Welcome one and all to Trinity Cathedral on this fine summer morning!
How appropriate that we hear this morning the story of Martha and Mary.For the past several months, weeks and days, we’ve have had front row seats to the Martha show, broadcast live from downtown Cleveland. I’m not talking about Martha Stewart, but rather, her namesake Martha of Bethany.Read the rest of this entry »
Coming Through the Door – Christmas 2015 The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland
Once again I had to go looking for my Christmas sermon. It wasn’t lost, and I hadn’t misplaced it; I just didn’t know where to find it. For nearly thirty years my sermon search has become part of my holiday tradition. In Christmases past, I’ve found it in a men’s shelter, at a Macy’s Department Store, on a street corner, and in a favorite book of poetry. This year my search was made even more complicated because my shelves of Christmas sermon inspiration are in cartons piled deep in a storage facility along with all the rest of our belongings as we await our new home to be finished.Read the rest of this entry »
Over 2500 years ago, sitting by a river, looking at the despair of his community, God asked the prophet Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” And the prophet responded: “O Lord God, you know.” Then God said to Ezekiel: “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live…I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”
Right now, sitting by another river in Cleveland, Ohio, lots of us are asking the same question: “Can these bones live?” The bones of Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice are dead. So many innocent men, women and children are killed everyday by violence and despair. Read the rest of this entry »
A Sermon Preached on September 22, 2013 at Trinity Cathedral on Luke 16:1-13
This morning’s gospel passage from Luke is one of my favorite parables because you can’t just skim it. You have to read or listen to it carefully and then let it sink in. In a contemporary rendering, it goes like this:
There’s an investor who had a diverse portfolio with holdings in real estate, insurance, venture capital, and yes, a little payday lending on the side. He had a manager to take care of his business affairs while he spent summers in Maine and winters in Florida. The manager didn’t work hard or perform well, and some would accuse him of skimming off the top or adding a little extra commission for himself now and then. But, he knew the business: the investments, the holdings, and the outstanding loans.
Tax season came around and the investor’s accountant saw that there was a discrepancy in the books. While she had not ascertained exactly what was happening, there was enough evidence for the IRS to demand an audit. This made the investor both angry and anxious. So he called the manager and told him that he was going to cancel the management contract, and that he was coming to town in a week to meet with him and review the accounts.
The manager knew the game was up. He had to act fast in order to cover his back and ensure some sort of financial security for his future. He realized that he had ruined his reputation and would not be able to get other investments to manage. He didn’t have other skills, he couldn’t imagine getting a decent job, and he was scared of the possibility of prison.
This was a guy who lived by his wits, not by what he actually did, but by what he was able to manipulate. Lying awake in the middle of the night, he had a brilliant idea.
The next morning, he called on those who had outstanding and overdue loans. Representing his boss, he said to a few tenants, “Your past due rent is $2000. However, in order to avoid the costs of eviction and the inconvenience of an empty apartment, I’ve convinced the owner to make a deal with you. Just pay $1000 now and then stay current in your rent.” To a small business owner who had borrowed seed money, he said, “Your $10,000 line of credit is overdue, but I’ve persuaded my boss to give you more time, so just make it 4,000 and we’ll call it a day.” To delinquent customers of the payday lending scam, he said, “Your loan of $500 is due – make is $200 and I’ll see to it that you’re free and clear.”
Naturally, since most of them were over-extended and living on the edge of financial survival those in debt to the investor were thrilled, but they now were also indebted to the manager who had come to their rescue.
When the investor arrived for the meeting, the manager was able to present a much better looking set of accounts. The investor commended the manager. Why? What had he done that deserved applause, you might ask?
The answer is quite simple. When the first discrepancies came to light, the manager showed enough talent, creativity and determination to turn even failure to his advantage. While we don’t know if he lost the management contract, Jesus tells us the investor was impressed with his shrewdness, and that the guy clearly made friends with those who were indebted to him. Jesus lifted up this scoundrel as a model of discipleship – not because of his honesty and integrity (or lack thereof) but because of his ingenuity and initiative.
Jesus told the story of a sleazy and dishonest guy to help us understand that money is a complicated but necessary aspect of life, and that it’s good for us to be smart, astute, sharp, on the ball – in short, shrewd in our financial dealings. If we translate the teaching of this parable, we can conclude that there is nothing wrong with bargaining for the best price on a car, getting a number of insurance quotes, negotiating for a lower mortgage interest rate, taking advantage of tax deductions that are allowable under the law, investing wisely in 401K’s and IRA’s, and picking an honest and capable and shrewd financial advisor.
Money is not inherently evil, but Jesus wants us to use it wisely. In fact, recognizing that we are stewards of all that we have on this earth, including our money, Jesus said that it is our moral duty to be shrewd but honest and honorable as we manage our financial resources and relationships. And following the example of Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and became Pharaoh’s manager in Egypt, it is especially important to learn how to be smart stewards so that we, and others, might survive during hard times and lean years. My hunch is that many of us, over the last few years, have learned this lesson – perhaps the hard way.
As a trustee of the Episcopal Church Pension Fund and its $10 billion portfolio, I am profoundly aware that I have a fiduciary responsibility to the clergy, lay employees and members of our church. If we were not shrewd (but ethical) investors, there would not be enough funds to ensure a decent retirement for those who faithfully serve the church and thereby weaken the ranks of ministry for years to come. Truth be told, the pension assessment that congregations pay is not enough to ensure a decent retirement for those who have served God and God’s church; it has been because of astute and shrewd investing that the Fund is able to keep up with the cost of inflation.
The vestry, staff and governing committees of Trinity Cathedral recognize that we have a fiduciary responsibility to you, the diocese, the wider community and future generations to preserve the property and conserve the resources entrusted to our care. And so, we monitor our investments, investment managers, spending policies, programs, operating revenue and expenses, pledges, pledge fulfillment, and real estate costs; and we make course adjustments as needed. In fact, we are in the midst of a very careful review of our assets – our real estate, endowment and ministry, seeking to discern how we can be good and faithful stewards and servants of Christ, ensuring mission-driven financial sustainability over the long run.
As people of faith, each of us is called to demonstrate the same kind of ingenuity and initiative as the scoundrel in this morning’s gospel reading, but we are called to do it with integrity and honesty, and for the good and wellbeing of God’s commonwealth. If the church was really shrewd in the procurement, allocation, investment, and stewardship of its resources, just think about what could happen. This kind of astuteness and initiative fuels the community development movement that is helping to rebuild our cities; it is at the heart of faith-based organizations like Greater Cleveland Congregations; and it is the work that The Trinity Cathedral Vestry is doing right now.
We need to say “thank you” to every member of the Vestry and the governing committees of this Cathedral for the many hours of volunteer time they are giving of themselves to ensure that we are on the right course for our future. In fact, I would like to ask right now if you are a member of the Vestry or one of those committees to stand and let us thank you. You work really hard and I want to say in the presence of this congregation, I am profoundly grateful to you for your leadership, courage, hard questions and dedication to this effort. You are a blessing to Trinity Cathedral, to past generations, to us and to those yet to come.
Jesus said, “Make friends with your money.” I understand this to mean that we are called to be generous with our resources. Over the summer, I read a book by Adam Grant entitled, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.The author, who is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of Business, suggests that there are three kinds of people: takers who strive to get as much as possible from others; matchers who aim to trade evenly; and givers who contribute without expecting anything in return. Grant argues that givers actually come out ahead in the end. Thus, by being smart or shrewd with our money, we can increase our wealth, not just to increase our standard of living, but also (and maybe more importantly) our standard of giving.
Jesus observed the limits of wealth when he remarked that when our money is gone – not if it’s gone – we will still have friends in the eternal homes. You’ve heard the saying: “You can’t take your money with you to the grave.” Our wealth will do us no good after we die, and there’s no amount of money we can pay to gain entrance into eternal life, for God’s grace is absolutely free. So knowing that wealth is going to be of no use to us in heaven, we should manage it shrewdly, use it wisely, and give it generously on earth, hopefully leaving behind a thoughtful inheritance for the people and places that matter. If every member of this congregation remembered Trinity Cathedral in our wills, we would ensure that the endowment built by the generosity of our ancestors would grow into perpetuity.
Jesus often talked about money. He talked about it more than he talked about sin, sex, heaven or hell. In fact, our Lord talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus proclaimed, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he was saying something really important about our relationship to wealth. It’s like a heart monitor by a hospital bed or a dashboard on a car. Our relationship to money is an indicator of our spiritual health and wellbeing. And if we want to stay spiritually healthy, we can’t allow money to become our master.
Perhaps, some of the prosperity preachers are right. God doesn’t want us to be poor; God wants us to become prosperous, but God does not want us to be controlled or enslaved by our prosperity, but rather to invest our prosperity in the Commonwealth of God.
In Jesus, God shows us how to find prosperity, even in the midst of scarcity – how to turn water into wine, feed the multitudes, throw a great party, multiply our talents, search for lost coins, give to the poor, and invest in the kingdom.
“No,” says Jesus, you cannot serve both God and money; but “Yes,” says our Lord, you can use your money in the service of God, and I expect you to do so, being as creative, ingenious and shrewd and honest as possible.
To those who are fortunate to have much to invest in God’s Kingdom, great things are expected – entrepreneurship at its best. If you have a lot, then use it as wisely, creatively and shrewdly as possible. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).
And, if you have a little, do the same. The truth is that most of us are entrusted with a little rather than a lot. But, “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”
Let us be faithful in what we have, let us be shrewd but honest and faithful stewards. Let us wisely manage our money, let us generously share it, and let us not be enslaved by it.
The Trinity Advent Meditations have always been an important gift of the season, and once I want to express my profound thanks and admiration to the men, women, and children who take the risk of writing, editing and sharing them with us.
Back in 2003, a woman in the cathedral congregation, named Tracy Leisman wrote these words in an Advent meditation entitled, “The Greatest Gift.”[i]
I think Mary and I have something in common, both of us being unwed mothers-to-be and all. Did people look at her belly first and then her face with a mix of judgment, trepidation and joy in their expression? Did they smile at her with pity and ask if “this was a good thing?” I wonder if she was thinking what I think when people ask me that…Could a new life, a new beginning, a new birth ever be bad?
I suppose it could. But it’s hard for me to imagine right now, just days from my due date and dying to see the face of that little creature that kicks, tumbles and rumbles all day every day. I think of nothing else…
Even though getting pregnant was a bit of a surprise to me, it wasn’t altogether shocking to my family. They all said that I’d wanted a child for a long time. After all, I’ll be 38 by the time this child and I are face to face. Elizabeth was in the same boat when she became pregnant with John the Baptist. The Bible tells us that Zechariah fell silent because he could not believe that God had blessed him with a child, but Elizabeth rejoiced at the anticipated birth…She immediately believed that in spite of being “on in years” and barren, God had blessed her with a child. Not a moment of hesitation. I had the same reaction, a single motherhood notwithstanding.
The contrast of Mary, a young virgin, and Elizabeth, an older, childless woman, is a beautiful prelude to the coming of Christ. Elizabeth will give birth to the last of the Old Testament prophets. In essence she represents the past – but a wonderful past filled with promise of the new life within her. It’s not a past to be discarded, because in that past lies the foundation of the present and the future.
Almost at the same moment that I rejoiced about being pregnant, I felt loss. A loss of the old self, my former life. It was as if I had died and was reborn with a new present and a new future. But my past is not to be discarded either, because I am the foundation on which this present and future person will be molded. I think that’s why women, and men, feel a sense of purpose when they become parents. It’s God’s way of allowing them to contribute to the future.
On the third Sunday of Advent in 2003, Tracy gave birth to a beautiful baby boy and named him Ethan Daniel. Tragically, Ethan only lived for five hours. It was nothing that doctors could have predicted or medical science could have prevented. Surrounded by his mother, father, aunts, uncles and grandparents, a few hours after his birth and minutes before his death, this newborn infant was baptized and received the grace of new life in Christ. In the waters of baptism, he was buried with Christ, shared in Christ’s resurrection, and was reborn by the Holy Spirit. A few minutes later, Ethan, wrapped in swaddling clothes, died in his mother’s arms and was literally born again to the promise of eternal life.
Ethan’s death was a tragedy. There are no other words to describe it. After nine months of planning and preparation, watching and waiting, in anticipation of a Christmas baby, things fell apart and life was shattered. Friday, December 14 would have been Ethan’s 9th birthday. And on that day, twenty children in Newtown, Connecticut, along with 21,000 other children under the age of five around the globe died[ii] ( and for most their families (especially their mothers), life was shattered and overcome by tragedy. Read the rest of this entry »
I was sitting at my desk on Friday finishing a sermon about joy when I heard the news.
Like many of you, I watched reports of grief-stricken parents, frightened schoolteachers, distraught first responders, and terrified and confused children. Once again, like Columbine and Blacksburg and Chardon, we have witnessed the tragedy of gun violence.
Bishop Hollingsworth noted in his message to the diocese, “In the coming days the media will be saturated with attempts to make some desperate sense of this, but of course there is no sense in it. It is, in the most profound way, utterly senseless.”
It’s been a while, but this felt like a sermon worthy of a post.
“All you have to do is love her”
A Sermon for Mother’s Day
Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17
Listen to my entire sermon:
Here at Trinity Cathedral, we celebrate family in all shapes and sizes. Some of these families, including mine, have been a topic of national conversation this past week as President Obama indicated his evolving support for same-sex marriage in the wake of North Carolina’s passage of a referendum that will prohibit gay marriage and civil unions.
In our reading from The Acts of the Apostles, we hear the ending of a remarkable account about conversion and inclusion that might inform this national conversation. Let me tell you the rest of the story.
Cornelius was an officer in the Roman army who lived in Caesarea, a lovely seaside city. Cornelius was a devout man who worshiped God with his whole household. He practiced Judaism, gave alms generously and prayed constantly, but because he was not circumcised, he was considered a God-fearer rather than a full-fledged Jew.
One afternoon Cornelius received a vision from an angel of God saying, “Your prayers have been answered. Send your men to Joppa and get Simon Peter.” Cornelius sent two of his slaves and a devout soldier under his command to seek out Peter, first among the apostles.
About noon the next day, as the Cornelius’ entourage was approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray, but he was distracted by hunger and wanted something to eat. Waiting for his meal to be prepared, Peter fell into a trance and received a vision. He saw the heavens open and something like a large sheet being lowered to the ground by four corners. In it were all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds. Then he heard a voice: “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter refused: “No way Lord! I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice replied: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and then the sheet and the animals were suddenly taken back up to heaven. Peter could not figure what had happened.
At that very moment, Cornelius’ men arrived looking for him. While Peter was thinking about his vision, the Spirit spoke to him again: “Three men are searching for you. Now get up and go with them for I have sent them.” So Peter got up and went down and greeted the men: “I am the one for whom you are looking. Why are you here?” They answered: “Cornelius, a centurion, a God-fearing man, who is highly regarded by the Jewish people, was told by an angel to send for you so that he could hear what you have to say.” Peter invited them in and gave them a place to stay for the night.
The next morning, accompanied by some of the Christian believers in Joppa, Peter went with his guests to the home of Cornelius. When they arrived at Caesarea, Cornelius met them, immediately fell at Peter’s feet and began to worship the apostle. Peter said, “Stand up, for I am only a mortal.” They went inside and Peter continued: “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with you or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Cornelius replied: “Four days ago, I was praying and I had this vision. A man showed up in my house. He told me my prayer had been answered. He instructed me to send for you. And now you’ve arrived. So now we’re here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
Peter began to speak, delivering one of the great sermons in all of Christian tradition: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” He then recalled the story of Jesus. While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers (that is, the Jewish followers of Jesus) from Joppa were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out – even on these Gentiles. Then Peter asked: “Can anyone withhold the water of baptism from these believers,” after which he baptized them, and stayed on for several days.
When the apostles heard about this irregular, unauthorized liturgical event, they criticized Peter: “Why did you go to uncircumcised and eat with them?” Peter explained everything that had happened. After telling the whole story, he said, “I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift God gave us when we believed in Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When Peter’s examiners heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church and the nation!
This is a Bible story about the tension between embrace and exclusion within the early Christian faith. Peter could have refused to go to Cornelius’ house. He could have visited with Cornelius and refused to eat with him. He even could have eaten with Cornelius and refused to share the story of Jesus. He could have even shared the story of Jesus and refused to baptize Cornelius and the other uncircumcised Gentiles upon whom the Spirit landed. Peter could have followed the rules to maintain the unity of the early church, but he didn’t. Peter, the first apostle, broke down the walls, gates, fences and boundaries erected by the early Christian faith. And in doing so, in opting for inclusion, not only was Cornelius converted to the way of Christ, but also Peter himself was converted to a new way of being in Christ.
When I re-read this story over the past week, I couldn’t help but think about the debate over homosexuality in this country, especially over the issue of same-sex marriage. The question asked by Peter: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have,” reminds me of the words once spoken by Episcopal gay activist and founder of Integrity Louie Crew: “Don’t baptize us, if you’re not going to ordain us or bless our relationships.” In other words, don’t offer us one sacrament and then withhold the others. If we’ve received the Holy Spirit just as we are, then make us full members of the Body of Christ and full heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. The same could be said in the secular realm. Don’t call me a citizen and deprive me of the full and equal rights of citizenship.
Coming out during college in the seventies, I have watched the issue of sexuality evolve in both church and state over the course of nearly four decades. I am convinced that our civil rights, and our ecclesiastical and societal inclusion, has resulted from of one-on-one relationships and first-hand experiences that have led family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even strangers to a moment of conversion and acceptance.
A number of years ago, I had a vision that everybody who was lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered would turn purple at the same time. Then my vision grew. I envisioned that everybody who had a LGBT spouse, parent, or child would turn purple. I envisioned that everybody who had a LGBT doctor, dentist, pharmacist, lawyer, accountant, realtor, insurance agent, teacher, hairdresser, legislator, rabbi or minister would turn purple. And then I envisioned that everybody who had a LGBT relative, friend, neighbor, student, employee, or employer would turn purple. By the time I was finished, the world was a beautiful tapestry of richly woven purple; and the conversation had changed, the hearts of the people had changed, the policies of our government had changed, and the practices of our faith communities had changed.
However, I never believed that it would happen that way. We have to turn ourselves, and those whom we love, purple. We have to change the conversation, win the hearts of the people, and secure our civil and religious rights one-step-at-a-time by being open and true to ourselves. God won’t do our work, but God will be with us in the trenches. That is the promise of salvation.
So, over the course of the last nearly forty years, I’ve done my part, and I have been grateful for others who have done their part. I’ve also held fast to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, remembering that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” But as President Obama reflected on the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, “The arc does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice.”
This past week, the arch was bent a lot. First it was bend backward by voters in the state of North Carolina, but then it took another bend toward justice as President Obama came to the conclusion that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples. Watching a series of videos interviews over the past eight years, you can see that like Peter, President Obama has evolved, maybe even has been converted, to a new understanding of inclusion. (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/05/10/us/politics/20120510-obama.html?ref=politics)
Some say, “How dare he.” Other say, “It’s long overdue. And still others say, “It’s about time.” But I say, “Welcome Mr. President and thank you!”
As you know, I am very careful not to make any partisan endorsements from this pulpit, and I’m not about to begin today. However, I want to give credit to the President of the United States for coming to a new and broader understanding of marriage, and of what it means to love all of God’s children and their families. I want to thank our President for supporting my civil rights and those of my gay brothers and lesbian sisters, and for coming out on this issue in spite of some pretty loud public opposition and potential political cost. I also want to praise the President for being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as he understands it.
One of the most difficult and courageous things a leader – especially an elected official and most especially an elected official during a campaign season – can do is change his or her mind on a controversial and publicly held opinion. It can make one seem weak and indecisive. And yet, as Peter demonstrated in his decision to baptize Cornelius, and as Jesus demonstrated when the persistent widow insisted on eating the crumbs under the table, there are times when we are called to change our opinion, our direction, and even our action. That is precisely what the President did with regards to same-sex marriage. He said: I have changed my thoughts on this matter. I have evolved to a new understanding about same-sex marriage. This is also what Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer recently said about the death penalty, a law that he helped to write as a young state senator thirty years ago.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus said: “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend.” In the midst of a presidential election, on the heels of the North Carolina state referendum, President Obama took a risk and potentially laid down his political life for families like mine.
Christian discipleship is about being willing to lay down our lives not for our friends, but also for our neighbors, our sojourners, and our constituents. It applies to gas station attendants, shopkeepers and factory workers; doctors, teachers, lawyers, and clergy; corporate executives, mayors, governors, and yes, even presidents. Yes, the grace of God can be costly; it can even cost one his political career or her life, but that is what faithful discipleship is all about.
Jesus also tells us “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” We all are called to bear witness to our faith. Married couples (gay and straight alike) are called to nurture loving and faithful relationships. Parents (gay and straight alike) are called to raise children in loving homes. Civil servants are called to protect the rights of all families (gay and straight alike). The Church is called is to welcome and offer God’s blessing and support for all of God’s children (gay and straight alike). And yes, the LGBT community and our allies (including our parents) are called to do the work of liberation – to come out and speak our truth in love – so that those who don’t yet accept us might evolve to a new understanding and be converted to the unconditional love of God as expressed by Jesus.
Often bearing witness is pretty simple. Emily’s mom demonstrated this to me a number of years ago. It was my first summer as chaplain and preacher at the Chautauqua Institution, and I was the first openly gay, partnered chaplain the Institution had welcomed to its pulpit. Emily’s mom and two aunts drove out for the closing service, and I acknowledged them in the congregation. Later that day, a man whose daughter had recently come out walked up to Emily and said, “My daughter has just told me that she’s a lesbian, and I don’t know what to do about it.” Emily’s mother, standing next to her, smiled at him and said, “Love her. All you have to do is love her.”
Have you ever noticed how much we try to domesticate God? We want a God who is comforting, reassuring, dependable and not too demanding – a God who will ease our burdens and grant us rest from our labors. As that beloved prayer in the order for Compline says, “We who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life want to rest in [God’s] eternal changelessness.”
We also want a church that contains our domesticated God – a church that is comforting, reassuring, dependable, and not too demanding. We who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life want to worship in the church’s eternal changelessness, unless of course, we want something to change.
But guess what folks? That’s not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s not the God of Jesus Christ, and it’s definitely not the God of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Mark. While comforting, reassuring and dependable, our God is also unpredictable, changeable, sometimes confusing and often challenging, speaking to us through the wind and leading us into a whirlwind.
In the oldest gospel account, God breaks into humanity through Jesus’ baptism, drives this beloved son into the wilderness, appoints the satan to test him, sends the wild beasts to accompany him, ordains angels to minister to him, and then sends him out into the world to do the work that he was given to do. That’s what happened to Jesus when he showed up at church. That’s the good news according to Mark.
This story of Jesus’ baptism and adventure in the wilderness stands as a tollbooth on our Lenten highway to Easter. It is a tale of what happens God comes close – when God breaks through the heavens and enters the human realm.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. This is a powerful event! Jesus joined the line of people waiting to have their sins washed away by John the Baptizer. He was submerged in the muddy water. He saw the heavens tear apart. He felt the Spirit land as enormous bird upon his shoulder. He heard a voice from heaven name him as beloved son. And then, he surfaced from the deep, gasped for breath, and was immediately sent to the wilderness.
This was no ordinary baptism. But I wonder: is there ever an ordinary baptism, or do we just refuse to acknowledge the cosmic, divine power of baptism? Is it possible that we have so domesticated the sacrament of baptism with a gentle sprinkling of warm water that we don’t see the heavens tearing open, feel the Spirit landing upon our shoulders, or hear the voice saying: you are my beloved child.
Jesus saw, felt and heard all of that cosmic, divine power when was baptized. But did he get to relax in the afterglow or relish the joy and warmth of his newfound identity? No, he wasn’t able to go to the reception, the brunch or the party. He didn’t even get to take a nap. God had other things in mind for him. Jesus immediately was forced out, cast out, and thrown into the wilderness – the barren, frightening, chaotic and dangerous wild land of the unknown.
The newly baptized Son of God didn’t just wander into the Judean desert because he lost his map, his compass or his sense of direction. Jesus’ internal GPS wasn’t broken. No, after his baptism, the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that landed as a dove upon his shoulder in the River Jordan, immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness. The very same Spirit that swept over the face of the earth at the beginning of creation and blew life into the nostrils of the first humans forced Jesus into the unknown. The same Spirit that was given to Moses as he stood before a burning bush threw Jesus into the untamed wilds. The same Spirit that anointed Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon cast Jesus into the rough lands. The same Spirit that spoke and acted through Elijah, and was given in double portion to Elisha tossed Jesus into the wilderness. The same Spirit that breathed upon Job and rested upon Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest of the prophets drove him into that desolate, uncharted place. The very same Spirit that came upon Mary, his mother, threw Jesus out of his comfort zone into a barren wasteland of limestone hills and deep ravines.
It reminds me of the movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, in which the little boy, Max, went to the land of the wild things, whose ways were both a temptation and a test for him. At first he had a great time leading these great beasts on a wild rumpus of fort building and dirt fights, but he learned that it is not enough to just be filled with the spirit, one has to develop and apply some skill and substance to create a world that is filled with love.
I think this is what Jesus also learned on his wilderness adventure. Sure, he was God’s beloved Son and God’s chosen messenger of salvation. But what did he know about the work that was before him? What did he know about the job of being God’s anointed one? What did he know about building the kingdom of God or leading people into it? What did he know about confronting the powers and principalities of the world? After all, he was a thirty-year old carpenter. This was his testing ground for the days ahead.
During his forty days sojourn in the wilderness, the gospel of Mark (as distinct from Matthew and Luke) tells us Jesus was tempted by not by the devil, but by Satan. There is debate among scholars about the identity of this character called Satan. Is it Satan with a capital “S” or the satan? As Richard Swanson suggests, if the tempter is Satan, this was “an ambush set up to destroy Jesus…by a deadly enemy, the representative of everything evil in the world.”[i] But if the tempter was actually the satan (or in Hebrew, ha-satan) then Swanson says, “the scene is different.” “The satan is an agent of God, and is given the task of testing all parts of creation to ensure that all things are as solid and sound as they appear to be.”
This satan (ha-satan) is an adversary or accuser used by God to test the fidelity and righteousness of the created order, especially humanity. This is the satan that was asked by God to assess by trial the character of Job. This is the satanthat stood at the right hand of Joshua to judge the righteousness of Jerusalem.
In some Jewish wisdom literature, the Satan (ha-satan) is actually an agent of God whose job it is to tempt one into sin, and then turn around and accuse the sinner from on high. That’s why the satan (ha-satan) is often referred to as the slanderer, the accuser, or the provoker. But according to the rabbinic tradition, the satan deep down inside hopes that we will resist his temptations. It makes you wonder if God sent the serpent to test Adam and Eve hoping that they would resist the temptation and thus remain forever in the Garden of Eden.
Just as I have suggested that John the Baptist was the demolition contractor in the restoration of God’s creation, Richard Swanson posits the satan as “the building inspector charged by God with testing every structure, every person, to be sure that nothing shady slips by.”[ii] And as much of a pain as inspectors can be, I wouldn’t want to live in a building, drive a car, or fly in a plane that had not passed inspection.
If Jesus met the satan (ha-satan)in the wilderness, then he met not the devil – the personification of evil – but rather an agent of God who was appointed to test the sum and substance of God’s beloved son. This testing was an essential part of Jesus’ preparation to serve as God’s anointed one.
Think about it this way. Can you imagine shipping soldiers off battle without first putting them through basic training, sending fire fighters into a burning building without first teaching them how to use fire hoses or climb ladders, or allowing a surgeon into the operating room without first equipping her in medical school?
This was Jesus’ boot camp, his student teaching, and his residency. It was designed to prepare him for dealing with the powers and principalities of the world into which he was being sent. As time would tell, Jesus’ wilderness journey would be a minor test compared to his confrontations and struggles with his hometown friends and family, his disciples, all those hurting and needy people, and most especially, the political and religious authorities of his day who wanted a domesticated God made in their own image and contained in a well-constructed box.
While Matthew and Luke are fairly specific in describing the temptations, Mark’s account is ambiguous, leaving us to wonder about the nature of the testing. But based on the rest of the gospel story, we can assume that the testing had something to do with power – real and perceived, human and divine, raw and refined, good and evil, guided and misdirected, pastoral and prophetic, individual and collective – a 40-day training program in power dynamics.
Jesus was not alone in the wilderness. Mark tells us that he was with the wild beasts. Traditionally, we have thought of those wild beasts as threatening enemies, dangerous bedfellows aggravating predators, or at best, bothersome nuisances – a perspective consistent with our understanding of nature as something to be conquered and subdued. If you were a first-century Christian hearing this story, you might be reminded of the real threat of being fed to the lions in a Roman arena and be assured that you would not be asked to suffer anything that Jesus had not already faced.
Perhaps however, the wild beasts were not foes, but rather, Jesus’ companions in the wilderness. One of the temptations might have been to destroy the wild beasts in order to survive, but instead Jesus, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, might have discovered them to be his teachers, helpmates and even friends and followers. Perhaps, they called for the angels to minister to their brother Jesus.
After those forty days and forty nights were over, Jesus emerged ready to take on the world. Mark tells us that the appointed time had arrived. Jesus came back to Galilee proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The power of God in Christ had been born, baptized, tested, and now loosed on the world.
Remember that desire for a domesticated God. Well guess what? God in Jesus did not and will not become domesticated. No, the good news is that God’s spirit broke free into Jesus, and despite over 2000 years of effort to contain, constrain, imprison and even kill it, that powerful, divine Spirit is still running free and unfettered in our world. The good news is that God wants this very same Spirit to baptize, test and loose you and me on the world as well.
[i] Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark (The Pilgrim Press, 2005), p. 134
The poet Mary Oliver once wrote: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” In her poem “Sometimes,” she elaborated on this thought. “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”[i]
The scripture readings appointed for the last Sunday in Epiphany are about paying attention. In 2nd Kings, Elisha pays attention as Elijah ascends to God, thus receiving the promise of inheriting a double share of his mentor’s spirit. The text tells us that, Elisha “kept watching.” The word “watch” means to pay attention to what you see. As Paul writes in his second letter to the church in Corinth the Gospel of Jesus Christ is unveiled to those who pay attention to what they see and are willing to believe.
This powerful gospel story (Mark 9:2-9) is also about paying attention. Jesus, standing with Moses and Elijah is transfigured before their very eyes. And after Peter once again misses the mark by suggesting that they build dwellings, that they create a permanent structure on the mountaintop, God intervenes. Speaking from the clouds the divine voice says, “Listen.” The word listen means to “pay attention to what you hear.”
Are you paying attention these days? Are you really paying attention – to your life, your world and your God? Are you watching and listening to the word and wisdom of God?