Ashamed of Suffering – Lectionary 02/28/2021

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Sermon Text

            Shame has many meanings. A person can feel shame when they’ve done something wrong or a person may be shamed for breaking social conventions. However, shame as a system was much more concrete in the time of Jesus. A person had a sliding scale of two attributes – honor and shame. A complex series of cultural norms overshadowed any conversation a person had. One was expected to speak to people dependent upon their relative honor.

            A person who was poor would have less honor than the rich, an older person more than a younger, men more than women, and so on and so forth. Different categories overlapped so as to add or diminish one another, but the result was a strictly stratified society that punished those who pushed against conventions. To an Honor-Shame society, everything and everyone had a place and to push against that was to be exceptionally disgraceful.

            Jesus, naturally, walks an interesting line in his interactions with those around him. He actively participated in the honor-shame culture around him no other way of interacting with people would have been intelligible to those around him. Yet, Jesus consistently pushed the envelope on who he was supposed to speak to and how. He opposed the honor of community leaders like the Pharisees and Sadducees and gave it to the poor and the hungry instead. Jesus rejected the false piety of his countrymen in exchange for legitimate faith – Judean or otherwise. Jesus spoke to women regardless of their connection men. Jesus was fully immersed in the culture of his day, yet as the eternal son of God he saw beyond it and acted against it when necessary.

            Today’s scripture captures a moment of Jesus simultaneously living into and against the norms of his society. Jesus speaks of his coming suffering at the hands of prominent figures – scribes, high priests, elder – and says that after suffering abuse from them he will be killed. Jesus is telling all who have gathered around him, likely most of the nearby population of Caesarea-Philippi who have seen him perform a miracle, that at the end of his long road of ministry he will be killed as a criminal. Even though he finishes this prediction with his resurrection, the crowd would have been struck most by Jesus’s insistence he was to die in dishonor. What kind of Messiah would do such a thing?

            Peter reads the room and pulls Jesus aside. Though Peter had just declared Jesus as the Messiah prior to this episode, he was aware of the fact that Jesus was stepping into dangerous territory. The people wanted a champion to destroy Rome and a Holy One to restore the Temple. Yet Jesus was putting forward an image of a king who was to be killed by a committee decision. That was not going to fly. Peter chastised Jesus for breaking the mold, for deflating the expectations of the people. What we cannot lose is that even though Peter seems to be pulling Jesus aside privately to discuss this matter, he does so in front of a crowd of people. Peter has issued an honor-challenge to Jesus, and Jesus responds accordingly.

            Jesus reverses Peter’s challenge and commands him to take his place behind Jesus. Peter, who would go on to be a key leader in the Church, was not yet ready to lead and was certainly not in a place to chastise Jesus. Culturally, Jesus would be justified to leave this conflict here and be satisfied with restoring his honor publicly. However, Jesus had bigger fish to fry than keeping up appearances. Jesus looks at the crowd, who is perhaps now clutching pearls at the thought that Peter would say out loud what they were privately thinking. He looked to them and said that his fate, to die on a cross, was to be their fate if they truly wished to follow him.

            It must have been shocking to have heard Jesus’s words. When Jesus is saying that to follow him is to take up one’s own cross, Jesus is telling the crowd that they must be prepared to die. They were being told their lives were to be on the line Not only that, but the image of a cross specifically meant that they would not face dignified deaths, but the most humiliating death imaginable.

            Jews, like early Christians, had a complex relationship with martyrdom – here meaning dying for the faith. In Jewish culture martyrs were usually killed because they refused to bend to the Gentile ways around them. Famously the apocryphal books of second and fourth Maccabees describe the deaths of seven brothers who refused to accept Greek customs of food and worship. Despite elevating stories like this, people were discouraged from seeking martyrdom – in other words from dying unnecessarily. Even in early Christianity, St. Clement describes those who, “rushed on death,” but, “banish themselves without being martyrs, even though they are punished publicly.”[1] People, in other words, who sought fame through their martyrdom rather than truly dying for a cause.

            Jesus, in highlighting the cross as a means of death, was highlighting that those who wished to follow him were not doing so for an immediate escape from all their troubles. More than this, those who were interested in glory should not sign up at all. The glory Jesus was offering was for the World to Come, for the resurrected reality of Christ’s kingdom. However, to come to that glory one must take up their cross and live a life based upon sacrifice, dishonor, shame, and ultimately death. Only through sacrifice could they save their life. The vainglorious had no place in this World to Come and those who were rejected and dishonored in this life would be the ones to truly know honor in the next.

            We often equate worldly success with blessing, but to do so is to work directly against Jesus’s teachings throughout the Gospels. A person who is rich is not automatically a holy person. A person with power is not automatically in that position because their righteousness qualified them for it. More often than not, power and money corrupt the soul rather than crown a righteous person. What Jesus puts forward throughout the Gospel, but especially in this passage, is that all definitions we hold onto of honor and success are nothing in light of God’s actions in this world. Peter’s fear that Jesus was disgracing his message by tying it to persecution was refuted with a revelation – the life of a Christian is not supposed to be one where we glorify ourselves, but one where we glorify God in all that we do.

            How do we apply this to our life outside of the context in which Jesus was speaking? We do not live in an honor-shame society, we do not actively face persecution in the United States, and many of us – socially, economically, materially – are comfortable if not well off. We are people who have been given a great many resources, a great many opportunities to succeed as the world deems success, and indeed we are people who often push the more uncomfortable elements of our faith to the side. To take our scripture at its words and respond to it accordingly, we must not do as Peter did, pushing the uncomfortable out of the way to make way for a more palatable faith, we must embrace the hard teachings which our faith holds for us.

            The reality of our human existence is that it is full of painful things. We suffer disease, loneliness, sorrow, age, anger, and an innumerable number of other things which contribute to the broad umbrella of what we call “suffering.” Suffering is not, as some might suggest, a good thing in itself. No one wants to suffer and the elimination of suffering in the World to Come shows us that it is not something we are meant to experience. No, suffering is a temporary companion but a very real and powerful one. Though we spend so much of our life seeking to escape it, Jesus asks us to not be afraid of it when it comes our way and instead to follow Christ’s own example in how to face suffering.

            Jesus, firstly, invites us to consider the fact that sacrifice is the primary means by which we follow him in our life. We must take up our cross – willingly dying to this life and if necessary, literally dying in this life – and go down the path of our Christian observance. This mentality means that we acknowledge the hardship that comes our way, not minimizing it or baptizing it as good, but seeing it as a temporary obstacle in our way. We embrace opportunities to help people that may be inconvenient. We sacrifice our pet pleasures for the good of other people.

            We must accept that sometimes doing what is right will seem gauche to those around us. When we help the unhoused people may accuse us of attracting more of them to us.
When we point out injustices in the world people may say we are being divisive. When we seek to treat, rather than punish, to promote harm reduction rather than punitive action for those suffering from addiction, people may say we promote addiction. Indeed, if we give freely to the poor, we may find people accusing us of rewarding bad life choices. The truth is, no good work has ever been taken on that was not unpopular to the wider culture around it.

            Peter rejected Jesus’s sacrificial ministry. The “holier than thou,” souls of his day opposed his eating with sinners. Those in power and with money opposed his helping the poor. From the moment Jesus stepped out of the Desert of Temptation and onto the path of ministry people opposed his work in the world. We must be willing to do unpopular work as well. We must be unashamed of the Gospel which has called us to unabashed love of our neighbor as ourselves. We must give and work and love and make tough choices and even harder sacrifices for the good of those around us. We must take up our cross and carry it all the way to our grave.

            For, if we are ashamed of suffering. If we are ashamed to address those who hurt around us or to accept that Jesus calls us into solidarity with them, then Jesus is clear he will feign ignorance of us like we did of him. Do not let comfort keep you from eternal bliss, do not let the inconvenience of righteousness keep you from a holy life. Repent, and believe the Gospel, take up your cross and follow Christ. – Amen.

[1] Clement. Stromata IV.4

The First Covenant – Lectionary 02/21/2021

Genesis 8:20 – 9:17

[When the flood had end…] Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,  seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Sermon Text

            Our first Lenten sermon looks to the first few moments after the Great Flood. In preceding chapters, Genesis describes a world that has gone far afield of what God would have had it become. Though little is given in terms of specifics, it seems that Cain’s sin of murder has become the norm. Tales of great heroes were spread over the land, but greatness and goodness are not always tied to one another. God moved against God’s own creation, wiping clean the slate that would be used to create a new world – one hopefully free from the previous evil of this post-Edenic hellscape.

            God spared only Noah and his family among all the people of the world. We are told that Noah stood out as a righteous person, blameless in all ways a human may be. As a model of virtue and righteousness God sought to rebuild the earth with Noah as the foundation. Humanity had the chance to start over strong. Led by righteousness there was hope for the future to be completely unlike the past. Perhaps in this new world, death would not be the chief legacy of humanity, perhaps there would come a time where peace could reign over the land. God set the stage for a complete renewal of creation, but as we know we seem to have fumbled that chance.

            We live in our modern world, far removed from Noah and further removed from Eden than we could ever imagine. We know that humanity did not overcome their evil and that we still sit heavily in a world that is corrupted by our wrongdoing. Murder is still close at hand, and privation of one another’s needs make it so few, if any, of us have completely clean hands in regard to the lives of our siblings. Sin, deep within the heart of humanity, cannot be simply removed with time or disasters, no amount of flooding or catastrophe. No, something deeper and stronger is necessary to purify the human heart, something closer to God. Stronger than death there exists the love of God, and close to that love is the transformational potential that comes when we look to God to make our broken world right.

            We are told that God knew that all the earth’s problems would not be fixed magically following the flood. We hear this in God’s words at the end of chapter 8, “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” God is aware that there are some things about humans that cannot be punished into oblivion. The Flood may have been a cosmic reset of some kind, but it did not rewrite this tendency of humanity. Noah, for all his goodness, was still fallible and his children along with him. If God truly desired only a world without evil, humanity would need to be erased entirely. Yet, God does not desire wonton destruction, but rejuvenation. God does not seek wrath but mercy.

            In a decision that would shock anyone in God’s position, God seeks to reclaim humanity through the long and difficult work of Covenanting with them. This decision is described by several Old Testament scholars as, “[God’s] unconditional commitment to stay with the world.”[1] Covenant, that ancient system of legal and relational agreements we hear about in scripture, has suffered for centuries under the burden of improper teaching. Many have reduced it to a legal contract between parties – one party agrees to be a patron to the other and both set up conditions for what should happen if they fail to meet those expectation. Yet, covenant was so much more than this. Covenants were agreements between two parties to take one another seriously, to never part from one another, to do all they could to promote the mutual good of one another.

            The Covenant we read about today is especially striking. It begins with the sacrifice which Noah offers to God. The smell of the sacrifice is described as reaching Heaven, and God breathes it in with the same nostrils which scattered the Flood waters and that would later separate the Red Sea. God looks upon the Earth, cleared now of water and ready for a new era to begin and sets up a new relationship between God and God’s creation.

            Though Covenant is implied in God’s relationship to Adam and Eve, this is the first instance in scripture where a Covenant is cut. God is the sole participant in setting the parameters of the arrangement, but we should make note of how gracious the terms are. God only forbids two things, the act of murder which had defined the previous era of human existence and the eating of blood in any form. To this day, observant Jews must ensure meat has been drained of its blood completely before it can be certified as Kosher for this reason. Yet, beyond these conditions, little is asked of humanity in this Covenant.

            God lavishes upon humanity so much more than this. Beyond a commitment to stay involved with humanity, God takes the rainbow and uses it to paint a powerful picture. The “bow,” of God, a visible sign of a weapon of war, is pointed at the Heavens. God is saying, in essence, “If I violate any aspect of this covenant, then this bow will shoot me down.” An immortal God threatening bodily harm against their own divinity is a complex thing to think about, but the truth remains. God is saying that God is putting down all weapons of war against humanity, something new is happening, a commitment to transform rather than destroy the evils of this world.

            This would not be an easy task to set out on, as God would soon see. Noah took the open land that was before him and planted a vineyard, drinking himself into a stupor in short order. His son, Ham, then shamed his father in some way. The text is not clear outside of the fact that it involved revealing his drunk father to his brothers. Noah was enraged when he awoke and learned of what had happened, cursing Ham’s firstborn, Canaan, and setting up a long line of conflict between his descendants.

            Yet, the vision which we are given at the close of Noah’s life is not meant to be one of division and shame. Within a few scant verses the conflict of Canaan and his relatives is overshadowed by an immense and powerful reality. The Table of Nations, as it is called, takes up all of chapter 10. Within that single page, the claim is made that all people – no matter where they are – are inheritors of God’s covenant with Noah. All humanity is blessed, all people receive the goodness which God has given to the world, all contain the spark of hope for a new and better creation than the one which preceded the Flood.

            The rest of Genesis comes round to tell a more particular story of God’s work through Abraham and his covenant and his lineage. Those two aspects of faith are closely tied to one another – the particular and the general. We cannot deny either aspect if we are truly to look at God’s goodness in this world. To all flesh is given the hope that Noah found long ago on a mountain top, and all live under the sky which God hung the rainbow upon. All humanity benefits from the goodness of God, whether they know it or not.

            Yet, transformation takes a more active participation in the grace offered us. As we inherited Noah’s covenant with God, so we inherited the deep festering sickness of our sin. We on our own have no hope of truly excising it – though we may for a time suppress it or even weaken it, it will always have roots dug deep within us. God offered us the means to truly separate ourselves from our wickedness, in yet another Covenant that was cut on Calvary’s hill. Where Christ died and the whole earth shook, where Heaven covered itself in sackcloth to mourn, and where all wickedness finally lost claim upon our hearts.

            We who are baptized into the Church are washed with a flood unlike the one Noah knew, a flood of grace and mercy that wipes away the evil within us. We are washed clean, and the Spirit is sent to dwell within us. We become holy, we become vessels of God’s mercy in the world – a living sacrifice offered within the living temple which is our body. We who are called to faith in Christ must take hold of God’s grace and not be satisfied merely to be saved from destruction, but to be saved completely from the sin which cannot be punished away within us.

            Among the many truths found within Noah’s sacrifice on the mountain and God’s covenant, there is the powerful truth that God is good beyond what we can imagine. As we said early on in our discussion today, greatness and goodness are not identical. God could have shown greatness in destroying the world, strength in pressing humanity into submission through still greater acts of violence and dread. Yet, God chose table fellowship and covenanting over destruction. Yet, God ended the Flood and birthed a new world for humanity to inhabit in the process.

            We who are called to repentance by this Lenten season must live into the grace we are given, not through sin that makes it necessary but through the righteousness that it allows us to partake in. We must love all people, Christian or not, American or not, West Virginian or not, with great fervor and intensity, for they are our siblings through Noah and co-heirs to his covenant. We must go further than abstention from actions that harm one another and actively promote one another’s wellbeing, putting others before ourselves in a mutual love which God invests in our hearts. We must be transformed, for only through a God initiated transformation can sin truly be stamped out of our heart.

            Commit yourself this day, to look up to Heaven and give thanks for the grace of God. Let us look upon the grace which the Heavens attest to – shown in the rainbow and the eucharist, in water and the spirit – and see it as a gift of another chance, of a life born again in the flood of God’s goodness. Repentance is a result, not of fear of God’s wrath, but a true acceptance of God’s abundant grace. Accept the grace which Heaven calls you toward this day. – Amen

[1] Bruce C. Birch et al. “The Created Order and the Re-Creation of a Broken Order.” In A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon. 2005) 58

Put Off Pretentions – Ash Wednesday 2021

Matthew 6: 1-21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sermon Text

            Lent begins today. For the next forty days (forty-six counting Sundays,) we should take time to intentionally think about our life. The things that we do, that we do not, and that we should do. The things that we do, we should weigh against the teachings of Christ and determine if they are worth continuing to do. The things we do not must also be examined, where are we sitting still where we should be moving – what aspects of faith are we neglecting in living out our Christian calling? Whatever we are neglecting we must take hold of, living truly into our calling.

            In our scripture, Christ puts forward several key aspects of our life as Christians. Piety, almsgiving, prayer, forgiveness, fasting, and an aversion to accumulating earthly treasures. We must understand each of these essentials fully, as they provide us helpful categories for how we might think about our actions over the course of Lent.

            Piety, firstly, is the ability for a person to live a life in line with God’s vision for their life. While we often use the term derisively, referring to “pious,” people almost exclusively as those who are “holier than thou,” the true mark of a pious person is in humility. The word Jesus uses in this passage is literally translated, “righteousness,” all right behavior and virtue of a person lived out must be done fully with God in mind, not our own glorification. Righteousness, like all virtue, is a muscle we must exercise. Piety is the method by which we train ourselves to become righteous. It is achieved through study of scripture, through acts of mercy, through all goodness which we seek to do in this life.

            Jesus leads us through the key aspects of righteousness one at a time – firstly in almsgiving. Almsgiving, often referred to charity, is the giving of resources to those who do not have them. It can be in money, it can be in opportunity, but it is not something which can be abstract. Charity, from the Latin caritas, is how we live out our sacrificial love for one another. It is one person giving something to another person with no strings attached, it is a gift in the purest sense. We must live out this selfless love, it is not optional. We should spend Lent considering how we can better support the people around us – in money, in time, and in sacrificing our comfort for their livelihood.

            Jesus quickly follows this up with prayer. Prayer is the root of all our Christian life. Without it we drift away from our source, the floodgates of grace which are given through knowing God personally and truly. Prayer can happen alone, it can happen in groups, but it must not stop happening in our life. While every moment of our mind cannot form the words we normally associate with prayer, we must train ourselves to have our thoughts in conversation with God. While intentional time should be given for prayer alone, we must also find ourselves sharing our thoughts with God throughout the day. The conversation of prayer is not formal, it is simply God standing with us and us standing with God, it happens in closets and prayer rooms, but also on buses and in the midst of a busy work day.

            We must never forget that our food and our livelihood is from God. We must not forget that all goodness comes from God. We must during this Lententide devote ourselves more fully to prayer. We must also, as Jesus teaches us, see prayer as a recognition of God’s goodness to us despite our sin. It must inspire us to forgive those in our life that we have neglected to forgive. To bridge gaps which we have previously believed unpassable. God who forgave us asks us to forgive others, and to embark on the difficult road of reconciliation with those we have grown distant from. Sometimes restoration to what once was will be impossible, but we must forgive our debtors – both those who have hurt us and those who literally owe us money or any other kind of wealth – as God has forgiven us.

            Finally, there is the matter of fasting. We in the modern Church are afraid of this practice more than we should be. For those who must eat during the day for their health, fasting is an impossibility, and it is often not wise for those who struggle with eating disorders to fast either. However, for those who have neither mental nor physical reasons not to fast, the practice is given as a expectation of the Christian. Fasting, as it was practiced in the ancient world, was the cessation of eating for a period of time, usually from one sunset to another. I invite us to consider together taking up the practice of fasting during Lent. I plan to abstain from food from Monday at Sunset to Tuesday at Sunset, and from Wednesday from Sunset to Thursday at Sunset. Join me if you feel so called.

            Most important for us to consider in Lent, and indeed in all of our Christian life, is that we engage in these practices only so that we can grow closer to God and more in line with God’s call upon our life. We do not fast, or pray, or study scripture so that we can look better or more holy or more in love with God than anyone else. These are transformative practices that we must keep close to our chest, sharing them only as needed and when doing so would be edifying to those around us. We must put away our desire for supremacy of all kinds, and any pretension that we are already as we ought to be.

            This Lent let us give up the idea that we must have it all together. Let us be honest about our fallenness and our failings. Reach out to God, for God cares for you. Lean upon the love of Christ, for Christ will deliver you. Listen to the call of the Spirit, for it is the call that will bring us all home. We have a holy life to live into this Lent, as we do at all times, but over the next seven weeks or so, let us commit ourselves together to not hold onto anything harmful any longer. May we find ourselves transformed into the image of Christ in a way we never have been before, let us seek after the word of God and find life, and life abundant. – Amen.

The God of this World – Lectionary 02/14/2021

Exodus 34: 29-35

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.

Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Mark 9:2-9                                                     

            Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Sermon Text

            We gather today as a Church to celebrate the Transfiguration, but we also gather culturally to celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day. The two days are both testaments to God’s love for us in distinct and unique ways. Though we now associate Valentine’s day with the secular giving of gifts to our beaux or else with Hallmark cards and candlelit dinners, the day truly originates in a memorial to a faithful priest who lived and died for the good of the Gospel. As we explore scripture today, we will do so with the life of St. Valentine beside us, an example of faith lived to the fullest.

            We begin with our Gospel. Here we are told of a few disciples being brought to a mountain to see Jesus in his full glory – unfiltered divinity and yet full humanity. Climbing the mountain, they see Christ for the God that Christ is, a radiant point in the darkness of the world. Glory unlike any other, the perfection of God in human form. Like Moses before them, the Disciples see the glory of God and wish to dwell with it forever. They ask to build tabernacles to Christ and for the two prophets that have joined him. A cloud overshadows them, the voice of God rings out, the Glory seems to fade, and Jesus is once more – in appearance – fully flesh.

            Paul, in our Epistle, looks to another radiant appearance of God – this one being Mount Sinai and Moses visitation with God. Paul puts forward that Moses felt God’s glory, reflected in his own face, was a source of authority. Moses, says Paul, wore a veil after visiting with God, not to protect the people from God’s glory, but to hide that it faded overtime from his face. In this view, Moses was not concerned for the sensibilities of the people but held a selfish desire to retain the authority that God’s reflected glory gave him. In truth, it is likely both conscientiousness and personal pride played a part in Moses’s veil. Moses wanted to protect the people and maintain the illusion he was always tightly connected to God’s reflected glory.

            Paul takes hold of Moses’s veil and utilizes it in a new way, seeing the image of Moses covering his face as a powerful vision of how easily we as Christians can hide God from the world. The veil here is any distraction that we create in order to make people unable to see God’s presence. While Paul speaks of those in the Church who have lost sight of God, “those who are perishing,” Paul also looks beyond this to the natural conclusion of the Church hiding God away. That is, that the world will not be able to see God, trading a relationship with true Divinity for what he calls, “The God of this World.”

            Paul here is invoking the image of the Great Adversary, Satan. However, Paul is sure not to mention Satan by name, allowing for us the reader to not quickly push our concerns to one place and forget about them. If we think to our everyday life, our everyday problems, we love to have a single person to blame or a single cause to track down and take care of. In the same way, to simply say, “Satan,” was to blame for the veil being put over the eyes of Christians would risk us believing we are immune from the effects of this particular evil. Satan, the God of this World, works through our natural and good impulses and twists them toward evil. To understand the ways we are tricked into serving, “The God of this World,” we must look inwardly not outward.

            In Corinth, we find that sometime after the conflict surrounding meat and idols, a new source of friction in the Church. This conflict was rooted, as so many are, over who had authority to teach and lead in the Church. A group had arrived in Corinth, dubbed by Paul to be “Super Apostles.” Lest we think Paul is complementing them, Paul uses a made-up word to describe them as, “Super,” highlighting the sarcasm implicit in the name itself. This group arrived with letters of recommendation from prominent figures in the Church and proclaimed all manner of teachings based on that authority. These teachings caused the Corinthians to send Paul a letter that broke his heart, and 2 Corinthians consists of the two letters he sent in response to them.

            Paul’s opponents did not sin because they disagreed with Paul is some matters of how the Church should run. Anywhere that Paul went he usually rubbed a few people the wrong way, but more often than not the misunderstanding and quibbles between apostles were settled without too much trouble. The sin of the Super Apostles was in their self-aggrandization. They took on every title and accolade they could to seem holy, but they did so only to make themselves feel bigger and better than those around them, not in service to the Gospel. Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul highlights his own qualifications, not in terms of the things he did to look impressive, but in his suffering service to God. Our scripture holds his most striking statement, that an unveiled love of God is a life of slavery, not a life of mastery.

            The God of this World is not often manifested in a cloved hoofed demon, but in the actions of you and of me. It is the greatest idol that hides behind all others, the great idol of Ego, of self above all else. The Super Apostles places their prominence in community above community itself, even above the Gospel. Moses places his authority over reflecting God’s glory. We ourselves choose to put anything and everything above God’s call upon our life. We seek simple answers that do not challenge us, we seek bold displays to show our skill, we neglect mercy and love in exchange for flashy and hollow piety.

            Our Gospel shows us the key to our life, the key to reflecting rather than obscuring Christ. As God exclaimed from within the cloud of transfiguration – we must obey Christ. Christ who calls us to sacrificial love, to humble lives, to giving and not taking. Christ asks us to be good and to work for others, even when it gets hard. We preach and unfettered Gospel of Grace and do so without asking what is in it for us. We must serve God with all our Heart and follow Christ wherever that path takes us. The reward of God’s glory and of Heaven’s light is given to those who seek neither glory nor prestige in this life, but seek in all things to do good.

            Which brings us to Saint Valentine. Valentinus, a priest in the third or fourth century, was alive during a period of Christian persecution. Christians were considered atheists by Rome and were seen as dangerous because they refused to worship the emperor or any of the God’s that were believed to maintain Rome. Taken into prison, Valentinus amazed the jailors through his faith and converted the magistrate overseeing his case to Christianity. Valentinus even grew close to the emperor, becoming a guest to him on multiple occasions. Eventually, however, the emperor grew tired of their mutual attempts at conversion and ordered Valentinus to be executed. As he left to kneel before the headsmen, legend says he left a note thanking the jailor’s daughter for the kindness she showed him in prison. The letter was signed, “Ex Valentini,” in English, “from your Valentine.”

            Lost in our Romantic overtures is the story of a faith that was stronger than death. Valentinus preached to rulers and oppressors and loved all he met. Valentinus always showed the unfiltered glory of God by living as a slave to the Gospel. He sought no fame, no glory, not even a stay of execution – but only cared in life to meet God and to see Christ proclaimed in the world. Let us live out such a life ourselves.

            We do not live in persecuted Church, but many in this world do, pray for their fortitude. We face little danger as Christians in the United States, so we lack excuse to live out our life fully. Our greatest risk is to our ego, that we might give up what we want or turn down ambition when it calls to us. We must tear down the idol to ourselves we have built within, because if we do that, the God of this World will have no foothold within us. For though we love ourselves and care for ourselves as God’s good creation, we must not worship and laud ourselves as Gods in our own right. Christ shines out among the faithful, let that light shine on without obstruction in all that we do. – Amen.

Keep Moving – Lectionary 02/07/2021

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Sermon Text

We have are a month into a new year, both liturgical and calendarial. With this shift we move from our Gospel readings coming predominately from Matthew, to predominately from Mark. Mark, the first of the Gospels to be written, is a short but cutting document. Mark does not waste anytime in telling a story about God coming to earth to deliver us from our sins, and to lead us into a community unlike any other. Christ was the king apart from Caesar, the Church was the gathered people apart from the polis, the Gospel is good news unlike any other.

Mark opens his Gospel in the preceding verses of chapter one with the ministry of John the Baptist, then with Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, and then the exorcism of a demon possessed man in Capernaum – the hometown of Simon Peter. Walking through the town, we are given the image of a ministry that was constantly on the move. The watch word of Mark’s Gospel is, “Immediately.” To go out and to do and to not be caught up in a single thing for too long.

Jesus’s ministry was public in scope. In all things, the actions Jesus took were oriented toward the communities he worked within. People were healed and allowed to live out normal lives, but more than that the ministry of Christ allowed for all people to go beyond what was and enter into a new life – greater than what was before. The brokenness of our world is repaired through the mere visitation of Christ, our soul healed by his loving works.

Our scripture recounts three acts of Christ – the healing of a single person, of many people, and then the retreat of Jesus to an empty space to pray. All three of these are examples of different ways that we must do good in the world around us, and all three of them reflect the fast-paced work of Jesus and of his Church. We never cease the work of Christ, even and indeed especially when we rest.

The first act of Christ in our scripture is the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Laying in bed with a fever, the family told Jesus about her condition. A fever in the ancient world was never as simple as taking an aspirin and waiting it out, the family was likely unsure if she was going to live. Yet, Jesus lifted her up and her fever broke at once. While we are not able to instantly heal people, Jesus here models ministry that directly works with individuals.

This sort of direct care for one another is something we can easily neglect in the church. To visit with the sick and to pray with them and give them company (digitally or otherwise,) to find those struggling and to lighten their load somehow. The work of Christ should, when possible, be conducted face to face and person to person. There are few things so wonderful in life as just being with another person, and connection in itself can heal.

The impulse of the Church, however, can be one of distance and depersonalization. We are fine with donating to causes and sending supplies to other people, but not in doing work ourselves. We do not want to see the faces of those in need unless they are smiling in photos that are sent to us for our participation. We do not want to see the brokenness of our neighbors unless they have already come out the other side. Still worse, if we do help people one on one, we begin to expect certain kinds of gratitude in response.

To work with someone one on one is to acknowledge their personhood. To shake the hand of someone in need is to acknowledge their dignity. To be silent in the house of mourning is to show someone their grief matters. While there are ethical and practical boundaries we all must maintain, we must not make barriers of excuses between ourselves and the people we serve. Even lack of gratitude is no excuse not to serve – while Simon’s mother-in-law served Jesus a meal in gratitude, many others chased Jesus out of town – still, Jesus served the people.

Personal connection does not keep us from corporate acts of mercy. Jesus’s second act in our scripture is to heal the multitude that gathered outside Simon’s home. Capernaum was not a large city, housing less than two thousand people at its peak. All the same, the crowd outside the house was not small, especially for the tiny group of people inside to deal with. Yet Jesus was able to minister to them all. Large scale acts of mercy can still maintain personality and be efficacious, indeed, they are the only way to meet the many needs of those around us.

What we must be watchful for in participating in and supporting large scale ministries is whether or not the initiatives we support truly produce fruit. Recently, I heard of a massive clothing drive a church invested in every year, gathering palettes worth of clothing. Some years into the program, they engaged directly with those they had been sending clothes to and found out that 80% of the clothing was unusable and needed to be disposed of for one reason or another. However, when the church learned this, they worked with those in the community they were serving and began another large scale mission that met the needs of that community. They succeeded because they involved voices in the community to guide their efforts.

Beyond personal connection in terms of working with people directly there comes working with people to find what they really need. We must not presume we know what someone needs unless we have first spent time among them and their community. Practically, this means we should look to the groups we support and ask a simple question – when we read about what a group does, and the results, are we hearing and seeing people from the community they serve or people who are claiming to know better than them? Corporate acts of mercy are delicate things, and we must treat them with the same care we treat individual ministries with.

Finally, Jesus shows us that in order to keep moving forward in ministry we must rest. Rest is not simply cessation of work, but recuperation of our body and soul. Jesus sleeps, then rises earlier than anyone else to go into an empty space and pray. Rest occurs in the quiet, in solitude, and most importantly, before God. In praying, Jesus found strength to carry on – to leave Capernaum and continue to minister throughout Galilee.

Too often we define rest as either leisure or as the absence of career work. I myself am especially guilty of taking a day that is meant for rest and filling it with anything but. While it is sometimes therapeutic to engage with our passion projects, we often spend time we should be resting running errands or cleaning or making up for what we see as lost time. Rest should be total, and it should be deliberate. It should be rooted in prayer and oriented toward God.

In normal times, we take a special moment each month to simply acknowledge God’s goodness and to take in the Eucharist as a corporeal reminder of that goodness. Somehow in taking it we are brought to be present with Christ, joining in the salvific work of calvary. Though we are unable now to join together and to take of bread and of the vine, we must be sure to take time to be alone with Christ, present intentionally with God.

The work of the Church, personal or corporate, relies on a foundation rooted in Christ. Let us commit that we never stop moving forward in our ministry and let us keep in mind that sometimes we travel the furthest distance while we rest. – Amen.