Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon: Here

On This Rock... (June 2014)

A Sermon Preached in
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Royal Oak, MI
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 16A RCL)
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse

Good morning! 
Greetings from the Diocese of Michigan
in my new role as the Director of the Whitaker Institute. 
The Whitaker Institute is the teaching
and Christian formation department of the Bishop’s office. 
Our vision is to provide learning opportunities
beyond what individual parishes can
developing and forming disciples
who do God’s work in the world. 

Practically speaking,
this includes three main programs:
First, Academy for Vocational Leadership –
a monthly seminary operating collaboratively with
Dio E Mich and Dio W Mich.
The Academy provides theological training
for people seeking ordination.
Second, Exploring Your Spiritual Journey –
a twice-monthly circle of people
listening with the ear of their heart
how God is calling them to serve in the world.
Third, Safeguarding courses –
regular courses designed to teach church ministers
about protecting the safety and dignity
of children and vulnerable adults. 

Whitaker offers several other enrichment courses
that arise through commonly expressed needs –
such as the Epiphanies Conference –
a speaker series for church geeks
who love to wrestle with meaty theological topics
like a pilgrimage to provocative places
for people seeking to refuel their spiritual life,
such as the Holy Land tour offered
last November (and will again in 2019). 

I would like to thank Pastor Beth, in absentia,
for inviting me here today to be with you
while she is away on vacation!

A few summers ago, I, too, joined a 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
One day, we took a bus to a spot about 25 miles
north of the Sea of Galilee,
in the hills just west of Syria. 
Caesarea Philippi. 

We pilgrims gathered at the trailhead,
shaded by a grove of trees.
We reflected on today’s gospel passage, “who do you say that I am?” 

In the cool breeze near a babbling brook,
we pondered that question.
Who do we say that Jesus is –
Not with our mind, not with our Sunday creedal formulas.
We wondered aloud and shared who he is in our lives –
in our relationships, in our bank accounts, in our time energy …

We realized we don’t *really* understand who he is,
but we gave it a try.
And one by one we opened our hearts and got vulnerable.

Who do I say that Jesus is?

Here’s what he is for me, today:
Jesus is the embodied presence of God in our lives. 
He is here to show us
how much God loves us
and all people. 

Since God is so big, so enormous,
so unconditionally generous and gracious,
God in Jesus came to live like one of us,
to reveal how God feels about us
and to know the pain and suffering of humanity. 

In this way Jesus shows us the heart of God,
the heart that is broken
when people march in circles
and say mean-spirited, ugly words about others.
The heart that suffers when natural disasters
wreak havoc on homes and the environment.
The heart that knows the tender, holy spot
in the depth of our souls where beauty rests.
The heart that loves us, wants the best for us
and is always eager to welcome us home
with grace, forgiveness and love.

Who do I say Jesus is?
The power of Jesus is the action of God –
healing in the face of disease,
compassion in the face of demons,
food in the belly and hearts of hungry people,
the power of Jesus is found in
prophetic, subversive,
turning-the-world-upside-down-for-justice passion.
The power – God’s power – LOVE
is more powerful than hate and fear and death. 
Here, through Jesus, we know God’s love wins.

Well, that’s not perfect, but that’s a start, for me. 
Which is all that I can claim, here, today. 

But that day, a few years ago, at Caesarea Philippi,
we walked in the scorching-heat up the trail
and looked out from a terrace that was 1200 feet above
the fertile Jordan valley below. 

We looked up at the sheer rock cliff,
high as El Capitan in Yosemite,
solid and sheer,
petrified & glazed from the bright sun,
the wind and rain-smoothed edges
flat face soft like sandstone yet shiny like polished concrete. 

On this Petrified/Peter rock, Jesus said,
he will build the church.

At the base of the cliff,
a large cave offers gushing sounds from underground.
Long before Jesus’ time,
people called it the “Gates of Hades”,
because they believed the ancient Syrian god Baal
would enter and leave the underworld
through places like this, where water emerged. 

Here was the watershed for the Jordan river
Flowing below ground towards Jerusalem. 
The psalmist referenced this cave’s gurgle
in Psalm 42 “as a deer longs for water brooks,
so longs my soul for thee.” 

We learned that ancient peoples scattered
at least fourteen temples
between where we stood and nearby Mount Hermon,
aka Baal Hermon from 1st Chronicles, chapter 5.

Here, too, is the birthplace of the Greek god Pan,
god of nature, fields, forests, mountains –
son of the god Hermes.
There, on the rock face, the three niches display
inscribed prayers to Pan and to the Nymphs. 

Here, too, history records this spot
as the administrative center of Rome
during the time of King Agrippa. 
Here, Herod the Great built a temple
for Caesar and his son, Philip,
used white marble for the city’s finishing touches,
and named the place Caesarea Philippi.

So – what a context!

Here is Jesus, standing as
a homeless, penniless Galilean carpenter
with 12 regular disciples
teaching and wondering,
who do the people say that I am?

Here is Jesus, standing in an area
·       littered with statues[1] & temples of the ancient Syrian gods
·       beneath the niches dedicated to Hellenistic god Pan
·       known as the most important river in Judaism comes to life
·       where the white marble home of Caesar-worshiping Romans dominated the landscape

Here, Jesus seems to have
deliberately set himself
against the background
of the world’s powers
to demand his disciples confess who he is.

Here, in Caesarea Philippi. 

Not just another city, but a strong symbol,
Like Washington DC, known for political power gods
Or like NY City, known for economic & consumer gods
Or like Las Vegas, known for … other gods…
well you know – what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Not just any old city.

For here was the perfect place for Jesus
to confront the powers of the world
who seemed to scream
death and destruction, hate and greed. 

Here was the place Jesus blessed Peter
for recognizing the Divine power of Love
on which Jesus will build the church –
the new community through whom
God can bring about a kingdom
of peace and justice.

Here is the place where God is at work.
Yes, here, in the midst of
statues and white supremacy groups
that offend the gospel,
here in the shadow of governing powers
threatening the dignity and respect
of our transgendered sisters and brothers
here in the wake of destruction by Hurricane Harvey
here in the fear of North Korea’s confrontation with the US

For here in the midst of our context
is the perfect place for God in Jesus
to confront the powers of the world.

Here is the place where Jesus blesses us
And gives us the keys to the kingdom
to build a new community of disciples
through whom God can bring about a kingdom
of peace and justice.

Here, we confess who Jesus is: God’s love at work.

For Love is bigger.  Love is stronger. 
Love is brighter than any power or principality
that seems to darken our lives. 
Here, in the form of the Open Hands Food Pantry and Garden. 
Here, in the service of the New to You clothing closet. 
Here, in the Youth “take a bag-share a bag” service project. 

Here, in various community gatherings at
Other worship sites,  
we proclaimed that LOVE IS BIGGER.

Here, in this community
we confess in word and deed,
that the Living God is at work in our lives,
here we claim God’s power and providence
is bigger than the context
in which the world places us.

Love – today – Love is here. 
Here, in the midst of our Caesarea Philippi. 

And on this rock of unwavering love,
God is building a new community,
in this gathering of ordinary disciples
here, today. 


[1] David Padfield, Caesarea Philippi, cited here on August 22, 2017.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sermon: Jesus Grabs Us

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

The 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14, Year A)
13 August 2017

Listen here.

Lord, take my lips and speak through them; take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you.

A few winters ago, my partner and I went dog sledding in Minnesota. The morning of our first run, our small group gathered together and learned how to harness the dogs, how to lead them (on their back legs), and how to call out GEE and HAW to steer the rig down the path.  As we talked inside, the 35 anxious dogs outside howled, barked, & pulled their chains in anticipation. Once we went out, all we could hear was a cacophony of canines. Pick Me! Pick Me!  the dogs cried, only fueling our anticipation for the upcoming adventure.  

Battered by the sound of barking, fingers frozen from 40-below temps, we wrestled the harnesses on the dogs, slid across the icy path toward the sled, spilled dogfood bowls, called out to each other. With frantic, barking, jumpy dogs hitched, the guides yelled and we jumped on board, released the sled tether and yelled “Hike Hike!”  

At once, the dogs pulled with the speed and strength and agility of an American Ninja Warrior, and we heard….nothing. The sound of sheer silence. Just barely audible ~ the sound of satisfied breathing, cantering paws padding through snow and the edge of the sled’s runners cutting through the ice.  

Today’s gospel text sets a scene of chaos with a mix of fear and anticipation. For the disciples’ boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land and the wind was against them. When they saw Jesus walking out to them, the power of their fear intensified.  The wind roared, the rig of the sails clanked back and forth, the disciples yelled, the overturned buckets and unleashed stays and clips banged on the deck. The wind howled in the hoods of their rain jackets. At last, Jesus yelled, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

At the invitation of Jesus, Peter got out of the boat, trying out a new authority conferred upon him.  He started walking on the water with the speed and strength and agility of an American Ninja Warrior and he hears…nothing. The sound of sheer silence. 

But then Peter noticed the wind, barely audible at first, and it crashed into his silent bubble – the strong wind, the noise, the chaos around him became his reality.  Peter was overcome by fear[1]. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” His fear was justified; it was a storm that fumed powerfully enough to sink the boat and drown the whole crew.  Peter had good reasons to be afraid.

And so do we (have good reasons to be afraid.) The fear is palpable: the clanging noise of North Korea and US escalating threats, the empty harvest buckets and record famine in Africa, the roar of climate-change-fueled storms sweeping across North America, the shroud of 1967 Detroit banging on the deck of our sense of identity, while a hurricane of fear storms through the state of Virginia as extremist groups gather in Charlottesville and clash violently with counter-protestors; all while, the waves of change seem to crash on the shore of our congregation in the midst of personnel departures.

We can be overcome by our fear. That fear can be debilitating, paralyzing us. The power of fear robs the family of God’s people of the abundant life that God intends.  We cry out, “Lord, save me!”

But that’s not the whole story, because immediately, Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter. When Peter saw the conflict of the storm and heard the persecution of the wind, he began to sink under the power of fear. Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saving him and restoring him to his vocation. The wind ceased. The fear relented.

In the grip of Jesus, the disciples recognized that the power of God’s promise of flourishing life and steadfast love was the antidote to fear. “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Today, Jesus reaches out his hand and grabs us. Jesus makes the first move, grabbing us out of the chaos– not depending on us, not giving up on us, not waiting on us. Fears are often real. Fears are understandable. Fears are also debilitating.  

And Jesus grabs us, as his disciples, and demands we use the authority conferred on us at our baptism: to pray for peace and to be the embodiment of God’s love and justice. 

  • That means speaking out against bigotry and hatred (and the violence that occurred) in Charlottesville. 
  • That means denouncing white nationalism and white supremacy, both an affront to the Gospel born under the power of fear. Because racism is a sin. 
  • That means praying for those injured or died in the violence and the safety of all who live in Charlottesville. 
  • That means persevering in resisting evil, hatred, violence and prejudice in any form.
  • That means taking measurable steps to build bridges and to be agents of our Lord's mercy, grace, truth and love.

For our story is not over – the future is open! For God is with us and for us And God is not done with us yet. Jesus catches us today and restores us to our vocation, calling out to us to do God’s work in the world, untethered from the power of fear and under the full sail power of God’s promise. 

Long Pause

Over the last three months, I have said goodbye to many people, places and things around Christ Church.  The fear of finality that comes with saying that is palpable.  Goodbyes are tough for me and this transition is no different, doling out an overdose of emotions that defy words.

Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician, has coined a phrase[2] to help with goodbyes, “the four things that matter most.” These are: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. Dr. Byock reminds us, “When we say the four things that matter most – or when we say goodbye, in whatever form – there's going to be real work involved.” Why? because these eleven words – they are not words. They are entry points for sacred connections.  They are admissions of our humanity. They are words made flesh of our incarnate God.

So, today, here are four things that matter most.

First, please forgive me.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus laments having to catch Peter, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” He’s not rebuking, he is lamenting. The disciples had so much going for them, yet there in that boat without Jesus for the first time, they doubted, which grieved Jesus. This week, I felt convicted for the various ways that I have doubted the power of Love; how I might have gotten in the way of the gospel. 

Please forgive me for speaking in haste, for not meeting your expectations, for fostering a misunderstanding that still might not be resolved, for singing out of tune, for not speaking more prophetically, for “things done and things left undone.” 
God forgives me, this I know. +

Second, I forgive you.  I forgive you for any times that you might have doubted Love; for serious and for simple mistakes; for petty squabbles; for your outrageous hopes, expansive dreams, & brazen humanness; for challenging me to imagine greater, to love quicker, to grasp lighter; for things done and things left undone. God forgives you, this I know.+

Thirdly, Thank you. Thank you for being The Church. For gathering and sharing in each other’s company at times of joy and times of sorrow; for caring for each other with home communion, intercessory prayer, and listening with the ear of your heart; for risking looking weird by walking the labyrinth or praying spontaneously by candle light in Miller Hall when the power went out; for planting seeds of hope to invite/welcome/connect our community; for drenching me with profoundly moving Anglican choral music, for coming directly to me when we disagreed, for telling me your name at least three times before I got it. And so we especially thank God for calling us to serve together in this place, for this season.

And the fourth thing that matters most: I love you. I love you for being disciples on a journey with me. I love your for being my Christian sisters and brothers who love deeply and yearn to know God. I love you because Jesus loves you.  And that love knows no bounds.  That love arises from the One who loved at the dawn of creation.  That love moves in our tears and catches in our throat and spills out through our smiles. I love you.  God loves you.

Even when we doubt, and even when we say goodbye and even when we don’t have the words. Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

So be at peace with each other, be forgiving of each other 
and be extravagant with God’s love.


[1] Portions of sermon inspired by David Lose, “In the Meantime…” cited here on August 8, 2017.

[2] From November 2013 Interview by Krista Tippett, OnBeing, titled, “Contemplating Mortality” at this site: