The Ten Commandments

Many of a certain generation will remember the scene from the Mel Brooks film History of the World: Part I, when Moses stands atop Mount Sinai looking down upon the Hebrews with three large stone tablets balanced precariously in his hands.  Moses (played by Brooks himself, of course) says to the Israelites, “Oh, hear me!  All pay heed!  The Lord, the Lord Jehovah, has given unto you these fifteen…” At which point Moses drops one of the three tablets, and it shatters.  He pauses sheepishly, mumbles “Oy,” and then says, “Ten! Ten commandments for all to obey!”

Mel Brooks, fifteen commandments

In 2006, Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland sponsored a bill declaring that the Ten Commandments are “fundamental principles” and “the cornerstone of a just and fair society.”  Congressman Westmoreland’s bill would also have required that the Ten Commandments be prominently displayed in the U.S. Capitol Building.[i]  In an interview, Westmoreland explained, “Well, the Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and respect.  Where better could you have something like that than a judicial building or a courthouse?”

Whether or not one agrees with the placement of religious monuments on public property, surely most would agree with the

Congressman’s sentiment about understanding and respecting such a foundational part of our religious and cultural tradition.  So far, so good.

But then the interviewer asked the obvious follow-up: “What are the Ten Commandments?  Can you name them all?”

For just a split second, Congressman Westmoreland looked stupefied, as if it never occurred to him that the interview might take such a turn.  He then responded, “What are all of them?  You want me to name them all?” (A pregnant pause.)  “Don’t murder; don’t lie; don’t steal…Um…I can’t name them all.”[ii]

The point is that the Ten Commandments, like so much else in religious life in different eras and at different places, have themselves become a fetish, a symbol of something that bears very little relationship to the content of the commandments themselves.  It seems to me that if we take the good Congressman at his word that the Ten Commandments are a cornerstone of a just and fair society, that they deserve our understanding and respect, then the first step is not to chisel them in marble and set them on the courthouse lawn but to know what they say and, with God’s help, follow them.

Ten Commandments on capitol grounds

So, today’s sermon is going to be a bit different from the norm.  No narrative story-telling; no attempt at deep theologizing; no soaring words that seek to inspire.  Instead, we’re going to look at the Ten Commandments.  We’ll consider what they actually say and why they might matter in our lives.

At the outset, it is important to remember the context in which God issues these commandments.  The Israelites have just been redeemed from bondage in Egypt.  After many generations of slavery, they are free, and yet they have no idea what it looks like to live as a free people who serve under no one’s arbitrary yoke.  God grants the Ten Commandments not as a stifling burden, but as the broad, corralling boundaries within which the life of free people can be lived in mutuality, respect, and joy.  They intend to provide for us the same.

We’ll save the first three commandments for the end.  The fourth commandment is “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”  Throughout most of human history, when labor was grinding, back-breaking and incessant, the sabbath day was, literally, life-saving.  It gave the body time to heal and restore its energy.  But in today’s world the sabbath is equally crucial.  We are workaholics.  With email, cell phones, and social media, our work creeps into every facet of our lives, including the dinner table and bedroom.  And this phenomenon includes not only our paid labor.  Even our recreation increasingly has a job-like quality to it (think: kids’ sports).  In everything, we want to accomplish, achieve, and do more.  Consequently, we are perpetually fatigued, physically, psychologically, and emotionally.  We are weary, but we do not rest.  God understands our human need, and God commands us to observe sabbath.  Imagine how different our lives would be if, for twenty-four hours a week, we shed the need to do and concentrated on being: being present to ourselves, to God, and to those we love.  If nothing else, our blood pressure would benefit from the change.

The fifth commandment is “Honor your father and mother.”  In our psychological age, this one can trip us up because, frankly, some among us endured bad fathers and mothers.  Healing psychologically from abuse can be a lifelong effort.  But even for such people, the importance of the fifth commandment is the reminder that none of us is entirely self-made.  Where we love, we have learned from someone to love.  Where we have advantage, we have benefitted from someone who sacrificed to grant us that advantage.  It is our sacred responsibility to maintain a posture of remembrance and response to the generation from which we have sprung, not to ignore its faults and flaws, but to nevertheless acknowledge our gratitude by granting it grace.

The behavioral commandments come next.  They are basic and unassailable, which is exactly why humanity has always been mystified at its inability to keep them.

The breadth of the sixth commandment—”Do not murder”—is a topic of endless theological debate.  Some believe it intends a blanket prohibition against all killing; others believe it is more specific, referring to unlawful killing while acknowledging in our broken world that there are circumstances of justice that require the taking of a life by appropriate authorities.  In either case, the commandment demands that life belongs to God and not us, that life—all life, not only the lives of those we love—is to be treated with awe and reverence.

The seventh commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” could not be clearer, it seems to me.  A priest once said to me, “Half the world’s problems would be solved if people would not have sexual relations with people to whom other people are married.”  Let that sink in for a moment before we move on.

The eighth commandment, “Do not steal” means do not take as your own those things that are not yours, or are not yours entirely.  In our world, with our sometimes scarcity of resources, this is doubly important.  Failure to share those things we hold in common is another form of theft, as surely as theft is me pick-pocketing your wallet.

The tenth commandment, “Do not covet your neighbor’s house,” concerns “the destructive power of desire.”[iii]  Though it comes later in the list, it is the precursor to “Do not steal.”  If one indulges a covetousness for what belongs to another, then over times one will rationalize stealing that thing, through either unlawful or lawful means.

Sandwiched between these two is the ninth commandment against bearing false witness.  This does not mean lying-in-general.  It refers to claiming as true a depiction of reality one knows is false.  The commandment prohibits falsely marring another’s reputation, either in malice or ignorance.  It condemns distorting the truth to prop up one’s ideology.  I wish Congressman Westmoreland and all his colleagues on both sides of the aisle would learn this commandment most of all.

warm sunlight

The Ten Commandments begin with the most important three, which are prioritized even before the laws against murder and theft.  The commandments begin with God saying, “You shall have no other gods before me…You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”  These three commands are the backdrop of the other seven.  They tell us that we must not consider God peripherally, casually, or flippantly.  We must not use God or God’s name as a tool, a means to our own ends.  The theologian Paul Tillich famously said that our god that that in which we place our ultimate concern.  We could each ask ourselves, “What is my god?  To what do I give my greatest attention, energy, money?  What is my ultimate concern in my daily life?”  If the answer is anything but the God of love, then our lives are askew.  All of the other commandments will then be more difficult to keep, because love is in not the center, the core from which all our living extends.

To live as a free people, in ancient Israel and today, means to live attentive to, grounded by, and centered in the God of love.  When we are so, we will care for ourselves with rest; we will respect those from whom we’ve come; we will honor the vows to our loved ones; we will revere life; we will be satisfied with enough in life; and we will speak the truth to ourselves and others.  This is not bondage; it is freedom.  It is the gift to us from the God of love and the invitation to live our lives in God.



[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, pg. 849.


The Great Leveler

My mother walked into my grandparents’ house sometime in 1994, and my grandfather Pop’s gruff voice called to her, “C’mere, I want to show you something.”  He directed mom to the kitchen cabinets, opened them incredulously, and there, from bottom to top, end to end, were stacks of canned tuna fish.  Dozens and dozens of cans.  For weeks, it seems, my grandmother Boo had been going to the grocery store, forgetting why she’d made the trip, and at a loss for what else to do, buying tuna fish.  It was the first sign that something was wrong.

Over the course of the next eight years, Boo slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease.  First, she’d repeat the same stories within the span of a ten-minute conversation.  Then, she’d become confused in her surroundings.  Eventually, one night she looked across the den at Pop, who had been her love and her life for more than fifty years, and wondered who that strange man was in her house.  In 1997, Pop’s heart couldn’t bear to watch Boo slowly erased in front of him, and he died.  By the time of Boo’s own death in 2002, she recognized no one.  She forgot even herself.


In a bible study in which I participated twenty years ago, the leader said of the Noah story, “Water is the great leveler.”  That is true, in more than one sense.  As we all learned last August during Hurricane Harvey, water shows no partiality.  If affects all socio-economic strata, all ages, all races.  But water is also the great leveler in the sense that it, quite literally, levels.  The surface of a calm sea is a level plane.  The stones in a flowing stream have their edges smoothed.  Water, given force or time, overwhelms everything in its path, erases distinctions, levels all.

This truth has been experienced and known throughout human history.  Virtually every ancient culture had its own foundational flood myth.  Other than our own, the best known is, perhaps, the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, which predates even the Noah story in Genesis.  In Gilgamesh, a man builds a boat to save his family from a global flood.  The water comes and washes away everything.  The man sends out birds to scout for dry land.  And once the family disembarks the boat, they make sacrifices of thanksgiving.  (Sound familiar?)


The Gilgamesh flood story

That there are other such stories in other religious cultures shouldn’t make us doubt the veracity of the Noah story, but rather underscores its truth.  The flood story is about, at root, the existential fear of being leveled, overwhelmed, drowned, erased.  Who among us hasn’t had the occasional crescendoing panic that all we are about in this world will eventually be as forgotten as all those things the water has submerged over time?  It is this universal foreboding that inspired every age’s flood story.  Water is the great leveler, and it symbolizes for us that we, too, will eventually be washed clean from this earth, that our greatest accomplishments will be smoothed down to nothing, our highest aspirations will drown, and our most cherished legacies will be erased.

Is this bad news on a Sunday morning?  I actually don’t think so.  The truth is never bad news, when we approach it from the correct perspective.  Bad news is telling ourselves a lie, especially a lie that may lead us to live in this world more self-importantly than we merit, to drink our own Kool-Aid so to speak.  Bad news is when the lie of our own permanence causes us to valuate ourselves over and above others, subtly assuming that, due to circumstance or merit, we are worth abiding while they can just as well wash away.

That is why the lectionary reminds us of the flood story on this first Sunday in Lent, just as that smudge of ash on our foreheads this past Wednesday reminded us that we are dust, and to dust we will return.  Water is the great leveler, and the flood story dredges up in us, as it has for all people everywhere, the reality that we are not permanent and we not the center of all things.

This is a good topic for our Lenten meditation.  To have the courage to dwell upon it may lead us to live more of our lives for others than for ourselves.  It may also grant us the grace not to cling, even to the things we love, which paradoxically will enable us to love better.  And when the time of our death comes, it may empower us to meet death not in fear, or as something to resist, but as a natural part of both individual life and the ever-renewing life of the cosmos.

I believe all of this, but then I think of my grandmother, Boo.  In her case, her erasure didn’t take eons.  It didn’t even require her own death.  As Alzheimer’s Disease flooded her brain with plaque, it was as if we watched her disappear before our own eyes.  To do so was deeply sad.  At times, the panic would well up in me not for me, but for her, and that was far worse.

boo teaching me

Boo (left, in green shirt) teaching me something, as she always was.

Some have heard me say that Boo is the best person I have ever known.  That is in no way an exaggeration.  She was patient.  She was attentive.  She was kind.  She loved those whom no one else would love.  That she faded even while she lived; that my own fragile memory of her will not outlive me; that Boo will, in other words, eventually be erased entirely from this world makes my soul rebel.  (Just as I must add at the 11th hour that something deep in my soul rebels against the notion that those seventeen children gunned down mercilessly in Parkland, Florida, have been erased from the world.)

Easter always follows Lent, and knowing our fragility God (and the lectionary) also grants us today the end of the flood story here at the beginning of this season.  Though water is the great leveler, and though the truth of our transience is something we best acknowledge and even embrace, the flood story ends not with the deluge, but with the rainbow.

In today’s reading, the flood has ended.  In the aftermath of the world’s erasure, Noah and his family have stepped back onto dry ground.  And God sees, as if for the first time, the impact that the leveling waters have had on the human survivors.  God perceives the anxiety and the panic that the recognition of human transience causes.  In response, God establishes a covenant—God makes a promise—to God’s children, a promise punctuated repeatedly by two crucial phrases: Never again and I will remember.  Never again, God says, will our destruction be ultimate.  Never again will we—and God importantly includes the diversity of animals here along with human beings—be erased the way that water levels all.


And how will God ensure this covenant?  How will God keep this promise?  Through the gloom of every storm, including those that threaten to drown us entirely, God pierces the clouds with the arc of the rainbow, which stretches, as we know, from here to eternity.  The rainbow symbolizes the second covenant refrain of God:  I will remember.  Though from this life we will all fade to nothingness, in the memory of God we endure.  And what endures there is the all of us, in our wholeness, our vitality, and our strength.  My grandmother Boo abides in the memory—the heart—of God not as the shadow of herself, but as the fulfillment of God’s purpose and hope for her.  She is not less, but more.  And that is the promise to each of us and to each of those we love and have loved.  God remembers; God does not forget.  The mosaic that is our lives on this earth, with our loves, our commitments, our passions, and our relationships lives on in God and no flood can ever sweep it away.

We are but dust, and we endure eternally.  This is the flood and the rainbow.  This is the paradox of our creation.  This is the journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  If we will travel it, we will live in this world more lightly and more honestly, shedding our pretension to permanence.  But we will also face our mortality without fear, knowing that, as sure as the rainbow appears after the storm, God remembers us always and forever, and God’s promises are unbreakable.

The Threshold of Faith

Often when this passage from Mark comes up in the lectionary—this account in which Peter brings Jesus home to meet his mother-in-law—it gives rise to all manner of mother-in-law jokes.  I happen to have the world’s best mother-in-law, and consequently I find mother-in-law jokes to be boorish and uncouth, especially from the pulpit.  I just don’t understand why some of my fellow preachers would tell a joke like, “Do you know the punishment for bigamy?  Two mothers-in-law.”  Or, “Jim and Bob were having a drink after work, when their mothers-in-law came up in conversation.  Jim said, ‘My mother-in-law is an angel,’ to which Bob replied, ‘Lucky.’”  (Think about that one for a moment.)  But I’m not going to tell such jokes in this sermon, because they are distractions.


This is a notable story in Mark today, though, and for many reasons.  First, Jesus is in Capernaum.  He arrived there for the first time in last week’s Gospel reading, and this town—moreso than Bethlehem or Nazareth—is central to Jesus’ life.  Capernaum is the town (the only town) that the Gospel writers refer to as the adult Jesus’ “home”[i] Capernaum is where Jesus could most be himself, surrounded by friends.  And the dwelling in which he relaxed (to the extent that he could relax) was Peter’s house.  The very house still there.  Whereas the vast majority of biblical sites in the Holy Land are attributable only to later tradition, the ruins of Peter’s house in Capernaum have been visited by Christian pilgrims since the years just after the crucifixion, when it was still an inhabited home.  It is almost certainly the actual house into which, two thousand years ago, a rough fisherman named Simon walked across the threshold with an itinerant carpenter’s son who was preaching an earth-shaking message of grace.  I have been to Capernaum.  I have stood at the edge of that house and stared at that threshold, wondering what it would have been like to walk across with Jesus and enter into his intimate life.

In the Gospel today, it is the Sabbath, and Jesus has been teaching in the Capernaum synagogue, a stone’s throw from Peter’s house.  While Jesus is there, he rids a man of a demon, and Peter, whom Jesus has only barely just met, then invites Jesus home.  Peter’s motives are mixed.  First, Peter has been mesmerized by Jesus and followed Jesus from his fishing boat the day before.  Peter wants to know Jesus deeply and well, to figure out and learn from this remarkable traveler.  But Peter’s mother-in-law is also ill with a fever.  She needs help, and after witnessing what Jesus does to the demon in the synagogue, Peter suspects that Jesus can heal his wife’s mother.  They walk the short distance to Peter’s home, and they cross the threshold together.  Jesus enters into the intimacy of Peter’s world and Jesus heals the mother-in-law within.

First century Capernaum is not a huge town.  It likely has twelve hundred citizens, and word of the healing spreads quickly even on the day of Sabbath rest.  But Capernaum’s residents are faithful and observant people.  Mark tells us that only “at sunset”—meaning when the Sabbath is officially ended—do they come to Peter’s house from every corner of town.  The Gospel tells us at this point: “The whole city was gathered around the door.  And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”

Peter's house at Capernaum

Peter’s house at Capernaum, surrounded by the ruins of a Byzantine church built around it.

It is worth noting that in the first century as now, the end of the Sabbath was often observed with a service of Havdalah, which celebrates God re-creation of the world for another new week.  Yet, in Mark, the physical needs of Capernaum’s residents are so pressing that they skip out on Havdalah in order, as soon as the sun sets, to stand outside the door of Jesus.


They are not so unlike us.  What is it that most often causes us to drop everything and approach God?  (You know the saying about atheists and foxholes?)  It is in our need that we drop everything.  It is when we are in physical pain, when we encounter loss, and when we are crippled with anxiety about life that we suddenly seek to make a connection with the One who creates us.  We want the pain to go away, the loss to subside, the anxiety to quell.  We want God to fix us, to heal us like cosmic Tylenol, and so when we are in need we will, indeed, approach the threshold of God.

And God now, like Jesus then, responds.  To all those standing just outside the threshold of Peter’s house, Jesus is willing to provide balm.  He meets them where they are, and he heals them.  But notice: Mark tells us that the “people of Capernaum do not come to Jesus because of who he is but because of what he can do for them.”[ii]  They do not enter the house.  They stop short of the doorway into Jesus’ intimate life.  They do not cross the threshold.

And the first night in Capernaum is no aberration.  The people are desperate for help.  The next morning, the Gospel tells us, Jesus slips out of town in order to pray, and the people hunt for him.  The Greek word here is not “search” or “look for,” but “hunt” as in hunting down an animal.[iii]  The people are desperate to hunt down Jesus, but again, only for what he can do for them, not because of who he is.


Will we cross the threshold into the intimate life of God?

That, too, is often like us.  We seek to know God only to the extent that we tend to know our physicians.  We want God to cure our spirits as our physicians cure our bodies.  But God wants, and offers, much more.  It is the desire of God’s own heart that we not huddle just outside the door.  It is the desire of God’s own heart that we cross the threshold, that we enter into God’s intimate life and being.  In fact, that is the alternate model that Jesus himself gives us.  Whereas the people huddle at the door, clawing at Jesus in their need, Jesus slips away to a quiet place to commune with God and be intimately present with God.

When we do this, the transformation in our lives is much more than the assuaging of our pain or the quelling of our anxieties.  The irony of the scene outside of Peter’s door in Capernaum is that, though the people have skipped the service of Havdalah, which celebrates the re-creation of a new week, they are right on the cusp of a re-creation that is personal and much more than liturgical.  Stepping across the threshold into the intimate life of God would take them, and take us, beyond immediate need to the very re-creation of the self, to the new life that is defined by communion with the God of love.  It is not cosmic Tylenol, but a cosmic transplant of the heart.  It is total.  It changes everything.

Like Jesus in Peter’s house at Capernaum, God makes his home here.  Into this intimate space, God invites us also.  If we come only in our need, God will respond to that, because God is faithful.  But if we cross the threshold beyond our need, through the doorway into the intimate life of God, we will know God for who God is, as love incarnate, and we will experience the re-creation of our spirits, our own Havdalah.


[i] Mark 2:1

[ii] Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni.  Preaching the Gospel of Mark: Proclaiming the Power of God, 29.

[iii] Ibid.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” By The Rev. Canon Glenice Robinson-Como

From our text today we learn the heart and simplicity of Johns’ message, which was used by a few new converts to Jesus.  As a matter of fact, their exciting message of invitation consists of only three simple words—Come and See!  Jesus is travelling into Galilee where he finds Philip from Bethsaida and later Philip finds Nathanael who announces, “we have found the one whom Moses and the prophets have written about, Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  I am certain Nathanael, with a puzzled expression on his face answered, “Are you kidding me? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Before Philip can ponder Nathanael’s words, he seems to anticipate his response and simply replies, “Come and See”, and are you ready for this Nathanael?  It is Jesus, son of Joseph….from Nazareth!!!  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall to see the expression on Nathanael’s face when Philip mentioned anyone or anything of significance coming out of Nazareth, as he replied, “Nazareth!!!!??? Can anything good come out of Nazareth, much less the Savior of the world?”  You see, Nathanael is not interested in following just anyone claiming to have a new idea or thought, least of all someone from Nazareth.  Nathanael is also wise to imposters and does not want to be thrown under the bus from embarrassment and disappointment.  More importantly, Nathanael is familiar with Nazareth and has his own biased thoughts about the town and its people.

The town of Nazareth is hardly mentioned in first century documents, outside of scripture, and was deemed insignificant.  Nazareth would be the last place anyone would expect for a Messiah to appear, because it is believed that the small community consisted of about only 150-200 people, all who are believed to have been related.  Nazareth was also situated in the hill country of Galilee, a region of fishing and farming; an area known for having a high population of Gentiles, immigrants and foreigners.  Nazareth has been described as a place where dreams die, instead of flourish; simply put, Nazareth was considered to be an “insignificant agricultural village.”  So, when Philip announces, “we have found the Messiah and he is from…..” the insignificant village of Nazareth”, Nathaniel can only respond: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

       When we recall how Jesus read these words from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favorToday, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, here in Nazareth.”  I am certain initially his town-folk were proud and amazed at his gracious words.  They probably smiled and patted one another on the back saying, “Check out Joe’s kid! Maybe something good can emerge from Nazareth!!!”  And if the people of Nazareth are like those of us who celebrate hometown heroes, they probably felt since they were Jesus’ people, the might receive preferential treatment, after all, they are from Israel and of course they believe they were much more important than those Gentiles who lived across the border.  But in typical Jesus fashion, Jesus opens the eyes of their blind provincialism to free them from their captivity to racism, reminding them that God’s love extends far and deep beyond their view–even into the Nazareth’s of the world. Jesus reminds them that it was to an immigrant widow who God sent Elijah; he reminds them that out of all the lepers in Israel, it was only the foreigner Naaman who received cleansing from Elisha.

Those of us who understand a Nazareth community, also fully understand its challenges.  We understand the many injustices which simmer beneath the civility; we have experienced the eagerness of others to draw firm lines between the insider and the outsider; we have often observed veiled prejudices which are often justified through truths found throughout scriptures and proverbs.  Through the Nazareths of the world, Jesus came to show each of us a new way of living in community, where our common life experiences would change and shape us into disciples.  What I find amazing in John’s Gospel is that Nathanael discovers first-hand and for himself, that something life-changing came out of Nazareth. He does not simply rely upon what he heard, but responds to the “come and see” invitation to have firsthand information and an up close and personal view of Christ.

We all have learned that Jesus was raised in Nazareth and probably recited the Torah.  We have all learned that it was in Nazareth where Jesus increased in wisdom and favor.  But more importantly, it was Nazareth where Jesus would carry the name of his home community wherever he ventured, wherever he taught, wherever he served.  Jesus of Nazareth was the gift and offering of a small community to the world.  Jesus, born in a foreign land, trained in a town which lacked resources and luxury.  Jesus of Nazareth, a name that would follow him from the manger to the cross.

Nazareth serves as a symbol of communities who have great gifts and offerings to be shared throughout the world, while at the same time, are also communities which have experienced failure, setbacks, and misfortune.  Nazareth represents communities where there is constantly a lack of resources available; Nazareth represents those places where educating and housing is limited; Nazareth represents countries such as El Salvador, who suffer constantly from the inequality and distribution of income; but they RISE!  Nazareth represents places like Haiti, who remain in disarray and where approximately 5% of its population controls its wealth and yet Haiti will also RISE!  Nazareth represents the continent of Africa, where 43% of its people have advanced degrees and offer their gifts and talents through their continent, while pouring them into countries around the world. The Nazareth’s of the world represent those spaces where we are invited to “come and see” and experience the goodness which shower their land. Nazareth’s represent a land which produces Oscar Romeros, Nelson Mandelas and Mia Loves.

We must continue to believe that God cares about the suffering of the Nazareth’s of the world and extends an invitation to us to search deeply into our humanity to experiences various gifts created to form a just society.  God calls upon the church to respond to the challenges of diversity in creative and fruitful ways, so that all can thrive abundantly and grow into all they were created to be. God exposes us to the Nazareths of the world to provide opportunities for partnerships, to share and offer respect and compassion among one another.  For all the challenges which confront our great nation, God still expects generous gifts of hospitality from each of us; the gift of genuine human community, the gift of true appreciation for our island home- which renders a storehouse rich of practical skills and reasoning; and a beautiful image of what the church can become in times such as these. Our faith communities are called to be somewhat of a visual aid for kingdom building, because quite often in our humanness, we must see it mirrored before we are cable of becoming it.

We all have our own personal Nazareths. They can be expressed through our thoughts of other people or through the experiences we encounter such as fear, prejudice or shame.  Often, we too cannot see how anything good and life sustaining can come out of the Nazareth’s of the world.  But thanks be to God, that God thinks and responds differently.  For God, Nazareth is the place of manifestation and self-revelation.  Nazareths of the world are places where we resist and become suspicious of skeptical of.  Nazareths are those places where we like others may proclaim, “Can any good come out of Nazareth?”

Still today, our job and calling as kingdom builders is to be as bold as Philip and respond, “Come and See,” because the God we serve is not limited by our assumptions.  For every Nazareth, for every doubt, for every fear, there is an invitation to “Come and See.”  For every assumption, we make there is a deeper truth to be discovered so that our Nazareth’s of the world then become the place of God’s Epiphany, inviting us to “Come and  see four ourselves, to come and see love, to come just as we are—to just come.  My sisters and brothers in Christ, there is more happening in the Nazareth’s of the world than we can imagine.  You see, not just “anything good” comes out of Nazareth.  The One who is good, comes out of Nazareth.  Come and See.  AMEN.

Freeze or follow?

I once met Alison Krauss.  Do you know Alison Krauss?  She is a world-class bluegrass fiddler and singer.  I’ve often said, if I die and get to heaven and the angels don’t sound a lot like Alison Krauss, I may not stay.  Suffice to say, I’m a big fan (and you should be, too).  I once met Alison Krauss.  Alison and her band, Union Station, were in Roanoke, and my parishioner was the general manager of the performing arts hall where they were playing.  Jill and I had second row seats, and thirty minutes before the show my parishioner texted me and asked, “Do you want to come backstage and meet Alison?”

Did I?  I spent the next few minutes composing in my mind exactly what I would say to her.  It was eloquent and compelling, and it went something like this: “Ms. Krauss, I spent the summers in college working on a bridge crew for the Arkansas Highway Department.  It was hot and hard manual labor, like nothing I’d done before.  Those were difficult summers, both physically and mentally, as I grew up learning about life and labor from the hardscrabble guys on that crew.  I also spent those days listening to your early music on an old scratchy Sony Walkman.  You were the soundtrack of those summers, and I’ll be forever grateful.”

That’s pretty good, right?  That’s what you’d want to say if you met Alison Krauss.  So, Jill and I went backstage.  First, the members of Union Station walked in, one by one.  I got a little star struck.  Finally, Alison herself emerged like a willowy apparition.  She walked up to me, stuck out her hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Alison Krauss.”  And I froze.  For perhaps the first time in my life, words escaped me.  I stood there staring at her dumbly.  The look on her face went from amiability to mild discomfort.  I started to panic, but then I remembered my prepared speech.  I opened my mouth, and when I spoke, I swear my voice sounded like Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade.  I said something like, “Uh, Ms. Krauss, I like to stand on the side of the road and listen to you.”

It was Alison’s turn to panic, except that my equally angelic bride stepped in and pushed me aside.  Jill said, “Ms. Krauss, we’re fans, and we’re so glad to attend your show.” Alison’s facial expression relaxed, and then she was gone.  Gone!  I froze, and she was gone.

Alison Krauss

She really does sing like an angel.

Today in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry.  He’s already sought out John the Baptist and been baptized.  He’s had his heaven-opening epiphany with God.  He’s spent forty days in the wilderness.  During all of this time, Jesus has been convinced, moved, transformed by something that propels him forward, and he goes back to Galilee, his home, to share this good news.  And here, Mark gives us in a single sentence the recapitulation of the entire Gospel.  Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

There’s a whole lot packed into that single sentence.  If we gloss over it we’ll be bound to misinterpret everything that follows.  The first half of Jesus’ declaration tells us something has happened, and it’s something to which we’d better pay attention: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  This is one of those instances where the original language of the text matters.  The Greek verb here is tricky to translate.[i]  “Has come near” may mean near in time, as if to say, “The kingdom of God is almost here and will be soon.”  That’s the way evangelical Christianity has most often understood it.  But another and better way to translate the verb is to refer not to time, but proximity.  Translated this way, Jesus is saying, “The kingdom of God is right next to you.  It’s not some future place in some distant realm.  It’s here, now, just a whisper away from where you stand.  The distance from you to it is paper thin.

And then, the second half of Jesus’ sentence tells us how to find it, reach it, enter it—this kingdom that is right beside us: “Repent,” Jesus says, “and believe in the good news.”

Throughout modern Christian history, we’ve taken this command to mean, “Acknowledge your faults, live a more moral life, and affirm all the right statements about who Jesus is.”  Isn’t that what we intuitively think Jesus means when he says “repent and believe”?

But that’s almost certainly not what Jesus means.  Again, our English language assumptions get the better of us.  In New Testament Greek, and especially in context, “repent” means, as one imminent biblical scholar puts it, “to go beyond the mind that you have…and [be] shaped by God and the dream of God.”[ii]  Isn’t that lovely?  It sheds a completely different light on the idea of repentance.  Repentance doesn’t mean to cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes, and it doesn’t mean to engage in good old self-loathing.  Repentance means to let go of the ways we’ve seen life and the world, and instead allow ourselves to be shaped by the dream of God.

And belief (that other prescription after repentance) means in the Gospel context not to say all the right things about Jesus, but to be committed to God’s dream, to be all-in; not to give a passing Sunday morning nod to God’s vision for this world, but to trade—completely and for good—our own dream for God’s.

That’s how we get there.  That’s how the whisper becomes a chorus.  That’s how God’s reality that is right next to us, so close we can almost touch it, breaks through into our lives.  “The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”  It requires only that we embrace God’s dream for the world as our own, and that we commit our whole selves to it.  Then the kingdom will truly be here.

Jesus calls Simon and Andrew

Jesus doesn’t just stand in one place and say these words.  He travels around the Sea of Galilee, approaching groups of people.  He is aglow with God’s kingdom that he himself has experienced, so much so that Jesus becomes the thing he proclaims.  Jesus is the embodiment of God’s dream for the world.  The things he will do, and the message he will share, reveal what God’s dream looks like.  As Jesus approaches Simon and Andrew, James and John, in him the kingdom of God literally draws near.  Jesus makes his claim about God’s dream to these men, and then they are left with the choice.  Will they repent and believe?  Will they give up the dreams they’ve held for their lives and instead embrace God’s dream?  Will they stay frozen in place, or will they commit themselves to God’s vision, and follow?

These stories always remind me of meeting Alison Krauss.  She’s not Jesus, of course (although, as I said, she does sing like the angels), but in her presence I froze in place, petrified, so that rather than respond to her, I missed an opportunity.

That’s the moment between the first four disciples and Jesus today.  It’s the moment for each of us when we hear these words that launch the Gospel: The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.  Will we freeze, or will we follow?  Are our dreams, our visions for life, so enthralling that we cannot move beyond them to be shaped instead by God’s glorious dream for this world?  We see that dream in Jesus, in the radical way he will love, and comfort, and challenge, and demand, not a Sunday morning but a world in which grace rules, in which the God of love reigns.  That kingdom is right here, just a whisper away.  The distance between it and us is paper thin.  All we have to do is go beyond the minds we have had and be shaped by God and the dream of God.  We cannot be frozen in these pews.  We must follow.  And when we do, the whisper will become a chorus.  The kingdom will break through the veil, first into us and then through us into the world beyond.  That is good news.  It is the Good News, and I, for one, am all in.  Amen.

[i] Borg, Marcus.  Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark, 30.

[ii] Ibid, 31.

Encountering God

“And then, something happened.”  It is a phrase I suspect anyone who has been a priest for very long has heard multiple times.  In my experience, the lead-up usually looks something like this: A parishioner visits my office with alternating facial expressions of wonder, confusion, and sheepish embarrassment.  He begins to talk without pause, covering every mundane topic of the day to avoid the real reason for the visit.  Then, almost on a dime, he shifts gears and says, apropos of nothing, “You probably won’t believe this.”  And his real story begins.

That story may focus on a desperate illness, or a major change in life, or on nothing remarkable at all.  It may involve a late night panic attack, or the emergence from a hazy cloud of drink, or a reflective moment of meditation or prayer.  But regardless, the denouement virtually always includes a pregnant pause, a quizzical look, and those words, “And then, something happened.”

And I believe him.  And I believed the man who visited before him, and I’ll believe the woman who visits after him.  I believe them all, because of their very inability adequately to put into words what the “something” is, because of their frustration at being unable to convey to me how profound the encounter was for them, and because, in the end, the quizzical look gives way to one of benign acceptance and sometimes even bliss, which tells me that the fact of the something is more than enough, that its sui generis nature is a gift, and that it will in some way define them for the remainder of their days.

What has happened?  These many parishioners, and many of you, and I, and Jesus this very day, have encountered God.  There was before, and there is after, and in between, if but for a moment, we have had an epiphany.

The very first epiphany, the very first encounter with God, was at the first moment of creation, when God determined that there would be a moment at all, and a creation with which to have an encounter.  Though time did not yet exist, we temporal creatures only know how to conceive through sequences, and so we nevertheless say there was a before—formless and void, Genesis calls it—and there was an after, and in between something happened.  That something was God’s declaration, “Let it be!” which changed everything.

The Big Bang

“Let it be!”

At the outset of Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus travels to see John the Baptist in the wilderness, goes down into the Jordan and comes up from the water, and then, something happens.  The early church recognized that this experience was momentous, so much so that some of the earliest Christian writings believed Jesus was adopted as God’s son at this moment.[i]  That doctrine didn’t ultimately find purchase with the church, but many orthodox theologians argue at least that Jesus first became aware at this moment that he had a unique role to play.  For Jesus himself, there was a before, and there was an after, and in between, at the River Jordan, something happened.  As with us, normal language can’t adequately describe what Jesus encounters.  Instead, Mark fumblingly tells us, it is as if the very heavens are torn open, and a dove descends, and the same voice that once said at the dawn of creation, “Let it be” now says, “You are beloved.”

These utterances of God are, it is my experience and conviction, the same truths that the vast majority of epiphanies seek to convey.  Though each of the somethings people experience is uniquely profound and ineffable, their distillation still bears the essential character of 1.) creation and 2.) baptism.  In the truth of creation, God says to us collectively and to each one of us individually, “The fact of you is good.  Your mere presence in this world, or, for those who have already come and gone, your legacy and your enduring spirit, is good.”  I am glad, God says, that you are.

As deeply affirming as this is, it is still potentially impersonal.  It grants us strength and endurance but not necessarily comfort.  And so, to and through baptism, beginning with Jesus’ own, God adds, “You are not only good; you are beloved.  You, more than anything else in this world, always have been and always will be cherished.”

It must be said, these truths of goodness and love hold regardless of whether or not one has had a singular experience such as those that bring parishioners to my office.  Hearing the words of scripture, passed down to us from the Gospels and, before that, from the mists of time, can itself be an epiphany.  Taking into ourselves the body and blood of Christ at the altar rail can itself be an epiphany.  Whatever the medium, the truths hold: You are good, and you are loved.

It is also worth noting that the grand epiphanies are accompanied by smaller ones—what I call occasions of grace—every day.  Sunlight, a smile, a good word well meant, a memory of joy: Each of these is God breaking through into our world and our lives.  Each of these is God’s whispered reminder.  “Let it be,” God says, “You are beloved.”

Baptism of Our Lord icon

“You are beloved.”

What are any of us to do with that?  What is Jesus to do with that?  Well, for Jesus, all four Gospels agree[ii] that this moment, this something, redirects Jesus’ life and initiates his ministry.  It moves him from the life of a rural village carpenter’s son on a trajectory that will result in the Passion.  Jesus cannot but share these truths of God with anyone who has ears to hear, even when those who cannot bear these truths kill him.

What are we to do?  For starters, I can say with confidence what we cannot do: We cannot pretend that epiphanies have not happened.  We cannot act as though we are still in the before when, in fact, we are in the after.  I have yet to have anyone visit me and share an epiphany who later was able—or desirous—to forget or disregard it.  When the heavens open, whatever that is for any of us, they will not be easily closed.

What living in the after will mean for each of us is as different as our epiphanies themselves.  What changes in your life upon the deep recognition that the fact of you is good, and that you are beloved?  Will you pray in thanksgiving rather than petition?  Will you choose differently in the world?  Will you see your fellow human beings anew?  Will your goals change and your horizons alter?  Will mine?

This is the season of Epiphany.  More than any other time during the year, we are invited and encouraged to be attuned and aware.  There is before, and there is after, and in between, something happens.  When you visit my office with that look on your face, I promise I’ll believe you.

[i] See especially the Shepherd of Hermas.

[ii] For doctrinal reasons, John’s Gospel avoids mention of Jesus’ baptism itself, but John the Baptist nevertheless makes oblique reference to Jesus’ epiphany at John 1:32.