This sermon is from Sunday, September 26, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. I focused on the Gospel text, specifically Mark 9:49-50. You can listen to the sermon here.

Rebecca and I started dating while we were freshmen in college. When it came time for us to celebrate our first dating anniversary, we wanted to do something special. We took a day trip to Macon, Georgia where we walked around historic downtown, we saw Three Blind Mice on stage at the theatre, and because we have always been lovers of great food, we went out to a fancy restaurant. 

These two 19 year olds, one far more mature than the other, went to Marco’s Ristorante Italiano for a romantic dinner. It was at Marco’s that I had a life-changing culinary experience. 

And you thought I was setting up a story about all the mushy, gushy stuff!

I ordered one of the house specials: the Baked Mediterranean Branzino. This wasn’t your normal dish: it was baked in a very thick layer of rock salt. For those not-in-the-know, crusting fish or meat in rock salt allows for a slower, more even cooking process. The meat is protected from the flames and so cannot be charred, burned, or scorched. 

My branzino was wheeled over the table on a cart. Then the production began. The waiter cracked through the thick layer of salt and revealed the fish contained within. The waiter then carefully filleted the fish, peeling back the skin and removing the bones, all done tableside. He then transferred the fish to my plate and then covered it in a sauce of white wine, capers, and shrimp. 

My mouth is salivating just talking about it. 

The drama of presenting and filleting the fish tableside, and then eating it has been lodged in my memory ever since. The key to the whole process was one of the most basic elements on earth: salt.

In her cookbook-turned-Netflix-documentary series, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, chef Samin Nosrat talks about the efficacy and essentiality of salt. She quotes the famous chef, James Beard–yes, of the James Beard Awards–with regard to salt. Beard once asked, “Where would we be without salt?” Nosrat answers the question: adrift in a sea of blandness.

Nosrat suggests that instead of using more, we need to use it better. Salt adds flavor to food, and it is better to add a little bit of salt at a time while cooking instead of adding a bunch at the table. Salt is a team player because in addition to having its own unique flavor, it also enhances the flavors of other ingredients.  

Salt can be used as a protective layer in baking temperamental meat because the salt creates a barrier which keeps flames out and allows meat to cook evenly and more slowly with the natural flavoring of its own juices. We only have to go back to the pre-refrigeration era when salt was used primarily as a preservative when salt was used to keep meats and foods longer, through either curing or pickling. It preserved the food because salt does not lose its saltiness or salinity. 

Even our bodies contain more salt than you may realize. Salt regulates the electrical charges moving in and out of our bodies, and it affects taste, smell, tactile functions, and our nervous systems. Our tears are salty. Basal tears and reflex tears have a higher salt content because they help keep our eyes healthy and free from debris, infection, and germs. 

You can use salt to draw out a stain from a carpet or shirt, you can place salt in your shoes to remove an odor (or so I’ve read online), and salt is used when creating bleach. Salt is used in fireworks because the energy which is created during burning emits different color lights. Salt is used by the Vatican in their chemical formula when smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel to announce the results of a papal election. 

Finally, salt doesn’t burn. At least not in ordinary circumstances. You have to reach such extreme temperatures of 1470 degrees fahrenheit in order to melt table salt, or 2575 degrees fahrenheit for it to boil. Salt might change the color of a flame–a chemical reaction having to do with energy–but once the fire is extinguished you will find the salt buried beneath the ashes. 

Salt flavors, enhances, purifies, and preserves.

Our gospel passage ended today with Jesus making some comments about salt in verses 49-50. Jesus concludes our pericope by saying: 

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

These verses are going to take us on a saltiness journey today, a trek of salinity, and I hope by the end of it that you will all embrace living as a salty people…and no, I don’t mean salty in the insulting sense.

As one does, we need to move backward from Mark into the book of Leviticus. I promise I’m not trying to continually plug our new Bible Study series, but trust me when I tell you that Leviticus has everything to do with the Gospels. In Leviticus 1 and 2 where we find descriptions of the offerings that Israel is supposed to offer to YHWH. 

The Israelites are supposed to make a burnt offering to YHWH on the altar. The burnt offering was made daily during morning and evening prayer, while the Sabbath offering was once a week, the sin offering was presented as needed based on the sin, and the offering for the atonement of sins was made annually. Israelites could offer an animal from the herd, flock, or air and there were various provisions made for preparing the offering. 

Salt plays an essential role in the process of koshering meat. You’ll hear more about this in October during our Bible study, “Leviticus: The Hidden Gospel,” but here are the high points. Based on the Levitical code, Jews were prohibited from eating blood. The process for draining blood from animals was intense: “The meat or poultry is soaked in clean water for thirty minutes, then removed to drip dry. After a few minutes of dripping, the meat is salted and left to hang for sixty minutes to further draw out any remaining blood. After sixty minutes of salting, the meat is washed three times in cold, clean water to remove any remaining salt.” Salt helped to draw out the remaining blood from the animal to make it pure enough for eating or sacrificing. 

When describing the logistics of making the burnt offering from herd, flock, or air, YHWH repeats this phrase three times: 

An offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.

Salt was part of the purification process, but it was also part of the offering itself. If we skip to chapter 2 and read about grain offerings, we are told that, “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”

YHWH commands Israel to always include salt with all of the offerings presented on the altar. Salt is placed on the meat as it is being placed on the altar for burning, that it might be an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD. The belief being that as the smoke and aroma rose to YHWH from the altar, he would be pleased with the offering. The quality of the offering was a mirror into the heart of the worshipper. 

The practical side of this is fairly easy to understand: salt brings out flavor and so adding salt to the burnt offering would produce a more pleasing aroma. The confusing part is the reference to the “salt of the covenant with your God.”

Don’t worry! I started you on this wild goose chase and I’m going to see you through it. Salt was used as part of covenants in the ANE because it represented perdurability and permanence, it had an eternal quality. Salt does not lose its saltiness because it is not adversely affected by time, water, or fire. It can neither be burned nor can it be drowned, and it does not weaken with the passage of time. This is why our ancestors started using salt as a preservative. 

The “salt covenant” in Leviticus 2:13 is mentioned two other times in Scripture: once in Numbers 18 and once in 2 Chronicles 13. In Numbers, YHWH references his salt covenant with Aaron and the Aaronic priesthood. In 2 Chronicles, YHWH references his salt covenant with David and the Davidic line. In both instances, the salt covenant is eternal. It is forever. 

Israel was not the only nation to include salt in their covenants. “Covenantal allies all ‘tasted the salt…’” “Loyalty to the Persian monarch is described as having tasted ‘the salt of the palace.’” “Greeks and Arabs are known to have eaten salt together when they concluded covenants.” In short, “To add salt to the offering was a reminder that the worshipper was in an eternal covenant relationship with God.”

Salt, the great purifier and preserver, the element which cleans, endures, and flavors, also represents the eternal nature of a covenant. No wonder Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek forever and that he will reign on David’s throne, forever. 

Salt was a sign of promise, not judgment.
Salt was a sign of perdurability, perseverance, and endurance.
Salt was a sign of loyalty and fidelity.
Salt was a culinary depiction of Good News.

So as we come back to Jesus’ comments in Mark 9 we have to keep this in mind. Jesus has been issuing a warning to those who would cause little ones to stumble. He warns the disciples of being thrown into the fires of Gehenna where the flames are never quenched, but now he is bringing salt into the equation. It feels random and yet…

Our minds should immediately go back to the Levitical code where salt was required on all burnt offerings. 
We should remember the eternal salt covenants made with Israel, with Aaron, and with Moses.
We should remember that the salted burnt offerings offered an aroma pleasing to the LORD.

Jesus’ comments aren’t all that confusing, then. When we read them in their levitical context we see that Jesus is reminding his listeners of YHWH’s eternal covenant with and his steadfast love for his people. The focus here ought not to be on the fire but on the salt. Going with fire first places the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. 

In the first instance, the reference to everyone being salted with fire, the salt means that the aroma will be pleasing to God and that the offering will endure. Paul will later play with this language in his epistle to the Romans when he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Our bodies are supposed to be living sacrifices, proverbially placed on the altar before God, metaphorically covered with salt, that is the enduring covenant because YHWH’s steadfast, covenantal love lasts forever.

The second comment from Jesus is an example of obvious hyperbole. He says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” This doesn’t make any sense because we know that salt does not lose its salinity…and I think that’s the point. Jesus is making such an outlandish statement to demonstrate just how useless salt would be if it lost its salinity. Salt is good but salt which is no longer salty is worthless…but the salt of God’s covenant is everlasting. 

The last phrase about peace is something also straight out of the Levitical Code and from the  cultures of the ANE. Peace offerings were made between individuals when one had slighted or offended another or when one needed an ally. A key component of such an agreement was either an offering with salt because the salt represented the enduring nature of the peace being made, or a meal included salt. As I mentioned earlier with the Persian monarch and acts of fealty, loyalty, or fidelity, salt was an outward expression of an inner truth: when salt was present it meant that the bond would endure. This is why Jesus can say, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Salt is the manifestation of the covenant and peace is the natural state of relationships for those who are in covenant with God.

This goes back to what I was talking about last week with perichoresis and being in communion. Our very existence is derived from our relationship with God. Our other relationships, therefore, must also be understood within the context of our relationship with God. Covenant and salt go hand in hand.

Jesus makes similar statements during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 when he tells the disciples and listening crowd that they are the “salt of the earth.” If salt was intended to flavor and enhance the burnt offering; if it was used as part of the purification process and as a preservative representing the eternal covenant, then Jesus’ suggestion that the people be salty is of the utmost importance.

You, my friends, are to be salty people.   

Let’s play this all the way out with the same characteristics of salt:

Enhance – Our pericope started because the disciples had witnessed someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and they tried to stop him. They acted territorial about mission in the Kingdom of God as though they had the corner on the ministry market. Sounds familiar to a lot of churches. 

If the disciples had been salty, they would have enhanced the ministry of others rather than trying to stop them. The phrase “in Jesus’ name” is all we need to know: this individual was doing Kingdom work. We need to be happy about the fact that other churches in Cocoa Beach are doing legitimate Gospel ministry and support them; we need to support people at St. David’s who are doing ministry even if it’s in “our” field. Salt enhances!

Flavor – Our call as Christians and as the church is to add flavor to all that we do and to everything around us. It is good that we gather together faithfully on Sunday mornings for worship and prayer, but our mission field is where we need to be salty. Getting involved with the arts, with hands-on-outreach,

Purity and Purify – Salt was part of the koshering process as Israel sought to keep clean and pure while living in the world with others. Our call is the same. We are in the world but not of the world, set up as an alternative community, a community of the resurrection, over and against the consumerism and narcissism of the world. To be pure is to allow the Holy Spirit to form and transform our hearts and minds into Christlikeness. To purify is to set on a mission of blessing the world, setting apart people, places, and things for God’s glory, helping the to flourish. We accomplish this as being agents of reconciliation, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and inviting others into the fellowship of the redeemed.

Preserve – This is the big one. Salt is the sign of the covenant because it endures forever. God has promised us his never-ending, never-dying, stronger than death, steadfast love, and therefore we have been invited to endure, to persevere, and to be preserved. We must continue on in the faith, preserving the faith as handed down to us by the saints.

Stay salty, my friends.

Etching by Pietro del PoThe Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman asks Christ to cure, ca. 1650.

This sermon is from Sunday, September 5, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-17, and Mark 7:24-37.

From the ages of 9-17, I attended a Christian summer camp called “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” in Boswell, Pennsylvania. Like most Christian summer camps, the focus of the experience was on following Jesus couched in a plethora of outdoor activities, team events, sporting contests, and bonfires. 

It was at SB2W that I learned the “I’m Third Rule,”: God first, others second, and self third. It’s where I learned that we play for an audience of One. It’s where I learned this phrase: Attitude Check: Jesus is the Lord; Gratitude Check: Glory goes to God. 

It’s also where I repelled down a rock wall.

There was a small rocking climbing wall at a 45-degree incline for the littler kids. There was a much larger, flat-faced wall for the older kids, but the purest form of heroism was reserved for those who would ascend the stairs to the top of the climbing wall and repel down the other side. This wall was 50 feet tall, but it felt like Everest.

Imagine me, a scrawny and short 10-year old climbing to the top of this rock climbing tower. The camp counselor is telling me how to repel down the wall while tying my harness to the rope which will hopefully hold me steady. My knees are shaking, my palms are sweating, I am utterly terrified as he marches me, backward toward the edge of the precipice and begins to slowly tilt me back over the edge. 

Seeing that I’m nervous, the counselor asks: do you trust me?

Now, I know this was supposed to instill confidence in me, but I didn’t know this counselor. I didn’t know his track record of successfully belaying adolescents and pre-adolescents down the wall without dropping them to their bone-crushing doom. I believed that the harness was properly attached, I hoped that the rope would hold, and I wanted-to-believe that the counselor would do everything in his power to keep me safe.

I didn’t trust, though. 

The trip down, once I stepped off the edge, was one of my favorite memories that summer. All fear forgotten in the blink of an eye.

Trust is an interesting concept, isn’t it. It’s something that is hard to gain and easy to lose. Our money says, “In God We Trust”; some of us remember the slogan used for Jimmy Carter’s and Walter Mondale’s failed re-election bid: “A Tested and Trustworthy Team.” 

But do we truly understand what trust is?

Our Collect this morning takes this abstract question and makes it an essential grappling point for us. The Collect begins: O God, to trust in you with all our hearts.  I would like to offer you a new working definition of trust as it pertains to God. Trust is firmly believing that God is who he says he is and that he will do what he has promised to do.

Noah trusted YHWH and he built an ark; Abram trusted YHWH and he left the land of his father and made a covenant with this monotheistic God; Moses trusted YHWH and he delivered God’s people from Egypt; David trusted YHWH and he was a man after God’s own heart; Mary trusted YHWH and said, “May it be unto me.” Time and time again, YHWH reveals himself to his people by telling them who he is: I am who I am, I am the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I will be your God and you will be my people. Then he tells them what he will do: I will redeem you; I will rescue you; I will make a covenant with you; I will establish your throne forever; I will write my covenant on your hearts; I will be your God.

The Old Testament has been marching slowly and intentionally toward the day when God’s chosen one, his anointed Messiah, the faithful Israelite would come to redeem God’s people once and for all. For generations and centuries Israel walked by faith, not by sight because she trusted that God was who he said he was and that he would do all that he said he would do. The obvious caveat here is that Israel’s covenant fidelity waxed and waned like the moon, but she did still trust in YHWH even amid her sins.

So we enter the fray of Mark’s Gospel once more, this time beginning with Mark 7:24. Last Sunday we read about Jesus taking the religious leaders of Israel to task for their codes and laws of purity, and we now find ourselves immersed in a story that has long been a stumbling block for preachers. At first glance, the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman about dogs and scraps feels discordant with the gospel, and yet, once you understand it, it is the absolute most logical follow up to last week’s lesson. 

Jesus leaves the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem who have attempted to ambush him and he ends up in the region of Tyre. Here’s what you need to know about Tyre: Tyreans were not Jewish, they were Gentiles. Worse than that, Josephus describes the Tyreans as some of the Jews “bitterest enemies.” Jesus is once again behind enemy lines.

Jesus is trying to fly under the radar because the more publicity he gets the more the “powers that be” want to get rid of him. Quick recap: who are the powers that be who are upset with Jesus’ ministry?

Evil spirits, demons, and the satan
Pharisees, Scribes, Chief Priests
Rome

Jesus enters a Gentile house which would have made him unclean. A woman approaches him; she is a Gentile and therefore ritually unclean. Lastly, her daughter has an unclean spirit. 

Just so we’re clear: an unclean Gentile with an unclean daughter comes to Jesus in an unclean Gentile house. Triple whammy (that’s a theological term).

There is absolutely no reason that Jesus should be talking to this Gentile…if you’re a Pharisee.

Remember, we have just heard about all of the codes, rules, commandments, and ordinances pertaining to ritual purity and Jesus has just broken a bunch of those rules by even being in a Tyrean house with a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit.

Spoiler alert: that’s part of the beauty of this story!

The Syrophoenecian woman comes and bows down at his feet. Mark doesn’t give us her name but that’s not to make her less important to the story, it is done in order to highlight how much of an outsider she is presumably to the family of God. She prostrates herself before Jesus and while we could interpret this as an act of desperation, it is strikingly similar to the woman with bleeding whom Jesus healed earlier: this woman trusts who Jesus is based on the miracles he has already performed among the Jews and the Gentiles. And she trusts that he can do it again for her daughter.

Why else would she bow down at his feet? 

Jesus’ reaction, however, is surprising. Instead of saying yes immediately, he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is an odd response, right? We need to substitute some words then it will make more sense. “Children” refers to Israel; “food” or “bread” refers to the gospel; “dogs” refers to the Gentiles. Jesus is saying, “Israel needs to be fed first, it isn’t fair to take Israel’s gospel and give it to the Gentiles.” This seems harsh. It seems out of character. It even feels a little bit racist to think of these words in Jesus’ mouth. 

There are a wide variety of interpretations to the meaning of this passage: some say that Jesus was being sarcastic, that he is giving her the old “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” routine as he says this. But nothing in the text references such body language. Others say that Jesus was in fact intending to NOT heal her daughter based on her lack of being Jewish but that she convinced him. This doesn’t sit well because Jesus has already been performing miracles in Gentile territory in Mark’s gospel. The most obvious answer, according to a theologian with whom I agree, Rebecca Taylor, is that Jesus isn’t being sarcastic or racist, he’s acting like a good rabbi, inviting the woman to participate in a dialogue. It’s as though Jesus is egging her on, encouraging her toward the right answer, the one he knows she already has. Further up and further in, as Lewis would say.

Think about it: Jesus shouldn’t even be talking to her let alone being in the same space as her and yet he responds to her request and to her rebuttal. Jesus is treating this Gentile woman the same way that he has treated his male disciples, the woman at the well, and the woman who was bleeding.

His opening remark isn’t a barrier but an invitation. It is an invitation to explore faith and God.

This is one of those times the NRSV gets it wrong–can’t win them all–they start her response with “Sir,” but it is actually, “Lord.” This Gentile woman knows who Jesus is and she has the faith and trust to persist until he heals her daughter. The woman retorts that even the dogs get the crumbs under the table. As in, the food may have been intended for the Jews but the Gentiles are still eating it. This is consistent with salvation history–YHWH told Abram the nations of the world would be blessed through Israel; the Gentiles are always intended recipients of the Gospel.

You know how Jesus is constantly telling people, “Your faith has made you well”? The Syrophoenecian woman’s faith made her daughter well. It is the intersection of her faith and God’s mercy. Jesus is merciful to this unclean foreigner by engaging her, by elevating her, by treating her as an equal, and by responding to her faith with healing. This healing story of the Syrophoenecian’s daughter expands the reach of the Gospel very clearly into the Gentile world. All of our passages today expand the reach of the gospel because they expand the definition of neighbor

James addresses this question in his epistle when he writes, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Apparently they were elevating the rich and further marginalizing the poor. They were judging people based on their wallets. Surely that doesn’t happen any more? Proverbs talks about the poor and how the LORD pleads their case

James goes further: when we break one part of the law we break the whole law. And this is the hard saying for us this morning: do we love our neighbors as ourselves? And I don’t mean the ones who vote the same way, who spend money the same way, who read the same books, who take the same paper, who support the same teams…I mean the ones who are entirely different from us: the ones who voted for our candidate’s opponent, the ones who aren’t from America, the ones who have no money, the ones who have different skin color, the ones who don’t wear masks, the ones who do wear masks, the ones who believe there is no God. Do we love them? Because if we don’t then we are guilty of breaking one of the two great commandments.

Let’s hop back to Mark with the second part of the Collect in mind: so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy. Jesus moves on from Tyre into the region of the Decapolis. This is not the first time we have heard of this place. Meaning “ten cities,” it was mentioned earlier in Mark 5 when Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac. The man, now healed, wants to follow Jesus but Jesus tells him instead to go. Jesus says, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” Where does this man go? To the Decapolis, Gentile territory, proclaiming the good news, boasting of God’s mercy.

We should not be surprised that Jesus heals a deaf man. Everyone knows of this Jesus by this point! Despite Jesus’ attempts to stay secret, his miracles and mighty acts cannot be silenced, hidden, or ignored. Of course the actual healing is important, but it is the man’s response that is truly significant for us…

Jesus tells the observers to be quiet “but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” They are boasting of God’s mercy.

Do you know what I did every day at camp after I successfully repelled down the wall with life and limb intact? I told every camper who would listen about the counselor who kept me safe. I was boasting about his talent.

Let me ask you some simple questions: 

How has God been present and merciful in your life?
When have you experienced God’s love? His protection? His provision?
When have you seen God act?
How has God revealed himself to you in  your life?

I know you are sifting through your life as you sit here and you are beginning to formulate thoughts about events and experiences of your life that cannot be described apart from God’s presence. Perhaps it was healing, perhaps it was comfort in the face of grief, perhaps it was provision and protection. Whatever it was…you know what I’m talking about.

Our invitation from Jesus this morning is the same one he issued to the Gerasene after healing him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Those who have experienced God’s mercy are encouraged to tell others about it. It’s one thing to say, “The Bible says,” but it’s entirely different to say, “This is how God has shown up in my life.” In AA we would call that sharing our experience, strength, and hope.

Think of the chain of events: Jesus heals the demoniac in Mark 5. He sends him on his way to the Decapolis to boast of God’s mercy. In Mark 7 we come back to the Decapolis where Jesus is now known, he heals again, and again they go out boasting of God’s mercy. This is how the Kingdom of God grows: God uses ordinary men and women, like you and me, who experience God’s mercy, to then enact God’s mercy and announce God’s mercy.

Friends, if we are going to get serious about sharing our faith, about inviting others to join us on God’s mission, then we need to enact and announce God’s mercy in action and in proclamation.

My prayer for St. David’s is this: That we would become a place where people meet Jesus. That St. David’s would be known as a holy ground where men and women encounter the Living God in the midst of their lives. That we would become a holy people who boast in God’s mercy by telling others what God has done for us. That we would be anointed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to show others who Jesus is.

Right Rev. Richard Gilmour, D.D. Bible History: Containing the Most Remarkable Events of the Old and New Testaments, with a Compendium of Church History (New York, New York: Benziger Brothers, 1904) 204

Lessons: Psalm 28, 1 Kings 8:65-9:9, James 2:1-14, Mark 14:66-72 (NRSV)

Our Gospel text today is one of those “difficult” passages with almost no words of hope or comfort. I say almost because I actually think there is a great deal of comfort to be found in the final verse, but we don’t get the relief of this comfort until and unless we have traveled through the messy bits first.

For the last month I have been incorporating Morning Prayer into my morning every day and it has been quite the joyful occasion to spend this time in prayer, reflection, and the study of Scripture. To make it even more fun, I am using the Daily Office readings with the students for chapel at Holy Trinity on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays which means that this week I get to preach on the Gospel of Mark 4 days in a row on passages that are in chronological order!

By this point in Mark 14, Jesus has celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples; he has predicted that Peter will betray him three times before the cock crows; he has gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray that the cup would pass from him saying, “yet know what I want, but what you want”; he has been arrested in the Garden after Judas’ betrayal; and most recently he has been dragged before the chief priests and the High Priest where he is condemned to death for blasphemy for saying that he was the Messiah, the Blessed One, the Son of Man who would come on clouds from heaven to reign forever.

Our passage picks up the story from Peter’s perspective as all of this is transpiring. Jesus is upstairs being interrogated, accused, condemned, and beaten while Peter is down in the courtyard below trying to hear and see everything that is going on.

It’s as though Mark is asking us to use our own sanctified imaginations here. How many of us can remember trying to eavesdrop outside of our parents’ bedroom as children when they were having a serious conversation? I’m reminded of a scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry and his cousin Dudley have a silent scuffle outside of a door to see who would listen through the keyhole and who would be forced to lie on the floor to try and observe the goings on.

Either way, you have to imagine what is going on through Peter’s heart and mind at this moment. He is desperate to hear news of his rabbi’s sentence. His faithful teacher, his mentor and friend, has been arrested before his very eyes. Peter has been present throughout the story as the Pharisees, Scribes, and chief priests started to grumble. Do you know why grumbling is so bad and why it is such an issue for Moses and Paul? Because grumbling begets discontent which begets anger which begets rebellion and pretty soon you have a murderous crowd ready to kill the Messiah and Savior of the world.

Peter has been present for all of this. 
He knows the intent of the crowd.
He knows how “rebellions” and “insurrections” are handled by the religious authorities or even the Empire.
You have to assume that he knows the “Hosannas” might become “Crucify him.”

Why else would he hide his identity? 

That’s the interesting part of this story, isn’t it. There is only one reason for Peter to try and hide who he is: he is deeply afraid that he will be next. Peter is scared that if he is discovered as one of Jesus’ followers that he will be arrested and killed as well. There can truly be no other reasoning here…and how do we know that?

Because during the centuries which Christians consider to be the silence of the intertestamental period, many religious zealots tried to lead rebellions against Rome and all of them met the same end: death. Punishment. Scorn. Being squashed out. Even Gamaliel tells us this much in Acts when Peter and the disciples are preaching about the resurrection. He says that if this is a man-made thing then it will be squashed the same way every other insurrection has been dealt with, but if this is of God then there is no stopping it.

Spoiler alert: there is no stopping the forward movement of the Kingdom of God.

Back to the story, Peter is identified. It’s like every spy movie or cop show you’ve ever seen when the undercover informant has her cover blown. You cringe, worrying about what will happen to them. Peter doesn’t bend, though. He doesn’t give it up even though he is recognized. He keeps adding insult to injury by denying his relationship with Jesus one time after another. He doubles down one last time but this time he goes a step further and he even curses Jesus in his denial of him. Peter goes from bad to worse by adding this curse; so fierce is his desire to stay alive that he is willing to deny and curse his Lord. It was a slave girl who recognized him the first two times and he doesn’t have to work too hard to deny it, but when the crowd notices his Galilean accent he is forced to wholly accept or reject Jesus…

There is no way around it: this is an ICKY passage.

It isn’t a surprise that Peter does this 3 times. It is not just that Jesus said this would happen, but the earliest readers of Mark’s gospel would have been familiar with the common practice of persecutors asking Christians to denounce their faith, to even curse Jesus, and this would often be done with a triplet of questions. There still exist persecutors and haters of Christianity throughout the world who try to force renunciations of faith from their victims before executing them. Nothing has changed in 2000 years.

After the third denial, the cock crows and Peter is instantly reminded of what Jesus said.

We could, at this point, conclude our passage and lambast Peter for his lack of faith. 
We could examine our own religious zeal and determine that Peter was sinful and in the wrong.
We could let this reading produce self-righteousness within us: at least I’m not like Peter.

But there is a problem with self-righteousness. I’ll let you hear it from the inestimable Fleming Rutledge because she has said it far better than I ever could: “Whenever we are sure that we are among the righteous, we immediately find ourselves among the arrogant.”

It would be arrogant to stop this passage before the last verse without seeing what God would have for us:

It is Peter’s response to his betrayal, my dear friends, that we are called to emulate. 

Peter remembers the words of his Lord.
He breaks down. 
And he weeps.

That is contrition. 
That is repentance. 
That is rending-your-hearts-and-not-your-garments. 

Our passage from James’ epistle tells us that faith without works is dead. We talk a lot about how we are justified through faith alone in Christ alone, and that is certainly true, but James makes it clear that our faith better have the works to back it up. Peter’s faith was without works for 95% of our passage today. He hid his identity, he kept quiet his relationship with Jesus, and he denied him three times. His faith was hidden. However, when confronted by his own sinfulness Peter had works in spades: he remembers, he breaks down, and he weeps.

Are we arrested by the depths of our own sins that we break down and weep?
Do we rend our hearts at the thought of our betrayals?

We know how the story ends: Jesus will reinstate Peter by asking him 3 times if he loves him. Those three times are meant to symbolize the three times he denied his Lord. But then Jesus is going to tell Peter that he is going to meet a similar end: he is going to be led to where he does not want to go and he will be killed…this time, however, Peter is not afraid. Or at least he is not scared enough to balk about the foretelling. Peter will move forward from that reinstatement with the same boldness and brash humility that he exhibited in the gospels, but this time it will lead him to his own upside down cross…and he moves forward with his head held high in faith and works.

Are we willing to pay the price for following Jesus? Are we willing to face social and relational scorn from our friends, families, neighbors, and strangers by being “Jesus freaks”? Are we willing to submit the entirety of our lives to Christ and his Kingdom? If so, if we truly are, then not only will our hearts break when we sin, but we will also be compelled to follow him regardless of where that might lead us. It might lead you to invite your friends to church; to tell your families to watch our livestream or to plug into their local church; it might mean that you share the gospel with someone else and introduce them to Jesus. 

Christianity is not a matter of tracking how many times we mess up and sin as though God’s grace and forgiveness will dry up…it is an invitation to live in light of grace and forgiveness, ever praying that we would grow in Christlikeness on a daily basis. And that is truly Good News.

This sermon was prepared, written, and preached for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, Florida where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11.

Words have power.

For better or for worse, our words have the ability to build up tear down, make whole or divide, give life or destroy, celebrate or denigrate. With just a few words we can let someone know that we love and value them, or we can communicate our hatred and animosity.

In communications theory, there exists the concept of power-words. A power-word is “a word that often evokes an emotional response, positive or negative, in the target audience, leading to a desired outcome.”[1] That is, leaders or communicators will use certain words in their speeches to incite hope or hatred, excitement or aversion, repentance or riot.

We must agree that after the last four years in this country, and the last four days specifically that words have power. Political slogans and campaigns, rhetoric on Twitter, Facebook, and social media, uncivil discourse and dialogue. As a nation, our words have become too loaded, too volatile, too charged. On Wednesday, we witnessed the unprecedented and evil actions which were the natural and obvious manifestation of words from the last 4 years.

Friends, we need to examine our own words and actions to see if they are in alignment with the God and his kingdom.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.[2]

The Episcopal Church devotes the first Sunday after the Epiphany to the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. Years A, B, and C all include a variation of Jesus’ baptism, borrowing from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The church has decided together that God’s words spoken to, about, and over Jesus are significant.

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[3]

These words are full of power. They were not just important for Jesus nor for the first century Christians: they carry significant weight and power for us.

We begin our Gospel lesson four verses into Mark’s opening chapter. If you think that this looks familiar…it does! This is our 4th time looking at this passage in the last 6 weeks!

The lesson opens with John the baptizer. John has come proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A better translation of this verse would be “proclaiming a baptism of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins.”

Why baptism? Prior to New Testament, Israel had no functional equivalent for our Christian understanding of baptism. John’s baptism was an altogether new phenomenon; many believe that the closest Jewish precedent for this was “the ritual cleansing by immersion of a Gentile on becoming a proselyte.” That is, if someone who wasn’t Jewish wanted to convert to Judaism, they would have to undergo a ritual cleansing. “But John’s baptism was for Jews; to ask them to undergo the same initiatory ritual as was required of a Gentile convert was a powerful statement of John’s theology of the people of God…to be born a Jew was not enough.”[4]

John’s baptism is all about repentance. The Greek word here is metanoia, and it means to turn around, an about face. It would be as though you were walking south down A1A and then you had a moment of metanoia in which you turned 180* and went north. It is more than a feeling or an expression, it is always accompanied by action.

Repentance is always turning away from something and turning toward something else. This is why repentance is a verb and not a theory. Saying sorry is one thing, but an amendment of life is the fullness of an apology. Here is what repentance actually looks like…

As part of the turning away it is…

Renouncing Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.
Renouncing the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.
Renouncing all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.[5]

This means decrying the acts of hatred and violence this past Wednesday as evil and wicked.
This means confessing all acts of violence as evil.
We must also announce corruption, systemic injustice, racism, agism, sexism, classism, and poverty as evil.
This means putting to death all forms of idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling, prejudice, judgmentalism, hatred, lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, slandering, and other forms of sinful behavior.

This is both corporate and individual.

If we renounce these things, if we actively turn away from them, then toward what or whom do we turn instead?

We need to read further before we answer that question.

People from the whole Judean countryside and from Jerusalem come and join John in the wilderness. They are baptized by him in the Jordan as they confess their sins. One commentator suggests that John’s voice crying out in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” is the most significant event in Israel’s history for 300 years.[6] The people come to him from all over because he was preaching something different than the rest of the religious leaders of the day. Whether it was categorically different or simply on account of his zeal, the people recognize in him the prophetic tradition.

This is why we are told that John “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” These depictions should bring to mind images of Israel’s great prophet, Elijah who came preaching repentance to all of Israel. 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah as “the hairy man with the leather belt.” There is even thought that John was baptizing at the precise location where Elijah was taken up into heaven…

John isn’t here to simply immerse people in water…he’s here as a herald of the eschaton; he baptizes in the Jordan as a proclamation that YHWH is on the move once more.

In verse 7, John makes his pronouncement about the superiority of the one who is coming after him. For week, I have used the analogy of the sports fan who would wear a large “foam finger” to games when talking about John. John was wearing a figurative foam finger at all times, constantly pointing up to the Father and then directly to Jesus.[7] We have already discussed this verse at length, but I’d like to recall two main points. First, John differentiates his baptism with Jesus on account of the Holy Spirit. Second, John places himself below the role of a servant in relationship to Jesus. It was a servant’s job to untie the thongs of a sandal and John says he isn’t even fit for that role…the suspense is building toward the emergence of this “Greater One.”

A quick note on water. John is not denigrating the role of water in baptism but is rather elevating the presence and immersion of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry. You may have noticed that water was present in all of our lessons this morning. The Spirit hovered over the deep waters in creation, God’s voice was spoken over the waters in the Psalm, and the waters of baptism wash over those who receive this sacrament. Water has always been a symbol of life and birth. We are born in water, our bodies are made up of 60% water, the earth is 71% water, and we are re-born in the waters of baptism.

The baptismal liturgy includes this prayer over water:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.[8]

Water was a core symbol and image for Israel. John is not doing away with the water, but is rather pointing to the Spirit who was hovering over the waters because it is the Spirit who will cause rebirth, not the water itself.

We finally arrive at the scene with Jesus. Verse 9 is nonchalant and casual, almost dull. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” This is significant because we were previously told that those from Judea and Jerusalem were coming to John for baptism, that is, the remnant of Israel, but now we have “a stranger from the North.” Remember, Jesus’ birth pedigree is royal but now he lives in backwater Nazareth…

John is expertly setting up this dynamic encounter, though. Verse 10 is teeming with activity compared to the limited mobility of the previous verse.

“And just as he was coming up out of the waters.” This is the first time in Greek that Mark uses his favorite phrase, “immediately.” He will use this 41 times in his Gospel…it is only used 51 in the whole of the New Testament. Mark is trying to grab our attention with this.

It says that the heavens were “torn apart.” The Greek word here is the counterpart to the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 63 when it says, “Lord rend the heavens and come down.” This is also the verb used to describe the veil of the temple being torn in two. This is no accident or coincidence; Mark is saying something significant! Jesus’ baptism is essential because

This is what it looks like when God rends open the heavens.
God rending the heavens and coming down looks like the Son of God receiving the baptism of repentance in the Jordan

Or, to borrow from Mary Healy, “The whole cosmos is impacted by Jesus’ act of humility. The heavens are not gently opened but torn asunder—a sign that the barrier between God and man is being removed.”[9]

If we turn away from Satan, sin, and evil in our repentance, to whom do we turn toward?

You turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior.
You put your whole trust in his grace and love.
You promise to follow and obey him as your Lord.[10]

Jesus did not need this baptism. Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. Jesus has nothing of which he needed to repent…and yet, he receives this baptism all the same. Why? It was an act of body language; it was God’s self-identifying with the suffering of his people under the weight of sin; it was Jesus standing in solidarity with humanity; the King of the Jews was in essence saying that it was not enough to be born a Jew.

Jesus turns toward the Father in his baptism and he invites us to turn toward the Father with him. We must follow Jesus as Lord as he follows the Father. In Jesus we are given the image of the invisible God; Jesus is the light to lighten our path. Jesus is the light of the world and his light shines forth in creation three days before the sun, moon, and stars are created. The light of Jesus reveals the glory of the Father!

The Spirit descends on Jesus. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation. Just as John promised that the Powerful One would baptize with the Spirit. The holy trinity is present in this baptism; the Father speaks his loving words to the Son, the Son of God and the Son of David, the one who is fully God and fully man, stands in the Jordan fully identifying with Israel and all of humanity, and the Spirit descends.

Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?[11]

The statement from the Father here is definitive. He does not call Jesus a son of God but rather the Son, the beloved.

Mark’s gospel doesn’t quite answer why the baptism of the Spirit is greater than John’s baptism of water, but our lesson from Acts does. Paul goes to Ephesus as asks if the believers have heard of the Spirit and sadly they have not. Mary Healy says it this way: baptism in the Holy Spirit is “a coming alive of the graces received in sacramental baptism.”[12]

Friends, you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You have been sealed by the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. What does it look like to live as a baptized disciple of Jesus? It means that you…

Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to God.
Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.[13]

To close this sermon, I will pray over each and every one of you. This prayer is a compilation of prayers and statements from the liturgy of Holy Baptism in the prayer book. The intention here is for you to reaffirm your baptismal covenant. (If you have not yet been baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, please write me an email so we can talk about baptism. If you have not yet been confirmed in the faith by an Episcopal bishop or received from another diocese or body, please write me so we can talk about fixing this.)

May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Deliver them, O Lord, from the way of sin and death. Open their hearts to your grace and truth. Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit. Keep them in the faith and communion of your holy Church. Teach them to love others in the power of the Spirit. Send them into the world in witness to your love. Bring them to the fullness of your peace and glory.[14]


[1] https://www.yourdictionary.com/power-word
[2] Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 308.
[3] Mark 1:11.
[4] R. T. France, NIGTC Commentary on Mark, 66.
[5] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302.
[6] R.T. France in his NIGTC commentary on Mark.
[7] I had a foam finger hidden in the pulpit which I placed on my hand for this portion of the sermon.
[8] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 306.
[9] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[10] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302-3.
[11] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304.
[12] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[13] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304-5.
[14] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 305-6, 310.

This sermon was prepared, written, and preached for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, Florida where I serve as Rector. I selected the lessons for Christmas I to be used on Christmas Eve.

“The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’”

Since 2010, Google has released a video every December chronicling the “Year in Search.” These dramatic videos highlight the ups and downs of the year: achievements, tragedies, crises, highs, and lows. In short, the moments which have affected the whole world. As you can imagine, the year 2020 deserved a video just as powerful as it has been devastating, and Google delivered.

The video starts with a nighttime view of the globe from outer space. The narrator begins, “The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’

“And in a year that tested everyone around the world, why was searched more than ever…and while we didn’t find all the answers, we kept searching.”

The video then rolls through pictures and clips of the havoc that 2020 has wreaked on humanity: the start of Covid, home videos from the first round of quarantine, Space X, Kobe Bryant, the wildfires of Australia and California, Beirut, George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Black Lives Matter, Chadwick Bosman, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Coronavirus vaccines, and the rising death tolls.

“The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’”

Google’s video is an uplifting homage to humanity’s resilience and fortitude, but the makers of the video leave the message very open-ended. The video opened with the claim that “while we didn’t find all the answers, we kept searching” and it closes with one line:

Until we get to every answer…we’re still searching.

We’re still searching.

The video is not devoted to humanity’s resilience, but rather to humanity’s innate ability to ask questions and a deep need for answers…

And it’s not just Google. YouTube recently released a much shorter video stating that the most searched for topic in 2020 was “how.” How do I do this? How does this work?

How, how, how?

Why, why, why?

Beloved, the world is asking questions…

…but do we have answers?

Today/tonight we begin our celebration of the Nativity of our Lord, the birth of Jesus. Advent has been a long walk through darkness, ever lighting one more candle, ever taking one step closer to the birth of our Savior. Isaiah heralds an immediate and dramatic end to the darkness:

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

Israel had been walking in darkness for centuries. After the Exodus, Israel grumbled and complained and wandered in the desert for 40 years; after Joshua came the Judges with their on-again-off-again, we-love-him-we-love-him-not relationship with God; after the Judges, Israel had the gumption to request a king “like the rest of the nations.” This isn’t all bad because we get David who becomes the archetype for the one who will sit and reign on the throne forever…but soon after David and Solomon the whole thing begins to fall apart as king after king abandons YHWH, choosing spiritual darkness by worshipping false gods. Israel is eventually conquered by a succession of empires: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and then Rome.

In short, the darkness mentioned at the beginning of Isaiah 9 wasn’t short lived; it went on for generations. Isaiah’s passage could be taken to reflect his-present-day circumstances as though there might be relief from oppression and exile, but it is clear that this is the descriptive depiction of a future event.

There will be a time when darkness is replaced by light, when death is replaced by joy, when oppression is replaced by deliverance.

There will be a day when peace will reign over the throne of David and his kingdom.

There will be a day when the yoke of burden, the rod of the oppressor, and the bar across their shoulders are broken.

Who will accomplish all of this? YHWH will. God will make good on his promises; God will fulfill the covenant; God will redeem, rescue, reconcile, and restore his people.

Forgive the pun, but after the poignant prose of Isaiah 9, Psalm 96, and Titus 2, we are left asking ourselves, what child is this?

At the opening of Luke’s gospel, Israel was under the occupation and authority of Rome, one of the most brutal and ruthless empires the world had ever seen. The beauty of the gospel is that the narrative is the inverse of what you would expect in a great story. Certainly, it is the exact opposite of what Israel expected. Israel was looking for the one who would be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.” But the emergence of the light of life, the light of the world is precisely not the bursting forth of military might, political power, or socio-economic superiority.

It is actually against this very backdrop that our story takes place in Luke’s gospel…

…and that’s the whole point!

We are told that Caesar Augustus called for a census of the whole world. Caesar’s intentions are utterly irrelevant to the story because God uses the history and circumstances of the world for his own purposes. Why then does Luke tell us of the census? Easy: because it is this very census which brings Joseph from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of David. The decree was clear that all “went to their towns to be registered” and David was “descended from the house and family of David.”

This is not a throwaway line, my friends. Luke is playing it cool, but this detail is of great significance: the prophesies of the Old Testament were certain that God would send one faithful Israelite from the line of David to sit on David’s throne forever. Despite being born in poverty and disrepute, Jesus has royal blood coursing through his veins.

The actual birth narrative in Luke’s gospel is rather brief and anticlimactic. The focus of Luke’s gospel has thus far been on the annunciation to Mary, the shared joy of Mary and Elizabeth, and the songs that Mary and Elizabeth each sing in response to the good news they received from on high. We read Mary’s Magnificat this last Sunday. It is filled with political overtones. She sang about the world being turned upside down, about the radical reversal of reality, about God hearing the cries of his people and exalting the lowly. Today we are simply told that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to register, she was pregnant, she gave birth and laid him in a manger because there was no room at the inn.

And that’s it.

Royal children are born in regal, palatial, elegant settings and yet the Savior, the Messiah, God incarnate comes to us in the form of a helpless babe, to an unwed mother in the backyard of the Roman Empire where Caesar is known as the son of god.

But our story is not yet over. The scene shifts and Luke tells us of shepherds who were watching their flock at night. Shepherds were at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to class and significance. Being a shepherd was not an appropriate or aspirational career path for an individual. And despite the lowly nature of shepherds, Israel has a long history of shepherd-leaders: Moses and David.

Is it no surprise, then, that the angel of the Lord would appear before shepherds announcing the birth of the King of kings?

The good news of Jesus’ birth is that the lowly are being lifted up,

the high and mighty will tumble,

the world will be put to rights.

Salvation has come.

The good news is for all people.

It isn’t just for the people who read the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal nor is it only for those who read Guns and Ammo.

It isn’t just good news for those in the top 1% nor it is only good news for the poorest of the poor.

It isn’t just good news for the Jews nor the Greeks nor the Romans nor the Gentiles.

It is good news for all people.

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Friends, the light of the gospel, the light of the world was born in the humblest of ways and yet his birth has had, is having, and will have ramifications far beyond the joy experienced by his parents or even the excitement of the lowly shepherds. This is the beginning of a history-altering-event which has forever shaped and changed the world.

This Advent, I have repeatedly claimed that we cannot separate Jesus’ first coming from his second coming, and today we need to take this a step further: you cannot separate the incarnation, when God put on flesh, from the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

The very, very good news of Christmas is that Jesus’ birth is the beginning of all he accomplished through his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father.

The significance of Christ’s birth cannot be overstated: it is the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. It is the birth of Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. It is the birth of the faithful Israel who assumed our humanity and who would destroy sin, suffering, and death.

Like Google and YouTube, we might be left asking questions: How did the incarnation work? Why did Jesus come? How does his birth have meaning for us? Why didn’t he vanquish Rome?

We are asking the wrong questions. Just as Google and YouTube have suggested, we have questions and we want answers, but we need to start asking the right question. It is not a matter of how or why but of who.

Who is it that we worship?

Who is this Christ?

The darkness cannot overcome the light of Christ. Jesus was born that he might break the yoke of burden, the rod of the oppressor, and the bar on their shoulders, the bars of sin, suffering, and death on our shoulders. He came to rescue, redeem, restore, and reconcile all people to the Father, a mission which far exceeded Rome or empires or Caesars.

This wasn’t about Rome, it was about sin and our separation from God, it was about our inability to keep the covenant, it was about the grace of God for all people, it was about Christ assuming our humanity that he might redeem us completely.

There is no shortage of good news tonight. The good news is that light has burst forth into the world; that love has come down from heaven, put on flesh, and dwells among us.

The opportunity in front of us is to carry this good news to the ends of the earth that all nations might be blessed, just as God intended Israel to do all the way back in Genesis 12. As you sit in the church today, or at home via the livestream, and as you consider the good news of Christ’s first coming, I implore you to consider how this might be good news for all people. As humanity continues to search for truth, purpose, and answers to all of the hard questions of life, we have a unique and urgent opportunity to show them that they aren’t looking in the right place. YouTube and Google are telling us that the world is asking how and why, but we need to show the world that the answer is actually who.

Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ. He is the author of salvation and perfector of faith. He is the one who put on flesh in the form of a helpless babe; he is the one from the line and house of David who will sit on David’s throne and reign forever in glory and majesty, ushering in his peace. He is the one who brings light, love, hope, peace, joy, and mercy as he ushers in his kingdom. Jesus is the one who has come to radically reverse reality, to turn the world upside down, to show that the lowly will be exalted, to put the world to rights. He is the one who has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, to bring sight to the blind, to free the captive, to crush the stranglehold that sin has over each of us.

What child is this? The King of kings and Lord of lords…glory to God in the highest!

Beloved, the world is asking questions. The world is searching for meaning and understanding.

What kind of answer are you prepared to give?

This was written and preached for the people of St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church for the Third Sunday in Advent, December 13, 2020. The lectionary texts were Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, and John 1:6-8, 19-28.

I’d like to begin with a quote from two great 20th century philosophers, Simon and Garfunkel:

Hello darkness, my old friend.

But seriously, let’s talk about darkness.

25 years ago, Fleming Rutledge, lovingly referred to by many as “the patron saint of Advent,” stated that Advent begins in the dark.

Our liturgical celebration of Advent begins in darkness on the first Sunday of Advent. The wreath, candles, and Christ candle are present, but without light. Each Sunday we light a candle, adding one more than before. It takes four weeks to light them all and it isn’t until Christmas Eve that we light the Christ candle and see the light of the world filling the darkness.[1]

In the Northern Hemisphere, Advent quite literally begins in the dark as we drawer ever closer to the Winter Solstice; the day when we have the least amount of light all year. It is no coincidence that we celebrate the birth of the Son of God on the same day that the Sun pours its light back into our days.

This year the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will form a “Christmas Star” on December 21st for the first time in 800 years. The darkness of Winter Solstice will be brighter this year because of the Christmas Star…tell me that won’t preach!

Light and darkness are part of our gospel passage this morning. We read that John came to testify to the light, but we have to back up a few verses to understand who the light was.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was darkness in the beginning. Genesis 1 tells us, “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Before God created the heavens and the earth there was darkness. God’s first words in Genesis were let there be light. And there was. This passage from John 1 references the very same light that we see spoken into world in Genesis: the light of all people. Jesus.

And this light cannot be overcome by darkness.

One final layer of darkness, this passage was written as the opening of John’s gospel wherein Israel had been in a period of “darkness” or “silence” from God. There are over 400 years of silence between the prophets in the Old Testament and the Gospels of the New Testament.

Imagine a play: the prophets enter from stage right during the era of the kings and kingdom of Israel. At first, they come with words of warning: repent and return to God or else you will be exiled. After a succession of bad kings which resulted in exile and captivity, later prophets came with a word of hope: repent and return to God for he is going to rescue you.

The first act of the play ends with the prophets and their words-of-hope. We know from passages like Psalm 126 that the captives were brought back to Zion and they came with great joy. The lights go up, everyone goes to intermission to buy a snack or use the facilities, and then the audience goes back into the theatre, the lights dim, and the curtain is raised.

And there’s nothing.

Nothing on stage.

No light.

Israel is back in her land, but she is under Roman occupation.

The fiercest empire the world had ever seen.

And then you hear a voice.

A voice crying out in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord.

This is Advent.

This is our life.

We live in a perpetual Advent.

We started with John 1:1-5 because the lectionary compilers curiously began in verse 6 with the description of a man named John who was sent to testify to the light. Our first interpretive task this morning is to assess the role that John the baptizer plays in John’s gospel. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), John the baptizer is presented as a religious zealot who ate funny food, wore funny clothes, and who preached repentance and forgiveness. In John’s gospel, however, we are given a different picture of the baptizer: John’s sole role in the gospel is to testify about Jesus, to bear witness to the messiah.

Why?

We aren’t told the purpose of John’s gospel until the very end—unlike Luke who states his purpose at the beginning of his gospel and the book of Acts. The final two verses of John read, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”[2]

John’s gospel is about belief.

It is about belief in Jesus.

Belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

We are told in John 1:6 that John-the-baptizer was sent by God. The language suggests John is but a representative or messenger of God. It is the same verb used later in the passage when the Pharisees sent representatives to John, asking who he was.

In verse 7 we read: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” He’s referring to Jesus as the light, the light of life, the word who was with God in the beginning. And John came to testify to that light. Why? So that all might believe.

The gospel writer will go to great lengths to articulate Jesus’ superiority and preeminence to John. Verse 8 tells us that John was not the light. There was a sect of Jews in the earliest centuries after Jesus who broke away from the Jews-turned-Christians. This other sect believed that John, not Jesus, was the Messiah. The author of this gospel is trying to make abundantly clear in his opening, then, that Jesus is superior to John. Jesus is the Messiah.

After these 3 verses we skip ahead to verse 19 where we find John being questioned by the representatives of the Pharisees. We are again told in verse 19 that “this is the testimony given by John” when the Jews sent their priestly representatives to him. John is deep into his ministry at this point. Otherwise, how could he have possibly gotten the attention of the religious elite in Jerusalem? How would they even know he is preaching and baptizing in the wilderness?

The representatives are sent to John and they ask him, “Who are you?” This is a loaded question…

Who are you? is the equivalent of asking Are you the Messiah?

John knows this because he responds with, I am not the Messiah.

Notice how the gospel tells us John’s response; the sentence is clunky, awkward, and repetitive: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” John the baptizer did not deny the existence of the Messiah. Rather in stating that he was not the Messiah he confessed that another (Jesus) was. John will later proclaim, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,”[3] when he sees Jesus approach. John identifies Jesus as the Messiah. His confession of “I am not the Messiah” is not like the confession of sins to a priest, nor like the confession of a crime to a detective. It is a profound confession of faith.

The priestly representatives ask him two follow-up questions: Are you Elijah? and Are you the prophet? John answers these questions the same way, “I am not.” This is interesting since the Synoptic Gospels—remember, Matthew, Mark and, Luke—present John as a prophetic successor to Elijah. Why, then, does he deny it in this gospel?

These two questions are just as loaded as their opening question of Who are you?

First,when they ask if he is Elijah they are really asking if he has come to restore the 12 tribes of Israel. Elijah was taken up to heaven without dying; it was a common belief amongst Jews that he would come back to restore the tribes. John says no because this is Jesus’ role, not his!

Second, when they ask if he’s the prophet they are referring to this concept of a second Moses whom we read about in Deuteronomy 18:15. Moses was the greatest prophet Israel had ever known and yet Moses tells Israel that one was coming after him who would surpass him. Thus, John says no because while he is a prophet, he is not the prophet who will come to fulfill the law…again, that is Jesus.

Do you see now how John is actually pointing to Jesus the entire time? His “nos” are a confession of who Jesus is.

Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus is the Elijah figure come to restore the tribes.

Jesus is the prophet, the second Moses, come to fulfill the law.

Jesus is the light who has come into the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome him.

John’s three “I am not” statements serve as negative mirrors to Jesus’ seven famous “I am” statements in John’s gospel. The gospel writer is contrasting John and Jesus for us! What’s more, John’s three “I am not” statements are to be compared with Peter’s three denials of Jesus at the end of the book…

We are living in a year when the word darkness hits a little too close to home. Covid-19, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a divided country, increases in suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse. The list goes on. If we’re honest, it feels like total darkness.

Did you know that true darkness doesn’t actually exist? Sure, we understand the idea of “pitch black” or “total darkness,” but in actuality we cannot find nor achieve total darkness because there is always something, some object which emits a dim-light-emitting-energy.[4] Darkness is the absence of light and the good news is that the light of the world can never be overcome. It’s almost as if the triumph of light has been baked into the cake since the beginning of creation.

Two weeks ago, you heard me echo Karl Barth when I posited that the church is living in a perpetual Advent season. I’d like to flesh that out even further using our light/darkness motif and suggest to you that the Christian life is lived in twilight.

We occupy the between time of already and not yet. Barbara Brown Taylor, a gifted Episcopal priest and writer, describes twilight this way: “that lovely liminal space between dark and light.”[5]

This lovely liminal space between the already but the not yet is the place where we see God’s kingdom being ushered in. We know that the light has come, is coming, and will come. The precise timing of that second coming is unknown, unexpected. The light given from “the already” of Jesus’ first advent gives us the ability to watch and wait for his second coming.

Keeping in mind that today is Joy Sunday, I would like to give you something to rejoice about:

Isaiah’s opening words in Isaiah 61 are meant for you. Christ has come proclaiming the year of the LORD’s favor, sight to the blind, good news to the oppressed, release to the prisoners, liberty to the captives. Beloved, please hear me say this: those things which have held you in bondage have been forgiven in Christ. The anger, the hatred, the addiction, the lying, the cheating, the stealing, the infidelity, the abuse, the broken relationships, the malicious and vindictive behavior, the very sins which have held you in bondage have been broken through Jesus Christ. He is proclaiming the year of the LORD’s favor to you. Today. That is the good news!

And this good news isn’t for you to hoard or keep secret, but to share with the whole world. John’s sole purpose in this gospel is to bear witness to Jesus, to point to who Jesus is, to testify to Jesus as the light of the world.

And friends…that is your job, too.

Just like John the baptizer, you are not the light…your call is to bear witness to the light! Your job as a Christian and our calling as a church is to tell the whole world about who Jesus is and what he has done. John never intentionally drew attention to himself nor did he allow anyone to think that he was the messiah or light of life.

We need to echo John: you must increase and I must decrease. More of you, Lord Jesus. More of you. This world doesn’t need any more narcissisms, self-help, or self-absorption…this world needs more Jesus. You are called to be a herald, messenger, representative, and witness of the light just like John was.

You are called to rejoice like those brought back to Zion from captivity. They sang and shouted and rejoiced crying out, “The Lord has done great things for us!” Our tears have been turned to joy…and our joy is to become a proclamation that the light has come and the darkness cannot overcome it.


[1] This is why the Christ Candle is used to light all other candles during “Silent Night” at the conclusion of Christmas Eve services.

[2] John 20:30-31.

[3] John 1:29

[4] Black body radiation

[5] Email correspondence from 12/11/20.

This was originally published in 2018 for our (then) parish blog. It has been altered and updated for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church where I now serve as Rector.

Memory and thanksgiving. They are part and parcel of the Christian life, friends. One could sum up the whole of Israel’s life in the Old Testament and the life of the early church with these two words. We are a people of memory and a people who give thanks to God for what he has given us. Is this not why we gather on Sunday mornings? This is heightened or brought into sharper focus during the two-day celebration of All Saints (Nov 1) and All Souls (Nov 2).

All Saints

The Feast of All Saints is a time for the church to gather and celebrate those who have gone before us in the faith. On All Saints we look beyond the borders of both denominational distinctions and chronological time in order to bear witness to the great cloud of witnesses. The Collect for All Saints begins, “you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.” We join our voices with the mystical body across both time and space when we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of power and might” at the beginning of the Eucharist.

You have heard it said before, and you will hear it said again: you cannot be a Christian in a vacuum. It takes a church to be a Christian, it takes the body of Christ to grow, shape, form, and nurture a Christian in godly living. The fellowship we have at St. David’s is a foretaste of the glory divine we will be sharing with every saint who has gone before and who shall come after.

The liturgy for All Saints makes clear that our celebration is directed toward an expectation: that we would follow the saints in “all virtuous and godly living.” The example laid before us over the last two millennia of the church is vast, deep, and wide. Part of the beauty of All Saints is that we recall those who have preceded us, and in so doing, bring them into the present that we might learn from them. Our creedal proclamation of believing in the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” is more fully realized on All Saints Day.

All Souls

All Souls – or sometimes known as All Faithful Departed – is the day set aside for us to give specific thanks for those who have recently died in the Lord. This year we remember in particular John Rockefeller, Gary Tharp, and others who have died in the last year. Several others remember family members they’ve lost this year. The beauty of All Souls is that we have a time set aside to celebrate their lives and memories together.

If I may move from blogging to meddling: do not go through All Souls alone. Anniversaries of death can be particularly painful, and as I’ve already mentioned, being a Christian is not a solitary activity. I urge you to corporately give thanks for those who have died by reaching out to their loved ones and friends. Send a text or an email, make a phone call, go and see someone: do it together!

On this day, as with every other day, we boldly proclaim that we are a people of hope. The reading from 1 Corinthians 15 – commonly used on All Souls – solidifies this as we read, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Through the death and resurrection of Jesus we have become a people who know that death does not have the last word, that Life will be victorious, and that Jesus has trampled down death. May our grief and sorrow be turned to joy on this day as we remember our loved ones and await the fullness of the coming kingdom.  

All Saints and All Souls remind us that we are not alone. The Christian life can feel lonely and arduous at times, but we have the many examples of saints and fellow sojourners who can teach us and guide us through the harder times and rocky paths. The focal point of our thanksgiving and memory is always the same: our triune God. We might recall individuals, but we do so as part of worshipping Almighty God from whom all good things and blessings flow.

Photo by Daniel Borges on Pexels.com

My boys are growing up. Sure, they’re still little— not even teenagers at this point!—but they are getting older. The bittersweet reality of parenting is that children grow and transform before your very eyes and while you are excited about who they are becoming, you are also left with a sadness over each closing of a chapter.

I vividly remember bouncing each of those babies to sleep from the time they were infants until they were toddlers. My arms can still feel the weight of their little bodies as they curled up against me; I can still smell their sweet breath and feel their hair on my neck. It has been over five years since my oldest was small enough for me to bounce him regularly, but that activity was so normal, so familiar to me, that I know what it feels like. What I wouldn’t give to be able to bounce each of those babies to sleep one last time.

We all have memories stored inside of us which have penetrated our being far beyond cognition. Our muscles have memory, as do our senses.

As churches begin to reopen in phases, our memories will recall the physicality of our liturgical worship. It has been over three months since I have worshipped with other believers in person. I have not partaken of communion; I have not embraced my brothers and sisters during the Peace; I have not passed the offering plate down the pew; I have not processed into nave behind the cross with the weight of my alb and stole on my shoulders; I have not touched the water in the baptismal font and made a slightly dampened sign of the cross, nor held the chalice and paten aloft (“these are the holy gifts of God for you the holy people of God”), nor felt the swell of the organ and the voices of the faithful as hymns of praise are directed toward the heavenly throne room…

I know exactly how each of those things feels across my five senses. I remember their meaning, their touch, their aroma, their sound. I remember them, but things will be different…

How we are supposed to worship when we gather for in person worship?

Things will be different when we begin worshipping together again. Worship will include masks and hand sanitizing stations. It may be months before communion is offered in both kinds instead of just one. Congregational singing might be absent for an extended period of time. Our physical senses will engage in worship that is at once intimately familiar, yet wholly different.

As much as I would like to time-travel and hold each of my boys once more as infants and toddlers, I am forced to hold tightly those memories which have seeped from mind into my heart and muscles. The scene of bouncing and holding tight which was once so familiar to me is now but a tiny (yet utterly essential) component of my relationship with those three boys. We now create new memories and engage in different activities. Some things have changed while our relationship remains the same, totally familiar.

I would invite each of you to acknowledge the ways that worship will look and feel different as our churches slowly reopen from one phase to another. Release any and all expectations that things will “return to normal.” Liturgical life will never go back to precisely the same way it was before because, as a people, we have been forever changed by the events of the last several months. Even if one day things feel more “normal” than they do now, we are still changed. Give thanks for memories you have—those memories which have penetrated your senses beyond just cognition—and hold them tight, but then open yourself up to what the Spirit is doing during this strange season of corporate worship.

As we prepare to re-enter corporate worship together, we are left with our memories of “before the pandemic,” and we have an opportunity to give thanks for all God has done. We can hold in tension the gratitude for worshipping in person and the lament of change, but let’s give the muscle of thanksgiving more space to grow and flourish.

When the church gathers for worship, she does so to offer her sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving upon the altar to the glory of God and for the life of the world. Things may be different, but they are altogether familiar.

Epitaphios, from the Stavronikita Monastery, Mt Athos (16th Century)

This week we have journeyed across the spectrum of human emotion from the joyous song of “Hosanna!” to the command from Jesus to love one another, and ultimately to the crowd crying out “Crucify him!” We find that the emotional progression of Holy Week mirrors the depths of our own hearts; we are confronted with the reality that we too easily and too often vacillate between Hosanna and Crucify him!

The biblical story depicted in the liturgical calendar moves past the murderous crowd and beyond the crucifixion of the Son of God. The next scene in the story takes place on the day after Jesus’ death. The original Holy Saturday.

Holy Saturday invites us into a time of intentional rest. 

This is not the first time creation has waited in rest. After God created all things, He rested on the seventh day, setting it apart as Sabbath. Similarly, in John’s Gospel, we learn that the day after the crucifixion was the seventh day. Sabbath, again. Rest after creation was finished; rest after the crucifixion. The rest of Holy Saturday is different, though; it lacks the joy of the Genesis Sabbath rest. 

It is a painful silence, an aching rest. 

At this point in the biblical account, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus have already taken Jesus’ body, wrapped it in linen, and placed it in the unused tomb. The women have prepared their spices and perfumes for the body but they are waiting to treat the body until after Sabbath when they can work once more. Jesus’ body lies in the tomb and his followers are faced with an existential grief – a longing lament over the loss of their friend, rabbi, and leader. And no answer is provided as a balm for their pain.

On this Holy Saturday, Jesus’ last words echo in our hearts and minds: It is finished. These words should point us, once again, back to the story of creation.

The Passion echoes Genesis and creation because the Passion was God’s plan from before the foundations of the world. In Genesis we find the story of creation, and in the Gospels we encounter the story of new creation. God rested because “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing.” Jesus rests in the tomb after saying, “It is finished” because his work was complete. God’s rest came after his proclamation that it was “very good”; God was glorified in Christ crucified…it was very good.

It is so easy for us to rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday without pausing for breath or reflection. We should, however, be convicted by the reality that Sabbath being situated between Friday and Sunday represents a hard stop, an intentional rest, a painful silence for the whole of the cosmos. Christ’s work was finished. Full stop. And we are invited to rest in that completion. 

Before we move on to the joyous celebration of Easter Sunday when we ponder anew the Resurrection and new creation, allow yourself to let the fullness of Christ’s complete work on the cross wash over it. 

It is finished…and God saw that it was very good.

This sermon was written and preached for Church of the Apostles, Kansas City where I serve as Theologian in Residence. You can watch the whole Maundy Thursday liturgy, including the sermon, here.

Everything is different. 

There is no other way to describe our present reality: overarching, overwhelming, overactive change. We have had to change the way we shop for groceries; the way we work Monday thru Friday; the way we “do” Church; tragically, we have even changed the way we interact with our fellow humans. 

Tonight is no exception.

Typically, Maundy Thursday is a very hands on liturgy. As you probably remember, Maundy Thursday’s liturgy normally mirrors Sunday worship but adds a foot washing. It is a powerful experience, often with many smiles and many more tears. Then we come to the altar as we remember the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his friends; we drink the wine and eat the bread; we experience, taste, touch, and smell the body and blood of Jesus in a poignantly palpable way. Finally, the altar is stripped and washed. We watch as the sacramental vessels, the candles, and the liturgical accoutrement are silently removed, the lights dimmed, and the cross draped.  

All of this is thick with meaning and beauty…and yet this year is different.

What does it look like for the church to celebrate Maundy Thursday when she is separated, scattered, and dispersed? How do we enact and embody Jesus’ command to love one another and to “do this” in remembrance of him when we are under order to “stay-at-home”? We are separated by time in addition to distance because I am recording this sermon on Wednesday which means you are watching it a day later…

Everything is different.

And yet…it is all the same. It is all very much the same.

It would be so easy to sit amid the changing landscape of human history and modern society and throw our hands up in the air, exasperated, and proclaim, “Things will never again be the same!” You would be right on one hand…many things won’t ever be the same. There are so many variables at play, and we’re still so in the midst of this situation, that we really don’t know what our world will look like when this is over. 

Friends, we are disoriented.

But disorientation is never an isolated event when things are changing. Change involves the same progression over and over: orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. 

We all know just how often things change in our lives, and just how much we typically hate it. However, and this is an important however, there are some things which are always the same; some things do not change; in some things we can place our trust or perhaps even the entirety of our lives and know that they are secure…

…and this is precisely what we encounter on Maundy Thursday.

In the Exodus story we find Israel on the very cusp of a change–a change which would affect her identity and her memory forever. Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years and in our text we find YHWH giving instructions for a meal that would become the ritual which defined Israel more than any other, even to this day. YHWH tells his chosen people to take a lamb and slaughter it at twilight. The people were then to take some of the blood and mark the doorposts of their houses before eating the lamb hurriedly, with girded loins, sandaled feet, and staff in hand. Why? Because this is the night that YHWH would pass over the houses of Israel and strike down the firstborn in Egypt. This is the night when YHWH would secure the release of his people so that they could worship him in the desert. YHWH finishes by saying: This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

The remembrance was always the same because the event that they were commemorating was always the same. When Jews celebrate Passover during times of peace or times of trial, she always remembers the Passover when YHWH redeemed his people. Throughout Jewish history, though, we know that the Jewish people had vastly different circumstances year to year. From wars, global dispersion, and persecution, the faithful celebrate the never-changing ritual of Passover even when life looks radically different. 

During the Passover celebration, the youngest child asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This is a question we should be asking ourselves tonight. Ask yourself or look to the person next to you and ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?

This night is different because tonight we remember the last night before everything changed forever. Passover was the calm before the storm; so too was the Last Supper. Passover was the meal before YHWH struck down the first born and Israel’s redemption from the hands of Pharaoh; the Last Supper was the meal before the crucifixion and resurrection. 

Both the Passover and the Last Supper were rituals given to carry people through disorientation.

Jesus gives his disciples not one, but two, ritualistic remembrances. The first is the washing of feet. This was the most powerful symbolic act demonstrating love, a pouring out of divine love, for one another. Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by their love; he revealed to them what that love would look like: it was the master taking on the form of a servant. 

The second was the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus broke bread and poured wine for his followers during the Passover celebration because he was the Paschal lamb; he would be the blood on the doorposts allowing God to “pass over.” The Lord’s Supper is the festal remembrance, the perpetual ordinance which we have been given. 

Notice that Peter did not want Jesus to wash his feet at first because he knew just how lowly it was for Jesus to do the job of a servant. Clearly he did not see it as humility but as humiliation. When he finally understood, Peter wanted his entire body washed! Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, even Judas’ feet when he knew he was about to betray him. Would we consider washing the feet of our enemies? How about those we disagree with theologically? How about those from whom we are estranged? Forget washing, would we even pray for them? 

In washing each others’ feet we are invited into the unending love of the Trinity extended to all of creation. We open ourselves to the overwhelming love of God.

Holy Week allows us to enter into the full disorientation of the crucifixion and the resurrection; we see the Son of Man glorified and lifted high, we see God being glorified in Christ crucified, we see Christ enthroned upon the cross. All of this forms our remembrance when we celebrate Holy Eucharist. Paul tells us that as often as we eat and drink the bread and wine we are proclaiming Christ’s death until he comes. 

The same ritual which carried us through disorientation is the very fabric of our reorientation. 

Tonight is different, not just because it’s Maundy Thursday, and it’s “different than all the other nights.” That’s already baked into the liturgical cake. Tonight is different because we’re at home. One of the very rituals given to us that we normally celebrate tonight, the Eucharist, we can’t because we’re separated. We’re dispersed. We’re disoriented. 

We may not have the visible symbols and tangible experiences in front of us this Maundy Thursday the way that we have in the past, but God has not changed; the Passion of Christ has not changed; the command to love one another and to share in Jesus’ meal has not changed. As we worship in “a foreign setting” I want you to hold on to the fact that Eucharist is still part of our re-orientation; the very absence we feel tonight because we lack Holy Communion is evidence that every Eucharist we have celebrated before–flowing directly from the Last Supper–is an action which still affects and directs our reorientation toward God.

The symbols and signs of Holy Week remain true whether we’re dealing with a global pandemic or “life as we remember it.” Despite everything else going on around us, we remain tethered to the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I leave you with an invitation and a promise: enter into the most powerful three day period in the liturgical calendar with the assured knowledge that the changes occuring in the world around us can do nothing to mitigate, mute, or muffle the cosmic victory of Christ’s Passion. These rituals, then, keep us rooted in who we are as God’s people. They keep us rightly reoriented toward God despite the disorientation we are presently experiencing. May your Holy Week disorient and then reorient you toward Almighty God.