Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Politics of Jesus: A Sermon for 22nd Sunday After Pentecost Proper 25 Year B

It's a challenge to go back and forth between congregations. It is particularly difficult when I preach three weeks in a row, and one of those weeks is at the other congregation. So if what you read below sounds like a rehash of some of last week's sermon at Christ the King, kind of is!  



One of the concerns I have often heard expressed about the church…and especially about preachers…is this fear that we are going to “preach politics.”

I’ve come to understand this as meaning a person doesn’t want to hear about a particular political party, or politician.

I’ve spent too many years around politics and politicians…including in my own family, so I know that politicians are people…and they can be both saints and sinners just like everyone else.

But if we pretend like there isn’t something “political” happening with Jesus and what he is doing as he marches toward Jerusalem…and that the same types tensions he was facing aren’t plaguing us today…then I think we’re fooling ourselves.

The politics of Jesus are about changing and transforming hearts and minds…and a revolutionary movement to get back to God…loving God and neighbor and our selves. Jesus is about love and love stands in opposition to greed and fear and the othering of people. This is a message that should give us hope and encouragement even if it simultaneously makes us uncomfortable when we realize that this isn’t how the rest of the world operates…and how often we don’t live up to the mission of Jesus.

We see that in the story of the rich man. He went running after Jesus, wanting to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life. He learned that he had to let go of his attachment to things. He can’t do it…and neither can we.

We see it from those closest to Jesus. Peter wants a messiah who is going to overthrow the Roman Empire and restore a king of Israel. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, enamored by Jesus demand that Jesus place them one on his right and one on his left in glory. The others disciples are offended by their request…probably because they hadn’t thought of it first. Do they even know and understand that the ones who literally are on his right and left at Calvary will be the lowest of the low in society, the condemned criminals? Doubtful!

Two weeks in a row now we hear Jesus ask:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

Last week…this was the question to James and John, which leads to their self-serving desire to be at Jesus’ side in glory.

This week…it’s Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sitting on the outskirts of Jericho. He can’t see anything…at least he can’t see anything with his eyes…but he has enough of a spiritual vision that he knows that the commotion off in the distance is a crowd gathering around this one, this man who might be the answer to his prayer.

He bellows out:

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This is the ultimate “Help me!” We can imagine that desperation in his voice…the pleading cry of one who depends upon the kindness of strangers. No doubt some of us have seen it in the faces of people we’ve come across in our own lives. Maybe we’ve even been in this position at one time or another. Our backs against the wall and our only answer is to turn to God.

The crowd tries to tell this misfit…this outsider…to shut up. Go away! Leave the leader alone. But he doesn’t quit:


And then Jesus…stops. Up to now, he has been a man on the move. But now, just as with the hemorrhaging woman who grabbed ahold of the hem of his robe, Jesus stops and tells the crowd to let Bartimaeus come to him. This man’s plaintive cry has reached Jesus’ ears and so he invites this outsider in and asks him the same question he put to his very self-assured insiders James and John:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

And…big difference from James and John…Bartimaeus says,

“My teacher, let me see again.”

My. Teacher. Let me see again.

Bartimaeus gets personal. “My teacher.”

My rabbi.

My Rabbouni.

One of society’s forgotten unknowns…already has a clearer sense of who Jesus is than his well-known inner circle of disciples.

Bartimaeus’ profession and request is held in stark contrast to the disciples’ metaphorical blindness and a curious deafness. I mean, Jesus has told his followers at least three times what’s going to happen to him when they get to Jerusalem, how he’s leading a revolution not fought with swords but with love. He has made service to others the cornerstone of his ministry, and yet the disciples are blind to his actions and still hang onto what they think are the symbols of greatness: money and power. They were dumbfounded when Jesus told the rich man to give away everything and follow him.

And let’s look at that rich man for a moment. He wanted what Jesus was offering…but he didn’t want to have to change. He didn’t want to let go of his attachments. And rather than take Jesus up on his instruction to give away his things to the poor and follow, this man turns and walks away.

In contrast…Bartimaeus not only goes toward Jesus…we hear that he threw off his cloak to run to Jesus. In ancient days…beggars needed their cloaks because that’s what they would spread out on the ground to collect the meager offerings tossed in their direction!

So where the rich man fails to follow…and the Sons of Zebedee assume greatness with Jesus will give them some kind of lofty perch when the revolution happens…

Bartimaeus gives up everything and asks to see. And then when he gets his sight…he joins this march to Jerusalem, a long walk toward standing in opposition to all the ways of the Empire, ways that reward with fame and fortune…to strike a new path of power that comes when we show up for one another.

Mark has made great efforts in the weaving together of these various moments to put us in a place of thinking about how we see Jesus and the goal of his mission.

It is a mission that challenges the political and economic forces of his day.

So… if we take the Gospel seriously, it should shake the core of those forces in our time as well.

That’s what I mean when I say Jesus has a political message for us…and it’s one that turns our common understanding of power upside down. If we don’t acknowledge this…then we’re just as blind and deaf as the disciples in Mark.

The way I see it…the culmination of these past many weeks points back to that probing question we heard Jesus ask several weeks ago: “But who do you say that I am?”

That question leads us into a deeper examination of our faith.

Who Jesus is for us?

Who do we say Jesus is in our time? Our place? Our world rife with economic, political, and racial divisions?

And then comes….

“What do we want Jesus to do for us?”

What is the prayer we lift to God to heal our wounds, make peace and seek justice and reconciliation?

O God make speed to save us as we seek your will for our world.

O Lord make haste to help us to be the love and light for those in search of loving kindness.




Sunday, October 17, 2021

Leggo the Ego: A Sermon for Christ the King, Proper 24 Year B


The weirdest thing about my transitional diaconate has been the bouncing back and forth between two parishes in the same city. It's been hard to keep track of who is who, and to keep in mind what is happening in the life of the two places. I have a much better grasp of St. Barnabas, and that's not saying a lot because it seems like every week, I learn some other details that I had not known before. The one thing I do know about Christ the King is that it is a parish moving into new life in so many ways. Working with a small group of parishioners to craft the Prayers of the People has been enormously helpful as has been having a supervising priest who is generous in sharing with me about life inside this parish still recovering from the death of their founder and only pastor. 

The Gospel of Mark 10:35-45 is the primary text from which this sermon was born...with a little side of Job 38 with God's answers to Job's lamentable lament.


James and John, the Sons of Thunder. I mean!!

Did you hear what they just said?

Did you hear what these two blessed disciples have asked of Jesus?!

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

“Hmm…kay…What is it you want me to do for you?”

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

I mean!!

Here’s the thing: this request comes after Jesus has…one more time…told them what’s about to happen to him.

I know we didn’t read this part of the Gospel today, but I want you to hear what immediately precedes James and John’s burning desire to be on the right and the left of Jesus:

Here’s Mark’s gospel…chapter 10…verses 32-34

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

OK…so that’s what they just heard. And now they make this request?

Jesus just said:  

“There’s a showdown coming. The bullies are going to give me over to the Empire, and the tyrants of the Empire are going to put me through hell, kill me, and then I will rise again.

And you want to be where?!”

(And for those of us who know how this story goes…we know that the ones who literally will hang on Jesus’ left and right at Calvary are the condemned criminals…the outcasts…the powerless of society).

This is the third time Jesus has told the disciples in Mark’s Gospel what is going to happen when they finally reach Jerusalem.

And still… these two sons of Zebedee don’t seem to be hearing what Jesus is saying. He has been trying to tell them “I’m not the kind of leader who wants political power. I am not going to march you into battle with swords and spears. I’m leading a different type of revolution.”

He’s not into domination. He’s into service to others.

“Whoever wishes to be first must serve all.”

One time when I went to Atlanta with my wife, she was attending a conference of some kind and I was tagging along for the fun of a short holiday…I decided to go visit Ebenezer Baptist Church where the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family had served.

It was a weekday mid-morning, so there weren’t other people around. In the sanctuary of the church, they had a recording of Dr. King’s sermon, which he called “the Drum Major Instinct”, playing on repeat.

I took a seat in one of the pews and listened as his voice boomed in the space. Some parts of the recording had shown the wear and tear that happens to reel-to-reel tape and so there were some garbled moments and skips. But it was his voice and his preaching. And the scripture text was this same one we heard this morning from Mark’s Gospel.

King described that the phenomenon at play with James and John is the same Drum Major Instinct…that need to be at the front of the parade…that has plagued all of us forever and a day.

So while we may want to scoff at these sons of Zebedee, if we were really honest with ourselves, we are just as likely to succumb to this need of our ego.

The ego expresses need when we see the advertisement that tells us how our lives will be so much better with this or that product.

Our ego is what drives us to want to be better than somebody else. It’s the ego that leads to the need to dominate other people.

On a much bigger scale…it’s what keeps the nations battling to be the top dog.

It’s all part of that Drum Major Instinct.

But King also pointed out that Jesus didn’t condemn that instinct. Rather Jesus praises that instinct…if it is reordered and redirected toward service.

The mark of true greatness is not about us having the nicest house and living in the best part of town.

True greatness is rewarded and recognized in the way we strive for justice for the disinherited…

the way we feed the hungry…

the way we treat people struggling to make ends meet.

That’s what Jesus wanted James and John to understand.

“Follow me into being a revolutionary for peace and love and justice and your greatness will be seen in the eyes of those who are seeking kindness and equity.”

That is the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I’ve been talking as if James and John were just arrogant fools who didn’t get the message the first time

or the second

or third time about what it means to be on Jesus’ left and right in glory.

But what if they did understand it?

What if their request is born out of a place of realizing that he’s serious about the confrontation he is about to have with the Empire in Jerusalem?

What if James and John aren’t making their request out of arrogance, but out of fear or need for security?

This is something a commentator raised and I think it’s an interesting thought and so much of it depends on how we read this story.

Again…if we look at what’s in that short section before this exchange with James and John…we read that Jesus and the disciples are “on the road heading to Jerusalem” and Jesus is “walking ahead of them and they were amazed…and those who followed were afraid.” (Mark 10:32b) 

If James and John are followers and are afraid, what is that fear?

Are they wanting to flank Jesus, maybe be his loyal protectors against viciousness and cruelty in Jerusalem? Provide Jesus security and in turn secure themselves?

I’ve seen this behavior before.

There are people who feel God is in danger and they must defend God against whatever perceived attack might be happening against the Almighty.

But I hope we have seen in the reading from Job, God is quite capable of handling all complaints and anger and vitriol any one of us might spew at God at any point in time.

I have enough confidence that my Creator is a lot bigger and stronger and infinitely more patient, powerful, and wise than me and as Proverbs says, there’s nothing new under the sun, so God can take care of God’s self.

But fear and that need for security is a big motivator for us. And just like arrogance…it can deceive us into taking actions and making decisions that ultimately keep us from fully living into our baptism to follow Jesus.

Fear of others is what leads to gated communities.

Fear of others is what keeps us from providing public transportation.

Fear is what keeps us in these polarized places of us and them.

Fear is what picks up a gun to settle an argument. 

But fear is the opposite of faith. And the one phrase that gets repeated over and over in scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments: “Do. Not. Be. Afraid.”

Once more…Jesus tells John and James and us: true greatness is not to be found by sealing ourselves off from one another. True greatness comes in seeing each other and serving each other as children of One God.

As Dr. King noted in his sermon…the best part about this type of servanthood is that doesn’t require special training, or extra schooling.

And I will add one does not need to be ordained.

Ordained leaders can be icons that you look to for an example of service. But we are all called by Jesus to serve each other and our community with a heart full of grace and a souls fueled by love.

As we prepare to enter our new church home downtown what does service look like for Christ the King Episcopal Church?

What are the needs we can meet?

Who are the disinherited we can invite in?

How can we live into our Baptismal Covenant as we ‘strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?’ (BCP, 305).

May we resist the temptation of arrogance or fear as we seek out and serve those looking for loving-kindness.

And let the church say…



Monday, October 11, 2021

Live Free, Happy, and Out


It has been more than 30 years since I "came out," first to myself, then gradually to my family and friends.  In fact, I think I have been out so long that I'm not sure where the closet is any more. And I smile and celebrate when I see queer folks much younger than me who have no problem being demonstratively queer in ways that I would not and, because of the stigma, could not be when I was their age and struggling with my sexual identity in the 1980s. 

Still, I know that there are places in this country and many around the world where being an L, G, B, T, Q, or any variation on those will lead to ostracism, or even death. So for those of us who can be out, hooray! And keep your light shining for those who still live in the shadows yearning to leave their closets. They need to see you and know that, one day, they can be with you.

A prayer for this National Coming Out Day:

O God of love, we give thanks for our lives, for our loves, for our spirits set free from the bondage of pretending to be someone or something we are not; continue to walk along side us, march with us when we seek justice, cry with us when we face opposition, and keep our hearts rejoicing in the knowledge that we are your beloved queer children, and set us as lights for others still seeking to find their true selves. In your Holy Name we pray. Amen. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Letting Go of Attachments: A Sermon for St. Barnabas, Proper 23B

Christ and the Young Rich Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann

There are things you are taught in seminary, such as theology and Biblical scholarship and research. 

But they couldn't prepare me for some of the challenges of parish ministry, especially strong opinions about koi ponds. St. Barnabas has had a koi pond on its property for more than 20 years, and its been both a source of peace and vexation. Our vestry has reached the end of its rope with the necessary care of the koi, but it is a feature of a garden that was built in memory of a beloved Sunday School teacher. There was never an official dedication, and instead, another beloved member with a yen for the outdoors and landscaping paid for and designed the pond herself. This week has been spent with our vestry clerk researching all of this information and me searching for any family member who might be able to fill in the history, and drafting a letter to the congregation (which now needs to be rewritten given all of our new information uncovered from the past church records) seeking help from anyone who would like to make "Koi Care" their ministry. All this while crafting another letter for kicking off a stewardship campaign. And writing a sermon, interestingly, reflecting on attachments that get in the way of our commitment to living into our call to Christian service and mission. Hmmmm....


 Main text: Mark 10:17-31

“How hard will it be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

If we look closely at this statement, we see that it is not worded as a question. In fact, in our text from the N-R-S-V translation, this was a declarative statement from Jesus, complete with an exclamation point.

“How hard will it be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

Of course, Jesus then answers this statement with another famous declaration, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, it is impossible for a rich person.

Now, it can be easy I’m sure for many of us who don’t have the fortunes of an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos to stay focused on Jesus chastising the super rich. It’s always so much more fun to see Jesus scolding others and not realizing that his imperative is directed at us.

So I would like to invite us to think a little bit more about this passage…and the meaning here of “wealth” and “rich.” I’m not talking about money and stock portfolios.

Rather “wealth” and “rich” could mean anything that we take as “things,” the comforts of life living in the western world.

This story is often referred to as “The Rich Young Man.” That would be true if we were reading Matthew’s account (Matt 19:20). If our lesson came from Luke, this character would be called “a certain ruler” (Luke 18:18).

But unlike Matthew’s “young” man or Luke’s even more lofty “ruler,” Mark’s version tells us that this is “a man.” We learn throughout the exchange that this “man” is someone who obviously has some level religious devotion and clearly has a lot of possessions; hence he’s labeled “rich.”

I think it’s important that Mark hasn’t established that upfront. Here…he’s “a man.”

“A guy”

“A dude”

He’s more “one of us” than a “one of them.”

This man comes running (I love Mark! Everything is immediate, fast-paced!) This man has something singular on his mind, something  important to ask. And he wants to put his matter before this incredible rabbi he’s been hearing about, and so nearly breathless he asks,

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”

Wow! What a bold question!

What. Must. I. Do?

What feat of great strength or extraordinary effort must I put forward to gain favor and enter the kingdom of God?

The question reveals so much about this man. Somehow, he has gotten the impression that eternal life with God requires him to put a spotlight on some feat or skill that proves his worthiness.

And he thinks that flattery will buy him an instant answer, maybe one that confirms his self-identity propped up by his many possessions.

Jesus decides the best course is to begin at the beginning.

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Jesus is letting this guy know, “I’m not some post-doctoral scholar here who’s gonna drop pearls of wisdom on you, buddy. And if you came here for a simple ‘to do’ list for eternal life, you’re in for a rude awakening.” He then gives him the various commandments that this man ought to know and be adhering to in his life.

And as one commentator notes…Jesus specifically highlights a commandment that is not explicit…telling the man “You shall not defraud.” Definitely a zinger and questioning the way this man came to be so rich in the first place.

The man clearly is not satisfied with this answer. His self-centered desire is for Jesus to give him some sort of silver bullet, or a golden nugget that will answer his question.

The man puts up a protest.

“I have kept all these since my youth.”

“Come on, Jesus! I’ve done all the stuff, but I don’t get it. Nothing is different. When I am going to get eternal life?!”

Then Jesus looks at him. He sees him from the top of his head to his toes. And---this one is only in Mark’s Gospel—Jesus loves him.

“Love” here is not a romantic or sensual love. A quick look at the Greek reveals that this “agape” love is a spiritual love and God’s desire for us to be in right relationship with God and neighbor. Jesus can see that there are “things” getting in the way for this man.

Buddhism labels these “attachments.” And in a similar way, this man has so many “attachments” that he can’t even really live into the commandments. And this is when Jesus gives the man the only answer that will satisfy his question.

You must give up all your attachments, your things, those items that you believe define you. Give them away to the poor, the ones who are the have-nots. Once you have let go of all of that, you will be free and then you must follow me.

Walk my path.

Care for others.

Help the helpless and the disinherited.

Challenge those who will not do right by widows and children.

This, dear friend, is the answer to your pressing question about eternal life.

And that’s when we see the true colors of this man. In his free will, he turns and sulks and walks away.

He has too much. And he can’t let go.

Even if it means helping someone who has nothing.

Are we really surprised?

As I was contemplating this passage, I was reminded of a phrase in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer was the Lutheran scholar and pastor who was killed by the Nazis for plotting to murder Hitler during World War II. He says the call to discipleship comes down to a two-pronged statement about obedience.

“Only a person who believes is obedient, and only a person who is obedient believes.” (D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).

If we are going to follow Jesus and respond to His call to be disciples of his word and his mission…be “obedient” … we must first let go of our attachments and making excuses for why we need this or that to happen for us to really believe.

There is such a temptation to set conditions…expectations…before we make a real commitment to live and follow the teachings of Jesus.

We keep wanting to have a God who conforms to our image, confirms our biases, meets our demands. Those with means can fall prey to the false belief that somehow having wealth shows how much God loves us.

Not to get too far down a rabbit trail here, but I hear a lot of that in Job’s bitter complaint we heard this morning. We can hear in his words the sorrow of one who had possessions…and can’t understand why bad things have now happened to him.

And yet, even though Job is complaining (and if we had heard the horrible advice of his friends about his particular calamities, we’d understand why he was so distressed at this point), he demonstrates a greater faith than this man in Mark’s gospel.

Unlike the rich man, Job, now having nothing, is oddly free.

He is free of “things” that prevent him from turning to God, even in bitterness, to make himself heard. The mere fact that he can do this shows that he has, despite everything, remained obedient to God. Job turns toward God; the rich man turns away.

The call to us in discipleship is first to be willing to see how our “things” …our wealth…those identities and possessions that make us “rich” …can get in the way of us having a real relationship with Jesus. When we hold onto “things,” we are not really able to follow Jesus into the places that He needs us to go or meet the people and problems of the world he desires for us to address.

For Jesus, the entry into eternal life…is not an academic issue or something requiring a focus group.

As followers of Jesus…eternal life is experienced when we let Jesus transform our hearts…and see our true mission is to care for others, treating one another with respect and dignity.

How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.

How hard it will be for those with attachments to “things” to be free enough to be in a life-giving, life-affirming relationship with Jesus.

How much easier it will be for us to feel the joy of eternal life when we make that first difficult step to stop holding back pieces of ourselves from God and hanging on to our old ways and attachments.  

How much richer our lives will be when we allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s deep love for us and this planet, so that we can offer that same love to each other.