Every year on the Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. The Gospel writer Luke skips the moment of the baptism, preferring instead to focus on what happens next. Jesus comes up out of the water, towels off his hair, and puts on his clothes. And then he starts praying. I’ve read this passage a hundred times and I’ve never noticed that Jesus is praying when we get to the part of the story Luke wants to tell. In my imagination, I see Jesus kneeling by himself on the riverbank, eyes closed, hands held palms up in his lap like a little bowl. His posture is that of someone who has just sat down in church and spends a quiet moment with God before the collective worship begins.
Sermon for Sunday, September 5, 2021 || Proper 18B || Holy Baptism
I don’t need to list for you the numerous ways the world is in turmoil right now. We are all aware, not just in our minds and hearts, but in our very bones. I bet you, too, feel the kind of bone-weariness I feel right now. It’s an exhaustion that exists on all levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. We are in the middle of the desert and our canteens ran out a while back and our legs are shaky and the vultures are circling. Everywhere is nothing but sand: coarse, rough, irritating sand.
One of the challenges of growing as human beings is expecting perfection when we try something new simply because we are pretty good at something else. I thought I could pick up the violin because I’m a fairly good guitarist. Not so much. We humans do not like doing things we are bad at because our egos get in the way. The older we get, the more solidified becomes the subset of activities that we think we are good enough to engage in. Does that resonate with you? I can still play soccer because I’ve been playing it since I was a kid. But don’t expect me to pick up lacrosse any time soon. I don’t want to feel foolish when the ball stubbornly fails to stay in the little net for the hundredth time.
All right. So why am I talking about this? The innocuous music and sports examples are one thing. But we need to grow in so many ways so we don’t become static and stagnant – ways that we naturally resist because growth takes energy and focus. We need to keep growing in kindness and compassion so we outgrow selfishness and callousness. We need to keep growing in the desire to be of service to others while also understanding our own healthy boundaries and limits. We need to keep growing in all facets of our identity – as spouses, family members, friends, neighbors, citizens, and followers of Jesus.
I was in the middle of exercising late Wednesday afternoon when I received panicked texts from a friend and from my mother at the same time. Do you see what’s going on at the Capitol right now? We are very shaken.Are you all okay? I immediately switched over from YouTube to live coverage on CBS and left it on until well past sundown, unable to tear my eyes away from the ugly spectacle. In one way, the events of Wednesday were shocking: after all, a hostile force has not breached the Capitol since the War of 1812. But in all other ways, Wednesday was the natural outcome of years of lies, incitement, manipulation, demagoguery, and (most pertinent for this sermon) heresy. That’s not a word I use very often, but it is important, especially in tumultuous times like these, to use the right words for things. I’ve been thinking and praying for three days about how to address the events of Wednesday in this sermon, and the only way I can wrap my head around them after so little time is to begin with the heresy on display this week and then counter it with Gospel.
My kids love to get their faces painted. Whenever we are at a fair or carnival, they will beeline to face painting booth and wait in line as long as they have to. One of the twins will get a Spiderman paint job and the other will look like a unicorn. Then they will spend the rest of the day so happy because of the art adorning their faces. At bedtime, the inevitable strife will ensue.
“I need to wash the the paint of your faces.” “No!” “But it will smear all over your pillow.” “I don’t care!” “You’re not the one who does the laundry.”
I’m in charge, so the paint eventually comes off, but I always hate cleaning their faces because it’s like I’m taking their joy away. Those nights, they go to bed very sullen. The unicorn and Spiderman are no more.
Or are they? The paint might be gone, but the imaginations that asked for those particular designs remain. The children can still enter into those identities in their play whether they have their faces painted or not. But for that one shining day, the face paint illuminates on the outside the characters they are playing within.
Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2016 || Proper 4C || Luke 7:1-10
I have a simple question to begin this morning’s sermon. How much is an hour of your time worth? If you work at an hourly job, this question is easy. If you are in a salaried position, then you’ll have to do some math, but you can still figure it out. If you are retired, then your time is…priceless, right? The State of Connecticut sets a minimum threshold for how much an hour of time is worth. Does anyone know what Connecticut’s minimum wage is for 2016? $9.60 on its way to $10.10 next year. The federal minimum wage is a paltry $7.25 and holding. Continue reading “How Much Are You Worth?”→
Sermon for Sunday, August 30, 2015 || Proper 17 || James 1:17-27
My 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.
Sermon for Sunday, January 12, 2014 || Epiphany 1A || Matthew 3:13-17
Before I get into the meat of this sermon, I hope you will indulge me with a moment of personal privilege. This is my final sermon at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. We’ll still be together next Sunday morning, but I won’t be standing in front of you following the Gospel reading like I am now – on the record, as it were. From the bottom of my heart, please allow me to express my deepest gratitude to you for the last four years. They have been the best four years of my life, in no small part because of your welcome of Leah and me into your midst, your love and partnership, and your fervent desire to serve God here and beyond those doors. May you continue to shine with the light of God’s love, to bear witness to God’s healing power, and to welcome every soul who walks across that threshold. With every fiber of my being, I say, “Thank you.”
Since this is my last sermon, it seems only fitting that today I’ll be talking about a beginning. In a few minutes, we will reorient our worship to the south side of the church. We will stand around that behemoth stone basin over there. (As an aside, I have no idea how our font didn’t sink the ship that carried if here from England all those centuries ago.) Anyway, we will stand around the stone basin, say prayers over the water, and baptize little Kaylee. But before we do, let’s have a quick session of Christianity 101: An Introduction to Baptism. It seems only fitting to do this on a day when we will witness a baptism and when we’ve just read about Jesus’ own baptism by John in the River Jordan.
So what’s really going on in baptism? The traditional understanding tells us that baptism serves as the initiatory rite of the church and marks the cleansing of our sins. Now neither of these definitions is wrong (let me be clear), but I think if we stop there we will be prone to misunderstanding. We need to dig a little deeper. Here’s one thing to remember about baptism, and this will be on the test (there’s no test): the sacrament of baptism affirms and celebrates a state of being that already exists. The action of baptizing doesn’t create anything new; rather, the sacrament marks our participation in something God is already doing.
Here’s what I mean. At the end of the baptism service, we will welcome Kaylee saying: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” However, by virtue of Kaylee being born in the image and likeness of God, she is already a member of God’s family. She is already part of God’s household. Thus, her baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being she already possesses. Today we will celebrate her membership in God’s family so that we can see the deep truth of God’s reality: that we are all members of that family.
Participating in this deep truth is what makes baptism one of the sacraments of the faith. If you’ve taken a confirmation class or CCD in the Roman Catholic Church, then you might remember the classic definition of a sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Another way to put this is that sacraments are windows through which God gives us the gift of viewing the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Sacraments take ordinary, everyday things – water and bread, for example – and use them to reveal extraordinary holiness hidden in plain sight.
When we baptize Kaylee, the hidden will be revealed for a moment, and we will see the unconditional love of God embracing a soul who has never done a thing to earn that love. And we will learn once again that we can do nothing to earn it either. We can only respond to God’s unconditional love in our lives.
If Kaylee has done nothing to earn God’s love, then neither has she done anything to reject it, so you might be wondering why we baptize to cleanse sins, which you’ll recall was the second part of our traditional understanding of baptism. Once again, we are affirming and celebrating a state of being that already exists.
The word “baptism” sounds all fancy until you dig down to its roots. “Baptism” simply means “to wash.” If you were off to take a shower (and you happened to be a speaker of ancient Greek) you might use the verb from which we get the word “baptism.” When we bathe, we scrub away all the dirt and sweat and grime that accumulates during our day-to-day lives. We have to bathe regularly because we get dirty regularly. But we baptize only once because baptism is a celebration that our sins are forgiven – not just the ones we already committed but all of our sins past and future, everything that has, does, or will separate us from God. When we wash in the waters of baptism, we join God’s reality in progress, a reality in which nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. The sacrament of baptism allows us to mark the beginning of our participation in this reality.
So if baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being that already exists, you might be wondering if it asks anything of us at all. If we’re just jumping into a river that’s already flowing, what is our responsibility in all of this?
Well, the action of baptism takes place in a few seconds at the behemoth stone basin over there. We’ll pour a few ounces of blessed water on Kaylee’s forehead, say the words, and that will be that. But the baptismal life continues from that moment on. The baptismal life is a sacramental life, a life in which each baptized person becomes one of those windows into the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Thus baptism invites us into deeper commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, deeper relationship with God, and deeper resonance with the Holy Spirit’s presence.
When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant in a moment, we will promise with God’s help to commit ourselves once again to serve God in this world. We will remember that nothing separates us from God’s love, that we are all members of God’s great family, and that God invites us to live baptismal lives, committed to bearing witness to the true and deep reality of God’s presence in creation.
(Sermon for Sunday, August 18, 2013 || Proper 15C || Luke 12:49-56)
These are the promises we will reaffirm before our baptism in a few minutes:
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
We will answer each of these with, “I will, with God’s help.” This acknowledges that we can’t fulfill the promises without God. We will also answer them as a group, which acknowledges that we can’t fulfill them without each other. I wonder, however, if you are experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile that last promise with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. I know I am. We promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” while Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
It probably didn’t escape your notice that Jesus is in a less friendly mood than he was in last week’s passage. When Jesus speaks from a place of stress or exhaustion, as he does in today’s reading, he often slides to the strident, confrontational end of the spectrum. Sounds particularly human, doesn’t it? Sounds like me if I’m having a low blood sugar day or if I’m about to board an airplane. We can use Jesus’ stress to explain away his difficult words (“He didn’t really mean that stuff about peace and division; he was just really stressed out”). Or we can acknowledge that in his stressed state, Jesus speaks some unvarnished truth, perhaps not as nuanced as he would have liked to speak it, but truth nonetheless.
To get to this unvarnished truth, we first have to understand how people in Jesus’ time would have heard the word “peace.” One version of the word was a simple greeting: “Shalom.” Another use was for the cessation of upheaval: “Peace, be still.” But a third use was more sinister – peace as propaganda. You’ve heard of the “Pax Romana,” the “Peace of Rome.” This was the glorious gift of Rome to the peoples fortunate enough to come under the Roman banner and Roman “protection.” Well, that’s how the Romans would have sold it. The Pax Romana really spread by the edge of the sword, and conquered peoples lived in fear and distrust of their occupiers.
I think it is to this third kind of “peace” that Jesus is referring: “peace” as the absence of conflict, yes, but also the absence of justice, of freedom. The kind of peace the Pax Romana brought was really just a thin veneer spread over a roiling mass of suppressed cultures and traditions and hopes and dreams. The thin veneer of “peace” hid the brokenness, the divisions that lay beneath.
With his words in today’s lesson, Jesus seeks to rip the cover off this false kind of peace and to expose the brokenness of society beneath, and in exposing that brokenness begin to heal it. Jesus knows human nature all too well – without exposing the brokenness, the divisions in society, we are content just to go along with the status quo, willingly ignorant to the steep costs of so-called “peace.” Indeed, Jesus’ words today could have spilled from the lips of any leader of the Civil Rights movement. How many decades did this country live in so-called “peace” before Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus in 1955?
Jesus’ words also speak unvarnished truth when we move from the societal to the personal. Each of us has a individual Pax Romana within us — a set of assumptions about our security and wellbeing that promises peace at long last. Despite the lack of evidence, we believe these promises until we realize they come from the marketing department, whose goal is for us to consume, not to find peace. When Jesus rips the cover off this false kind of peace, we find our broken selves, which have fragmented because we let ourselves be seduced by so many things. With the false peace gone, we confront the broken, divided people we really are.
But we aren’t alone. Jesus may have come to expose the divisions hidden under the myriad Pax Romanas of society and of our souls. But this is only half the mission. He also came to put the pieces back together again. He came to show us what real peace is: peace accompanied by justice, mercy, and love; peace that nurtures the dignity of all peoples rather than suppressing it; peace that passes all understanding.
This is the kind of peace we strive for when we affirm our baptismal promises. We strive for the peace of the broken bone that grows back stronger than before. We strive for the peace of the generous heart that no longer fears scarcity as it once did. We strive for the peace of Christ that shatters the veneer of tranquility, exposes the divisions beneath, and weaves the disparate threads of division into peace that is true, deep, and abiding.
The peace we promise to strive for in our baptismal promises is this true, deep, and abiding peace of Christ. We participate in the hard work of accomplishing this peace when, with God’s help, we see past the thin veneer of so-called peace in society and in ourselves. When, with God’s help, we follow Jesus Christ to the brokenness beneath, the brokenness of the cross and the world. And when, with God’s help, we don’t stop there, but press on to the new wholeness of the empty tomb and the power of the resurrection.
Last post, I began with an illustration from The Princess Bride, and it seems once you get me going, I have trouble stopping. Here’s another one. At the beginning of the film, Buttercup commands the farm boy, Westley, to do several menial tasks – polish her horse’s saddle, fill buckets with water, fetch a pitcher. Each time, he responds, “As you wish.” In time, Buttercup realizes that “As you wish” is Westley’s way of saying “I love you.” This discovery, of course, leads to a sunset kiss, a leave-taking to seek fortune across the sea, a supposed death, and (eventually) a harrowing reunion, a second separation, another supposed death, a rescue, and (finally) an escape together from the homicidal schemes of the evil prince.
“As you wish,” says Westley before doing Buttercup’s bidding. Too remove any mystery from where this post is going, let me put it bluntly: his actions display his love. He serves Buttercup, and the love that prompts this service stirs in her, as well, though the words “I love you” are never uttered.
You see, saying “I love you” is all too easy – just three little monosyllables. Subject, verb, object. Meaning it is the hard part. I could say, “I’m going to eat eighty-seven hotdogs in twenty minutes,” but (unless I conveniently morph into a hundred pound Japanese man) there’s no way I mean it. But you could drive one of those Wide-Load trailers with half a mobile home on it through the gap between what we say and what we mean.
Too often, the abused wife returns to her husband because “he says he loves me.” Too often, the college freshman wakes up crying the next morning, after being duped by “I love you.” Too often, “I love you” hurts more than it heals. The abusive husband and the manipulative scumbag weaponize the phrase, with no thought to its destructive consequences and their own dormant culpability.
This is where action comes in. This is where service separates truth from manipulation. You may be tempted to say that action is needed to prove that a spoken “I love you” is real. (If this were the case, there would still be myriad jousting tournaments throughout Christendom.*) Rather, active service is a spontaneous symptom of love, and one that often removes the necessity of speaking the words aloud.
Loving and serving – we really mustn’t separate the two. Love expresses itself not in poetic protestations, but in holding the beloved’s hair back when she’s bent over the toilet with stomach flu. Love waits all night in the hospital room, visits the prisoner, builds affordable housing, donates mac & cheese. Love gets its uniform dirty.**
The Baptismal Covenant is the Episcopal playbook for turning love into action. One of the promises echoes Jesus’ great commandment: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
Will you serve? I will, with God’s help. How will you serve?
Will you love? I will, with God’s help. What will your love impel you to do?
God has given gifts to each of us so that we might enrich the lives of those around us. The ability to love is one such gift. The desire to serve is another. Paired with these gifts are those sets of talents unique to each one of us. When we combine our unique giftedness into that sacred body of which Christ is the head, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.
On Sunday morning, God nourishes us when we share the body and blood of Christ. Then God orients us toward the door at the back of the church and the world waiting beyond. We pray, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” God sends us out to love and to serve. I pray that we can, with God’s help, respond, “As you wish.”
* I’m sure we could come up with some modern analogs. However, I beg you to concede the point.
** Have you ever noticed that there are certain baseball players who, no matter what, end the game with grass and dirt stains all over their uniforms?