The Temple of His Body

Sermon for Sunday, March 7, 2021 || Lent 3B || John 2:13-22

Today marks the one year anniversary of closing the building of St. Mark’s due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two days before the Third Sunday in Lent last year, the vestry met in an emergency capacity and made the heart-wrenching decision to close the church building for two weeks. At the time, the two-week closure was designed to help public health officials get a handle on where the virus was so they could begin tracking it. But two weeks became four, then a season, and now we mark a year. I went back and found the letter I sent to the parish about closing. It is clear in the letter that I had no conception that our building closure would last as long as it has. I could only comprehend two weeks at a time. I nursed a hope that we would be together by Easter. In March 2020 I would never have been able to conceive that we would still be apart the following Easter. But our building closure will last at least that long and most likely longer.

Continue reading “The Temple of His Body”

The God Who Sees

Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2020 || Proper 7A || Genesis 21:8-21

Today, I’d like to talk about Hagar. Specifically, I’d like to talk about Hagar’s vision and how God grants us the same capacity for faithful seeing that Hagar has. First, though, you might be wondering who Hagar is. Hagar is an Egyptian servant (or slave) in the household of Abram and Sarai (who during the course of the Genesis story have their names changed to Abraham and Sarah). When God promises Abram that God will give Abram countless descendants, the old couple don’t know what to do. They’ve never had children of their own, and now they’re way too old. Taking God’s promise into her own hands, Sarai offers her servant Hagar to Abram, saying, “It may be that I shall obtain children by her.” (If this sounds eerily like The Handmaid’s Tale, it is.)

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The Meaning in Stories

Sermon for Sunday, June 14, 2020 || Proper 6A || Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

Today, I’d like to share a few stories and talk about how we use them to make meaning. The lessons and meanings of our own stories, our communal stories, and our biblical stories dwell inside us, and we can use what we learn from these stories to make sense of the story we currently find ourselves in. Today, I’m going to tell two and a half stories: first a personal one, then a biblical one. The half story at the end is the story of now, which isn’t finished being written yet.

First, the personal story. Twelve years ago today, I knelt in front of the bishop of West Virginia. He and a dozen or so priests laid their hands on my head, back, and shoulders. And they prayed for God to make me a priest in God’s church. The day of my ordination was a blur, but I remember the next day much more, the day I celebrated Holy Communion for the first time. I was so nervous on the day of my first Eucharist as a priest. I was convinced I was going to knock over the chalice because I had to make specific gestures while clothed beneath a baggy piece of outerwear. 

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Where God Is, A Brief History

This article first appeared in the Pentecost 2018 issue of The Lion’s Tale, the seasonal magazine of my church, St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT.

This article starts way back. I mean waaaay back – over three thousand years ago, when two people left their home city and journeyed off into the wilderness. Their names were Abram and Sarai (soon to be Abraham and Sarah), and we read their story in the book of Genesis. The reason I need to start so far back is that Abram and Sarai discovered something that no one else in their land had discovered. They realized (a) there was only one true God and (b) God was already present wherever they went.

These were revolutionary ideas in their day. Most people in their neck of the woods assumed that each mountain and each river and each city had their own gods. Those gods stayed put: they were tied to particular places. Then Abram and Sarai ventured into the wilderness to find a new home, and they found God out in the wilderness. They set up altars to worship God wherever they found God, and soon the desert was littered with their shrines. God was everywhere! How amazing! Continue reading “Where God Is, A Brief History”

Turning Points

Sermon for Sunday, February 25, 2018 || Lent 2B || Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

History is full of turning points – those moments when one event or one decision alters the fabric of the future. The turning points we remember happened on the world’s stage: the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, which contributed to the United States entering World War I; or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which did the same 26 years later; or more happily, the moon landing on a summer night in July 1969, which spurred the scientific dreams of a generation.

In my 35 years, I have witnessed some world changing turning points. I was six years old when the Berlin Wall fell, too young to appreciate what its destruction symbolized, but old enough to remember just the same. On a Tuesday morning in September of my freshman year of college, I was waiting for an appointment in the admissions office when I heard a tinny voice on the radio announce that a horrible accident had happened at the World Trade Center. This was before the second plane, before we grasped the horrible reality of terrorism. Today’s teenagers do not remember this event, just as I do not remember, say, the Kennedy assassination or the fall of Saigon.

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Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017 || Epiphany 4A || Matthew 5:1-12

I thought I hit record this week, but I didn’t, and with only one service because of St. Mark’s Annual Meeting, I failed to capture the audio for this sermon. Apologies.

Three weeks ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

We began with Belovedness. God sees and names us and each person we meet as God’s Beloved. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Next we talked about God befriending us. God calls us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own. Love leads to friendship, which leads us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Here we claim our giftedness, not to make ourselves feel special, but to use our gifts to make others feel so. We claim our giftedness, which helps us be blessings in the world.

With this word – “blessing” – we return for a fourth time to God’s point of view. God sees, names, and celebrates us as blessed. There are two parts to blessing: sustenance and mission, and neither is particularly well understood. Continue reading “Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)”

God and Not-God: A Short History

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15

GodandNotGodThere’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”

So with that humorous word of caution in my mind, I turned my attention to Trinity Sunday, traditionally one of the thornier preaching days of the year. Continue reading “God and Not-God: A Short History”

Walk on Together

Sermon for Sunday, June 29, 2014 || Proper 8A || Genesis 22:1-14

(I forgot to hit the button on my recording device this week, so it’s just text this time around.)

walkontogetherAs I contemplate my impending fatherhood, the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read a few minutes ago, has taken on new meaning for me. I’ve always struggled with this story, and, if you’ve ever read or heard it, I’m sure you have, too. This reading from the Hebrew Scripture brings up so many questions: why would God ever test someone in such a barbaric way? How could God be so apparently abusive? How could Abraham even think about going through with it? If the angel hadn’t stopped him, would Abraham actually have killed his son? What would that prove?

We could spend this and many more sermons attempting to explain (and only succeeding in explaining away) such difficult questions. We could say that people experienced God differently back then, but that wouldn’t satisfy us. We could say that this story simply narrates the move from human to animal sacrifice, which, in future generations, distinguished the Israelites from many of their neighbors. This is a little better, but such academic aloofness doesn’t account for the tenderness of the relationship displayed between Abraham and Isaac. We could say so many things in order to feel okay about this story, but, despite the happy ending, something will still not sit right. Indeed, the Jewish rabbis have been struggling with the binding of Isaac for millennia; one sermon from me isn’t going to put a dent in that effort.

But I have to say something, so here goes. Often, when a story in the Bible makes us feel uncomfortable, we have a tendency to dismiss it: to flip the page, wipe the offending verses from our memory banks, and move on as if they never existed. However, if we take the time, like the Jewish rabbis, to struggle with the difficult passages instead of ignoring them, we can hear the Holy Spirit whispering good news to us, even in the midst of the struggle. I heard such a whisper of good news this week when I read the binding of Isaac over and over again in preparation for this sermon.

The whisper of good news started when, as I said, I began reading the story through the lens of my impending fatherhood. I expected to be horrified by Abraham’s action as I have been in the past; by the “I was only following orders” defense Abraham would have had to give Sarah when he got home, had he gone through with it. Strangely, this time around, the first time I’ve ever read this story after having spent hours staring at the ultrasound picture of my son’s face, I was not horrified.

I wasn’t. Instead of seeing the brutality of the test, I saw the tenderness of the relationship between father and son in a pair of verses that I’ve never noticed before. On the third day, Abraham and his son Isaac leave their servants and pack animals and continue on alone. Here the narrator tells us, “So the two of them walked on together.” As they make their way up the mountain, Isaac stops and questions his father. Abraham answers, and then again the narrator tells us, “So the two of the walked on together.” Father and son, together: Keeping each other from stumbling as they hike up the mountain; feeling each other’s warmth; walking hand in hand, perhaps.

Of course, the sad irony of this walking up the mountain together is that Abraham is preparing to walk down alone. Or is he? And this is where a new question arises, a question that links Abraham’s deep relationship with Isaac to Abraham’s deep relationship with God. The question is this: Is Abraham lying?

In between those two tender bits of narration (“So the two of them walked on together”) Isaac asks the whereabouts of the lamb for the burnt offering. And Abraham responds: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

So, is Abraham lying to Isaac here? Is Abraham just telling Isaac what the boy needs to hear to keep him going, to keep him pliant? Or does Abraham actually believe what he is saying to his son? Does Abraham believe that God will, indeed, provide a way out of this mess?

I think the answer falls somewhere in between. A cynical person would call his response a lie. But I think Abraham is speaking out of his hope, out of the deepest conviction of his heart that he will not need to go through with it, that the promise God made to him years earlier will continue to hold, the promise that countless generations will spring from his son Isaac. No, Abraham isn’t lying: he’s speaking the only truth he’s ever known. From the day Abraham stepped out into the desert all those years ago, God has provided, even when Abraham’s impatience or fear kept him from seeing God’s provision.

But for us the phrase, “God will provide,” has, sadly, reached sound byte status. We hear the words and say, “Yeah, sure,” and then go about our business. And we fail to attribute to God’s provision both the miniscule and the monumental blessings in our lives. For all the struggle our story today causes, the binding of Isaac also invites us to hear again the good news that God does, indeed, provide, and God gives us the eyes to notice God’s provision.

It all starts with the word “provide”: in Hebrew this is literally the word “see” or “perceive.” So when Abraham says to Isaac, “God will provide,” we can loosely translate it as, “We shall see what God is up to.” This understanding of God’s provision presupposes that God is already active wherever we are going, that God has already shown up when we arrive. We enter a story already in progress, so to speak.

Notice what Abraham says three times in our passage today: “Here I am.” With these words, Abraham makes himself available, opens himself up, orients himself towards the stimulus of his response. “Here I am,” is the verbal equivalent of a posture of openness and reception. By saying, “Here I am,” Abraham signals his desire to see what God is up to, to see how God is providing in the current situation.

We believe that a piece of God’s very nature is that of provider. And we have the opportunity to participate in God’s provision by training ourselves to see the many and varied ways God is moving in our lives. When Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide, Abraham is reminding himself what he believes, what he has relied on his whole life. God’s provision has not always fit Abraham’s timetable, and Abraham has not always done the best job trusting, but, one way or another, God has provided.

When we look back at the trajectories of our lives, we often see coincidences that cannot be explained; or relationships that have stood the test of time; or burdens we didn’t think we could bear, but did. This is evidence of God providing. But so are the deep, calming breath when the baby is screaming her head off; and your mother’s embrace after a hard day at school; and the desire to help someone in need; and all of the little things that never make headlines, that we won’t remember when we look back at the trajectories of our lives.

Since we won’t remember the small blessings once they’ve sunk down into the depths of memory, God invites us to appreciate today’s provision today. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” for the same reason Abraham told Isaac that God will provide: so that our eyes will be open to the blessings of this life, so that a day never goes by when we don’t notice God’s presence in something, no matter how small.

I know the story of the binding of Isaac is hard to hear and uncomfortable to process. Even so, through it the Holy Spirit has good news to whisper into our hearts. Today, the good news is that God provides and we participate in that provision when we say, “Here I am.” As we move through our daily journeys, sustained by our daily bread, each of us has the opportunity to walk hand in hand with God, to go forth and see what God is up to. So take joy in trusting that when our stories are written in the book of life, the narrator will say, “So the two of them walked on together.”

*Art: Detail from “Abraham and Isaac” by Rembrandt (1645)
*Thanks to Kathryn Schifferdecker’s article on for the Hebrew relationship between seeing and providing.

Pocketing the Sunglasses

During the summer, I am preaching without notes or a text; as such, what follows is the unraveling of my thought processes for a sermon, not the actual words I spoke.

I was riding the T on my way to Mass General when I noticed a young fellow across from me pick up a pair of sunglasses that had fallen out of the pocket of the man sitting next to him. The man was reading a crumpled edition of the free newspaper that seems to germinate in subway stations and hadn’t noticed his glasses fall. The fellow looked at the sunglasses for half a minute and then spent the rest of the minute attempting to get the attention of the man with the free paper. Finally, he poked the man in the knee with the glasses, and the man pocketed them with a grateful smile to the young fellow.

The fellow could have easily put the sunglasses into his own pocket, the complimentary bounty of the inattentive man. Rather, he confirmed my sometimes flagging faith in the human race and handed the glasses back. Of course, there is a clear right and clear wrong in this situation, and to his credit, the fellow chose the right.

Now (and this is for posterity, so be honest) how many of you would have taken the glasses for yourself? How many of you would have seen the (perhaps expensive) shades and decided that the man with the paper didn’t really need them anymore? Finders Keepers, right?

Owing to what were (I am sure) fine upbringings, I hope none of you raised your hands. We spend a goodly amount of time teaching our children the difference between right and wrong. “Emily, I’m glad you’re sharing your jelly beans with your brother. That’s the right thing to do.” “Jimmy, stop hitting your sister. That’s wrong!” Distinguishing between right and wrong is easy. If you have to keep your action a secret – say, for example, you cut the hair off all of your sister’s Barbie dolls – then you’ve probably chosen the wrong thing to do. From an early age, we learn right from wrong, and we hopefully also learn to choose the right, although the actions of recent Wall Street executives disprove the unanimity of this childhood lesson.

While we spend a good deal of time on this lesson, we spend much less time teaching our children the much trickier ability of choosing between right and right. How do we decide when the choice is not between a good and a bad, but between a good and another good?

Let’s look at an example. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. It’s only 35 seconds after all. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law should override the good of you arriving at your destination a few seconds sooner.

Now let’s add a few more variables. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. Your wife is in the backseat; her contractions are only a few minutes apart. The baby is coming any minute now! You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Respect for the law tells you to wait, but the biological instinct to protect your wife and unborn child by getting to the hospital as soon as humanly possible tells you to go Go GO. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law falls short of the good of getting your wife to a medical professional.

Choosing between right and right is a tricky business because both choices are good. So, how do we followers of Jesus make these choices? This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson provides some clarity. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and then goes about her tasks. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him speak. When Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part.

Does this mean that Martha has chosen the wrong thing? Has she done something bad? Of course she hasn’t. This isn’t a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. Martha has done the same thing that Abraham does in the accompanying reading from Genesis. Abraham bustled around preparing a meal for the three men, who tell him that he and Sarah are finally going to have a child of their own. This bustling isn’t right in the Hebrew scripture and wrong in the Gospel. Martha does the right thing: she provides hospitality for the gathering, which is arguably the highest good in the Hebrew law.

But Jesus says that Mary does a better right thing. She listens to Jesus when she is in his presence. She is not distracted or worried, but attentive to his words. This is the better good, which does not erase Martha’s attempt to do the right thing. Rather, Mary displays the fundamental action, of which Martha’s welcome and hospitality are secondary outcomes.

When I am worried and distracted by many things, how often do I actually stop, take a deep breath, and listen? Not often enough, I’ll tell you. Even when I am engaged in good things, my busyness often drowns out that voice, for which I should be listening. Choosing between right and wrong is easy, but choosing between right and right is difficult. When I have so many good things clamoring for my attention, I first must sit down at the feet of Jesus Christ and listen.

The Word Happens

(Sermon for February 28, 2010 || Lent 2, Year C, RCL || Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18)

Something happens during our worship service that I would bet you’ve never really noticed before. Actually, this something happens twice during our worship. In fact, this something has already happened twice during this very service. The readers finished both the story about Abram and the piece of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, and then they said, “The Word of the Lord.” And you responded, “Thanks be to God.”

Have you ever wondered why we say, “Thanks be to God” at that particular moment at the conclusion of a scriptural reading? If you haven’t, don’t worry: I didn’t wonder why until I started writing this sermon. Saying “Thanks be to God” seems rather strange at first. For what are we really thanking God? Honestly, this thanksgiving would make much more sense if the reader herself were the one offering it. I can imagine the reader thanking God for the lack of unpronounceable names in the lesson; or for the ability to pronounce Melchizedek and Nebuchadnezzar on the first try; or for the opportunity to serve God in the capacity of reading the Bible aloud. But the question remains: why do we respond with thanks to God when the reader says, “The Word of the Lord”?

This morning’s lesson from Genesis provides an answer. But first, here’s a quick recap of the first few episodes of Abram’s story. God tells Abram to leave his country and set out for a new place, which only God knows about. So Abram, his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and their household set out on a journey. They wander through Canaan and down into Egypt, where Abram gives his wife to Pharaoh to save his own skin. But when a great plague hits Egypt, Pharaoh realizes Sarai’s already married, and he sends her back to her husband. Abram and Lot part ways because their herds have grown too great to share the same land. Finally, Abram settles by the oaks of Mamre. Soon after, he takes part in a battle among the local kingdoms. And on three separate occasions during these adventures, God tells Abram that God will give him offspring and make of him a great nation.

But Abram worries because he remains childless. He’s getting on in years. Sarai is barren. He’s rich and powerful and secure, but the one blessing he desires above all else has eluded him. He has no descendants to inherit his land. A slave born in his house will have to be his heir. Eliezer of Damascus is going to get everything. How does this fulfill your promise, God?

In this way, Abram questions God when the word of the Lord comes to him in a vision. Half in accusation, half in resignation, Abram states the situation bluntly: “You have given me no offspring.” And during this moment – during Abram’s most anxious, most doubtful, most defeated moment – the “word of the Lord” comes to him. The Word of the Lord comes to him and says, “No one but your very own issue will be your heir. Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” The Word of the Lord comes to him and gives Abram the strength to believe that God will fulfill God’s promise. This is the same “Word of the Lord” for which we twice give thanks on Sunday morning.

You may ask: “How can mere words give Abram such strength? What if the promises are empty? Where’s the action to back up the talk?” Okay, I’m about to say the “H”-word and I need you to stay with me for just a minute here. Genesis was originally written in Hebrew. Translators do the best they can to render the original language into English, but sometimes a Hebrew word is just too deep and complex for a single English word to suffice. In these cases, the English is like looking at a picture of a cake. The Hebrew is like taking a big bite of the cake itself.

Such is the case with the word “Word.” In Hebrew, the “Word” is not simply speech or writing on a page. The “Word” happens to people. The “Word” is an event, an encounter, an action that calls for further action. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, God spoke creation into being: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” The Word of the Lord happened, and, as a result, creation came into existence. When the Word of the Lord happens to Abram, he finds the strength to go on trusting God in spite of all the reasons why God’s promise seems preposterous.

And when we hear a reading from Holy Scripture on Sunday morning, we respond “Thanks be to God” because the Word of the Lord has just happened to us. In that encounter with the Word, we are aware that God continues to speak us into existence. And from existence into service. And from service into love. And from love into the transformation that happens when we follow Jesus Christ our Lord.

You see, when the Word happens to us, we are changed. We may be changed minutely or momentously, but we are changed. We may be changed slowly or suddenly, but we are changed. We are changed into better lovers of God, better servants of other human beings, and better human beings ourselves.

In the film Life as a House, George talks about change, a subject about which he knows a great deal. George has been diagnosed with cancer, and he is using his final months to repair his relationship with his estranged son. By tearing down his house and rebuilding the home he always wanted, he and his son work through the messy process of reconnecting. At one point, George says: “You know the great thing, though, is that change can be so constant you don’t even feel the difference until there is one. It can be so slow that you don’t even notice that your life is better or worse, until it is. Or it can just blow you away, make you something different in an instant. It happened to me.”

In Abram’s case, the Word happens to him, and the change comes slowly. The Word gives him trust in God’s faithfulness, but at first Abram fails to understand the expanse of God’s miraculous promise. Abram doesn’t realize that God desires not just Abram’s own offspring, but Sarai’s, as well. So Abram bears a son with Hagar, his wife’s slave-girl. But the Word isn’t finished happening to Abram yet. Years later, Abram stumbles into God’s presence again, and God renews his promise a final time. In the pivotal sign of the change, which the Word has on Abram’s life, God changes his name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah. Soon after, Sarah bears Abraham a son named Isaac, and the countless generations that follow rival the number of stars in the heavens.

I invite you to reflect on how the Word is even now happening to you. Is the change, which the Word is causing in your life, so constant that you don’t feel the difference until there is one? Or is the Word blowing you away and making you into something different, something new, in an instant? Either way, know that our Creator continues to speak creation into existence. Our Creator writes the Word on our hearts. Our Creator puts the Word on our lips so we may speak love and welcome to all we encounter.

The reader says “The Word of the Lord” to make us aware that the Word is happening to us even now this morning while we sit in our pews. We respond “Thanks be to God” to show our gratitude for God’s movement in our lives. But the Word isn’t through happening to us yet either. The Word happens to us to enable us to serve and to love. The Word impels us to go out into the world and invite others to notice the Word happening to them. As followers of Christ, we live with the joyful expectation that the Word will happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

And when the Word happens to us, we will be changed.

Speaking of cake, the day I preached this sermon was my first at the church to which I was recently called to be the Assistant Rector (Assistant to the Rector, Dwight!). They got me this cake, which is awesome.

Then, the kids ate it.