Weep No More
Rev. Peter Faass
In his book Spirituals and the Blues, James Cone quotes an African-American spiritual titled “A Mother’s Pride.” One stanza reads:
Weep no more, Marta,
Weep no more, Mary,
Jesus rise from the dead,
The spiritual’s lyrics reference Jesus’ closest women friends, Mary and Martha, who would clearly have been distraught and weeping when Jesus died. The lyrics to the spiritual paraphrase the angels consoling good news proclaimed to other women followers of Jesus at the empty tomb that first Easter, “He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5a)
They are words of comfort, compassion and hope to those who are profoundly bereaved by a loved one’s untimely death: “Weep no more, weep no more, the one whom you loved is alive. “
We might imagine Jesus singing those lyrics to Nain’s widow as he encounters her only son’s funeral procession. As the text tells us, “When [Jesus] saw [the widow], he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." In other words, Weep no more, dear widow, Weep no more . . . Your son will rise from the dead, Happy Morning!
Then “touch[ing] the bier . . . he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
Textually, the healing of the widow’s son occurs immediately after the healing of the Roman Centurion’s sick slave in Luke’s Gospel (which we heard last week). The healing of the dead young man is an escalation of Jesus’ healing capabilities over the healing of the Centurion’s slave. This is not just a healing from an illness it is the resuscitation of a dead person.
In both instances, Jesus heals by simply speaking. Unlike the prophets before him who needed to physically heal an ill person, Jesus does not with the centurion’s slave or the widow’s son. Jesus has the power heal and resurrect, as the centurion states, by “only speaking the word.”
From these stories, we know Jesus’ words are powerful. The power evident in his healings continues to be present today. Jesus is omnipresent through the Holy Spirit and responsive to our needs. He is compassionate toward our sorrows, pains and losses, ready to heal and comfort as he tells us, “Weep no more.”
We live in a time of profound weeping, similar to the weeping heard after the slaughter of the innocents by Herod after the Magi refused to disclose the location of the infant Jesus. Enraged, Herod sends his soldiers to murder each male child in his realm under the age of two, to try and eradicate Jesus, a perceived threat to his throne.
After the innocents were slaughtered, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18) These are the voices of the mothers of the brutally murdered.
Today, mothers weep and wail loud lamentations as their children are brutally murdered by our nation’s gun violence epidemic. Unlike the Holy Innocents, we know their names
The list goes on and on.
All of these dead are black people. While whites are impacted by gun violence, research by the Brookings Institute finds that 82% killed by guns in this nation are black. This gun violence has devastatingly impacted the African American community.
According to the Brookings report:
“Gun violence can have a series of serious snowball effects in education, health, incarceration, family instability, and social capital. To take one example, anxiety levels rise and cognitive functioning worsens among school children following a violent crime within half a mile of their home . . . Individuals who witness violence are also at increased risk for a variety of mental health issues, which can manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, poor academic performance, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, delinquency, and violent behavior. And . . . these costs weigh largely on the shoulders of black Americans.
‘Gun violence is part of a vicious cycle of race and inequality in the U.S., reflecting existing social inequalities, and also making it even more challenging for young black people, especially young black men, to escape poverty and violence.”
These startling facts and figures are due in large part because much gun violence, especially against black Americans, is inextricably intertwined with the pernicious racism that infects this nation, especially in its white residents. Whether we actively support the NRA’s war on reasonable gun control, or we sit benignly watching the violence that engulfs this nation, we are complicit in gun violence. That is a reality, and one that those of us who are white must grapple with if we are ever to address the gun violence that infects our nation.
Today is Gun Violence Awareness Sunday. Clergy in many Christian churches are wearing orange stoles today to mark this theme. But it will take more than wearing orange to address this issue.
There is no easy road to address our racism and the gun violence that finds its genesis in it. It’s hard work. The road to healing will require patience, listening to very hard and painful truths, laying aside other interests to work for justice, and most of all, forgiveness.
I have recently read two profoundly moving and well-researched books on racism and gun violence in the United States. One is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and the other is Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas. I commend both books to you so that the hard work of healing can begin in you, and compel you to action, as I believe they have in me.
In Stand Your Ground, Kelly Brown Douglas writes that after the shooting of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, wrote a letter to Michael’s parents. In it she said: “We will bond (as parents of slain children) we will continue our fight for justice and make them remember our children in an appropriate light.”
The great power of Jesus’ words to heal are embedded in Sybrina’s letter. Hers is the call we remember on this gun violence awareness Sunday. All of us are called to fight together for the justice of all our children, the slain and the living.
Ultimately, it is the power of the ever-present, healing, life-giving word of Jesus that will sustain us in this call. His voice will heal the brokenness we all experience around the issues of racism and gun violence. One day, through the compassion and love of Jesus, our weeping will cease. We will all be raised from the destruction and death of gun violence, as we hear him say, “Happy Morning!”
Rev. Peter Faass
Last Sunday, the Daughters of the King hosted their annual book study and luncheon. We discussed our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s recent book, “Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus.”
Curry opens his book citing the story in Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus performs his first miracle by healing a man with a withered hand. Jesus does this on the Sabbath, inciting the religious authority’s wrath (who see Jesus’ act as violation of the faith’s rules and regulations). Jesus’ popularity swells after this miracle, whose crowds alarm the authorities. Mark says, “When [Jesus’] family heard of it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21).
In offering compassion to someone in need – despite the law prohibiting him to do so because it was the Sabbath – Jesus earns the reputation as a crazy person. It is an early indicator of just what an unlikely Messiah Jesus would be.
Curry writes, “So, forgive me for saying it this way, but Jesus was, and is, crazy! And for those of us to follow him, those who would be his disciples, those who would live as and be the people of the Way, are called to be exactly that - crazy. If you asked me what the Church needs today, I would say this: we need some crazy Christians . . . crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God – like Jesus.”
In today’s story by Luke, the unlikely Messiah encounters an unlikely disciple in a Roman Centurion, who asks Jesus to heal his slave. We know the centurion is an unlikely disciple for a number of reasons:
Don’t forget the Jews, like all those conquered by Rome, suffered under the brutal yoke of Roman control. The Pax Romana was achieved by the Roman legions’ brute force, not through kindness and compassion. Those who lived under Rome’s rule universally despised Rome, so there was no love lost between the Jews and the Romans.
The centurion was different. The Gentile Roman world would have seen the centurion’s compassionate behaviors toward his slave and the conquered Jewish people as being crazy, just as the Jewish world saw Jesus as being crazy for how he embraced the world’s marginalized, unclean and disdained.
Jesus was an unlikely Messiah. Instead of being a zealous, politicized and military leader who relied on violence to achieve his goals, he taught the principles of justice, mercy and loving your neighbor as yourself. The centurion was an unlikely disciple because no one expected a Roman Gentile military leader to embrace and live that life of Jesus in their lives. They were both crazy!
Many people today view Christians through the same lens conquered peoples viewed Rome 2,000 years ago. Feared and disdained, we are seen as being a part of an institution that harms people.
Truthfully, there isn’t a shortage of “Christians” whose behaviors reinforce this belief. While many so-called Christians may preach a loving, all embracing Savior, they don’t seem to emulate one. People, including us at Christ Church, don’t experience that in the abstract either. Daily, hideous things are done and said in the name of Christianity.
Two weeks ago our administrator, Karen Rockwell, discovered two prayer petitions in our alms bowl with some less-than-Christian words written on them. One said, “Stop letting fags attend church. Haters of Christ.” And the second read, “It’s wicked what you do! You don’t know the God of the Bible and if you don’t repent your church will be burning in hell.”
You might imagine my shock when I read those petitions. It felt like a personal attack on me and this parish. My shock soon turned into sadness, then my sadness turned into compassion. It would be easy for me to write off such people as cranks, ignorant or misguided. The truth is, people who are filled with such virulent hatred need love, because Jesus spread out his loving arms on the cross to heal them no less than he did for you and me.
People who hold these beliefs and believe they are actually of God desperately need the unlikely Messiah in their lives. They need to hear the message of the crazy Jesus. And who will they hear it from, if not us? We need to hear Bishop Curry’s call and become crazy Christians.
We need to proclaim Jesus’ crazy message to those people who believe that we adhere to such a virulent expression of Christianity like those who wrote those petitions as well. They too need to hear from crazy Christians.
Both groups need to know that the truth of the Gospel is that God calls us to love our LGBT neighbor, our Muslim neighbor, our immigrant neighbor, our Asian neighbor, our non-believer neighbor, our “whomever-we-think-is-different-and-‘less-than-us’” neighbor. By word and deed, our crazy Jesus calls us to follow the new commandment to love one another just as he loved us. For much of the world, that’s just plan crazy! However, in order to show the world how to become the human family of God, we need to present to a world that defines us by those who wrote those hateful petitions, some crazy and unlikely disciples. In order to heal the world, we need to witness to those who wrote those hateful petitions that the god they believe in is not the God of Jesus.
Both groups will think we’re crazy, but that’s okay.
Only in our craziness will we begin to authentically follow Jesus and change the world from the nightmare it often is, to the dream God intends. Ultimately, that’s what Jesus calls us to do: to follow him.
So . . . call me crazy. How about you?
Encountering the Risen Jesus
Rev. Peter Faass
On the first Easter morning, a number of Jesus’ devoted female followers went to his tomb to properly prepare his body for burial. When they arrived, they were perplexed when they found it empty. Two men in dazzling clothes (whom we assume are angels) appeared and said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen.”
The women rushed back to Jerusalem and told the apostles this astonishing news. According to Luke, when they relayed the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the apostles, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
Imagine the apostles sitting around the living room watching the basketball finals on a widescreen TV. The women rush in, breathless, and relay the events of the empty tomb and the angels. The apostles, barely paying attention, say, “Yeah, yeah, right. Say, while you’re up, would you mind grabbing another cold one from the fridge for me?”
An idle tale. The tomb is empty but the apostles do not believe the women’s report. How then would they believe the resurrection?
How many people throughout the centuries have considered the story Jesus’ resurrection an “idle tale?” How many of us do? How can we ever receive the gift of new life God offers us if we see the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection as:
If we’re too wise, too rational, too scientific, too savvy, too sophisticated and too enlightened to believe in the resurrection as anything more than an idle tale, how are we can going to truly live the new life that God gave us in that first Easter?
United Church of Christ minister and theologian Walter Bruggemann writes, “The force of the Easter drama cannot be accommodated to Enlightenment rationality. No use in even trying to make such an accommodation.”
He’s right, of course. It’s pointless to try and explain the empty tomb rationally as proof of the resurrection. It’s not persuasive evidence. After all, Jesus’ companions didn’t believe the empty tomb was evidence of his rising all that persuasive either, and they – unlike us - were not victims of the Enlightenment.
If we focus on the empty tomb, we’re focusing on the wrong place for evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. The two angels, perplexed on the women’s focus on the tomb, infer this when they tell the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?... He is not here, but has risen.”
The tomb is a place for the dead, not the living. To dwell there is to become dead yourself, or at least one of the living dead – a zombie – but nonetheless dead to receiving the gift of real life, which is the Resurrection’s ultimate gift. To believe in the resurrection, you need to get out of the tomb. The empty tomb alone never leads to Easter faith.
If the empty tomb doesn’t lead us to believe, what exactly does lead to Easter faith? Scripture is clear: Easter faith comes through personal encounters with the Risen Jesus.
“The Road to Emmaus” follows today’s encounter between the women and the angels. In this story about the first Easter, two of Jesus’ disciples talked about recent events as they walked toward the village of Emmaus. Jesus approached them and asked what they were discussing. Unable to recognize him, the disciples told Jesus about the events that recently occurred in Jerusalem.
As they walked, Jesus interpreted all the events of his passion, death and resurrection. When the group arrived at a village, the disciples invited Jesus to eat supper with them. As Jesus blessed the bread, the disciples suddenly recognized their rabbi:
“They said to each other, 'Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?'” (Luke 24:32) They were so excited that they leaped from the table and ran back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples about their encounter with the Risen Savior. This personal encounter with Jesus convinces the disciples he is alive.
All four Gospels report personal encounters that provide evidence of the resurrection:
The resurrection is made real when we meet people who embody the loving ways of Jesus. It occurs when we are those people who embody his ways. When we preach good news to the poor, welcome the outcast, offer kindness to the lonely, embrace the marginalized and forgive the penitent, we proclaim, “He is risen!”
By raising Jesus from the dead, God is responding to his son’s hideous death and the powers that caused it. God’s vindication of Jesus is the resurrection. God validates Jesus’ preaching the fundamental qualities of His reign to all those outside the margins of society. By raising Jesus, God denies the power of those behaviors, attitudes and beliefs in the world that create broken people… that divide and separate us… that establish one group of people as being better than another. God’s response of resurrection to those who killed Jesus for proclaiming the message of God’s reign is no less profound for us today.
Let’s consider this concept in current events. The resurrection is the ultimate power that leads us to reject those hateful behaviors and beliefs embodied in the vitriolic political climate we are experiencing in government and the presidential campaign.
Ask yourself this:
How are we going to encounter the risen Christ if we:
How will we proclaim the risen Christ and the salvation he brings the world, when we live in such fear, bigotry and hatred? How will we proclaim the risen Christ if we don’t live with compassion, dignity and love?
Some people may think that kindness, compassion, respect for others, dignity and love are – like the empty tomb – not very convincing evidence of the risen Christ. I would argue the exact opposite. Look at the decline in civil discourse in our society. Look at the deplorable tenor in politics! Read the anonymous comments to articles posted on Cleveland.com. You only have to look at Syria, Brussels, Istanbul, Ferguson, the Ivory Coast, Hough and North Carolina. To say that there is a dearth – if not downright absence – of kindness, compassion, respect for others, dignity and love is to engage in gross understatement. These foundational qualities of God’s reign that Jesus proclaims are so disparaged by so many people, that when we do encounter them, it is nothing less than miraculous! Like the biblical encounters with Jesus, when we encounter these qualities, they are proof positive that Christ is risen.
Welcoming the stranger, loving the outcast, healing the broken and loving the unlovable all attest to the truth that God’s power for life is on the loose among us. They are proof that Jesus lives. When we encounter them in others and embody them ourselves, they get us out of the empty tombs, those places of death, and they give us life. Life like we never imagined. Life that is eternal.
Easter Vigil: On This Night...
Luke 24:1 - 12
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
Tonight, we gather to hear the story God’s people as we stand in the shadow of the tomb. In the beginning was God, the father and mother of us all, the wisdom-giver and God the Son and Savior. On this night, the story of God’s people comes full circle as God’s divine power turns the world upside down. After the fear, disbelief and confusion over the crucifixion, the Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James (“the Marys”), discover an empty tomb at dawn the next morning. We, like the Marys, find an impossible, improbable and joyful truth – there is life in the face of death. Tonight, we join them to proclaim that the story did not end at the tomb. For as this night dawns into a new day, we proclaim:
“He is risen! Alleluia! He is risen!”
Is the proclamation that “Out of death there is life” simply a glorious end, or is it just the beginning of a new journey for God’s people?
I believe there is much more to the story and the journey beyond the empty tomb. As I look around, it seems as if the world is stuck in that tomb, buried in the darkness by fear and hopelessness. And the question is why… why do we continue to look for the Son of God in that tomb, among the dead?
Too frequently, we fear what we cannot see, touch, taste or understand. We believe we have been forgotten, marginalized and ignored while others have been lifted up. We see this fear manifested among our sisters and brothers whose religious traditions spring from the same root. We see it in the fear of “the other,” of those whom we believe live differently, love differently and are just not like us. Out of that fear, some set fires seeking to destroy our dwelling places and our peace of mind, while others talk of monitoring neighborhoods, building walls and closing doors.
We get stuck in belief that there is only so much space, time or resources to share. Focused on our own self-interests and needs, we are threatened rather than lifted up by Christ’s message of love. So we wait in darkness, longing for the light, afraid that love is not broad enough or deep enough to shelter us all. We have either forgotten or are just too afraid to believe that God has enough love, compassion and grace to encompass and save us all. Tonight, we learn something new, that we do not need to be afraid – because Jesus, the light of God, goes before us.
Tonight, we know that death is not the end. Christ’s resurrection has shattered the darkness and opens the way to new life. The belief that he lives uplifts me even in these challenging and anxious times. Although I don’t know what comes next, I do know that God is among us. How many of us have stories about those times, and how God’s love and grace put us back together again?
The miracle of this night comes in the midst of a family crisis; when we are lost in our own need; or feel we just cannot go on in that moment. In these moments, God sees us and fully knows us. He knows our gifts, failures and sins. He also knows our life’s promise. God knows and loves us still, carrying us into that new day. On this night, we learn that God will give all and will make us see, hear and know that we matter… and that we are loved.
Tonight, we are called to stand against the darkness, to affirm that God’s love is more powerful than fear, death or evil. The empty tomb is neither the end of the story nor simply a tale of fear or death; it is a story about love and life. The empty tomb is about the courage to believe in and witness the impossible through God’s love, that life is triumphant over death.
We have been called to tell others how to meet Jesus and how to experience the God who is always with us and supporting us. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a New York Times Article, the resurrection is about “…a church and world where there is room for everybody.”
If we follow that thinking, the church is a world in which we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, receive the stranger and care for the sick and dying. Easter Sunday special, because we learn that God is not through with any of us and truly loves us!! Like Christ, we must place all that we are into God’s hands so that we may reflect His light and love.
I will end this homily interweaving my own thanksgivings with some words spoken by my great-grandfather, the Rev. Dr. M.C.B. Mason, from more than 100 years ago. Let us pray:
“Father, we thank thee for…thy Son Jesus Christ…. He came to bring us peace, and deliverance and salvation and eternal life, and we have it; Thank God, we have it. Now help us with renewed energy and enthusiasm to …” meet our brothers and sisters stuck in the tomb and help them find their way into the light of this new day. We are thankful for the breath in our bodies. Let God’s people greet this new day with a resounding “Amen!”
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Rev. Peter Faass
The Prodigal Son is one of the two best known parables of Jesus in the scriptures; the other is The Good Samaritan.
The Prodigal Son is also one of the two least liked parables in scripture; the other the The Parable of the Workers in the Field, the story where all the workers are paid the same wage regardless of the amount of time they spent laboring in the field. The Prodigal Son may be so disliked because we don’t like God’s economic system, justice – or radical forgiveness.
Most people who hear these parables immediately identify with a particular character. In The Prodigal Son, the elder son is the good and faithful one who never did anything to disobey his father (yeah right, at least in his own mind!) In Workers in the Field, people identify with those who were hired at dawn and worked hard all day in the fields under grueling conditions.
We seldom see ourselves as the prodigal son – that greedy, reckless party boy who squandered away the family money. None of us has ever been a spendthrift, greedy or reckless, right? Nor do we tend to see ourselves as not applying ourselves fully to doing a day’s labor, because none of us spend time at work on Facebook or Instagram, texting, chatting on the phone or just hanging out at the water cooler, right?
We are hypocrites when we think like this, pretending to be something we are not. The reality is, we’ve all had our moments of dissolute living to some degree. We all have received more compensation for what we have done… or maybe better stated, left undone.
In Henri Nouwen’s famous book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, the author asks the reader to examine each character in the story. According to Nouwen, we are, at various points in our lives, the father, the prodigal, and the elder son. I think that’s right. I would also postulate that of the two sons, the prodigal ends up being spiritually healthier at the end of the story, while the elder son remains spiritually sick.
Father Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest, writer, and lecturer, states “if there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own.” This is one of the key lessons about The Prodigal Son: recognizing how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. That is why I believe the prodigal son was more spiritually healthy at the end of the parable and the elder son was not. The prodigal had finally come to terms with his own imperfections. The elder son, well, not so much.
Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren writes,
“The fact is, we are all hypocrites to some degree. None of us wants to be known for our worst moments… Sometimes we find that the best way to keep guilt at bay over our own inconsistencies is to pour guilt on others. As we do so, our souls go dark and dangerous.”
McLaren labels people who do this as “pretenders.”
(They are) “false prophets projecting an image by which (they) hope to rack in profits-financial, social, relational, spiritual… We all need to come out of the closet (from being pretenders). We don’t have to hide the real us – the sexual us, the insecure us, the doubtful us, the angry us, the complex, different, tempted, actual us.”
McLaren’s point is that when we hide in the closet, we deny our essential selves, working hard to project a pretense of whom we are rather than being our authentic selves. As a result, we are not spiritually well. The cure for this is self-examination, confession and repentance is closing the gap between the artificial pretender we project and our authentic actual selves.
“Through confession we say, ‘God, I will not hide anything from you. You know already. Pretending in your presence is pure and pathetic insanity. I want to be who I am in your presence.’”
This is the scenario we have in the parable of The Prodigal Son: We have two pretenders working hard to project false images of who they are before God. They are both in the closet about their true identities – and as a result, their souls are dark and dangerous. They are lost souls.
The prodigal son projects a cocky, confident, arrogant and self-reliant image. He says to his father, “I can be the best tender of my own life and resources. Give them to me because I don’t trust you any longer.”
Meanwhile, the elder son projects a small-minded, moralistic image of arrogant superiority derived from his perceived selfless, sacrificial life of service. Both sons believe they are perfect and beyond reproach. They have so artfully constructed their false selves that they end up deluding themselves.
They are pretenders.
How much of these two sons’ personalities do we see in some of the current presidential candidates? How much of this delusional pretending they exhibit is also in their supporters? Like the two sons, the candidates and their followers are truly lost in their relationship with God... They are pretenders.
In the parable, the father desires his sons to authentically be who they are, which is why the father, before he dies, gives the prodigal son his portion of the estate. The father allows his son to go on this Amish Rumspringa adventure with the hope that he will find his authentic self. In the father’s mind that alone is worth the money and all he has.
The prodigal son has to experience a major crisis before he can engage in the self-examination required to get to his real self. He eventually loses all the resources he clearly was unable to manage on his own, finally hitting rock bottom when he has to slop hogs. To understand this, for a nice Jewish boy from a good family, slopping hogs is as low as he could go.
The prodigal son returns to his father humbled. He expresses sorrow for his misdeeds, for not being himself, and for causing so much pain and anxiety. His words are a confession for having projected a false image of who he was – a pretender.
“'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.”
“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
What the father actually meant was, “this son of mine was a pretender, but he has found his authentic self. In so doing, he has discovered his perfection, his humanity and his holiness.”
Who wouldn’t celebrate?
This is why the prodigal son is spiritually healthier at the end of the parable. He has engaged in the critical process of self-examination. Through his confession, he has bridged the tragic gap between his phony appearance and his actual self. Because he has done so, he is forgiven and restored to fullness of life with God. He is given a life that he never thought was possible.
The elder son is still pretending, his anger inflamed by how easily this miscreant younger brother is forgiven and feted. The elder son whines, judges and condemns, drawing comparisons between his own righteousness and his brother’s sinfulness. Instead of seeing the abundant grace in his brother’s transformation, the elder brother becomes more entrenched in projecting the world as he wants it to be:
The father is anguished by his elder son’s response, pleading his son to relent and join the celebration for his younger brother. The father then states the core truth of our life with God:
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Son, everything I have is yours: the forgiveness, the restorative justice, the abundance, the love. All you have to do is take it. I give it freely to you. The only condition is, you must stop being someone you are not and be authentic… just like your brother has.
I can’t think of a more critical message at this time of our national aloofness, our national pretending. We all desperately authenticity to save ourselves from ourselves. I mean all of us because we are, all of us – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, voters, non-voters, conservatives, liberals, Tea Party, progressives, religious, non-religious - complicit in getting to where we are today. This is a pretty low place; as low as slopping those hogs.
I can’t think of a more critical message at this time of our national aloofness, our national pretending. We all desperately authenticity to save ourselves from ourselves. I mean all of us because we are, all of us – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, voters, non-voters, conservatives, liberals, Tea Party, progressives, religious, non-religious - complicit in getting to where we are today. This is a pretty low place; as low as slopping those hogs.
Do you remember the old merry-go-rounds that used to have brass rings you could touch with each rotation? If you reached out from your horse just far enough, you could grab that brass ring and win a prize. The expression of “grabbing the brass ring” entered the lexicon, and now means striving for the highest prize, or living life to the fullest.
The brass ring is a great metaphor for our life with God, representing the fullness of an authentic life with God, a life that is holy, allowing us to stop pretending and be who we really are. It is the highest prize.
Each day as we ride the merry-go-round of life, we can grab the brass ring. We have to make an effort and lean out with our hands if we are going to grab it. That means we must let go of the superficial images we have of ourselves. We have to stop pretending.
The Prodigal Son is that brass ring for us.
The only thing we can do to redeem our country from the depraved, vile and virulent hatred and demagoguery we are currently witnessing is to lean away from our complacency. If we grasp the symbolic brass ring to be our authentic selves, we can face down this beastly ugliness infecting our nation.
We CAN and we MUST grab that brass ring as both faithful Christians and as proud citizens of the United States of America. When we do, believe me, we’ll roast the fatted calf, the band will play, and we’ll roll the carpets up so we can dance. There will be eating, merriment and great celebration, and God will proclaim, “Once these children of mine were dead and now they are alive again; once they were lost and now they are found!”
Who wouldn’t celebrate?
Luke 13: 1-9
Rev. Peter Faass
“Extra, extra, read all about it! Pilate brutally murders Galileans. Jerusalemites tragically killed by collapsing tower!”
This headline from Jesus’ time could easily apply to the current Israel-Palestine tragedy. The more things change, the more they stay the same. What is it with this strange interpolation of these two tragic stories of human death and suffering in the Gospel text? Let’s review them a bit.
“At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’”
Other than Luke’s Gospel, there are no extant writings that record these two awful events in Jerusalem – and yet, they were clearly well known to the people of that time, who wanted to know why these events occurred. Since they didn’t have a copy of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s wildly popular book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” people sought answers from Rabbi Jesus.
In biblical times, people believed bad things happened to those who had been bad and displeased God. And so, the God of their minds (a record-keeping, picayune, unforgiving, mean-spirited and punitive deity) was going to exact retribution for whatever bad things those people had done. This common belief about God’s punitive nature occurs several times in scripture.
In the Gospel of John (9:2), Jesus is about to heal a blind man when the disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples assume that either the man or his parents must have done something sinful, displeasing God into pressing a “make this man blind” button on his keyboard. Presto, the man is born blind and God gets his retribution!
This belief that God punishes sinners for bad behavior originates in the Torah. In the book of Exodus (34:7), God tells Moses that while He [God] is compassionate and merciful, “He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
Although God has a tendency to be nice, he also has a dark side that displays an overriding desire to ensure that sins are punished against the perpetrator and their heirs. Think about that for a moment. If we know God primarily as love, how do we reconcile such behavior on God’s part? Is it a loving or just act to make innocent generations suffer for some sin our ancestors committed? Of course not!
Two of the great prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both saw the faulty theology of this belief and they challenged it. Jeremiah (31: 29-30) writes, “In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.”
In other words, every person who engages in sinful behavior will be personably accountable for it – not their descendants. We are all personably accountable for what we do. Actions have consequences, but those consequences impact us, not our children – a message we need to hear in 21st Century America!
But old beliefs die hard. People hung on to the concept of a punitive God for centuries, as we see in those questioning Jesus about the Galileans and Jerusalemites. Jesus disabuses that belief.
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus’ questions to his inquirers about those who died “guilty of sin” assumed the popular notion that sin caused the calamity. “Do you believe that they were worse sinners, worse offenders?” he asks. While the text does not record their response, we might assume they were thinking, “Yes, they were. That’s how things work. Otherwise why did these bad things happen to them?”
In these passages, Jesus emphatically affirms that calamities are not God’s doing. Life is serendipitous and calamities do happen to the bad and good. These folks who died – regardless of how - were not any worse than any other person and God did not single them out for a special kind of suffering and grisly death. That’s not how God works, Jesus asserts. That’s not who God is.
Just like the people of Jesus’ time, these beliefs are still deeply embedded in the minds of many people. Have you ever heard someone say any of the following:
There certainly have been no shortage of preachers who have undergirded this belief, pointing to events like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the AIDS epidemic, or a slew of other tragedies that have caused suffering and taken human life. They tell congregations that these (events) are God’s punishments for (fill in the blank) sins committed by bad people in our culture. They and we are wrong to think this, because according to Jesus, this belief is wrong.
God is not punitive. God is redeeming. God’s grace is not directed to some and not others. It flows freely and abundantly in all of us.
Here’s my advice for today. Put your cursor on these beliefs in the laptop of your mind and drag them to the trash can of really bad theology.
There, have you done that? Now empty your laptop’s trash can into the shredder and be done with those ideas for good. Don’t you feel better already?
God does not cause calamity in our lives because we have done something bad. In our Ash Wednesday liturgy we pray, “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” This is God’s deepest desire for us. That is what Jesus conveys when he states, “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
God’s greatest desire is to love and make us whole. That requires we be in right relationship with God, which means we need to repent, or turn, from those wicked ways that prevent that right relationship from occurring. When we don’t do that that, the perishing that results in our lives occurs in the form of our loveless, sin-filled existence and not literal death. Our “perishing” is self-inflicted, the result of our own doing, not God’s.
Some of you will cite scripture passages pointing to God’s wrath and judgment for sinful behavior, like the Exodus passage. It is undeniable that they exist. But I will claim that this is what Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan postulates is the assertion/subversion process at work in scripture.
This is a process where original assertions of the non-violent, distributive justice, loving character of God are so objectionable to the powers that be in a particular culture that verses or passages are added to subvert that nature of God.
The overarching message throughout the Bible clearly indicates God calling us to radical distributive justice and love and compassion for all people… indeed for all of creation. But human civilization, especially those controlling institutional power, become so discomforted or inconvenienced by that assertion of God that they subvert the message by adding text to scripture to replace God’s divine dream for humanity with a human nightmare of control, hoarding resources, and inflicting violence on those who dare challenge their power. We see this clearly in the Exodus passage where God seems schizophrenic, even psychotic, as if He’s saying “I’m compassionate and merciful but I will make you and your progeny suffer unmercifully if you get on my bad side.”
Really? That’s not compassion and mercy, that’s sadism.
Crossan writes, “The delusion of divine punishments still prevails inside and outside religion over the clear evidence of human consequences, random accidents, and natural disasters. This does not simply distort theology; it defames the very character of God.” 
Let’s stop defaming God’s character. God’s character is love, pure love. Period. If there is any message of our faith that we can bring to a broken world it is this: God is love. And we who believe in God in Jesus are called to emulate that love so that God’s reign may come.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
 John Dominic Crossan, “How to Read the Bible & Still be a Christian.” (Harper One: New York, NY, 2015. P.98.
The Devil Laughs!
Luke 14: 1-13
Rev. Peter Faass
After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1-2)
When we 21st Century Christians hear the story of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, it most likely evokes one of two responses:
Both thoughts are folly, and both are evidence of just how wily and seductive the power of evil truly is in the world.
Evil (which Satan and the devil represent in the scripture) is an insidious, seductive and relentless force in our lives that will stop at nothing to gain entry into all our hearts and minds in any way it can muster. Even Jesus’ success in resisting the devil’s temptations in the wilderness did not deter the devil. Our passage today closes with these ominous words, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
The devil may have failed this first attempt, but he will go back to the drawing board and devise another plan, until he finds the one that works to break us down and make us his.
It would be folly to dismiss the devil and his relentless efforts to gain entry into our souls. It is equally foolish to write him off as a quaint Halloween caricature. When we do so in both instances, he laughs!
As for the argument that “Jesus is God’s Son and I’m not,” I would argue that the Jesus we get at this point in his life and ministry is the all-too-human one. In the Incarnation, Jesus takes on our humanity, where he is tempted and tested like us all. He does this for the sake of knowing, deeply and intimately, that this is what it means to be human.
Jesus did not have a divine shield that went up (like the shields of the Starship Enterprise when enemies approach) to protect him from the temptations being proffered. In the Letter to the Philippians, we are told that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” (Phil. 2:6-8)
In other words, Jesus was God, but by becoming human he emptied himself of his divinity so that he was fully human. Therefore, like any one of us, Jesus is vulnerable to the world’s temptations and the devil.
The text tells us that the key difference between us and Christ comes right after his baptism, when he was “full of the Holy Spirit.” God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus allowed him to resist the devil’s temptations. But being filled with the Holy Spirit is not unique to Jesus – it’s not a holy inoculation. Just as the Holy Spirit filled him at his baptism, so it also fills every one of us at our baptism. It isn’t just Jesus who gets the divine advantage with the fullness of the Spirit – we all do.
Our problem is we forget… or ignore it. In either event, when we do forget or ignore the presence of the Spirit already in us, we lose our ability to resist and be protected from the “deceits of the world, flesh and the devil,” as we prayed in (today’s) Great Litany.
This past week, I read a great blog post by the Rev. John Pavlovitz. His writing offers a profound example of how when we are dismissive of the reality of evil and forget we have the divine presence of the Spirit in us, Satan gains hold and is able to wreak great havoc in our lives. The title of the Blog piece is “Christian, the Reason So Many People are Losing Faith — May Be You.”
In this article, Pavlovitz argues that the growing millions of people who have given up on the Christian faith and have become part of those legions of folks who call themselves spiritual- but-not-religious or Nones (people with no specific religious identity) have done so because we, who call ourselves Christians, have stolen their religion from them. Pavlovitz writes,
“They’ve looked at our body of work and found it far less than convincing. For all our loud, flowery talk of a God who is Love, we’ve repeatedly proven ourselves incapable of a worthy demonstration in close proximity—and so away they walk.
“Far too often, people are abandoning Christianity because they are looking closely at believers like you and me and finding very little light worth moving toward. They are rubbing up against our specific, individual lives, and instead of coming away with the sense that God is real and worth seeking, they are determining that God must be dead or at best irrelevant—and we probably shouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
“We haven’t arrived here overnight and there are lots of reasons for it, but in America especially, I think we’ve gradually evolved into a nearly Jesus-free Christianity; one that allows us to claim Christ while not being saddled with the annoying burden of living like him in any meaningful way. We get God’s cachet and we get our way, which is how we like it: cheap religion without the costly personal transformation.
“If we’re honest, in the course of a given day out there most of us are usually far more interested and invested in winning arguments, proving points, garnering Retweets, and throwing shade than we are reflecting the compassion and humility and dignity of Christ to people in our path. We have so strayed from the plot and so made God in our own nasty image, that we’ve convinced ourselves the best answer to the question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’—is be a jackass.”
What delight evil must take in seeing the decline of the Christian faith being caused by those very people who claim to be Christian, as they create a Jesus-free faith! This is because we have caved in to Satan’s temptations. The devil must laugh when we are more interested in the egoistic, self-serving, mean-spirited endeavors of winning arguments, proving points, garnering retweets and throwing shade. That’s when we ignore the Spirit within us, and forget to emulate Jesus’ humility and compassion. How much fuel do we throw on hell’s fires that desire to consume us, when the best answer we can give to “What would Jesus do?” – is to be a jackass?
"We have so strayed from the plot and so made God in our own nasty image, that we’ve convinced ourselves the best answer to the question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’—is be a jackass.” (John Pavlovitz)
It is very easy to point at any politician who invokes God and then preaches hate to make this point. But the reality is, it’s not just the high profile media hounds who engage in this behavior – to some degree, it’s in all of us. We are:
With the devil having such power over us, people look at us and say, “If this is Christianity, then I don’t want it.” – and Satan laughs.
Pavlovitz states, “I’ve always contended that the best evangelism is simply to tell people that you’re a Christian and then not be a complete jerk. I believe in faith-sharing through the sermon of a life resembling Jesus.”
It is Lent, a time of self-reflection and repentance; a time to make a right beginning of renewel in our lives to follow Jesus. I invite you in this Holy season to meditate and pray on these questions:
This Lent, let’s take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror and ask these questions. Where we are wanting – and we are, all of us - may we pray for God’s guidance that leads to an amendment of life, so that the testimonies of our lives may give witness to the salvation and love of Jesus, to all people.
Only then will Satan be beaten down under our feet. Only then will this Christian faith of ours become the Jesus Movement that will redeem us… and the world.
I Think We’re Really, Really Good Here
Rev. Peter Faass
Here we are on the third Sunday of Epiphany, in a very short Epiphany season. After having heard the big epiphany stories of The Adoration of the Magi, The Baptism of Jesus and The Wedding Feast at Cana, we now hear this story of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. This story, though, seems out of sync with the seasonal theme of the epiphanies of Jesus being revealed as the Messiah and Son of God. After hearing about those enormous stone jars filled with water being turned into fine Bordeaux wine; after the drama of the heavens opening and a dove descending on the newly baptized Jesus with God’s booming voice proclaiming him “my Son;” and after the exotic visit by those three Persian kings presenting opulent gifts at the manger, why do we now get this rather unassuming story? Why is it important to hear about Jesus worshipping at his home synagogue, the one where he probably had his Bar Mitzvah?
Part of this bafflement was created when the lectionary’s editors decided to split one story into two. Yet the integrity of keeping them as one story is essential to understand the scripture’s profound message and to understand it as another big epiphany story.
So, what are the full story and backstory?
The newly-baptized Jesus is recently back from his 40-day wilderness experience (and those three temptations by the devil to deny God and honor him). He’s begun his ministry, preaching and teaching and to great acclaim in synagogues throughout Galilee. He’s come home – to show the hometown folks just how much he’s grown into a successful prophet.
He goes to the local synagogue to worship. Recognizing him as “the local boy made good,” the verger gives him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus unrolls the scroll, intent to find a specific passage – because it will reveal something important about him (an epiphany) to the gathered congregation. Finding the passage he reads,
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
19 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Everyone who had known Jesus since he was knee-high to a grasshopper (and working with Joseph in the local carpentry shop) had their eyes riveted on him, waiting for the words of wisdom that this “local boy made good” would preach about this sacred text. “Boy, the reviews about Jesus have been good all over Galilee,” they are thinking, “…surely he has saved his best message for us, his local kith and kin.”
Jesus sits down to deliver what has to be the shortest sermon ever. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.” Its brevity is the envy of every Episcopalian who ever sat in a pew. “Oh, that my priest would be so pithy when they preach,” they think.
But the Nazareth congregation’s response to his sermon is not so positive, because Jesus proclaimed that Isaiah’s prophecy about the long-awaited Messiah had now been fulfilled in him. He claimed title to that sacred position.
… Say what?!?
To the people, this is a preposterous claim. Looking around at each other, some are initially amazed – but others start to question him.
What did he just say?
He’s the Messiah?
Isn’t this Joseph’s son – that little kid who used to play with our kids and run around the village?
Now look at him, he’s calling himself the Messiah. Oy, can you believe it! What a little Lord Fauntleroy he’s become.
Sensing their growing doubt, Jesus looks at them and says, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum. Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.”
Jesus resists the temptation to perform some miracle, despite the crowd’s demands for a sign. His powers of healing are for those truly in need, and to witness God’s glory. They are not for entertainment or to be done on demand as proof that he is the Messiah.
Jesus is disappointed by their disbelief. To call them up short, he cites two stories involving Elijah and Elisha, two of Israel’s greatest prophets, to prove a point about himself. In other words, he uses good Biblical scholarship to make the point.
The first example refers to a time when a great famine struck the land during a drought. Jesus notes that God did not send the prophet Elijah to the Hebrews to deal with the hunger that arose from the drought because they dishonored and disbelieved God. He instead sent Elijah to the widow of Zarapeth in Sidon, who shared her meager rations with Elijah. Her reward for believing God would help her was that her food store would not run out until the rains returned and crops were harvested.
The second example involved Elisha and the Syrian general Namaan, who was afflicted with leprosy. Jesus said that God sent Elisha not to Hebrews who were suffering with leprosy to cure them, because they had not believed and obeyed God, but rather he sent Elisha to Namaan, to cure him and make him whole, because Namaan believed that Elisha was a man of God and had the power to make him whole.
When Jesus told these two stories about whom God favored when they believed in him (to prove his own claim of being God’s Son), “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” They are steaming!
Why? Well, the widow at Zarapeth in Sidon and Namaan the Syrian general were Gentiles. To the Jewish congregation, these stories to are an outrage, because they believe that the Messiah is to come to liberate them, and them only. They believe (scripture not withstanding) that God’s salvation is exclusive to the Jewish people, and not to other nations. In their rage they rise (a riotous crowd) and drive Jesus out of town, pushing him toward the brow of a hill, in order to hurl him off a cliff and kill him for his perceived blasphemy.
Since Jesus was of God, he had a message of hope to deliver to all people. At this most dire moment, the text notes that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
A commentary I read on this passage states: “the basis of [the congregation’s] hostility toward Jesus was a difference in the way they read the Scriptures. The people of his hometown read them as a promise of God’s exclusive covenant with them, a covenant that involved promises of deliverance from their oppressors. Jesus came announcing deliverance, but it was not a national deliverance but God’s promise of liberation for all the poor and oppressed regardless of nationality, gender, or race. When the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ announcement became clear to those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth, their commitment to their own community boundaries took precedence over their joy that God had sent a prophet among them. In the end, because they were not open to the prospect of others’ sharing in the bounty of God’s deliverance, they themselves were unable to receive it.” 
Two weeks ago, the primates leading the national churches of the Anglican Communion met at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Canterbury Cathedral. These meetings occur every three years and are one of the so-called “instruments of unity” that loosely hold together the national churches of the Anglican Communion (who each find common roots in the mother Church of England). The primates discuss numerous topics concerning our faith at these triennial meetings, but this year’s had a pressing agenda item that many of the Archbishops wanted to see addressed. That item was last year’s approval by the Episcopal Church at our General Convention of a resolution allowing clergy to perform and bless marriages between same-sex couples.
Because of our perceived blasphemy and lack of adherence to Biblical orthodoxy, the primates wanted some punitive action to be taken by them against the Episcopal Church: They wanted to teach us a lesson about our proclamation that all God’s children are included in God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ and are worthy of the Church’s blessing on their marriages. Many of the primates feel this understanding deviates from Christian teaching – or at least their interpretation of it. Actually, some of those gathered wanted to throw us off a cliff entirely at this recent meeting by removing us from the Communion altogether, and make the schismatic, conservative Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) the official representative church for the geographic area the Episcopal Church now represents.
In the end that did not happen, but it was held out as the stick that would beat us if in three years’ time we did not repent and repeal that resolution allowing same-sex marriage. In the meantime, we the Episcopal Church have been disciplined. We have not been suspended as much of the popular media reported, but rather disciplined. We have been given a slap on the fanny and told to go have a time out in our room, with no supper until we see the error of our ways and repent.
This discipline states we can no longer participate in the main Anglican Communion instruments of unity, which are:
I will not get into the details of how the Communion is organized (or what Canon law says about all this), other than to say that the primates have no authority to engage in such a discipline, never mind remove a national church from participation in any of these bodies and replace it with some schismatic group. That is not how we are organized. We are not an Anglican version of the Roman Catholic model of how ecclesial authority operates, despite some of our primates’ clear desires to become so.
I want to point out the parallels between what has happened with the primates’ action in disciplining our Church, and the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
The Episcopal Church, echoing Isaiah and Jesus, proclaims to the Anglican Communion in the marriage resolution, a universal salvation for all people: For all the poor, the poor in spirit, the disenfranchised and all who are oppressed. It does so based on the witness of a great prophet of God and more importantly, on the witness of God’s Son, who, I would remind all of us, is our Savior.
The majority of the gathered Anglican primates gathered as a congregation, react adversely to hearing this interpretation of scripture – because like the Jews of first century Palestine, the radical inclusivity of the Episcopal Church’s actions flies in the face of their interpretation of the scripture. Their commitment to their own community boundaries have taken precedence over what should be joy that God had sent a prophet to proclaim the good news of the Gospel among them.
In the end, because they are not open to the prospect of others’ sharing in the bounty of God’s deliverance, they themselves are unable to receive it. This is very sad. I know that there are numerous factors that play into why the primates voted as they did, and this is a situation with many complexities and a whole lot of behind-the-scenes politics. But nonetheless, it is very sad.
As the hymn proclaims, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” The message of the story of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth holds out the light of hope – of God’s truth – for us Episcopalians during these times. It also reminds us that when we strive to be authentic followers of Jesus, God is with us in all we do – but maybe, most especially – when we are compelled to make difficult decisions that are often not popular with others.
Deciding to follow Jesus isn’t easy. But when we commit to doing so with all our heart, mind, soul and strength to be members of the Jesus movement, God allows us to pass safely through the murderous crowd so we may continue to bring good news to the poor and let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of God’s favor. For followers of Jesus, there is no more Godly work than that. And you know what? I think we are really, really good here.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX, Luke, John. Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995, p.108.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Rev. Peter Faass
Are you ever just a little curious about scripture readings that omit some verses? I mean, what is that about? Are the redactors of the lectionary trying to hide something and engaging in some selective editing? Conventional wisdom offers a few reasons why verses are omitted.
Sometimes, the editors simplify the story line to clarify the theme. Other times, they edit it because they are discomforted by the verse. For instance, our lectionary does not use some of the writings from the pseudo Pauline epistles where women are admonished to be subservient to men, or the Levitical passages about condemning homosexual behavior, or the passage from Deuteronomy requiring that parents take a rebellious teenager to the town square to be stoned to death.
The editors may play the overbearing parent, assuming that the verses are too challenging for people to understand – or for the clergy to interpret. I think this last reason is insulting to the intelligence of the people in the pews and the clergy, as well.
I believe it is a combination of the first and final reason that is at play in the omission of verses 18-20 in the heart of Luke’s story of the Baptism of Jesus today. These missing verses record the account of the arrest of John the Baptist:
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Tucked in where they are between the description of John’s ministry in the wilderness and Jesus’ baptism may be curious chronologically, but they are critical theologically.
In the other gospel accounts, John's arrest comes after Jesus' baptism, which makes sense – if John was in prison, how could he baptize Jesus? By arranging the story this way (and not mentioning John specifically in the verses about Jesus' baptism), Luke turns this passage into a hinge in the story’s plot. These three verses are a theological hinge that undergirds the message of Luke’s entire understanding about the Good News of Jesus.
John’s arrest signifies the end of the era of how God's promise to the people of Israel was understood – that the Hebrew people were the exclusive chosen people, beloved by God over and above all others. This doesn’t mean God loved the Hebrews any less after this hinge swung open – it means that God’s embrace grew wider to include all people when Jesus’ ministry commenced.
Jesus’ baptism signifies a new era of who God loves and saves. This theology is clarified immediately after this passage, when Luke launches into Jesus’ genealogy. Unlike Matthew’s genealogy, which only goes back to Abraham and David (a distinctly Jewish genealogy), Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, the first human.
Luke was a Gentile and his is the "Gospel to the Gentiles." The fact that his genealogy goes to the beginning puts what God is doing in Jesus in a universal – and not just a Jewish – context. His gospel’s laser-focused intent demonstrates that God has become human in Jesus to bring the good news of salvation to all people. As the angel proclaimed to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, the night Jesus was born, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
When Luke places John’s arrest smack in the middle of Jesus’ baptism, he is saying something critical: Our baptism literally takes us from an old way of life to a new one. Jesus’ baptism ended one way of thinking and inaugurated a new one to understand that God’s love is all embracing: Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female. That’s why omitting those three seemingly incongruous verses in this passage is a mistake – it undermines Luke’s message, which is as vital to us today as it was at the time of Jesus.
Today's reading opens with “the people were filled with expectation.” Expectation means they were looking for a new way of life. Under the brutal heel of Rome, the decadent yoke of Herod and the hypocritical behavior of their religious leaders, people were sick and tired of the way the institutions of government and religion treated them as either second-class citizens or chattel. They were tired of being abused and misused. They expected and longed for God to send the long-awaited Messiah who would lead them to a better way of life.
People were so eager that they thought John the Baptist was the Messiah. But he abjured, saying no, that someone even more worthy than he was coming. John is the hinge; Jesus is the door, leading people into God’s realm, where all God’s beloved are equitably treated with dignity and respect.
We currently need the message of who God’s salvation is for. The world is a broken place, fractured by the belief that one tribe is better than another. That belief invariably leads to bigotry, violence, deprivation and genocide. As Christians, we need to own the fact that we have fallen short of apprehending and living the good news of Jesus in Luke. Our Baptismal Covenant commits us to proclaim to the world towards values and practices that reflect the characteristics of God’s realm, which are justice, compassion, inclusion, respecting the dignity of every human being and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. In those words, we repent to complicity with evil that lures us to the broken belief that one faith or people is superior to another. In that repentance, we follow Jesus and join in harmonious community with one another – Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist and all others – to build a better world with God.
No religious leader in our time has expressed this deep wisdom of building a harmonious interconnected community better than His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. In his New York Times article, “The Last Dalai Lama,” Pankaj Mishrac revealed the Dalai Lama’s profound understanding of how the current exclusivist religious beliefs need to change to restore the harmony of humanity that God desires.
The article is premised on the growing realization that while the leader in exile is an international icon, the future of his office and the Tibetan people are in serious jeopardy. Communist China has been dismantling traditionalist Tibetan culture in many ways, and has specifically sought to marginalize the Dalai’s Lama’s spiritual and political role in the world.
Sensing that the Dalai Lama may never return to Tibet, Mishrac writes that the Dalai Lama “speaks beyond religion and embrac[es] ‘secular ethics’ which he defines as ‘principles of selflessness and compassion rooted in the fundamental Buddhist notion of interconnectedness.’”
“Increasingly the Dalai Lama addresses himself to a non-denominational audience and seems . . . determined to undermine the authority of his own tradition . . . he has asserted that certain Buddhist scriptures disproved by science should be abandoned. He has suggested that the institution of the Dalai Lama has outlived its purpose . . . he chuckled when [the interviewer] told him his younger brother thought his office was past its sell-by date. Then quickly becoming serious, he added that all religious institutions . . . [were] developed in feudal circumstances. Corrupted by hierarchical systems, they began to discriminate between men and women; they came to be compromised by such cultural spinoffs as Sharia law and the caste system. But he said, ‘time[s] change: they have to change.’”
The world picture as he saw it was bleak. People all over the world were killing in the name of religions. Even Buddhists in Burma were tormenting Rohingya Muslims. This is why . . . he has started to emphasis the . . . values of compassion. It is no longer feasible, he said, to construct an ethical existence on the basis of traditional religion in multi-cultural societies.” 
The Dalai Lama recognizes that an old way of life needs to end – a way of life based on the entitlement of one people at the expense of another. He understands that a new way of life is imperative, one that emphasizes selflessness, compassion and our interconnectedness in order for us to harmoniously coexist as the beloved of God, regardless of who we are, or which faith we adhere to.
The Dalai Lama is a hinge, transitioning us from one way of life to another. He is also a door, as he incarnates the reality of truth and a holy way of life.
Epiphany season has begun. An epiphany is a revelation of God’s truth in unexpected and life-changing ways. Jesus’ life was one of many epiphanies, as is the life of the Dalai Lama. We can heal this broken world by going through the door to the way of life they both espouse. This Epiphany, let’s be alert to seeing this revelation of God’s truth in the one we don’t think is beloved by God. Doing so will be to give good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.
We’ll realize that God’s favor is for all, especially those whom we reject, overlook, regard as undeserving of justice, or worthy of God’s love. Because in God’s realm there is no such person.
Let’s walk through that door.
 “The Last Dalai Lama?” Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times Magazine, December 6, 2015, pages 43, 82
Rev. Peter Faass
I wander as I wonder out under the sky.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9:6)
When what to my wondrous eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul.
O Star of wonder, Star of night.
Walking in a winter, wonder land.
All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds. (Luke 2:18)
The theme of wonder is richly woven throughout Christmas hymns, songs and sacred scripture. Wonder permeates Christmas in both secular and sacred celebrations. What is more wondrous than a flying reindeer and a jolly fat elf that comes down chimneys and leaves good folks gifts? What is more wondrous than the virgin birth of God incarnate, in a backwater town 2,000 years ago with angelic choirs singing Gloria?
At Christmas we revel in the wonder of children as they experience twinkling lights, festively wrapped gifts, the taste of delicious sweets, Santa Claus and Nativity figurines. Christmas is full of wonder in all its iterations.
And yet, here we are on the morning of December 25 after yet another arduous, over-wrought “holiday season,” and our reserves of Christmas wonder may be in short supply or exhausted. We certainly are!
Christmas can leave us feeling quite depleted of our wonder from all the planning, baking and cooking, the partying, shopping and wrapping, the preparations at home and church, or dealing with difficult family members. We may even feel jaded and cynical, thankful that, well, it’s finally over. If we think this way, it’s antithetical to the whole point of Christmas. Jesus was born so that we, who sit in great darkness, can see his great light – wondrous light that has the power to banish cynicism, jadedness, and exhaustion in our life.
R.S. Thomas was a Welsh poet and Anglican priest who lived from 1913 to 2000. Among Thomas’s works is a poem titled “Blind Noel” that addresses how we lose our sense of wonder at Christmas:
Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal the pattern.
Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out. In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.
Christmas: Even when the themes are exhausted, “there is always room on the heart for a snowflake to reveal the pattern.”
I think this is one of the loveliest theological phrases about Christmas I have ever encountered.
I think Thomas is saying that even when all of the stuff of how we have come to observe Christmas sucks the wonder out of us leaving us exhausted, God makes enough room on our hearts to place one more snowflake to reveal the wondrous meaning of Christmas. In the shadow of so vast a God who desires to do this, we shiver as our wonder of this awe-filled season is restored.
This theology-wrought poem goes to the heart of the Christmas story and the doctrine of the Incarnation. God became human in Jesus to lift us out of all those life-sucking behaviors and attitudes that plague the human condition. In his life, Jesus role-modeled a way of life for us to emulate; a way of life that would bring us out of darkness to light, out of cynicism to wonder, out of fear into love. That is our salvation.
While we recall and celebrate this wondrous gift at Christmas, we are called to this way of life all the time.
When I prepare adults for baptism, (or the parents and godparents of infants), I always dwell on a particular section of the concluding prayer in the service. It is one of my favorite phrases in the Book of Common Prayer.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. (BCP p. 308)
I ask people being prepared for Baptism to think of a baby, growing into a toddler and then a child. I then ask them to think about what they recall as they observe that little one growing in awareness and discover the world around them. Think of the first time they encountered a flower, a puppy or a kitten, a bug, dirt, a tasty new food? What was that child’s response? It was an “aha moment,” right?
Each first encounter with something new and delightful becomes a moment of delight, awe and wonder. Each of those wondrous moments in the child’s life are moments when God placed a new snowflake on their hearts, revealing the patterns of God’s love for them. The child delights in each new snowflake because children have not grown cynical, jaded and exhausted. They know – at some intuitive, primal level - that God’s Creation (all of it) is filled with wonder. That wonder fills them with joy, and that joy always calls us to gratitude.
In the Baptismal prayer, we are reminded to recapture that sense of wonder for ourselves that children have. We want to let go of our exhaustion and grasp the promise of wondrous love that radiates from Bethlehem’s manger.
This Christmas morning, is there still room in our hearts for another snowflake to reveal its pattern of God’s vastness and abundant love to us? Of course there is, because that is God’s way and desire for us.
There may not have been room at the inn for Mary and Joseph, but ultimately there was room in the stable for the birth of our Saviour. If there was room for his birth when everything appeared full, there is room on your heart to accept the snowflake of the Christ child, so that he may reveal the pattern of Christmas and fill you with his love.
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
 No Truce with the Furies (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1995), p. 84.