You’re going to get sick of me saying this, but it has fascinated me for years, so I will say it again. Jesus almost never answers the questions people ask him. I know I started my sermon a few weeks ago with this same thought, but it’s so important for understanding how Jesus related to people in the Gospel. Jesus responds to questions, but he rarely answers them. When we take the time to compare his response to the thing the questioner was looking for, we see more clearly the path Jesus invites us to walk.
Sermon for Sunday, January 27, 2019 || Epiphany 3C || Luke 4:14-21
Stacey just read for you the entirety of Jesus’ first recorded sermon. If you spaced out for a second during the Gospel lesson, then you might have missed it. The sermon is really short – one sentence only: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
That’s it. That’s Jesus’ first sermon. Short and sweet. You wouldn’t even have time to be distracted by your text messages or Twitter feed during that sermon. Back in my last church, the pulpit was a good ten feet in the air, so I could always see when people were checking their phones. Don’t worry – you’re safe here with me on the floor. Continue reading “Only the Present”→
Sermon for Sunday, July 8, 2018 || Proper 9B || Mark 6:1-13
When I was growing up, my parents instituted a family ordinance called “the airport rule.” The airport rule stated that whenever we were in a crowded place like an airport, we always had to be holding hands with another member of the family. Observing this safety measure meant we were less likely to get lost or (God forbid) snatched. All my parents had to do was call out, “Airport rule!” and Melinda and I immediately buddied up with them.
When I became a parent myself, I finally understood the genius of the airport rule. It wasn’t just about safety, though that was a big part of it. The airport rule also made our travel more efficient because, once buddied up, we had to walk at the parent’s pace instead of the child’s. And there was one more sneaky element of the airport rule that I would never have dreamt of when I was a kid. I’m certain my parents called out for the airport rule just because they liked holding our hands. There’s simply nothing like reaching down and finding those warm, little fingers to squeeze. Every time I hold my son’s or daughter’s hands, I can’t help but send up a prayer of thanks that God entrusted these two precious lives to Leah and me.*
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”→
Sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2018 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28
One of the enduring images of my childhood is my father never taking off his cross necklace. He wore that cross under his clothes close to his heart. He wore it (and still wears it) all the time: while sleeping, while exercising, even while showering. I can see him in my mind’s eye at the beach wearing just swim trunks and a three-inch by two-inch piece of silver metal.
I wanted to be like him so badly that I asked for a cross of my own to wear. So my parents gave me one for my birthday when I was about fourteen or fifteen. I tried to wear it all the time like my dad, but the chain would chafe my neck while I slept, so I took it off at night, and sometimes I’d forget to put it back on. It was against the rules to wear jewelry on the soccer field, so off came the cross then too. I lost it in the depths of my car for a few months my senior year of high school. Then one day during my first semester of college the chain broke, and I lost the cross for good. I had wanted to wear the cross to be like my dad, but I had failed. He never took his off, never lost it. Continue reading “Live Deep, Live Wide”→
Sermon for Sunday, November 12, 2017 || Proper 27A
For people of my age and background, a certain horrific event in our country’s history shapes us. We’re too young to remember the Kennedy assassination or even the loss of the Challenger space shuttle. And yes, September 11, 2001 was a seminal event for us as it was for everyone. But that’s not the event that shaped people who, like me, were in high school in the late 1990s. The horrific event that shaped us happened on April 20, 1999 when a pair of students armed with assault weapons and explosives attacked their own high school in Columbine, Colorado.
You may or may not remember it, but if you grew up like me, I guarantee you do. That was the day we were confronted with the stark reality that nothing and nowhere is truly safe, that whatever bubbles we lived in could burst at any moment. And yet, what always happens after horrific events, happened after the Columbine massacre. I knew the bubble was there. I knew it could burst. But I still lived inside the bubble, content to exist adjacent to horror, knowing that my odds of personal victimhood were microscopically small.Continue reading “Bursting Bubbles”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31
Near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns to life. His adversary had executed him on that table in place of the boy Edmund. The witch thinks she has won a decisive victory, but Aslan knows of deeper magic than she. So the witch doesn’t expect the risen lion to appear at her castle while she’s off trying to conquer the land of Narnia. But that’s what happens. Aslan, the Christ-like figure of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, races to the witch’s home to free all those whom she had turned into statues. And do you know how he releases them from their captivity? He breathes on them.Continue reading “So I Send You”→
Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17; 7:45-52; 19:38-42
The Pharisee Nicodemus is not a member of the main cast of the Gospel according to John. In the parlance of television, he would be known as a recurring character. If each chapter of John’s Gospel were an episode of a TV series, it would fill one standard network season, and Nicodemus would guest star in episodes 3, 7, and 19. We meet him at the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’ ministry, and each time we drop in on him, Nicodemus is somewhere new in his own journey towards an active faith in Christ.
The Gospel writer makes clear that the intention of the Gospel is to help the reader believe by telling the story of Jesus in a certain way. The writer uses Nicodemus’s three-part journey as a stand-in for our own, as we, too, journey towards more active faith in Christ. The world of Nicodemus and our own world share some striking similarities. Nicodemus lived in a world that had yet to be steeped in Christian tradition; people around him were either confused by the message of Jesus, hostile to it, or ignorant of it. Today’s world is similar; the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, while confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply. Today, we’re going to go on the journey of our guest star Nicodemus to see what his participation in the story of Jesus has to tell us about our own. Continue reading “The Guest Star”→
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, October 11, 2015 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31
Jesus feels drawn to the man kneeling in front of him. His heart is warmed, and he feels the stirrings of love and compassion for this frightened soul in the midst of an existential crisis. Perhaps the man recently had a parent or friend die, or perhaps he himself had experienced an accident or illness that brought death near. Whatever the trigger, the man comes to Jesus with a serious question that has obviously been plaguing him because of some unspoken dread roiling within him.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus lists off some of the standard commandments, and the man checks each box. That’s when Jesus looks at him with love and compassion. Here is this man in fine clothes getting dirty in the dust of the road. Here is this man with obvious wealth and power coming to an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head. “I know what’s holding you back,” Jesus says. “It’s always something. There’s always something in the way that only you can shift. I can help. I can encourage. I can give you strength and courage. But you must decide.”
“What? What is it?” pleads the man.
“In your case: sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”
Shocked into speechlessness, the man gives Jesus a hard look, stands, dusts off his finery, and stalks away, not really understanding the source of his tears. Jesus invited this man to give away his possessions. He was holding his stuff so tightly that he couldn’t open his hands to receive what Jesus was offering him. He couldn’t let go, so he never discovered how life-changing it can be to release your grip, to uncurl your hand ready to give and ready to receive.
Jesus diagnoses this man on the spot. Jesus loves him enough not to sugarcoat what he needs to do to get past the barriers his own wealth has set up. Give it all away. Just give it all away. This action of giving is one of the more powerful steps we can take in our lives of faith in response to God’s movement in those lives. So it makes sense that Jesus invites each and every one of us, like the man in the story, to give. And as near as I can tell, this giving follows a general pattern.
First we have giving up. I know, I know, the great American sports movie teaches us differently: every single one of them follows the same pattern: upstart team or individual gets trounced by dominant team or individual. Upstart trains, learns something about teamwork or grit, and challenges the champion. The game goes horribly for our heroes until the last minute – it’s gut check time – and they decide never to give up. With renewed strength and faith, the upstart wins in the last second. That’s the narrative we are steeped in here in the United States. Never give up.
And yet, that’s exactly what our faith calls us to do. Give up. So we ask ourselves: what does God desire us to give up? Most questions we put to God are hard. But not this one. God dreams for us to have as close a connection to God as God has to us. Therefore, we have to give up all that stands in the way of such intimate connection. There’s a special word for this stuff that stands in the way: “idol.” Whatever it is, each of us has something we tend to put ahead of God. We look to that something to give us life. But since the idol will never be able to give us what we need, our lives shrivel until they are brittle and paper thin, starved because the idol provides such poor nourishment.
So God urges us to give up such idols. But that’s just step one. Step two is giving in. It’s not enough to do away with the idols. If we don’t give in – if we don’t surrender ourselves into God’s loving and sustaining care – then the power vacuum will just attract another idol to take the place of the old one. So we give in to God. We surrender ourselves to God’s love and mercy.
This giving in is so hard. It continues going against the grain we’ve been taught. Now the war movie takes center stage. Of course, we’d never surrender! But again, we must ask ourselves: to whom are we surrendering. Not to the enemy. Not to the bad guy. We surrender to our own commander. We were in rebellion all along, and now we’re coming home.
So we give up, then we give in. And then we give ourselves over to trusting God with our whole beings. It’s not enough simply to surrender. Giving over means joining God’s side. You say, “You’re in charge, Lord, not me. Of the two of us, I’m not the better decision maker, so why don’t you take the lead. I’ll follow.”
Again, giving over is no cakewalk. Our socialization is still against us. We’ve seen too many movies, and now the Teacher-Pupil archetype comes to mind – the one where the hard luck case puts trust in a mentor who turns out not to be as perfect as the hard luck case thought, and drama ensues. We are the hard luck cases, but our mentor just so happens to be as perfect as we think. (More perfect even, since we can’t begin to perceive the wonder of God.)
So we give up, then we give in, then we give over. Now we’re ready to give back. We remember the TV shows and movies in which the teenager gets a first credit card and goes on a crazy buying spree. Yep, that’s us, if given half a chance, so maybe we shouldn’t be in charge. Since we trust God more than we trust ourselves, we conclude, it’s time for God to take charge of all our stuff. We can be stewards of the stuff, but it’s not ours anymore.
Each year, God gives us stewardship of most of this stuff and keeps a small percentage to be used for God’s mission here at St. Mark’s and elsewhere. We partner with God by pledging this small percentage towards God’s mission. That percentage might be 10% or a little less or a little more. Through prayer, we can discern what’s right for each of us in our circumstances.
This giving back transitions into the final act of giving: giving forward; that is, not only financing God’s mission but participating in it with our own gifts and passions. Think of disaster films in which everyone bands together to beat the odds. Giving forward means making decisions and making sacrifices with people other than ourselves in mind. Giving forward means propelling into God’s bright future those people who think they have no future.
Just as Jesus invites the man in today’s Gospel to give away all he has, Jesus invites us to give. With God’s help, we give up our idols. We give in to God and surrender our malfunctioning wills. We give over to God our self-determination and trust God’s guidance. We give back to God all that we have, knowing that our stuff is safer in God’s hands. And we give forward for God, partnering with God in the great mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. To give up, in, over, back, forward – to give – is a great act of faith. Thanks be to God, then, that God began this entire process by giving first: giving us God’s son, God’s grace, love, hope; giving us our own deep desire to give.