill a more profound insight into God’s intention for the world.

Jesus’ commands do not stop there – Jesus calls us to go further. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Just as was true with the first set of commands, this command is not aimed at the goal of self-protection. This is not to be a plea to God to change the enemy’s mind; it is an invocation for God to transform our own lives. That the scales might fall from our eyes so that we can see everyone – even those we despise the most, even those who persecute and oppress us – the way God sees them: As beloved children.

We are called to risk everything for the opportunity to love our neighbors – those we like, those we cannot stand, those who wish us harm. We are called to risk everything for the opportunity to love our neighbors so that we might understand love more profoundly than human intellect can even imagine. This is what it means to be perfect. It is not some call to live by contemporary standards of perfection; it is a call to see the world as God sees it. To believe all people, no matter how evil the acts they commit are, are beloved children of God. It is to see the world from the foot of the Cross.

The parallels we see in Leviticus and Matthew today point to the reality that all people who choose to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – are called to live by a standard deemed foolish to the wisdom of the world.

There is nothing wrong with striving for faith and intellect – as long as we do not use our intellect to create a faith suitable for our desires instead of Gods. In those moments where we find ourselves experiencing the tension between our faith and our intellect – between what our human nature compels us to do and what God begs us to do – we must take the bold, counter-cultural, abnormal stance of faith. From that place we can use our gifts and intellects to build with care upon the foundation of Jesus. We do all this, not with the hopes of explaining away all the difficult things Jesus calls us to do, but with the hope that we might reach the foot of the Cross and finally know what true love is.

AMEN.

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The Path is Paved With Facebook Posts: 36 Hours Later

MSCsignThis is a rather long post, but I feel that it is important.  Included you will find my reflection on the last 36 hours of our organizing around Mount St. Charles’ policy regarding Transgender Students.  I have also included the text of both statements Mount St. Charles made yesterday, as well as links to various media outlets carrying the story.  The piece concludes with a copy of our press release.

The group of alumni I am working with love and care deeply for Mount St. Charles.  We seek to stay positive, productive, and proactive.  We look forward to working with administration to fix this policy.

The psalmist writes, “This is the dat that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118: 24, NRSV).

It has now been roughly 36 hours since I wrote my blogpost on my reactions of the Mount St. Charles policy on Transgender Students.  My head is still spinning from all that is happened in just 36 hours.  Throughout the day yesterday I was continually reminded of a quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

The organizing I have been a part of started with 6 alumni (Julie Hamel McBrien ’06, Samantha Ward ’06, Alicia Bissonette ’08, Ryan Glode ’08, Nicholas Martin ’08, and myself ’07), and was only 6 alumni for the few minutes until we started a Facebook group (Concerned Alumni Against Mount St. Charles’s Trans-Exclusive Policy).  Within hours hundreds of alumni had joined the group offering words of encouragement and pledges to support the cause.  While we were doing this, another gradate started a Change.org petition.  In the last 36 hours we have organized a letter writing campaign, written a press releases, had several media interviews, and responded to a statement published by Mount St. Charles, a second statement that was subsequently edited to have, what I believe, is a softer tone (both statements are included a the end of this post).

As I watched my Facebook account go insane from the number of notifications, I sat back and watched with awe.  As notification upon notification, message up message, post upon post, emerged on my screen I learned something very important: There is no stopping a group of Mount St. Charles graduates when they set their mind to something.

I guess I always new this, but what is happening on social media has taken this to a completely new level.  Mounties I do not know, Mounties I have not spoken to in almost a decade, Mounties I did not particularly get along with during our six years there have reached out and stood up.  The messages of love and support have been so overwhelming that I have had a difficult time keeping up.  Not only are these messages of love and support for my story, they are letters to the administration expressing disappointment, frustration, and anger, and they are messages asking what they can do to help.  This is what it means to be a Mountie.  This is why I have loved this placed so deeply for all these years.  This is why I refuse to retire some of my favorite Mount t-shirts.

So to the administration’s request for help – we have you cover.  We have always had you covered, all you had to do was ask.  

deskThis picture is what the corner of my desk looks like right now (yes, that is a Minion bluetooth speaker).
Before I went to bed last night, I moved my replica Mount St. Charles sign from a shelf collecting dust to the place you see it now.  I did that to remind myself why I have been proud to call myself a Mountie.  I did it to remind myself of the love and support that is coming out of the woodworks.  I did it to remind myself of the commitment I have made to work with my fellow alumni and the administration to make Mount into a place that can warmly welcome all student who walk through their doors. 

The psalmist writes, “This is the dat that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118: 24, NRSV).

As of this morning here is where things are:

My initial blogpost has been viewed 6,359 time

The Change.org petition has 1028 signatures

Our Concerned Alumni Against Mount St. Charles’s Trans-Exclusive Policy group has 791 members

Here is what Mount initially set out on their social media profiles and via email: 

Statement Regarding Transgender Students at MSC

The policy that currently appears in the Mount Saint Charles Student Handbook is not intended to be discriminatory toward transgendered students nor is Mount Saint Charles Academy’s intent or desire to exclude transgender students. The policy was put in place for the simple reason that Mount Saint Charles feels that its facilities do not presently provide the school with the ability to accommodate transgender students.
As a Catholic school, Mount Saint Charles recognizes its call to serve all children who desire a Catholic education, but Mount Saint Charles also recognizes that it is not a comprehensive high school with the ability to serve all students. Some students may not be academically qualified. Others may have learning plans which the school cannot accommodate. And in some cases, our facilities may not be adequate to service some students.
Although the school has not been approached with any requests to admit transgender students, Mount Saint Charles Academy’s administration has been exploring ways in which it might provide reasonable accommodations for transgender students and fulfill its mission.
Rather than criticize the school for a policy you deem unreasonable, please try to understand the reason for its existence, please know that we would very much like to correct the problem, and your help would go a long way in allowing us to achieve that goal.
Here is their edited statement:

Statement Regarding Transgender Students at MSC

Mount Saint Charles Academy deeply regrets the unintended hurt feelings at and seeming insensitivity of our policy regarding the acceptance of transgendered young people. The policy that currently appears in the Mount Saint Charles Student Handbook is not intended to be discriminatory toward transgendered students nor is Mount Saint Charles Academy’s intent or desire to exclude transgender students. The policy was put in place for the simple reason that Mount Saint Charles feels that its facilities do not presently provide the school with the ability to accommodate transgender students.

As a Catholic school, Mount Saint Charles recognizes its call to serve all children who desire a Catholic education, but it also recognizes that it is not a comprehensive high school with the ability to serve all students. Some students may not be academically qualified. Others may have learning plans which the school cannot accommodate. And in some cases, our facilities may not be adequate to service some students.

Although the school has not been approached with any requests to admit transgender students, Mount Saint Charles Academy’s administration has been exploring ways in which it might provide reasonable accommodations for transgender students and fulfill its mission.

While Mount Saint Charles can respect that some may find our current policy somewhat inconsistent and intolerant, please try to understand the reason for its existence. This is certainly not our intent. Please know that we would very much like to address the issue, and your prayers and kind assistance would go a long way in allowing us achieve that goal.

Our Response to Mount’s initial statement: 

Thank you for responding, MSC!
On behalf of the 700 + alums concerned about this issue, we first want to remind you we love you and come at this with the intentions of preserving the community we know and love.
The language of the policy has unintended consequences of students, particularly LGBTQ students, to feel cut off or disconnected, and thus pained by the policy.
We acknowledge we do not know the reason for the policy and that is a main concern, as noted in our official statement (see below). We are criticizing the policy’s existence and language, not the reasoning behind the decision. We stand critical of the impact, not the intent.
We are wanting and willing to dialogue about this and help Mount fulfill its mission to serve students that meet Mount’s academic standards.
Please contact one of us for more questions

Official Statement for the Press
For Immediate Release
WHO: Concerned Alumni of Mount Saint Charles Academy
WHAT: Relating to transgender student policy in the Mount Saint Charles Academy Handbook, 2015
WHERE: Woonsocket, RI

We, the alumni of Mount Saint Charles, are deeply disappointed by the policy provision by the Mount Saint Charles Academy administration in the 2015-16 Student Handbook that refuses admittance for transgender students based on a lack of undefined accommodations. This policy also notes that current students who identify as transgender will be unenrolled. We were previously un-aware of the policy; this week it became widely shared on social media and came to our attention.

Mount Saint Charles has always been an incredible pillar of support for so many students. Many alumni give Mount credit as the formative experience in their lives that has led to success in the greater community. Actions like this seem wholly uncharacteristic of the institution and do not speak to the principles of Mount’s mission of valuing and treasuring each student.
Furthermore, we are also concerned as to what “accommodations” means, as it is undefined in the policy. There are solutions to explore beyond outright expulsion and refusal of admittance, from physical accommodations like putting in a family bathroom or social accommodations like creating a safe environment for all students, regardless of differences. Over 600 alumni have already come together to speak out against this action.

The alumni behind this belief love Mount Saint Charles and are speaking out from a place of concern. The community that is fostered there is meant to be one of love, respect, and support. That is what we were taught. We do not take provisions like this lightly. We want to protect and preserve the community that made every student feel safe and supported. This is an opportunity to learn, grow, and come together to push past our differences. We look forward to speaking further with administration to find a resolution to this decision. Julie McBrien ’06, Samantha Ward ’06, Dante Tavolaro ’07, Alicia Bissonnette ’08, Ryan J. Glode ’08, and Nick Martin ’08.

Want to know more about what is going on? Checkout these media outlets: 

ABC 6

The Daily Beast

RI Future

GoLocalProv

NBC 10: WJAR

WPRI 12 Eyewitness New

The Providence Journal

 

 

Official Statement for the Press

For Immediate Release

WHO: Concerned Alumni of Mount Saint Charles Academy

WHAT: Relating to transgender student policy in the Mount Saint Charles Academy Handbook, 2015

WHERE: Woonsocket, RI

We, the alumni of Mount Saint Charles, are deeply disappointed by the policy provision by the Mount Saint Charles Academy administration in the 2015-16 Student Handbook that refuses admittance for transgender students based on a lack of undefined accommodations. This policy also notes that current students who identify as transgender will be unenrolled. We were previously un-aware of the policy; this week it became widely shared on social media and came to our attention.

Mount Saint Charles has always been an incredible pillar of support for so many students. Many alumni give Mount credit as the formative experience in their lives that has led to success in the greater community. Actions like this seem wholly uncharacteristic of the institution and do not speak to the principles of Mount’s mission of valuing and treasuring each student.

Furthermore, we are also concerned as to what “accommodations” means, as it is undefined in the policy. There are solutions to explore beyond outright expulsion and refusal of admittance, from physical accommodations like putting in a family bathroom or social accommodations like creating a safe environment for all students, regardless of differences. Over 600 alumni have already come together to speak out against this action.

The alumni behind this belief love Mount Saint Charles and are speaking out from a place of concern. The community that is fostered there is meant to be one of love, respect, and support. That is what we were taught. We do not take provisions like this lightly. We want to protect and preserve the community that made every student feel safe and supported. This is an opportunity to learn, grow, and come together to push past our differences. We look forward to speaking further with administration to find a resolution to this decision.

ORGANIZER CONTACTS:

Dante Tavolaro: dante.tavolaro@yale.edu; Alicia Bissonnette : bissonne@seattleu.edu ; Nicholas Martin: nrhmartin@gmail.com ; Julie Hamel McBrien : juliehamel87@gmail.com ; Samantha Ward : smw424@gmail.com ; Ryan Glode : rglode@assumption.edu

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From the Great Eight Award to “Unable to Make Accommodations”: A Response to Mount St. Charles’ Policy on Transgender Students

Update: This week alumni of Mount St. Charles became aware of a policy regarding Transgender Students. Over the last 24 hours, more than 600 Mount St. Charles alumni have vocalized their frustration, disappointment, and anger regarding this policy. The passion for justice that is being expressed through social media is grounded in the lessons that were instilled in us while students at the Mount. We love Mount St. Charles and what it meant, and means, to us. We are dedicated to ensuring that future generations – that all people – are able to experiencing this amazing place in the same way that we did. We look forward to conversation with the administration in the days ahead and the opportunity to work with them to make Mount St. Charles the best place that it can be.

MSCThe psalmist writes, “I am utterly numb and crushed; I wail, because of the groaning of my heart” (Psalm 38:8).

At 3:30pm today, March 3, 2016, my world was shaken in a deep and profound way. I was sitting in the refrectory at Yale Divinity School scrolling through Facebook passing the time until my afternoon class. A message popped up on my screen. It was from a dear and beloved friend, a classmate from my time at Mount St. Charles Academy. The message contained a link to a Facebook post shared by another Mountie. I knew something bad was afoot. I clicked, read the post, and instantly felt as if I had been punched in the stomach.

The post was a screen shot of the most recent version of the “Mount St. Charles Academy Parent-Student Handbook 2015-2016.” A bold red title appeared prominently reading: “Transgender Students”. Beneath the title were two lines containing 32 words, “Mount Saint Charles Academy is unable to make accommodations for transgender students. Therefore, MSC does not accept transgender students nor is MSC able to continue to enroll students who identify as transgender” (Note: This screen shot was taken from page 40 of the handbook).   As I read these words it took every ounce of restraint and control in body not to breakdown in the middle of the dining hall. As I read, reread, and read those words yet again the words of the psalmist instantly came to mind. “I am utterly numb and crushed; I wail because of the groaning of my heart.”

Let me step back and clarify why these 32 words have dealt such a painful blow.

Up until 3:30pm today I was an incredibly proud and unabashed graduate of Mount St. Charles Academy. I have regularly boasted of the amazing education I received in junior high and high school. I have credited that institution, along with my time at Rhode Island College, for being the reason I am thriving as a graduate student at Yale University. I have already started lobbying my wife that we should send our future children to Mount St. Charles when the time comes. I have fervently defended my alma mater and encouraged others to consider sending their children there as well. You see the core of who I am rests largely on the foundation built during my six years as a student at Mount St. Charles.

It was at Mount St. Charles that I first learned that I could succeed as a student. It was at Mount St. Charles that I experienced the love and unending support from faculty and staff who sacrificed much of themselves for the wellbeing of their students. It was at Mount St. Charles that I learned to be a better person. It was Mount St. Charles that taught me how to be a better Christian. Not only did Mount St. Charles teach me to be a better Christian, it taught me how to live more fully into the promises of the Baptismal Covenant found in The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. My six years at Mount St. Charles taught me more about living into this covenanted relationship with God than any Sunday School, Confirmation class, or Baptism workshop I have ever attended. Most importantly, it was at Mount St. Charles that my vocation to the priesthood emerged and was allowed to blossom despite the fact that I was not Roman Catholic. It is because of all this and more that two years ago on the occasion of the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I wrote a blog post describing just how proud I was to be a Mountie. Sadly, I can no longer stand by the words, “I am proud to be a Mountie.”

The psalmist writes, “I am utterly numb and crushed; I wail, because of the groaning of my heart.”

Today, when I learned that Mount St. Charles no longer accepts Transgender students the foundation of who I am, the foundation built at Mount St. Charles, shattered.

It shattered because I am a Mountie, and I am Transgender.

Those two lines, those 32 words on page 40 of the Parent-Student Handbook mean that if I were to apply to Mount St. Charles today they would not accept me because of who I am – they would reject me because of my God given identity. If those shattering and painful sentences were the policy when I was a student, if they were included in the 2005-2006 or 2006-2007 Parent-Student Handbook, Mount St. Charles could have refused to continue my enrollment. I refuse to begin to contemplate what I would have done had I been kicked out of Mount St. Charles because my gender identity does not fit into a neat little box – but I can guarantee you it would not have been good.

The psalmist writes, “I am utterly numb and crushed; I wail, because of the groaning of my heart.”

Today I learned that Mount St. Charles has failed me. Today I learned that I am a second class Mountie. Today I also learned the value of a Mount education.

From the moment I saw the original Facebook post, my Facebook newsfeed has been overwhelmed with outraged alumni, I have received Facebook messages and texts letting me know how much I am loved and supported by my former classmates. What is emerging on Social Media are the fruits of the community we built at Mount St. Charles; it is a harnessing of the passion and commitment to justice that was engrained in us at Mount St. Charles. The letter writing, mobilizing, and organizing that began within moments of this news being discovered are the fruits of the education we received at Mount St. Charles. We are embodying the Mount St. Charles mission statement:

Mount Saint Charles Academy, a private, Catholic junior- senior high school in the tradition of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, serves a co-educational community in a college preparatory environment.

We challenge our students through rigorous academic programs and through religious and co-curricular experiences to become people of faith who use their talents and intellects to serve others.

Each and every student is known, valued, treasured, and taught in partnership with the family.

The psalmist writes, “I am utterly numb and crushed; I wail, because of the groaning of my heart.”

When I was in the eighth grade, I received the biggest award for a junior high student. I received the Great Eight Award, an award given to two students in the eighth grade who exemplify what it means to be a Mountie. Since 2003, as a result of this award, my name has been inscribed on your wall of fame. My name stands as a symbol of what it truly means to embody the spirit of the Mount. It is hard, it seemingly impossible, to reconcile the fact that I could go from exemplifying what it means to be a Mountie – something I have endeavored to do since the day I received that award – to being a person my beloved alma mater refuses “to accommodate.”

And so, to the faculty, staff, and administration of Mount St. Charles who approved this policy, to you whom I put complete faith and trust it, to you whom I relied on, to you who cared for me – you have failed me. You have failed not just me, but each and every student who does, who has ever, and who will ever walk through your doors. You have outraged me, you have disappointed me, you have hurt me, but most importantly who have cut down everything you taught me to stand for. I hope you remember that each and every time you walk outside the faculty room, every time you glimpse my name on the Great Eight Award plaque, because those 32 words inscribed in your handbook discredit everything you say you stand for. I am your student: what happened to “each and every student is known, valued, treasured, and taught”?

The psalmist writes, “I am utterly numb and crushed; I wail, because of the groaning of my heart.”

In the days ahead, more will be said, letters will be written, and campaigns will begin. But, today I can only manage these words. I can only muster up the strength to share my deep and profound pain.

Today I write, “I am utterly numb and crushed; I wail, because of the groaning of my heart.”

I sign this message in anticipation of day than I can once again say, “I am proud to be a Mountie.”

Sincerely,

Dante A. Tavolaro ’07

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Blind Bartimaeus – Proper 25B

The following sermon was preached as part of my section for my preaching class at Yale Divinity School. This is one of two full length sermons I will have to give in class this semester.  The text is the Gospel from Proper 25: B (Mark 10:46-52).  You can listen to the sermon over on SoundCloud.

 

While this may be surprising for a Gospel passage read at the end of October, this morning’s text is about two things: discipleship and the cross. Forget the outrage that stores are carrying Christmas stuff before Halloween – today’s Gospel jumps right over the incarnation season and heads directly for Lent and Good Friday.

This morning’s text is the concluding story of Mark’s discipleship catechism – Mark’s teaching on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Over the last several weeks, we have heard stories of the importance of amputating everything that separates us from the love of God. We have heard of a rich man and a camel going through the eye of a needle. We have heard James and John asking Jesus for the best seats in the Kingdom of God. After hearing story after story of what not to do, we finally have an example of what true discipleship looks like.  We have arrived at the story of Bartimaeus.

BartimaeusFrom the very beginning of this passage, the Gospel writer gives the reader a clue that something big is going on here. Unlike the other thirty-something healing stories in the four Gospel narratives this is the only story – with the exception of Lazarus – where the person who is healed is named. Typically, the closest we ever get to learning the identity of someone is through relational contexts, such as Jairus’ daughter. By doing something so different, Mark is telling the reader: PAY ATTENTION. THIS IS IMPORTANT. THIS WILL BE ON THE FINAL EXAM. But what is so important about another blind person receiving their sight?

As soon as Bartimaeus hears Jesus along the road he starts shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He does not ask for the mysteries of eternity, he does not ask for the top place in the new world order: Bartimaeus asks for mercy. You see in the time of Jesus, if you were to have some sort of physical illness, if something in your body did not function properly, it was believed to be because you did something to anger God. It was because you were a sinner. It is with an impassioned desperation to be made whole, to be allowed back into society, to be made visible that Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” He knows what is wrong with him so when he finally is called by Jesus and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” He has an answer, “My teacher, let me see again.” Let me see.

From this point the Gospel moves very quickly:

“Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”

Unlike the other healing stories, Jesus does not spit in the dirt and make mud, nor does he even touch this blind man. Jesus heals Bartimaeus with a word. It is through his faith, through his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, through his recognition of his own need for mercy, compassion, and healing, that Jesus heals him. While Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go it is not the same declaration he makes to others who have been healed. Bartimaeus is not told to go home and keep this miraculous occasion a secret – no Batimaeus is allowed to follow Jesus on the way.

The striking characteristics of this pericope do not end with this brief dialogue and sending. Bartimaeus’ actions speak volumes to the actions required of a disciple – of a follower of Jesus.

After crying out to Jesus and being discouraged by the crowds, Jesus calls out to Bartimaeus, but Bartimaeus does not know – he does not hear Jesus:

“And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”

Now I don’t know about you, but springing up is not something I do. Rolling out of bed, shuffling to class – yes. But springing up, who does that?

In springing up, Bartimaeus demonstrates the excitement, enthusiasm, and eagerness to approach Jesus that all disciples, all followers, are called to have. In the midst of the overwhelming and oppressive heat and humidity of Jericho, Bartimaeus uses all the energy he has to encounter the incarnate nature of God.

In his haste to meet Jesus, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. His cloak is presumably his most treasured possession and certainly contains any money he has made or food he has brought along for his day. Yet he throws all of that aside – he casts off everything that he has to run to Jesus. Unlike the rich man who cannot image selling off the vast amount of land and stuff that he owns, unlike James and John who want to own the best seats in the proverbial house, Bartimaeus gives it all up to follow Jesus.

Bartimaeus – without even knowing it – shows us the true meaning of discipleship. He shows that to be a follower of Jesus we must cast aside everything for the gift of seeing Jesus and we must do so with all energy, excitement, and eagerness.

Stepping beyond this miraculous event in Bartimaeus’ life, this text – these concluding verses of Chapter 10 – serve as the bridge between Jesus’ Galilean ministry and his fate in Jerusalem.

Throughout the proceeding chapters of the Gospel narrative, Jesus has been hinting at what his coming ahead of him. As soon as the encounter with Bartimaeus has concluded, we begin the next chapter with Jesus entering Jerusalem.

This bridge from discipleship to entering Jerusalem teaches us something vital about what it means to be part of the Jesus movement. It seems to me that Jesus’ call to discipleship seeks not our cognitive assent, nor our churchly habits, nor our liturgical proclivities, nor theological sophistication, nor doctrinal correctness, nor any other poor substitute we have created throughout history. Discipleship comes down to one simple question: do we want to see?

Do we like Bartimaeus cry out to Jesus “Have mercy on me?” Do we beg, “Let me see?” Or do we keep our heads down and not make a scene to keep appearances up that everything is wonderful? Do we wish to keep our blinders on so we only see that which makes us feel good? Do we shield our eyes from that which makes us uncomfortable?

When our lives and ministries are characterized by encounters with the blind who want to see, the lame who want to walk, the deaf who want to hear, the hungry who want to be fed, the naked who want to be clothed, the captive who want to be set free – When our lives are characterized by encounters with Bartimaeus then, and only then, do we get to see a glimpse of what is means to encounter the holy and living God. Then do we get the gift of sight to see Jesus revealed in our very midst.

While Bartimaeus may have asked Jesus for his physical sight, the whole of these chapters of Mark – the whole of Mark’s discipleship catechism is about healing spiritual blindness. It is about taking off the blinders of this world and putting on the glasses of the kingdom of God. It is about taking off the lenses that force us to see what the world wants us to see and looking out from the view of the cross.

Bartimaeus refuses to be defined by his circumstances or by the expectations of those who are able to see, who appear to be close to Jesus, and who assume the right to speak on his behalf. He ensures that his cry will be heard by Jesus. This is the dedication we are called to embody – this is the life that Jesus begs us to live. We who have been blessed with sight, we who have been blessed with physical health, with food, shelter, and the comforts of this world are called to reach out and make sure that no stumbling block is put in the way of those who want to call out to Jesus. We are called to join their shouts of justice – to join their cries to Jesus, “Have Mercy on me, for we are sinners in your sight!”

At this point in the gospel, Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem and now with the seeing Bartimaeus by his side he has entered that fateful city.

I wonder what our lives and ministries would look like if we had our eyes opened, if our spiritual blindness was healed so that we could see Jesus’ fate in Jerusalem? I wonder what would happen if we recognized that all our lives are pointed to the cross. For in his death on the cross Christ reveals the blindness of his followers – he reveals the blindness of each and every one of us. But, in his resurrection – in his triumph over death and the grave – Jesus gives his followers eyes to see the good news of God’s ongoing reign.

As followers of Jesus – and members of the Jesus movement – our sight has been restored. So the question remains: do we want to see the world around you? Do we dare to see the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the marginalized? Or do we wish to put our blinders back on?

If we choose to accept the sight Jesus offers – the sight of a man healing, comforting, showing mercy; the sight of a man accepting the very worst that humanity has to offer on the cross – then we can no longer live as if we have blinders on. We must accept the reality that Bartimaeus experienced: encountering Jesus has life-altering consequences. Once we encounter Jesus, there is no turning back. We must work together, we must live into the promises of our Baptism, we must continue in the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers, we must persevere in resisting evil, we must repent and return to the Lord, we must proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, we must seek and serve Christ in all persons, and we must respect the dignity of every human being.

When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” We must be bold enough to reply, “My teacher, let me see.”

AMEN.

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The Beheading of John the Baptist

IMG_1596I had the honor and privilege to preach at St. Matthew’s in Wilton, CT  on Sunday July 15.  The lessons for the day were not the easiest and can be read here.  As this sermon was preached with out a manuscript and the recording is over on SoundCloud.  Below please find the text for the morning’s Gospel reading.

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of the demons cast out and the many who were anointed and cured, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

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Deputy Self Care

Sometimes a deputy just needs to take a break.  I hit that point this morning.  Luckily I had arranged for our alternate to take my place on the floor.  By taking this morning off I missed the budget debate (I’m very excited to report that we have funded mission and evangelism in serious ways).  This morning I did things for me to rest and recover from the chaos of these two weeks.  I had breakfast with fellow RI deputies, participated in the community Eucharist, went for a walk and had coffee with a dear friend whom I have not seen in over a year and a half.  It was exactly what I needed to be reminded of the important things outside of General Convention – that there is more than the floor and microphone three (the mic closest to our tables).

As I walked around Salt Lake City I was reminded that at General Convention we model pretty bad stewardship of ourselves.  General Convention is essentially two weeks of early mornings, late nights, long legislative sessions, quick lunches, eating out almost every meal, while working incredibly hard for the good of the Church.  I wonder what would happen if while we were here at General Convention we modeled better stewardship for ourselves and our ministries.  What if we were able to practice self care in the midst of the episco-disco called General Convention?  What if we could show the Church and the world that there is more to work and ministry that seeing who can be the most productive on the least amount of sleep?

I wonder . . .

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Look into the Light

Sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea on Sunday March 30, 2014 (Lent 4, Year A).  You can listen to the sermon here.

IMG_2519Have you ever seen a light so bright you were afraid to look at it?  Have you ever shielded your eyes because the light was too strong?  Have you ever stepped into the shadows to get out of the light? All of these responses are good instinctual responses.  When I ask those questions, how many of you thought of the sun?  We have been taught that, while necessary for human life, the sun is dangerous and we need to protect ourselves from its heat and light.  We wear sunscreen to protect our skin, we pay attention to how long we spend outside in relation to the UV levels for the day, we sit under trees and umbrellas, we wear sunglasses to protect our eyes.  We know how to avoid light for our own good and protection.  It seems to me that these instinctual reactions have come to change our understanding to all forms of light – even the light of Christ.

Today’s epistle from the letter to the Ephesians is all about light and darkness.  The passage begins, “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of the light.”  When I first read the passage I changed the words a bit without noticing it. I read the opening sentence as “for one you were in darkness.” Those two simple letters, that one tiny preposition, make all the difference in this sentence. This passage is about children of darkness not children in darkness.  This sharp boundary-making language calls into focus the chief concern of this passage: Identity matters.

Darkness as identity is a reflection of hopelessness, death, and despair.  It is hardened hearts, futile minds, and complete alienation from God. It is the hostility that undermines unity in the body of Christ.  Before our relationship with God, before we knew Christ, this is where we were – this was who we were.  But knowing all this, God chose us – and our identity has changed.

We are now, by virtue of our relationship with God, children of light.  This identity is drastically different than our old identity.  As children of light we rise from the dead – just as in Baptism – and clothe ourselves with Christ.  This is an identity defined by pleasing God and exposing unrighteousness – exposing darkness to light.

It does not matter how strong we think our darkness is, God’s light is stronger and God has chosen us to bring us to light, to make us light.  God, knowing the deepest, darkest, saddest, scariest part of us – still chose us, and continues to choose us.  It does not matter how unworthy we think are, how we do not measure up to societies standards, we have been chosen.  Just ask David how the world’s standards measure up to God’s.

As children of light our lives must be different than they were before.  Life as light must be different than life as darkness.  But, what does that look like?  If we continue reading in the epistle we begin to get a sense of what this means.  “Try to find what is pleasing to the Lord.” We are to find out, we are to, what is a more accurate translation, discover what is pleasing to God.  This is no passive or easy task.  It is an ethical call to remain vigilant in actively pursuing a transformed, renewed state of mind – state of being – that is pure and blameless.  The epistle continues, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”  These unfruitful works of darkness must be exposed and brought to light. When things are brought to light they are transformed, they are changed, they are renewed.

Last week we heard the story of the woman at the well, and were reminded of our need to see the other in our midst. Today’s epistle takes that one more step.  It is not enough to simply see the other in our midst – to see those oppressed – but we must bring that oppression, that injustice, to light.  To stay neutral and simply see the other in the word is to contribute to the darkness.  To stay silent is to agree with oppression, because there is no such thing as a neutral position when it comes to light and dark – when it comes to justice and oppression. We, as children of light, cannot choose innocence or ignorance over awareness and allow injustice to continue – to allow children of God to continue to be seen as others.

As children of light we are to be living testimonies of the power of God, and in a beautiful gift from the lectionary today’s Gospel provides us with such an example.

Today’s Gospel from John continues our journey of wonderful and amazing stories of transformation.  Today

healingblindman

Healing the blind man by Edy-Legrand.

we hear about the man who has been blind since birth. From the very beginning of this lengthy passage we are told why this man is blind.  It is not because he sinned, or his parents sinned. Jesus makes clear “he was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.”  This man was born blind so that his life may be a testimony to the power of God.

The actual miracle of this man’s restoration of sight is not the point of the story, but rather this is a sign of something greater – something beyond this moment.  Just as was the case with the Samaritan woman last week, Jesus is slowly revealed to this man.  The blind man goes from seeing “the man called Jesus,” to calling Jesus a prophet, to recognizing that he must be from God, to addressing him as “Lord” and worshiping him. In this encounter the he establishes a relationship with God.  He goes from a person needing healing to one of the disciples. He goes from hearing this man called Jesus to worshiping the Lord.

Not only does this story give us a witness to God’s power, but it continues the concept of the before and after, the then and now that we experienced in the epistle.  We were darkness and now we are light.  We were blind and now we see. Once our eyes are opened, once we have received this identity of light, we can never go back.  Our lives are no longer as they once were.

Sometimes it seems as if the brightness of the light is just too intense and we need to shield ourselves from it, we need to back away from its power.  No matter how great the temptation we cannot do that.  This identity is challenging and scary, it will take us out of our comfort zones, but we must keep our eyes wide open.  We must not be afraid to look into the light.

I wonder if you caught the great risk the blind man takes in proclaim Jesus as Lord.  As the blind man tells of his conversion experience no one really believes him. First they think he is a different person – surely he cannot be the man who was blind.  He must be his doppelganger.  So they asked the man’s parents.  “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” Listen carefully to their answer, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eye. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” This is a bit of a bazaar answer, “Ask him  . . . he will speak for himself.”  Luckily the Gospel writer lets us in on the parents motivation, “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” Out of fear, the blind man’s parents encourage the Pharisees to ask him – they do not want to get involved. For them the risk of coming out of the darkness is just too great.  But, the blind man, he gets it.  He tells the truth, and even in the face of threats, the abandonment of his community and family, and expulsion he sticks to his story. He does not lose sight of his new life.  He knows his world will no longer be the same and he is not going to forget that.

We too are called to take this same risk. We are called to proclaim – to confess – our faith and use our lives as a testimony to God’s power. In this new world of faith, our confession, our witness, our proclamation is everything.

Before us is the gift of new vision – we have the opportunity to receive the sight of God.  Our worship this morning began with the collect of the day in which we prayed, “Evermore give us this bread,” Jesus Christ the true bread, “that he may live in us, and we in him.”  We have the opportunity this day and every time we gather to participate in this worship, in this bread, that transforms lives, that gives life to the world, that changes our vision so we may see the kingdom of God. That gives us the ability to accept the risk of being a follow of Jesus and stand up for those who have been left out – to eradicate darkness and bring this world to light.

The season of Lent is a preparation for Easter – it is a time when we make ourselves ready to proclaim the Good News that Christ has been raised from the dead and we have been saved.  What better way to prepare for this great Easter proclamation than by receiving the gift of sight?

Our call as Christians is to have our eyes opened, to see the light, to receive new vision from God.  This will be disorienting, things suddenly are not how they once seemed.  This new sight opens us to see as God sees, to see ourselves and one another as we are in God’s kingdom, not in the blindness of this age.

glassesIt is my hope and prayer that you will join me in these final weeks of Lent to allow our blindness to be overcome with light. To bring to light our darkened identities. May we see as God sees, may we see every person – including ourselves – as worthy and beloved. May we trust the new thing God is doing in our midst and not be afraid of letting go of our old sight. Join me in taking off our sunglasses and boldly staring into the light of Christ – that we may be transformed and carry out our call to transform the world.

Amen.

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