In August 2019, Carrie Combs and I launched the Podcast for Nerdy Christians, and we’ve had a blast ever since sharing discussions at the intersection of our faith and our nerdiness. Sometimes we joke that we created the podcast so we could talk about all the nerdy things that we can’t fit into our sermons. Then again, I recently talked about Stranger Things in a sermon, to go along with my copious Star Wars references.Continue reading “Season 3 of the Podcast for Nerdy Christians”
Announcing “Advent with the Beginning of Luke,” a new daily devotional book for your Advent observance. Entries from December 1st through Christmas follow the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke – from the birth announcements of John and Jesus to the songs of Mary and Zechariah to the birth of Jesus, and culminating with the presentation in the temple. This Advent study will make a meaningful addition to your personal or group preparation for the feast of the Incarnation. Continue reading “Advent with the Beginning of Luke”
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”
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”
Sermon for Sunday, December 11, 2016 || Advent 1C || Isaiah 35:1-10
To his people in exile, the prophet Isaiah says these words of hope, promise, and comfort:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing. […]
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water…
I must confess that I needed to hear these beautiful words this morning. I must confess that I have been feeling spiritually dry lately. I must confess that an arid desert of burning sands has grown up within me in recent months when I wasn’t paying attention. There have been a few moments of oasis – notably splashing my hands in the waters of baptism two weeks ago – but overall my spirit has shriveled recently. I’m, quite simply, parched. Continue reading “The Spiritual Desert”
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”
Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2016 || Advent 1A || Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14
At the end of this sermon, remind me to tell you why “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” is a funny thing to say. I’ll get to that in a few minutes, but first I want to tell you about my parents’ Nativity scene.
During the season of Advent when I was growing up, my family placed a beautiful Nativity scene on the shelf above the TV. The wooden stable had a bark and moss covered roof, above which we suspended angels on fishing line. Inside the stable, a bearded Joseph leaned on a staff and a kneeling Mary pondered things in her heart, while a donkey and a cow looked on. Outside the stable, a pair of shepherds, a woman balancing a jug of water, and assorted townsfolk queued up like bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding photo. Each character was transfixed by something going on at the center of the stable, something that was obviously important if the painted expressions on their faces could be believed. The trouble was that nothing was going on at the center of the stable. An unassuming manger stood in between Mary and Joseph, who stared lovingly down into the empty box.
Sermon for Sunday, December 13, 2015 || Advent 3C || Luke 3:7-18
I think the Gospel lesson I just read sounds harsher than it really is. Notice the last line: “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.” Either this means that the “good news” came in these other exhortations spoken off camera, or everything that John says is to be considered “good news.” I think it’s the latter. Of course, good news doesn’t usually begin by calling people a “brood of vipers.” John the Baptist is not exactly a people person; after all, he’s spent a lot of time by himself in the wilderness. He’s definitely a loner, unlike his cousin Jesus who comes on stage in a few verses and who surrounds himself pretty quickly with a group of friends. But even though John’s social skills may have suffered from his solitude, he’s astute enough to know the crowds expect a spectacle. And he gives them one right off the bat by calling them a “brood of vipers.”
In Matthew’s account of this story the name “brood of vipers” specifically targets the Jewish leadership, but here in Luke’s account, John broadens this designation to include everyone in the crowds (which includes us, by the way). My favorite modern translation of the Bible renders this verse with a little less fervor and a little more silliness: instead of “You brood of vipers” it’s “You children of snakes!” Not quite as punchy.
But I don’t think John is naming the crowds “children of snakes” simply to give them the spectacle they desire. Rather, he’s pre-empting an argument they might make after he instructs them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” This pre-empting continues when he says, “Do not even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ ” In other words, your heritage does not make you bear good fruit nor give you a free pass. The crowds may be “children of Abraham,” but they are also children of snakes. And be assured that everyone in the crowd would hear a hissing of the memory of Adam and Eve’s temptation in the garden when John names them a snake’s descendants and talks about the fruit of the tree.
Thus, in just these opening lines of John’s exhortations, he sets up the duality inherent in all of us. We are none of us entirely good or entirely bad. We are children of Abraham (that is, children of God’s promise) and we are children of snakes (that is, children schooled by separation, temptation, and distrust). I bet each of you has had, at one time or another, these two natures war within you. In real life this war is much less comical than the angels and devils sitting on the shoulders of old Looney Toons characters.
Most often, the war plays out between what is right and what is easy. You can have a reasonable discussion in the wake of a disagreement or you can punch below the belt with slurs and hurtful epithets. You can stand up for those in need or you can ignore their plight. You can tell the truth or you can lie. Everyday, we face choices like these. And everyday, the whispered power of God contends with the hiss of the snake. Every time we listen to the snake, we end up just a bit more alone and isolated than we were before, which makes us so much easier to pick off. Every time we listen to God, we resonate with the song of love and faith and freedom – we sing and dance and exult and fall down weeping in gratitude for God’s gift of grace.
But if that’s the case, if the whispered power of God is so attractive, then why do we give into temptation as often as we do? The simple answer is this. Giving into temptation involves doing absolutely nothing because doing absolutely nothing leads to complacency, and complacency is the root of so much of the world’s despair. That’s why John warns the crowds not to get too comfortable in their heritage as Abraham’s descendants. And that’s why he gives them something to do: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Food and clothing: if these were dispersed fairly throughout the world, a lot of problems would be solved. It was true in John’s day. It remains true in ours. The world has enough, but this “enough” is divided poorly. And we don’t work to change this reality because the one thing the world has too much of is complacency.
If you’ve ever wondered why we confess “things done and things left undone,” now you know. Things left undone make us slip into complacency and from complacency into despair. The whispered power of God invites us to get up like the paralyzed man at the pool, take our mats, and walk; to say with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”; to leave our nets like the fishermen and follow Jesus. But too often the hiss of the snake lulls us back to sleep. Every time we hit the snooze button on life, the duality of nature skews further toward the snake, towards complacency.
So why does John call people a “brood of vipers?” Why does he dunk them under the cold water of the River Jordan? To shake them out of their complacency. To remind them that God is and always will be moving in their lives, urging them to serve and love with active passion and fervor. It’s no wonder then that we prayed what we did in today’s collect. Did you notice the power you invoked a few minutes ago? “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
Are you ready for this? I’m not sure I am. There’s still way too much child of snake in me to desire the wind of the Holy Spirit to stir me up and push me to God knows where. But it’s too late now. The prayer has been prayed. And now it’s up to us to partner with God to see how God’s power will be revealed. Perhaps, you will find this power in new courage to face a difficult circumstance or in new patience amidst uncertainty. Perhaps you will find this power in advocating sensible gun control on this third anniversary of the shooting in Newtown. Or in welcoming a stranger to our community, maybe a refugee family fleeing terror.
However the whispered power of God manifests in your life, know that it is and always will be stronger than the hiss of the snake. The inertial force of complacency is powerful too, but it is no match for the Creator-of-All-that-Is. Remember, it might seem like we’re just sitting still, but in reality we’re spinning at about 800 miles per hour around the earth’s axis. And if that’s not fast enough for you, we’re also moving at about 67,000 miles per hour around the sun. And that’s not even thinking about what our galaxy is doing in space. Talk about being stirred up.
The power we invoked during our collect this morning keeps this universe moving. And it keeps us moving, always ready to harness our birthright as children of the promise and to participate in God’s mission here on earth. During Advent, we don’t wait for the Lord in complacency. No. During Advent, we don’t wait. We prepare.
Art: Detail from “Baptism of the People” by Andrea Del Sarto (1515)
Sermon for Sunday, December 6, 2015 || Advent 2C
As many of you know, Tim Evers and I spent much of last week in Haiti visiting our mission partner, St. Luc School. As you will see later in this sermon, I’m so thankful that a coincidence of calendar had us travel there during Advent. My first glimpse of the country came from 10,000 feet in the air. The Haitian landscape rises rugged and mountainous to the east where it abuts the Dominican Republic and flattens to the west where a peninsula bathes in the Caribbean Sea. Our destination was in the countryside west of the capital.
We arrived at the hospital of St. Croix in Leogane after the wildest vehicular ride of my life. Negotiating intersections paired survival of the fittest with a massive game of chicken. There were next to no traffic lights, and the painted traffic lanes seemed merely suggestive. Even which side of the road to drive on was in doubt. But we made it, thanks to our driver’s aggressive skill and liberal use of the horn.
As we drove, both from the airport and on the way to St. Luc, I tried to take in as much of my surroundings as possible. Here are a few impressions in no particular order:
Wherever there is an open patch of ground, there are kids playing soccer on it. Grass is optional. And having a ball is optional.
Most people are dressed the way you or I might when we’re doing yard work. The big exception are kids – particularly girls – wearing immaculate school uniforms. And I mean immaculate. Their blouses are the only thing I saw that I would classify as the color white. Everything else that could be white was painted tan by all the dust.
There are stray dogs all over the place, many with mammary glands obviously swollen with milk. I realized how odd this sight was to me because nearly every dog in the U.S. is spayed or neutered.
The two main forms of transportation are walking and riding small motorcycles — dirt bikes, really. I didn’t know you could fit five people on a dirt bike, but you can.
There are lots of scrawny little goats milling around.
Many of the ramshackle dwellings are fenced in with tarps emblazoned with “USAID” – the United States Agency for International Development. The tarps say, “From the American People” on them. It’s a sad commentary that the emergency tarps provided five years ago after the earthquake have become a permanent fixture in people’s dwellings.
In the distance, the landscape is truly stunning, but focusing on the landscape close by tells what happens when there is no functioning sanitation department. Discarded bottles and Styrofoam food containers collect in piles like raked leaves, along with other unidentified refuse.
All this I saw from the seat of a dented Mazda dualcab truck. All this I saw without actually interacting with anyone. Thankfully, we did interact with people, and so my appreciation for both the blessings and challenges of life in Mercery, Haiti deepened. Our main contact was Fr. Sonley Joseph, the priest in charge of St. Croix and its eight — eight! — satellite parishes, including St. Luc. Sonley and I have a lot in common: we’re both writers and we both lived in the same dormitory at Virginia Theological Seminary (he a couple years after I). I liked him immediately, and not just because of our kinship, but because of his soft-spoken, yet ardent and inviting vision of the mission of God. In Haiti, the Church’s participation in God’s mission has always been linked with education, and most churches have schools attached. Sounds like St. Mark’s, if you ask me.
Fr. Sonley was our guide and interpreter when we went to St. Luc on Wednesday morning to say hello to the students and teachers. We received 270 bon jours in return across the eight classrooms, from 6th grade on down to pre-K. The school has no electricity, but there is enough tropical sunlight to illuminate all the rooms, save one whose windows are shaded by plants. The classrooms are quite noisy because there’s nothing but cinderblocks to keep sounds from one room invading another. And most teaching is done using the blackboard, as there aren’t enough books to go around.
But even with these challenges, the teachers’ love for their profession and their students is evident from the moment you step into the room. Tim and I met with the teachers later in the day, and they all agreed that St. Luc is the best school in Mercery. Their pride for and dedication to their school was wonderful to feel. Access to education is a fundamental human right. And these teachers are realizing this fundamental human right for those 270 beautiful children, in a country were such access is far from assured.
To be involved in the process of educating these children, even in the small way we at St. Mark’s are, is a gift. Our partnership with St. Luc School is a gift from God, a participation in God’s mission as Fr. Sonley described it. Of course, there is so much more we could do. We have a list, prioritized from simple to incredibly ambitious. But that’s only for these 270 kids. What about the other children of Haiti or in other poverty-stricken places (even here in the States) or the other needs and disparities that need to be addressed or the issues of injustice that keep people from having access to fundamental human rights? There is so much more that we could do! There is always so much more we can do — So, so, so, so, so much more that we can easily be overwhelmed; the need can steal our breath, then our balance, then our will to persevere.
And this is where the season of Advent infiltrates our hearts and minds and gives us a little breathing room to stand back and take it all in. Yes, the needs of this world are great. Yes, the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. But Advent teaches us two things that will sharpen our focus and our will.
First, as Stacey so aptly put it last week, Advent reminds that the One we long for is already here. There is a tension at play between God’s kingdom already here and God’s kingdom still to come. God’s kingdom is alive and well in Haiti. Indeed, despite the general poverty of resources and circumstances, the faith of the people of Haiti is deep and abiding. I saw dozens of signs that said “Merci Jesus” on them. Thank you, Jesus! For what, you might ask? For life. For love. For family. For the same things you and I thank Jesus for. That’s the “already” of the kingdom. The “not yet” is still breaking in: it’s in the teachers sweltering at blackboards with 50 students clamoring for attention; it’s in the mother painstakingly washing the uniform each night so it is immaculate again in the morning; it’s in the hungry yet smiling faces of those children who are Haiti’s future, whom we are helping to educate.
Second, Advent teaches us to focus on a particular spot at a particular time on a particular person. The particularity of Jesus’ Incarnation is what we are getting ready for. God came to us in all the particularity of a precious human life, born in a place that could easily have been fenced with a tarp from USAID. Because of this Incarnation, Jesus had a chance to meet people in a way God couldn’t — eye to eye, touching, embracing, walking with, eating with…dying for. When you start to get overwhelmed by the needs of the world, return to Advent. Walk with Mary and Joseph to that starlit stable in Bethlehem and witness the birth of grace and love. See Christ embodied in his own peculiar humanness. Then go back to the needs of this world. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity. Instead, do what God did in the Incarnation: pick a place; pick a person. Be present there. Form a partnership there. Form relationships there in that singular place. Find Christ in that person. And be an incarnation of Christ to that person.
That’s what we’re doing in the partnership between St. Mark’s Church and St. Luc School. It’s an Advent partnership: already begun but never quite finished. It’s also a Christmas partnership, because in that little school off a dirt road in the boondocks of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we incarnate Christ for each other. Thanks be to God.
Sermon for Sunday, December 7, 2014 || Advent 2B || Mark 1:1-8
The Gospel writer Mark wastes no time telling us what his story is about. The very first words of his account of the Gospel proclaim without hesitation: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Matthew begins with a genealogy linking Jesus back to Abraham. Luke begins with a short address about his research methodology. John begins with a mysterious poem about creation. But Mark just hits the ground running and never looks back. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Now, Mark’s Gospel tends to hurtle from one scene to the next. Everything happens immediately after everything else. The fast pace of this sixteen chapter account of the Gospel just makes me want to keep reading and get to the end as quickly as Mark seems to want me to. But if we did such a binge reading, we’d miss the depth and intricacy packed into this, the shortest of the Gospel accounts. So with this in mind and because Advent is upon us, let’s slow down for a few minutes and really digest this first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
In today’s parlance, when we hear the term “good news,” the two words are usually embedded in the sentence: “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” We’ve all used this conversational staple.
“The good news is the rest of this week will be lovely; the bad news is next week we’re in for a Nor’ Easter.”
“The good news is no one was seriously hurt in the accident; the bad news is the car was totaled.”
“The good news is I found the recipe; the bad news is we’re out of eggs.”
In meetings, around kitchen tables, on the bus, we use the words “good news” to talk about the sometimes funny, sometimes bland, sometimes serious details of our lives. These two words are so ordinary, so normal. Because they sound so common, I wonder how we encounter the words “good news” when we hear them right at the beginning of Mark’s account of the Gospel. Perhaps Mark is really excited about the story he’s going to tell. Perhaps Mark is employing a specific term that Jesus’ himself or his first followers used to describe his message. Either way, Mark is almost certainly doing something that we 21st century citizens would miss entirely because of our modern connotation of “good news.”
You see, in the first century Roman Empire, of which Israel was an occupied region, the term “good news” had a special connotation. The word was used exclusively for propaganda about the empire and usually about the Roman emperor himself.
“Good News: the Emperor won a victory in Gaul!”
“Good News: the Emperor’s wife has given birth to a strapping infant boy!”
“Good News: the Emperor has had another birthday!”
The Roman propaganda machine churned out these ancient press releases, and the strong arm of the military bade the cowed citizenry of occupied countries to celebrate. This was one small way that the Empire kept control of all that conquered land.
So when Jesus and later Mark proclaim their own “Good News,” they are tacitly setting their story, their message, their view of who’s really in charge squarely in the face of the Roman establishment. The “Good News,” which Jesus and his followers proclaim, is a stark challenge to the ruling order of the day. Indeed, Mark shows his faith and his gutsiness in the simple act of writing those two rebellious words on the page.
Okay, file this stark challenge away for just a minute and let’s back up to the first two words in the verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The beginning. These two words seem completely innocuous. They obviously start the story. They’re on page one. They would have been at the top of the scroll in Mark’s day. So then why does Mark need to tell us that we are reading the beginning of the story when we are obviously reading the beginning of the story?
Perhaps Mark isn’t just stating the obvious. Perhaps this “beginning” is greater than “the opening verses of Chapter One.” Perhaps the “beginning” that Mark has in mind encompasses the entirety of his sixteen-chapter Gospel. Now we’re on to something.
If the whole, entire Gospel is the “beginning of the good news,” then the natural question becomes, “What is the middle and end of the good news?” And this is where followers of Jesus Christ down through the centuries come in. Jesus lived the beginning of the Good News. Mark, along with Matthew, Luke, and John, wrote down the story of that beginning. And you and I are characters in the middle of that same story begun two thousand years ago. You and I are players in the unfolding drama of the Good News. You and I have taken up the narrative of the Gospel that God continues to tell in our lives.
All right, go ahead and un-file the stark challenge we talked about a minute ago. Remember that Mark’s usage of the term “Good News” was a gutsy, implicit challenge to the ruling order of the day. This ruling order touted their empire as the “Pax Romana,” the “peace of Rome.” Of course, this “peace” was accomplished through conquest, coercion, occupation, and fear. But Jesus Christ replaced this so-called “peace” with a peace of his own invention. Jesus’ own Good News, his own triumph was accomplished through welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.
Of course, when these two versions of “peace” clashed, the broken, imperial establishment utterly crushed Jesus. However, by not fighting back, by sacrificing himself to halt the cycle of violence, Jesus succeeded in his challenge, even though he died. But even then, the story was just beginning. With his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that his version of the Good News is truly the Good one. As characters who have now appeared later in this same narrative, we have the opportunity to take up the same challenge that Jesus and Mark after him championed. The Pax Romana of our day rules through apathy, self-centeredness, greed, and fear. But when find ourselves in the middle of the story begun in the Gospel, we find the strength and courage to combat those evils with Jesus’ own arsenal of welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.
This opening verse of Mark’s Gospel invites us once again to read the prologue to our own lives as followers of Jesus Christ. This beginning of the Good News gives us who live in the middle our meaning and our purpose and the promise that we are part of the great story of God’s mission to reconcile all creation back to God. The Good News was a challenge in Jesus’ day. And it still is in ours. But we’re up for the challenge because once the Good News of Jesus Christ has lodged itself in your heart, you can’t help but share it in your words and in your deeds.
Now, I’ll end this sermon with some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first? The bad news. Sure. The bad news is there’s still so much brokenness in this world, so many places where God’s reconciling love seems so far away. The good news is that with God’s help, we can challenge the ruling order of our day and bring the wholeness of this reconciliation to those broken places. The good news is that we are the current characters in the story begun in the Gospel. The good news is that the story isn’t over yet.