Law and Grace

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Romans 7:15-25a; St. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who give us an easy burden and a light yoke. Amen.

“I do not understand my own actions.”

Who among us has not felt like Saint Paul at one point or another? For we do not do what we want – what we really, truly want in our in-most being, to do the will of God, the very end for which we were created.

Oh, we start out with good intent, sure enough.

This is it! This is the time I’m going to hold my temper in check and not yell at the neighbor.

This is the time I’m going to buy that young woman on the street corner a sandwich and tell her about the resources at the shelter.

This is the year I’m finally going to read my Bible every day.

This is it! This time, I’m actually going to join the protests and speak up for justice.

But then we do the thing we hate. Continue reading “Law and Grace”

Division and Unity

A Homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Romans 6:1b-11; St. Matthew 10:24-39


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has united us into one body.

If I may summarize last week’s Gospel reading:

Congratulations, apostles! You’ve just won a no-expenses paid vacation to the small towns dotting the Judaean countryside! You’ll confront demonic powers that seek to destroy you, and while there, you’ll be handed over, beaten, flogged!

This week, it continues: Continue reading “Division and Unity”

Sheep Among Wolves

A Homily for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Romans 5:1-8, St. Matthew 9:35-10:23


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus the Lord, the one who strengthens us to endure until the end. Amen.

We are justified, Paul tells us, by grace through faith in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. But to what end? In this season after Pentecost, reading the Epistle to the Romans in light of Christ’s Ascension, the Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles, and last week’s Trinity Sunday command for the Church to go forth, what does our salvation really mean?

It’s not some object to be put up on a shelf like a trophy in order that we might boast about how special we are. Rather, in Christ’s death, we are invited to live into the peace of the coming Kingdom, a restored creation. In our justification, we are given the grace to be the people God created us to be, to live the lives that our Lord always intended for us. Continue reading “Sheep Among Wolves”

Hosanna! To the Son of David!

A Homily for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Text: St. Matthew 21:1-11


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Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the triumphant king. Amen.

In any other year, we would mark today by joining in the crowd’s shouts of Hosanna! with a big parade around the parish, with the joyful waving of palm branches, singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” and we would literally walk into Holy Week.

This year, separated by physical distance, without our footsteps shaking the earth, without the organ leading us in song, without waving palm branches, we remember Christ’s words in Saint Luke’s account: even the stones cry out!

Pause this video! Run outside! Do you hear the breeze? It’s giving glory to God! Do you hear the birds lifting their voice in song? They’re leading the chorus! I know that only a quarter mile or so from where I sit, the stones and the Chattahoochee are joining together as they roar and proclaim the majesty of Christ our King!

But all is not well in Jerusalem. Continue reading “Hosanna! To the Son of David!”

Bart Simpson Among the Sadducees

A Homily for Vespers during the Fifth Week of Lent

Text: St. Matthew 22:23-33


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.

Waaaaaay back in the very first season of The Simpsons, young rapscallion Bart badgers his Sunday School teacher with question after question before asking:

Ma’am. What if…your leg gets gangrene and it has to be amputated. Will it be waiting for you in heaven?

Continue reading “Bart Simpson Among the Sadducees”

Paradise Lost

A Homily for the First Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; St. Matthew 4:1-11


Grace to you and Peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who walks with us through the temptations of this world that we may overcome this world with him. Amen.

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The Fall, depicted on the door of a confessional in Speyer, Germany

“It was very good.”

That’s how Genesis 1 summarizes life in the first days of Creation.

And Genesis 2 paints us this picture (as translated by Robert Alter):

The Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden…and He placed there the human he had fashioned. And the Lord God caused to sprout from the soil every tree lovely to look at and good for food, and the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge…. Now a river runs out of Eden to water the garden…. And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.’ And the Lord God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it…but for the human no sustainer beside him was found.

The human is put to sleep for a quick operation in which the Lord takes out one of his ribs and uses it to fashion a woman, a fellow human to be the sustainer beside him. Life in this very good garden had only one rule: Eat from any tree except the three of knowledge of good and evil; if you eat that tree, you will be doomed to die.

It should have been so simple. Continue reading “Paradise Lost”

Lost Sheep

A Homily for the First Wednesday of Lent

Text: St. Matthew 18:10-14


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Amen.

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For a few years now, I’ve preached the same sermon at the early service on Christmas Eve – one written by my father some twenty-five years ago. It’s the story of Eliezer the Unreliable, a shepherd in the hills outside Bethlehem. And does anyone remember what Eliezer says the number one rule of being a shepherd is?

Never, ever, EVER leave the sheep!

Sheep are dumb! They’re prone to wander into a briar patch and get stuck or walk into a river and drown. Predators might try to eat one for dinner. And of course, sheep are valuable, so shepherds have to protect them from bandits as well.

So tonight, when Jesus brings up the image of a good and trustworthy shepherd, he depicts a person who…

…leaves ninety-nine sheep to search out the one. Continue reading “Lost Sheep”

Rend Your Hearts

A Homily for Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


Grace and Peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who accompanies us through the Lenten wilderness. Amen.

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It was well after midnight my sophomore year of college when I stumbled back into my apartment after hours in the library working on an assignment I was nearly certain I would fail. Exhausted, frustrated, and angry, I dropped my books and my pack, grabbed my shirt and simply pulled, sending buttons and thread flying everywhere. Standing in the doorway, a few shreds of fabric in my hand, I could only muster a sigh. I felt a little bit better, but only for a moment. I quickly collapsed into bed for a few fitful hours’ sleep, still in my undershirt, jeans, and shoes. The next morning, I woke up barely rested, and none the closer to finishing my research paper. Were this a movie, rending my clothes in such a dramatic way would have inevitably led to a breakthrough; as it was, I got a brief moment of catharsis before barely eking out a C+ on the project and in the class and quietly dropping the major.

As overly dramatic as that night may have been, the ritual imagery of Ash Wednesday puts it to shame. Continue reading “Rend Your Hearts”

The Glory of the Lord, Written in Capital Letters

A Homily for the Transfiguration of Our Lord

Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; St. Matthew 17:1-9


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Transfigured Lord, the Beloved One. Amen.

“The mountains are calling and I must go…” John Muir’s words, written nearly 150 years ago while in exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains, are just as relatable in this year of our Lord 2020 as they were in 1873. For Muir, and for all of us who feel the call to walk the woods, time in the mountains provided insight into the God who laid the foundations of the earth. Reflecting on his time in Yosemite and the majestic expanse of the Mountain West, he wrote:

The glory of the Lord is upon all His works, but here, in this place of surpassing glory, the Lord has written in capitals.

This rugged man of the woods is certainly not alone – even to this day, many Christians of diverse traditions use the term “mountaintop experience” to describe intense encounters with the Triune God, whether it’s the sublime beauty of a national park calling us into deeper relationship with the Creator of the Universe, feeling the Spirit move anew while singing an ancient and well-loved hymn, or simply a tranquil moment lying in bed during the dark of the night, finding our hearts resting for just a brief instant in God’s peace. These moments are life-changing and hold a sort of fascination; in these experiences, something holy, what philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum, calls to us and holds our attention even as we struggle to comprehend.

Saints throughout the ages have summitted mountains to encounter the majestic mystery who is the Holy One of Israel. Throughout Scripture, prophets and patriarchs have been summoned to climb into God’s presence. Abraham and Isaac ascended Mount Moriah to make an offering to the Lord, and it was there that God stilled Abraham’s hand while also providing a ram to take Isaac’s place on the altar. According to Jewish tradition, this is the same mountain where the Temple was built centuries later, where Jews today still flock to pray at its foundation.

Moses, leading the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Law. On this sacred summit, as we just read, the glory of God was so overwhelming as to forever change Moses’ appearance, his face reflecting the divine light of God’s most holy majesty for the rest of his years. (To this day, Christian monks maintain a 1,700-year old monastery on this holy peak that they might encounter God like the great lawgiver before them.) And after forty years wandering in the wilderness, Moses climbed Mount Pisgah, where he was blessed to see the Land of Promise, though he knew he would not get there with his people.

Elijah, fleeing threats from Ahab and Jezebel, ascended Mount Horeb like Moses before him, and there God promised to appear before the prophet, coming forth not in mighty earthquake, roaring wind, nor blazing fire but in the sacred sound of sheer silence.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as he has promised divine blessing upon the oppressed and the marginalized and as he has offered a new interpretation of the Law, calling us into a community defined by a sacrificial love for God, neighbor, and enemy.

And the very night before he died, his life once more under threat, the Rev. Martin Luther King, that great prophetic martyr of the 20th century, echoed the life of Moses and the prophetic voices of old, saying:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

It was from this mountaintop that Rev. King encouraged striking sanitation workers in Memphis and their supporters to cast their gaze beyond the world as it appears today and behold the coming new creation: the Promised Land and the new Jerusalem – but also a new Atlanta, a new Memphis, a new South built not on the shackles of slavery and the racism of Jim Crow but on the vision Christ put forward in the Sermon on the Mount, where true equality begets Beloved Community.

And yet again today, just days before we enter into the Lenten wilderness, we find Christ calling us to another mountaintop. At this point in the story, Simon has hit one of the highest points in his time with the Lord – he has proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Christ has in turn given Simon a new name: Peter, the rock, a foundational stone in the Church. But immediately after, Simon Peter hit one of his lowest lows: Jesus began to explain that he would suffer in Jerusalem and even be crucified. Peter didn’t take the news well and tried to correct Jesus, earning himself another nickname. Within one chapter, he goes from being “the Rock” to “Satan.”

So it is that, six days later, we find Jesus leading Simon Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop where suddenly Christ is transfigured. His entire body, even his clothes, radiate the glory of the Eternally-Begotten Son as Moses and Elijah stand on either side of him, and a voice rolls down as thunder from heaven, repeating the words we heard at the beginning of this season:

This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!

In this instant, the disciples glimpse the full glory of the coming of the Lord written in capital letters, a moment where heaven erupts visibly on earth. They have been to the mountaintop and seen the one who sits enthroned in the New Jerusalem, the very one who will lead God’s people through the grave into the Promised Land.

Peter has the same response as anyone who has been to the mountaintop: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Please, let us stay, if only for a few moments more. The world down in the valley is not nearly so majestic, and yes, maybe it reflects the glory of its Creator, but that glory is hard to see through all the sinful greed, hatred, and violence. We know what’s waiting for us just off the mountain, when we once more enter into the Lenten Wilderness marked by that ashen reminder of our mortality. Once we leave this summit, it’s back into the barren desert where sin and death destroy, where prophets are made into martyrs, where tyrants rule by the power of the sword. Once we come down from this place, we will re-enter the ordinary world where our best intentions fall short and where we will go back to laboring for a Kingdom we may not see fully realized. Outside these walls, there are hungry mouths to be fed, captives to be set free, powers and principalities to be toppled, and racial division to be overcome; outside these walls, a holy but difficult mission awaits us.

But here, in this holy moment, we can rest in the assurances of God as we gaze out at the Promised Land and behold the glory of God. So yes, please, we would like to stay a bit longer before returning to the world with difficult days ahead, knowing that we are called back into to the challenging work of proclaiming the Good News in thought, word, and deed.

Today we are on the mountaintop, and the glory of God is written before us in capital letters. If we have eyes to see, we may glimpse the coming of the glory of the Lord. Today, the Transfigured Christ is pointing us toward the Promised Land, and Lord knows it is good for us to be here. Soak it in, shout out your Alleluias, and rest easy for a moment. Let this experience hold your fascination, change you forever, and strengthen you and set you free from fear.

But we cannot stay. Something even better awaits us, and now we have to make our way through Lent to Jerusalem. There is difficult but holy work to be done. The Wilderness is calling and we must go.

Amen.

Fulfilling the Law

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Text: St. Matthew 5:13-20*


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, whose light shines through us into this world. Amen.

In this season leading up to Lent, we are reading through the first chapter of Christ’s lengthy Sermon on the Mount, his first – and arguably best known – teaching that covers everything from the swearing oaths to anger and violence to instructions on fasting and prayer. Last week, while we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord and read from the Gospel according to St. Luke, the lectionary provided a second set of readings including the Beatitudes, that famous list of promised blessings that intros the Sermon on the Mount. This week, our Lord continues as he tells us to be salt and light for the world. Next week, we’ll hear the first in a series of new interpretations of the Mosaic Law as Jesus tells his listeners, “You have hard it said…but I say….”

These passages have been read and re-read so often, have become so familiar that, as with so much in the Gospels, we almost tune them out, hearing only what we think we already know. Continue reading “Fulfilling the Law”