The mountain is one of those places where the real and the metaphorical intersect. You climb towards the summit, sometimes the switchbacks taking you back and forth, sometimes the path leading you straight up, the rocks and the dirt skating under your feet. With every step you get a little higher and the valley and the daily life that it holds moves a little further away. If you want food, you must carry it with you. If you want sunscreen, you must carry it with you. If you want a change of clothes, you must carry them with you. With the exception of the occasional ski chalet, the mountaintop is a place that Starbucks and Target have yet to conquer.
Eventually, if the mountain is tall enough, you reach what is called the tree line. This is the altitude above which the trees do not, cannot grow: the air is too thin or too cold, the birds and bugs and worms that make a forest possible too far away. Often, but not always, the tree line is also where the snow begins. Even in the summer, there it lies, white, still, dangerous, and beautiful on the rock. In a pinch, the snow can turn into water for you to drink: manna from heaven. But it can also be what sends your feet shooting out from underneath you, so that you land hard and start to slide.
On somewhere other than the mountain, this much rock and this few trees would mean that everything would be loud. The hard surface would take the sounds of cars and machinery and voices on mobile phones and slap them back at you. But on the mountain, all of that is gone. And the rock is quiet but for crunch of your boots and the panting of your breath and the lonely song of the wind.
At a certain point, the summit comes into sight. Almost there, you say, and even though your calves are burning, you push on. This is the part of the climb when you sometimes actually start exhorting your legs to lift your boots off the ground: Come on. Come on. You are almost there.
Except that you aren’t almost there. On the mountain there is an illusion whereby the peak looks to be 500 yards away and so you climb 500 yards and you discover that the peak remains 500 yards away. This experience is strange and exasperating and it repeats more than once.
You remember being a child in a car: Are we there yet? You remember that in movies and comic books and the old stories, the mountaintop is where you will find the guru or the dragon or the mysterious monastery within which Bruce Wayne will become Batman. And you understand why. The training, the discipline, the answer to the question, the thing that will change you has begun even before you reach the summit.
And then at last, you are there. The peak, the summit, the mountaintop. Way back when, before the airplane and the hot air balloon and Google earth, the summit was as high as a human being could get. Icarus and the guys who built the tower of Babel maybe got higher. But things didn’t work out well for them. For most of human history, the only solid thing that can get you this high and safely back again was put there by God.
On the mountaintop, if the day is clear and the mountain high enough, you can see.
You can see.
You can see so much and so far. Over other mountains, maybe over multiple other mountains. And down. Sometimes, impossibly, what you are looking down on are clouds – clouds being things that you always look up to see. You squint to see if angels are visible standing upon them. Down still further are the places that we call civilization.
You look at the houses, the cars, the roads. And from up here, maybe, your taxes don’t seem that important, your conflict with your coworker doesn’t seem that important, the way that the person with whom you live rolls their eyes doesn’t seem that important. In the old stories, the gods look upon from a place like this. And on the mountaintop, it makes sense that they do.
Is there clarity on this summit? Maybe even healing on this summit? Do you understand things that you didn’t or couldn’t down below? The psychologist Abraham Maslow spoke of this place, of the mountaintop, when talking about certain moments of joy and connectivity.
A peak experience.
A peak experience is when you understand something about eternity, something about God. In Maslow’s words, here at the summit you are, “simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than [you ever were] before.” This too makes a kind of sense.
The mountain, the place where the real and the metaphorical meet: this is where Jesus takes his closest friends as his journey to Jerusalem and journey to the cross nears. Peter and John and James follow Jesus, breathing hard as they climb towards their moment of power and helplessness. For the three of them, this moment will look like watching Jesus as he face starts to shine, the way that Moses’ face shone when he talked to God all of those years ago. It will look like watching as Jesus’ clothes shine. In the inimitable words of the King James version:
And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.
And then it will look like watching as Jesus, whose ministry in many ways has been one long conversation with Moses and Elijah, one long amplification of and argument with the two old prophets, is suddenly talking with the two men. The text doesn’t say how John and Peter and James recognise Moses and Elijah – there are no photographs of them. They just know.
And then it looks like the heavens speaking, a cloud repeating the words of Jesus’ baptism:
This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
Listen to him.
And John and James and Peter fall down then. They fall down on the mountain. Because, well, what else can they do?
But Jesus touches them. And his touch, it always brings healing.
Get up and do not be afraid.
And when they look around and Moses and Elijah are gone and the sky is quiet.
One of the things that you forget when you are climbing and even when you are at the summit is that going down, it too is a journey. By halfway down, your knees are screaming. And notwithstanding bags of ice and trips to the hot tub, it will be days before they stop telling the story of the mountain.
It is on the way back down that Jesus says to his friends, Don’t tell anyone about this until after the cross, until after the tomb, until after you see me again. And maybe, as you descend, you get why he says this. Because the mountaintop, what you see there, you can’t really tell anyone that experience to anyone, at least not in a way that makes sense. If you are to understand God’s mountain, you must climb it and see for yourself.
It feels a little like Christmas to me right now.
Maybe it’s the candles. Maybe it is the story we heard from Luke this morning, this story of the baby Jesus. Because we really only encounter baby Jesus at Christmastime.
We even have on white stoles and there is white on the altar. It is a feast day and we hear this wonderful story of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
And one of the reasons I love that we are celebrating the presentation, Candlemas, on this Sunday (and as I mentioned in the parish hall this feast day always falls on February 2 but rarely on a Sunday) is because we get to encounter the baby Jesus again, outside of Christmas. And we get to hear a story that we do not often get to hear together in this place.
And this makes sense because most of the stories we have of Jesus, most of the stories in the Gospels, are of his ministry. Most of the stories begin when he is about 30 and he is baptized and he is out preaching and teaching and healing and liberating.
We do not have many stories of Jesus as a baby, or as a child, at least not in our canon, the scriptures as we received them. There are other stories written about Jesus as a child that we do not accept as canonical but that are really great stories. Stories of Jesus being quite a handful as a young person. One of my favorite stories is of Jesus as a 4 or 5 year old, who went out to play in the mud, and who fashioned with his hands out of mud these little birds and he brought them to life and they flew off into the sky.
And I think, because we only spend time with an adult Jesus we can default to seeing him as a kind of social justice warrior type, or that is a trap we can fall into. That Jesus is important because of these things he does and that Jesus is important because of these things he says. But today’s story reminds us that Jesus is important because of who Jesus was and who Jesus is. Jesus is the Christ, the messiah.
And Simeon had been waiting for the messiah, for a long time it seems.
Simeon was tired.
Simeon was old.
He’d had enough of this life, it seems.
But he held on to a promise whispered to him in a dream, perhaps. Whispered to him as a prayer. Whispered to him by the Holy Spirit which, today’s passage from Luke tells us, ‘rested on him.’
What a beautiful turn of phrase, right? The Holy Spirit ‘rested on him.’ I imagine the Holy Spirit like a cat curled up in his lap, like an infant sprawled out and snoring on his chest, like a prayer shawl gathered around his shoulders keeping you warm and safe.
And that day had come it seems. No angels proclaimed this baby Jesus, no heavenly chorus pointing this way like we saw in the earlier part of Luke in the account of baby Jesus. Just a whisper and a nudge, perhaps. So Simeon moved his ancient, stiff, aching bones and arrived at the Temple, perhaps as he did every day, to look for the one who was promised to him in a whisper.
I wonder what turned Simeon’s head that day. Because, honestly, there was not much to look at, in this little family weaving their way through the crowds in the Temple of Jerusalem. Just another devout Jewish mother presenting herself for ritual purification, 40 days after giving birth. Just another devout Jewish family ritually pledging their first born son, like Hannah did with Samuel, to the Temple in thanksgiving and praise to God. There was nothing noteworthy about this family, they were poor (the text tells us that by describing their offering, 2 pigeons, the least expensive, most basic offering allowed) and from the country, likely overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the Temple that day.
But something caught Simeon’s eye, something about this unremarkable family, and he picked that baby up and he began to sing. This is one of the church’s most treasured pieces of scripture, this song of Simeon’s, also known as the “Nunc Dimmitis” which is the Latin translation of the beginning of this song, “now you dismiss” your servant in peace.
And he sang. He sang in joy. And I also wonder if he sang in surprise because I am not sure this is what he expected to find. I wonder if this is what Simeon expected to see, what Simeon thought God’s promise might look like, this Messiah he had staved off death to see. I wonder if Simeon had expected to see a king, or at least a show of wealth or power or strength. And this makes a whole lot of sense, given the kind of messiah a devout Jew would have been looking for in the 1st Century, someone who would have returned exiled Jews to their land in Israel, who would have ended poverty, war, disease, and empire, and who heralded the resurrection of the dead. I suspect he did not expect to see an infant, or at least this kind of infant, one from a poor and unremarkable family.
And I wonder if he is singing out of joy, and out of surprise. A lot of people seem surprised in this text. The Gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph were ‘astonished’ by what they heard from Simeon that day, which is weird because they have heard the same thing from Gabriel and shepherds and wise men all proclaiming their son Messiah.
But they were astonished. And maybe they are surprised because of what Simeon goes on to say next after he sang his song. He starts to prophesy. And this prophecy, it is hard. It tells of people rising and falling, of Jesus being opposed, of people’s inner most thoughts being revealed, and of a sword piercing the soul of Mary. I am not sure that is what Mary expected to hear.
I think sometimes God does not show up like we expect, and sometimes when God does show up God brings hard truths to us, and so we turn our head the other way, we close our eyes, so we do not notice God, do not notice Jesus. So instead we think God is not showing up at all.
Since coming to Grace I have spent some time with the youth on Friday evenings. The rhythm of the evening is often the same: we gather, we laugh, we eat, we check in about the highs and lows of our weeks, and we also share if we have had any ‘God sightings.’ When have we seen God in our lives this week?
There has been great conversation about what this expression, God sighting, actually means. Does it mean we are stopped in our tracks and hear a heavenly chorus above our heads like the shepherds in the fields did earlier in the Gospel of Luke and the world starts to glow and we realize yes, yes, this is God?
And maybe some of y’all have had that experience, and if you have I totally want to to hear that story, but we have shared that God sightings are often much quieter than that, much more fleeting, more ordinary than that. They are, as the theologian Frederick Buechner described, more as if an angel beats their wings over our head and we say “Wow, I wonder where I got the courage to do that?” or “God, what a gorgeous day to be alive.”
The young people in youth group share God sightings like that, and man are they wonderful. Their God sightings include having a realization that their dog is getting older and may die soon and feeling sad about that but knowing deep in their hearts that everything is going to be ok. Their God sightings include realizing that someone they follow on social media because they are funny and dark is also a human being who just lost a parent and they feel sad about that. Their God sightings include someone being kind to them in class or realizing their parents might be having a hard time. Their God sightings include a really, really, really good burrito.
This kind of God sighting requires us to slow down, to notice the little things in our lives, This is kind of God sighting requires close attention, requires patience. And I think there is something interesting that in today’s Gospel and these stories of the youth that the people who are most tuned in to these kind of God sightings are people at the first part and the latter part of their lives. I think there is some awareness about being those ages, maybe it is about going a little slower, maybe at those ages we just spend more time thinking about what this life is about and what God is all about..
But I think we are all capable of those kind of God sightings, if we slow down, if we look around us, we start to notice that God is everywhere my friends.
One of the things that I love about this story of the Presentation is that Jesus holds the baby Jesus, brings the baby Jesus close to him, rests the baby Jesus on him as the Holy Spirit rested on him and then he begins to sing.
I think that tells us something. I think that tells us that we have to gather God close to us, that we have to lean in, we have to pick God up with our very arms and rest God on ourselves in order to encounter God sometimes.
And so, my friends, my invitation to you this morning is to slow down, to notice, to gather Christ in your arms and pull Christ close to your heart. And to sing.
I’ve been happily retired for a year and a half now, with no plans to go back to teaching, but somehow this September I ended up back in the classroom at my old school, for a three month substitute job. When the offer came up I thought a lot about it and decided in the end that I was called to do this. I knew just what was expected and knew the people I would be working with – plus I knew it had a clear end date.
The disciples whom Jesus called by the Sea of Galilee didn’t know any of those things: what they were being asked to do, how long it would last, or even what the mission was. So I try to imagine how they ended up accepting Jesus’ call.
Jesus was the new guy in town – he had come down from Nazareth, in the hill country, to the shores of Galilee. He didn’t know these guys, so why did he choose them? Did he look at them working on their boats and think, well, these look like hard-working fishermen, so they’d probably be good helpers? Or did he think – and I kind of like this idea – as they’re sitting around mending nets, these guys don’t look like they’re doing much, I’ve got a real job for them?
And why did these men – Peter and Andrew, James and John – decide to pick up and follow Jesus? They don’t know him. Maybe they’d heard there was a new wandering prophet in town. But when Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people,” what does that even mean?
In retrospect, now, the statement makes sense to us, because we know the whole story. But what could they have been thinking? As I imagine the scene, I picture one of them looking at the other, not saying anything. The other one looks back, maybe shrugs and grins. There’s an unspoken agreement, “Well, what the heck, there’s not a whole lot happening here, why not check it out?” And maybe one of them turns to a boy nearby and says, “Watch our nets for a while – we’ll be back.”
Notice what’s happened: they had no idea what they’re being called to do, or how they’re going to do it, or where they’re going to go, or even what the goal is.
Why do they do this? There must have been some sense of trust in Jesus – the way he looked, how he spoke, maybe what little they’d heard about him. And then they had one another. You know how it is when you’re with friends or family and someone suggests doing something, and you say, “Well, I’m in if you are.” Also, there’s the very human sense of curiosity and adventure, the desire to try new things.
I think this is a good example of how God’s call actually works. It would be nice to think that God’s call to us would be obvious, like the blast of a loudspeaker, “Attention! I’m talking to you.”
But that’s not how it works. God is always broadcasting to us – God is like a 24 hour radio network – but most of the time we’re not paying attention because we’re too busy, too preoccupied with immediate concerns. It’s only when we can create a little space in our lives that we can really tune in to what God is saying.
And God calls to us daily: sometimes about big, potentially life-changing things, but most often about daily concerns. Maybe it occurs to us one day that it might be good to get in touch with someone we haven’t seen for a while, and it turns out we make contact at a critical time.
But we often resist the call. When I was thinking about ordination, I thought to myself, “I’m not the right person for this, I don’t know that I have the right gifts, it’s not the right time for me.” I think these are all pretty common responses to God’s call. But God doesn’t really care if we’re prepared, or if we think we can do what’s asked.
In the end, after much pondering, I decided to answer the call. I trusted that God would show me the way, I had friends who supported and encouraged me, and finally I thought, “Well, why not?”
In our lives as Christians, and in our common life, we are often invited to the unexpected, called to do things or follow paths that we feel unprepared for, that we hadn’t planned on, that we don’t think we have the gifts for. God doesn’t care.
In the life of our parish, maybe someone has suggested you’d be good on Vestry, or someone has said that Altar Guild could use some help, or you have a nagging idea that it would be fun to try cooking for the Friday dinner. If we trust that God will guide us and that others will support us, even if we’re not sure how we’re going to do something, maybe it’s still worth a try. The same is true for our parish ministry as a whole. If God is truly calling us to something new, even something that seems beyond our abilities, then, well, “What the heck.”
I know that in my life, when I’ve been able to say “yes” to God’s call, trusting that God will guide me, trusting that others will be with me, and with an openness to new possibilities, I have been richly blessed.
If you have ever taken an acting class – maybe in high school, maybe in university, maybe somewhere else – then you will likely have done the exercise of selecting a short line of text and seeing how many different ways that you can say it. The line might be something that your teacher made up or it might be a famous line from a famous play. For the sake of exploration, let’s say that the line in question is what might be the most famous line ever spoken on the stage.
To be or not to be. That is the question.
How many ways could we say these words that Shakespeare gives to Hamlet?
Well, maybe we could lean hard into To be and then go soft on the rest of the line:
(or not to be). That is the question.
Maybe we could borrow the technique of the late German actor, Bruno Ganz, who according to lore said:
and then paused and paused and paused, waiting, legend has it, for more than two minutes of silence before concluding…
or not to be. That is the question.
Or maybe the first sentence with its contrasting choices isn’t as important as what comes next. How about:
(To be or not to be.)
THAT is the question.
We could keep on going as long as we wanted, as long as our imaginations lasted.
Scripture, like Shakespeare, doesn’t contain a lot of stage directions or other descriptions. Most of the time, folks in the Bible just say stuff. Their words are generally not followed by, “…she said, angrily” or “…he told them, with tears in his eyes and shaking hands.” The text does not volunteer whether their eyebrows are raised, whether they are speaking through gritted teeth, Clint Eastwood style, whether they are slurring their words, whether they are giggling as they talk.
And so here is my question for this morning. We are in the Gospel of John, right near its beginning. Jesus has just been baptised. And then the very first words that Jesus speaks go like this:
What are you looking for?
How shall we read Jesus’ words?
Let’s try out a few possibilities.
What are you looking for?
So, this is a Jesus who is aggressive, accusatory, and maybe wary. This is a Jesus who sees you glancing his way on the street and says, “What do you think you’re looking at?”
Now, stay with me here. Because we are so accustomed to Serene Jesus that we may want to reflexively rule out the possibility of Cranky Jesus. But I want to suggest that this is a thoroughly plausible reading of these words.
Because John the Baptist has just seen Jesus and announced to Andrew and his friend:
There goes the Lamb of God.
And what do we know about lambs? Well, we know that, as the old expression has it, they are led with some regularity to the slaughter. This is particularly true in Jesus’ time, where the sacrifice of animals is woven into the life of the temple. John is saying a lot of things when he announces that Jesus is the Lamb of God – there is a theological complexity to this statement that could and has filled up a few books. But one of the most basic things that it means is:
There is the one who is going to die in the service of the Lord.
Before Jesus predicts his own death – and as we know, Jesus predicts his dying early and often – John the Baptist predicts it.
And so we can understand why Jesus might speak with hostility, why he might say to Andrew and his friend:
What are you looking for?
Are you two here to watch me die? Are you like the people who slow down going past the car accident, equal parts horrified and titillated, both fearing and hoping that you will see blood on the asphalt?
Are you staring because I am a dead man walking?
What are you looking for?
Let’s try another possibility:
What are you looking for?
This is Jesus as the guru with the big beard on the mountaintop, this is Jesus as Yoda. Jesus is asking a question to which he already knows the answer. The purpose of the question is not for Jesus to learn anything, not for Jesus to find anything out. The purpose of the question is for the one being questioned to learn, for the seeker to learn. For you to learn.
This is maybe the Jesus with whom we are most familiar. And I can understand why: in a lot of ways, this is a reassuring Jesus: the Messiah who is in control, who is stable and powerful, who has something like superpowers.
Jesus asking the question in this way is like a guide on a journey. He knows the path on which we walk backwards and forwards, he cannot get lost. While he is on the journey with us, he shares in none of our discovery and none of our uncertainty. When we wander off of the way and into the briars or the poison ivy, he does not follow us. He stays on the path and asks his question: What are you looking for?
When Jesus ask his question, he is really saying: I know what you are looking for. Do you know what you are looking for?
Maybe there is a trace of a smile on his face as he speaks.
What are you looking for?
So, this is Jesus as genuinely curious. Not angry and challenging but not all-knowing either. This is the Son of God, shortly after his baptism, the day after the dove has descended and the voice of the one whom he calls Father has said:
This is my Son, the Beloved. In whom I delight.
This is Jesus wandering around in stunned wonder, standing in the wake of this profound mystical experience and not sure what is supposed to happen next. In the Synoptic Gospels (so, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this is the moment when the Spirit drives or maybe leads Jesus out into the wilderness. Here in the Fourth Gospel, this is the moment when Jesus notices that two people have left John’s side and begun to follow him.
Picture him, blinking in the sunlight, his clothes maybe not entirely dry from that day before, the silt of the Jordan still in his hair. He looks at Andrew and his friend and says:
What are you looking for?
This is Jesus who is, himself, not sure what he is looking for. This is the Jesus who shares with us in our search. We are lost and hoping to be found. And so is Jesus.
Which reading is right? Which one is true? Is it one of these three or still another? How does Jesus sound when he looks at you and he says:
What are you looking for?
I was baptized when I was 4 or 5 and dressed in a scratchy dress and tight shoes. I stood at the front of an Episcopal congregation along with my younger brother and sister. The priest went to baptize us and screwed up my name….he transposed my middle name with my sister’s. This might have been a quickly forgotten incident had I not, some time later, decided to share this funny story with a friend at a sleepover. When I finished talking she looked at my with concern and said “You know what that means don’t you?” “No” I replied, “What?”. “It means you are not going to be able to get into heaven, because God is not going to know your name.”
I was also ‘baptized’ in seminary. I use air quotes around the word baptism because this was not my baptism, that happened when I was little. But water and oil were poured on me one June day in the courtyard of our CDSP in Berkeley. It was part of what is affectionately known as the ‘magic hands’ class in seminary, where we learn the sacramental acts we called to perform as ordained people. My friend, David, was assigned the rite of baptism and he asked me if I would be willing to be baptized by him. I immediately said yes, he is one of my dearest friends.
One of the gifts of this class was the freedom our instructor gave to just try things out…to go for it, as it were. So my friend David decided to baptize me with, um, generous abandon. As I knelt down in front of him he took huge bowlfuls of water and dumped them over my head three times, so much water I was gasping for breath a little and completely soaked through. Then took a bottle of olive oil and began pouring it over my head. I smelled like a caesar salad and it took about 3 days of washing my hair with dish soap to get all the oil out.
Baptism is one of what are called the two ‘great sacraments’ in the church, the other being the Eucharist. These are considered the primary sacraments because they were modeled by Christ in the scriptures and given to the Church. When we are participating in baptism and communion we are participating in the very acts which Jesus himself initiated over 2,000 years ago.
Which all sounds pretty straightforward, Jesus did it and now we do too, but the history of the sacrament of baptism is a complicated one indeed. Ritual immersion was a part of the Judaism that Jesus was raised in, as an act of purification that could be participated whenever necessary. John the Baptizer (and the Jewish sect called the Essenes, of which he may have been a part) took this practice but shifted it and made it less about a ritual purification and about metanoia, repentance.
Amongst early followers of Christ, in the first couple of centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptism continued to be a sacrament marking the entrance of one into the faith. But the theology of baptism remained fraught. In the 4th century deathbed baptism was a fairly common practice as people were afraid that they might sin again after the washing away of their sins they received in baptism. In fact, Constantine himself was baptized this way. And as families began to have their children baptized, the theology of original sin, that all humans are born sinners, was clearly articulated by Augustine as a rationale for the practice of infant baptizing.
During the Reformation even more visions and theologies of baptism began to flourish. Many reacted against the practice of infant baptism by arguiung that there is little scriptural warrant for the practice and instead a believer’s baptism, requiring someone to be of an age where they can articulate their beliefs and understand the sacrament they are participating in, became the norm in some denominations.
Baptism is a big thing. And all the controversy, all the passion around how and why and when one should be baptized is all because it is important …it is transformative…it is a holy and sacred act.
And this is clear in today’s Gospel. There is a lot going on in these few short verses from Matthew that tell us what is happening is very important. This is the first time we hear Jesus speak in the Gospel of Matthew. This is Jesus’ first act before beginning his ministry. This scene of Jesus being baptized is one of only two in the Gospel of Matthew in which the heavens open and God’s voice is heard (the other being the Transfiguration which occurs right before he turns toward Jerusalem and certain death). And this incarnated, physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit, described as being ‘like a dove’ is unique and appears in all four of the Gospels only during Jesus’ baptism.
Something big is going on here, bigger than the forgiveness of sins because what would Jesus need forgiving of anyway? And also, given that all these things are happening in this scene (the dove, the voice, the heavens opening up), it seems to me that the text is trying to tell us that something more is happening than just forgiveness.
When we consider this scene of Jesus’ baptism, perhaps we might look at it as offering us a vision of a new way of looking at baptism beyond a simple washing away of sin; in the story of me being baptized with the wrong name, what my childhood friend articulated is a theological view of baptism that is pretty common I think: that baptism is a gateway to salvation, that through baptism we become beloved of God.
But today’s Gospel story points to something else I think. I think it suggests that rather than being primarily about forgiveness, baptism is primarily about relationship. It is about our relationship with God and our relationship with the Church and our relationship with each other. This scene in Matthew seems organized around the concept of relationship; this is the ONLY time in the Gospels that all three members of the Trinity are present together. God is naming and claiming Jesus in baptism through the Holy Spirit and God is naming and claiming us baptism too.
And God’s claim on us flows from an abundant, powerful and overflowing love that surrounds us and cascades over us in the way the way the water hit my head and made me catch my breath that afternoon in seminary when David poured bowlfuls of water over my head in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I know this was not a ‘proper’ baptism, David was not ordained and I had already been baptized, but the way that water shook me and the feel of the oil cascading down my face were absolutely a sign of God’s abundant love. As one commentator suggested, God does not forgive us to make us beloved, we are already beloved so God forgives us. In baptism God claims us as God’s own.
In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. For those of us who have been baptized, it is a chance to once again remember what it means to be claimed God’s Beloved in the waters of Baptism. For those who have not been baptized, it is a window into what this baptism thing is all about.
And one of the things I appreciate about our Baptismal vows is that they are framed as a covenant. And that language is intentional. A covenant is about relationship. In our baptism God welcomes us as God’s beloved child and we respond by sharing meals and prayers, by resisting evil, by proclaiming the Good News we have found in Christ, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by recognizing the dignity of every human being and working for justice and peace in a world that desperately needs it.
God spoke to Jesus that day when he was baptized in the River Jordan and named Jesus Beloved in front of all who were gathered there.
Just as God spoke to Jesus through the sacrament of baptism, so God speaks to us through the sacraments we share here in this place.
God speaks to us through wine.
God speaks to us through bread.
God speaks to us through oil.
God speaks to us through water.
God speaks to us and says “You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
This sermon is about forgiveness. I am going to talk about a church shooting, and I am going to talk about abuse in the church. We have to face these realities, and in order to face them bravely, we have to talk and think about them. The readings today led me to these words.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, twenty-one at the time, joined a group of African Americans gathered for a bible study at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For over an hour, he participated in the discussion, and then he stood up, brandished a handgun and, yelling racist epithets, began to shoot people. At one point during the attack, he shouted, “Y’all want something to pray about; I’ll give you something to pray about.” When it was over, nine people were dead, including the forty-one-year-old pastor of the church, Clementa Pinckney; an eighty-seven-year-old parishioner Susie Jackson; and a twenty-six-year-old man, Tywanza Sanders, who tried to talk Roof out of it, and jumped in front of Susie to protect her.
Later, under police interrogation, Roof flatly admitted to the killings. In a journal entry made some weeks after the murders, Roof stated, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
Listen now to words of forgiveness from the daughter of a murdered churchgoer: she said to the killer, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.” The relative of another victim said to the murderer, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
Hearing the response of the families, we can see the unfathomable love of God. We can spend our whole lives trying to understand forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.
Forgiveness is how we decide to in our minds, and in our lives, let go of a hurt that someone else has given us. It’s when we find our own power, and don’t let another person tell us who we are, and define us. Maybe someone else put a heavy weight on your shoulders. And you don’t need it there. You don’t need to carry it.
Repentance is being aware of the harm that you have done to another person, and wishing that you had not done it, as well as taking steps to change what you do and how you act to make sure that you don’t do the bad thing again, and owning the consequences of your actions.
Reconciliation is the act of making true peace. Making things equal or right again when they were not compatible. Realizing harmony between issues, people, or groups that were against each other before. This can be a short process, or a long process, depending on the situation.
What is forgiveness, and why do we do it?
Forgiveness and reconciliation are different actions. Forgiveness is about what happens in our own hearts and minds. Repentance is what happens in the heart and mind of the transgressor toward the person they have wronged. And forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, just like repentance can lead to reconciliation, but it’s not just a given. Dylan Roof may never be sorry for killing those people in church that day. And sometimes the world is like that. And sometimes people don’t want to forgive. I don’t think that makes them less holy, or less loved by God for it. There is a person who harmed me, and I admit that I do not forgive that person. I’m not there yet. I’m not as good as God, or as loving as Jesus.
In the Episcopal Church we say “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” and “All are Welcome!” – some tough questions flow out of that, though. Are our enemies welcome? Who are our enemies? What are the boundaries of welcome? For me, the key is not being welcome to the detriment of safety. Are all people actually welcome if there is a predator among us? We can say yes – all are welcome – if we make it clear that in our community we value victims and we value safety. To be a participant in our community, the predator must do likewise – value safety and respect those around them – in order to be welcome here. The typical power dynamic between weak and strong has to be flipped for this to work.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says, “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” (Matt. 5:43–46). In the Sermon on the Plain, he makes a very similar suggestion: “Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:31–32). And in dialogue with a Pharisee who had invited him to supper, he makes this teaching more concrete and pointed: “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Luke 14:12–14).
In stressing love of enemies and generosity to those who cannot repay us, he is urging his followers to break free of the economy of exchange, which simply is our own egotism and it is a form of violence. “If I give you something, you have to give me something back. I deserve it. I demand it.”
Right now in the broader Christian church we are being rocked by scandals of abuse from priests and pastors. How a church responds tells us a great deal about who and what they value. Some, in my opinion, very unhealthy stories have emerged of regions choosing to cover up abuse, or not turning over criminal acts of abuse to be investigated by civil authorities, or saying that if an abuser has repented, then the survivor is now obligated to forgive.
In our Episcopal Church, the response to this difficult issue of clergy sexual misconduct gives me hope that we are a group of people who is willing to flip that power dynamic on its head – we have said from the General Convention in July that anyone throughout time in our church who has experienced abuse is able to come forward and report, because the church, as a reaction to the many reports of abuse in other contexts suspends for three years the canon (church law) that places a time limit on initiating proceedings in cases of clergy sexual misconduct. Leaders throughout the church in the US will be working on other ways of addressing these issues, including a process to help the church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding our history of gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence. This is the opposite of sweeping it under the rug. This is respecting the vulnerable people who have been hurt, and centering our community around their healing. This seems like difficult, sacred work.
Do you want to forgive someone, but you don’t know how?
Everett Worthington, was a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University when his mother was brutally murdered in a 1995 burglary. In a weird coincidence, Worthington’s research at the university examined the effects of forgiveness. So in the days after his mother’s death, he decided to employ a five-step process he had previously come up with:
First, you recall the incident, including all the hurt. Empathize with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the altruistic gift of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, commit yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, hold onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.
Worthington found that his approach worked—and that other examples confirmed his intuition. Studies have shown that forgiveness aids mental and physical health, while the opposite reaction—holding a grudge and harboring resentment—has the opposite effect on well-being.
Grace feels like a sanctuary most days – a safe and welcoming place. I hope our church and our diocese will not have to directly face the awful topics that I brought up today, that plague the modern world. But if we do, the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who left him for dead, and the teachings of Jesus will implore us to find a path to healing: seek to forgive when you are ready and able. Seek to repent when you have done something bad. God, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, and as an entire community, when we face a mass tragedy, or even a small wrong help us remember – we all fall short of the grace of God, and yet, that grace is still there for us, reconciling us to God and to one another.
This is a terrifying thing to say – All Are Welcome – but I think, if we are going to be a church for all people in the heart of the city, we have to say it, and mean it, and work through the forgiveness, and repentance and reconciliation that makes our lives truly holy: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.
When I sit in the pews or, in our online world, when I plug in my headphones and electronically join a congregation elsewhere, I don’t mind disagreeing with the preacher. I am not among those who see critiquing sermons as a form of impiety. To the contrary, I am fully on board with my philosopher friend, John, who says that when you disagree with him, that is a sign of respect and engagement. Some of the most important sermons that I have heard over the years were ones in which I listened and said to myself, Wow, the preacher has really gotten this wrong. I appreciated those sermons because they made me think, they obligated me to challenge and to clarify my own theology.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to a sermon that she’d heard preached at her parish. I listened to it online. And it was very much in the, Wow, this guy is getting things wrong category. I had a frequently furrowed brow as I listened.
But it took me a while to figure out what was bugging me so much.
The sermon was an effort to be prophetic. (Prophetic not in the popular sense of predicting the future, but in the Biblical sense of speaking truthfully and forcefully and faithfully to the ways in which the world has become distorted, in which it has strayed from the path to the Kingdom.) It spoke to three of the great moral issues of our day, that of climate change; of income and wealth inequality; and of the dehumanisation of immigrants, people of colour, GLBTQ folks, and so on.
And on its face, I didn’t disagree with the preacher’s thesis. Climate change really is an emergency that calls for immediate action: we will deny that or ignore that at our peril. Income and wealth inequality really is a major justice issue: I have no dispute with those who argue that an individual holding a billion dollars when there are children in this country regularly missing meals in an obscenity. The violence that we do to folks who aren’t white and male and straight is appalling: I went to a workshop earlier this week in which one of my fellow participants talked about how, as a black woman in America, she felt simply exhausted.
All of the preacher’s critiques, in other words, were real and urgent. What troubled me in the sermon was the language that the preacher reached for when he spoke of those whom he reckoned were responsible for these moral crises.
He referred to the folks as the Priests of Moloch.
Moloch, as you perhaps know, is an ancient Canaanite God associated with child sacrifice. Whether or not Moloch’s followers actually engaged in child sacrifice is an open question. Some scholars reckon the accusation that the Canaanites were feeding their children to their God was an ancient exercise in propaganda or character assassination, that it was a story made up by people who didn’t like them, including the folks who wrote the books of Leviticus and Jeremiah. Regardless, Moloch and his priests are, in our popular imagination, Capital “E” evil. In Paradise Lost and in lots of books, movies, and TV shows before and since, Moloch has stood in for worst and most selfish and most terrifyingly destructive side of humanity.
And this is the language that the preacher was using to describe his fellow human beings.
Do you know the concept of the scapegoat? Today, we have the expression “scapegoating” – that’s when something goes wrong and we identify an individual or a group of people to whom we can assign all the blame. When I was first out of theatre school, I worked for a couple of productions at a semi-professional company. And the show went off the rails – it was a disaster.
The director of the company made it pretty clear that the show’s problems were my fault. I was the reason that it had gone so wrong.
I was pretty devastated about this. I was an earnest young man, I wanted to do a good job. And I was gutted to think that I had broken things so badly.
Seeing how much I was hurting, an actor who had been with that company for a while took me aside and let me in on a secret: The shows at the company always went off the rails. And someone was always blamed for that happening. “There should be a plaque on the wall,” he said, “that commemorates who was blamed for each show going wrong.” For that particular production, I was the scapegoat.
We engage in scapegoating in our families. (You’re the reason that we never have fun on vacations! You’re the reason that Dad left! You ruin everything!) We engage in it in church. We engage in it our country.
Scapegoating gets its name because, way back when, a village would take a literal goat – maybe sometimes another animal – and they would ritually assign their sins to it. They would gather around and, with the help of the priest, and they would say: This thing I did or left undone? That belongs to this goat now.
That time you manipulated your spouse to get what you wanted? Give it to the goat.
That place where you hide the booze so nobody notices just how fast the bottle is emptying? Give it to the goat.
The shared reality that we live in a city in which people sleep on the streets, human beings whom we walk around on our way to get a latte? Give it to the goat.
And then the sins transferred to this poor animal, the people would drive it out into the wilderness or stone it. Our sins have become the goat’s problem, we’ve gotten rid of the goat, and so our sins are gone. We’re absolved.
The problem is that people have never been all that hot at limiting our scapegoating to goats. We scapegoat our fellow human beings early and often.
Rene Girard, the great historian, literary critic, and philosopher, writes extensively about scapegoating. And he argues that we see the scapegoating mechanism in the cross. When we gather in the crowd and we shout crucify him, we are blaming Jesus for everything that is going wrong in our lives as individuals and as a community.
And what Girard says is that, by going to his death utterly innocent, Jesus reveals how screwed up scapegoating is. As we stand at the foot of the cross, we see our own violence reflected back at us.
I realised, after some reflection, that this is what was bugging me about the sermon from my friend’s parish. When the preacher spoke of blaming the marginalised, even though he didn’t use the language, he was talking about scapegoating. The notion that immigrants are, somehow, responsible for our country’s problems is a classic scapegoat mechanism, it is absurd and offensive.
But then, having done so, he advocated for creating a new set of scapegoats. If we stop blaming our problems on immigrants or people of colour or gay folks or whoever and, instead, start blaming our problems on the 1% or conservatives or Donald Trump, if we make these folks into the Priests of Moloch, the very embodiment of evil, have we improved things? Or have we just moved the violence around? Are we still stuck in the same busted system that got us where we are?
As long as we keep participating in scapegoating, no matter who the scapegoat may be, no matter how much it may sound like they deserve it, we are the abused child who becomes an abuser themselves, we are the exploited people who become oppressors ourselves, we are simply transmitting the violence that we have received.
Jesus on the cross says stop it. He says: Look at me. Look at my broken, dying body. Look at what the violence of scapegoating does to another human being, look at what it does to God. He doesn’t say, You need a better scapegoat, someone who is really responsible for your problems. He says: You need to burn this entire rotten system of shame and blame down.
Today, we hear the Sermon on the Plain, the shorter and less famous answer to the Sermon on the Mount. Depending on your understanding of the Bible, this is Luke taking the same oral tradition and telling it in a different way than Matthew or, alternatively, it is evidence that Jesus, like touring lecturers everywhere, reused his material, editing or altering it to meet the needs of a particular audience.
There is a danger, a temptation, to hear the Sermon the Plain and to understand it through the lens of the scapegoat. Unlike the Beatitudes in Matthew, where we hear eight blessings, in Luke there is a quartet of blesseds followed by a quartet of woes. And the temptation is to hear the blesseds as addressed to us and the woes as addressed to those other people, as evidence of what God is going to do to the wicked.
But notice a few things.
First, notice that 100% of the blesseds and 100% of the woes are addressed to the disciples. Luke’s Beatitudes begin:
Then he looked up at his disciples and said.
100% of what Jesus says next is about you. Jesus doesn’t say, Blessed are you who are poor but woe to those people who are rich. He says Blessed are you who are poor but woe to you who are rich.
All of this is about us, not about a scapegoat somewhere else.
Second – and this comes and goes so fast that it is easy to miss it – zoom in on the first blessed, and notice that it is in the present tense. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Is not will be. At least in part, Jesus is talking about reality in this very moment. This is not about putting up with the crushing weight of poverty in the hopes of being rewarded in heaven later – that would be the theology of the occupier or the slaveholder. Somehow this is about the Kingdom right here, right now.
And, confusing as that may be, I think part of us knows that Jesus gets this right. If you have lived any length of life, you have had the extraordinary experience of encountering loss or grief or unfairness and meeting God in that moment, of surprising yourself by saying, That experience was a blessing. And if you have lived any length of life, you have also had the experience of what we might call a real-time woe, a moment when you stray from your values and you realise that you have been diminished immediately by doing so.
And that is part and parcel of the last thing I would like us to notice, and that us that the woes are not something that God is doing. The woes just are. Jesus doesn’t say, Woe to you who are full now, for God will make you hungry. He says, Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
I mentioned a minute ago walking past the man lying on the street to get our lattes. Why do we tend to avert our eyes, to walk fast to get past that person. Are we afraid of them? Possibly. But what if we are also afraid of the woe that we encounter in that moment?
My late friend Douglas Williams – and I’ve shared this with you before, but it made a big impression on me and I’m going to share it again – said that the problem with being a murderer isn’t just that it makes someone dead. It’s that it makes you into a murderer. And in a similar vein – and let’s acknowledge, of course, that this is not a moral scenario as extreme as murder – what if part of the problem of walking past a homeless person while averting our eyes on our way to get a latte is that it makes is into the kind of people who walk past homeless people while averting our eyes on the way to getting a latte?
Listening to the sermon that my friend sent me, I realised that what I was longing for that preacher to say was this:
After he talked about the moral necessity, the Christian duty, of building a newer world for the sake of the least of these, for the sake of immigrants and LGBTQ folks and People of Colour, after we said amen to that, I wanted him to talk about the moral necessity, of the Christian duty, of building a newer world because the 1% need it, because the conservatives need it, because Donald Trump needs it. Because you and I need it.
No more scapegoats. As seductive as it is to get on Facebook or head out to the parking lot and assign our problems to those people, Jesus says no. Stop doing that. Working for justice means naming our own part in injustice. Building the Kingdom means naming the ways that we sabotage the Kingdom’s foundation. Let’s accept that the woes are part of our lives, part of our doing, part of our responsibility. Not instead of offering moral commentary or critique or prophecy, but as part of it. Let us have the courage to stand before and with Jesus and to name our woes. Having done so, we may find that we are freed to receive our blessings.
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
For the past few months I have been serving as a chaplain intern at Good Samaritan hospital. This is part of my preparation for ministry and the experience has been harder and more rewarding and more exhausting that I could have imagined.
There is a chapel on the west end of the 3rd floor which is probably the quietest place in the hospital. When you walk in the lights are softer and the buzzing and beeping which is a constant undercurrent of noise in the rest of the hospital disappears in a hush.
Every weekday at 11:45 the chaplains who are available hold a quiet service of prayer. Anyone who is in the hospital is invited to attend, as a chipper overhead announcement reminds us each day around 11.
Two weeks ago I was the only chaplain available for the service. Part of the responsibilities of facilitating this time of quiet and prayer is checking the two prayer request boxes which are built into the walls of the chapel. They are square and brass and in the middle of the box are two narrow slots, forming the shape of a cross, through which you can slip thin, green prayer request notes which can be written on with the small little golf pencils which are there in case you do not have a pen on you (this is especially important if you find yourself there in a hospital gown I’d imagine.). Our practice is to check these boxes every day at 11:45 and to pray aloud these written prayers, with whomever is there.
Two weeks ago was the first time I opened the prayer boxes. I wrestled the key into the lock and as I pulled the brass boxes out of the wall I nearly dropped them. They were so heavy and unwieldy. Which was surprising for an instant, but then felt right. Somehow the heaviness of the boxes seemed appropriate, even though from a practical standpoint it seemed unnecessary. It’s hard to imagine anyone stealing these prayers and the papers they were written were so light, practically insubstantial. And yet the prayers being offered, prayers of hope and despair and gratitude and grief were heavy and holy and it seemed only right that they were held in something so solid and substantial.
Heavy is not a word we often associate with God…nor is it a word embraced anywhere these days. We live in a time and a culture in which heaviness is not valued, often even outright rejected. And sometimes that is ok….sometimes our hearts are healthier and our joints happier if our bodies are lighter, sometimes we need to get rid of those decades’ worth of National Geographic magazines or our collection of garden gnomes. But when lightness becomes the ultimate spiritual state to which we aspire, and a feeling we associate with God and Jesus, we might miss the strength and power and safety found in heaviness.
And I know, I know, Jesus tells us “Come to me all you that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest….for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” and I love that passage and it eases my soul…
But Jesus also tells us to pick up our cross and follow him…
In today’s passage from Isaiah we have this trippy vision of the prophet in the throne room of God and God’s hem filling the whole hall and the six winged seraphs calling to one another in that refrain we still sing out together every Sunday “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts. Heaven and earth are filled with his glory.” In Hebrew the word for glory, specifically God’s glory, is related to the word for heavy. One commentator gives the image of God’s glory being so heavy that heaven could not contain it and it fell to earth and created this world.
God’s glory was so heavy and abundant it fell to earth and Created the beauty and wonder that surrounds us…God’s glory is the seed and the soil, the ground of being, of the Douglas firs and the fireflies and the cheetahs and the rocks which we kick underfoot and the fish…all the fish.❤️
Simon, called Simon Peter and eventually Peter, was a fisherman. He lived near the lake and spent his nights hauling in his catch with his friends and neighbors, his days cleaning and mending his nets and resting for the next time out on the lake.
Certainly he had met this Jesus before. Jesus had been in his home, healed his mother-in-law of a fever, shared a meal with him. But this encounter is the call to Simon, This encounter with load of fish so heavy it almost breaks the nets and sinks the boats is what brings Simon to his knees.
This image of Jesus sitting in the boat, preaching to the crowds on the shore reminds me of the image of Jesus preaching and teaching in the temple just a couple of Sundays ago. But this time Jesus’s altar is the world, to borrow the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, and God’s glory and abundance is a revealed just beneath the surface of the water.
And that abundance can both breathtaking and frightening. Following Jesus is not an easy thing. When we are face to face with the heaviness and power of God’s glory it can bring us to our knees, screaming out like Simon that Jesus should get away from us, that we are not worthy to follow him. The the heaviness of the sin and unworthiness we think we carry in our hearts paralyzes us.
But Jesus cares nothing for Simon Peter’s objections and cares nothing for ours. Jesus does not forgive Simon because forgiveness is not the issue, he simply responds “do not be afraid”. Jesus does not wait for Simon Peter to get his affairs in order, or even to deal with all those fish he just caught, instead he tells him to drop everything and follow him.
Jesus calls us to drop the heaviness of the things we think are holding us back. We are called to drop the anxiety that there is not enough time. We are called to drop the fear that we might do the wrong thing so better not to try. We are called to drop the belief that we can’t make a difference anyway so why bother.
And the good news is that we do not have to do that alone. I mean, those nets did not haul themselves into the boats. God’s abundance that Jesus revealed just under the surface of the water that day was pulled in by a group of folks working together. That abundance was shared by the community. And when Simon and James and John and all the other unnamed folks in the crowd that day dropped their nets because Jesus changed their lives they did it together.
We are in this together, with one another, and Jesus is in this boat with us.
I love that the shape of this sanctuary is like a boat…a boat where together we encounter Jesus’ abundance and God’s glory like those at Lake Gennesaret that day some 2,000 years ago.
Like that day in the boat, in this place Jesus points our attention to the table and uncovers God’s glory and love in the most ordinary objects of this world, bread and wine.
In this place the glory of God is uncovered in words and song and in the meal we all share.
In the beginning, God’s glory was so heavy it fell to earth in creation and infuses the very air we breathe and the wine we drink and the bread we eat together. The heaviness and glory of God fell to the earth in the form of Jesus who calls us together and calls us to this table and feeds us and then send us to do his work in the world.
When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.