Today was our free day – really free afternoon – of the pilgrimage. After morning prayer, Eucharist, breakfast, and a visit with the Canterbury Cathedral stone masons, several of us set off for adventures in London.
When we arrive at the St. Pancras station, some headed off to museums, others to visit friends, some went off to the theatre, and I – along with one of my dearest friends – set off on a different adventure. We went on a journey of vestments and books. (Really are you surprised?)
We effectively did a 10.5 miles loop around the city of London. We walked from the station to Wippells and Watts. We went to the Church House Book Stire. We treated ourselves to a gorgeous lunch at the Goose & Pig across from the Royal Courts of Justice; just a few blocks from where Kaytee got her masters. We rested in the steps of Trafalgar Square gazing out of the city bathed in the emerging light of the sunset. We visited a handful of second hand bookstore and poured over theological and liturgical treasures, poetry, rare first editions, and whatever other oddities we stumbled upon. We wandered the streets of Soho and settled in for a pint whilst discussing Triduum liturgies and ordination.
The city was amazing as always. The conversation was rich, and the company was beautiful. Today I am thankful for the gift of adventures with a sweet and gentle soul. I am thankful for the gift of wandering and seeking out the delights of our peculiar world.
One of the treasures I picked up today was a late 19th century (1897) book titled Lays of Iona and other poems by S. J. Stone. While flipping through the pages in the stone I was in the fence about getting it until I saw a poem titled, “A Hymn Candidates for Ordination.” This peom is a beautiful expression of what has been one of my biggest struggles through the ordination process. (The whole of the poem can be read in the pictures below or on page 262 of this website).
O my LORD, most Holy, / Summonest Thou me, / Lowliest ‘mid the lowly, / As Thyself to be? / ‘Yea, because I call thee, / Take thy priestly place, / Front what may befall thee – / Hast thou not My grace?
. . .
FATHER, SON, and SPIRIT, / ‘Tis Thy call of grace, / Thine election’s merit / Seals to me my place: / Lowest ‘mid the lowly, / Yet I call Thee mine: / HOLY, HOLY, HOLY / Thine, and sent to Thine. Amen.
. . . The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne . . . (Canterbury Tales, Lines 7-8)
This place is breathtakingly beautiful. Every time I walk out of the courtyard of the Lodge I am struck by the ever present beauty of the Cathedral. Today gave us the opportunity to learn a it more about this amazing site.
Most of today’s program was filled with two tours: a stained glass tour and a general tour which leaned into the theological roots and dynamics of this place. I was struck in both of these tours of the deep history of this place. I was struck by the way history had contributed to the preservation and the distraction of this place. The architectural and artistic inspiration this plac has had in the world is inspiring.
Today it was easy to imagine pilgrims through the generations coming and gazing upon this sacred space. I wondered how many pilgrims tried to pray with the same hammering house I heard throughout the cathedral today. I wondered how many people were moved to tears as they knelt before altars and shrines. I wondered how many people, like one of my tour guides, still hold anger and resentment towards “the Puritans” for destroying so much of the artistic beauty of this place.
Stepping into the Cathedral is at the same time stepping into the past and looking into the futur. This place, with all its history, is a real gift. Today I realized, in a deeper way, how important this place is to the heart of my own faith and Anglican tradition. It was a powerful and humbling experience.
While on pilgrimage, I’ve been rereading Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude. As I sat in the Quire reading and praying before Evensong I came across these words:
The bells say: we have spoken for centuries from the tower of great Churches. We have spoken to the saints your fathers, in their land. We called them, as we call you, to sanctity (68).
This place has called unknown numbers if people to enter into a closet and more intimate relationship with God. This place has called me into a closet and more intimate relationship with God. Today I give thanks for the gift of this place, and the important reminder of caring for our heritage and tradition: that which has been I trusted to us so that we might pass it along to future generations.
. . . Whan Zephirus eek with his seewte breath / Inspired hath in every holt and heeth . . . (Canterbury Tales, Lines 5-6)
As I sit here at the end of another long and fabulous day, there is one primary thought on my mind: The Church is so lucky that the Berkeley Seniors are about to be unleashed on it.
Today we took an excursion out of Canterbury to Coventry: particularly we went to Coventry Cathedral, the home of the Community of the Cross of Nails (CCN). This visit is an important part of the senior pilgrimage as Berkeley is a partner site of the CCN. Each and every Friday we pray the Litany of Reconciliation from this community as a sign of this relationship and partnership.
We arrived in Coventry just in time to pray the Litany of Reconciliation – something they do every weekday at 12noon. After the Litany it was off to a CCN presentation, which was followed by a tour of the Cathedral ruins and the new Cathedral. It was a powerful experience, particularly to stand in those ruins. It is remarkable to stand in front of the altar, to see the words “Father Forgive” carved into the East wall. It was powerful to recognize what a powerful, countercultural message of faith these words were when they were first written in the midst of war, and how powerful they remain today as our society is increasingly divided and torn by strife.
After the tour a group of us found our way to a local pub to grab something to eat and, most importantly, to process and debrief what we had just experienced. We spoke passionately about our experiences and understandings of reconciliation. We thought critically and intentionally about the ministry of Coventry Cathedral – honoring its strengths and naming places where we disagreed with its message. The conversation continued on to look at our own Berkeley community – particularly our class with all its strengths and weaknesses. There was truth telling, difficult conversation, hurts were named, and apologies were offered. From there we had a very spirited conversation about the use of gendered language in worship and the status and role of the US Episcopal Church in the Global Communion.
The conversation was good, thoughtfully and intense. One classmate remarked how rare these conversations are, and wondered where the Church would be if more conversations like this happened. There are theee guiding principles of CCN: healing the wounds of history; learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity; and, building a culture of peace. In many ways it felt like our time at the pub this afternoon was a small embodiment of this work of reconciliation.
This conversation gave me hope for the Church. Here was a fairly random cross section of our class – a group that does not normally spend time together – challenging and pushing one another. Speaking with great passion and care for the Church. This is a group that loves the Church, and is passionate, and articulate. Most importantly this groups wants to hold the Church accountable as faithful followers of Jesus.
We made the lengthy trip back to Canterbury. A trip filled with conversations about alternative gender neutral trinitarian language and some belting out Whitney Houston. Upon arrival back in Canterbury, a group of us – another sort of random group – made our way out in the town. After a few pints at the oldest pub in Canterbury we found ourselves grabbing dinner at a highly recommended (rightly so) Indian restaurant. This dinner was an amazing experience of fellowship. We shared our stories, listening to one another with car and support. Most importantly, we laughed. We laughed a lot.
This time of fellowship gives me hope for the Church. What an amazing gift to gather with folks I have not spent much time with in these last three years. To share stories and lift one another up. To be colleagues and friends. The Church needs leaders who take what they do seriously but do not take themselves too seriously. The Church needs leaders who can laugh – and laugh at themselves. Boy did we laugh at ourselves tonight. In that laughter we strengthened relationships that will hopefully be sustaining to us as we transition out of seminary and into ordained life (God willing).
As we walked the streets of Coventry and Canterbury I found myself filled with great hope and excitement for the Church. I cannot wait to see what amazing ministries my colleagues – my friends – are about to begin. I cannot wait to see how we will change the Church.
. . . and bathed every veyne in swich licour / of which vertu engendred is the four . . . (Canterbury Tales, lines 3-4)
Today has been a day all about prayer. Now, yes, that is the whole point of a pilgrimage, but today I was in particular awe of the gift of prayer.
Some of my experience of prayer is identical to that of my reflection on community. This place really is a community of prayer. Today we got to experience: morning prayer, sung Eucharist, evensong, and compline. It is a true gift to join with people from near and far to offer our prayers and praise to God. I have a sense that with each passing day I will experience more of the depth of prayer in this place. Today I was keenly aware of the thickness of prayer each and every time I stepped foot into the Quire. Throughout the day – as a result of this spiritual treasure trove – I became increasingly aware that something in my own spiritual life was being untangled. I was – and am – experiencing the important transformational aspect of Pilgrimage.
In addition to joining in the corporate prayer life of the Cathedral, we got to experience three other profound moments of prayer.
First, this afternoon we spent time at St. Augustine’s Abbey. A community established by Augustine of Canterbury as a contemporary with the Cathedral. Unlike the Cathedral, the Abbey is in ruins. There was something incredibly poignant about standing in the middle of rubble and looking virtually across to the street to see the Cathedral tower and the Cathedral bells rang through the silence. A remarkable happenstance of history.
The most powerful moment for me was one in which I was confronted by the realities of my vocation. To stand in front of an altar in ruins on the verge of ordination and to reflect on the countless faithful men (prior to women’s ordination) who celebrated the Sacrament at that altar was, and is, humbling and beyond words. It really puts into perspective that profound gift, honor, and privilege it is to be called to the priesthood.
The second experience of note was our class reflection time. We have been granted permission to use All Saints’ Chapel. This is a beautiful – virtually secret – chapel. Up a narrow staircase, behind a “private” door we gathered to reflect and pray for one another. To be tucked away in an intimate setting was a tangible reminder about how important it is that we pray for each other.
Finally, tonight after a delicious dinner at the Deanery, the Dean took us on a candle lit tour of the Cathedral. As we walked the Dean spoke about the ethos of the Cathedral as a place of prayer for all Christians; and that we Anglicans are merely stewards of this great gift. We went from the West doors to the compass rose (currently covered due to renovations); to the Thomas Becket shrine then down to the crypt. We concluded by standing around Augustine’s throne and then moving one last time to circle around the candle which marks the spot of the original Becket shrine before it was destroyed by order of Henry VIII. Like so many things thus far, there are no words to describe what that moment was like – what the whole experience was like. All I can muster to say is, “wow.”
After telling us about the importance of the Cathedral as a space of protection and intimacy, I found the Dean’s closing prayer all the more powerful:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifukky grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
In a day of profound prayer, I could not have thought of a more perfect prayer. May we all find life and leave through the Cross of Christ.
“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote . . .” (Canterbury Tales, Lines 1-2)
What a day, or should I say days!
The Quire prior to the evening concert
We left New Haven at 4:30pm on Friday 10 March and arrived at the Canterbury Lodge at 1:15pm on Saturday 11 March. Since arrive on the Close our day has been very full. Lunch, time with the deal, Choral Evensong, dinner, and an evening concert. We certainly are making the most of it time here.
Thus far, I have really been struck by community. The community here at Canterbury is amazing. There is a real sense that this is not just some ecclesiastical tourism destination – it is, first and foremost, a community of faith and it has been so for nearly 1000 years. It is amazing to listen to the Dean speak of the community here and how the daily schedule of worship is at the heart of everything they do. I find it truly remarkable to have a community so dedicated to maintaining the full and rich daily liturgical pattern of the Church. In some ways, it still feels like a monastic abbey.
In addition to the present day community, there is also a powerful understanding of the community of all believes – past, present, and yet to come. As I entered the cathedral for evensong and took my place in the quire, I immediately felt the weight of prayer in this place. I was deeply moved by the rich tradition of Canterbury pilgrims that I am now apart of. No wonder I was moved to tears as the choir offer an absolutely beautiful time of prayer. Today was the perfect example of why I love evensong so much – even when it is choral evensong and not congregational evensong. What a gift to add m my own prayers to this well prayers place.
I cannot write about the profoundness of community in this place without writing about my fellow pilgrims. There are 18 of us on this trip – 18 very different people. It is no secret that our class has not always been the most unified, but I cannot imagine being here without these 17 other people. The conversations and levels of sharing are already so deep – even on this first day. Tonight I learned things about my cohort I never had the opportunity to learn before. As our time together comes to an end, I am particularly thankful to spend this time together with my cohort. What an incredible gift.
As a group of us walked back to the lodge tonight, we entered the courtyard and turned around to marvel at the beauty of the cathedral lit up in the hazy night sky. What a perfect end to this first day of pilgrimage.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
At 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.
Below is my sermon from the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at St Mark’s Warwick. The lessons can be found here. A recording of the sermon along with the manuscript can be found below. As always, comments and feedback welcome.
20th century Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple is often quoted for saying, “the Church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.”
In this sentence, Temple has articulated a deep and profound reality of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. From the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry to this moment in 2017 this is the abiding truth of the Church. As the catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
Now I’ll admit, these two phrases sound a bit like lofty ideals put forward by academics, bishops, and church councils, which is exactly what they are, but at the heart of these words are the very words of Jesus.
Today we hear from Matthew’s Gospel. We continue along this five-week journey through that most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount. The journey began last week as we heard those familiar words of the Beatitudes, and continues this week as we hear Jesus announce our identity – we hear Jesus tell us what it means to follow him – we hear Jesus say, “You are the salt of the earth . . .You are the light of the world.”
These words are familiar. They have inspired the hearts and minds of artist, poets, and musicians for centuries. They have seeped into the cultural imagination of our world, and friends they can even be found on bumper stickers.
I wonder if I am the only one who started singing to myself, “hide it under a bushel NO, I’m gonna let it shine” as the words, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” were proclaimed from the Gospel.
We know these words, and that is where the danger lies.
The danger lies in the complacency of the familiar. The danger lies in becoming numb to just how powerful these words are. We must wake up and see the fullness of what Jesus is really calling us to this day.
So what does it mean to be salt?
The phrase, “the salt of the earth” has been normalized into our cultural vocabulary to mean really good, down to earth people. Because this phrase is so familiar we miss out on recognizing just how bizarre this would have sounded to those present with Jesus. Imagine instead if Jesus said, “You are the red hot chili peppers of the earth.”
You add zest. You add spice. You enliven. You shake up and unsettle the world.
This is what the disciples are called to do.
The way they are to engage the world should have profound consequences for the behavior of humanity. But in order to do this they must stay vigilant. That is why Jesus warns about salt that has lost its saltiness. The danger for the disciples is that they might lose that capacity, by forgetting that they are to disorder the status quo by valuing those who are dispossessed, by caring for those who suffer loss, by seeking to do justice, showing mercy, having integrity, being peacemakers, and courageously standing for what they believe. Jesus is clear; disciples who do not engage in such practices that humanize life and restore the dignity of humanity are bland, and fall into the trap of following the ways of this early kingdom instead of the ways of God.
Today we are called to be red hot chili peppers. Today we are called to be salt.
The second metaphor used to instruct the disciples in their newfound identity as followers of Jesus is light.
It is important to note here that the disciples themselves are not the light.
There is only one light. The light that shines in the darkness. The light that enlightens the nations. The light of the world is Jesus.
So when Jesus says to the disciples, “You are the light of the world,” Jesus is saying to them that you are to be windows through which the light of God passes through and shines on the world. The gathered community of the disciples are to be so transformed by the light of God which passes through them, that they become beacons that burst forth the image and reality of God’s justice, God’s mercy, and God’s love.
Today we are called to be windows. Today we are called to be light.
After Jesus finished his metaphors of salt and light, he interjects with a clarification about the connection between this new thing that he is doing and the tradition that has been handed down to them.
Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Jesus is being explicit here, that the law and the prophets stand until they have been accomplished – until the prophecies have been fulfilled. So these words from Jesus force us to connect what it means to be salt and light with the prophetic message we hear from Isaiah.
Today’s passage from Isaiah draws our attention to the true meaning of worship. Throughout the beginning of the passage, the prophet is calling out the people of Israel for making their worship about themselves. They say to God, “why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” After pointing out the problems with the Israelites behavior the prophet goes on to say:
Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Worship, when it is only about us, is not true worship. True worship is that which brings us closer to God and inspires us to go out into the world and live into the fullness of that relationship.
I want to be clear. There is nothing wrong with worship and ritual as long as we are not participating in those things for their own sake or out of some sort of obligation. Worship is not the end, but a vehicle to something more.
Worship should push us, it should make us uncomfortable, it should trouble the complacency in our hearts for worship is the primary way we build a deeper and more honest relationship with God. From this place of discomfort we should be moved to go out and act – to go out and make real the fast the Lord has chosen.
So, when Jesus says not one letter of the law or prophets will be erased until they have been fulfilled, Jesus is saying the work of my disciples – the work of salt and light – is to loose the bonds of injustice; to let the oppressed go free; to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to not cast anyone aside; to welcome all people into the community that is the followers of Jesus; and to not rest until the realms of justice, peace, freedom and love prevail.
Over the years as I have come to know this community; as I have heard stories from some of you, from Deacon Joyce, and from Mother Susan I have come to see just how many windows there are here at St. Mark’s. I have come to know just how well you allow the light of Christ to shine through you. Every month over one hundred people come to your doors to be fed, to share in fellowship, and to take food home with them from your Community Lunch. You knit prayer shawls. You’ve established a relationship with the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center. You do all this and so much more. Here at St. Mark’s you are working hard, as a gathered community of disciples of Jesus, to build the kingdom of God, which is already and not yet.
Today as we once again here the invitation of Jesus to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world we are invited to discern how we can live into this identity more fully. We have the opportunity to imagine how we can better live into the sentiments of Archbishop Temple that, “the Church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” In this historical moment it is our responsibility as disciples of Jesus to seek out the lost, the left behind, the broken, the stranger, the scared and welcome them to be among us. To care for them. To love as Jesus loves us.
In a world of increasing anxiety and fear it can be hard to have the courage to keep doing these things.
It can be hard to continue in the righteousness of Jesus.
It can be hard to not be overwhelmed by it all.
In those moments we can turn to the words of the psalmist, who reminds us that the righteous have no reason to fear.
In those moments we can turn to our worshipping communities and pray together.
In those moments, we take all that holds us back and place that into the arms of the loving, life-giving, and liberating God.
Once we are set free from that burden, we can continue on with our work of being salt and light – we can continue on with our work of being the Church.
Below is my sermon from the Third 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.
Today’s Gospel passage represents a pivotal moment in our lectionary cycle.
For the last few weeks our Scripture passages have been focusing our attention on answering the question “Who is Jesus?” As we approached, prepared for, and celebrated the incarnation – the birth of the Messiah, the Word becoming flesh, we have been building a foundation that rests on the answer to this question: For everything in our lives of faith stems from our understanding of who Jesus is.
Last week this revelatory process reached an important milestone. As we read from John’s Gospel, as we heard the proclamation of John the Baptist, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” we witnessed Jesus beginning to establish his community. Last week we heard John’s version of what we hear today from Matthew. We heard Jesus calling out and inviting Andrew and Peter to “come and see.” We were reminded of the invitation to discernment, the invitation to deeper relationship with this Jesus we have come to know.
Next week, we will read from Matthew just a few verses beyond what we have heard today. Next week the question will no longer be, “who is Jesus,” but “whatis Jesus doing?” We will encounter Jesus living into his earthly ministry as we hear the words of that most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount.
But where does that leave us today?
Today’s passage from Matthew sits between last week and next. It sits between coming to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, and what Jesus is doing.
I wonder if while you listened to the Gospel proclaimed this morning you found yourself doing a double take? I wonder if you found yourself thinking, “didn’t I just hear this?” If this or any similar thought crossed your mind, fear not, your ears were not deceiving you. This morning’s passage from Matthew begins by quoting Isaiah, in fact is it the very passage from Isaiah that we also read this morning. By quoting Isaiah, Matthew is making a clear statement of who he understands Jesus to be.
This passage is one of Isaiah’s beautiful and poetic Messianic prophecies. The Israelites are living in a time of war, and the Assyrians have annexed their communities. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali have been taken and transformed into Assyrian provinces. All of the anxieties and fears of war are being felt by the people of God.
In this prophecy Isaiah is making clear that this is not God’s will for God’s people. God’s purpose is to turn humiliation into liberation. In the midst of war, Isaiah sings a song of liberation into the darkness; a song of the God who lifts the burdensome yoke under which the people are trapped by raising up a ruler who will drive out the oppressors, unify Israel, and initiate a time of “endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom” (9:7).
What Matthew is doing here, in quoting Isaiah, is one of the most important motifs in Matthew. Fourteen times throughout this Gospel we hear, “so what has been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” Fourteen times Matthew quotes from the prophet as a means of showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of these long expected prophecies. In doing so Matthew makes the claim that Jesus is the new Moses, that Jesus is beginning a new and expanded covenant between God and God’s people that is available for all people.
So in this moment, by quoting this passage from Isaiah, Matthew is boldly proclaiming that Jesus is the one who has come to lift this burdensome yoke from God’s people.
With this understanding of Jesus as the great liberator established, the passage shifts and Jesus begins his earthly ministry. He goes “throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” But, before Jesus goes off, he calls four people to join him in this kingdom building work.
As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, two fishermen going about their daily lives. He called out to them saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” The two men did not ask any questions. They stopped what they were doing, dropped their nets, and followed Jesus. As they continued to walk along that Galilean beach they came across more fishermen – James, John, and their father Zebedee. Jesus calls out to James and John. They too stop what they are doing, and immediately begin to follow Jesus. The invitation Jesus offers to Andrew, Peter, James and John, is not an invitation to discernment – it is an invitation to discipleship.
The call of these four men is not filled with a lot of flourishes or detail. In many ways it has been stripped down to the essentials.
Jesus sees them.
Jesus calls them.
There is immediacy to what they are doing. They do not sit around, form a committee, or begin to debate the details of their job descriptions. They just get up and go.
Take a moment to imagine what that scene must have been like.
Imagine how profound that encounter must have been for them to leave everything behind to follow that perfect stranger.
Imagine being aware of something so wonderful in the midst of the ordinariness of life.
Somewhere within their being, these men had a desire – a longing – to being part of this new reality of God. I wonder if when St. Augustine wrote, “our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” if he had these men in mind. I wonder if their immediate, unhesitating response to Jesus is the result of this innate desire to be in relationship with God. What else could be the reason behind their great risk?
In immediately following Jesus, these four left everything they knew behind. They have done what many would deem absolute foolishness. They have left their communities to be part of a new reality. They have left their families to enter into a new relationship with God. They gave up their livelihood so that they might have the bread of life. These disciples chose the road that the world labels as failure and death, and discovered that it is the way of victory and eternal life. They did all of that in one instantaneous decision.
When Jesus invites them using the words, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus is inviting them to share in the very work that Jesus is doing. No longer will they cast their nets for fish, they will now cast the inclusive message of God as far and wide as possible. They will share this message with whomever they encounter with the hopes that they too will join in this work of following and fishing.
By putting together this understanding of Jesus, based in Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, and Jesus’ invitation to discipleship, Matthew is making the connection that ultimately what these disciples – and all disciples – will do is take up the mantle of Jesus. They will – we will – be the ones to preach; to teach; to heal; to restore; to be beacons of light in the midst of darkness; to remove the burdensome yoke from the people of God. When Andrew, Peter, James, and John accept Jesus’ invitation to fish for people, they become our models for discipleship. After all, the same Peter who is called today is the one who proclaims Jesus as the Messiah and Lord – he is the one who will restore people to health and wholeness through the power of Jesus’ name – it is through him that Jesus builds his Church.
Just as Jesus invites these four to become his disciples, we have been issued the same invitation. And like them, we are called to respond in the same way: immediately and without hesitation. While we may not be called to leave everything and everyone we know behind, we are called to reorder our lives and our world. We are called to participate in the work of building the kingdom of God today so that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven.” We are called to take risks in the name of following Jesus. This is not easy.
There is a deep and real cost to discipleship.
Andrew, Peter, James, John and the rest of the disciples came to know this cost. As the second verse of our closing hymn almost hauntingly says, “contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful and broke them too.” They will walk with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry and come to see the cruciform reality of the love of God.
The risks of discipleship are real. The demands are many. But if we choose to follow, to allow our actions and motivations to be moved by the restlessness of our hearts as they search for God, we too will come to know the fullness of this loving, life giving, and liberating God. For as we follow what Jesus does, we come to know fully who Jesus is.