Monday, March 19, 2018

We Wish to See Jesus!

"Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida, Galilee, and said to him, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus.'  Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus."
--John 12: 20-23

An artist's depiction of the Greeks coming to see Jesus.

“We wish to see Jesus,” they said.  They were a group of Greeks.  Maybe they were converts to Judaism.  Maybe they weren’t.  Maybe they were just in Jerusalem because they wanted to observe the great festival of the Passover.  Maybe, because the Greeks have always been regarded as seekers of truth, they were just plain curious about this carpenter-turned-rabbi whose fame was spreading throughout their corner of the world.  We may never know the reason for their request, but we can sure understand it, can’t we?

Who among us does not wish to see Jesus?  The very fact that we come together to worship each week speaks to that.  We come to our respective houses of worship because we want to see Jesus, we want to have an encounter with the living God in Christ.  We could stay home or take a weekend trip to the beach, but we show up, and I suspect it's because, like those curious Greeks, we too wish to see Jesus.  

As I told my congregation on Sunday, our church is certainly a place where you will see Jesus, that’s for sure.  We see him each time we gather in his name and sing songs of praise and pray together for the Church, which is his body, and for the world, which he loves.  We see him in our Sacraments, those outward and visible signs of his inner and spiritual grace.  Most notably, we see him at the holy table, where he is broken before our very eyes, where he is known to us in the same way he was known to those twelve apostles in that upper room and those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, in a sacred meal that is shared together, where our divisions cease, and we are made one body in the one bread.  Beyond our prayers, praises, and Sacraments, however, we see him in each other.  When we go out of our way to welcome the stranger, we see him.  When we sit with someone who is alone, we see him.  When we take extra long with our passing of the peace, asking, “How’s your family doing?” or letting someone know we’re happy that they’re here, we see him.  As I told them, our church is truly a place where anyone who wishes to, can and will see Jesus.

Out there is a world filled with people who wish to see Jesus.  Unlike those Greeks, however, they’re not always eager to say so because many have been wounded by Jesus’ very body, by the Church.  They’ve been told that because of something they have done in the past, they can never be forgiven—as a young woman visiting Good Shepherd shared with me a few weeks ago.  They’ve been turned away at the doors of houses of worship because of the way they dress, the way they wear their hair, who they came in holding hands with, or because they look like trouble, whatever that means.  They’ve been welcomed at the door, but they've gone the whole day without anyone speaking to them and making them feel like it matters that they’re there.  These are deeps wounds, and they get inflicted in churches everywhere, even Episcopal ones. Folks want to see Jesus.  They want to know him, love him, and worship him, but often the church gets in the way.

One of my favorite phrases I’ve picked up in ministry—and one that I’ve mentioned to you before, but it bears repeating—is that you may be the only Jesus that anyone ever meets.  I like that one a bit better than “you may be the only Bible anyone ever reads.”  Because the Bible is a collection of books, but Jesus is a living Word, alive just like you and me.  When you wear your cross—or your collar—you reflect Jesus to the world around you.  If you are compassionate to those in some kind of need, then folks will experience a compassionate Jesus, but if you pass judgement or simply ignore them, then they will experience a Jesus who is uncaring and judgmental.  We, of course, know that this is not who Jesus is.  We know that Jesus is full of mercy and love and Good News for the oppressed.  The question for us to ponder, then, is:  how can we show that Jesus not just to every person who walks through those red doors, but to every person we encounter out in the world?  That is our responsibility as Christians living in this world today.  It is an awesome responsibility.  My great-grandfather used to say that 'awesome' was the most overused and misused word in the English language, but here I think it applies perfectly because our responsibility is truly an awesome one, meaning it is neither small nor simple.

Living into this responsibility is not easy, let me tell you.  When I was in seminary in New York City we would so often see homeless people sleeping outside our gate.  Do you know how often we invited them in to come inside those gates?  None, despite some minor student-led conversations.  Meanwhile, at another seminary up the road, a student reached out to bring homeless folks in to worship and to build relationships with them, but the administration put a stop to it.  This is not Christian behavior!  Some may call it demonic behavior; after all, the one who casts out the demons calls all of us not to live in fear.  My seminary was so afraid that they never even had the conversation, while the administration of the other seminary was filled with fear for how their community might look if "those people" were allowed to come in.  They turned away the very folks who wished to see Jesus.  Our gathered Sunday assemblies are the very places where we learn this lesson, where we are shown in our liturgical actions how to show Jesus to each other and to the world.  

Echoing the words of Jesus from later in the Sunday Gospel reading, I reminded our folks that this is the reason we have come to this hour.  That’s why go to church.  We see Jesus in our gathered assemblies and we strengthen our relationship with him in there, so that we may see him and make him be seen out there in the world.  It’s not an either-or thing.  It’s a both-and. We are the church inside those walls in order that we may be the Church outside, and we live in the world so that we may bring the concerns of the world into the church.   What we do on Sunday mornings is the dress rehearsal for the rest of our lives—that’s another one I know you’ve heard me say more than once.  But it’s true.  Just look at our liturgy.  The passing of the peace shows us how we are to greet all those we meet with a holy gesture.  The altar, that holy table, shows us what it means to feed others and to allow others to feed us. The hodgepodge community of folks gathered in churches on Sunday mornings, made up of saints and sinners of all kinds, gives us a glimpse of what the kingdom can look like here on earth.  But it takes us stepping out in faith, being brave and bold, so that we may show the love, mercy, and convictions of Christ to a world that so desperately needs to know that Good News.  Brothers and sisters, the our world is crying out to each of us:  “We wish to see Jesus!”  How will we show him to them? 

Monday, March 5, 2018

What Would Jesus Do?

'The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 
The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.'
--John 2: 13-22

What would Jesus do?  I used to see everybody and his cousin wearing those WWJD writsbands or donning a bumper sticker on their car.  As Christians, that is a question that should be at the heart of every decision we make:  what would Jesus do?  Would he listen?  Would he show mercy and compassion?  Would he make a whip of cords and turn over tables in the church?  The answer to all three of those questions is:  yes!


The Cleansing of the Temple is one of the most compelling stories in Scripture.  It shows up in all four Gospels, which is rare, but here in the Fourth Gospel it is placed early in Jesus ministry, right after he turns water into wine, whereas the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this story during Holy Weekthe action that finally makes the scribes and Pharisees say Weve had enough of this guy!  Here we see a side of Jesus we dont generally like seeing.  Hes angry, and we dont like him when hes angryHulk Jesus, if you will. 

Alexander Smirnov's The Cleansing of the Temple

His anger, though, is righteous, and it makes sense.  He empties out the jars of coins from the money-changers.  Their practice was perfectly legal, given that there were folks coming to Jerusalem from all over the world for Passover and who needed to exchange their money like we would if we traveled abroad, but these guys were charging extra for the exchange and extorting their customers.  We see Jesus use a whip of cords to drive away the livestock in the temple courtyard.  Like the money-changers they had good, legal reasons for being there because it was Passover and folks needed to buy an animal to sacrifice.  But the cost of one of these animals was ridiculous when compared to a perfectly good ox or lamb that couldve been bought in the market downtown.  The reason was that these animals were super special and extra holy because they were sold in the temple court, which meant they were super extra expensive.  Its like going to a baseball game and buying a bottle of water for $10 inside when you couldve had the same bottle for $2 before you walked in.  All of this corruption and extortion is what drives Jesus into a frenzy.  While its jarring to see, we who read this story through the lens of time cant help but get kind of excited and even cheer Jesus on.  Go get em, Jesus!  Cleanse that temple!  Hulk-up and smash those bad guys! THAT is what Jesus would do! 

Hulk Jesus SMASH!!

Still, I got to thinking:  what would Jesus do were he to walk into a church nowadays?  There is no temple anymore, after all, but every church in the world considers itself Gods house, right?  So what would Jesus make of his Fathers house if he showed up on a Sunday morning?  Its easy for us Christians to think that we dont have anything in common with those folks in the temple that Jesus drove out in his righteous anger, but sometimes we do.  We may not be extorting money like those folks, but we turn churches into dens of gossip, or  private social clubs.  We keep people out or pay little attention to the visitor in our midst.  We spend more time conversating about Gladys' new haircut and less time praying for her sick mother.  What happened to My house shall be called a house of prayer, to borrow from Marks version of this story? Im guilty of it as much as anyone else. Do you know how many times I neglect to welcome someone new to God's house on Sundays?  Or how often I walk out of the office in the evening and say to myself, I didnt pray!  We have four spaces on our grounds set apart for prayer and worship, and too many times I walk in them to straighten up or refill pew cards, and I dont stop to pray because I figure its taking up time that could be used for other, more productive things.  I suspect if Jesus were to walk in he would turn over some tables and try to get me to wake up. 

Thats what the Cleansing of the Temple is:  a wake up call.  It's unsettling and a bit annoying, but we need it.  Were not meant to listen to this story and cheer Jesus on as he shows those bad guys whos boss.  Instead, this story is our opportunity to ask what needs cleansing in our lives.  Lent, after all, is the best possible time for this.  Just like we dont like to see Jesus get angry we also have a tendency not to like to be challenged by him, yet here he is with whip in hand doing just that.  Lent invites us to be challenged a bit more and comforted a bit less, to be jarred loose of some of our old ways of thinking and being, so that not only are our physical churches houses of prayer, but our own soulswhich Scripture reminds us are themselves temples of the ever-living and indwelling Godmay also be cleansed of corruption, extortion, hatred, bitterness, and every other kind of evil. 

Remember that we are the Body of Christ, and as such asking that questionWhat would Jesus do?is an important part of who we are, for whatever the answer is to that question we must also be prepared to do it.  Not only do we need Jesus to come in and drive out those evil forces within us, but we must also be prepared ourselves to stand against corruption, extortion, hatred, bitterness, and every other kind of evil, to show the world a better way.  Occasionally, that does mean turning over a table or two, calling out dysfunctional and harmful behaviors when we see them, and, like Jesus, calling people away from their idols and pointing them toward God.  In this season of preparation and introspection may we all challenge ourselves and the world around us to move from the status quo of those idols, to drive away harmful theologies and practices that breed corruption and hatred, and to transform our souls into houses of prayer and our communities into something that more closely resembles the Kingdom.  That, I think, is what Jesus would do.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Get Behind Me, Satan!

'Jesus began to teach his disciples 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.”'
--Mark 8: 31-33

In one of my favorite movies, O Brother Where Art Thou?, the philosopher and loudmouth Ulysses Everett McGill attempts to enlighten his friends on exactly what the devil looks like.  There are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Everett says, but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurkated  tail, and he carries a hay fork.  Of course the response from Tommy Johnson is, Oh no!  Hes white!  As white as you folks!  Here's the scene:

Who and what Satan is might be the most intriguing question for people of faith because it gets to the heart of a bigger question:  what is the nature of evil?  The scene in O Brother reminds us that there is no single, clear image for evil.  In the Hebrew and Christian Testaments a variety of words are used to describe one who is an incarnation of evil.  According to Strongs Exhaustive Concordance, in the New Revised Standard Version of the Biblethe one we read in the Episcopal Churchthe word Satan appears 47 times, devil appears 34 times, Beelzebul appears 7 times, and Lucifer does not appear at all.  These numbers vary depending on what translation youre using, but the point is clear:  there is no one word or proper name for evil. 

So when Jesus uses the word Satan in addressing Peter, what does he mean?  Does he literally mean that Peter is Satan?  Well, yes (in a manner of speaking).  In Hebrew the word Satan means adversary or accuser, it is more title than name. It was used regularly by folks in biblical times to describe anything that stands in the way of God, that diverts humanity attention from heavenly things to earthly things, as Jesus puts it..  The serpent from the Garden of Eden was called Satan because he stood as an adversary to Gods wishes.  Nebuchenezar, the King of Babylon, was called Satan because he had taken Gods people from their homes and into exile.  The dragon from the Revelation to John, itself an allegory for the Roman Empire, is called Satan because it fights against the forces of God and God's people.  Anyone clearly not in-line with God was given that title  In Peters case, he had just confessed Jesus as the Messiah four verses earlier.  This is such a significant moment that it gets its own feast day in the Church, which we call the Confession of Peter.  In one breath he appears to get it, but when Jesus lays out the planthat he must suffer and diePeter shows that no, he doesnt get it, and tries to rebuke Jesus  and convince him that this is not Gods will.  To see that happen must have broken Jesus heart, and so yes, in that moment Peter was Satan, he was the adversary, the one standing between Jesus mission and Gods divine will. 

An icon depicting Jesus' rebuke of Peter (a.k.a. Get behind me, Satan!)

If we understand that wordSatanas more of an adjective than a proper noun, then it can help us somewhat better understand what folks back then understood of evil, as well as the nature of evil in our own time.  While the people of Jesus day did not believe that there was one single entity who embodied evil and made the whole world bad ("The Devil made me do it!" wasn't a thing back then!), they did believe that evil was real, that it lurked all around them, taking many forms.  Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, evil is still very much real!  There are some dark, scary forces in the world, all different manners of Satans, the last two weeks alone have proven that.  We sometimes think they have to look like the cartoon character Everett describes in O Brother, or a person like the Florida gunman who was so obviously sick and twisted, but more often than not they look like Peter.  They look like someone who thinks hes right, that hes got it all figured out, who thinks he understands better than even God does.  These Satans look tame, even well-meaning, but they can cause the greatest destruction.

This season of Lent is the perfect time for us to examine our physical and spiritual lives, so that we may renounce all sorts and conditions of evil and be prepared to be reborn ourselves through those baptismal waters on Easter.  Today we are given the opportunity to look deep within ourselves and ask the question:  what is my Satan?  What or who is keeping me from truly embracing Gods love?  What or who is keeping me from respecting the dignity of all Gods people and living into those other baptismal vows?  What adversaries are standing between me and God, cutting me off from God's goodness and keeping me from seeing that goodness in myself and others?  I will confess to you that my Satan is pride.  So very often I think that everything is about me, that I have to have all the answers, that if something goes wrong it will be all my fault, that people will call me a failure, and that the whole wide world will collapse.  It would be a lot easier if my Satan was a cartoon character.  Still, this Lent I am trying to fast from the temptation of giving in to my Satan, so that my pride wont cause me to be a Satan to someone else, particularly you folks. 

What about you?  What is the adversary, the Satan, that is trying to get you to set your mind on earthly things instead of heavenly things? Maybe it is something like pride, or maybe you're holding on too much to material possessions, or perhaps your need to keep your power is cutting you off from God.  It may also be that your Satan is an actual person, someone who is abusing you, trying to stand between you and the love of God, who calls you a failure or dehumanizes you.  All of these Satans can be overwhelming, but we must remember that they are not what make us worthwhile. God alone makes us worthwhile.  We need nothing else.  The Satans of this world will never win because we belong to God, and while they will (literally) try their damndest to pull us away from God’s light and love, we have Jesus Christ, who has already defeated, and will defeat, every evil of this world.  Stand fast, stand firm, brothers and sisters, and know that Jesus is by your side, giving you the strength to speak with his own voice, to cry out as often as need be:  Get behind me, Satan!