Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2016 || Proper 22C || Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
Read literally, this passage could have saved the church several thousand dollars this summer. It’s true! After all, we had to have several trees removed from our property, and getting that done safely and expertly was expensive. But Jesus seems to say that a faithful person could just tell a tree to be uprooted and hurled into the Mystic River. I must confess to the members of the vestry and finance committee in attendance that I didn’t try this tactic before we engaged the tree-removal service. I apologize.
Then again, I would not have been my own first choice within this parish as the person of faith to go talking the trees out of the ground. I don’t have nearly as much faith as some sitting in this room.
And right there, with that thought, I fall into the same trap that catches the apostles at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. I fall into the trap of thinking faith has something to do with quantity. “Increase our faith,” they say. “Increase our faith.” Give us more. We don’t have enough yet. Continue reading “Acts of Faith”→
Sermon for Sunday, July 3, 2016 || Proper 9C || Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
During the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.
Last week, we started a sermon series on being “born again.” We talked about this new life of Jesus Christ, this unreasonable life of love and service. And today, we are going to move on to the next part of the series – and I’ve added a couple things by the way – new hands, new feet, and new eyes. We’ll get to those in just a few minutes.
Sermon for Sunday, May 19, 2013 || Pentecost, Year C || John 14:8-17, 25-27
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes one of his biggest promises ever. He is in the middle of his discussion with the disciples, which takes place on the night of his arrest. You can tell from their questions that they are worried, anxious, and fearful. So Jesus promises them this: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth…[the Spirit] abides with you, and…will be with you.”
Jesus made this promise, and if there’s one thing I can believe in, one thing I can rest my weight on, it’s that Jesus never breaks a promise. The Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, has been and will be active in the lives of God’s people forever. But the trouble for us followers of Jesus comes, rather paradoxically, in the very constancy of the Holy Spirit’s presence. We humans are so much better at noticing the things that change. The constant things tend to fade into the background of our lives.
Take breathing, for example. Breathing just happens. I’m breathing right now, and I’m not giving my breath a second thought. I can be unconscious all night, and yet my breath keeps going, independent of my control. For the better part of each day, I am completely unaware of my breathing, and yet my respiratory system continues to function with constant efficiency.
But in one of God’s marvels of human engineering, if I decide to, I can focus on my breath. I can choose to take in a deep lungful of air, or I can choose to hold my breath underwater, or I can choose to let my breath out slowly to calm myself down. Breathing is an unnoticed constant in our lives until we decide to focus on the air entering and exiting our lungs. Then the act of breathing becomes something that we consciously participate in.
Do you know what is the same word as “breath” in the ancient biblical languages? You guessed it. Spirit. Just like our breath, the Holy Spirit is a constant presence in our lives, active within and around us. Because of this constancy, we have a tendency to overlook the Spirit’s presence and to allow the Spirit to fade into the background. But also just like our breath, we have the opportunity to focus on the Holy Spirit’s presence, to breath in a deep lungful of the Spirit, so to speak. When we do this, we actively participate in the transformation that the Spirit is subtly working in our lives.
I’d like to spend the rest of this sermon speaking about several ways the Spirit moves. This won’t be an exhaustive list by any means, but I encourage you to listen for a way in which the Spirit has moved in your life, or a way you pray the Spirit will move.
If you’ve ever had the impulse to create, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever penned a poem or sang a song or played an instrument or stepped a dance or planted a garden or written a love letter or experimented with ingredients or built an imaginary world or raised a child or made a dream a reality, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
The Spirit connects with us via the creative spark, which God implanted in each of us. Being made in the image of God means that God gave us the gift of imagining. The Creator made us to be creative. And just as the Holy Spirit was with God, brooding over the depths at the moment when God spoke creation into being, the Holy Spirit is also with us when we access our own creativity. In fact, the Spirit catalyzes the creative process in us. God has never stopped creating; therefore, one of the ways the Spirit keeps us in relationship with God is keeping us creating too. In my own life, whenever I sit down to write a song, I know the Spirit has prompted me to do so and will guide me as I create new music. So that’s number one: the creative impulse.
If you’ve ever sensed which direction to go, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever been lost – not on the map, but in your heart – and then felt a subtle beckoning down a new path, and at the moment you took the first step in that new direction you felt your heart shine with the rightness of it all, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
The ancient biblical languages use the same word for breath and spirit and for another word: wind. The Holy Spirit is the unseen wind, which subtly pushes us in one direction or another. The wind is both constant and unpredictable, always blowing, but perhaps blowing in a direction we might not expect. When we are lost, the Holy Spirit is present, and we have the opportunity to trim our sails and catch the wind. In my own life, I’ve experienced the Spirit’s presence in this way at the rare times when I have actually been able to give up control. That’s number two: sense of direction to go along with the creative impulse.
If you’ve ever had a sudden sense of peace wash over you, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever been rushing around, moving to and fro, trying to keep up, trying just to keep your feet in a maelstrom of activity, but then something prompted you just to stop, take a deep breath, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
Each time Jesus gives his friends the gift of the Spirit, he also gives them his own peace. Peace is not just the absence of conflict; rather, peace is the soil in which new wholeness grows out of old fragmentation. The Holy Spirit nurtures this growth in us, always pushing us away from brokenness and towards wholeness, towards peace. In my own life, the Spirit has encountered me in this way when I have stopped doing, stopped acting, and have just existed for a spell, just abided in the Spirit’s constant presence. That’s three: sense of peace. Sense of direction. Creative impulse.
Finally, if you’ve ever felt deeply connected to another person, then you’ve felt the Holy Spirit move in your life. If you’ve ever held another’s hand or embraced or laughed together and known in a place deeper than normal knowing that your two souls are connected, woven together, then you’ve participated in the Holy Spirit’s movement.
The Holy Trinity is the perfect relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — so perfect, in fact, that there is only one God, though we name God as three persons. There cannot be a Father without a Son, nor a Son without a Father. Nor can there be the perfect relationship without love. This love connecting Father and Son in perfect relationship is the Holy Spirit. Whenever we feel a deep connection to another person, we are participating in our own small way in the divine relationship of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit makes our loving connections possible. In my own life, I’ve felt this deep connection since the day I met Leah, and I expect I’ll feel it again when we have our own children. That’s four: deep connection.
The creative impulse. Sense of direction. Sense of peace. Deep connection. These are only four of the vast expanse of ways the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives. Like breathing, the Spirit is active whether or not we recognize the Spirit’s movement. But God engineered us to be capable of focusing on our breath and on the Holy Spirit. So I invite you this week to celebrate the Spirit’s movement in your life. Engage in an act of creation. Catch the wind blowing you in a new direction. Stop for a moment and embrace a sense of peace. Rejoice in the deep connections in your life. And know in the place deeper than normal knowing that God the Holy Spirit will abide with you forever.
(Sermon for May 24, 2009 || Easter 7, Year B, RCL || Acts 1:15-17, 21-26)
Their starting lineup is down a man. While football and soccer teams play with eleven on a side, the apostles need an even twelve. No prime numbers for those apostles. Maybe they need twelve to break into four teams of three for Friday night Cranium.* Or, more plausibly, they need twelve to parallel the tribes of the people of Israel and several other biblical allusions. Whatever the reason, they have an open slot. Peter culls down the candidate pool by limiting applicants to those “who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” Taking this criterion into account, the selection committee proposes two names: Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias.
Then the eleven pray to God for guidance, beginning with “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” Lord, you know everyone’s heart. What a profound statement of faith – five words that speak to the apostles’ trust in God. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. This one, brief sentence guides their decision-making process in three substantial ways. They acknowledge God’s presence in their endeavor. They understand that making choices involves more than purely mental exercise. And they show humility in the face of a life-altering decision.
Now, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we routinely ignore God’s presence because God is always present. We forget that God is in charge of not just the miraculous, but also the mundane. Our failure to recognize God’s presence is understandable. How many of us note the sound of the engine in the car until there’s an ominous sputtering? How many of us note the reliable glow of the bedside lamp until the transformer blows outside? We adapt to routine. We organize our lives into predictable patterns. But God’s movement in our lives is the very framework upon which our patterns hang, so that movement is often difficult to perceive. On the other hand, like the electricity, we’d notice if God weren’t there.
The apostles combat the tendency to ignore God’s foundational presence by invoking God’s knowledge of their hearts as they make a decision. Lord, you know everyone’s heart is shorthand for, “Lord, you are present in all that we do, and your presence sustains the world we live in and the life we live.” With these words, the apostles invite God into their decision-making process. This invitation may seem superfluous if you believe the assertion that God is ever-present. Indeed, God doesn’t need an invitation to be present in our lives. But we often need to invite God in to remind ourselves to be present to God. Our invitation functions, strangely enough, as an RSVP, as a response to God’s presence. The apostles know this. They know that the Lord is already present, but the invitation prepares their hearts to respond to God’s movement.
Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they pray. The apostles know that making a life-altering decision involves more than mental exercise. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old adage: “Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment.” To put this cliché in more expressive terms: “Don’t let your wild, unrefined feelings derail your completely rational higher brain functions.” This advice is, of course, flawed from the start. You may be able to solve an algebra problem using your mind alone, but the rest of human experience is up for grabs.
Every decision we make has both mental and emotional components, and we ignore the emotional at our peril. When the apostles pray, Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they combine the mental verb “know” with the feeling word “heart.” They understand that God made separating heart from head so difficult precisely because our decision-making process should not attempt the separation. God gave us minds to temper our emotions and hearts to provide our minds with the fuel of hope and imagination. God infused our biology with such checks and balances, so we tragically limit ourselves when we shelve our feelings in favor of our thoughts. Only by mingling the two can we make faithful decisions.
The apostles know they are in God’s presence. They employ both their hearts and their minds as they make their choice. And they show humility in the midst of a life-altering decision. This humility is key to the whole decision-making enterprise. Every one of my choices affects more than just me, and those effects ripple into the future in permutations that my brain is unequipped to process. I don’t know how my decisions will affect others, let alone myself. Furthermore, I don’t even know myself well enough to make good decisions. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. If God knows what’s in my heart, then that makes one of us.
Humility comes in when we acknowledge our limited awareness of ourselves and the world around us. If our interior lives are clouded in mystery, how much less can we understand the trajectory of our decisions in the wider world? Inviting God into the decision-making process opens us up to the One who truly knows us. The humble prayer begins, “Lord you know my heart, and you know it much better than I do.” Confessing our shallow understanding of our own inner selves sets us on the path to faithful decisions.
The apostles pray, “Lord you know everyone’s heart.” They invite God into their decision, thus gaining attentiveness of God’s presence in their lives. They do not let their heads dominate, but mingle their hearts and minds in order to use all their faculties to choose. And they humbly acknowledge that they do not alone have the depth of awareness necessary to make a faithful decision.
The apostles choose Matthias to fill out their number. With a full complement of apostles, the Holy Spirit descends on them and they create the Church. Then they begin to spread the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. I invite you to imitate the apostles’ prayer when you are faced with a decision. Invite God into your dilemma. Allow your heart and mind to cooperate. And be humble in the midst of the unknown, trusting that God’s knowledge of your hearts far surpasses your own. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Thanks be to God.
* Instead of Cranium, I said, “three tables for Thursday morning Bridge” at the early service.