Archives: Year A

Questioning Evangelism

Today we grapple with the knowledge that God is both the problem and the solution, the search and the treasure, the hunger and the sustenance that lie at our very core.

It is God for whom we long most deeply, God whom we sometimes find it so difficult to feel and perceive, and it is God who is the endpoint of all our journeys, in this life and the next.

Remember the algebraic equations that made your 5th hour class a living hell all the way through eighth grade?

They all had some incomprehensible string of letters and numbers followed by the dreaded phrase: “Solve for x.”

God is the x hiding in the string of letters and numbers and the x in the final worked out solution.

But we are forever thinking we have reached the solution only to discover it leads to another question. Continue reading

What Is Martyrdom, Really?

The gospel that we read today will be most familiar to many of us as “the funeral text” because that is how we most often have heard it.

I would say that for close to 80% of the funerals I have done as a priest, the family has chosen this gospel for the service. There is clearly something deeply comforting in it.

It is often called for shorthand “the many mansions” text for the older language translation of Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.”

What we notice this week is that someone does die in our assigned texts. We have the martyrdom of Stephen in our lesson from Acts.

What if we considered this gospel as the reading for Stephen’s funeral?

How would that affect our understanding of it?

And how would it affect our memories of the loved ones we have buried with these words echoing through the worship space?

Stephen is important because he is the first person who really follows Jesus all the way to the end of the story.

He followed Jesus in life, and he ends up following Jesus into death, persecuted and killed by people who cannot bear the searing and life-changing truth of the gospel message.

For most of Christianity we have settled for worshipping Jesus rather than following him.

That is quite possibly because following Jesus can and does have rather dire consequences, as Stephen finds out.

Our other tendency is to glorify literal martyrs such as Stephen, and there certainly is much to admire in people who are able to give up their physical bodies to die for Christ.

But it can become an outsourcing of the necessary death that we must undergo in our own lives, before we physically die, if we truly wish to follow Jesus into resurrection.

What does it really mean to be a martyr?

And is it a calling we all share, or the province only of the rarefied saints like Stephen? Continue reading

“I Am The Gate,” But You’re Not Going to Like It

They say you preach the sermon you most need to hear, and today I’m definitely writing from a place where I need to hear a good word.

Every week I talk with two colleagues about the lectionary texts and we brainstorm sermon ideas together. We had a good conversation and came away with a solid direction on how to work with John’s gospel this week.

My week turned out to be busier and crazier than I anticipated, and it’s only now, on Friday afternoon, that I’m getting to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be.

And by today, rather than the confident theologian I was a few days ago, I’m finding that I’m the one who needs to receive a message of grace and hope.

A former parish of mine had some tough news this week, and along with being very sad for them, it brought up all my emotional unfinished business around my time there.

I honestly thought I had laid a great deal of that to rest, but life has a sneaky way of reminding you of your feet of clay any time you start to really get comfortable and secure.

So let’s go to the text together and ask to be taught, to be healed, to be loved.

What we notice first is that of all the Good Shepherd Sunday texts (years A, B, and C) this gospel is by far the most abstract.

Jesus clearly has something he wants to communicate to us, but his layers of symbolism are so dense that it’s difficult to understand what he means beyond the obvious.

In fact, John even tells us outright that this one is going to take some drilling down: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Traditionally this text has often been used as a means of exclusion.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”

People have used this saying to enforce false boundaries to shore up their own power, labeling as the proverbial “thieves and bandits” anyone who is “unorthodox,” whether that means you have the “wrong” gender, sexuality, race, doctrine, belief, politics, liturgy, etc.

“Not everyone is going to get saved,” is the message the powerful have sometimes taken out of this text.

“Jesus doesn’t love everyone,” is the subliminal but far more honest attitude underlying the pious concern for being “correct.”

Today I find myself reflecting on a time when I was enforcing boundaries in the way I thought was right, and some other people were challenging those boundaries in a way they thought was right.

We ended up calling each other “un-Christian” and our relationship broke apart.

We each insisted we were the rightful gatekeeper and the other was the enemy, the thief and bandit.

The result was disastrous, and I know we all carry our wounds from those days even yet.

What I think I realize more consciously now is that the farther we are driven into anger, fear and woundedness, the harder it is to see any shades of subtlety. Continue reading

Seven Miles From Jerusalem, Chased Down By Jesus

As you all remember, the Road to Damascus is the story of when the Apostle Paul had a vision of Jesus and was so overcome by the glory that he was knocked off his horse and went blind.

The Road to Damascus moment is an incredibly vivid and immediate experience of God that instantly changes your life forever.

Many people in the Bible have Road to Damascus moments besides just Paul. Moses sees the burning bush. Isaiah is taken into God’s throne room. The shepherds tending their flocks by night are overwhelmed by the heavenly host of angels.

Each of these is a life-changing experience of God that floods the senses and sets one’s soul ablaze with the Holy Spirit.

But we aren’t studying the Road to Damascus moment in our Gospel lesson today.

We’re given the Road to Emmaus.

The Road to Emmaus is the polar opposite of the Road to Damascus.

The Road to Damascus is marked by suddenness, awe, intensity and clarity.

The Road to Emmaus is shadowed by fear, uncertainty, grief and delay, and the final, healing understanding comes only in the aftermath. Continue reading

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday.

That’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church.

Last week we presented the triumph of the church year.

We announced to the world the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us.

And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom.

Ouch.

Was it something we said?

It may well have been. Continue reading

Easter Day: Back to Galilee

“He is risen! Alleluia! Now get back to work!”

That seems to be the message from the angel in the Gospel of Matthew text that we read today.

There are a great many shocking things happening in this story—an angel, an earthquake, the guards collapsing comatose in fear and astonishment.

But the angel has a very straightforward and pragmatic message along with the stunning news that Jesus has been raised from the dead. “Return to Galilee.”

What does that mean?

Well, we have a choice as to what it means.

It means, first of all, to return to where it all began.

Galilee was where the disciples lived when Jesus called them.

It is where Jesus began his ministry.

The reality is that the disciples have to return to Galilee no matter what. But they have a choice as to what it means for them.

Are they returning to Galilee because Jesus’ life and ministry ended with his death?

Will they give up and go home?

Will they leave this part of their lives behind them and go back to normal, responsible family and community life?

If they disavow Jesus, they could probably get their old jobs back.

They could pick up their fishing nets, embittered, cynical, and angry at Jesus, who promised them everything and then got himself killed, but secure and comfortable in the old, familiar ways.

Or they could accept and experience the Resurrection. Continue reading

Friday: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is the cry of Jesus from the Cross.

He is broken, abandoned, devoid of any and all hope or strength.

He is at the farthest extreme of his ability to withstand suffering, his mind and body tormented almost beyond what he can bear.

And worst of all, he can no longer feel the loving presence of his Father that has sustained him for his thirty-three years on this earth.

But the remarkable thing is that he is not the first person to have spoken these words from the valley of the shadow of death.

Jesus is actually quoting Psalm 22.

The psalmist cried out from his own suffering, uncounted generations before Jesus arrived on earth, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This imbues Jesus’ voice from the Cross with even deeper significance.

These words are the cry of his tradition, the cry of his people, and also the cry of his barren heart.

All to whom he sought to give himself have deserted him, until finally he cannot even feel the Father.

This was no doubt the most wretched and almost involuntary cry of the human side of Jesus, truly feeling like he was alone and God had forsaken him.

But consider what Jesus in his divinity might also have been doing purposefully.

These words are verse 1 of Psalm 22. The Jews gathered around the Cross, Mary, John, and the others, would have known the verses that followed.

In fact, those verses would have leapt immediately to their minds.

And Peter and the others who had run away would no doubt hear the story later, that Jesus said these words from the Cross moments before his death.

What if these words were, along with the truthful convulsion of his spirit in pain, also a message from Jesus to his followers, and thereby to us? Continue reading

Thursday: The Cock Crows

Jesus predicts it in three different ways. It happens three times. And Jesus spends three days in the tomb because of it.

Peter’s denial of Jesus.

It’s a pivotally important moment that sometimes we lose track of in the accelerating cascade of events following the Last Supper that leads to Calvary.

But it contains such spiritual riches for us, even though it forces us to confront our own deepest fears and weaknesses.

Let’s begin by reflecting on Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial. The accounts in Matthew and Mark are almost identical but for one or two words. Here’s how Mark relates it:

“Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.”

John’s account is briefer, albeit with a haunting rhetorical question from Jesus:

“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

And then we have Luke, one of the synoptics but oddly the outlier in how he portrays this incident:

“‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’”

They vary in their details, but the painful crux of the matter remains the same: Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows.

Peter cannot fathom it.

Hasn’t he been faithful to Jesus these three long years?

Didn’t he leave his home and family and livelihood for Jesus?

Hasn’t he stuck by Jesus when they were hungry and homeless on the road? When the crowds crushed them and demanded to be healed, fed, taught, long after Jesus and the twelve were completely exhausted?

Hasn’t Peter been faithful even now, when the religious authorities are closing in?

Why would Peter abandon him now—Peter, who was the one to proclaim Jesus the Messiah and was called the Rock of the Church for it? Continue reading

Wednesday: For the Sake of the Joy

The remarkable truth about Holy Week that we find so hard to grasp is the fact that everything and everyone is redeemable.

There is no tragedy so great, no action so unjust, no person so evil that he or she cannot be redeemed by the saving work of Jesus Christ.

We say we believe that, but most of the time we are carrying around grudges and shame and wounds that we, in our heart of hearts, don’t think Jesus can heal.

Because why would he want to? Why would he bother with redeeming our sins when he could just sweep in on a white horse and carry us off to heaven?

Well, Jesus doesn’t work that way, and we’re never going to understand his work on the Cross if we don’t understand what redemption is.

Sometimes people think that redemption is erasure of bad things.

It’s just gone, like it never happened.

But that is not redemption.

God is not doing a retroactive censorship of our lives, blacking out the parts that we’d rather not remember.

Redemption is a threefold process. It consists of forgiveness, illumination, and healing.

Erasure, elimination, forgetting and cutting out the deeds of sin and pain does not happen at all in redemption.

They’re still there. But they are fundamentally changed.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Tuesday: We Need Each Other to Find Jesus

There two groups of people in our readings for today, Jews and Greeks.

The first important thing to realize here is that these words are only superficially referring to ethnic groups.

For both John and Paul, “Jews” and “Greeks” are not people of Jewish heritage or people who were born in Greece.

Jews and Greeks are people of two different spiritual personalities.

Consider our texts about Jews and Greeks for Tuesday in Holy Week. We have a story and a theological description.

The story comes from the Gospel of John: “Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”

It’s actually an unfinished story. We don’t know if the Greeks actually met Jesus or not.

They probably did, and heard Jesus’ teaching on the grain of wheat falling into the earth. But let’s come back to this in a moment.

Our other description of Jews and Greeks comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians: “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.”

Here we have Paul describing these two types of spiritual personalities.

What can we learn from these two passages? Continue reading