The God-Fountain

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

One of my favorite American poets, James Weldon Johnson, opens his book God’s Trombones with a poetic prayer, which begins like this:

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
O Lord—this morning—
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come this morning—
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord—open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.* Continue reading “The God-Fountain”

A Meditation on the Priestly Prayer

Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2017 || Feast of the Holy Name || Numbers 6:22-27

On this day the Western World calls “New Year’s” and the church calls the “Feast of the Holy Name,” I can think of nothing more appropriate than to have read God’s blessing delivered through Moses in the book of Numbers. Moses then gave it to his brother Aaron the priest, who spoke these words as a special priestly blessing:

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

These are familiar words, so familiar in fact that we probably don’t even realize they come from the Bible. In the Episcopal tradition, we hear them when we gather around a grave and bid our loved ones farewell. We hear these words in the context of death and resurrection; they are a promise and a hope for new life in closer communion with God beyond the gate of death.

But this morning, on the feast of the Holy Name and New Year’s Day, we hear them in a different context. These words are not just for those who have died; they are for us, as well. So this morning, I’d like to continue the sermon as a meditation on this priestly blessing. Continue reading “A Meditation on the Priestly Prayer”

The Best Christmas Pageant Never (A New Christmas Pageant Script)

Performed at St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT on Sunday, December 18, 2016

In an homage to the preferred story-telling method of one of my writing heroes, Aaron Sorkin, this new Christmas pageant takes place during a rehearsal for a traditional Christmas pageant. Over the course of the play, the traditional elements of the pageant get untangled from each other and we distill the stories as told by Matthew and Luke. Continue reading “The Best Christmas Pageant Never (A New Christmas Pageant Script)”

Halfway Out of the Dark

On the Effects of the Planet’s Axis on Religion
and a few words about the season of Advent

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:3-4)

As we move through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, the fact that Christianity is a religion begun in the northern hemisphere becomes incredibly obvious. Advent begins in the darkest days of the year when the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. The days are short and getting shorter. But a few days before Christmas, the shortest day of the year happens, and everything turns around. The BBC’s Dr. Who opines that we celebrate because, “We’re halfway out of the dark.” Continue reading “Halfway Out of the Dark”

The Long Prayer

Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2015 || Proper 27B || Mark 12:38-44

thelongprayerI’ve been preparing recently for Confirmation class, which begins later today. We have four tenth and eleventh graders and their sponsors ready to begin a five-month journey through their faith: learning, discussing, sharing stories. The next time the bishop visits, these four will have the opportunity to make a mature profession of faith if they so desire, and I am really excited to get to walk with them these next several months. Because I’ve had Confirmation on my mind, I’ve been thinking and rethinking some of the “nuts and bolts” of the way we express our faith as Episcopalians. Every once in a while, I like to preach on these “nuts and bolts” because in my job I get asked the same dozen or so questions about our practice all the time, and exploring such questions can help us all deepen our engagement in worship and in mission.

One of these questions has to do with the second half of our Sunday service – Holy Communion in particular. “What is Holy Communion,” I am often asked, “and why do you say such a long prayer right before it?” The second half of this question hit me again this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson, in which Jesus takes the scribes to task for all sorts of things – a few of which struck a little close to home.

“Beware of the scribes,” says Jesus, “who like to walk around in long robes” (looks down at self wearing an alb and chasuble) “and to be greeted with respect in the market-places” (not many people have the definite article at the beginning of their title, but priests do – ‘the Reverend Adam Thomas’) “and to have the best seats in the synagogues” (I guarantee you my chair is more comfortable than yours – look at that cushion!) “and places of honor at banquets” (Okay, okay, finally something that’s not true – as long as I have a lefty seat at the corner of the table, I’m good). “They devour widows’ houses” (All right, moving further away, this is good) “and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (gulps).

For the sake of appearance say long prayers. We say a lot of long prayers on Sunday morning, and one in particular is longer than all the others put together: the Eucharistic prayer. We haven’t gotten to it yet this morning, since it happens later in the service. You’ll know when we arrive at the Eucharistic prayer because I will be standing behind the altar when we start it. So Jesus indicts the scribes on six different issues, and by my count I’m guilty of three, innocent of two, and the final one is pending. For the sake of appearance, they say long prayers. I can’t dispute that the Eucharistic prayer is long – most graces before a meal don’t last five minutes. So to break even on these six charges, I have to prove that I don’t pray this prayer for “the sake of appearance.”

Before I start my defense, you need to know I’m not the only one implicated in this. You all are co-conspirators. At the beginning of the prayer you and I share a short dialogue, right? (The Lord be with you. And also with you. And so on…). In this dialogue, I ask your permission to pray on your behalf, and you grant it when you say, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” So that’s the first thing to remember: even though I’m the one talking, we’re all praying this Eucharistic prayer together.

Now that you have joined the defendant’s side of this indictment with me, let’s explore this question: If not for appearance, why then do we pray such a long and involved prayer before receiving Communion? My answer is this: we are part of God’s story. We nurture our faith when we take time each week to locate ourselves in this great story. And when we locate ourselves in the story, we realize that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the story is still being told. And when we have this realization, we give thanks to God for our participation in God’s story through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

Now I know that was a pretty dense answer, so let’s unpack it a little bit. First, we locate ourselves in the story by praying, “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself.” We fell away from you, but you gave us another chance by sending your Son. We and Us. Not They and Them. This story is about us. We don’t deserve mercy, but God doesn’t care one lick whether or not we deserve it. And that’s called grace.

With this grace emboldening us, we then fulfill Jesus’ request made at his last supper with his friends when he took bread and broke it. But notice that when I narrate the breaking of the bread, I don’t actually break it. Not yet. I break the bread later for the utilitarian purpose of sharing it. The reason I don’t break the bread when Jesus does is because I am not standing in for Jesus. And we are not reenacting the Last Supper. This is important, so listen up. We are not reenacting the Last Supper; we are participating in it. There has only been one Last Supper, and we were there. We are there each time we partake of Christ’s Body and Blood. We are there with everyone who has ever received the sacrament. We are there with the great cloud of witnesses that we invoke later in the prayer. We are there as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. Thus, the broken bread makes us whole: one body in Christ made up of many members, each supporting the others in worship, love, and service.

That’s why we invite the Holy Spirit to fill the bread and wine with the presence of Christ: not simply to remember what Christ did, but to participate in what Christ is doing. The story is not over yet. The Bible might be finished, but the story continues – God’s story of making, redeeming, and sustaining this little Creation of God’s. When you come to the altar rail and put out your hands, you signal your fervent desire to participate in this great story. In the Eucharistic prayer, we tell the story together, and in the telling and in the sharing we take on our role as the characters in the current chapter. We are the people to whom Christ offers his Body and Blood in order that we might both feel closer to him and feel strengthened to serve. We are the people enlivened by this precious nourishment. We are the people with a story to tell.

And that’s why we give thanks. The Eucharistic prayer is a prayer of Great Thanksgiving: thanksgiving for God’s mercy and grace; thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice and sustenance; thanksgiving for the Holy Spirit’s presence and empowerment. We give thanks that we are a part of the story. And it is quite a story. I don’t know about you, but a five-minute praying of the story seems downright short when you realize all that it entails. But of course, we don’t tell the story just once a week for five minutes on a Sunday. We tell the story each day of our lives.

We don’t pray this long prayer just for the sake of appearance. We pray this long prayer to give thanks for our part in God’s great story. And then we receive Holy Communion to strengthen and nourish us to continue telling that story together.

Action Verbs

Sermon for Sunday, August 30, 2015 || Proper 17 || James 1:17-27

actionverbsMy tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Lewis, disliked linking verbs – passionately disliked linking verbs. She disliked linking verbs so much that she would count the number of times we students used the words “is” and “was” (and all the others) in our papers and deduct points if we exceeded more than one or two per paragraph. She nursed a particular vendetta against the word “become,” if memory serves. Do you know how hard it is to write a paper with next to no linking verbs? (I just used one in the last sentence, and you probably didn’t even notice.) Now we students grumbled about this strict grading procedure every time we wrote an essay, but Mrs. Lewis stuck to her guns. And God love her for it, because I count Mrs. Lewis as one of the teachers that made me the writer I am today. (Dang! I just used another linking verb.)

By forcing us to use action verbs, Mrs. Lewis taught us to make our essays hum with energy and movement. I remember editing my papers to ferret out every last linking verb and trying to shove as much action as I could into them. The sentence “The Lord of the Flies is a book about the aftermath of a plane crash” changed to “In The Lord of Flies, boys survive a plane crash, but not each other.” Sounds like a movie trailer right? That’s what Mrs. Lewis was pushing for – pulsing, active writing from a group of tenth graders who didn’t really care that much.

I think Mrs. Lewis had a little bit of the Apostle James in her, judging by his letter tucked away near the back of the New Testament, a portion of which we just read. “Be doers of the word,” says James, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Be doers of the word. Use action verbs in your life. The Word of God is not just words on the pages of a dusty book on the shelf. The Word of God rushes up off those pages and implants in our hearts. The Word of God propels us to get ourselves off the couch and do something. Be doers of the word.

Throughout his somewhat labyrinthine prose, James hammers on this point again and again. At the end of today’s passage, James offers a rare moment of succinct clarity: true religion, he says, “is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James uses action verbs: care for the marginalized, and keep yourself clean, unsullied by the misplaced priorities of the world.

In a few moments, we will stand up and say a host of action verbs, as well. We will affirm our Baptismal Covenant, standing with the soon-to-be-baptized and renewing the actions that our baptismal life compels us to do. I know many of you were baptized long before the Baptismal Covenant was even written, but I hope since its publishing in 1979 you have come to adopt it as your own. The Baptismal Covenant is the Episcopal Church’s own rare moment of succinct clarity, like James’s caring for orphans and widows. The Covenant begins with belief – an adapted version of the Apostles’ Creed – and then moves on to five promises that this belief stirs us to act upon.

Mrs. Lewis would like these five promises. There’s not a linking verb to be found. Every verb in these five promises propels us to act.

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” The verb “continue” assumes these actions of learning, sharing, and praying have always been ongoing. These actions have persisted since the time of the apostles, and we are stepping into the ever-flowing stream of their legacy. This first promise invites us to join a movement already in progress and lend it our hands and voice and heart.

The second promise: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” The verb “persevere” speaks to the weariness that creeps in while we resist evil. Evil wears us down, preferring not to strike all at once, but rather to gnaw on us while we’re not looking, until we do look one day and find there’s nothing left. But we promise to persevere and to repent and return to God when we do fall into sin. Notice we don’t say “if” we fall into sin. We say “when,” which is why God always leaves open to us the actions of repenting and returning.

The third promise: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” The verb “proclaim” urges much more than mere speaking. We’re talking about shouting from the rooftops here; we’re talking about putting your whole self forward, staking a claim, taking a stand, making your words line up with your actions. That’s proclamation. And what are we proclaiming? The Good News of God in Christ – I can’t think of anything worthier of such a strong verb as “proclaim.”

The fourth promise: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Seek, serve, love – this is the heart of our duty and our joy as followers of Jesus Christ. If you take this promise seriously, you soon realize just how hard it is to embody. But Jesus never said being his follower would be easy. He said it would bring life – abundant life to each follower and each person his followers touch.

The fifth promise: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The verb “strive” is like the verb “persevere.” It reminds us that we will never be done working for justice and peace. There is no happily-ever-after this side of heaven. But perhaps in the daily working for justice, we move an inch closer than we were before: a quarter teaspoon more fairness stirs into the mix, a splash more peace, and that’s all we can do for today. And it all starts simply by respecting everyone’s dignity, looking each person in the eye and saying, “We’re all in this together.”

In response to each promise, we say, “I will, with God’s help.” We acknowledge that we can take none of these actions without God’s patient urging and steadfast partnership. Our baptism is not just a symbolic act of washing and welcome. Our baptism catalyzes a life of action. With God’s help, we continue in learning, sharing, and praying. We persevere in resisting evil. We repent and return to the Lord. We proclaim the Good News. We seek, serve, and love Christ in others. We strive for justice and peace. We respect all people.

I wonder which of these actions captures you today? I wonder which action compels you to leave this church today on fire to do it? I wonder what rare moment of succinct clarity you hear from God this day? Each of us is a doer of the word. So go with God: learn, share, pray, persevere, repent, proclaim, seek, serve, love, strive, respect. Each of us is a doer of the word. So go with God. Do.

12 Moments: An Instructed Eucharist

At St. Mark’s on Sunday, June 7th, we did an “Instructed Eucharist.” At four points during the service, we paused and I talked us through what was coming up. I based the instruction on something I wrote a few years ago and revised last week called 12 Moments: Reflections for an Instructed Eucharist. What I said during the service was a very abridged version of this pamphlet. Then I handed the full pamphlet out to folks at the end of the service. You can download the pamphlet by clicking the image below or clicking here.


Say “Yes”: A Christmas Pageant

Performed at St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT on Sunday, December 21, 2014

SayYesThis version of the Christmas pageant employs two sets of main characters, one younger and one older. The older versions sit on stools flanking the main action. They stand up to deliver their monologues. During the monologues the younger versions pantomime the action and speak at the end of each speech.



Before the universe existed, there was God. There was no time and no space, but there was God. Then God spoke and Creation came to be. One of the things God created was freedom, which was the ability to say “yes” or “no” of your own free will and not be compelled to answer one way or the other. God yearned with all of God’s heart that the Creation God made would say “yes” to a deep relationship with God its creator. But more often than not, parts of that Creation said, “No.” People said, “No.” We said, “No.”

Saying “No” to relationship with God led people down some dark paths. They dominated each other instead of serving each other in love. Fear ruled the day. And yet God did not give up. God decided to send God’s own Son into this wayward Creation to show us the path back to the God who never broke the relationship like we had done. All God needed was someone to say, “Yes.”

Scene 1: The Annunciation

While the OLDER MARY speaks her monologue, YOUNGER MARY and GABRIEL pantomime their conversation.


Until that day, nothing had ever happened to me. I grew up like everyone else in my town. I worked my father’s farm with my brothers and sisters. I watched the sun set. I watched the sun rise. That was life. Even getting engaged to be married to Joseph was just another day. It was expected. I always did what was expected.

Then Gabriel appeared to me, and every day since has been more unexpected than the last. He told me not to be afraid, but there was no need. His presence wasn’t frightening. It was exciting. From the moment he spoke, I felt a quickening in my gut, a hum, a desire finally to discover the person I longed to be.

The angel told me of the son I would have, the heir of David’s throne, the flesh and blood of the Most High God. It all sounded impossible. But Gabriel said nothing is impossible for God. I thought for a moment: I’ve never done anything in my life. I’ve never been anywhere. I’m not special in any way. Why would God choose me?

And that’s when it hit me. God chose me because God knew I would say…



Scene 2: Joseph’s Dream


Mary said, “Yes,” to the angel. She said, “Yes,” to God’s dream for her life, and that dream became a reality. And as the dream was growing inside her, the angel made another stop.

YOUNGER JOSEPH is fast asleep when GABRIEL stands over him pantomiming speaking.


My namesake was a great interpreter of dreams. He saved Egypt during a seven-year famine. He saved his own family, too. I always wondered what it would be like to have that kind of gift. Then one night I found out. My dream didn’t need interpretation, however, because the angel stood before me plain as day, and when he spoke, the words tasted true.

Everyone around me, society at large, even my own father, urged me to get rid of Mary, to dismiss her quietly so as not to cause a fuss. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then the angel told me why. Somehow I knew, even before the angel told me, that the child was special. I didn’t have the words to describe the way I felt until the angel called my son, “Emmanuel.”

GABRIEL departs, and YOUNGER JOSEPH rises from sleep. He join YOUNGER MARY and puts his hand on her pregnant belly.


Yes, the joy I felt came from that place, that place of nearness. When I looked at Mary and felt the baby kick, I knew…


God is with us.

Scene 3: Arrival in Bethlehem

As the NARRATOR speaks, YOUNGER MARY and YOUNGER JOSEPH make their way to Bethlehem.


Mary spent the first few months of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth. But as the time drew near for the baby to be born, the Empire called for a counting of all the people in their territories. Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to be registered because his ancestors hailed from there. Mary went with him.


The waves of pain began weeks before Jesus was born. At first I thought I was going into labor, but Elizabeth assured me it was normal. I learned to live with them, even though they got worse as the day drew near. But that first night in Bethlehem, a different pain hit me, and I knew it was time.

YOUNGER MARY AND YOUNGER JOSEPH pantomime the story being told: breaking into the room, being surrounded by ANIMALS.


In desperation, I broke into the backroom of a house to get us out of the cold. The owner’s animals were huddled there. It stunk to high heaven, but at least it was warm. When Mary started to cry out in pain, I thought that we were done for, that the people of the house would drive us back into the night.

The FARMER comes in with a rake. Then the MIDWIFE enters.


But they didn’t. The farmer came in brandishing a threshing rake, but he took in what was happening right away and called for his wife. We asked if we could stay, and she said, “Yes.” Turns out she was a midwife. What a blessing from God. Joseph was beside himself. He didn’t know what to do. But she calmed him down, directed him.


She put a blanket in my hands and guided them.


One last thunderous wave of pain washed through me, and then…

YOUNGER JOSEPH holds the BABY JESUS in his arms.


I held my son Jesus in my arms. I held God. And I knew God was holding me.

Scene 4: The Shepherds

The SHEPHERDS and SHEEP cluster in the center aisle.


The light of the world shining from the baby wasn’t the only light shining that night. In the fields outside Bethlehem, dawn seemed to be breaking impossibly early.

The ANGELS and GABRIEL stand on the first pew and pantomime talking to the SHEPHERDS.


The light grew slowly at first, so we didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But then the field was awash in brilliance. It was like an eclipse in reverse. But what I remember more than the light was the song. The angels sang a song of peace. Of peace! How could you sing a song of peace in such a war-torn age? And yet that is what they did.

The SHEPHERDS and SHEEP walk to the Nativity scene and join it. The ANGELS gather around behind the Nativity scene.

We went to find the One of whom the angels sang. And we found him in the dirt, among the animals just like my own children were born. The song of the angels rang in my mind and I sang it for the baby, a lullaby of peace for the Prince of Peace. And I knew he was one of us. And he was here…


To make us more like him.

Scene 5: The Magi

The MAGI begin their trek slowly from one side aisle of the church around the back and up the other side aisle. At the side of the church near the lectern, the MAGI meet HEROD, who pantomimes a conversation.


Not only did Jesus’ own people seek him out. Immigrants from a far off land arrived guided by a star in the heavens. They first met King Herod in Jerusalem, but they knew Herod was not the king they sought.

The MAGI move to the main group and present their gifts.


We had been searching the stars for a sign of the One who was to come. And when we found the celestial body streaking westward we knew we had to follow. We didn’t know where it would lead. What we didn’t expect, though, was for it to lead us not only across the desert, but deeper into our own hearts. When we met our true King the first time, we felt the inadequacy of the gifts we had brought – the gold, the frankincense, the myrrh. The infant gazes at us, into us, into our hearts. And we knew the gift he truly wanted. And so I gave him not just a box of gold…


I gave him myself.




And so God sent God’s only Son to teach people to use their freedom to remain open to God, to say “Yes” to that deep relationship. A few decades later, he would die for his convictions. But then he rose again to show that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.


So when you are searching for God…


Know that God is always with us…


And when the Prince of Peace calls to you…


Say “Yes.”

*  *  *

The Players

(*=tiny speaking part; **=big speaking part)

Little Children

MAGI x3 (1*)


*Artwork: detail from “Birth of Christ” by Antoine Pesne (1745)

A Thanksgiving Day Meditation

harvestcrossI would like to lead you in a guided meditation for the next several minutes. This meditation is about various aspects of thanksgiving, of gratitude. We will give thanks for things that have always been and things that have never been; we’ll give thanks for the past and the future; we’ll give thanks to God, who is always showering upon us reasons to be thankful. So I invite you to close your eyes, get as comfortable as you can without falling asleep, and take a few deep breaths.


Dinner at a new restaurant. Seeing old friends. Getting my slippers out of storage. I have given thanks for each of these things in recent days, and each has been something new – a change from an earlier condition or a recent addition to the world at large.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me giving thanks for new things or for things that have recently changed takes up most of gratitude time. The new things jump out at us. They vie for our attention. The things that have always been there remain in the background, quietly making our lives comfortable or joyful or meaningful. Because the things that have always been don’t call attention to themselves, we fail to give thanks to God for them as often as we should.

For the next few moments, I invite you to think of something that you can’t remember doing without: it can be as basic as breath or your dog’s earnest affection. It can be the simple fact that you’ve always had clean clothes in your drawers or a hot meal on the table. Think of something you’ve never given thanks for because it has silently endured throughout your life, never calling attention to itself and never failing to make your life better. Give thanks to God for this something-that-has-always-been.


Now we’ll take a look at the opposite – thanking God for things that have never been. This type of gratitude is possibly even more difficult than the previous kind because it involves stepping into other people’s shoes in order to appreciate your gifts and blessings.

When we stand in another’s shoes, we gain the capacity for perspective. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see things when you’re right up close to them and seeing them from the same angle you always do. To give thanks for something you’ve never had, you might need to view your life from that other perspective. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because diseases that have affected people all over the world for hundreds of years won’t affect you because you were inoculated as a baby. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because you’ve never known a time when your stomach was so empty for so long that you forgot how to be hungry. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because every time you slept outside in your life, you did so because you chose to – and you always had s’mores as the campfire died down.

For the next few moments, I invite you to think of something you’ve never experienced, something you don’t want to experience because it is unhealthy or degrading or worse. Now thank God that this thing has never happened to you. But don’t stop there. Recognize that the thing-that-has-never-been always is happening somewhere in the world – maybe next door, or a few blocks away, or across an ocean. How can you help make that thing change from an always is to a never again?


Sometimes, blessings are hidden within moments of our past that sure didn’t seem like blessings at the time. When we were living through those times, we never expected to give thanks for them one day. But what we forget is that God doesn’t comprehend our lives in the limited linear fashion that we do. God, I think, comprehends our lives as a whole – not as a series of events. We view our lives as though flipping through the pages of a magazine, one to the next. God sees our lives as collages, in which all the pages are pasted together.

So for the next few moments, I invite you to give thanks for something in your past that didn’t seem like a cause for gratitude at the time. Reflect on how this event fits into the overarching narrative of your life. What did you learn from it? How did God support you as you went through it? What do you know now that God knew then?


When we take the long view of events in our pasts, we find the ability to thank God for difficult and challenging times that have led our lives in directions we never imagined. This sort of gratitude accomplishes more than simple thanks to God. By acknowledging that we have no idea how our lives are going to turn out, we practice humility in the face of the expansive unknown that we benignly call “future.”

So for our final few moments, I invite you to give thanks for the vast expanse of possibility the future holds. This sort of thanksgiving is the birthplace of hope – which is the willing expectation that the boundaries of possibility are far wider than we perceive. So give thanks to God for possibility, for newness, for adventure. And then take a step with God into the untamed wilderness that is tomorrow, knowing all the while that God has already explored this jungle and will lead you through.


The next time you go to the table at your church to celebrate the Great Thanksgiving – better known by its Greek name “Eucharist” – I invite you to hold onto these things for which you have given thanks. As you receive the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, offer your thanksgivings back to God. And in the exchange, know that God is always and forever giving thanks for you.

Ten Things I’ve Learned About Preaching

pulpitThis post also appears on here.

I recently realized something that astounds me: this summer I passed the century mark for sermons preached. Since my first incoherent ramblings about the Letter to the Hebrews during a Homiletics class in seminary to the sermon I’m giving this Sunday, the Holy Spirit (along with my mentors and parishioners) have taught me so much about the craft of preaching. As I look toward the horizon of my next hundred sermons, I’d like to share with you ten things I’ve learned during the first hundred.

1. More than anything, preaching a sermon is an act of trust. I have discovered that the sermons I think are home runs don’t generate nearly as much “press” as the ones that I think are only okay. But every time I give what I think is a mediocre sermon, multiple people come up to me afterwards and tell me how much it spoke to them. Could this possibly be because I decided I needed to trust God more in the preaching of the mediocre sermon than the home run? And in that act of trust I was more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit during delivery? And in that openness I connected more intimately with my listeners? If so, I can conclude one of two things: either I can strive to write only mediocre sermons (nope!), or I can strive to find the place of openness and trust each time I mount the steps to the pulpit. As I move into my next hundred sermons, I ask God to bless me with an ability to trust God’s movement that is independent of my perceived skill.

2. Preaching is not about showing expertise. I learned this lesson thanks to the Rev. Dr. David Lose and the Biblical Preaching Project I participated in at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Showing yourself to be an “expert” in the pulpit might seem like a good thing to do; after all, your listeners want to know that you know what you’re talking about. But be careful taking this too far. If you actively try to demonstrate your expertise or your fluency with biblical interpretation and theology (or worse, discipleship), then you run the very real risk of causing a complete disconnect between yourself and your listeners. Your demonstration will reinforce in their minds that they aren’t good enough or knowledgeable enough to study the Bible or think theologically (or worse, be disciples). It is not your job as the preacher to be the rock that they hang their faith on. (That’s someone else’s job and he’s way more important than you.) If you’ve been in a congregation long enough, they’ll know you know what you’re talking about. They’ll trust you. Use this trust to show your own vulnerability, the shaky times you’ve had, the moments when God surprised you from an unexpected trajectory. Not displaying expertise does not mean not having any. It just means that it shouldn’t be the takeaway from the sermon. Be vulnerable and you will connect even more with God and with the people.

3. The best sermons are about exactly one thing. I learned this the first month of college when my first three-page paper was returned to me without a grade and the words “too many ideas” scrawled in barely legible professor-script. That semester, Dr. Huber taught me the value of presenting one thought and developing it deeply. Moving this practice to preaching is the best advice I can give. Whether your sermons are ten minutes like mine or forty minutes like the ones my in-laws hear every Sunday, the sermon should still be about one thing. Every sentence should support the main thought. If it doesn’t, cut it. Your listeners will stay with you, and you’ll have more room to say what you need to say. Keeping your sermon to exactly one thing will protect you from the dreaded “greatest hits” sermon; that is, a sermon which says everything a passage of scripture could be about but expands on none of them. Pick an idea and work with it. “Turn the crystal,” to quote my Homiletics professor. After all, you’ll get another crack at the readings in three years.

4. The more specific the more universal. This might seem antithetical, but I assure you it’s not. If your sermon is full of generalities or ideas with no examples to back them up, then your words are more likely to sail over the heads of your listeners. So be specific. Illustrate your point with an example that could very well happen to some of your listeners. Even if the example doesn’t hit home, it will hit closer to home than a bland generalization ever will. For example, a few weeks ago I preached about God finding us (inspired by the parable of the lost sheep). At one point, I said this:

“Perhaps you are holding your mother’s hand as she lies dying. She holds your hand back…until she doesn’t. You don’t think you have any more tears, but you are wrong. Your deep grief reveals not how deeply you loved her, but how deeply you love her, and you realize your love will never become a past tense thing. And God finds you in the continued connection between the living and the dead.”

Preaching through real world examples helps connect to the listeners, but it also serves another important purpose. It gives listeners a model by which to reflect spiritually and theologically about their own experience. Modelling this practice from the pulpit is a good end in itself.

5. Every sermon is about the preacher. You might not think that your sermon is about you because you never mention yourself, but every sermon is about the preacher, no matter the content. Even if you did only a minimal amount of self-reflection, every sermon springs from a mingling of prayer, study, examination, and experience. Oftentimes, my sermons will touch on something I’m wrestling with even if I don’t realize it’s on my mind. In the end, if the sermon doesn’t “preach” (in the sense of resonate) to the preacher, then it won’t preach to anyone else. That being said, I don’t advocate having the preacher be the “hero” of the sermon. Just remember that every sermon is about you whether you want it to be or not.

6. Every sermon should be about the listener. The sermon might be about you, the preacher, but it should also be about the people you’re preaching to. The hardest group to whom to preach is a group you’ve never met before. Once you’ve been in a worshipping community for a while, your sermons will start resonating more and more because you will have gotten to know the people. You’ll know their particular struggles. You’ll know what they’re hungry for. You’ll know how to talk to them. Once you know your listeners, there’s no excuse for a “boilerplate” sermon. Hit them where they live. Offer them enough comfort in your words that they will accept your challenge. Offer them enough challenge so they can grow spiritually. But above all, offer them the Gospel in the way they are most likely to hear it. (That’s what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did, after all.)

7. Every sermon should proclaim the Gospel. This one seems really obvious, but it’s harder to accomplish than you might think. I do not mean here that every sermon needs to be specifically about the lesson from the Gospel you read just before preaching. What I mean is that every sermon must proclaim the good news of the love of God made known in Jesus Christ our Lord. This good news might come in the form of encouragement or comfort or hope; it might come through pointing out God’s presence in the midst of challenging times; it might come from telling the story in a new, enlightening way. No matter from where you take your text, the Gospel can shine from it. As I said, however, it’s harder than you might think. I wrote a story sermon once that ended up being just a story. There was no sermon in it. But I didn’t notice until too late. When you’re done writing your sermon, look back at it, and ask the “Where’s the beef?” question. If you can’t find the “beef” then you’re not done.

8. There’s a difference between a sermon and preaching. A written sermon is like a musical score: the notes are there ready for the orchestra to play them, but until they put bow to string or lips to mouthpiece, the notes are just little black marks on paper. If written sermon is to musical score, then preaching is to making music. The preacher gives life to the words by speaking them. We call it a sermon “delivery” on purpose; God calls preachers to deliver the good news directly to where people “live and move and have their being,” just as the UPS guy delivers packages to your front door. This happens most successfully when spoken aloud. Not only that, but the preaching moment is sacred because during it the Holy Spirit rides the preacher’s breath to the listeners’ ears and down into their hearts.

9. Preaching is theatre. Imagine two preachers have written the same sermon text. One reads it in a drowsy monotone. His head is down, and he’s giving off the general air that he just wants to get through it so he can get on with his day. There’s a good chance half the congregation is checking their smartphones. The other has the text in front of her, but she’s looking up way more than she’s looking down. Her voice rises and lowers in volume; she hammers some words and lets silences linger between thoughts so they can sink in. Perhaps she uses the pulpit as a prop or gestures with her hands at appropriate times. She is engaged in the preaching moment and her whole body is part of the delivery. There’s a good chance the smartphones are safely in pockets and purses. You can hear a pin drop. The congregation is hanging on every word. Delivery matters. I’m not telling you to try to win an Oscar every time you mount the pulpit; just remember that how you speak is just as important as what you say.

10. Preaching is a gift. Have you ever stopped to think just how blessed you are to have an opportunity to proclaim God’s eternal presence, Christ’s love, and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to a group of willing listeners week in and week out? The next time you are stuck in the middle of sermon preparation, think what a gift God has given you with this opportunity. Then remember God has also given you the gifts to preach the Gospel through words. Thank God for all the gifts in your life, and then get back to work using them.