the wisdom of the world

homily for February 25, 2018

Peter is wise in the ways of the world, and works well for him, up to a point.  Yet the soundest of worldly wisdom is still rooted in the world, and not in heaven. Peter’s conflict with Jesus is the inevitable flareup that happens when good old common sense comes into full contact with the foolishness of the cross.

Peter’s problem – his spiritual problem– is that for all its soundness, the wisdom of this world anchors us on human things rather than on divine things.  Worldly wisdom helps us to thrive and succeed according to a set of values that we rarely question, and it’s often about gaining status and power and security as we get grow in years. When that security is threatened – as it was with Peter, when Jesus gave him a glimpse of what this is really about – then we often react by clinging even more forcefully to ways that feel safe and familiar, perhaps even time-tested.

Yet when we hang our lives on the ways of this world – grasping for all those things that we tell ourselves make our lives better –in a way we are surrounding ourselves with the very things that hasten our own death.

Kallistos Ware tells us that “death has both a physical and a spiritual aspect, and of the two it is the spiritual that is more terrible.  Physical death is the separation of man’s body from his soul; spiritual death, the separation of man’s soul from God.”[i]  If we quietly believe that the passage of time is about upward mobility rather than seeking God in the humble soil of our hearts, then we are sadly misled. Instead of gaining life we surround ourselves with artifacts of lifelessness, with things that do not give life but in fact steal it from us.

Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

But what, then, is life?  If anything, we gain from this teaching the mystical paradox at the heart of our faith. If we cling to means and security, we lose everything that matters. If we empty ourselves as Jesus did, completely, giving ourselves for others and for God, then we gain our lives. The path to life is not found in security, but in vulnerability. The path to life is not through power, but through suffering. Life is found not in status and wealth and being held in high esteem, but in humility and poverty and sometimes even pain.

The drive to be successful and secure is a powerful temptation that leads us to trust in ourselves rather than in God. And it’s insatiable: we feel a relentless pressure to push against the ceiling of what we already have, to gain even more of those things that might affirm our value…and what’s worse, we rarely question this. That’s what worldly wisdom is all about.

Yet the life of the spirit is found below, moving gracefully beneath us as we toil atop a ladder. Life is not found in grandeur; it is found in simplicity. Life is found in the deep and heartfelt love we have for one another, a love that calls us to sacrifice and give of ourselves so that others can be fulfilled. Life is found in songs of praise and thanksgiving.  Life is found not in the hard-heartedness of power and privilege – quite the opposite, those are the seeds of our own death – but in the loving work of reconciliation and justice.

And life is found, we see, in suffering. Returning to the paradox, Jesus tells us that if we are to seek life, we will find it in the things that the world shuns. We disrupt the pattern of worldly temptations – temptations which often wear the sheep’s clothing of common sense – by denying ourselves, by taking up our cross, and by following Jesus.

Clifton Black reminds us that “in the economy of the gospel, the only way to be made whole is to let go of everything society reckons most valuable. There is no benefit in gaining the entire world…if in doing so one forfeits’ one’s deepest soul. [ii]


Following Jesus to the cross means knowing the reality of suffering. This is precisely what Peter cannot handle. Peter doesn’t want to suffer. He doesn’t want to give up his life, he wants to save it & even make it something important.

Yet Jesus said to Peter, You don’t understand because you are still anchored in the world. Rooted here, cannot grow and you will not find life. But I want you to gain your life, to set your heart on the eternal, not just for yourself but so that others may become who my Father created them to be.

Peter is so afraid of suffering that he is willing to challenge Jesus on this, and even to resort to violence to prevent it from happening. Later, in the garden of Gethsemane when the guards come for Jesus, what does Peter do? He reaches for the nearest weapon he can find, in this case a sword, and ostensibly to protect his Lord but really to ward off suffering, Peter slices off a guard’s ear.

Do you realize what a tragedy this was? With one reckless act of violence, through his trust in a sidearm over the grace of God, Peter ended the Jesus movement. It was over, right then and there.  With one slice of a blade, everything was lost. In an instant of violence, a movement of love and grace and relationship became an insurgency. This was to be the end of it, and Peter’s trust in worldly things assured that Jesus of Nazareth would fade into history as just another religious dissident.

You see, that is what we do when we place our trust in the ways of this world, because the worldly things we trust become instruments of our own death. Money and security seem like a safety net, yet can very well be our downfall. But instruments of violence will always signal death, no matter how we spin it. We must never place our trust in violence to bring life.

Gun violence is a uniquely American sickness.  It endangers the innocent while it sabotages our ability to talk about what life really means. Dean Andrew McGowan of Berkeley Divinity School (my seminary) said over the weekend that “Gun violence…mocks and competes with the power of God to save and sustain. The forces that cling to (it) imagine violence as protection, and that infinite potential violence would somehow lead to peace, but this can never be true.”[iii]

Those who seek to save their lives, will lose them. Peter used violence to prevent suffering, but tragically ended up assuring that the world would know Jesus as just another instigator with a well-armed guard, if Jesus was remembered at all.

Except. Except. Except Jesus would not allow the work of salvation to be defined by fear or sabotaged by an instrument of death.  Thanks to Peter, the situation became hopeless, but because this was Jesus, it wasn’t hopeless at all. Because what happened? Jesus reached up to the guard, and if you have lost all hope, take heart – Jesus places his hand over the ear of the guard and restores him to wholeness.  Peter’s recklessness was redeemed. Jesus brought the movement back from the edge of collapse and restored the presence of grace.

Those who are willing to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus, will find life. Those who cling and strive and push to save their lives will only surround themselves with death, yet those who give everything will become vessels of salvation. The paradox at the heart of our faith puts us in sharp conflict with the wisdom of the world, yet it connects us to an infinite source of life at the deepest heart of our being.


I’ll close with a thought from Mother Maria of Paris, an Eastern orthodox saint who died in the French resistance during the second world war. She wrote of what happens to us when we can break from worldly things and instead set our hearts on the eternal. It doesn’t actually take much. She wrote, “I think that anyone who has had this experience of eternity, if only once; one who has understood the way he is going, if only once; who has seen the One who goes before him, if only once – such a person will find it hard to turn aside from this path; to him all comfort will seem ephemeral, all treasure valueless, all companions unnecessary, if amongst them he fails to see the One Companion, carrying his Cross.”[iv]

Put down the things of this world, and you will gain everything. Take up your cross. Follow me, and together we will find life.

Homily for Feb 25, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.


[i] Ware, The Orthodox Way,  79

[ii] C. Clifton Black, Working Preacher


[iv] Ware, The Orthodox Way, 85

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lent 2.0

Homily for the Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Mark 9:2-9

The disciples, when they followed Jesus up the mountain, were probably not looking for a life-changing experience. But let’s be honest, neither are many of us.

Who really has the time for a life-changing experience? Who among us has the capacity and the imagination these days? Let’s use a great modern word: who has the bandwidth for that kind of thing, with our schedules full to bursting and our spirits gummed-up with all the things we already know perfectly well?

In our lives we move so fast, with such seeming clarity of purpose, that we fail to see and hear important things that emerge right in front of us.  The things that matter. The things that can disrupt our trajectory and set us on a different path – sometimes gently, and sometimes abruptly. The things that might just awaken us to a larger life, to the presence of God, to our own brokenness, to our own giftedness. Do we see these things when they appear around us? Are we ready to listen?

That seems to be part of the story of the Transfiguration: Peter and James and John are right beside Jesus on the mountain, they see and they hear, but do they really see and hear? The fact is, they very nearly don’t.

They almost miss it because the moment they see something that disrupts their understanding, they scurry for a familiar meaning – but since this is about the unknowable and mysterious God, anything familiar would only be misleading. The try to plug the transcendent into a story they already know, rather than listen as the new story unfolds.

How likely was it that one of the three disciples, seeing their teacher transfigured before them, turned to the others and said. I knew it! I knew this was what Jesus was all about it. Judging from the rest of the story, this isn’t very likely. It’s more likely that one turned to another and said Wait, I thought we were spiritual-but-not religious – now what’s all this about? 

After the immediate shock of seeing Jesus shining before them, what do they do? They go straight to their comfort zone and begin to fit what they had seen – actually, they were trying to spin it in real time – into a story that was already familiar to them. Seeing Elijah and Moses, they said, “It is good for us to be here.” (Perhaps they said this was so that their presence would be reflected in the minutes). Let’s now create dwelling places. Let’s create structures. Let’s create vessels so that you – and Moses and Elijah – will always be where we know to find you.

Yet they begin to shift from their own narrowness to, if not an understanding, a new capacity for seeing when Peter stops talking and lets his heart take the lead. He stops talking and realized that he is scared.

This is one of those rare moments where fear is actually a helpful emotion. After Peter says that dopey thing about building three dwellings, we learn that he was terrified.  Fear itself isn’t the point, but at least we can say that this was a real emotion. It got Peter out of his heard and into his heart, into a place where he could begin to see and hear what was unfolding right in front of him.

And so when they heard God’s voice – This is my Son, the Beloved, Listen to him,” the disciples began to listen.

This was not the Jesus they had known, and so it was not the Jesus they had expected. And they are not alone. This was not the nice-friend and wise-teacher Jesus. This was not spiritual-but-not-religious Jesus. Speaking of this today, C. Clifton Black reminds us that many of us “have lost any appreciation of Jesus’ divinity… It’s easy to regard Jesus as a sage, hero, scamp, or fool. Some among (us) hide out with the History Channel’s Jesus and never come out. (The Gospel of) Mark uncages a Jesus so tamed.” [i]

It is precisely the opposite of what the disciples try to do at first: they want to build dwellings which would have domesticated the holy. But Peter’s trembling heart led them out of their own cages. This is my son, the Beloved.  Listen to him.

Listen to him. Are we listening? Are we so wedded to our stories that we miss the transfigured Lord right before our eyes? Are we moving so fast, and surrounded by so much noise, that we can hear neither the cry of our neighbors nor the still small voice of God?

You see, if Epiphany is about seeing, Lent is about listening, about turning off all the clanging and impatient channels so that we can better listen for God.

This is one of the reasons why in Lent we take on the simple discipline of giving something up: of letting go of something seemingly unimportant that holds an outsized share of our attention, and to then see what surfaces in the new space.  This discipline matters, but that’s not the ultimate goal. The goal is freeing ourselves to see something we didn’t see before.

As you know I spent my childhood in the Roman Catholic church, where everybody absolutely gave something up for Lent. And we didn’t eat meat on Fridays, or at least the cafeteria would only serve fish…this can seem quaint to us as Episcopalians, but I think that’s unfortunate, because it tells me that we’ve lost the practice of fasting. That we have convinced ourselves that we’re too good for it, or maybe too smart for it. What a loss that is.

When I came to the Episcopal Church, I discovered at first that giving something up for Lent was an elective discipline, that some did it and some didn’t. Praise Jesus and the Reformation, I thought! And then I learned that some chose instead to take something on, some kind of discipline such as daily scripture study or creative practice.

I’ve seen some really lovely Lenten disciplines that folks have taken on, and even tried them myself. They can be wonderfully formative. But sometimes they feel a little like “Lent 2.0,” a way that we feel like we’ve improved upon the simple discipline of giving something up. I think in that case, we miss the point a bit.

But in the spirit of meeting Jesus, of listening to God and listening for our own belovedness, I want to make a pitch for the old school. I want to make the case for giving something up. And I don’t mean giving up things that don’t make me feel fulfilled – because that’s not quite the point – and I don’t mean giving up things that harm you or other people – because you don’t need to wait until Lent on that one – and I don’t mean giving up something nebulous like “judgmental thoughts” because good luck with that.

I’m talking about giving up Chocolate Cake. I’m talking about giving up soda. I’m talking about giving up TV or iced mocha latte or the radio in the car. I’m talking about giving up that delicious little detail that you love so much, even though it does no one any harm, and may genuinely make life a little better.  Last year I gave up instant video – folks, that was hard! Two or three years ago I gave up sweets…also hard.  Once when I was working in film production I gave up caffeinated sodas, and my career never recovered.

We say that these things don’t matter – and of course they don’t – but the act of abstaining shows me what I really value, and alerts me to my dependence upon things other that Jesus. I didn’t have any mountaintop epiphanies, but I did take one or two more steps closer to Jesus because I became more aware of what things – what voices, what foods, what demands, were monopolizing my attention, and keeping me from listening.

Giving something up helps me to realize what a gluttonous would we live in. We crave attention, we crave security, we crave money and power, we crave, we crave, we crave. And in a world that uses the words of Martin Luther King to sell pickup trucks during the Super Bowl, we need to be able to practice the holy act of finding the off switch, and then actually using it.

The point is not the cake, or the soda, or the instant video. We don’t become holier when we ditch these things. The point is seeing Jesus, the point is being awake and alert to his presence, and indeed to his transfiguration before us. Do we see? Are we listening? Do we scurry to fit what we see into our stories, or with enough silence and openness can we, like Peter, let our hearts begin to draw us up into the mystery?

My favorite moment of this story is the quiet after the prophets disappeared, after God had spoken and they were simply walking back down the mountain, the four of them, basking in the light of a changed world. Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

What will we see when we open our eyes? What will we hear when we stop to listen? When we take a break from striving and judging and positioning, and learn simply to abide?

When we stop to listen, we are well on our way to Jesus, well on our way towards union with God, towards transforming the world through our own belovedness.

Homily for February 11, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[i] C. Clifton Black, Working Preacher,

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6 reasons not to miss the Annual Meeting

With all the demand on our time it can be tempting to take a pass on the church’s annual meeting. Perhaps the business of the church doesn’t strike us as exciting. Perhaps we are content to let the pillars run the show since they’ve done such a good job with it anyway. Perhaps there aren’t a whole lot of big decisions to be made – no major resolutions or contested elections. Is this all that important then to be there?

Remember that an annual meeting is more than just coming together to make decisions, as a corporate board or gathering of shareholders would do. It’s a moment to celebrate the ongoing ministry of St. Andrew’s, to give thanks to those who serve in leadership, and to lay a foundation for new leaders to emerge. Plus we have lunch.

Not convinced yet? Here’s a quick list of why you shouldn’t skip the Annual Meeting.

  1. We aren’t simply voting for vestry members who threw their hat in the ring. The vestry election is the culmination of months of discernment and prayer on the part of the nominating committee, the clergy, the folks who were invited to be nominated and especially those who have offered themselves as leaders. This is an intentionally prayerful and spirit-filled process, and your prayers for the nominees are an essential part of the ministry of the church.
  2. Whether rotating off, continuing on or just coming on board, vestry members and other ministry leaders do a whole lot nurture the the church, building up in seasons of growth and offering support and leadership in times of challenge. They sweat the small stuff and tackle the big stuff so that the church can thrive. One of the best ways you can support them is by being at the Annual Meeting, casting your vote, asking constructive questions,  letting them know that they have permission to take risks and make mistakes, and that you are praying for them.
  3. If you’re new, the Annual Meeting is a great way to get the straight poop on the church – from the visions and priorities to the personality of the place. Plus, as a baptized member of the church you get full voting privileges!
  4. There is childcare. There’s a reason for that: we want everyone to participate, and the church isn’t fully the church unless everyone’s in the room.
  5. With all that public speaking in one morning the Rector will probably say something foolish, and we all know how entertaining that can be.
  6. The Annual Meeting gives an important snapshot of parish life: that our ministry is vibrant and collaborative and our leadership is dispersed, but that we know it must be more so if we are going to be who God is calling us to be.

As with all lists, there could be more, but I’ll save them for perhaps another year.  An Annual Meeting isn’t the only time where the whole church comes together, but it’s the  time where we are most intentional about casting a vision and celebrating leadership. I hope that you’ll add this to your calendar as not just as “don’t miss,” but something that, as I do, you look forward to each year.

The St. Andrew’s Annual Meeting is this Sunday, January 14. We will worship together in a combined service at 9:30 a.m., vote for vestry members at the conclusion of the service, adjourn for lunch in the parish hall and resume the meeting during the meal.


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preparing the church for baptism

Veni Sancte Spiritus is often sung at liturgies of ordination, though it can be sung at other times and certainly isn’t out of place at a baptism.  When Bishop Rodman was ordained and consecrated this summer, bishops sang Veni Sancte Spiritus as they gathered around and laid hands on him, praying together to invite the Holy Spirit to move through them all, and to make Sam a bishop.  So, too, when the freshest priests in the diocese were ordained in the week before Christmas, dozens of us gathered around them, and as Bishop Sam laid his hands on their heads we sang Veni Sancte Spiritus and prayed for the Holy Spirit to bestow upon them the gift of ordination to the priesthood.

I’m trying to describe a special kind of prayer that is a part of a special kind of spiritual gift. It isn’t magic. It isn’t “The Force” (which is very much on my mind, as my children and my family have a bad case of Star Wars fever). It isn’t an incantation or charm or spell designed to make God do what we ask. Rather, it’s an act of prayer that honors the fullness of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of the church, a presence that draws everyone in the space into a lively encounter with God – even the people who aren’t being made Bishops or Priests on that particular day.

This kind of prayer isn’t reserved for the clergy: it’s a kind of prayer we devote to all people as they become a part of the Body of Christ through their baptism. I’m writing not just to share stories of ordinations, but to invite you all to join me in prayer this week for Clara Bennett who will be baptized at St. Andrew’s on Sunday.

I know that most of us – me included – grew up with an affection for baptismal days when some cute kid got dipped. And we’ll have that on Sunday, I promise. But we also know that this is so much more than that: baptism is a gift of the spirit, one that empowers us to be the body of Christ and draws us into the lifelong adventure of growing in wonder and faith.

And since it’s such a big deal, let’s not wait until Sunday to begin preparing ourselves and our church. We can prepare the church with our prayers, on Sunday and in the days leading up to it. I hope you’ll join me this week in praying for Clara and celebrating the movement of the Holy Spirit in baptism, and for the the ministry of all the baptized who make up St. Andrew’s church.

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reoriented eastwards

I’ve long understood the Epiphany as the showing of Jesus (the proper word is “manifesting”) to the world. Through the miracle of the wedding at Cana and the calling of the first disciples, and especially through the witness of the Magi who would take the message back East, the Incarnation that has come to us is now spread to the world beyond our backyard.

Yet I’ve been reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World about the far-off and exotic lands between Europe and the Pacific that were, our cultural memory notwithstanding, the center of the world for much of known history. This is a work of history rather than church tradition, so Frankopan says nothing about magi and myrrh except to mention, of course, that spices and fragrances were economic engines of the times. But spending time reading about the world to the East has diminished for me a cherished idea that Jesus came to us and that we then shared him with the world, starting with our traveling friends who followed the star.

The eastward orientation of the Epiphany story tells us otherwise. Our worldview is rooted in the triumph of Western Christianity, yet the first witnesses came from the East and headed back in that direction. The three kings saw and knew the star for what it was; Herod feared the star and relied on the Magi to find it for them, while the Romans (from out West, I might add) were oblivious.

I like how this disrupts our Western orientation towards Bethlehem, and suggests that the terrain is less familiar than we might realize. I like how it suggests that Jesus was never “ours” to share, but rather drew in wisdom and reverence from the heart of places that didn’t show up in our history books.  I like how that humbles us, and shows us that there is mystery and holiness in this world in places we’ve never heard of, and folk abiding in Jesus in ways that we too might someday learn.

St. Andrew’s will celebrate the Epiphany with a service of Holy Eucharist on Saturday, September 6 at 5:30 p.m. in the Chapel at 5:30 p.m., followed by fellowship (and King Cake!) in the Parish Hall.

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