20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Sermon

 

Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Why do we worship the things that we worship? Why do we develop the attachments that we do?

This week, as I thought about today’s Gospel reading, I found myself wondering “why does Jesus invoke the name of God and the name of Caesar in the same breath?”

The Pharisees inquire: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

As we just heard, Jesus answers their question by asking for a coin. Now the coin that they handed Jesus was a denarius, a roman coin made of silver, about the size of a dime. The denarius was the most common coin of the Roman Empire’s currency. As Jesus indicates, the denarius has the face of Caesar Augustus on it, and is imprinted with words that declare Caesar’s divinity. The coin probably said, “Tiberius Caesar, the son of the divine Augustus, the Augustus.” Tiberius was the Caesar, the emperor at the time, and was the stepson of Octavian, the first to be called Augustus, a name that itself conferred divinity. On the back, the coin declares Caesar “pontifex maximus,” the greatest High Priest, the one who connects us to the Gods. 

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Proper 16, 2017

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“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

Earlier this month, I was in Boston for a conference, and while there, I had the opportunity to preach. My sermon that Sunday was on the Transfiguration, a story that is about how unsettling God’s glory can be, and about St. Peter’s sometimes humorous tendency to put his foot in his mouth. What I like so much about that story, is the fact that Peter’s life can be a powerful exemplar for us all. Peter’s mind is renewed, and this gives us hope that our mind’s can undergo the same transformation. 
As we read today, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, or the Christ in some translations. And then, in the next chapter, on the side of that mountain, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is tested, affirmed, and strengthened. That renewal is necessary to be able to see Jesus for who he really is, the Christ, the Son in whom the Father is well pleased, the Son that we are supposed to listen to.

Seeing Jesus as he really is, for who he really is. That sounds like a tall order. Hundreds of thousands of pages were expended on this task in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Children and adults alike have inquired about this Christ whom they have never met in person. Will the real Jesus please stand up?

But as St. Paul tells us, there is more at stake in the question of who Jesus is than just knowing that strange and wonderful miracle worker from Palestinian who lived two millennia ago. Knowing Jesus, Paul says, renews our mind. 

In a remarkably compact passage, Paul tells the Romans that their bodies and lives should be presented to God as living sacrifices, that they should offer themselves up for transformation. Not just any transformation, but one that will make it possible for them to discern God’s will. I don’t know which is a taller order, knowing the real Jesus or knowing God’s will!
But Paul doesn’t just tell the Romans that they should be so transformed, he in fact tells them how this transformation will happen, and it’s both awe inspiring and humbling, and perhaps humiliating to some. The thought that we all have spiritual gifts is wonderful, and should give us confidence in the Church, the confidence that through the Church God can work in the world. 
But there’s more: neither you, nor I, nor anyone else has all the gifts. Unlike Pokemon, I can’t catch ‘em all. Instead, the Spirit has given me some gifts, and has given different gifts to others. What this means is that I have to rely on others for their gifts, and that they have to rely on me. Together, we make a body, and as bodies go, one member is only one part of a whole body, and yet that “just one part” is also crucial to the health and vitality of the whole body. 

What is your part in this body? How do you know what your gift is? You might even be wondering whether you have a spiritual gift.

Looking back at Peter’s exchange with Jesus, we see that it’s only after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ that he begins to see who he himself is, who he is becoming. And Peter has already traveled with Jesus for many miles. Jesus exclaims that what Simon peter, the son of Jonah, has just said, what he knows, doesn’t come from “flesh and blood.” Rather, it comes directly from the Father in Heaven. And it’s because of Peter’s confession that Peter is now moving toward a different vocation, a different set of habits, a different mind. Of course, he doesn’t get it right immediately. But Peter is on the way to offering himself up as a living sacrifice, his act of spiritual worship. In other words, Peter’s change, Peter’s gift doesn’t come from Peter. It comes from God. 
Jesus being the Christ makes Peter the Rock. It isn’t Peter’s confidence in himself that makes him the Rock. Rather, it is faith in Christ that will be the foundation of Christ’s new community. It is faith in Christ—and not ourselves, our ideologies, our actions—that is the foundation of the Church today. 

Confessing that Jesus is the Christ isn’t just about knowing Jesus, although that’s an incredibly important part of it. Rather, As Jesus tells Peter in today’s reading, knowing who Jesus is changes how we see ourselves. Jesus being the Christ, the only son of God, offers us the chance to change, to become renewed in our minds together, and to offer ourselves up as holy and living sacrifices.

Transfiguration, Year A, 2017

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A 15th Century Russian Icon, by Theophanes the Greek

Texts: Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Peter 1:13-21, Luke 9:28-36, Psalm 99

In her short story, the Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor symbolizes the glory of the transfiguration with a peacock. More precisely, her characters’ responses to that peacock show us how disruptive glory can be, and how easy it is to miss glory. For O’Connor, prejudice and hard-heartedness are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to perceiving glory.O’Connor depicts this in the character of Mrs. Shortly, whose blindness prevents her from truthfully beholding the glorious majesty of the peacock that lives on the farm. Mrs. Shortly has “unseeing eyes,” literally ignoring what’s immediately before her. Instead, Mrs Shortly prefers her delusional “inner visions,” daydreams in which her fantasies are fulfilled in grotesque and sociopathic ways. 

Another character, Mrs. MacIntyre, is also blind to the glory around her. But her blindness is of a more mundane and perhaps sympathetic sort, although we know that for O’Connor the mundane and relatable usually turn out to be the most destructive elements of her stories. Mrs. MacIntyre’s forgivable annoyance at the peacock and the remarkably efficient Polish immigrant who is resurrecting her declining farm becomes something nefarious, as Mrs. MacIntyre uses that annoyance to justify her complicity in the gruesome death of that immigrant. 

O’Connor wants us to see that glory is often perceived as disruption to the normal, efficient order of human affairs. It is a sad story to be sure, but a poignant demonstration about how our failure to perceive people and situations as they are — especially those that are right there in front of us — is not simply a failure of our eyes, but more importantly of our hearts. 
So too with the disciples in today’s gospel. Although the disciples aren’t quite the narcissistic and tragic characters of O’Connor’s story, there is nevertheless a moment, a subtle and mundane moment, when they come dangerously close to completely losing sight of what is taking place right before their eyes. Peter’s offer to build tiny houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah might be humorous, but it’s an example of the ways in which the heart, when overwhelmed, attempts to normalize and contain the overwhelming. 
In this case, Jesus appears in overpowering radiance, showing himself in divine splendor to the disciples. The disciples, in their awe, don’t know what to do, until Peter, making what appears to be a respectful gesture, offers to commemorate the moment with a memorial, a physical structure to symbolize the importance of the event. And yet, Peter’s offer serves another, unspoken purpose: Peter wants to block out the struggle with the mysterious and confusing thing taking place before his very eyes by institutionalizing it. Peter’s strategy is one that we’re familiar with: it’s one of avoidance. 
Just verses before today’s reading, Peter utters his famous confession that Jesus is the Christ. Now this confession comes after a series of vignette’s in which Jesus performs miracles and is confused for a resurrected John the Baptist. After asking the disciples who they think he is, and then hearing Peter’s confession, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be persecuted, executed, and then rise again after three days. We’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: this must have been disappointing and disruptive news, especially to the zealous among Jesus’ inner circle.
And yet, there, on the side of that mountain, in the presence of a transfigured Jesus, flanked by Moses and Elijah, Peter experiences something so overwhelming and perhaps quite confusing. Does Peter’s offer suggest that he doesn’t quite understand what it meant to say that Jesus is the Christ? 
It’s crucial to remember here that Peter, James, and John are on the side of the mountain in the first place because Jesus invited them there to pray, as he does with all of his disciples so often throughout Luke. For Jesus, Prayer is the key way he relates to and knows the Father, and the Father’s will. It’s how he is one with the Father. Through prayer, Jesus invites the Father to do his will in the World. And Jesus invites his disciples to be one with him and the Father through prayer. 
For Jesus, prayer shapes us; it shapes our desires, our habits of thinking, seeing, and hearing. Prayer, we might say, is how we see God, the world, and ourselves as we truly are.
So, It’s not surprising that Jesus would show himself truly to his disciples in this specific context, that is, in the context of prayer. For it is by, in, and through prayer that the Father and the Incarnate Son relate to one another, and likewise that God desires to deepen his relationship with his people. And of course, it shouldn’t be surprising to us that the disciples haven’t quite caught up with Jesus on this matter. Just as the disciples still have so much growing to do in their relationship with Jesus, they also have so much growing to do in the life of prayer. Prayer and relationship with Jesus work together, for it is only in prayer that the disciples will see Jesus in his glory. 
Going back to “The Displaced Person,” we see that O’Connor’s characters’ fundamental problem is their struggle to bend reality to their wills, to bend the servants and immigrants on the farm to their wills. And when that doesn’t work, they struggle to contain those people and events through more nefarious strategies. 
And of course, this is the human problem, isn’t it? We work so hard to domesticate life, to make things safe and secure that it’s easy in the midst of all this to confuse God for another one of these disruptions that we so detest, to add God and our neighbors to the list of things we need to domesticate, to contain. The disciples, in a seemingly innocuous gesture, are guilty of this very same posture. This is why the story of the Transfiguration is important, for God’s glory can not be contained.
Years later, we read that Peter is still contemplating this event. He recognizes now that the voice from heaven is not a disruption to his reality, but rather is the lamp, the light that shows him true reality. Peter challenges us, even today, to open ourselves up to this true light, the light of Christ, that is continues to reveal itself in the interior voice of the Spirit. Peter challenges us to be men and women moved by this Spirit. Indeed, to be transformed into such women and men, to be shaped by the Spirit in prayer, is to be transformed into the image of the transfigured Christ. Embrace this transformation, for doing so is the calling not of a select few, but is rather the true calling of all Christians.
Church of the Advent, Boston

Sermon for Proper 8, Year A

Sermon

We hear this morning in the lessons from Genesis and Matthew that children hold a remarkable place in God’s vision for the world. Through one child, God will fulfill the promise of the covenant to Abraham, and yet that promise seems jeopardized. In the gospel we hear Jesus, once a child himself, telling his disciples that ministering to any little one is as important as both receiving a prophet and welcoming a righteous person. We may be asking ourselves, what is it about children that make them so important?

Trinity Sunday 2017 (Year A)

Sermon, Trinity Sunday

The Trinity by Andrei Rublev

The one thing that distinguishes Christianity from all other ideologies and religions is our profession of the Trinity. We believe in one God, but we also believe that that one God is three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Trinity is also the starting place of Christian action. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we read that Christ gives his disciples the Great Commission: go baptize and make disciples in the name of the Trinity. Much in the same way that an emissary of a king or queen comes in the name of their monarch, Christians are instructed to act in the name of the Triune God. We act in the name of the Trinity when we baptize, bless, consecrate, and pray in general.

It’s strange however that so many preachers dread giving sermons on Trinity Sunday. As I prepared this sermon, I noticed that the prevailing sentiment amongst priests and religious educators is to avoid making any kind of definitive statement about the Trinity. “It’s a mystery,” as it seems nearly everyone agrees.

Palm Sunday 2017 (Year A)

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Readings: Phil 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11, and 26:14-27:66; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, and Psalm 31:9-16

 

Well, Christ has finally returned to Jerusalem, and what began with a disorganized reaction to Jesus in Matthew 12 has now become a serious plot. Temple authorities as high up as the High priest are leveling ridiculous charges, have a mole in Jesus’s inner circle, and apparently plan to push charges through the temple to the Roman governor even if they have to do it in the middle of the night.

There’s a reason we perform this story as a play. It’s high theatre. The characters are florid; there’s drama, tragedy, and even a touch of irony. And there’s the execution: Jesus’ body is put on public display in a grim display of Roman might over Israel. All of this needs time to unfold, so we begin with it today.

In memory of a mentor

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My family moved to Arlington, VA from Montgomery, AL when I was 15. We’d been in Montgomery for a year and a half because my Dad’s job in Southern California had gone the way that so many of those engineering jobs had in the early 90’s. We scraped by for a couple years, but then he was offered a chance to go active duty again (in the Air Force), and so we moved. Montgomery was hard for me. I felt ostracized and weird, but it was there that I discovered the theological, spiritual, and intellectual sides of myself.

When we found out we were relocating again, this time to Arlington, I started to look for churches that were attending a youth event taking place in DC that I had heard about the previous year. I contacted the organizer to see if they knew of any churches in the Arlington area that were attending the conference. They gave me a list of two: a Baptist church in Arlington and an EV Free church in Annandale, VA. We tried both and eventually settled on the Baptist church. A big reason for this decision was my experience of the youth group.

This youth group met every wednesday night for small group meetings. The leader of the senior high boys’ small group was a guy named Dave Deforest. Dave had an uncanny ability to create a space of intense and focused discussion with boys that in any other situation would have been bouncing off the walls. Our group talked about theological doctrines, evaluated the roll of music in faith, and studied the Bible. Dave was confident enough in his role as teacher and mentor to open any issue up to conversation. I still remember listening to and then discussing musicians like Larry Norman with Dave.

It didn’t really strike me at the time how important this was for me… not because I didn’t enjoy it—I went every week. Rather, my intellect was being fed at the time. I think it felt so natural to me and I was soaking so much of it up that I didn’t have the time or interest to reflect on the second order aspect of it all. Looking back now, I see that the intentional community of intellect and faith that Dave fostered shaped so much of how I think about, feel about, and approach formation in faith.

Of course, there were dudes who were less fed by Dave’s approach, but looking back on it now, I’m grateful that he worked with me in the ways that he did. I remember Dave taking me to lunch while I was in college. We talked about what I was reading, we talked about Baptist ordinances vs. sacraments (a contentious topic!), we talked about ministry and the direction that the church was going. Dave respected my ideas and intellect, just as he had when I was in that high school small group. His respect and intentionality, both in high school and then later in college, made me want to rise to the occasion. Even though I didn’t do a great job staying in touch with Dave in later years, the relationship we had developed and his own model of integrating faith and understanding continues to make an impression on me, continues to influence the way that I thought about interacting with students of all ages.

Dave died last week. It was sudden to many of us. His memorial service was yesterday. I wasn’t able to attend, but I wanted to write this reflection on him as a way of honoring his memory and intellect, and as a way of saying good bye. Dave was a faith minister of Christ. He loved Jesus, and he loved the people of God. His witness to students throughout the years is evident from a quick glance at his facebook page—so many of the students that he worked with over the last couple decades wrote touching tributes to him. I would have expected nothing less. Dave helped so many of us find the substance and meat of the faith during vulnerable times in our lives. There’s a special calling for this, although we don’t always do the best job of recognizing these people in action. Sometimes they’re ordained. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re paid, and other times they’re volunteers. But the work they’re doing is of the utmost importance: they’re making disciples, and forming them in lasting ways.

So here’s to Dave.

Remember, O Lord, your good and faithful servant, Dave, who has gone before us with the sight of faith, and now rests in the sleep of peace. According to your promises, grant to him and to all who rest in Christ, refreshment, light, and peace; through the same Christ our Lord.