When I was commissioned as an Elder in the United Methodist Church, I sent a letter of thanks to the pastor of my church growing up. I wanted him to know how grateful I was for his kindness, compassion, and care for me in an awkward stage of my own development. Bob had been a coach for my soccer team, a confidant for my development, and had even been the one to pick me up from the floor with my dad after overindulging in a celebration after a lacrosse championship. He was a good man.
I sent the letter and put it out of my mind. A few weeks later, I got an email from him, thanking me for the note. It was exactly as kind, thoughtful, and gracious as I had remembered him to be. So, I went searching to find any recorded sermons from his current church, simply out of nostalgia.
When I found his current church’s page, I found a list of audio links for sermons, I clicked the first one– the most recent one. And, wouldn’t you know it. It was a sermon about how God had worked miraculously in a former youth parishioner of his. The basic message was that there is no one that God cannot use for the Kingdom work we are all called to. Of course, he remembered who I was.
As it turns out, no one really forgets who you were. Our identities are a unique combination of who we were, who we are, and who we might be. Each decision we make, each interaction we have continues to shape the people that we will be. The best people can hold each of those aspects of us lightly. They can see the past, the present, and the potential together without judging who you might be based on who you once were.
That is a gift. It is a rare gift.
As Mark illustrates for us, it is really difficult for people to let go of old memories and expectations. In the best of circumstances, those expectations help create potentially healthy norms in society: the oldest child should always be the one caring for his mother, the neighborhood handyperson should always be a phone call away. And, of course, those expectations can be really limiting and isolating: the “crazy” bastard son of Mary will always be “crazy” and unworthy of any reverence.
And, of course, Jesus breaks each of those expectations. This isn’t even the first time. The last interaction Jesus had with his family was only three chapters earlier. They came to bring him home because he had stepped so far out of his expected role that the people were calling him crazy, and the religious folks were equating him with the embodiment of temptation itself.
Expectations always get in the way. It seems that expectations can even limit the power of God.
Mark tells us explicitly that he was “unable to do miracles” and that he was “appalled by their disbelief.” (Mk 6:5a, 6)
Jesus’ own community stands in stark contrast to the stories that bookend this encounter in his own hometown. In Mark 5, we see two miracles. One marginalized woman who had been bleeding for 12 years–making her ritually unclean, reached with faithful hands to touch Jesus’ clothes and was suddenly free of her affliction. And one 12-year-old girl who was declared dead was given new life. Each of these women was given a new life, literally– because of their faith.
And in the remainder of today’s passage, we see how quickly and easily Jesus’ message and power multiply in the parts of the world that are open to the life-changing invitation of God’s Kingdom.
The only people who seem to be left out of this work are the people who let their assumptions get in the way of God’s work. Whether they are relatives, friends, neighbors, scholars, pastors or leaders, they are left out of the redemptive story of God’s Kingdom when they try to relegate God to the narrow confines of their expectations.
My former pastor has modeled that kind of openness for me in my life. I’m sure you can think of people in your life who know who you were, but who also remain open to who you might be. As it turns out, their faith creates the space for transformation– at least that is true in my life.
I wonder how God is calling you to hold your expectations lightly in order to see transformation in your own life. I wonder what expectations you have for your life that might need to be let go of in order to live a new life. I wonder how your congregation might hold expectations, assumptions, traditions, and customs lightly enough to witness Christ walking just beyond our sight.
May Christ never have to wipe the dirt from his feet in your presence.
“Shut up! Stop talking! You’re hysterical! That’s crazy talk! We know who you are, so stop this madness and come back home! Be quiet!”
Quite a response, huh? Jesus is trying to teach about the love of God and healing those in need, having to fend off the scribes and religious officials who are challenging him and saying he’s possessed by the devil, all while trying to keep this massive crowd under control, when he starts hearing people tell him to stop and try to hold him back. But it’s not the scribes, and they didn’t tattle to the Pharisees. It’s not the Romans either; and it’s not the crowd.
It’s his family. His own family are unwilling to listen to what Jesus has to say. Imagine what this would have felt like to him: to be trying to do what you were put here to do, only to look up and see your relatives going “Yeah, ok, carpenter boy. Big talk here. It’s about time you come on home, huh?”
A prophet is not welcome in his own house, indeed.
There are harsh lines at the end of this gospel: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Can we really be surprised, though? Jesus—while trying to do some good, contain the mob that is following him, and answer the religious nuts who hate him—is now having to fend off his own family who are trying to silence him. I’ve typically heard these lines discussed as opening up the concept of family beyond just biology and the unity of the community of believers—that Jesus is saying all of us who do God’s will are his family—and that may still be true. But I suspect this is also Jesus’ frustration rightly boiling over: “You say you’re my family, yet you are trying to get in my way and stop me. Is that really what my family would do?” You can understand Jesus’ relatives being concerned; this is behavior they haven’t seen from him and getting into theological arguments with the religious officials seems a bit beyond a poor carpenter’s son. They might feel embarrassed, or concerned, or even outraged at his behavior. Yet Jesus, and in hindsight we, know that he is proclaiming the Gospel. We are able to see the change that his relatives couldn’t at the time. “See, I am doing something new,” it echoes in Isaiah 43. Yet they refuse.
Some of us are lucky enough that we haven’t ever had large blow ups like this with our family members, but I’m willing to bet far more of us have had something like this happen. Times when we felt a call to do something that others wouldn’t understand—maybe our family, our friends, or our coworkers. This moment certainly is a troubling time in our country. From the institutionalized racism and police brutality that people of color experience on a daily basis, to the immigration crisis at our border, to simply whether wearing a mask and getting a vaccine to a global pandemic is a good idea or not. And yet, instead of giving us a common goal to move towards, we continue to see more division, some speaking out, while others tell them (in essence) to be quiet. A common refrain is that we all have to “come together,” away from the extremes, back toward common ground, and be united again. It is a nice idea to have, and working for unity is not itself a bad thing.
However, it can be tempting to hear Jesus say, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” and then conclude that unity is some supreme virtue which we must always strive for. Jesus’ relatives were united in wanting him to shut up and stop calling attention to himself. But unity which is against the good is not virtuous at all. Jesus’ preaching and witness here is a threat to the unity of his time. Both the religious officials and his own family would rather he stay quiet, not bring these crowds of people out, and not threaten the status quo that they prefer. His family may or may not have liked the religious officials; they may have even agreed with what Jesus said, but by wishing that he just stayed quiet, they wound up standing in opposition to his message.
Similarly, I think we must be very careful when we hear (and participate in) calls to “meet in the middle.” It is one thing to learn how to better listen to those we disagree with. It is another thing entirely to decide that simply finding a balanced “middle” position is automatically a good thing. If a scale is tilted to one side, you do not balance it by putting weight in the center of it. The problems in our country, such as the racism and police brutality experienced by people of color, the continued plague of gun violence, growing inequality, and the ever-widening wealth gap, will not be solved by waiting and half measures that appeal to a simple unity. It will take real, substantial change, and that change will upset some people. But silence is not the same thing as peace, and if in our desire to bring people together we sacrifice working for justice for those in need, then we become complicit in the injustice we claim to fight, and the silence that we have substituted for peace will not last for long.
Harsh words, perhaps, but I think we’ll hear harsher if we consider ourselves a part of Jesus’ family of believers and do not act like it. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Even when it gets difficult, may we find the strength to not back down from proclaiming the Gospel in our actions and words, so that we may rightfully be able to call ourselves brothers and sisters in Christ.
On the Great Vigil of Easter, Episcopalians gather by a fire to tell stories. We light the Paschal Candle, from which we then light our own individual candles, and listen to the deacon chant the ancient words of the Exsultet. As we try to avoid spilling hot candle wax on ourselves and the furniture, we become gradually dazzled by the meta-narrative of God’s creative power as told through the mythopoetic language of Genesis, the lyrics of the Psalms, the prophecies of Isaiah, the wisdom of Proverbs, the visions of Ezekiel, and ultimately, through the Gospel account of the resurrection. This year, as parish leaders discern the safest way to celebrate this Queen of Feasts, we hear the proclamation of the resurrection as told by St. Mark the Evangelist, whose version of the story often leaves readers befuddled.
In fact, readers have been so perplexed by Mark’s open-endednon-conclusion over the centuries that ancient copyists apparently decided to try tying up the loose ends themselves by adding verses 9 – 20 to Mark’s final chapter. The earliest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end abruptly at verse 16:8: “So [Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So, in Mark’s Gospel, fear literally has the last word. To make matters worse, these female disciples (who are often portrayed by Mark as more faithful than the men) are doing precisely what the heavenly messenger explicitly told them not to do. The white-robed man urged them not to be afraid and then charged them to go tell the other disciples that the Risen Christ had gone ahead of them to Galilee (16:6-7), but they seem to let their fear get the best of them, so they tell no one. And that’s where the Gospel ends.
This is Mark’s unique and cryptic way of declaring the great Easter proclamation that Jesus Christ is indeed risen. Mark seems to be following the wisdom of Emily Dickinson who famously said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” The truth of Christ’s Resurrection is proclaimed by Mark, but his exceptional slant gives us permission to be confused, to ask questions, to contemplate our own conclusions, and to ultimately be dazzled by Truth’s “superb surprise.”
We may ask ourselves why the women disciples were so overwhelmed and initially silenced by their fear. In asking this question, we are invited to put ourselves in their shoes. Obviously, they have just experienced an event far beyond the realm of everyday life: the empty tomb of their beloved rabbi whose brutal crucifixion they had just recently witnessed; and a mysterious, white-robed man informing them that said rabbi is now waiting for them 75 miles away in Galilee. This is reason enough for anyone to be petrified by fear, shock, and amazement—not to mention, utter disbelief. Or they may have been afraid of potential punishment by the Roman authorities who might feel threatened by rumors of a crucified bandit’s supposed resurrection. Or they may have felt afraid for the disciples who had abandoned their teacher in his most desperate hour; and thought that the risen Jesus was returning to Galilee to severely chastise the disciples for their cowardice and reprimand Peter for his spineless denials. Their fear may have been a potent cocktail of all these concerns or perhaps their fear was not based upon any reason at all. Either way, they were afraid, even terrified; and being told by a mysterious, white-robed man to not be afraid was not going to help them calm their nerves.
Whenever I’m seized with fear, I personally do not find great solace in someone simply telling me not to be afraid. Although I appreciate the charming sentiment that the phrase “Do not be afraid” occurs 365 times in the Bible (one for every day of the year), I have found that letting go of fear is certainly easier said than done. And what I find so encouraging about Mark’s unique slant on the Easter proclamation is the fact that even when we are afraid and even when that fear might get the best of us, God’s life-giving truth will still win the day.
In her book Maverick Mark: The Untamed First Gospel, Bonnie Thurston writes, “I think the very odd ending of Mark’s gospel at 16:8 is his intended one … there is a word of promise, and there is the failure of the human disciples. But the word of promise predominates. If the disciples and witnesses fail (and they do), the message and the cause is not lost.” The very existence of Mark’s Gospel “bears witness to the fact that in spite of terror, and fear,” the women disciples eventually do share their experience of the empty tomb. I imagine the women exhibited the kind of courage Martin Luther King Jr. defined as the “inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations,” in spite of overwhelming fear.
The Easter proclamation of Christ’s resurrection urges us all to not be afraid: since Christ has trampled down death by death, we ultimately have no reason to fear. However, Mark’s slant on the Easter proclamation assures us that even when we do feelafraid—for whatever reason or for no clear reason at all—we still know that God’s life-giving truth ultimately prevails.
COVID-19 has given us all plenty of reason to be afraid and even terrified as it uncovers deep social ills, heightens political division, and prevents us from gathering in healthy ways to be renewed by our faith community. I imagine all of us are plagued with fear to some extent right now, whether or not we are conscious of its grip on our lives. While the Easter promise invites us to let go of our fear, Mark reminds us that even if our fear causes us to fail, the Easter promise still speaks to us. Even if our fear leads us to deny Christ like Peter or even become complicit in violence like the Roman soldiers, Christ returns from the grave to say, “I forgive you. Let’s try again to let go of that fear, but if you’re still afraid, that’s ok, because my love is always stronger.” Mark’s slant on the Easter Promise invites us all to be gradually dazzled by the light that overcomes the darkness, the life that destroys death, and the superb surprise that God’s love will triumph even when we are afraid.
 In a strictly literal sense, the last Greek word is gar (“for”)as in ephobounto gar (“for they were afraid”).
 Martin Luther King Jr., A Gift of Love: Sermons from “Strength to Love” and Other Preachings (Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2012), 120. This year, Easter Sunday happens to fall on April 4, the feast day of the pastor and martyr Martin Luther King Jr.
We’ve been living in an eternal Lent. Well, what feels like eternal, as it’s been since March of last year that any of us has lived life normally. To preach on Lent, what it means, and ‘giving up’ of oneself almost seems laughable at this moment in time. We gave up our social connections, habits, and haunts. We gave up our church buildings and onsite ministries. Some people just gave up.
Jesus talks about this giving up every year during Lent. He reminds us that, “To love one’s life is to lose it, and those that hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Well, JC, I get where you’re coming from but c’mon man…we’ve been giving up so much in the last year that there isn’t much left of us. How then can we preach to congregations concerning ‘giving up’ when we don’t feel like we have much left in our lives?
This is where the rubber meets the road, at least for me.
Our creature comforts have often become roadblocks on the path to Jesus. We rely on bars and restaurants; movies and sporting events; in person worship followed by coffee hour; dates with partners, moments with family…the list goes on and on. With all of these moments simultaneously stripped away, our lives have become seemingly less, somehow—at least on the surface. Loneliness and separation have cost people loss of life in multiple ways, so how can we continue to lose what we don’t have?
I think to preach on loss is important, even if we feel the way mentioned above. Christ didn’t ask us to forgo movies for faith; Christ asked us to live lives filled with faith in God instead of faith in penultimate joys. For us, the job of asking folks to continue to lose is one of reframing the word ‘loss’ into the word ‘sacrifice’. We haven’t lost anything, really. We’ve had to sacrifice for the greater good—we have made these sacrifices to keep our loved ones’ safe and healthy, and they have done so for us. We have ‘died’ to worldly ways, sacrificing comforts for well-being. How have we filled those empty spaces once inhabited by those comforts? Have we been able to seek God in the midst of all this chaos, or have we retreated into the holes left by our sacrifices and hidden from hope and prayer? Have we recognized that Jesus Christ can be worshiped from a computer screen just as faithfully as he can from a pew—or have we fallen away from worship altogether because we feel abandoned? These are important introspections that I believe we all need to encounter, if we already haven’t, and our people need us to admit our sense of sacrifice so that they can approach theirs.
After all, Jesus’ was the greatest sacrifice. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes our minds concentrate so heavily on the sacrifices that we’ve made that we gloss over the sacrifice God made. Being a season of penitence, my hope is that we will preach sacrifice and not loss—while still acknowledging that we have lost loved ones, jobs, and other important facets of life, we must also note the sacrifice we make so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves. We sacrificed our lesser freedoms to do our part for the rest of humanity…
God sacrificed God’s entire human life to save it. Let’s remind people of that.
Luke 2:22-40 shares the story of the Presentation. In it, we discover the holy family on a pilgrimage to the ancient temple in Jerusalem fulfilling their requirement “as it is written in the law of the Lord” (v 23). That is, to offer their firstborn to the Lord through the sacrificing of a small bird.
The Presentation not only marks the time when the young Jesus was presented to God in the temple, it formally marked the Son of God taking on our nature and giving itself back to God the Father. This theodrama played out when Sts. Simeon and Anna announced that the glorious return of Yahweh to his holy temple had happened right before their eyes – For these eyes of mine have seen your salvation (v 30). In today’s Gospel, the young Jesus has now come of age. Entering into the temple court again, he now passes judgment on it and declares that his very body had become the new temple. A few days later, this new temple would give his final sacrifice on the cross, offering himself yet again to the Father for the redemption of the world.
We’re at the point in this season of Lent where the image of Christ’s cross begins to take shape. If Epiphany is the season to reflect on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, Lent is the time to come alongside Jesus with his cross. Remembering is challenging. Even his closest followers could not comprehend the cross. St. Peter would not fathom the Messiah undergoing suffering and death (Lent II).
Today (Lent III), we learn that it was only after “he was raised from the dead” that his disciples “believed” (Jn 2:22). Two thousand years later, are we still like Peter? We know the story, and like the disciples, we remember what is written (v 17). Like Peter, we often deny that we will one day die and even ignore the truth that our closest friends and family will do the same. Forgetting we are dust and to dust we will return is prevalent in our culture, even as we have experienced significant death this year due to the ongoing pandemic (Gen 3:19).
Contemplating death alone leaves one with a sense of hopelessness. Set this despair up and against the cross of Christ, and death has no sting (1 Cor 15:55). Again, we know the story. God raised him from the dead. We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23). There are three more Sundays left in Lent. Use this time to not only remember your death but to contemplate the cross.
So much transpires in these seven verses from the Gospel of Mark. We have Jesus’ baptism, his forty days in the wilderness, his temptation by Satan, the arrest of John the Baptist, and the beginning of Jesus’ proclaiming the gospel. Mark’s quick pace and immediacy, seen in his often-used word “immediately,” can make it hard to find a clear and concise message to preach. On the other hand, it provides for the opportunity to find something new to focus on each time the lectionary comes back around to those passages, which is both refreshing to the hearer of the Gospel, as well as to the one preparing the sermon upon that text.
The first three verses focus on the baptism of Jesus. We begin with Jesus, coming from Nazareth of Galilee to the Jordan river, where John the Baptist baptizes him. Then, as the waters part for him to rise up newly baptized, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him (Mk 1:10). Parting of the water, parting of the sky, as two of the three members/persons of the Trinity meet. And in the midst of this, the third joins in, with a voice from heaven saying, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mk 1:11). Three verses, during which the Trinity is revealed, right there in the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel! It is an incredibly profound and shocking revelation, made so quickly at the start, and so easily missed. Because immediately, in that Markan fashion, he moves on. So we can be forgiven for missing it. After all, this is the first time we meet Jesus in this Gospel, and already he is revealed in the theological configuration of one of the most difficult concepts – the Trinity. The Trinity that flowed and moved in the great act of creation, now manifesting through the life of Jesus. And this inauguration into baptism then catalyzes his story, with the Spirit [driving] him out into the wilderness (Mk 1:12).
We do not know precisely what happened in the forty days Jesus was in the wilderness, at least not in great detail, in Mark’s telling of the story. But it is clear that Jesus does not spend that time alone. In fact, he is tempted by Satan (Mark does not tell us in what way), he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him (Mk 1:13). So, the wilderness served as both the place of temptation as well as the place for community and nourishment.
From here the text takes a markedly new turn, with Mark referencing John’s arrest as an indicator for the passage of time. Jesus returns to Galilee, the region he first hailed from in verse 9. And now he has come with news, 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’ (Mk 1:14-15). Repent! That beautiful Greek word metanoia shows up as part of Jesus’ gospel message. And as you can see at the top of this page, it is the very word that makes up the title of this blog. The definition provided in the picture reads as follows: “Metanoia: (n) The journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self, or way of life. Spiritual conversion.” What an incredibly beautiful and powerful word! Most often when people hear the word “repent” or “repentance,” they think of an action, typically made at one point in time, that then restores one to relationship with God. However, the dynamic of metanoia is deeper, calling us to a process, to a journey. It is not a one-time event that must be repeated over and over again, but rather a spiritual discipline that involves life-long amendment of life. As the definition states, it is a spiritual conversion, a conversion that I like to think spirals into deeper and deeper levels as one’s heart, mind, self, soul, or way of life wakes up to more intricate and loving layers. And that change and growth occurs as we continue to orient our lives toward that kingdom of God that Jesus tells us has come near. That kingdom of God that places us, the rest of creation, and God – in that beautiful dance of Trinity – into our own dance of Trinity. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. All bound together by that simple but not easy action and state of being called Love.
And what a beautiful message to receive at the beginning of our Lenten journey! We are ushered into Lent with that icon of baptism – witnessing Jesus’ baptism as we are reminded of our own. Then driven into the wilderness, where we face both temptation and an opportunity for respite and nourishment. What wild beasts might we meet in our forty days? And who will we discover are our angels waiting upon us? Perhaps by the end of our wilderness journey of Lent, we will come to the cross, sit in the tomb, witness the resurrection, and feel the need to proclaim our own gospel message. A message of the nearness of God’s kingdom. A kingdom that requires our repentance, that lifelong journey of learning how to more deeply love. Let it be so!
The author of the Gospel of Mark tells us this Sunday that after a long journey of ministry, after healing men and women, old and young, after feeding thousands and calling a group of followers to go out and heal, love, and transform the lives of others, that Jesus brings Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured. As we listen to how “his clothes became dazzling white,” I wonder, what the meaning of this transfiguration might be for you and me?
On one hand, we are told that the transfiguration takes place to reveal Christ’s glory prior to the crucifixion and resurrection. It is a source of hope, strength, and comfort to his disciples as they approach difficult times. On the other hand, as Jesus’ physical body is transfigured, it indicates the glorification of the human nature in Christ. This last is a reminder of the human capacity to be transfigured as well. Perhaps not as individuals, but as a community.
Paul the Apostle, in his letter to the people of Corinth, reminds us that we “all” are the body of Christ, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27) And if Paul is correct in his description of Christ’s body, if we are truly created in the image of God as it is described in the book of Genesis (1:27), the miracles, the healing, the transformation that Jesus provided to the world through his ministry on this earth is possible for all of us, if only we all come together as a beloved community.
Perhaps it won’t be the transfiguration that Peter, James, and John experienced at the mountain, but if we are capable to come together and be the body of Christ in this world, our lives, our work, our hopes, our journeys will be transfigured as well.
During the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, shared with all humanity images of the transfiguration that humanity can experience if we come together. Gorman read:
“For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Perhaps, as we listen to the transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we should remind one another this Sunday that we all are part of the body of Christ, we all are called to a common mission, we all are called to walk together, to hope together, to dream together, to be together, and together be transfigured. And be the body of Christ.
One of the benefits of this prolonged season of Coronatide and Church at Home has been the opportunity to pay attention to the visual cues in our nave. When the goal is to beam a worshipful experience through a couple of camera lenses onto phones, tablets, and screens of all sizes, it helps to be aware of what the camera is seeing as well as what it isn’t. In the lead up to Advent and Christmas, one of the things we really began to explore was the power of light. During the Season of Advent, in the northern hemisphere, the outside world grows darker and darker as the nights grow longer and longer. Inside the nave, however, the light grows, from a single candle on the Advent Wreath, to the brightness of the light of Christ born in a stable under a star that brought the Magi from the East.
As we thought about how to play on this theme of light and darkness, we went a little overboard on candles. From five on the wreath, the vision grew and grew and grew, until we were lighting 49 candles between Advent 1 and Christmas Day. We cobbled together some memorial funds and purchased two brand new candelabras to help hold them all. Maybe I’m not a good Episcopalian, but I always guessed candelabras held nine candles. In the process of buying them, I learned they hold seven, and thanks to the good people at CM Almy, I learned why—the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. Apparently, there really is a theological reason for everything in the church.
Outside of singing Veni Sancte Spiritus or Veni Creator Spiritus at ordinations, it seems Episcopalians don’t pay much attention to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Heck, for the most part, it seems we’re quite comfortable to leave being baptized in the Spirit to those other churches, but on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord in Year B, it seems impossible to ignore. Whether it is John the Baptizer promising that one was coming that would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” or the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove, or Paul laying hands on the believers in Ephesus so that they might receive the Spirit, we ignore this important component of baptism to our peril. In fact, if I might be so bold, this Epiphany 1, I suggest every congregation that has one, pull out your seven-light candelabra, light ‘em up, and let’s talk about what it means to not only join with Jesus in his baptism, but to be baptized by the Spirit through Christ. Let’s open up for our people, and ourselves, what it means to carry within us seven-fold gifts of the Spirit: the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Now, if you are anything like me, it can be difficult to discern the nuanced differences between wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Maybe your particular understanding of the beatitudes holds meekness in high regard and doesn’t allow for might to be a gift of the Spirit. Perhaps piety’s definition has become so narrow as to be made simply for show. If you are feeling any of these things, imagine what your congregation might be experiencing as they hear phrases like “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues” or “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” As a place to start, I offer the following basic definitions of each of the seven gifts for you to explore.
Wisdom – the ability to discern between what is good and evil, truth or deception
Understanding – a deeper comprehension of God in terms of both who God is and what God desires
Counsel – seeking the diving will of God in the pursuit of poverty, chastity, and obedience
Might – perseverance in righteousness in the face of hardship
Knowledge – the ability to more deeply perceive God at work in the world, broadly, and in your life, specifically
Piety – devotion expressed in actions both internal (ex. prayer) and external (ex. worship) that show reverence to God
Fear of the Lord – awe and reverence toward God whose perfect righteousness is wholly other
Clearly, these definitions are not all encompassing, but I hope they are a beginning, a jumping off place to explore, for yourself and for your people, what it means to be baptized in the Spirit and to hear the voice of God declare, “you are my child, whom I love,” whether that experience came at baptism, confirmation, or on a pier, in the woods, or in a church surrounded by the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.
The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve holds an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a DMin from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.
These days, it looks like all of us are searching for something to live our lives by, to wrap our whole identity in. People of all stripes try to do it with all kinds of things, some productive, some less so, and some downright violent. Some of us do it with something as trivial as sports or something as serious as politics or fundamentalist religion or even whiteness. Hate is being lived out on message boards in the form of things like white supremacy and religious fundamentalism.
We talk a lot these days about both white supremacy and fundamentalist religion and their effects on young men in particular. Why, we wonder, would promising young men become Nazis, or violent religious fundamentalists either at home or abroad?
It seems pretty easy to me.
Both white supremacy and radical religion situate these young men into a story that gives them an identity. A purpose. A connection to something older and bigger than them. The truth is, it’s not just the young and the male. We all need to be part of something bigger, and we’ve gotten it from religion or national pride for centuries. But with the beginning of the internet, things have gone from local to cosmic.
The good news is that today, so has Advent.
The first Sunday of Advent isn’t about a baby in a manger. It’s cosmic. Stars fall and the universe moves. Jesus reaches through history to hand us a narrative that we can situate our lives in that will actually make the world better instead of making it bleed. And Jesus calls to us: keep awake! Keep your eyes open!
Various extremist groups have adopted the idea of the “red pill” from another cultural story, the early 2000s movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the main character is offered a red pill and a blue pill by a character who has just revealed that humanity is actually enslaved by technology and that everything he has ever seen his whole life is a lie — an illusion of this complex computer system. If he takes the blue pill, he will wake up and everything will go back to normal and he can pretend that he doesn’t know. If he takes the red pill, everything will change, and he will begin to fight the technology that has enslaved humanity.
These days, extremists with various pet causes have used “taking the red pill” or “red pilling” to describe “waking up” to a vast conspiracy to deceive them their whole lives by some target: the news media, the larger culture, whatever. Those who “take the red pill” feel liberated to spew their unfiltered anger all over the internet and even into the streets in violence. Frankly, I believe it to be quite childlike. It’s inventing a story, or imagining yourself in someone else’s invented story, in order to make yourself the hero.
I’m here today to advocate for the Blue pill. The Advent Blue pill, specifically. Advent calls us to a different kind of waking up. It places us in a different kind of story. Contrary to what you might think, this Blue pill is quite different from the one in The Matrix because we are, in reality, probably not enslaved by evil robots or a vast conspiracy to deceive and control us. We just imagine these scenarios because they make us feel powerful and in control. We desperately want to be the brave heroes who fight the bad guys.
The truth is that we’re more enslaved to our own brokenness, anger, and prejudices than anything. Deep down, most of us are scared, hurting, angry, insecure people without a unifying story to attach ourselves to and give us purpose and identity. And so, in order to give ourselves that sense of purpose, we wrap ourselves in an identity and imagine a perceived conflict with some other group, be it a political one, a religious one, or an entire race or gender. As George Orwell concluded in his book Nineteen Eighty Four, there must always be an enemy.
The reality is that we’re not fighting each other nearly as hard as we’re fighting ourselves, and waking up to that reality is a lot harder than “taking the red pill” with all of its delicious delusions of conflict and triumph.
So this Advent, take the Advent blue pill. Contrary to popular belief, the blue pill, at least in the context of Advent, is less about staying inoculated to reality and more about waking up to it. The refrain “keep awake” echoes several times in our Gospel lesson as Jesus begins the Advent season as he always does: by describing a cosmic end and beginning of everything where there is a reckoning. Where the violent are dealt with and peace reigns eternal in ways that humans with our fallibilities are absolutely incapable of bringing about. Advent blue is the color of the coming dawn, a story where we are not the heroes, but the rescued.
Let me tell you about when I first understood Advent.
I worked in a homeless shelter just outside of Atlanta my first year of seminary. While I worked there, I saw beautiful and horrible things, but mostly, I was just constantly overwhelmed at the pain I saw, and the joy, the complex people, the complex situations. No matter how much work we did, things never really got better. In fact, this was in 2008, when the financial crisis was just beginning to hit. It didn’t get better. It got worse. There were more failures than successes, more pain than joy.
As a classmate of mine pointed out to me, my eyes had been torn open and I was unable to close them. The world felt out of control. And it made me angry: angry at elected officials, at rich people, at almost everyone. I sat in our seminary’s Advent 1 service as the choir sang a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to a still and darkened chapel with a single Advent candle burning and the altar bare.
Slowly, the lights came up as two of my classmates ceremoniously carried in the paraments, then the altar cloth, then the elements, as out of nowhere, greens were hung around the chapel and the space was transformed into a place of hope, strung with pine greenery and Advent blue paraments.
And I realized that I too had a choice. I could choose to be angry and to blame the pain that I felt and the pain that I saw on people whom I could then hate and fight. I could wrap myself in short-lived stories of political warfare. I could blame the homeless people that I was serving and be angry at them, or I could rage tirelessly against the political parties and entities that refused to serve the poor. I could be angry at those who had too much while others starved. I could, before it was even cool,take the red pill, waking up to a story where I was the angry social justice hero, out to save the world — and fail, which would only make me angrier.
But as O Come O Come Emmanuel echoed off the rafters of the chapel that day, I realized that the only way that I was ever really going to be able to make it through this life with open eyes was not through anger, but through letting go of trying to control the future. This would allow me to simply do the most good that I could, trusting that peace is coming and God is coming and that no one can stop it any more than they can stop the sun from rising.
Advent blue, after all, is the story of the coming dawn. We are not the heroes. We are all the rescued. This was actually keeping awake: by wrapping myself and my life in a story and in Jesus, whose words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do.
So I invite you, therefore, to take the Advent blue pill. Because Advent is blue because it reflects the sky just before dawn. The Advent blue pill, as opposed to the one in The Matrix, doesn’t call us to stay ignorant. To the contrary: it calls us, urgently, to keep awake.
Rather than framing the entire story around us, however, Advent tells us of a future where it’s something — someone — much bigger than us that tears open the heavens and changes the world. Advent has a deep and abiding presence with the weight of the air just before dawn and calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, in the dead of winter: “Keep awake!” Because we know, deep in our bones: will not be winter forever.
Advent’s is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming to us that’s bigger than any group we can affiliate ourselves with. Like our ancestors before us, we wait in the night, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.
Peace on earth.
Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming.
“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)
The thirteenth chapter of Mark is known as the “little apocalypse.” The last verses of this chapter with Jesus’ teaching about the last days, the fig tree’s sign, and the need for disciples to “keep awake” kicked off the liturgical year for us back on December 3, 2017. The Lukan parallel of this text is on tap for Advent I in a couple of weeks.
In my daily rounds, I find more conversation about the “end-times” in the secular rather than ecclesial sphere. Just this week I listened to an episode of Fresh Air with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking about the real possibility of an asteroid entering the atmosphere and endling life as we know it. In the wake of Hurricane Florence, the media is talking about “super storms,” with their unpredictability and massively destructive potential, becoming the rule, not the exception. The stark black-and-white cover of the October 2018 issue of The Atlantic Monthly poses this question: “Is Democracy Dying?” The issue explores whether we’ve out-smarted and out-manipulated ourselves in the name of progress through the tools of social media, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Kendrick Lamar, whose rap lyrics easily pierce the boundary between sacred and secular, voices the despondency, despair, and desperation experienced by many and has suggested that the ‘rapture is comin’’.
These next two weeks offer the preacher a distinct opportunity to compare and contrast current end-time fears, hopes and laments with the long stream of apocalyptic concern found within our Hebrew and Christian spiritual tradition. Today’s end-time fears map so closely with those expressed in today’s pericope: destruction of the natural order as well as social and political unrest. The major contrast between our current fears, expressed more overtly in the secular realm than in my mainline, upper-middle class parish context, and those expressed in the Gospel is where hope lies. Today’s reading ends on a decisively hopeful note: the chaos is a sign of new life, “the beginning of birth pangs” (v. 8). On the other side of the suffering, the fear, and the unknown, is a new beginning. A vision for life on the “other side” of the end-times is blurry at best for someone like Lamar and simply not part of the conversation for Tyson and The Atlantic Monthly editorial team.
Preceding this chapter in Mark, we have two chapters detailing conflict after conflict between Jesus and the representatives of religious and political structures: the scribes, the Sadducees, the Pharisees and Herodians, and finally the whole Temple hierarchy. After this chapter, Mark’s pace dramatically slows, as we hear about the particular evil revealed in the betrayal, mocking and crucifixion of Jesus and the perplexing hope revealed in the resurrection. Today’s reading serves as a reflective pause, inviting listeners to place the opposition to Jesus’ teaching in the wider context of a cosmic battle between God and the powers and principalities.
But if the preacher doesn’t want to wade into apocalyptic territory, another approach might focus on the first two verses with the disciple’s exclamation about the temple and Jesus’ sharp response. What was the purpose and tone of the disciple’s remark about the temple’s grandiosity? Was the disciple trying to distract Jesus from constant conflict he experienced in the temple compound? Was he trying to get Jesus to appreciate the temple as a pointer to God’s majesty? Can we hear any echoes of ourselves in his seemingly placating questioning? I am a people-pleasing, conflict-avoiding person (lots of clergy types are). Certainly, I’ve used similar tactics to “save” people from conflicts they experience and “focus on something more positive.” But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. The temple, with its large stones and impressive structure, isn’t eternal…and worse than that, it actually serves to drive people further from what is eternal, namely sacrificial love.
On my read, the temple is a stand-in for the dazzling idols that deceive us into thinking we are worshipping the real thing. The temple (its exclusive experts, its physical structure, its demands for purity and loyalty) had lost its legitimacy in Jesus’ eyes, as it no longer served to point people toward the real thing, toward a dynamic relationship with the Divine One who is generally invisible to our naked sight but none the less nearer to us than our next breath. For Jesus, that structural stumbling block had to be eliminated, ‘thrown down.’ What temple-like structures do you encounter in your ministry? In my context, on more than one occasion dissatisfaction has been expressed at the prospect of using our buildings and grounds for new ministries based on fear of “what could happen to the property.” It is so human, and sinful, to forget that the church buildings and grounds are there to point us toward the ‘real thing,’ the eternal thing, the way of sacrificial love.
 Of course, the temple had frequently been viewed ambivalently by the Hebrews. Just look at the story of the first temple’s construction by King Solomon which was built on the backs of the Hebrew people and the critiques of the temple establishment by many of the prophets.
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as the rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina–the “Gateway to the Smokies.” She would like to find time to hike, garden, and dabble in poetry. But she actually uses her time to run her two children around, weed, and read a poem or two as she drifts off to sleep at night…and she is grateful.