Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Same Spirit Dwells in You [Easter 2017]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John 20:1-18

The Same Spirit Dwells in You

In one of the few scriptures we didn't read this morning, the Apostle Paul writes, to a newborn Christian community, living in the shadows of the same powerful Empire that put to death their Lord Jesus, to a fledgling community struggling to survive: “The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you.” And here you sit today, descendants of those first Christians; and I want you to know: this message, Paul's message, is meant for you too. The very same Spirit of the living God, the same Spirit that empowered the baby Church, the same Spirit that spoke life into that dark cave, into that lifeless tomb, that same spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you. You are housing resurrection power. Can you feel it? You are breathing the breath of God.

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, is as ancient as Creation. In the beginning, before the worlds were made, that spirit of God danced on the watery chaos. And breath, spirit, wind set everything in motion – passing through the mouth of God: Let there be light; let there be heavens; let there be earth; let there be life. Worlds set in motion by the Spirit of God. The breath of life animating the dust of the earth. That same spirit, the spirit that tamed the ancient chaos with a dance, that same spirit dwells in you. You are breathing the same sacred breath that first filled Adam's lungs.

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, today, split the Red Sea and made a dry path. God breathing salvation into those places where only oppression and sorrow could formerly survive. Breath, spirit, wind set everything in motion – passing through the mouth of God: a strong wind turning the sea into desert, turning a dead end into new life. They were slaves, forgotten people, and yet God heard their cries and saved them. And that salvation, it felt like the wind at their back – pushing them in their future, pushing them towards the promise. That same spirit, the spirit that made a way when there was no way, that same spirit dwells in you. You are breathing the same breath that split the sea and spoke salvation history into being.

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, today, in this holy place, put breath to dry bones. In the days of the prophets, the prophet Ezekiel watched as a valley filled with dry bones started to move; those bones rattled on the ground – a disorganized pile of death; and then came together – a nation of skeletons. And then there were sinews; and then there was flesh. But there was no breath, spirit, wind and so there was no life. And then God breathed life into their lungs and they were alive. Some might say it was only a vision. I say there is no such thing as only a vision. God gives life to visions; God breathes life into dreams. The prophet's audience was not literally a stack of dry bones; they just felt like it. They were wasting away in exile. They felt like life had passed them by. Gone so long they had lost hope. And so God gave them a vision, a dream. It felt like sorrow and death were their destiny. And so God made them a promise: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” That same spirit, the spirit that woke up a valley of dry bones, that spirit dwells in you. You are breathing the same breath that brought a nation of exiles back to life.

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, twirled the flowers, and rustled the leaves, and lapped up Mary Magdalene's tears as she made the dark journey to Jesus' tomb. She was coming to the tomb because breath no longer filled his lungs and his spirit he had already commended into the hands of God. And so where breath, spirit, wind were absent she came to weep in the presence of death – to weep for her friend and weep for herself and weep for a world that seems to suck the life out of every beautiful thing. It was dark on Easter morning.

But a new wind was blowing through that garden. And the stone was rolled away. And the grave was empty. And the voice of Jesus was floating on the breeze calling her dry bones and crushed spirit back to life. That same spirit, that life-giving spirit, that same spirit that raised Christ from the dead, that filled that empty tomb with resurrection life, that same spirit dwells in you.

Easter is not a Palestinian morning two-thousand years in the past. Resurrection did not happen once upon a time. The very same Spirit of the living God, that empowered the baby Church, that dancing on the waters of Creation, that split the Red Sea, that put breath to dry bones, that lapped up Mary's tears, the same Spirit that spoke life into that dark cave, into that lifeless tomb, that same spirit dwells in you. You are housing resurrection power. Can you feel it?

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, today, in this holy place, on this Easter morning, once filled the lungs of your Risen Christ. Breath, spirit, wind: it is his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all. It has been handed down through the ages, from the first apostles on whom he breathed, on whom the spirit fell. And now the breath of God fills your lungs. And now the Spirit of God inhabits your heart. And now the wind of God is at your back – pushing you into a Good Friday world to breath resurrection life into dry bones and hopeless souls and lifeless tombs.

Easter is still happening. That new wind is still blowing. The Spirit of God is still taming the chaos in our world. The breath of God is still calling life out of dead places.

That is why we, sisters and brothers, dare to dream. That is why we sing our songs at the grave. That is why we hold onto hope in the face of sorrow and death. Easter is still happening. Can you feel it? You are housing resurrection power. The same spirit that raised Christ from the dead: it dwells in you.

Friday, April 14, 2017

It is Finished [Good Friday]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John's Passion

It is Finished

I make lists. And I check things off of lists. One-by-one, scratching out each task until all I see before me is a page of scribbles, no more words: I like that. I get a profound sense of satisfaction from gazing upon an accomplished to-do list.

On the other hand, things left undone drive me crazy. Like an itch left unscratched, those things remaining, incomplete, unfinished weigh on my mind causing endless amounts of stress – stress that I know will only be quelled when I can finally look at my task list and sigh in relief: it is finished.

The cross, that terrible instrument of death, it was always on Jesus' list. The cross, that terrible instrument of death, was the last thing between Jesus and his “it is finished.” Jesus' journey to the cross was much longer than anyone else realized, longer that anyone else could have imagined; it was always there. Long before he hung on the cross, that cross hung over his head – casting a shadow over every word and every deed.

Angels sang at his birth. And clouds parted at his baptism. And eyes opened at his touch. And death fled at the sound of his voice. Signs and wonders padded his resume. But still the cross was there, always there – that final dreaded task on his list.

Every follower who walked away. Every religious leader who plotted his destruction. Every disciple who kissed betrayal upon his cheek. They never let Jesus forget the ending of his story.

And sometimes, he found the words stumbling out of his mouth like a secret too terrible to stomach. And every time, every mention of death, every mention of the cross was only met with confusion and hollow words of encouragement, as if Jesus were just a pessimist in need of some cheering up.

His disciples usually hung on his every word as if their lives depended on them. But not the cross talk. When he talked of his fate, it never really made sense to them because they saw the way the crowds looked at him. They adored him – or at least they adored his miracles. He healed the sick; he fed the hungry; he encouraged the downcast; he even raised the dead. He loved people; he loved them so extravagantly, so perfectly – even people who, if we are being honest, were pretty unlovable. These people, they were in his corner; they would never let Jesus die on a cross. How could he not get his happy ending?

And then Sunday happened: Palm Sunday. And the people were quite literally dancing in the streets before him; he was the hope of a nation riding a donkey, looking every bit the Messiah. They could not help but get caught up in the excitement. He looked like salvation up there. The people, they waved palm branches and they shouted their “Hosannas”; they called him a king, their king, the king. On that day, the crowds loved him; they adored him. That was a good day.

How could that good day not open up into a good future and finally a good ending to a good story?

Every person who heard him speak, who felt his touch, who saw his love knew that one day, one day, he would don a royal robe and wear on his head a crown. And the people, the crowds, they would lift him up. And Jesus, he would look down at them with such overwhelming love. It would be the perfect ending.

But it wasn't supposed to look like this or end like this. Not like this. Not under this hateful, black sky. Not on that twisted, bloody cross. Not on this terrible, terrible day.

Those who stood at the foot of his cross, they heard him say the words: it is finished. And probably they thought he meant his life. Because they watched his life pour from his broken body. Those hands that brought healing forever wounded. That tongue that spoke the dead to life now whispering words of surrender.

Under that hateful, black sky, on that twisted, bloody cross, on this terrible, terrible day love surrendered. The forces of violence and hatred once again proved their strength. And so the crowds drifted away: their hopes dashed, their hearts broken. But also, their suspicions confirmed: he was too good to be true. In a world dominated by violence and hatred, there are no happy endings. It is finished, indeed.

Good Friday always places us in that crowd – with the same hopes, and the same doubts, and the same disappointment when Jesus whispers his “It is finished.” But we know something those crowds did not know. This time is different. This man is different. This Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday. And this “It is finished” is not a cry of surrender; it is the sound of satisfaction. Jesus crossing out his final task in his precious blood. It is finished.

The reign of violence: it is finished. The reign of hatred: it is finished. The reign of death: it is finished.

But the empty tomb of Easter Sunday proves that the reign of Jesus is not.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

What They Saw [Lent 4A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John 9:1-41

What They Saw

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. The man, blind from birth, could see nothing. Obviously. He was blind, from birth.

The disciples, those walking along with Jesus, they saw sin. The man was blind, born blind; that, they observed was a bad thing. The man's blindness, in that ancient society, limited his future trajectory; he was born without hopes, dreams, or options. His life was planned for him by his lack of sight. The text tells us this when his neighbors say about him, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” That was the life this man was born into. He could beg or he would die.

Budding theologians that they were, they were concerned with the “why”. Why was this man, this particular man, born blind? There must be a reason. They did not feel terribly comfortable placing the responsibility on God; working from their biblical perspective, they understood that God should not be credited with the evil that happens to people. And so appealing to their study of the Torah, they deduced someone must be to blame. They were left with two choices: the man or the parents.

So, we're often told there are no bad questions. And, of course, we also know that that statement is simply not true. There are bad questions. The disciples ask one in today's text. Simply put, “Did this man sin that he was born blind?” That is not a good question. In fact, it makes no sense. Despite the warnings of many a nun, this man was not struck blind for being a curious teen or looking at naughty pictures. He was born blind. To what extent a devious fetus is able to engage in sinful behavior, I do not know, but I will suggest that possibility seems quite remote.

The parents are of course a much more likely possibility. Although, I must say, I felt more comfortable with this suggestion before I had children. But, the disciples knew that both Exodus and Numbers tell us that while God is merciful and slow to anger, God also punishes children for the iniquities of their parents. So the disciples, when they saw this man, they saw sin.

The townies, those who walked by this man often – although probably at a distance because of the begging – they saw yet another poor beggar looking for a handout. I mean, they kinda saw him. Usually they tried not to make eye contact. He couldn't see the eye contact because of the blindness. But it was habit. Make eye contact and those beggars will hit you up for some cash. And so they diverted their eyes when they walked by this guy as he sat in his spot with his hands outstretched.

And so it is no surprise that there was some confusion that day that Jesus passed through. It might have been the blind beggar. Then again, it might have been someone like him – you know, one of the other beggars – human beings as background noise. So the neighbors, the locals, the townies, when they saw this man, they saw a beggar.

The man's parents, they saw a burden. He was not what they expected. I mean, you have to understand, things were different back then. There is support today – good schools, social programs, medical advances. Back then, everyone, Jesus' disciples included, assumed his condition was their fault, the parents' fault. They had wracked their brains for years. Sure, they messed up sometimes; everybody does. But there must have been something really bad, a truly heinous sin in their past, to cause their son to be born blind. They feared that possibility; they felt guilty about it; the religious leaders proved their liability with Holy Scripture. And now every time they looked at their son they felt this horrible mixture of shame and regret.

And so when he left home to live in the streets, when he left to become a beggar, they felt relieved, like a burden had been lifted. I mean, they probably wouldn't say that out loud, but it was true.

And just when they thoughts their problems were over, there's a knock on the door. The religious leaders had come to question these notorious sinners, the ones with the blind son. Not wanting to add to their own problems, they wash their hands of the situation and sell out their own child. His own parents, they saw a burden.

The Pharisees, the religious leaders, they saw in him everything they despised. At first he's a liar. They don't believe he was ever blind. Because people don't get healed on the Sabbath. They're not sure why, but probably this man was lying to drum up interest in this self-proclaimed traveling prophet. He was Jesus' lying hype man.

But the evidence the mounts and they realize, the man is telling the truth: he was blind and now he is not. They thought he was a liar, but actually he is something much worse: a blasphemer. And so they demand he give glory to God – not this sinner named Jesus.

His response to them proves to the religious leaders that, not only is this man a blasphemer, he is arrogant. He talks to them like they are equals. They are educated; he is ignorant. They are sophisticated; he is a street person. They know about God; they are experts. He doesn't know anything about God. He can't even read.

And he is a sinner, born of sinners. That's why he was born blind. That is why he spent his years begging on the street. He is below them – in every way. How dare he even talk to them about God. The Pharisees, the religious leaders, they saw in this man everything they despised.

Each and every person in this story saw something in this man who could see nothing. And none of it was good.

And then Jesus saw him. And Jesus looked at him like no one else ever had. Jesus saw a miracle. Not a miracle made of mud and saliva; not a miracle waiting to happen. Jesus looked at this man, born blind, living as a beggar, and saw a miracle. He, this man, was God's miracle, made in God's image, an instrument through which God could do amazing things. Jesus saw a miracle.

When Jesus looks at you, he sees the same thing.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Christ in the Face of the Stranger [Lent 3A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John 4:5-42

Christ in the Face of the Stranger

More than four decades ago, Henri Nouwen wrote: “In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women, and obligatory for Christians, to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings. The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm. But still – [this] is our vocation: to convert the...enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”1

Jesus and his followers had entered a city of strangers – or perhaps better said, a city where they were strangers. It was hostile territory. In the verse immediately preceding our reading from John’s Gospel, it says that Jesus had to go through Samaritan territory in the verse before today's reading. And while it was on a pretty direct route between Judea and Galilee, they did not have to go through Samaritan territory. It seems the disciples would have preferred not to; but they did.

There were ways to circumvent the area; that’s what most Jews would have done – like taking the freeway to avoid the inner city. It happens now; it happened then. But Jesus, a Jew, walked right into this Samaritan city – a city of strangers – and sat down by their well.

At this time in history, Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies – so much so that the woman at the well asks Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She is surprised that Jesus would even ask her for a favor, ask her to do something for him. The animosity was deep-seeded. Descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, the Samaritans were considered by Jews, not sisters and brothers, but an impure distortion – their blood and their religious practices polluted by heathens, an unwelcome abomination. The hostility even at times became violent. In about 300 BCE, the Samaritans built a shrine on their holy mountain, Mount Gerizim, to compete with the Jewish Temple. Less than 200 years later Jewish troops tore the Samaritan shrine to the ground. And then, not long after Jesus' time, some Jewish pilgrims making the same journey as Jesus and his disciples were victims of a violent riot.2 Despite their common roots, Jews and Samaritans were enemies; they disagreed on religious practice and theology; they had a violent history; and they did not mix. The suspicion and hostility simmered, ready to boil over at any time. A careful Jew, a shrewd Jew, would have taken the bypass.

And yet, here he is: Jesus begging hospitality in a hostile environment. A thirsty, exhausted Jewish man without a water jar. This story begins with a basic human need – thirst: the desire for water. Jesus was thirsty. And this woman has a bucket. And a well. And the well is deep and full of water.

Disregarding her ethnicity and gender, or perhaps disregarding his own ethnicity and gender, Jesus asks for a drink. And in that moment, the woman – unnamed in this story – is very much aware of her ethnicity and gender, or perhaps is very much aware of his ethnicity and gender. And the history. And the risk.

Why are you speaking with her?” That is what they want to ask Jesus. They don't, but they want to. The disciples were in the city buying lunch. No one stayed to babysit Jesus – which turns out to be a mistake. Because when they return they see him talking with this woman – worse than that other people see him talking with this woman. She'll probably tell people too. It's embarrassing when it's your leader, your role model, who is engaged in such inappropriate, risky behavior. It really reflects poorly on the entire company. Was he this thirsty, thirsty enough to lower himself so?

Despite everything, she engaged Jesus in conversation. I mean, rather than just giving him some water and walking away. Or perhaps more appropriately, just ignoring him and walking away. Really she challenges Jesus – this man who dared come into her neighborhood and violate the social norms. And then the dance begins – back and forth. The conversation, on the surface, does not seem entirely successful – more like a collection of somewhat related statements. Two unlikely partners talking politics and religion – gender issues and racial tension hanging over the entire interaction. Very inappropriate.

And what begins with Jesus' desire for water, arouses something deep in this woman, something soul deep: a desire that longed to be filled. Until this stranger broke into her life, she did not realize it, but now she recognizes that she too is dying of thirst. And she longs for that spring of water, gushing up in her barren life, in a barren land. A well to which she did not have to travel in the heat of the day. “Give me this water, so that I may never have to be thirsty.”

It is easy to look at this passage and think that the woman just didn't get it. She seems to be talking literally; Jesus seems to be talking spiritually. But before we sell her short, keep reading. Because she does get it. She finds her Savior in the face of this stranger. So she gets it; she gets what she most desires. The one who aroused, awakened, the desire also fulfills it. She gets the water for which she thirsts and she becomes a conduit through which living water flows into other desolate lives.

This is an unlikely salvation story. And it probably should have never happened. Because Jesus should have taken the bypass. And the Samaritan woman should have said no to her enemy's request. And he, a Jewish rabbi, should not have engaged her, a Samaritan woman, in a conversation about religion and politics in a public place. And two strangers should not have made this beautiful, vulnerable space in their lives for each other. Because this world is dangerous and full of dangerous people. And the walls that divide us keep us safely apart. And if people let down their guard or break down the walls or transgress the boundaries or open their vulnerable hearts, life will no longer be safe and they might get hurt.

Or we might find that our salvation story is written in that space where hostility becomes hospitality. We might find, like the disciples, that Jesus settles into that open space between us and those we believe to be our enemies. We might find that when we dare to see the humanity in the stranger, the stranger can see our humanity too.

Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm. But still – [this] is our vocation: to convert the...enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”

Our world is broken and divided. It is suffocating in a thick smog of fear and anxiety. Hatred and mistrust: spreading like a plague. Our brothers and sisters, each and every one created in the image of God, are cast as the monsters in the horror stories we tell each other. It is not what God wants for us. We can no longer live like this. It must break God's heart.

In these fearful, defensive, aggressive times, the safe bet is to stay home, lock our doors, guard our precious stuff, play it safe. But the Jesus we follow keeps wandering into the wrong places, strange places full of strangers. And he leaves the door open behind him, luring us to risk our vulnerable hearts in a dangerous world. Daring us to find our salvation behind those enemy lines. Daring to see the face of Christ in the face of the stranger. 

1Reaching Out, 65-6.
2Twelve Months of Sundays, N.T. Wright, 44.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Starve It [Lent 1A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 4:1-11

Starve It

I guess you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it. And for Jesus, who remember was as much human as he was God, it took him forty days and forty nights. Probably felt like forever.

In that wilderness, Jesus wasn't starving his body. Sure, he was fasting; he was physically famished. But the desert days were not a weight loss plan; this wilderness time was not a spa retreat. Jesus, you see, wasn't prone to obsess over his trim figure in the Gospels – as his opponents will later point out, calling him a glutton and a drunk. Jesus was in that wilderness because you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it. And it had to go. Jesus was out there to starve his ego – that piece of us that longs to be great, to be right, to be in control – that thing in us that longs to be God. Because he understood that the temptations would only intensify beyond the wilderness. Each healing, each adoring crowd, each dedicated disciple would make it easier to buy into the hype, would make it easier to trade God's mission for something a little more glamorous.

The devil came to Jesus as a tempter – just a purveyor of possibility. And if this is what the devil looks like, looks like the character who found Jesus in the wilderness, well, we've all run into this devil. There's no pitchfork, no red pointy tail, no bad language or nasty jokes. This devil just wants to make Jesus great. He just wants Jesus to fulfill his considerable potential. He wants Jesus to realize that maybe God and God's plan is holding him back. This devil's not mean; he just wants Jesus to be successful: rich and famous and powerful. What's so bad about that?

It all starts innocently enough. How 'bout some bread for a hungry guy, a guy who just survived a fast that should have killed him twice over? Certainly Jesus was hungry; there's nothing wrong with a food. And if he has the gift, why not put it to good use?

Undoubtedly, at some point during that excruciating fast, Jesus saw those rocks turn into bread. We know how hunger works; we've all seen cartoons. But making one loaf of bread in the middle of nowhere is nothing special. If a stone turns to bread and no one sees it, did it really happen? I mean Jesus is hungry, but it's more than that. If the temptation was strictly physical, the devil could have packed Jesus a picnic lunch.

But that's not the temptation. This is an appeal not to Jesus' belly but to Jesus' ego. Turning one rock into one loaf of bread in the middle of the wilderness is nothing. But what if Jesus could turn stones into bread? And not just here in the wilderness, but in the towns and the villages and the cities? What if this was a business plan? Now we're talking. Money and power and fame would certainly follow. In a world plagued by food insecurity, in a land of stones aplenty, this little trick would make Jesus great – no, the greatest. He would be like a god.

See, what's so bad about that? The devil just handed Jesus the perfect idea, the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme. Or if Jesus is not into money, he could give the bread away and become the most popular guy in the Empire. And the most popular guy in the Empire doesn't die on a cross.

But Jesus does not take the bait. And so the devil, he can read a room, backs off from the bread plan and pitches Jesus something else; there is more than one way to become great.

Maybe a trick, but not just any trick, a death-defying feat that would amaze and impress the crowds. Maybe it's not about the money. Maybe Jesus needs a title. Maybe he's one of those guys. What better title for a young, Jewish man than Messiah?

This is it. Jesus: the Jewish Messiah. And of course the Jewish Messiah would need to throw his coming out party at the Temple. The Temple was the heart of the Jewish religion, the hub of the community, the house of God. Imagine how the crowds would react if God's angels caught Jesus right before he hit the ground below. Then they would get it; then they would all know who Jesus really was. They would have to believe in him; they would fall at his feet. The angels would remove all doubt – from the crowds, perhaps from even his own mind. He would be loved, adored, accepted. He would be great. The people would watch as the heavenly beings cradled his body. He would be like a god.

What's so bad about that? The devil is working with Jesus. I mean, Jesus is already the Messiah, the Son of God. But the Messianic plan has holes. There is a lot of suffering, and not a lot of glory, in God's plan. The devil's plan is much more attractive. In the devil's plan Jesus' strong, healthy body is held by angels before an adoring crowd. In the other plan, Jesus' dead body is held by his mother as passers-by taunt and insult his corpse. In the devil's plan Jesus is beloved. In the other plan Jesus is berated.

And yet, Jesus continues to hold his ground. The devil apparently thinks Jesus is negotiating, and so he takes one more shot.

This is his final offer – and it is a good one. It's an offer no one, and the devil's been around for a while, so he knows, no one can refuse. It's a feast for the ego. All the money. All the fame. All the power. And it's yours. You will be the greatest. The world will fall at your feet. Can you even imagine?

There was just one condition. And it was pretty simple. All Jesus had to do was fall down and worship the devil. And that sounds like a terrible thing to do to our ears because most of us lived through the Satanism scare of the 1980's – with the bloody pentagrams and the secret messages hidden on vinyl records. But the devil is not asking Jesus to join a new religion or become a member of a cult. For the amazing prize of all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, Jesus just needs to alter his allegiances. Folks have traded in God for much, much less.

And, again, it's not as if the devil is being a bad guy here. He just knows that Jesus will never be great following God's will for his life. And everybody wants to be great, right?

It should have worked, the devil's plan. I mean, it usually does. It has since the very beginning. The very first recorded temptation, the one we heard this morning, coming to us from the Garden of Eden, is the old standard; every temptation throughout history a variation on the same theme: you will be like God. The tempter always aims for the ego. Money, power, and fame. You can be great. You can be adored. You can have it all.

Adam and Eve took the bait. They ate the fruit. Because they were told that that fruit would make them great – great like God. They fed their egos. And so did their children and their children's children – generation after generation after generation. A feeding frenzy. Until Jesus walked into that wilderness and went on a hunger strike. He knew his ego was the one thing that could blow the whole plan – for us and for our salvation. He also knew, you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it.

We always begin the Lenten season in the barren wilderness with Jesus. We start there because our relationship with God depends on it. It is there we learn that God does not care if we are successful – just faithful. Which really just proves once again that God doesn't get it. The devil in today's gospel gets it; this is how the world works: the people who grab the most money and power and fame are the ones who matter. And you don't get those things by taking up your cross and following Jesus.

We're human. And God knows that the temptations are strong. Of course we want to be great; we want people to think we are smart and successful and in control. We need to be affirmed – and we will tweet clever statements until our genius is acknowledged with the appropriate number of hearts and retweets. Our ego longs so desperately for human acceptance that we'll do just about anything to get it. Our ego longs so desperately for human acceptance that it causes us to forget that we are passionately and infinitely and eternally loved by the God of the Universe – even if everyone you know thinks you're a failure.

We are all saddled with these hungry egos – and the world is offering a buffet of choices – choices that are so much more appealing than the cross that Jesus offers us.

Which is why we drag our egos into this season of Lent. Because this season, unlike any other in the Church, drives us into the wilderness – where we learn to live for something, and someone, bigger than ourselves, where we are called to a season of self-examination and repentance, where we are called to a season of prayer, self-denial, and, of course, fasting. Because you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Free Ashes [Ash Wednesday]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Free Ashes

Back when I was involved in campus ministry, I was told repeatedly that to draw the people in, I needed to give things away. People generally, college students specifically, I was advised, love free stuff. And so, we would buy drinks at the campus coffee shop or offer pizza or give away color-changing cups inscribed with the ministry's information. And it is true: people do love free stuff. I mean, I get it: I love free stuff.

And as I look out at this assembly, it seems that you do as well. And apparently, when the price is free, we can offer just about anything. Today we are giving away free face ashes and here you are, ready to get some. And, let's be honest, ashes are not your typical giveaway for a reason; they are not nearly as fancy or flashy as, let's say, a color-changing cup.

And yet, here you are, foreheads ready, to receive your free gift. And I gotta be honest: I wonder why. I understand why folks show up here to celebrate Easter and Christmas. Those are exciting, happy days: the music is great, the mood is upbeat, there is even some comforting nostalgia hanging in the air. People leave on those days feeling good.

But this liturgy, it is not happy. The mood is solemn, heavy. The rituals strange. The lessons from Scripture are severe. The words are too honest. You will not leave here today with warm fuzzies; there will be no motivational speeches; you will leave here marked as mortal, confronted with your inevitable fate. And your free gift, those ashes, will remind you, every time you look in the mirror today, of your shortcomings and your impending death.

And so I wonder why you are here today. I wonder why you have chosen to spend your [morning, lunch hour, evening] in this building acknowledging, as our collect sharply states, your “wretchedness.” I wonder what compels you to silently stand before your priest as he looks into your eyes and tells what you already know, but maybe wish you didn't: that you are dust, and to dust you shall one day return.

And how do you explain today – to your curious co-workers, to your friends, to your clients, to the folks in your life who might think your black cross weird? In a culture that obsesses over beauty and perfection, you want your face smudged with the ashen remains of old palm branches. Doesn't that seem strange? In an age of excess, you are called to a season of voluntary fasting and self-denial – practices that are not fun. In a nation in which hubris is currently running rampant, truth is a victim of partisan politics, and remorse considered a weakness, what you are doing today is shockingly counter-cultural. Did you realize that?

Today you will leave this place wearing your free ashes on your face, moving through the remainder of your day as a living, breathing billboard for... something. People will gawk at you; they will ask you questions; they will wonder if your cross is simply cosmetic or something more. And then, before bed, you will wash your face and the ashes will circle the drain and disappear from your life. Gone. Just like that.

Will the impact of this day outlast your ashes? That is always the question of Ash Wednesday. Are the ashes simply a souvenir, something to check off the to-do list, an easy way to impress your pious pals?

Or will you let them brand you soul, wear them like a scarlet letter? Will you be marked as different?

These ashes say something profound about the life you are choosing to live. They expose you. If you've been wondering if coming here for ashes, to be reminded of your mortality and wretchedness, to fall on your knees in lamentation and repentance makes you strange, well the answer is: it does.

These ashes expose everything in you that normal people try to hide. They expose you as a broken, dying, selfish, envious, dishonest, imperfect, complicit, sinful mortal. That little black cross: it exposes, for the world to see, the darkness in your soul and the great cost of your salvation. Everybody wants to be strong and you are weak. Everybody wants to be right and you are wrong. Everybody wants to be great and you are wretched. Everybody wants to rule the world and you are a beggar in the house of God. Everybody wants to be a winner and you are a loser.

That is what these ashes say. They expose you. They give you away. So yeah, the ashes are free. But cost of living up to them is much, much higher.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid [Last Epiphany A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 17:1-9

Do not be afraid

It started out as a normal day in first century Palestine. The disciples were shooting the breeze, maybe arguing about rank and order, maybe retelling the stories of feeding miracles and amazing healings. Everyone in the crew had mostly forgotten about the uncomfortable incident from six days earlier – or at least they were pretending to have forgotten. It is embarrassing still for Peter, so I won't get into it, except to say that no one likes being called “Satan” – especially by Jesus.

But the thing about Jesus is: even a serious rebuke is colored with love. And so on this perfectly ordinary day, when Jesus felt like a hike, he personally invited Peter, along with James and John. It seemed like a good day for a hike and so the guys strapped on their boots, grabbed their water, I don't know, satchel, pouch, probably not bottle, and hit the trail. They followed Jesus up the mountain. I mean, up the high mountain; that is an important detail that I suspect was added in later re-tellings by the disciple who had the most difficult time keeping up. Four guys, hiking up a mountain, a high mountain. A good way to get some exercise and some fresh air, sure, but otherwise, it was a pretty normal day.

Until Jesus stopped climbing. And then everything stopped being normal.

It makes for a nice, interesting story, this Gospel story: strange, but nice. But to actually be there, to witness this event, would be terrifying. This is some crazy stuff, unprecedented, anything but normal. Let's revisit what actually occurred on that mountain, that high mountain. Well, the hike ended when Jesus stopped and his face turned into the Sun. Terrifying. And then his clothes, I'm not sure what color they were before, probably brown-ish, turned dazzling white – without bleach, without a washing machine – just spontaneously. And then the ghosts appear. Moses, who dies in the Torah, is standing right in front of them. Terrifying. And then Elijah, who was once carried into the sky by a fiery chariot, shows up too. He's either a ghost like Moses. Or, since the Bible suggests he left Earth without dying, maybe he is just hundreds of years old and able to materialize at will. So all of that is also terrifying.

No reason to stop the scary there. Why not add the audible voice of God? The very intonation that created the stars and separated the light from the darkness, that shook the earth, and makes the mountains as though they were not. They hear that voice. Sun faced Jesus. Two holy apparitions. The voice of the Creator splitting their ear drums. By the time the sudden cloud dissipates, the disciples are face down in that high mountain dirt trembling in fear. Obviously.

Oh, and this is all before Jesus lays this one on them: he is going to be killed and rise from the dead. Trying processing that information.

In this midst of what is no longer a normal day, Jesus looks at his three disciples, dusty and distressed, and says to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Which, by the way, is easy for him to say; he hasn't yet looked in the mirror at his glowing face.

The disciples were, our text tells us, “overcome by fear.” They were frozen, paralyzed, unable to move, like dead men. And every last bit of that fear was justified. Of course they were overcome. Of course they were afraid.

The disciples: faces hidden in the sand. And Jesus touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Throughout Jesus' ministry in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus heals many people. The healings are achieved through some combination of word and touch. And so when Jesus heals the leper in chapter eight, he first touches the man and then says, “Be made clean!”

When Jesus sees his frightened disciples lying on the ground in fear, he touches them first and then says to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Except when Jesus says, “Get up” he uses, in the Greek, the same words the angel says at the tomb on Easter morning. And so, we might consider that what Jesus says to his disciples is more like “Be raised up” or “Be resurrected.” I am tempted to think that by touch and word, by word and touch, Jesus is doing more than making a suggestion to his disciples; he is making a miracle in their lives.

In the Gospels “do not be afraid” is like a refrain. We hear it over and over again. From the mouths of angels. From the mouth of Jesus. “Do not be afraid.” But the events of the Transfiguration story, today's Gospel story, are scary. And being told by an angel that you will be a pregnant, unwed teen: that's scary. Watching someone walk across the surface of a lake toward your boat: that's scary. Finding an angel in an empty tomb that was supposed hold the body of your Savior: that's scary.

And so is this crazy world. The news presses down on us with scary stories: of environmental disasters, cyber attacks, the threat of global terrorism, horrible tales of sex trafficking, the heartbreaking aftermath of yet another heroin-related death, and what feels like an endless string of mass shootings. Tension and division and violence and war: this is a scary world. And the problems feel overwhelming.

And Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” But fear seems justified. And so why would Jesus keep saying “Do not be afraid”? Especially to the disciples who will follow him down that mountain on a path that ends at the cross. Especially to us who are told constantly that fear and anxiety should be our default mode.

And where does Jesus get the strength anyway? He is staring down a terrible, brutal, tortuous death and telling us to not be afraid. Jesus knows fear devours our ability to trust God. And the path Jesus walked, the path to which he calls us, cannot be walked with a deep trust that the God who sends us also sticks with us through even the most terrifying moments.

The problem with fear is that it prevents us from moving forward into the future God wants for us. Fear's goal is to drive us into the ground, to bunker us down. Fear's goal is to keep us from heading back down the mountain, into the world, with Jesus. Fear's goal is to close us in, to close our mouths, to close our arms, to close our hearts. Fear is a disease that paralyzes our souls.

And that is why Jesus touches his disciples, a healing touch, and that is why he speaks to them, lying on the ground like dead men, a word of life: Be raised up, be resurrected. Fear is not the end of the road.

Fear is the enemy of the Gospel in this world. Yes, of course, sometimes you will be afraid, you will encounter something terrifying. And your first instinct might be to just close up shop. But don't. Don't let fear control you. Don't let fear prevent you from becoming the person, the minister of the Gospel, God is calling you to be.

There is plenty to fear in the world. But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Fear's goal is to close us in, to convince us to hide. Don't do it. Walk into this dark and dangerous world and let your light shine. Fear's goal is to close your mouth. Don't do it. Speak the truth in a world of spin. Fear's goal is to close your arms, to cause you to look at your sisters and brothers with suspicion and hatred, to cause you to look at other beloved children of God and see enemies. Don't do it. Open your arms so wide that your love leaves you vulnerable. Fear's goal is to close your heart. Don't do it. Leave your heart so exposed that it is broken open wide over and over again; let your love spill our extravagantly, spill it everywhere you go because perfect love casts out fear.

There is a lot to fear in this world. Fear is a big business. And you will be reminded of that every day – by politicians, and reporters, and marketers, and by your friends and family on social media. You will be reminded so much and so often, in fact, that you might be tempted to hide your face in the ground.

But Jesus is with you. And he's not content to leave your there in the dirt. “Get up and do not be afraid.”