Archives for February 2018

Sacrifice, Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (B) – March 25, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Palm Sunday


[RCL]: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

How did this happen? How did Jesus’ life of peace end in such a violent death? We stand at the edge of this moment, looking on in horror and confusion — just as Jesus’ followers did on the day he was crucified. The violence we have seen is numbing: it robs us of the ability to think clearly. Like Peter in Pilate’s courtyard, we are afraid. And fear will always lead us astray. So it’s a difficult moment to try and puzzle out the meaning of what happened here.

The familiar formula — that Jesus died for our sins — raises more questions than it answers. First, exactly how is Jesus’ death connected with our forgiveness? Why does this terrible thing lead to that wonderful thing? And who is it that wants this sacrifice anyway?

Some are content to say that God does. But surely God cannot need such a sacrifice. Consider what the prophets have to say about the offerings and sacrifices made in the temple. In Isaiah, God says, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings… I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” And in Hosea: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” And on Ash Wednesday, we began Lent by reciting this line from Psalm 51: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus questioned the authority the temple claimed as the sole arbiter of God’s grace. Every time he broke one of the rules by healing on the Sabbath or eating with someone considered unclean, he was saying that God’s love embraces everyone. No one controls access to God’s grace. God’s love is bigger than you think it is.

But if God did not desire Jesus’ death in this way, then who did? Why did this happen?

To answer that question, we have to fill in some of the story that’s missing from the Palm Sunday liturgy. We began this morning by waving our palm branches in the air, celebrating Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples have come from the countryside, where his ministry began, to celebrate Passover in the ancient city. Jesus knew the crowds would be there — he wanted to bring his message to as many people as possible, and to confront the religious authorities in the temple head on.

Mark’s timeline for the whole week of Passover is surprisingly precise. Because of this, we can work out that Jesus would have entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover. The Palm Sunday liturgy then skips over several days of that Passover week, and several chapters of Mark’s Gospel, and the next thing we know, it is Thursday evening. Jesus’ disciples are preparing the Passover meal, as Mark says, “on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed.” But it’s what happens between Sunday and Thursday that helps explain why the authorities — both Jewish and Roman — were so keen to have Jesus killed.

Let’s fill in some of the missing pieces. First of all, Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry: although the crowds shouted Hosanna to greet him, it seems perfectly obvious that Jesus’ procession was anything but triumphant. He chose to ride into town on a young colt, the foal of a donkey. If this is hard for you to picture, imagine a large and friendly dog, about three feet tall at the shoulder. Jesus has no armor but the cloaks of peasants, and he is lauded with palm branches and leaves instead of golden eagles on spears carried in procession by Roman soldiers.

You see, it was Rome that really loved a procession. Rome excelled at using a military parade as a demonstration of its dominance, to keep its subjugated peasants in awe. And Jesus knew that Pilate, the Roman Governor, made a point of riding from his capital city on the Mediterranean coast every Passover, to make sure these crowds of peasants in Jerusalem stayed in line. Picture Pilate on a magnificent war horse and surrounded by a legion of Roman soldiers in red and gold armor, marching in lockstep as they enter the city gates.

Jesus’ little street parade, in contrast, with the donkey and the palm fronds, is an anti-imperial protest. He’s mocking the empty pomp of the empire, questioning the brutality with which Rome ruled the peasant class and kept Judea impoverished.

After taking on the empire, Jesus goes straight to the temple. The day after that peace demonstration, Jesus takes over the temple courtyard, the heart of the action during Passover week, and stages a teach-in. Remember Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers? Well, that’s what he did on the Monday before Passover. He tells thinly veiled parables about the religious leaders which cast them in a very bad light. This goes on for several days. By the time Wednesday has come around, Jesus denounces them openly: “Beware of the scribes,” he says, “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces… They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

They devour widows’ houses: that is Jesus’ accusation against the religious authorities. They think they control access to God’s grace by controlling the temple. The only way to get a little of that grace was to pay up: all those money changers were there to facilitate your purchase of the correct sacrificial animal, which, for the right price, the priests would offer to God on your behalf. The price was the same whether you were a poor widow or a rich merchant.

From the start of his ministry, Jesus’ central message has been, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” And that is a dangerous message, for it challenges both the secular and the religious authorities. If God is King over all, then Caesar is not. And in Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom, God’s love is not mediated by priests at the temple but is free and available to all. Is it any wonder that both the Jewish and the Roman leaders wanted Jesus dead?

Nailing him to a cross was supposed to be the final solution. Get rid of the rabble-rouser, silence him, and his message would die with him. Crucifixion was the world’s way of saying no to everything Jesus stood for.

The world says no to Jesus — but God says yes. This is the good news that Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” It’s the first attempt at explaining what happened on Good Friday. The world rejects Jesus’ message and tries to silence him in death — but God vindicates Jesus and raises him to life. The horror and violence we inflict on an innocent man shows the depth of human evil and the ultimate defeat of human power, by revealing the moral bankruptcy of human beings left to our own devices. But God’s love as revealed in Jesus is life itself: Love that can never be silenced, never be killed. Love that will restore our lost humanity.

Out of this terrible violence, God has made an opening between heaven and earth. At the very end of the Passion narrative, at the moment of Jesus’ death, Mark tells us that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This is the veil in the temple that separated the people from the power and love of God — the veil that contained God’s presence, and behind which only the high priest was allowed to go.

This veil was torn asunder, and God’s love is no longer contained in a temple. Jesus’ redeeming work was to confront those who tried to keep God locked up. Jesus’ life and teaching have shown us a new way. The scandal of the cross is that now, God’s love can go anywhere and reach anyone. Even those who are different from us. Even those who don’t deserve it. Even those who don’t believe. God’s love now permeates the whole universe and continually pulls us from death into life, with each breath we take, from the beginning of time until the end.

Amen.

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program (part of Episcopal Service Corps), a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Download the sermon for Palm Sunday (B).

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Great Vigil of Easter

This Voice Has Come for Your Sake, Not for Mine, Lent 5 – March 18, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Lent

[RCL]: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Some foreigners, outsiders, show up for the festival. They say, “We wish to see Jesus.” Philip runs to Andrew and presumably says something along the lines of, “Hey, there are all these foreigners who want to see Jesus! What should we do?”

Andrew obviously has no answers. Who wants foreigners around at a time like this?! So, they run off to Jesus to tell him the foreigners are at the gates looking for him. Jesus says, in effect, if you want to see me, really, really see me, then stick around. You’ll have to deal with my death at the hands of Rome to really, really see me. Are they ready for that? Are you ready for that? To which we might add, are we ready for that?

Then obviously there was some noise. Some thought it was thunder, so it must have been loud. Some thought it looked as if Jesus was talking to someone, but there was no one there. Must be angels, some surmise. It was that voice from heaven. The same voice he heard at his baptism that said, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” The same voice from the cloud on the mountaintop with Peter, James, John, and Jesus that said, “This is my beloved, listen to him.” Are we listening yet?

Now when Jesus says, “Father, glorify thy name,” the voice returns and says, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Or was it thunder? Is he talking to angels? Has he simply lost it and started talking to himself? Should we even think of letting the foreigners see him like this?

While everyone is trying to figure out what is happening, Jesus announces, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.” Which I would take to mean: for our sake, not his.

This voice that keeps coming around is for us, not for Jesus, which makes perfect sense. He knows the voice. The voice knows him. He has always heard the voice. He comes to get us to listen to the voice.

Surely, we must wonder why we do not hear the voice like Jesus does more often? Or at all! Would it surprise us to learn that to this very day, 90% of the peoples of the world regularly hear such voices? That modern Westerners are the minority, the anomaly, as those people who do not regularly access this kind of communication with God and spirits? The question is quite naturally, why not us? And most people say we are too busy to be listening, or think we are too sophisticated to hear voices, or think you have to be crazy or mentally ill to hear such voices. Someone has suggested that maybe it is because we are too grown up. Someone else has pointed out that most other cultures do not make such a big thing out of growing up. And isn’t it Jesus, after all, who says we are to come to the kingdom like children?

And couldn’t it be that we don’t want to hear anything about having to watch him die, watch him be executed, the victim of state-sanctioned capital punishment? Dress it up as being like a grain of wheat, call it what you may, but that is what it is: state-sanctioned public execution. In all the debate on capital punishment, how often are we asked to reflect upon what it might mean that the One who calls us into a relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the victim of state-sanctioned capital punishment?

All we know is that he says, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.”

This voice that says, “You are my beloved. I am well pleased with you. I have glorified my name and I will glorify it again.” We are left feeling that for God’s name to be glorified, we need to be listening to God’s voice and learn how to become part of the glorifying process.

Holy Week and all it portends may be dark and scary. But it is not nearly as frightening as the prospect that for others to see Jesus, we might need to be part of the glorifying process. In Sunday School, we rarely hear anything about this voice and its being for us. Seminaries typically do not offer a lot of training on how to listen for this voice Jesus says is for us.

The creeds do not appear to discuss it. The catechism does not seem to discuss it. Yet, there it is. “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” Seems as if we’d best get listening to hear what this voice says; nothing less than the future of the whole world is at stake, he goes on to say.

The problem is that those of us who, like the foreigners, want to see Jesus are the very people to whom others come expecting to see Jesus. In us. In what we say and what we do. In his book By Grace Transformed, the late Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., discusses just how it is that others “hear the voice” and come to see Jesus. Gordon puts it this way:

“Every single one of us is significant to somebody else. The people to whom we are significant will catch this thing from us if they know that we are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, absolutely devoted and loyal to the Lord Jesus Christ. But the trouble is that in those moments we think of as off moments, others decide whether or not we are truly committed. The times a person says, ‘I must talk to you,’ or when we are weeding the garden. Or, working in an office. Grading a road. Nailing on a molding or painting a room. Cooking a meal. Speaking to a child. These are the times and places where the other person decides who we really are. There can be no ‘off moments’ for Christians if our faith and its vitality are to be contagious.”

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. The beginning of Holy Week, the most important week in the Christian year. We must all make time to come and serve him, follow him, be with him wherever he may be. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter are all times we need to come and be with him. “Follow me,” he says.

And we need to listen for the Voice. The Voice that is for our sake, not for his. The Voice speaks to us so that we might know how beloved we are. So that we might know how well pleased God is with us. Once we hear this voice and believe it, others will see Jesus, in all that we say and all that we do. Amen.

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Lent 5 (B).

Snakes, Lent 4 (B) – March 11, 2018

Episcopal Lent Sermon

[RCL]: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107: 1-2, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

If you are uncomfortable around snakes, this might not be your Sunday! But, if you can set that discomfort aside, you will be treated to an insight about how the ancient Hebrew Bible reading from Numbers connects with the Gospel reading from John.

If you were running from something, brutal slave labor, for example, you could hardly write a tougher scenario of a flight to freedom than the Exodus. The people of the Hebrews were fleeing through the desert, and their wilderness wanderings were plagued by lack of food and water. And now snakes. Why? Because they complained against the God who was delivering them.

So, when was the last time you found yourself in traffic complaining about its slow pace, while your air conditioner or heater hummed, and you listened to satellite radio in stereo? Here you are in your own little island, but you are upset because you can’t get to work or home any faster. And while you might not be tripping over snakes, you at least know you’re going to get there eventually. The Hebrews didn’t even know where “there” was.

Being miserable is something we try to avoid, but how we handle it really hasn’t changed much. The power goes off and we call the electric utility and complain. The water is turned off for a few hours because of a water main leak, and we whine at the water company. The waiter tells us they have just run out of the dish we had so looked forward to, so we fuss and grumble as we order another choice from a varied menu.

Okay, so maybe this is a little over the top about complaining, but really – what do we have to complain about? Besides, it’s Lent! Aren’t we supposed to feel a little miserable?

Like Moses with the Hebrews, somebody prays for us. Somebody offers up our fears of snakes that bite us and frighten us. Somebody breaks the bread and blesses the cup and offers us real spiritual food. The bread is broken, the cup is offered, and we see the sign like the people saw the bronze serpent in the wilderness and lived. We receive the bread and the cup, and our impatience and complaining retreat, even if only for a while.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,” proclaims the Psalmist. And if God is good, what he offers us is never a snake that bites us, but the bread of life. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”

Lent is all about who truly delivers us from the hardships we suffer, the complaints we offer, and the peril of the snakes in this world.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, carefully setting up the situation: we are all dead through our sinning because we think the things of this world will save us, keep us comfortable, and drive the snakes away. He describes God as rich in mercy and able in our dead state to make us alive in Christ Jesus, saved and raised up with him. And most of all, we can’t cause it by our good works. Rather, God’s free gift of Christ on the cross—recalling the serpent lifted up by Moses—brings us salvation. The snakes can’t win. Thanks be to God.

So, we come to the Gospel reading from John, and the one verse every Christian knows by heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This passage is so well known that it is often coded on billboards and in ads as John 3:16 with no text provided.

And that may be the problem. This text taken by itself is almost a romantic rendering of the Gospel, as if somehow God came into the world and erased evil in all its forms from our lives. That leaves us with a lot of questions. Recently the parents of a young child who died of influenza were agonizing over why their Christian belief didn’t save their child. Good, well-intentioned, and brave people are killed every day: some by accident, some by violence and mayhem. Simply quoting John 3:16 to their families and friends will not provide a lot of comfort.

The story of the Gospel is about our encounter with it, and how even after hearing it, we may choose evil rather than good. Jesus’ life and ministry are a judgment because despite his being in the world, people still love darkness rather than light, and our deeds are often evil, as John continues to proclaim.

So, Lent is not just a time for us to get closer to Jesus and hope for the best. Lent is a time to embrace the challenge of the Gospel, to swim upstream against all of the world’s downstream current of things that pleasure us and delight us, but never satisfy.

Deep Lent, as some call this time, is when we struggle with the darkness, and may not always find answers to why it is so pervasive. We cannot answer why evil seems so prevalent because we can’t readily see it in our own choices. So, asking to be part of the light will reveal what is hidden in our darkness, and most of us would prefer not to see. That is why self-examination and confession are rare and avoided by most of us. But we have strayed like lost sheep, we have followed too much the desires of our own hearts, to the point where, left on our own, we are truly lost.

So, make today a turning point, an embracing of John 3:16 for your future. If you say this passage every day this week and ask God how to embrace it, you will find a way. You will find it as you receive the bread and the cup. You will find it as you reach out to another human being who is also lost and lonely. You will find a way to move more into the light. You will have different questions to ask, ones for which there are answers.

The only reason Jesus could go to the cross was because he dared to walk into the darkness. We have to do the same if we are going to follow him the rest of the Lenten journey. That means leaving a lot of things behind, including the world’s wisdom for how to live in the darkness by making everything pleasant for ourselves.

Somehow, we have to connect with these readings, with the Hebrews who wandered in the desert. Somehow, we have to embrace St. Paul who writes in Ephesians about our being dead because we follow the course of the world. And somehow, we have to take what is offered this Sunday, the word and sacrament, and let it begin to work in us so that, as John so wonderfully writes: “it may be clearly seen that [our] deeds have been done in God.”

As the collect for this 4th Sunday of Lent says, “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us and we in him.”

Pray those words, and then make room for God to lift them up in your life. Amen.

The Rev. Ben E. Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

Download the sermon for Lent 4 (B).

Resisting the Idolatry of the Age, Lent 3 (B) – March 4, 2018

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

In this age, when Mammon is worshipped gleefully in the public realm of both politics and of what passes for popular religion, it is bracing to read St. John’s depiction of Jesus’ visit to the Temple, to his “Father’s house,” as he called it. It makes us cry aloud, “Oh, for a whip of justice to clean out the corruption in our own temples of power.” Yet, we know that only Jesus has the courage and the authority to do so. All we are able to do is wait and repeat, “How long oh Lord, how long?”

For Jesus, it is the first Passover of his public ministry and his first known visit to Jerusalem as a grown man. This is uniquely St. John’s chronology of the event; no less an authority than Archbishop William Temple declares that it is the correct one (the other gospels put this visit just before his arrest and crucifixion). The Archbishop makes it clear that early in his ministry, Jesus still considers the Herodian Temple his “Father’s House.” But by the end of his ministry, when he weeps over Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” he declares it to be the people’s temple. “See, your house is left to you,” he cries, and the implication of desolation is in his words.

The Temple was finally finished in A.D. 64 only to be destroyed six years later. By then Jesus’ resurrected body was the temple he was talking about in his prophecy. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Later the sycophants of the high priests will force witnesses to accuse Jesus of saying that he himself would destroy the temple, but as false witnesses do, they lied. It was not he who destroyed the temple; it was human arrogance and sin.

Why did Jesus become so angry when he saw his father’s house being made into a marketplace? The Old Testament lesson gives us many clues to the answer. Idolatry of any kind was forbidden by God. The money changers had the following purpose: taxes had to be paid to the Roman overlords, but the Roman money carried the image of Caesar on it. The High Priests, considering this image idolatry, had ordered that the money paid in taxes should be converted to the shekel in order to be acceptable for Temple business. In that exchange, a great profit went into the coffers of these same priests. Jesus knew that this was both profanity of the Temple and exploitation of the poor citizens. It was another form of idolatry, but this time the idol was Mammon, a god ever present both then and now—a god not named by his followers but worshipped nonetheless.

Jesus also knew that his acts in the courtyard of the Temple would bring him in direct conflict with these same high priests, but fear was unknown to him; nothing ever stopped him from obeying the will of his Father. This early in his ministry he is very popular with the people, so the priests don’t dare touch him. As his interpretation of who God is and what God demands of us continues throughout the land, he becomes a stumbling block to the high priests, and the people, not getting the signs that they demand, agree to his death. But on this first Passover in Jerusalem, filled with the Holy Spirit, he burns with the fire and power of Truth. Afraid of that fire, they don’t dare touch him, but their desire to see him dead begins on that day.

In a few years St. Paul will articulate it very clearly to the Corinthians. The Jews, Jesus’ and Paul’s own people, were scandalized by Jesus’ courage, by his claim to know the mind of his father, by his willingness to meet his death without any retaliation or violence. To the Gentiles, with whom Paul is sharing what he learned from Christ, all this is foolishness. It goes against their own admiration for wisdom and philosophy, even for courage in battle. St. Paul summarizes the reaction to the acts of Jesus in brilliant brevity: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

In today’s gospel story, St. John shows the scandalous activity of Jesus in all its glory. The leaders of the Jews had fooled the people with a piety that had become idolatry and had allowed physical structures to take the place of a God who demanded, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Our culture has forgotten this command also, and so many signs or symbols have been turned into idols: the Ten Commandments are not obeyed, but their depiction on stone is approved; the flag that is supposed to remind us of the human longing for freedom becomes an idol to be worshipped at athletic games; money that should be used to educate and feed children becomes an idolatrous acquisition for those who already have too much of it, while our streets fill with homeless people; and other, old symbols of the evil of violence return to trouble our dreams.

We need Jesus’ courage to cleanse the temples of idolatry. We long for his kind of integrity that dares to call out the oppressors, no matter who they are. We pray for the power to overthrow the tables of the moneychangers who cheat the poor and the voiceless. In St. Paul’s words, we too must “proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Nowhere does Paul ever speak of a prosperity gospel.

As we approach Holy Week, we need the love and the passion that can sustain us even unto death. We will be laughed at when we too resist the culture of the day, but we will remember with St. Paul that, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Let us be aware, more than ever during this season of Lent, that the power of God goes with us.

Katerina Whitley is an author, a retreat leader, and a social justice advocate. She has worked as an Episcopal communicator on the diocesan and national church level for four decades. The author of seven books, she lives in Boone and teaches at Appalachian State University. She lectures on St. Paul and the First Century as the author of A New Love which is centered on the ministry of the great apostle. She invites you to visit her website, www.katerinawhitley.net.

Download the sermon for Lent 3 (B).

More Than Fixing, Lent 2 – February 25, 2018

Lent sermon Episcopal

[RCL] Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Blessed Saint Peter: author of Scripture, first Pope, chief Apostle, teacher and defender of the faith, pillar of the Early Church, purported benefactor of the Gospel of Mark, and martyr. It is little wonder that Saint Peter gets so much good press amongst Christians!

But there is one thing missing from this list. One thing, in fact, that is among the blessed Apostle’s greatest gifts: Peter had the unique ability to find precisely the wrong moment to say the wrong thing! Or, to put it another way, Peter was an expert at opening his mouth and inserting his foot!

Listen to it again:

“Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all of this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him…”

Now at first, we might be tempted to think that Peter simply forgot himself a bit—that he got so caught up in the thought of Jesus’ death that he spoke out of turn. But if we were to back up just two verses before the beginning of today’s Gospel reading to verse 29, we would hear Peter answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with certainty and affirmation: “You are the Messiah!”

And so, seemingly without giving it a second thought, Peter professes that Jesus is the Messiah one minute and scolds him like an irresponsible teenager the next. One might imagine that the other disciples watched this scene unfold anxiously, as children watching their brother or sister arguing with their parents at the dinner table.

But it’s what happens after all of this that is truly shocking.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

That’s the moment that Peter and the disciples realized that the God they wanted was not the God made known in Jesus Christ! The disciples wanted a God who would be a savvy political and military leader, leading the charge to put the Romans in their place once and for all. They wanted someone who would raise them up to a position of power and importance. And they wanted someone so radical that their enemies would cower and flee. They were convinced that the keys to a good life were strength and power.

Instead, they got a guy who taught about loving others, feeding the hungry, and foretold his own impending death at the hands of the very same powers he was supposed to overcome.

This was not what they had signed up for!

With this in mind, it’s a bit easier to understand why Peter was so upset; if we had been standing where he and the other disciples were standing, we might have been upset, too!

But then again, who among us hasn’t wanted a God who just swoops down at the first sign of trouble and sets things right?

We ask God for a good parking spot; we pray for winning lottery numbers; we long for the phone call with the news of a better job or the approval from the bank for the new car or the bigger house, because in one way or another, we believe that if we can just get a little bit ahead and become just a little more successful, or if we could amass just a little clout or influence, our lives would be much better.

The disciples weren’t the only ones who believed that the keys to a good life were strength and power. More often than not, we believe it too.

But this attitude about God also shows up in places that aren’t so self-serving. When tragedy strikes, we pray and pray and pray for a different outcome, and yet God seems far away from us. Those of us who have been at the bedside of a friend or family member who died much too soon often find ourselves staring into the cold, dark silence of death, feeling abandoned by God. Coming to grips with the end of a long relationship with a lover or a friend causes us to wonder about this God we worship.

“Why doesn’t God just fix all of this?” we wonder. If God loves us, why do we suffer so terribly?

But as Mark’s Gospel reminds us, if we are to confess Jesus as Messiah, we must do so by standing at the foot of the cross as he is crucified. The God we worship is about more than fixing our lives. The God we worship is about laying down his life for the sake of our own.

And the moment we allow this truth to penetrate deep into our souls is the same moment we realize that the suffering we see around us—in the hospital bed, in the prison, on the street, in the mirror—is none other than the crucified Christ laying down his life again and again in the midst of our suffering.

“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said, “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Taking up our cross means recognizing Christ crucified in the suffering world around us, and then recalling that true discipleship is paved by the way of our own cross.

But walking the way of the cross and proclaiming Christ crucified isn’t the end of the story. No, it’s just the beginning! The story continues on, through the resurrection of Easter, and even to this day, at this very moment!

But we cannot know the fullness of Christ’s resurrection unless we are willing to know Christ crucified. The Great Fifty Days of Easter find their meaning only after the solemn forty days of Lent. Easter morning finds its consummation only through Good Friday.

And so, as we continue our journey through this holy season of Lent, may we walk alongside one another, bearing our crosses and proclaiming the faith of Christ crucified—the faith of militant love. Of subversive grace. And of radical mercy. And may our hearts be filled with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection!

Amen.

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is the editor of ModernMetanoia.org—a lectionary-based preaching resource authored exclusively by Millennial clergy, lay leaders, and teachers. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef, all while completing a doctorate at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

Download the sermon for Lent 2 (B).

Wilderness, Lent 1 – February 18, 2018

[RCL] Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

John was good at his job. John was very good at his job. If you needed someone to be a messenger and prepare a people to turn their hearts, repent, and get right with God, John was the one to call. The voice crying out in the wilderness, the messenger, the baptizer. No matter what you called John, he was the one to go to for a fresh start. Crowds gathered. Scribes were curious. Pharisees plotted. “Prepare the way of the Lord” was the cry of the ancient prophet Isaiah. John embodied that cry. Repent! Be baptized and your sins will be forgiven. The people came from all across the Judean countryside and Jerusalem just to get a glimpse of the would-be messenger in camel hair and leather.

They weren’t coming for the locust and honey diet, they were coming to confess. They came into the wilderness to see, to seek repentance. Who doesn’t long for forgiveness? Who doesn’t want to leave the burdens of the past, the failures, the disappointments, the hurts, and start anew? So, to the wilderness and to the water they came to find John the Baptizer, looking to leave the past behind. A prophet? Maybe Elijah? The Messiah? They had not seen a prophet in a long time. Thus, they tried to label him, to name him, to categorize him. But John knew who he was and whose he was. He was a messenger, a baptizer, and he was good at his job.

“‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” – Mark 1:7-8

John was not the “One”.

And yet people came. They came to the water and to the wilderness. Longing. Hoping. Expecting. Seeking. Preparing for the “One”. Then he appeared. Jesus of Nazareth. Can anything good come from Nazareth? From nowhere? The whispers started as John saw him coming, along with the recognition that today was the day the messenger would greet the message. Into the water Jesus came. No words were needed because he was the Word. Into the water. Under.

Dripping wet he came up from the water and in the silence, the promised Holy Spirit descended like a dove. Then the voice, like thunder and snowfall, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Still wet, still dripping, he is driven into the wilderness. Jesus the One, the Word, doesn’t even get to bask in being beloved. The silence is broken by the urgency of the wilderness. No polite invitation, but rather an urgent driving, almost violent force, compels him into the wilderness.  The Tempter was waiting.

“Prove yourself,” is the temptation. The Tempter knows that things happen in the wilderness. The wilderness is the mirror, the temptation is to look away. Jesus looks, with the voice of creation still ringing in his ear. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” The days turn to night. Night turns to day. Longing, hoping, praying. Forty days. And then the flutter of wings. The wilderness behind, the work ahead.

If we are honest with ourselves, we try our best to avoid the wilderness. Things happen in the wilderness and we would rather not have things change. The wilderness is where we are forced to see ourselves as we are, without filter or finery. It is there we wander and wait to encounter the holy. Like Jesus, we are sometimes driven against our will, by the Holy Spirit, to the wild places we would rather not go. But the wilderness is where we as individuals and as community must go, because out of the wild comes new life.

During this Lenten season of fasting and focus, of praying and preparing, we are tempted to simply go through the motions. We are tempted to skirt the wilderness, to turn away from encountering the wild places in our lives and in our world. We are tempted to turn away from the mirror of the Tempter. But if we are to follow Jesus, if we are to be renewed for new possibilities and prepared to hope once more, we must face the wild.

Throughout the history of God, we see our spiritual ancestors spending their time wrestling with the barren places. From the call of Abraham and Sarah to the wandering of the people of Israel for forty years, the wilderness has become a place of refining and self-discovery.

But our forbearers never faced the desert alone. For forty years, God journeyed with Israel. For forty days, God watched over Noah. For forty days, God stood with Jesus. And for our time, God will stand with us.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know deep down inside that we need the wilderness. We know in our bones and deep within our souls that the desert calls, cajoles, and compels us even when we resist. Our church, our community, our world—now more than ever—needs the wilderness. We need to spend the time looking at ourselves in order to find new life, new ministry, and new ways of being the people of God.

We long for things to stay the same, for things to be frozen in time. We long for the way things were in the past, but God is calling us, like the people of Israel, to a new future. We cannot get to God’s future if we are not able to let go of the past.

God has work for us to do and that work begins, like it did with Jesus, when we are driven to the wild places of discovery.

We go to the wilderness to discover anew the joy of being beloved.

We go to learn once more what it means to be and live as beloved.

We go to listen for the voice of God calling us again.

We go to see Christ more clearly in the world around us.

We go because that is where we encounter God.

We go to the wilderness because we can no longer be as we have always been.

Till all the jails are empty and all the bellies filled;
till no one hurts or steals or lies, and no more blood is spilled;
till age and race and gender no longer separate;
till pulpit, press, and politics are free of greed and hate:
God has work for us to do.[1]

God’s work begins with a pesky Holy Spirit sometimes dragging, driving, and drawing us out into the wilderness. Jesus has been there. The angels are there. His footsteps can still be found. Out in the wilderness, we are faced with many temptations. But the biggest temptation is to not enter the wilderness at all.

The wilderness is calling. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen.

Written by the Rev. Deon Johnson. Rev. Johnson serves as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, Mich. A Liturgical Consultant, Deon specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time, Deon enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.

[1] Carl P. Daw, Jr.  Words © 1996 Hope Publishing Company

Download the sermon for Lent 1 (B).