Discernment Talk

Given at a Youth Retreat the Last Weekend of March 2017

I was blessed to participate in a youth retreat this weekend at Camp Washington in Morris CT, and I was asked to give a talk about discernment. Here it is.

“Discernment” is not a word many of us use in our day to day vocabulary. And yet we engage in discernment every single day of our lives. Discernment is simply a fancy word for the thought that happens before you make a choice. And hopefully the prayer, as well. We tend to reserve the word “discernment” for big decisions: where you’ll go to college, what you want to do with your life, whom you want to spend that life with. But we need not make such a distinction. Every choice you make in your life can involve discernment on some level or other. Continue reading “Discernment Talk”

Finishing the Race

Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2016 || Proper 25C || 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Jeremy is my best friend from college. We co-hosted a radio show together that had exactly zero listeners. (This was quite liberating, by the way.) We spent hours in the quad just tossing a Frisbee back and forth. He’s a great guy, who now has a beautiful wife and daughter. Now he’s an endocrinologist in Georgia, but when we were at Sewanee together, mostly I sang in the choir and he ran. He was a member of the cross country team, so he ran a lot. Like everyday.

I’ve never understood the appeal of running as an end in itself; for me, running has always been a necessary evil, a part of training for soccer. But Jeremy loved it. He was always a good runner, but never truly elite. When he ran marathons, he never started in the front of the pack with the elite runners. He just wanted to finish the race in a time that he set for himself, a personal goal. Continue reading “Finishing the Race”

Naaman Syndrome

Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2016 || Proper 23C || 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

*Plays the opening riff to the Beatles’ “Blackbird”*

Does anyone know what this song is? (Hopefully someone will.) That’s right. “Blackbird” by the Beatles. I’m having something of a Beatles kick in my sermons recently. Not only is it “Blackbird” by the Beatles; it is also the very first song I ever tried to learn on the guitar.

It was the day after Christmas my senior year of high school. I had used my Christmas gift money to buy an incredibly cheap acoustic guitar from the local shop. My friends in musical theatre class all knew how to play guitar, and it seemed like a really good way to impress girls.

So I thought to myself, “What was in impressive song I could learn on the guitar?” And, of course, “Blackbird” came to mind. The trouble is, “Blackbird” is not an easy song to play. Your left hand has to move away from the precious comfort zone near the neck of the guitar where most chords are played and venture into the hazardous territory closer to the body of the instrument. Your right hand has to pluck the correct strings at the correct times, in concert with the movement of your left hand hand. Continue reading “Naaman Syndrome”

Acts of Faith

Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2016 || Proper 22C || Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Read literally, this passage could have saved the church several thousand dollars this summer. It’s true! After all, we had to have several trees removed from our property, and getting that done safely and expertly was expensive. But Jesus seems to say that a faithful person could just tell a tree to be uprooted and hurled into the Mystic River. I must confess to the members of the vestry and finance committee in attendance that I didn’t try this tactic before we engaged the tree-removal service. I apologize.

Then again, I would not have been my own first choice within this parish as the person of faith to go talking the trees out of the ground. I don’t have nearly as much faith as some sitting in this room.

And right there, with that thought, I fall into the same trap that catches the apostles at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. I fall into the trap of thinking faith has something to do with quantity. “Increase our faith,” they say. “Increase our faith.” Give us more. We don’t have enough yet. Continue reading “Acts of Faith”

Born Again, part 1: New Life

Sermon for Sunday, June 26, 2016 || Proper 8C || Luke 9:51-62

bornAgain-NewLifeDuring the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 10 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.

As I was preparing for this morning’s sermon, I was having trouble, and I realized the reason I was having trouble is that I was actually preparing for four sermon, and not for one sermon. So today is the beginning of a four part series that goes all the way until I start my vacation. So you have to come back for the next three Sundays to get the whole thing. The topic of this sermon series is a topic we don’t talk a lot about in the Episcopal Church, but it is something you hear a lot of in other churches and in popular culture. It is the concept of being “born again.” You’ve heard that before, right? Probably not here. Continue reading “Born Again, part 1: New Life”

Transfigured Eyes

Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2016 || Last Epiphany C || Luke 9:28-36

transfiguredeyesEvery year on the Sunday before Lent begins, we read this Gospel lesson. We call it the story of the Transfiguration, which is a fancy way of saying “something turning into something else, usually a more beautiful something else.” And if we stopped there with the label we apply to the story, we would get something out of it to strengthen our faith. We would see some evidence that Jesus was really whom he said he was, since his face changed and his clothes dazzled and two famous dead prophets came round for a chat. But I don’t think this evidence is really what Luke means for us to get out of this story. I don’t even think the term “Transfiguration” applies to Jesus. Rather, since the whole story is told from the disciples’ perspective, I think they are the ones who are “transfigured.” I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute, but first I’d like to tell you about my fifth grade science fare project.

While many of my friends were slapping papier-mâché over chicken wire frames to make baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, I was enamored by the properties of light. So for my project, I procured a small triangular prism, glued it inside a shoebox, and positioned a penlight to shine at the prism. Then I cut a slit in the box so the judges could see the subtle rainbow made when the white light broke apart into every child’s mnemonic friend, ROY G. BIV. (That’s Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet for those of you who never met Roy in school.) I remember feeling so proud of that science project, like I had done magic by shining light through a prism. My mother hung prisms in the most sun-drenched windows of our house, so we always had rainbows dancing on the walls, and now I had captured one in a shoebox!

In the end, however, the explosive grandeur of the baking soda and vinegar volcanoes ruled the day, and I did not take home a blue ribbon. But because of my research I did find a way to rationalize my loss. “That blue ribbon is no better than my yellow ‘honorable mention’ ribbon,” I told myself. “It only appears blue because it reflects a certain wavelength of the visible spectrum.” See, I learned something!

I also learned that we humans see because light breaks open in predictable ways. Objects absorb, reflect, and refract light in particular patterns, which allow our brains to catalog them. The first Genesis creation story begins with God saying, “Fiat Lux!” (God speaks in Latin, didn’t you know?) “Let there be light!” Why? Well, because from the human perspective, we need light to give everything else definition and vibrancy. And yet, the light we see is a teeny, tiny part of the spectrum – just a 300 nanometer band, in fact.

Of course, we often labor under the presumptuous notion that only what we see exists, despite all evidence to the contrary. We listen to the radio. We microwave leftovers. We sunburn. All these things happen due to parts of the (electromagnetic) spectrum that we can’t see. But they are just as real as our friend, ROY G. BIV.

Now, the jump from science to theology is a short one here. When he takes the three disciples up the mountain, Jesus also negates the presumptuous notion that only what we see exists. “And while he was praying,” Luke tells us, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The appearance of his face changed. Peter, James, and John see Jesus in a different and more glorious way than they had seen him before. In this moment on the mountaintop, Jesus gives his friends the gift of seeing him with transfigured eyes. They are used to seeing a dusty traveler with ruddy skin weathered by so many nights out of doors. But now they see him as God sees him: a luminous being shimmering in the light of God’s glory and favor. Their transfigured eyes see him for once unfettered by any notion of the usual expectation of humanity. Their transfigured eyes see into their collective memory, see connection to the prophets of old. And their transfigured senses continue to expand when their ears hear a voice that commands them to listen to Jesus.

I’m sure the experience overwhelmed Peter, James, and John. It certainly left them speechless. Just imagine if suddenly you could see the rest of the spectrum: the gamma and x-rays speeding by, the ultraviolet and infrared light expanding your vision, all the other waves crowding your visual cortex. I think I might last about half a second before my brain just stopped working, overloaded by the torrent of stimulation. If the disciples felt anything like that when they saw the true and radiant reality of Jesus on the mountaintop, then it’s no wonder Peter just started rambling incoherently.

The point of this whole thought exercise is to focus us on the following questions. As we approach Lent, a season of rededication to spiritual practice and realignment of skewed priorities, what encompasses the limited spectrum through which each of us views our possibilities? What blinders have we affixed to our eyes that keep us from seeing all the possibilities that God’s grace illuminates around us? And how can we receive the same gift Jesus gave his friends, the gift of transfigured eyes?

Too often we shackle ourselves to the tyranny of the currently possible. The spectrum we see is the one we were taught or the one we are used to or the one we are comfortable with. But there is so much more than the currently possible. Who could have predicted a hundred years ago the technology we have today? And who can predict where your faith might lead you tomorrow if you decide to take a risk today, to trust God today, to say “yes” to something today?

Too often we affix blinders to our eyes so that we see only one path. It’s just so much easier to keep our heads down and trudge along. But the truth of the matter is that our path is not a single road, but a person. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he never meant for us to separate the three. Our path is a dynamic one, full of choices and consequences, and it takes a lifetime, but we never walk the path alone.

Too often we see only what we expect to see. And so we pray for transfigured eyes so we might catch glimpses of how God sees. This Lent, I invite you to join me in praying for such eyes. Each day for practice, make a point to notice something you’ve never, ever seen before. Today’s something might be bird in flight at sunset. Tomorrow’s might be the shape of your child’s face, so different now than it was a year ago. The next day’s might be the lettering on the cardboard sign of a silent and bundled figure at the traffic light. Whatever you see, engage it with appreciation or concern or thanksgiving. Practice noticing. Train your eyes to see past the surface to God’s dazzling reality underneath. That’s what transfigured eyes are for: to discover God’s glorious presence at the heart of all things, and to be thankful.

The Rock and the River

Sermon for Sunday, August 23, 2015 || Proper 16B || John 6:56-69; Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

rockandtheriverToday we complete our long, five-week march through the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John. We read every last word, some of them multiple times. Jesus fed the crowds – five thousand strong – with one person’s groceries. He walked on water to meet his companions across the sea. He spoke to the crowds at length, hoping to move them past their rumbling tummies to the deeper craving for the “bread of life”; that is, the sustenance of abiding relationship with him. But the people don’t get it. They aren’t ready to hear what he has to say. And yet, Jesus keeps pushing. He keeps extending the metaphor, making it more explicit, until he’s talking about eating and drinking his own flesh and blood.

To this many of his disciples respond, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And they stopped following Jesus that day. They “turned back and no longer went about with him,” John narrates. I bet – in that moment as they were wandering away back to their old lives – Jesus could feel the power to compel them to stay surge up within him. I bet he knew that if only he willed it, they would turn around and come back, like dogs on leashes. But Jesus knew better. He knew that every person had to be free to choose to leave, or else it wouldn’t ever be worth staying.

After they leave, he turns to his twelve most faithful companions, his inner circle, and asks them a question. I always hear a thick sadness in his voice when I read these words: “Do you also wish to go away?” In that moment teetering on despair, Peter gives Jesus a gift: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

In John’s Gospel, belief is synonymous with relationship. So when Peter says these words, he affirms his relationship with Jesus, despite any perplexity Jesus’ words about flesh and blood might have caused him. This is the same Peter who later denies knowing Jesus three times on the terrifying night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. And this is the same Peter who even later has this denial healed when Jesus asks three times if Peter loves him. Peter’s real name is Simon. Jesus nicknames him Peter, which means “Rock.” You may recall in another account of the Gospel Jesus making a pun: I call you Peter/Rock, and on this Rock I will build my church.

When you call someone a rock, you mean she is steadfast to the end. “Patty was a rock the whole time her daughter was in the hospital.” That may seem true from the outsider’s perspective, but the real story probably looks more variable – like Peter’s. Maybe Patty held it together whenever she and her daughter had visitors. After all, in an odd but predictable reversal of roles, it often falls on the people involved in a tragedy to comfort those coming to visit. Of course, she was a rock when visitors came around. But how many times did Patty break down sobbing in the middle of the night by her daughter’s bedside, alone but for the steady beeping of the machines? How many times did despair creep in? How many times did she rage at God (a totally appropriate reaction to her situation, mind you)?

I seriously doubt that anyone who’s ever been called a “rock” ever felt like one themselves. In our example, Patty might even feel some misplaced shame for her lack of stability if people label her “rock,” no matter how well meaning they are. Throughout the Gospel and the book of Acts, we can see Peter trying to live up to his nickname, only to fail on multiple occasions. One of these failures actually leads to a huge expansion of the early church, when the Rock realizes he is wrong and changes his mind.

All this to say that the life of faith is much more variable than many of us desire or are comfortable with. None of us is on a perfectly straight road like the Interstates out in the mid-West. Rather our lives of faith run more like rivers or streams – twisting around boulders, bubbling through rapids, tumbling down waterfalls, flowing swiftly, flowing lazily, sometimes stagnating, sometimes surging.

And it has always been this way. In the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning, Joshua puts a choice before the Israelites: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Will it be the lifeless and false gods of the peoples of the land or will it be the Lord. Joshua answers for himself first: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” All the people answer the same way: “We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” But it doesn’t take long for this promise to fade into obscurity. In fact, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures narrate the story of the people of Israel oscillating between following God and throwing their lot in with some other convenient deity of the month.

So why is the life of faith so much more variable than many of desire or are comfortable with? Well, because we don’t have two lives – a normal life and a life of faith. We just have life. And life is all about change. If we labored under the delusion that our faith could not and should not have some variability, then that faith would never line up authentically with the rest of our lives. It would be as disconnected from us as a Midwestern Interstate is from a stream meandering down a mountain.

I urge you, therefore, not to beat yourself up when you don’t feel as faithful as you did last week or last year. There are periods of time when each of us – including me – are lost in the desert. But the good news is this: in the end, our faith or lack thereof is only a part of the story, and a small part of the story at that. God’s steadfastness matters much more than ours. The story of the Hebrew Scriptures is not just the one about people turning away from God; it’s also the one about God continually calling them back. Remember, God was there in the desert, too.

This interplay between God and God’s people finds expression in a curious grammatical ambiguity that crops up in many of St. Paul’s letters. In several places Paul is either talking about “faith in Jesus Christ” (that is, our faith) or “faith of Jesus Christ” (that is, Jesus’ own faith). It could mean either, and Paul probably wants it to mean both. The steadfast faith of Jesus Christ, who is the true Rock (no matter Simon Peter’s nickname), holds our faith for us when we are too angry or too sad or too distracted or too apathetic to access it ourselves. In this, the faith of Jesus Christ is like our regent, ruling in the place of us, the infant kings and queens, until we are ready to take up the mantle.

I like to think that some of those folks who walked away from Jesus came back another day because they realized they were still hungry and only his words of truth could fill them. I like to think they once again took up the mantle of faith. The same goes for us. The invitations that Jesus Christ offers to us to join him in his work of healing and reconciliation will never stop arriving at our doorsteps. His faith in us activates our faith in him. Our meandering streams can each day meet his surging river. Why not today?

Four Faiths

Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2015 || Proper 7B || Mark 4:35-41

fourfaithsTwelve years ago today, I preached my very first sermon. Delivering a sermon was a requirement of my internship at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas, Texas. So when the other four interns and I received the readings we’d all be preaching on, we dove right in, determined to preach the best sermons the great state of Texas had ever heard. That didn’t happen. But we each managed to say something coherent about Jesus calming the storm, and none of us fainted in the pulpit, so I call that a win. I have a muffled recording of the sermon I preached. I made the mistake of listening to it earlier this week. Wow, it’s really bad. There was something about complacency and faith and God shaking us up and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, but I didn’t real say anything to take home with you.

The thing is, at the time, I thought it was a pretty good attempt at preaching. I felt pretty good when I sat down. So why do I shake my head when I listen to it now? Well, my understanding of faith has changed quite a lot in the last twelve years, so what I hear in the sermon rings a bit hollow. But I expect my understanding of faith to change quite a lot in the next twelve years, too.

The question is this: if I’m no longer where I was faith-wise twelve years ago, does that make my earlier faith false? The answer to this question must be a resounding, “No!” Surely God is able to work through the most tentative faith or the most hardened faith or even the most erroneous faith. God makes use of any raw materials we bring to the table, however clumsy they happen to be.

I’d hazard to guess that your understanding of faith has changed quite a lot over the course of your lifetimes, as well. This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, if your faith has changed over time, you’ve probably been wrestling with it, questioning it, wondering how it impacts your life. A faith that does not undergo some kind of change over time is more than likely an unexamined faith or just a cosmetic one.

I’d like to share with you four understandings of faith that I have gone through since I preached that sermon twelve years ago. I don’t claim that any of these are wrong; rather, where I am now in faith happens to be the most helpful understanding for the current stage of my following Jesus. As you listen to these four descriptions, see if you can locate how you experience faith. Is another description beckoning you? Or is there a completely different understanding of faith that I know nothing about? This exercise is important because an unexamined faith often becomes a stagnant one.

First up: my understanding of faith during that sermon in Dallas. At that time, faith was a quantity. It was something I could measure. This makes sense: after all, in today’s Gospel reading, after Jesus calms the storm, he says to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” If they have zero faith, then presumably they could also have a little faith or some faith or much faith.

The challenge to this understanding comes when something happens to tip the scales: a tragedy that takes a loved one’s life, an unexpected diagnosis, a relationship in tatters. You might beat yourself up, saying, “If only I had a little more faith, I could get through this.” When tragedy strikes, we forget the blessing that comes with this understanding of faith as a quantity. Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed (that is, the smallest amount possible) is enough to weather the storm.*

When I was in seminary, my understanding of “faith as a quantity” morphed into something else. For a long time, I swapped “faith” with a word that’s almost a synonym. That word was “trust.” For some reason, I couldn’t find the active component of faith that seemed to be missing from the “quantity” definition, so I replaced it with something I felt I could do. I could trust God. When Jesus calms the storm, he might as well have said, “Why are you afraid? Don’t you trust me?”

The most common expression of this understanding is the proverbial “leap of faith.” The shadowy unknown spreads out in front of you, and yet you walk on, trusting that God will guide you. Your faith is like the headlights on your car, which only illuminate the patch of road in front of you but still somehow manage to get you home.**

Over the first few years of ordained ministry, this view of “faith as trust” broadened. The act of trusting was not big enough to contain all that faith was. This is when “faith” became a verb for me. Faith was the active component of my relationship with God, the thing that spurred me to love God and serve God’s people. While Jesus might say the disciples have no faith, they still woke him up, thinking he could do something about the storm. As I said in a sermon for you all last year, this understanding of faith “borrows the best parts of trust, confidence, humility, and zeal and molds them into our response to God’s presence in our lives.”

The word “presence” carries over from this understanding of faith to the one that is alive for me today. And that is faith as direction or orientation. Faith is the mysterious something inside us that always and forever points to God’s presence, like a compass needle pointing due north. But we are not always facing the right way, and so the compass of faith prompts us to turn around. The technical word for this turning is “repenting,” which can lead to a renewal of our relationships with God.

Sometimes we have blinders on our eyes that make us look straight ahead through a narrow field of vision.*** God might be calling us to unimagined possibilities dancing just out of sight. Our faith invites us to widen those blinders until we can once again see what’s pointing to God. When we are overwhelmed by tragedy or grief or doubt, the blinders can snap tight again. But faith beckons us to open wide so we can find our true orientation towards God’s presence. Do you think Jesus halting the storm with a word was even close to a possibility on the disciples’ minds when they woke him? No. And yet what little faith they had still pointed to him as their refuge.

This is where my understanding of faith currently stands. I learned it from my father and from talking with many of you as you’ve sat on the couch in my office and spoken of your secret hopes and deepest fears and gnawing doubts and strangling griefs. I don’t know what my understanding of faith will be twelve years from now, but for today, this is it. Faith is the internal compass needle pointing to God’s presence. And since God’s presence happens to be everywhere, the blinders on my eyes serve no purpose at all.

I hope you will take some time this week to take stock of how your faith expresses itself. If faith is a quantity, how much do you need for it to guide your life? If faith is trust, into what unknown is God calling you to leap? If faith is a verb, the active component of your relationship with God, what are you and God doing together this afternoon, this week, this year? And if faith is your orientation towards to God’s presence, where and to whom is it pointing? What possibilities are dancing just out of sight?

*Actually, it’s enough to uproot the mulberry tree and have it throw itself in the sea, but I’m working with the storm metaphor here.
 **I first heard this metaphor during a seminary class, but I have no idea where it originated.
***Thanks to my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, for this image.

Psalm 23, Expanded

(Sermon for Sunday, May 11, 2014 || Easter 4A || Psalm 23)

shepherdessIn six years of priesthood, I’ve preached on the psalm exactly twice. Today, I’m going to make it three times. Psalm 23 is among the most well-loved and oft-quoted passages of scriptures. We read it at funerals or by the bedsides of those who are sick. When you listen to these words, you might hear an echo of your grandmother reciting it to you when you were a child. The words of Psalm 23 are powerful and gentle at the same time. But, as with anything you hear over and over again, the words can grow stale and distant. So I’d like to try something. I’d like to offer a meditation on Psalm 23 by expanding the thoughts contained in each of the six verses. Saint Francis of Assisi did something similar with the Lord’s Prayer, and I’m going to follow his example. As you listen, see how the venerable words of the twenty-third Psalm strike you anew.

The LORD is my shepherd.
For most, our agrarian days are long past and we see pastureland only from the car window as we drive by on the highway. We see the animals in the field, and we think, “How quaint and how beautiful.” But something tugs inside, and we notice a secret longing for a simpler time. We desire to tramp through the long grass, the only sounds the swish of our clothes rubbing together and our voices calling the flock. Each sheep has a name, and as we call, they come. We have a shepherd, too, who calls us each by name. We have a guide. A protector. A provider. The Lord is my shepherd;

I shall not be in want.
It’s a statement of faith that hangs on the promise of provision, the expectation that the Lord will provide. But this English rendition of the Hebrew words gives them more than one meaning. We will not be in want; that is, we will lack for nothing we need to sustain us. But we will also be free from the concept of “wanting”; that is, when we believe the Lord will provide, we will resist the siren song of consumer culture that seduces us, that tries to tell us security only comes with more stuff. “I shall not be in want,” means that we understand proportion, that we have a realistic notion of the word “enough,” and that we find contentment in living simply.

He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
These are the good days – the days of plenty, the days of refreshment. The still waters reflect God’s peace. The green pastures announce God’s abundance. Peace and abundance feed our awareness of the One who leads us. We notice that, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”* Noticing this grandeur re-“charges” us. Or in the words of the psalmist:

He revives my soul
My essence. My life-force. The gift God gave each of us in the sparkling moment of creation that connects our fleetingness to God’s eternity. God’s grandeur is present, and yet we might still miss it. We tire. We burn out. We feel more fleeting than eternal. Thus our Lord revives our souls time and time again…

And guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Oftentimes in the psalms the poet reiterates a thought with a parallel one, which is why many psalms have a repetitive nature to them. Here we have a hidden parallel: reviving our souls and guiding us along right pathways are two sides of the same coin. The pathways along which our shepherd guides us lead to revival, to green grass and refreshing water. And all for God’s name’s sake; in other words, all to make God’s grandeur apparent. And yet…

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
If the shepherd is leading us, why do we walk through this particular valley? Why is it on the route at all? Do we stumble into the valley of the shadow of death because we have strayed from right pathways, or do the right pathways include a road through this valley? We all know life isn’t just green pastures and still waters. We are a people formed by the reality of the cross. But the cross – the shadow of death – is not the end of the story. The joy of the resurrection proclaims that we are not abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death. No. We walk through the valley and out the other side. Perhaps we make this journey because there are people stuck in the valley. It is our duty and our joy to help them find their way out.

In the valley we fear no evil; not because evil doesn’t exist, but because fearing evil gives it power. Fear keeps us from trusting that we will make it out the other side of the valley. Evil seeks to separate us from the One in whom we put our trust. But evil will not succeed…

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
This is our mantra while in the valley: “You are with me. You are with me.” Just because we have trouble noticing God’s presence doesn’t mean God is absent. And so we breathe these words, “You are with me,” until they become, “I am with you.” And dwelling in that truth, we find comfort. Comfort and sustenance, for…

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.
On the bad days, we might not be able to find the green pastures or the still waters. We might stop believing we have enough and start listening to the seductive voices of those who trouble us, those who chant: “More. More. More. Then you’ll find comfort.” And so, on those bad days, instead of leading us to the pasture to forage for ourselves, the Lord sets a banquet before us. The Lord places what we need right in front of us so we can’t miss it. And we discover once again the abundance inherent in trusting in the Lord to provide.

You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
When the Lord provides, the Lord provides. What we are fearful won’t be enough overwhelms us instead. Our cups overflow with blessing, both because there is so much blessing, and also because we have made ourselves too small to contain it. The extravagance of God’s blessing fills us in a way that the “More” of the seductive voices could never achieve. When our cups run over, we have the opportunity to spill God’s blessing on all those we meet. As the Lord guides us along right pathways, overflowing blessing marks the way for us and for those who will come after. And as we walk those ways…

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
The Lord, our shepherd, guides us, leads us by the hand through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and still waters. The Lord takes the lead. We follow. And notice what follows us: God’s goodness and mercy trails us like the churning wake of a ship at sea. Thus, we are surrounded: God’s blessing and abundance before us, God’s goodness and mercy behind us. And above, below, and within us is the truth of God’s promise that…

I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
For ever includes right now. To dwell means not just to live, but to abide. To unpack all our boxes. To put our clothes in the drawers and fill the refrigerator. To make a home for ourselves in the palm of God’s hand. This is the witness of this beautiful poem, Psalm 23. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we have a home in our Lord’s house. We have a provider in the Good Shepherd. And we have eyes to witness, here and in the life to come, a world “charged with the grandeur of God.”


Art: Detail from “Shepherdess,” by Jean-Franc Millet (1864).
* Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur

Vessels of God’s Revelation

A reflection for the Feast of the Epiphany

starsAt the end of the season of the church year that we begin today, we find ourselves standing on the mountain with Peter, James, and John. Countless stars shine in the deep blue sky above, and we find ourselves staring up at those stars in wonder and awe. But then a new light – one that outshines the stars themselves – grows in front of us. It’s so bright that we can barely look at it, yet it commands our vision. Jesus is at the center of the light. It’s not shining on him, but forth from him. He is the light. As we gaze at him, a thought stirs in our guts: this is what Jesus looks like all the time. But in this moment, we are given the gift of seeing him as God sees him: as a luminous being that outshines the sun. We are given the gift of revelation, a sudden and surprising knowledge that we can attribute only to God. We are given the gift of epiphany.

Working backward from this event known as the Transfiguration, we read in the Gospel the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches any who would listen how to be his follower. We meet the disciples as they leave their boats and follow Jesus, as he invites them to “Come and see” where he abides. We stand on the shores of the river Jordan as Jesus comes up from the baptismal waters, and we hear the thunder call of God, within which is hidden special words for God’s beloved Son alone. And thus we backtrack to this evening, in which we hear the official story of the magi’s journey to Bethlehem.

Most often we conflate this story in the Christmas pageant, of course, but it should and does stand on its own. This is a story very much like the Transfiguration, a story of people seeing in a way that doesn’t seem normal. This group of wise people from a distant land is in tune with God’s movement throughout creation. They take upon themselves an arduous trek through the desert to Jerusalem and then to nearby Bethlehem. They find the Christ-child: so humble, so vulnerable. He’s not adorned as a king. He lives in a house, not a palace. His parents are poor. And yet, these wise people see beyond such mundane details.

They look into the heart of this situation, and they see the holy in their midst. Like Peter, James, and John witnessing their illuminated Lord on the mountain, so the magi see and celebrate the sovereignty before them. They look at the child Jesus and see the king he is.

The gift of the magi is not in their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those are mere tokens. Their gift is the ability to see beyond, to perceive the deeper, holier level of existence that most of us are blind to most of the time. They practice the ability to have epiphanies, to resonate with revelation.

You don’t have to be a wise person, a magi, to develop this spiritual resonance. Who knows how often the disciples would have seen Jesus as the luminous being he obviously was if they but trained themselves to see with the eyes of the heart? Who knows exactly what the magi saw when they looked at the young messiah?

There is so much more to see than the merely visible. There is so much that God is revealing to us each day of our lives that we miss because we are looking in the wrong direction or because we are wearing the wrong set of lenses. This is what the Feast of the Epiphany is all about – following the Magi’s example, training ourselves to see into the heart of things, to see what God is always revealing.

This is hard work, I know. God knows we often miss what’s right in front of us, let alone what’s deep within. And so God has given us the light of the world to help us see. The disciples notice the glory of this light on the mountain. The magi adore this light in the humble abode in Bethlehem. And each of us has this light shining both on us and forth from us. This is important, so I will say it again: Each of us has this light shining on us and forth from us. You and I are luminous beings in the eyes of God, like Jesus created to be bearers of God’s light to every place we go and everyone we meet. We ourselves are epiphanies. We ourselves are surprising vessels of God’s revelation.

When we take up this mantle – to be vessels of God’s revelation – we carry with us the joy of the magi as they adore the young messiah. We carry with us the wonder of the disciples as they witnessed the transfigured Jesus. And we carry with us the light of the world, which shines forth from the divine spark that God planted within each of us.

Isaiah knows this. Notice how he begins today’s reading: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Isaiah invites us both to bask in the radiance of the Lord, but also to shine ourselves. In this we are like the moon, which shines by reflecting the light of the sun.

The best way to keep your eyes open for God’s movement in this world is to shine out as a light of that same movement. The more you shine, the more your light will illuminate those things that God yearns for you to see.

As we enter the season after this Feast of the Epiphany, the light will continue to grow. This is a blessing of living in the northern hemisphere. Let the lengthening of days serve as a reminder that the light of the world is growing within you, as well. This world of ours has a way of diminishing us, and the truth we bear can fade away. But the good news is this: even just the hint of flame can keep the darkness at bay. So glow. Let your light shine through. Show the way that God sees you, as a luminous being whose light is a revelation, an epiphany, to others.