Sunday, March 01, 2015

That Not-So-Sweet Jesus

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California on March 1st, 2015

Where did we decide that Jesus was sweet, kind, and gentle, and why? Maybe it has something to do with attempting to make the gospel stories (and the Bible generally) palatable for protected, young ears and tender imaginations. Maybe it has something to do with our habitual domestication and institutionalization of religion. That makes some sense – we institutionalize people deemed unruly, so why not scripture and Jesus, too?

It is easy to imagine and depict Jesus, blue-eyed and blond-haired no less, surrounded by laughing children, smiling platonically and knowingly that all will be well. Except that is our conceit, not scripture’s. Nor is it Jesus’.

Jesus was a frustrated man. And he was Semitic, not Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon, which meant he grew up in a culture where passions were at the surface of everyday life and relationships. And he was Mediterranean, which meant there was yelling in public and it mattered how you play verbal hardball, most of all with your opponents.

Perhaps most importantly for our gospel today, Jesus’ understanding of hatred was indifference, not wanton cruelty. And that meant his understanding of love meant engagement, reproof, and disclosure of the heart. And the heart for him was not a demurring, individualistic secretive seat of emotion, but an openly relational, communal dynamic of passion, thought, and conviction wrapped and delivered in action. For Jesus, there was no love at a distance. There was only love up close, personal, and, indeed, political.

So Peter gets an earful today, not for being evil, but for being errant and dense. And you can’t blame Peter. He’s feeling bold. He just got it right for a change, identifying Jesus first as the Messiah. And he knows what “Messiah” means. It means a political savior who will throw out the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory under David’s son. Maybe Peter is imagining a few divine things, too, but his Messiah is grounded in reality and is supposed to bring about some practical political change and honor to all of Judea, Galilee, and the people of God everywhere. And Peter has just witnessed Jesus feeding the multitudes, putting the religious authorities in their place and healing the blind. So what is Jesus talking about? All this nonsense about going to Jerusalem and being arrested and killed. Peter likely can’t hear much past that. Who needs a dead King? Or a dead Messiah for that matter? So, of course, he will rebuke his Rabbi, Master, and friend.

And Jesus’ counter-rebuke will be all the more stinging, but not because he calls Peter a “Satan,” which simply means “tempter.” But because Peter has just stumbled into yet another, even more disturbing truth:

The Messiah he thought he signed up for is not the Messiah he is getting.

We all know this feeling. The perfect house turned out to be mold-ridden or needs a major foundation repair. The perfect church just turned out to have everything all communities have: bad history, gossips, and skeletons lurking in dark places. The perfect job is tarnished by a grumpy boss, an incompetent co-worker, or the unexpected drudgery of paperwork. The perfect friend just stabbed us in the back. The spouse we thought we married has edges we didn’t know about and didn’t learn about until the wedding was over, the honeymoon was behind us, the bills were all piled up, and all of life with its bumps and windy roads lay ahead.

Love, we all learn again today along with Peter, is a choice. It isn’t the romantic confluence of perfect circumstances and emotions. Faith, we learn with him, is also a choice. It isn’t just a nice daisy chain of inspired moments.

And pain, we all try to learn along with Peter, is an inevitable part of love and faith. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

And life, particularly Life with a capital “L” — that Life with God, the author of creation and all true love — happens only one way: cheek-by-jowl with death.

The Kingdom Jesus has been talking about has, at least at first glance, surprisingly little to do with the stories about King David’s slaying Goliath with a sling and stone, or the glorious expansion of his mature kingdom. The Kingdom Jesus has been talking about is so fragile that it must die before it can live. And it is not made of stone walls and fortresses, but dry-rotted wood shaped into crosses. And it is not found at the heart of Jerusalem in the beauty of the Solomonic Temple, but outside the city on a bare hill where the criminals go to die.

Jesus tells his disciples and us — if we will but set aside our kindly, gentle, but largely harmless depiction of our Savior — that we must face our darkness in order to find light. We must see our imperfections if we are to be perfected by God’s love for us. We must confront death’s designs if we are to embrace life. And the Kingdom of God, that frustrated kingdom that still yearns to be born even now in the real lives of the suffering and the lonely, the fearful and the marginalized, is born on the sweaty, hard work of carrying crosses, both ours and those of others.

Richard Rohr talks about “necessary suffering,” the inevitable hard knocks of life that every human being experiences simply by breathing and being in relationship. There is suffering delivered by oppression, by evil, by negligence, and we can police that to a degree. But necessary suffering is as inevitable as old age. Peter, like us, would avoid that if he could.

But the command of Jesus to Peter and to us is to get behind him. The command is to get real. The command is to join the struggle and dispense with the selfish delusions of immortal youth, political glory, and the superficial salves of creature comforts. These are the temptations Jesus confronted in the wilderness. No wonder Peter’s oblique appeal to them equates him in Jesus’ mind with Satan.

No, God’s Kingdom is more radical than Peter imagines, more fragile than he wants to know, and yet — like that sacred covenant God made with Abraham — more consequential for the ages and peoples near and far than he can begin to realize. Yet it is remarkable that Peter, stung as he is, doesn’t leave Jesus at this juncture.

Maybe he recognizes a glimmer of hope in Jesus’ words, or at least a glimpse of deeper truth than he has yet to understand. The difficult, frustrating, winding road ahead is one of love, truth, compassion, and true justice: those divine gifts the world cannot commodify or control, and so it often ignores or marginalizes them. And sometimes it kills them. As it killed the prophets of old and as it kills the prophets of today.

Lent is about walking with Peter and following that road anyway. . . and trusting in a God who has whispered or perhaps just hinted in Peter’s heart and ours, too, that the path ahead could conquer even death itself.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Vexed by the Journey

Little vexed me more as an aspiring, struggling pianist many years ago than a trusted friend — also a musician — telling me to learn to “enjoy the journey.” It’s taken me nearly twenty years to even begin to grasp what he meant, noting my temptation towards quick fixes, thinking more often about arrivals, and craving a predictable stability in daily life that is worse than unachievable. It is entirely unrealistic. Worst of all, it is just another pet idol of mine.

Which brings me, of course, to the institutional church, from which we all benefit as we sit here this morning in the beautiful confines of St. George’s Chapel at the Bishop’s Ranch, bathed in a most blessed rain slowly eroding a long drought. How on earth — building on millennia of tradition with roots in Benedictine and desert spirituality along with Roman bean-counting governance and parochial proclivities — did we get the idea that Christianity should be institutional? At the very best, I suppose, we might say we need a vessel — and we might imagine that in the naval sense of the word — to help us sustain our essential needs while we attend to the inevitable spiritual journey of the inner and relational life. But I, as a parish priest and veritable church governance junkie, encounter too often the severe limitations of institutional Christianity, and I cannot quite convince myself.

This time of year, we remember a young woman, probably barely into her teens, literally bearing Christ not in the comfort of her own home in Nazareth with supportive, familiar faces and hands tending to her, but somewhere on the road outside of Bethlehem, in the midst of strangers. According to Luke’s account, at least, as a Galilean Jew, she had entered the somewhat foreign and hostile domain of her ancestral Judea with her betrothed, knowing full well she would bear her child, begotten under most dubious circumstances, while en route. I can only imagine what my wife might have said to me, in those interminable weeks leading up to the birth of one of our children, had I told her we were going on a long journey, and we would not be home before labor. There are probably more than a few suitable Japanese expressions for husbands spouting clueless ideas!

Yet Mary, the Godbearer, almost never has any significant interaction with Jesus in the gospels unless they are somewhere other than home. There is that precious glimpse of Jesus’ teenage years while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he incurs Mary’s fury for worrying her when he lingers behind in the Temple. There is that argument in a kitchen in Capernaum over a wedding party running out of wine. And there is, of course, that image of Mary with her suffering son about as far from home as they might imagine ever being: on a hill called Golgotha.

“Madonna of the Bamboo Grove” from Four Japanese Madonnas, an online collection curated by The University of Dayton
Mary has been called the first Christian, and I suppose it is not just for her willingness to physically bear the Son of God. It is for her willingness to journey with him into the strange, unexpected, and even terrifying; carrying him at times even into the loneliness of a stable with only the company of a somewhat mystified but stalwart Joseph and a handful of stinky animals and shepherds; or receiving her son’s body in that most poignant station of death on Good Friday.

Our predilection to reify Mary may at times obscure her witness to what it means to be truly Christian. It is not simply a matter of sitting in comfort, as we can this time of year, and sing Veni Emmanuel, unless we mean it like an expectant mother in the midst of labor. Nor is it simply a matter of hanging out for the Second Coming in the beauty of our institutional churches, unless we expect that coming to mean not one beloved stone being left upon another. The only stability we are meant to cultivate is that radical trust in the promises of God. Institutions, comforts, and even homes come and go. They can be as fleeting as a long-practiced piece of music, the fading tones of a performance, or the echoes of applause.

The Christian life is like Mary’s, after all, uncomfortable and dusty on the road, with no room at the Inn and unexpected meetings with total strangers, and the comforts and faces of home only a wistful memory. Our idolatry of stability, of sitting comfortably on the laurels of our accomplishments and conquests, explains a great many things wrong with our civilization today and across the ages. Journeys are powerfully vulnerable moments in our lives, but also the most profoundly real as we are exposed to the elements and uncertainties of a capricious universe. And so it is there that Christ comes – sometimes to us, but more often because we carry him and give birth to him there. It is there we also vent our fury at his mystifying talk about God and something he calls a kingdom. We, too, are vexed by his wandering ways and upside-down teachings. . . and we sometimes find ourselves receiving his body after the world has had its way with him and our journey — along with his — seems to have reached an abrupt end.

I suppose my greatest struggle with music and journeys all those years ago was with the “dirty laundry” of missed notes and frustratingly difficult passages and the lonely hours trying to master an instrument, a phrase, a chord, and, above all, myself. The truth of my friend’s counsel was that there was no short-circuiting, no circumventing that process. And then my even harder learning was to value that long journey when at last I would push a piece out in front of an audience, knowing even then that it might fail or I might fall to pieces in a pile of nerves. But that, too, is the journey of the true Gospel, the true Church, and all of us when we are sometimes approaching what we might call true Christianity. No amount of institutional comfort can save us from the journey we must undertake in this pregnant time. No amount of bean counting and careful preparation can forestall or circumvent the dangerous, uncertain, and sometimes seemingly endless labor of pushing Christ out into the world.

But as vexing as that is at times, it is our calling. And we, like Mary, undertake the journey risking a radical faith in the whispers of angels and the ephemera of dreams. I still take no comfort in clichés like “the journey is the destination.” But then, who said I am to be comfortable? This late in Advent is an ironic call to discomfort (“Comfort, comfort ye my people”), because nothing new comes without upsetting the old and the known, and until we learn to leave our idols at home and carry the living God with us on the road of life, we will not know our salvation.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Ferguson, Staten Island, and Advent

One lesson of the last few weeks I have tried to take very much to heart:

We must learn in this country how to better acknowledge our privilege.

This is not about “white guilt,” which is simply a mode of hiding our power behind a selfish facade of shame — a most insidious liberal piety!

Nor is this about mere “personal responsibility” — that hideous idol of the right that is blind to all the ways oppression is sustained systemically in our common culture.

No, this is about stepping back far enough to see how the simple accident of birth clothes us in undeserved power and rights over others.

And how by seeing, then, we might be offered a choice in the shared future we are willing to pursue alongside all of our sisters and brothers.

Friday, June 13, 2014


Among my first attempts at studying Rachmaninov, recorded this afternoon while practicing at church. . .

Lots of voicing, many choices, and an almost endless sea of detail:

Prelude in D Major, Op. 23, No. 4

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Love, Ludwig

Ludwig van Beethoven:

Der Kuß (The Kiss), Op. 128 (c. 1798)
Poetry by Christian Felix Weisse (1726–1804)

Adelaide, Op. 46 (c. 1796) 
Poetry by Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831)

Steve Beecroft, Tenor
Richard Edward Helmer, Piano

Recorded live at The Redwoods Auditorium
Mill Valley, California
May 13, 2014