Take My Yoke Upon You: The Examen (part 2 of 2)

Sermon for Sunday, July 16, 2017

I began this two-part sermon last week talking about our partnership with God in Christ; how Jesus’ invitation to “take his yoke” upon us is an invitation to plow the field with him, walking alongside each other. If you’re anything like me, you find this invitation easier to accept during terrible and tumultuous times, and you lay aside the yoke during the mundane dailiness of life. I closed last week’s sermon asking these questions: How much more meaningful would our lives be if we invited God to be present in those mundane times: to be part of the washing up and the lawn mowing and the daily commute? To be part of studying for a test and eating dinner and jogging? How much more often would we notice God already at work in the world around us if we invited God to be at work in the world within us?

This noticing happens when we pay attention. And when we pay attention we discover God is already at work in our lives whether or not we sent the invitation. I’d like to take the rest of this sermon to introduce you to a spiritual practice I have been using for the past eleven years in order to remain attentive. It is called the Ignatian Examen, a daily introspective prayer of awareness derived from the work and witness of 16th century Saint Ignatius Loyola. Continue reading “Take My Yoke Upon You: The Examen (part 2 of 2)”

Take My Yoke Upon You (part 1 of 2)

Sermon for Sunday, July 9, 2017 || Proper 9A || Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There’s an old bumper sticker that reads, “God is my co-pilot.” Have you ever seen that one? The intent of this sticker is in the right place, but the problem with this particular sentiment is that it makes me the pilot. I’m still in control. I’m in charge of takeoffs and landings, even though my co-pilot God is surely better at both than I am. And so another bumper sticker came along that reads, “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats.” I’m pretty sure one of the reasons God called me to be a priest is to help me because I’m really bad at this seat-switching business.

God wasn’t even on my plane for a long time. Maybe God was in the air traffic control tower making sure I didn’t crash, but that’s as close as I would allow God to come. After all, the church had burned my family when I was a kid, and I associated God with church, so why would I let God aboard? Continue reading “Take My Yoke Upon You (part 1 of 2)”

Green and Growing

Pentecost and Youth Sunday combined at St. Mark’s, and we had a graduating senior give the homily, so no sermon from me today. Instead, here’s an article about the season following Pentecost. It is an update to a piece I wrote many years ago for Episcopal Cafe.

Every February of my college years, the entire student body suffered from a mass case of seasonal affective disorder. The campus of Sewanee is one of the top five most beautiful spots on the planet, but the beauty of the Domain was difficult to appreciate during that dreadful month. What neophytes mistook for simple fog, veterans of Sewanee winters knew was in reality a low-hanging raincloud that hovered over the campus, sapping students of the will to do anything besides curl up under a blanket and nap. The weather lasted for weeks, and when the sun finally broke through the clinging barrier, we students discovered our vigor once again, as if by some sudden leap in evolution, we had developed the ability to photosynthesize. Continue reading “Green and Growing”

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?