Planting a Seed

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Twenty-five years ago today, I trudged up the marble steps, past the stone lions, and into the cold church next door to my house. I think I was in fourth grade at the time. That day I got to miss the bus because that day was special. That day was Ash Wednesday.

I stepped into the nave of the church. The coughs and groans of the overworked heaters echoed off the vaulted ceiling. The church hovered in the stillness of pre-dawn, awaiting the riot of color that would dance down the chancel steps when the early morning sun reached the stained glass behind the altar. I looked around in the dim light. The nave was empty. No one had come to the early morning service. Continue reading “Planting a Seed”

Spiritual Topography

Sermon for Sunday, February 11, 2018 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9

Our spiritual lives are topographically interesting. Two of the most enduring images of walking with God are the mountain and the valley, the high place and the low. You’ve heard of the proverbial “mountain top experience,” which can spark faith for the first time or renew the well-trodden paths of faith. And you’ve prayed the immortal words of Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…thou art with me.” The mountain and the valley: these are the peaks of our spiritual lives and the troughs.

The stories of the Bible often involve such peak moments, literal ones that take place on actual mountains. Noah’s ark comes to rest in the mountains after withstanding the flood. Abraham’s faith is renewed when the Lord provides the ram for the sacrifice; Moses receives the ten commandments and speaks with God; Elijah discovers God’s presence when he’s on the run; even the holy reign of God is envisioned as a mountain – Mount Zion. The valley times are less literal in the scriptures, but still very present, especially in the book of Psalms. The poet laments of sinking into mire or drowning in the sea or falling into a deep pit or generally being unable to find God’s presence.

In the life of Jesus we see both the mountain top and the valley. He’s in the valley when praying in the garden of Gethsemane and when crying out his abandonment on the cross. Jesus preaches his most famous sermon on a mountain and commissions his disciples on a mountain. In today’s lesson, he takes his inner circle up a mountain, and there he is “transfigured before them, and his clothes become dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

In this event, Jesus gives Peter, James, and John a proverbial and literal mountain top experience, a vision that will hopefully strengthen their faith and steel their nerve for the days to come. For Jesus knows what’s about to happen in Jerusalem; his friends are going to need all the spiritual fortitude than can get. But Peter doesn’t seem to want to leave the mountain. When Moses and Elijah, two other prominent spiritual mountaineers, arrive to speak with Jesus, Peter blurts out his plan. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter doesn’t really know what to say, but his words suggest he is content to remain on that mountain top while these three great prophets set up shop. I can hear him saying, “No, no. It’s no trouble. You three, just take your time. We’re good.” I think a part of Peter – the small part designated for self-reflection – knows something is going to happen once they leave mountain. There have been rumblings. Jesus has told them his death is near, and Peter didn’t want anything to do with it. Peter knows there’s a valley awaiting him below, so he’s content to stay put on that mountain, thank you very much.

I know how Peter feels. Obviously, the mountain is so much more fun and relaxing and – hey – it’s just easier than the valley. Why would anyone want to leave? Well, for most of us it doesn’t happen on purpose. Sometimes, tragedy strikes and we’re heaved off the mountain like that page in the great children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon when Harold draws one side of the mountain, but then falls off the undrawn other side. We could be tempted into thinking this is the only way to come down from the mountaintop – that without tragedy we would get to stay up there for the long haul. But that’s not the reality of our walks with God. Most mountain tops are merely sugar rushes for the soul. We might stay up there for a little while, but inevitably we crash.

Here’s what happens to me. When I’m on a spiritual high, I’m in the most danger – for one simple reason. It’s on the mountaintop that I forget to pray. I’m really good at remembering to pray when everything’s going horribly. In the valley, prayers just bubble up from some secret well of my soul. I enter spiritual survival mode and begin frantically looking for God, only to have the walls of anxiety or fear or exhaustion limit my sight. And my prayer becomes the call of the psalmist, crying out for a God who no longer seems to be around. But on the mountaintop, things are going so great that I trick myself into thinking I don’t need to pray. Prayer is for the lean times, I tell myself, not the times of plenty.

Of course, prayer is for both the lean and plentiful times, which is why prayer includes both gratitude and petition; that is, thanking God for blessings and asking God for more blessings. But I guarantee you, I am constitutionally incapable of remembering this when I’m riding that spiritual sugar rush. I know the deficiency in my brain, but such knowledge doesn’t transfer into practice as often as it could. Like Peter, I want to stay on the mountaintop. Like Peter, I tumble back to earth.

If you’re anything like me, and you have trouble taking your spiritual life seriously when everything is going well, then I invite you to join me in a discipline. It’s a more intense variation on counting our blessings. I do that simpler level of discipline in my journal, but too often the lists become fairly homogenous and perfunctory. I simply list my blessings and forget to thank God for them. But this variation doesn’t allow such limited interaction.

Take a few moments to look at the current state of your life. Orient yourself on the topographical map of your walk with God. Where are you in relation to your most recent valley? If you know that you are no longer in the valley, force yourself to do more than think about or list your blessings. Rather than an amorphous abstraction you call “blessing,” separate each small blessing into individual shimmering lights of grace. Write each one down. Then thank God for the blessings individually, and be creative. Thank God not just in thought but via action. If your blessing is having enough food, go feed someone who is starving. If your blessing is living near the ocean, go stomp around in the shallows (though you may want to wait until summer for this one). If your blessing is being a member of a loving family, go tell them how much they mean to you. If your blessing is simply the song in your heart, go sing.

This discipline will not guarantee a return to the mountain nor a vaccine against the valley, but it will keep our prayer lives more consistent and more active. If we only pray when we enter survival mode, we condition ourselves into thinking that survival is prayer’s only function. But it’s not true. God invites us into prayerful relationships at every stage of life and state of being: on the mountaintop, in the valley, and everywhere in between. This morning I feel blessed to be here with you, preaching this sermon. And I close today praying my gratitude, acting out this wonderful blessing. Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to speak the words you have placed on my heart. Thank you for these people who listen: for ears to hear and hearts to love. Thank you, Lord for this blessing. Amen.

The Whole City

Sermon for Sunday, February 4, 2018 || Epiphany 5B || Mark 1:29-39

There’s a certain line in this morning’s Gospel lesson, and I can’t decide whether it is hyperbole or not. “That evening, at sundown,” Mark tells us, “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” The whole city. Archaeologists tell us the city of Capernaum had a population of about fifteen hundred in Jesus’ day, so imagine a group larger than the student body of Fitch High School crowding around one house on a quiet side street near the sea. “The whole city was gathered around the door.”

Now you might be wondering why I’m harping on about this rather innocuous verse, and I’ll admit it has stuck in my craw this week. To be honest, reading about this whole city gathering around Jesus made me sad and wistful. Imagining this great throng trying to get near this wonderful source of healing made me long for a return to another time in the history of our little piece of the world.

You see, back in colonial times and stretching even into the first decades of the United States, towns in the state of Connecticut were not recognized as such until they boasted a congregational church located on their greens. In those days, the church was the meeting space for the town. It served as local government as well. Every Sunday, the whole town would show up for worship. It’s just what you did.

My favorite high school teacher ran an exercise in a United States history class, in which we built a colonial town based on the occupations of our parents. Some students lived in town, others in farms on the outskirts. And I remember feeling perhaps a little bit too proud that I got to live in the center of town, right next to the church because my father was the pastor.

You might remind me that currently I do live in the center of Mystic because I’m the pastor, but the Connecticut of 2018 bears little resemblance to that of colonial times. According to a 2016 Pew Foundation study, Connecticut is the fifth least religious state in the country. Want to know the four we beat? Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.*

They brought to him all who were sick…and the whole city gathered around the door. That doesn’t happen anymore. We don’t live in the world were the whole town turns out for church, and people go check on you if you miss, just in case you fell down the well or something. According to Pew, just over a quarter of Connecticut residents attend worship weekly. Seventy-two percent of our neighbors are home sipping orange juice and watching Meet the Press.

And yet here we are. Why?

Because we found something. Or better yet, something found us. Someone said,  “Follow me,” and we did. And we discovered that such following was so much more fruitful when done together. Whereas our ancestors went to church because it’s what they did, we come here because we have made church a priority in our lives. Our lives are enriched because of our participation in God’s mission in this place. And that enrichment ripples out from us and touches everyone we meet.

My wistful desire to return to the colonial model of church got me thinking: besides the fact that you all pay me, why do I come? Why is church, and by extension, living out my relationship with God among you, a priority? Four main reasons spring to mind.

First, this is a place of worship. The other three reasons I will list could be fulfilled by other organizations, but not this one, which makes worship the church’s primary responsibility. Worship simultaneously grounds us and elevates us. Worship connects us intentionally to the Foundation of all existence. Such connection keeps us grounded: granting peace in the maelstrom of activity that tends to rule our days; lending perspective when we begin to think of ourselves as either more or less than we truly are; and steadying us with the gift of fundamental identity – that of God’s beloved children. At the same time, worship lifts our spirits, as God’s very presence draws praise and adoration forth from us. Thus we exist between the depths and the heights of God’s love, ever wrapped and enfolded by the One we worship.

Second, this is a place of community. While we have many other communal outlets we could and do attend, church is special. Nowhere else do so many generations rub shoulders. Think about that. Can you come up with another institution where a teenager and an unrelated great-grandmother might sit and share together? Nowhere else do people gather who have such diverse interests and skills. Most community groups meet around a specific affinity or passion, but we come together simply because we are God’s children seeking to follow God’s Son. I have learned so much from so many people because their life experiences differ so widely from mine.

Third, this is a place of service. Our God is a God of mission and so we are a people on a mission. Indeed, throughout scripture, God holds up caring for the orphan and widow as the ruler by which God’s people will be measured. They were the most vulnerable in their society, and by extension, God calls us to care for the most vulnerable in our own. Several of our newer parishioners have told me that they were excited to come to St. Mark’s because of our partnership with St. Luc in Haiti. They saw the God of mission active here, as indeed God is. The God of mission is alive in Haiti, as well. Did you know that the vast majority of schools in Haiti are attached to churches? Education is their mission, and we are partners in it.

Fourth (and lastly for today, but certainly this is not an exhaustive list), this is a place of both solace and celebration. In this place, we mark the passage of our lives: birth, baptism, marriage, death, and all the sad and joyful moments in between. We love hard here even at times when it is hard to love: when tragedy strikes, when pain is near, when grief drains the light from our eyes. When someone is given a terminal diagnosis, we are there. When someone goes through a divorce, we are there. When someone loses a child or a parent, we are there. We are there bearing witness to the God of love, who moves through both tragedy and triumph. We are there praying and embracing and sitting silently in the next chair in the hospital room.

At its best, the church is a truly wonderful place of worship, community, service, solace and celebration. After reciting this list, I no longer wish for the colonial days of compulsory attendance. I wish only for the grace to show others by my words and actions what I have found and what has found me.


Live Deep, Live Wide

Sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2018 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28

One of the enduring images of my childhood is my father never taking off his cross necklace. He wore that cross under his clothes close to his heart. He wore it (and still wears it) all the time: while sleeping, while exercising, even while showering. I can see him in my mind’s eye at the beach wearing just swim trunks and a three-inch by two-inch piece of silver metal.

I wanted to be like him so badly that I asked for a cross of my own to wear. So my parents gave me one for my birthday when I was about fourteen or fifteen. I tried to wear it all the time like my dad, but the chain would chafe my neck while I slept, so I took it off at night, and sometimes I’d forget to put it back on. It was against the rules to wear jewelry on the soccer field, so off came the cross then too. I lost it in the depths of my car for a few months my senior year of high school. Then one day during my first semester of college the chain broke, and I lost the cross for good. I had wanted to wear the cross to be like my dad, but I had failed. He never took his off, never lost it.
Continue reading “Live Deep, Live Wide”

Positive Presence

Sermon for Sunday, January 21, 2018 || Epiphany 3B || Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

Each day, a thousand different choices confront us. Most are easy to navigate, and we do so without much thought. We might not even think of these as choices because we’ve made the correct choice so often that the incorrect one fades away. What do you do when you approach a stop sign? You stop, right? But there’s a hidden choice here. You could stop. You could choose to blow through the stop sign without even slowing down. Or you could perform the infamous rolling stop that got me caught twice by traffic cops when I was sixteen. Continue reading “Positive Presence”

You Are My Child (2018)

For the sermon this Sunday, I spoke about belovedness for about five minutes and then sang the following song, which I wrote back in 2013. I had been wanting to share it with my parish (I wrote it at my previous church) and this was the perfect opportunity. The words of the song are below the video. (You can hear the rest of the sermon in the audio file above.) Continue reading “You Are My Child (2018)”

The Uniqueness of the Incarnation

Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017 || The Eve of the Feast of the Nativity || Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14

Imagine the scene in your mind’s eye: Mary collapses in the hay, her body racked with the utter exhaustion of labor. Joseph wraps the newborn in cloth he has ripped from his own traveling cloak and kisses his son’s eyes clean of the life-giving fluids of the womb. The baby boy tests out his lungs, and the shrill shriek of new life startles the placid animals dozing in their stalls. Mary beckons Joseph to hand her the baby, which he does – reluctantly. She places the naked infant on her own bare brown skin, and he inches his way to her milk, an impossible crawl for one so new, but he manages it just the same. Joseph watches, rapt with awe and wonder. The wild star burning bright in the night sky, the echoes of angels’ song – neither could compare to the beauty of the newborn, this treasure Mary holds to her breast.

Christus Natus Est. Christ is born. Continue reading “The Uniqueness of the Incarnation”

Dona Nobis Pacem

Sermon for Sunday, December 10, 2017 || Advent 2B || Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

The second semester of my sophomore year of college, the choir of Sewanee performed in concert an extraordinary piece of music that I bet most of you have never heard of. The Dona Nobis Pacem by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is a work for choir, soloists, and orchestra in a similar vein as something like Handel’s Messiah but with a more eclectic text. The words of the Dona Nobis Pacem come from the Bible, a political speech, the church service, and the poetry of nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. Written in 1936 as fascism was on the rise in Europe, Vaughan Williams work acknowledges the horror and heartbreak of war even as it cries out for peace. Dona nobis pacem: give us peace.

Now, the choirmaster at Sewanee, Dr. Robert Delcamp, programmed the music for the entire school year the summer beforehand. So he could never have known what would happen the same week we sang our song of peace. It was the spring of 2003: Shock and Awe, the bombing of Baghdad, the beginning of the Iraq War. And here we were, a little choir at a little college, tucked away on a mountaintop in Tennessee, singing our plaintive cry for peace while the drums of war sounded both within the music and out in the world. Continue reading “Dona Nobis Pacem”

Awareness and Thanksgiving

Sermon for Sunday, December 3, 2017 || Advent 1B || 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Today I’d like to talk about the correlation between awareness and thanksgiving. The theme of awareness comes from the Gospel lesson, and the theme of thanksgiving comes from the reading from Paul. Taken together, we can see a deeper truth as to how giving thanks helps keep us aware, as Jesus urges. This sermon began percolating when I was getting ready for the service on Thanksgiving Day, so a few of you heard parts of it that day. But before I get to the correlation between awareness and thanksgiving, I want to tell you about the bedtime ritual at home.

It goes something like this. Right after dinner, at 6:30 in the evening, we take the twins upstairs and brush teeth. Then we have bath time until 6:45. Then jammies and stories. And then we say our “gratefuls.” What are you grateful for today? As you might expect, the children’s answers run the gamut from the silly to the profound, but what you might not expect is that every night they turn the question back around on me. If I don’t answer, they will let me know it. “Daddy, what are you grateful for?” Continue reading “Awareness and Thanksgiving”

The Widow’s Note

Sermon for Sunday, November 26, 2017 || Reign of Christ, Year A || Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

About two months ago, I got a call from one of the nearby care facilities. An elderly man, whom I had never met, was actively dying, and the staff member on the phone asked if I could come over and pray with him. Now I wish my first thought was, “Yes, of course, I’d be honored.” To be honest, it was one of those days. I was on the run from here to there doing a million things, none of them very attentively because there was so much to do. So my second thought was, “I’ll go if I can squeeze in another visit.” After all, the man wasn’t one of my parishioners, not one of my flock.

Thankfully, a third thought bubbled up from my gut, from that place within that you listen to because you’re pretty sure the thought originated from someone other than yourself. The third thought was a simple imperative: “Go.” I got in my car and drove to the care center. The staff directed me to the room where I found the unconscious man and his wife sitting vigil next to him. Their adult children were on the way, but she wasn’t sure they would make it on time. She and I chatted for awhile about their life together, the blessing of his long years, the pain in seeing him move towards death. Continue reading “The Widow’s Note”