we (yes, we!) are apostles

a sermon, based on John 20.19-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Pentecost. The word means “fiftieth”. For Christians,[1] the fiftieth day after Easter Day on which we commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples,[2] those he called to follow him to learn from him so to become apostles sent out by him to preach and teach his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

Today, as we reflect on the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, rather than focus on the stirring, spellbinding scene in Acts with its sudden, violent heaven-sent wind, tongues of fire, disciples filled with the Spirit proclaiming in manifold languages God’s deeds of power,[3] I bid we take the proverbial “road less traveled” and look at John’s gospel.

It is the evening of the first Easter Day.[4] The disciples, grieving the death of Jesus and fearing for their lives, are in hiding. The resurrected Jesus appears…

The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

He proclaims peace; not freedom from tribulation (for this is the peace of One who was crucified; thus, if nothing else, bearing bloody witness that life in this world is not free from trial!), but rather that greatest comfort of eternal union with him.

He entrusts them with his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Knowing they need power to fulfill that mission, he breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then he defines their mission, and, by extension, ours: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What? Who among us, including the first disciples, as human and honestly confessing our subjection to the temptation of the abuse of authority, would want to wield that kind of power over anyone (or anyone over us!)? Not I? As a priest, when I pronounce the absolution of sin, thank goodness, it is neither on my merit, which there is little, nor in my name, which is wholly lacking, that I proclaim it, but alway only by the grace and mercy of God! Now, I will concede that sometimes I have difficulty forgiving those who hurt me. And I do not believe I’m alone! So, it seems that we humans, at some visceral level, like the notion of releasing and retaining the sins of others!

Nevertheless, God forbid, I don’t think Jesus aims to appoint us as judges of humanity. Rather, we are to do something else in relation to sin.

(In over forty years as a daily Bible student, what I am about to share never has occurred to me, thus, as it hath come to me, for whatever reasons beyond my knowing, I consider it a Spirit-given revelation!)

By “sin”, I do not mean our human, innate moral frailty and failure of virtue leading us into temptation. Nor our acts of commission and omission in disobedience to God’s commandments. Yes, these are definitions of sin, yet, in John’s gospel, the chiefest sin is unbelief; not believing in God as revealed in Jesus.[5]

Therefore, for a disciple of Jesus to retain the sins of any is to refuse to be an apostle, to refuse to share with others the good news of Jesus. To forgive the sins of any is to strive to liberate others from their unbelief by witnessing to the gospel of Jesus.

Therefore, this Day of Pentecost, to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples and to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us is, in the words of the hymn, to “claim the high calling angels cannot share – to young and old the Gospel gladness bear!”[6]

Jesus breathes on us, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” commissioning us as apostles sent out to share with others, through the words of our lips and the deeds of our lives, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

 

Illustration: The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the resurrected Christ appearing to his followers in the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper exposing his glowing wounds as the disciples, in the foreground, and the servants, in the background, look on in wonder.

Footnotes:

[1] Pentecost first was and is a Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot; referred to as the Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34.22 and Deuteronomy 16.10), the Festival of Harvest (Exodus 23.16), and the Day of First Fruits (Numbers 28.26). As Shavuot is the fiftieth day after the Day of Passover (the annual celebration of the emancipation of the Hebrew captives from bondage in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land, and, according to Jewish tradition, commemorating God’s giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai as a sign of new, liberated life), Hellenistic Jews called it Pentecost. This historical Jewish antecedent of Passover-Pentecost enlightens Christian understanding. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the signification of resurrected life in Jesus freed from captivity to sin and death so to journey to the Promised Land of eternal life.

[2] See John 14.15-17, 25

[3] See the Book of Acts 2.1-21

[4] The New Testament witness of the coming of the Holy Spirit gives evidence of more than one tradition, for, according to the Book of Acts, the event is located on the Day of Pentecost and, via the Gospel of John, on Easter Day evening. To explain the latter, for John the evangelist, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14.15-17, 26) is tied to his glorification (his crucifixion, death, and resurrection).

[5] I arrive at this view given my interpretation of Jesus’ prayerful definition of eternal life: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17.3). In a recent sermon, Easter People (May 28, 2017), I said, in part: “Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.” Believing this to be true, I define “sin” (that spiritual and existential state of separation or estrangement from God), from a Johannine point of view, as an active non-knowing of (an active not being in relationship with) God.

I think, too, of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9.1-41), especially his scathing critique of those who, though beholding his saving work, were what I term “the sighted blind”, for they refused to believe that was the Messiah: Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains” (John 9.39-41).

Further, I think of Jesus’ testimony to his disciples prior to his departure from them about the work of the Holy Spirit, one aspect of which is in regard to the indelible linkage between sin and unbelief: “Now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16.5-11; my emphases). Note: The phrase “prove the world wrong” (John 16.8) also can be translated from the Greek “convict the world of”, which is to say that the Holy Spirit corrects the world’s viewpoint, say, of the nature and substance of sin, thus clarifying what it is, that is, unbelief.

[6] From the hymn, Come, labor on; words by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897)

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 33, Friday, April 7, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions:[1] O Jesus, oft I have pondered Your Apostle’s word, wondering what would…what could be lacking in Your suffering for my sake; and, in my wondering, worrying that were there to be something lacking, making Your sacrifice somewhat, somehow less efficacious, then where would I be, who would I be without the grace of Your salvation?

Then I recalled what Your Apostle hath written in another place about my being a child of Abba, Your Father, my Father, and thus an heir with You in salvation providing that I, too, suffer with You for the sake and in the service of others.[2]

Ah, O Jesus, is this, at least, in part, Your meaning of taking up my cross and following You?[3]

I pray You, O Jesus, speak to me through Your Spirit that I may know the truth of it. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] See Colossians 1.21-24 (my emphasis): And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him; provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

[2]See Romans 8.15b-17 (my emphasis): When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ; if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

[3] See Matthew 16.24, Mark 8.34, and Luke 9.23. See also a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 27, On following Jesus and bearing my cross

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 14, Thursday, March 16, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news” (and) “Follow me” ( Mark 1.14-15, 17a)

On the Kingdom of God: O Jesus, You came proclaiming that in You, Your life and Your ministry, God’s Kingdom had drawn nigh. Still, the Kingdom seems (at times, I fear, is) afar off. Kingdom-evidences in this strife-torn, sorrow-worn creation are sometimes hard to see, at least, for me.

Yet, blessedly, O Jesus, guided by Your gospel-light, with the spiritual sight of imagination, Kingdom-visions are not hard for me to seek. With the eyes of faith, I behold banquets where none hunger and all are welcome; festivals where none are poor, all attired in silken robes of equality’s wealth; where shackles lay shattered and prisons uninhabited, for liberty’s economy hath bankrupted all criminality and made charity the universal coin of the realm; where hospitals stand shuttered and dark and graveyards empty, for sickness and death are no more.

Ah, O Jesus, hearing again, hearing alway Your call, “Follow Me,” I see anew that I, in the strength of Your Spirit, in my daily being and doing, am to help usher in Your Kingdom-day; in the hungry and naked, the imprisoned and the stranger, the sick and dying, feeding and clothing, visiting and welcoming You.[1] Amen.

Footnote:

[1] See Matthew 25.31-40: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

see? see!

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 17.11-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016

Today, as on all Sundays, we gather for worship; the word, a contraction of “worth” and “ship.” Thus, we gather to worship the only One worthy of our adoration, God, the creator and preserver of life, now and forever.

That is why we have come. That is what we are doing. In our coming and doing, what do we see? Here. Now.

A people gathered. Yes.

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

In this sacred space, unassuming in its straightforward Greek revival and semi-Gothic design and yet, in that eclectic simplicity, profoundly serene. Yes.

With our material resources of  prayer books, hymnals, service bulletins, and foremost our human resources of ushers greeting us at the door, worship leaders guiding us through the liturgy, and all of us raising our voices in song, opening our hearts in prayer, lifting our hands to receive the bread of life and with our lips, tasting the wine of heaven. Yes.

Yet again I ask, what do we see? Not with our physical eyes, but with spiritual sight. For to see with that gift of God’s grace is to know more fully, to be more faithfully what we do this day.

Blessedly, we have companion to point the way…

the-healing-of-ten-lepers-guerison-de-dix-lepreux-1886-1896-james_tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Of the eleven protagonists in our gospel passage, he is one of ten who has no name. He introduces himself to Jesus and to us by his condition, his affliction. Leprosy. A horrible life-altering, inevitably death-dealing and contagious disease, resulting in exile, banishment from the community. Later we are told one additional detail. He is a Samaritan. That cultural designation telling us that his fellow lepers likely are Jews. That fact demonstrating the proverbial insight that misery loves company and that shared suffering perhaps more than any other motivation can eradicate societal, racial barriers, in this case, quelling the historic animus between Jews and Samaritans. That fact explaining why these beleaguered souls, cast out of their respective societies, welcome nowhere, dwell in the no-man’s land “between Samaria and Galilee.”

(I digress. Truth be told, there is no “region between Samaria and Galilee.” That’s akin to saying there’s a place between Laurens and Spartanburg Counties. There’s not a place, only a boundary line. Yet, this scriptural detail emphasizes for us that for those suffering from leprosy, their exiled existence was like that of ever walking a fine line, never to step again on the soil of their birth, families, and former lives.)

Jesus encounters the ten afflicted with leprosy “on the way to Jerusalem.” That fact alerting us that the denouement of his story is soon to be written, the closing curtain of his life and ministry soon to be drawn, his destiny soon to be fulfilled with a final showdown with the secular and religious authorities proclaiming, confronting them with his status quo destabilizing, status quo destroying word of God’s unconditional love and universal justice for all.

There in “the region between Samaria and Galilee”, a middle place, a liminal space, a threshold between one state of being and the next, we behold something about God’s kingdom and realm, God’s life and nature: wholeness.

The action quickens. The lepers cry for mercy, Jesus, observant of the law, bids, “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” who, from the time of Moses and Aaron were given charge to pronounce those afflicted with leprosy ritually unclean and, when healing had occurred, to proclaim their restoration to the community,[1] and they, on their way, are healed.

Nine, doubtless thrilled to be cured, continue on their way. “One of them,” this one, this Samaritan, seeing he is healed, recognizes Jesus for who he is, the bringer through his proclamation, the bearer in his person of the activating, animating saving word of God’s kingdom. Seeing he is healed, he “turns back, praising God,” prostrating himself at the feet of Jesus, giving thanks.

See? This is what we do today! Turning back for a moment from the daily courses of our individual lives, gathering in this sacred space as one body, one voice praising God, prostrating our souls at the feet of Jesus, our only Lord, no one else, nothing less, and giving thanks. All so to rise, returning to the world of our lives as we know them, yet to see with newly, spiritually refreshed sight.

To see in every good pleasure of this life a reason to render all glory to God…

To see in our worries and woes a reason to rely on God for solace and strength…

To see in the gifts of life and health and wealth opportunities for service with others…

To see in the face of family and friend, stranger, even enemy another child of God…

To see in our past, even our darkest days of failure and fear, the pathways that brought us to this new day…

To see the world around us with its daily triumphs and tribulations and behold God’s saving hand in all of it…

To see in the farthest horizon of an always uncertain future the possibilities of hope…

To see our faces in our mirrors and no matter how our day has gone, whether revealing our brightest virtues or our darkest sins, most probably both, and behold the countenance of God’s beloved…

This is what it is to see ourselves, others, and all things with the eyes of our faith. Our faith, as Jesus said to that Samaritan, so he says to us that makes us well, whole, healed, saved!

See? See!

 

Photographs: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan); Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, façade

Illustration: The Healing of Ten Lepers (Guérison de dix lépreux) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnote:

[1] See Leviticus 13.2-3, 14.2-32

unnamed & unknown

preaching a sermon, based on 2 Kings 5.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2016

The Prophet Elisha and Naaman (c. 1630), Lambert  Jacobsz (Jacobszoon) (1598-1636)

The dramatic story of the healing of Naaman has a grand cast of characters. Naaman, “a great man” and “mighty warrior,” his master, the king of Aram, and, though Naaman may not know it, his chiefest master, the Lord, the God of Israel, who, through Naaman, “had given victory to Aram.”

Naaman has leprosy, a life-altering, status-changing disability. A hideous skin condition for which folk were ostracized, relegated to the fringes of society, apart and away from the healthy and well. Naaman, though highly favored by the king, is subject to banishment.

As the story is told, Naaman appears before the king of Israel, bearing gifts and a request, one king to another, to cure him. The king of Israel is terrified, convinced it’s a trick. He is not God, the giver of life or death, with power to heal, thus, when the attempted cure fails, Aram will wage war on Israel.

Enter “the man of God,” Elisha, sending word to the king of Israel to have Naaman directed to him, through whom God would perform the cure so that Naaman would know that in Israel “there is a prophet”; one who bears God’s word, which, once spoken, is accomplished.

So, it was, but not before overcoming Naaman’s contempt for Elisha who declined a personal appearance to affect the cure through the expected performance art of uttered prayer and manual gestures and for the prophet’s ridiculous direction to wash in “the waters of Israel,” so vastly inferior to the purity of “the rivers of Damascus.”

Naaman, the king of Aram, the king of Israel, surely Elisha, and most surely the Lord, are the principal actors in this healing drama. Or are they? There are others as prominent, though easy to overlook for they are without names or titles.

The young girl, captured during an Aramean military raid in Israel, carried back to Damascus to be the servant of Naaman’s wife, told Naaman about Elisha, the man of God with healing power…

The lone messenger Elisha sent to relay to Naaman the prescription for the cure…

Naaman’s servants who, reacting to their master’s angry and incredulous dismay at being told to do some trifling, preposterous thing as bathing in polluted water to be made clean, encouraged him to heed Elisha’s instruction.

These characters in this story of healing bore the words of divine wisdom step by step along the way toward the revelation of the miracle. And throughout history, the numbers of the unnamed and unknown are legion.

Declaration of Independence

Tomorrow, we celebrate the 240th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, a symbol of our national story of strife and struggle, formation and unification. We recognize the names George III, King of England, from whom we sought liberty, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, the best known of the Committee of Five[1] appointed to craft the language. But none can know every name of those who printed and reprinted the document, published its text in newspapers throughout the thirteen states, listened to its public recitation, reflecting on its meaning; all of whom were actors in the miracle of the march toward emancipation.

Today, let us celebrate that we are living fruits of the seeds of countless ages past. The names of some, perhaps many of our forebears we know, surely those of immediate preceding generations. But most, even if by name, we know not, ancestry.com notwithstanding; their places in the miraculous lines of lineage that gave us birth shrouded in history’s shadows.

Today, let us also celebrate that we are the progenitors, whether through blood and biology or, metaphorically, but no less truly, through our helping, healing relationships with others, bearers of God’s life-giving word to the miracle called the next generations; some with whom we live and move and have our being, known to us and knowing us and countless others we, given our mortality, will not, cannot know, but who, because of us, will be.

Now, in our daily walks of life, let us imagine those who are strangers, them to us and us to them, unnamed and unknown (though in Laurens everyone seems to know everyone else!), passing on the street, in a car or the aisle of a store, with whom we can offer a friendly wave or kind gesture or respond with care to a question of interest or with sincere attention to a statement of need.

We, in accord with our Collect,[2] have been taught to keep the commandments, loving God and our neighbor, who is anyone, everyone, especially those yet unknown. And we do not, will not, cannot know when our small, seemingly insignificant acts of kindness will be for them a declaration of Jesus’ miraculous gospel of unconditional, healing, emancipating love.

 

Illustration: The Prophet Elisha and Naaman (c. 1630), Lambert  Jacobsz (Jacobszoon) (1598-1636). The scene depicts the post-healing conversation between Naaman and Elisha: Then Naaman returned to Elisha, the man of God, he and all his company. Naaman came and stood before Elisha, saying, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Please accept a present from your servant.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” Naaman urged Elisha to accept, but he refused (2 Kings 5.15-16).

Footnotes:

[1] Robert Livingston, New York, and Roger Sherman, Connecticut, being the other two.

[2] The Collect for Proper 9, The Sunday closest to July 6, The Book of Common Prayer, page 230:  O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

paradox – a sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent

sermona sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, Sunday, March 8, 2015

The message of the cross is foolishness…but…it is the power of God…For (as)…the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified…(both)…the power…and the wisdom of God.

I reflect first on last Sunday’s gospel; Jesus teaching his followers about his Messiahship and their discipleship…

Even before that, Jesus, journeying throughout Galilee preaching, teaching, and healing, in word and deed proclaiming the near presence of God’s kingdom, senses that the time is ripe, is right to go to Jerusalem to face his final confrontation with the religious and secular authorities. He wants to know whether his followers know who he is. “What do people say about me?” he asks, then the more critical question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answers, “Messiah!”

Given the people’s hope that Messiah will liberate them from Roman oppression and restore Israel’s glory as in the time of King David, Jesus needs to make clear who he is, telling them he will suffer and be killed. No surprise, Peter rebukes Jesus, who rebukes Peter in the strongest terms, calling him Satan. Then Jesus, having verified his Messiahship, clarifies their discipleship. “To be my followers, deny yourselves, bear your cross, and follow me; for to save your life, you will lose it, for only in losing your life for my sake, will you save it.” As Peter is troubled by Jesus’ proclamation of the Messiah’s death, this declaration must terrify him.

Even we, two millennia since this word’s first utterance and o’er that time with countless reflections on its meaning, might confess ourselves, at times and at least, confused. For this cross-bearing, self-denying, life-losing to life-saving is paradox. That which, at first glance, makes no sense, yet at its heart embraces, embodies deepest truth.

Today, more paradox. “The message of the cross” – which is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying the heart, verily, the whole of the Christian story – “is foolishness.” No surprise that for many, on first and second view, this story upon which we stake our lives now and forever is laughably fictitious!(*) Exercising some biblical license, allow me to reframe and retell the Christian story, our story from the skeptic’s viewpoint; one of unabashed incredulity:

God, in love, longs to reclaim, redeem a broken world not with a divine display of power, but through an innocent, innocuous baby; born not in prominence, but to an unwed mother in a stable, wrapped in shreds of cloth, laid in a feeding trough for animals, and given the name, Jesus, meaning “God saves” as decreed by (who else?) an angel…

Jesus grew up not in a palace, trained in the art of governance and leadership (even Moses was raised in pharaoh’s house!), but as a common carpenter…

Jesus took part in a seminal rite of passage, not a coronation, but an immersion in a river at the hands of John the baptizer, a lunatic who had come out of the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and eating wild locusts and honey and making outlandish pronouncements that would get him arrested and beheaded…

Jesus was shoved by the Spirit, which had appeared moments before in the pleasant form of a descending dove, not to some prestigious grad school, not even an acclaimed, highly effective on-the-job training program, but into the desert for forty days to talk with (who else?) the devil and to stare into the terrifyingly beady eyes of wild beasts, and to be attended by (who else?) more angels…

Jesus came out of the wilderness, like John, with a vocation, not medicine, not law, nothing as mundane, though as lucrative as that, but some audacious spiritual quest, the heart of which he boldly proclaimed, “God’s kingdom is near”…

Jesus gathered a vision-quest, campaign committee, not skilled fundraisers and speechwriters, not savvy pollsters and strategizers, but commoners, fishermen, even a universally hated tax collector, all who had to be taught and all who demonstrated an inexhaustible and exhausting intellectual and ethical density…

Jesus shared in word and served in deed his kingdom-message not primarily with those in power, but largely with the powerless…

Jesus went to the holy city of Jerusalem to make his case, not by lobbying the religious and secular authorities, but by angering them, cleansing the temple…

Jesus, having incurred the enmity of said authorities, was arrested on trumped up charges, tried illegally, convicted unjustly, and sentenced to death, and, though innocent, crucified.

Concerning the paradox of Jesus’ teaching of cross-bearing, self-denying loss of life, at least we can say he practiced what he preached! Concerning the more paradox of the heart and whole of the Christian story, again many say, “This is ridiculous!”

Yet this is the story – born in a faraway land, long ago, having been told for 2000 years, for each of us perhaps, at times, ineffable, beyond the power of our words to define or describe – that draws us together today.

Why? Here I follow the counsel of 1 Peter 3.15, “Always be prepared to give reason for the hope that is in you.” For me, there are two reasons.

First. This story is counter-cultural. A worldly culture that (after all we have learned about this life as expressed in that Latin phrase, sic transit gloria mundi, so passes the glory of the world) still cultivates power, craves prestige, and curries the favor of the prominent. Therefore, a culture that esteems not the lowly and, thus, blithely accepts, even expects, and so makes peace with the iniquity of systemic inequality.

I read the gospel as a story of the incarnation, the enfleshment in Jesus of love and justice, the unconditional benevolence that acts to make things right in this world for all. So, I rejoice in its inherent counter-culturality. Maybe as we continue to tell it enough, do it enough, be it enough, it will become true enough for all.

Second. This story is counter-characteriological. Counter to my character. I’m from Missouri. The state motto: “Show me”. This makes me, according to the Apostle Paul, Jewish. I like signs. I want things shown, demonstrated, proven to me. I won’t simply take your word. I won’t easily believe you. Why? Because I like my wisdom, my way of seeing things, my way of settling in my mind what it true, not yours. According to Paul, this makes me Greek.

Yet as I reflect on this gospel in my life, I have learned that in order for me to do something, I need to do it. To believe, I need to believe, which, yes, sometimes necessitates the suspension of my unbelief, the relinquishment of my demand for signs and my desire for wisdom. For there is something else I’ve learned. When I choose to exercise my power to believe, then no sign or wisdom is needed, and when I refuse to exercise my power to believe, no sign or wisdom is enough. So, I rejoice in the inherent counter-characteriologicality of this story. For as I’ve continued to tell it enough, do it enough, be it enough, it has become true enough for me, and, I pray, through me, for others.

(*)Two of the fastest growing religious groups in America are the “unaffiliated”, which include the “nones,” the unchurched as in no religion, and the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” (see Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, Religion and the Unaffiliated (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/global-religious-nones-on-the-rise/) and Religiously Unaffiliated (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-unaffiliated/) and the “dones”, the de-churched, those who were active, but no longer (see Holy Soup with Tom Schultz, holysoup.com (http://holysoup.com/2014/11/12/the-rise-of-the-dones/).