Here and Now

Sermon for Sunday, December 9, 2018 || Advent 2C || Luke 3:1-6

God calls each one of us into relationship. God calls us because God love us. And God calls us to love. In love God calls us to take part in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. In love God calls us to serve others, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, and to speak the good news of Jesus Christ. God calls us. God calls you and me.

In today’s Gospel lesson, God calls John, a person who lives out in the wilderness, a person whose birth bewildered many, a person who willed others to remember the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We call him John the Baptist because he prepared the way of the Lord by ritually washing people in the River Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Continue reading “Here and Now”

Planting a Seed

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Twenty-five years ago today, I trudged up the marble steps, past the stone lions, and into the cold church next door to my house. I think I was in fourth grade at the time. That day I got to miss the bus because that day was special. That day was Ash Wednesday.

I stepped into the nave of the church. The coughs and groans of the overworked heaters echoed off the vaulted ceiling. The church hovered in the stillness of pre-dawn, awaiting the riot of color that would dance down the chancel steps when the early morning sun reached the stained glass behind the altar. I looked around in the dim light. The nave was empty. No one had come to the early morning service. Continue reading “Planting a Seed”

The Inciting Incident

Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016 || Easter 6C || John 5:1-9

theincitingincidentAt the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins leads a comfortable, if unexciting life in his home at Bag End in the town of Hobbiton in the idyllic land called the Shire. Bilbo had never left the Shire, nor had any but a few hobbits, whom the rest of hobbit society thought a bit addled in the head. Bilbo contented himself with a leisurely life of eating, walking about town, relaxing with a good pipe, and eating some more.

Even if you’ve never read The Hobbit, you know it’s an adventure story, so obviously something needs to happen to Bilbo, something known in the study of literature as “the inciting incident.” JR.R. Tolkien has a whole world to show Bilbo, a world that starts at his doorstep and leads to a solitary mountain where Bilbo bandies words with a terrifying dragon.

Well, such an inciting incident happens when Bilbo hears a knock on his round front door. The wizard Gandalf has come to invite Bilbo on an adventure with a dozen dwarves. Their tale of the dragon seizing and laying waste to their homeland sends Bilbo’s imagination soaring off to distant places. But when dinner is over and the dwarves have finished their hauntingly beautiful song, Bilbo’s good sense reasserts itself. He thanks them for their offer but politely declines. Tolkien has presented his protagonist with the perfect inciting incident, but for the moment, Bilbo doesn’t bite.

The next day Bilbo begins going about his day as usual, but something has changed within him. He has awoken to the wider world beyond his door, and suddenly he realizes he simply cannot miss this chance. He dashes out of his house in such a rush that he leaves his pocket-handkerchief. He catches up with the dwarves and the adventure sweeps him away. The inciting incident has happened, and Bilbo’s life is forever changed.

Every story, both fiction and nonfiction, has an inciting incident. Sometimes the character has no choice in the matter; events conspire in such a way to make the path inevitable. Sometimes, as in The Hobbit, the character does have a choice as to whether he or she wants to remain in the relative security of the normal or risk the adventure of the unknown. Harry Potter chooses to step with Hagrid into the wizarding world. Katniss Everdeen chooses to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games. Like Bilbo and Harry and Katniss, you and I have a choice. An inciting incident presents itself to us this morning. We can choose to stay home. Or we can dash off without our pocket-handkerchiefs.

This inciting incident comes in the form of Jesus walking up to you and me and asking us the same question he asks the man by the pool of Beth-zatha: “Do you want to be made well?” It seems like a question with such an obvious answer, doesn’t it? “Do you want to be made well?” Yes! is the answer you’d expect, right? But that’s not what the man says. Rather, he gives a resigned speech about why he’s never made it into the legendary healing waters of the pool. It’s been 38 years, and by now, he seems resigned to his lot in life as the one who never makes it to the water on time.

In response to the man’s resignation, Jesus skips the preliminaries and goes straight for the command: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Perhaps the man thinks Jesus is having a bit of fun at his expense. But the tone is all wrong. This was an invitation, not a joke. The inciting incident is here, and the man has a choice. He can stay put and not realized he has been given the gift of healing. Or he can get up: he can make the choice that will change his life for the better. And still, the choice is not as obvious as we might first think. Change for the better is still change. And change is scary, no matter if it’s for good or for ill.

The man by the pool chooses to engage his inciting incident. He chooses to stand up. When he does, he realizes Jesus healed him, and his life takes a sharp turn from the paralytic monotony of the last 38 years. In light of this, my questions for you this morning are these: when have you responded to an inciting incident in your life? How did your life change when you took the risk to venture into the unknown? How was God present to you as you walked from security into uncertainty? As you ponder how you’ve responded to inciting incidents in the past, pray with this one final question from Jesus himself: “Do you want to be made well?”

Perhaps you’re in a toxic work environment, and the personalities you work with have made you dread stepping through the doors of the office. Your physical and emotional health have both declined precipitously because of the stress your workday puts on you, but you need a paycheck. When you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well,” you realize the choice before you boils down to how much your own health is worth to you.

Perhaps your family has a history of diabetes, and you’ve started noticing lately that you get pretty sluggish when you eat sugar. It makes you feel awful, but you crave it just the same. When you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well,” you realize the choice before you pits immediate gratification against long-term health.

Perhaps a close friend has confided in you a concern that you drink more than you should. At first, you ignore the concern, then you get defensive about it, then angry, and suddenly you start to wonder why you’re upset. It’s because you really do have a problem, you realize. And that’s when you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well?”

Jesus’ question exposes the fact that we all have choices to make that will lead to better health. The status quo may be comfortable, if unexciting, but in the end it leaves us paralyzed by the pool. Jesus’ question is a new inciting incident in each of our lives. Each of us can make a choice to lead a life that promotes wellness, for ourselves and those around us.

For me personally, the inciting incident began when I went to the CREDO conference a few weeks ago. I was introduced to a concept called “margin.” Margin is the space in our lives between the loads we carry and the limit to our carrying capacity. I realized I spend too much of my life with my load and my limit being equal, which means collapse is a real possibility whenever my load increases. At the conference, I heard Jesus ask me his inciting question. My response was “Yes!” followed by the obvious question: “But how?” A simple answer came to me: “You are not alone.”

We’re all in this together, and Christ is here, both calling us to greater health and giving us the gifts to achieve the changes we need to make in our lives. In whatever way Jesus calls you to a life of better wellness, know that you are not alone. You have us to support you when you respond to that inciting incident; when you dash off without your pocket-handkerchief; when you hear Jesus ask, “Do you want to be made well,” and you answer, “Yes!”

The Third Word: Mission

(Or The Center of the Cross)

Sermon for Sunday, January 25, 2015 || Epiphany 3B || Mark 1:14-20

Word3MissionTwo weeks ago, we felt God affirm us as God’s good and beloved children. Last week, that affirmation allowed us to accept God’s holy invitations, which most often originate in our own brokenness. This week, we ask where those invitations lead us, and we find our third word in this six-part series. That third word is Mission.

In church lingo, the word “mission” is usually followed by the word “trip.” Perhaps you went on a mission trip as a teenager to a Native American reservation or spent a week painting a church in a town in El Salvador. When I was in seminary I went on a mission trip to New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. The group went down with Habitat for Humanity thinking we were going to be rebuilding homes. Turns out it was too soon to begin rebuilding, so we spent much of the week mucking putrid, knee-deep mud and silt out of water-logged homes on streets, whose road signs had been ripped off their poles by hundred mile an hour winds. We wore white coveralls, masks, and plastic gloves, which we duct-taped to our wrists. We spent the days bent over our shovels, thinking of nothing more than the next scoop of muck, because if you tried to think bigger thoughts, you became suddenly and irreversibly overwhelmed by the sodden despair clinging to every surface. Everywhere you looked, the five-month old disaster was still raw, still fresh.

When we returned to Virginia, it felt like coming home from a trip to Mars. I woke up the morning after we got back, and I wondered if it had all just been a bad dream. Then I rose and felt the bone-deep ache in my muscles and knew it was no dream. We had been there. We had helped. A little.

For that week in January 2006, bending over a shovel in a house on the outskirts of New Orleans was my mission from God. I have no doubt about that. I bring up this particular, weeklong excursion, however, to point out just how atypical it is. Most people never go on mission trips. If you do regularly, you’ll go probably a single week a year. I’ve only been on one other since New Orleans. Surely, there’s more to mission than just the trips?

When Jesus invites those four unsuspecting fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he doesn’t say, “Follow me for a week.” He just says, “Follow me.” And then he gives them their mission: “And I will make you fish for people.” What Jesus offers is not just a break from their nets, but a complete change in their lives as they know them. Simon, Andrew, James, and John do not sign up for a mission trip. They sign up for a mission life.

This is the opportunity Jesus offers us today. He offered it yesterday, too, and he will offer it again tomorrow. He doesn’t say, “Follow me for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when you are around your church friends.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when it is convenient.” He just says, “Follow me.” The invitation embedded in those two words promises a life of meaning, of service, of sacrifice, and of joy; not an easy life, but a full life, a life of purpose.

And all Jesus wants in return is you. All of you. Everything that makes you, you: your gifts and talents, as well as your pain and brokenness; your hopes and dreams, as well as your fears and nightmares. Offering everything we are to Jesus helps God tailor our missions to our lives. God will only use the parts of us that we give back to God. So if we want our missions to be authentic outpourings of ourselves for God’s work in the world, then we have to be willing to give everything — and I mean everything — back to God. There may be a dark corner of your life that you don’t want anyone to see. But shining a light into that dark corner may be the exact mission God yearns for you to accomplish. It may be painful. It may lead you to places you never thought you’d go. But it will be your mission. And because you will be following Jesus, he will arrive there ahead of you.

Like the original disciples, when we sign up to follow Jesus, we sign up for mission lives. But before you cringe away from the level of commitment that Jesus calls forth from us, let’s consider those original disciples. For them, following Jesus was an immersive experience. They lived with him. They ate with him. They could tell us if he snored or which sandal he always put on first. And still they often misunderstood him, disbelieved his power, and even abandoned him in his own hour of need. And these were the fellows who knew him in person.

Living mission lives does not mean living perfect lives. Like I said, Jesus wants us – warts and all – to follow him. The brokenness the disciples exhibit in the Gospel is the same brokenness that leads us to God’s holy invitations and then on to our missions.

Jesus’ own mission led him to the cross, and it is the image of the cross that I’d like to dwell on for a moment. Think of the vertical plank of the cross as all the possible missions God could call you to, everything that leads to healing and reconciliation in this world. Now think of the horizontal plank as the entirety of yourself that you have to give to the one who invited you to follow him. The spot where the two planks meet is the center of your mission life. And it is also the spot where Christ gave up his life in order to give you yours.*

The center of the cross is not a pleasant place. Neither will be many of the places where we find ourselves engaged in our mission lives. But just as Jesus transformed the cross from a symbol of death and brokenness into a symbol of life and wholeness, Jesus has already gone ahead of us to our mission fields and prepared the way for us to participate in this same transformation. All we need do is leave our nets and follow him there.

As you contemplate the mission God is inviting you to accomplish with your life, remember these things: Because your authentic mission life resides at the center of the cross you have taken up, it will be something uniquely tailored for your gifts and passions. You will identify with it because it will recall something about you that is or was broken. And, though it might be the most difficult thing you have ever done, you will still feel the glow of rightness about it even when everything is going wrong.

A final story about my own awakening to a life of mission: about five months after the trip to New Orleans, I found myself in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas for a summer residency as a chaplain. There were eight of us, all young and zealous. We had just gotten our hospital badges, but surely there was a mistake. The badges said, “CHAPLAIN.” Not Chaplain Intern. Not Chaplain-in-Training. Just CHAPLAIN. You see, our advisors borrowed their teaching techniques from mother birds. On day one, they flung us out of the nest to see if we could fly. We had our mission: it was right there on the badge. We were chaplains, like it or not. But of course, we could not fly. Within a week, each of us had crash-landed. We had met children living with and dying from cancer. We had seen disease and trauma ravage these small bodies. I had witnessed my first death, a three-month-old baby boy. We brand-new chaplains had a mission: to care for and comfort these young patients and their families. But we could not fly. And so we plummeted. We hit rock bottom. And at rock bottom is where our mission truly began, where Jesus was calling us to follow him. Because when we hit rock bottom, we found our young patients and their families there.

<<The Second Word: Invitation || The Fourth Word: Confrontation>>

*Thanks to the Rev. Tim Hodapp for reminding me of this image for mission at a recent meeting.

The Glow

Sermon for Sunday, September 28, 2014 || Proper 21A || Philippians 2:1-13

TheGlowI started writing this sermon at 5:30 in the morning last Wednesday. I was sitting on the floor in the living room with my eight-week old son sleeping fitfully on my lap. In the minutes preceding opening my laptop to write, I gave him a bottle in the stillness and darkness of the hour before dawn. Just enough light drifted in from the kitchen that I could see his face in the darkness. He was looking at me intently as he sucked down the bottle. I gazed back at him, and that’s when I felt it. I felt this impenetrable feeling of rightness, of completion. I felt “the glow.”

That’s what I call it, at least: “The Glow.” For going on a dozen years or so, this has been my dominant metaphor for my sense of connection – of resonance – with God’s movement in my life. The Glow is my name for what Paul describes in the final verse from our Philippians reading this morning. Paul says, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So today, I’d like to share a few stories about The Glow with you.

I had been at my previous church, St. Stephen’s, for a little over a year when I received a phone call from the rector of one of the biggest Episcopal churches in the country. He wanted me to interview for one of his associate’s positions, a position that promised much higher salary, more opportunity for advancement, and the prestige of working at a church the size of a small diocese. Believe me when I tell you, I was star struck. His invitation stoked my age-old enemy – my pride – and I started constructing a new narrative for myself, in which I basked in the glory of this vaunted position.

Leah and I went for a weekend visit and interview. We met with various groups of people, all friendly and energetic. We toured the buildings of the church, all massive and modern. For the first few days of the trip, I knew intellectually that, on paper, this was a great opportunity for us. And yet something was holding me back. On the day before we were scheduled to fly back to Massachusetts, I had lunch with the wardens and the treasurer. They asked me questions. I responded. And I just kept talking about St. Stephen’s – about the wonder of Godly Play, about the fact that the youth group was getting off the ground, about all the fantastic things we were doing and planning to do.

That’s when I felt it: The Glow. Whenever I mentioned St. Stephen’s during that lunch, I could feel this glowing ball of light expanding within me, radiating from my chest. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Needless to say, I removed myself from that search process the next day. At that lunch, God was at work in me, enabling me to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. The Glow, this sense of spiritual rightness, propelled me to stay at St. Stephen’s, and I’m ever so glad I had three more wonderful years of ministry there.

But the Glow is not always so readily instructive. I have wanted to marry two women in my life. One of them I did marry, thanks be to God, and she is radiance, far greater than glow. The other I met in college. We dated for a little less than two years starting at the beginning of my senior year. I remember distinctly during our first year together that I prayed for her every night, I thought about her all the time, and whenever I did I felt the sense of rightness. I felt God blessing our relationship. I felt the Glow.

Then, slowly yet interminably, things took a turn. The distance was taking its toll. We weren’t as close as we once had been. The “I love you’s” were fewer and farther between. But I persisted stubbornly in feeling the Glow. I convinced myself that everything would be better once we were engaged. Thankfully, she was a stronger person that I was. On an incredibly painful night in May 2006 she ended our relationship.

Months later, I was journaling when I realized something about the Glow. Something frightening. The Glow can be manufactured. That’s the trouble with relying on yourself alone to discern God working within you. For those last few fairly dismal months of our relationship, I didn’t actually feel the Glow. Instead, I remembered feeling it. I forced myself to recall its warmth and light from an earlier time when it was really and truly present. I didn’t want the relationship to end, so I tricked myself into feeling the echo of the Glow. God was still at work in me even then, but I ignored what God was actually saying to me in favor of what God had said to me in the past.

So sometimes the Glow burns bright and strong and immediate, and there’s no mistaking the direction God is leading us. Other times, we know just what we want (no matter how God might be prompting us), and so we manufacture a feeling of rightness in order to sanction our disobedience.

And this is where the Glow emerges from the interior of the individual and mixes with the light of the community, thereby creating something of a safeguard against our own confused desires. About this time last year, another job prospect came along. I had been at St. Stephen’s nearly four years, and while I still felt the Glow ministering there, I also knew that God was inviting me to seek new challenges.

I arrived at St. Mark’s in the middle of a Friday afternoon to meet with the search committee. The first person I encountered was Angie Robinson. Now, there are people out there who just seem to glow all the time. Angie is one of them. Angie’s natural shining stirred the Glow in me. We couldn’t use the Undercroft because of the D.A.R. tea the next day, so I helped Angie move the tables to another room, and in so doing, made a lifelong friend. The Glow grew as I met more people and as the possibility of joining you here at St. Mark’s became more and more real. But the Glow would not have ignited in me if it had not also ignited in you. The Glow was mirrored between us, this sense of the rightness of God calling us together.

As the Apostle Paul asserts, God is at work in us, enabling us to will at to work for God’s good pleasure. We participate in God’s work when we recognize God’s movement in our lives and we resonate with it. I call this the Glow. I wonder what you call it? This week, I invite you to think and pray about how you describe resonating with the God who is at work in you. What words or images do you attach to this resonance? What is your version of the Glow? How do you separate a true feeling of spiritual rightness from a manufactured one? What role do other people play in your discernment of God’s call in your life?

God calls each of us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. This is the true purpose of life. And God is at work in each of us, breathing on the embers of the Glow so that it is ready to flare up when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.* So look within and see how God is working in you. Look around and see where God yearns for you to serve. And then…Glow.

* A paraphrase of Frederick Buechner’s famous line about vocation from his fabulous Wishful Thinking.

The Call and the Gift

(Sermon for Sunday, May 5, 2013 || Easter 6C || John 5:1-19)

I have some really exciting news that I’ve just been bursting to tell you. Last Monday, I became an uncle. I wasn’t an uncle, and then my sister-in-law had her baby boy, and now I’m an uncle! But since I played absolutely no part in the whole “becoming an uncle thing,” let me talk a little more about the actual players in this little slice of joy, my nephew Connor and his parents, Bethany and Steve.

cwsbaby(featured)Bethany labored to birth Connor on Sunday and Monday, and he entered the world Monday afternoon, just under eight pounds of radiant, new life: squishy elbows and beating heart and astonishingly alert eyes. I’m sure there were moments during delivery when Bethany was certain she couldn’t do it, that one more push was out of the question, that one more contraction would send her over the edge. But then she did do it, and her son was placed in her welcoming arms.

I’m sure that in the weeks and months to come, Bethany and Steve will spend many a night awake trying to sooth the baby who will seem to be crying for no apparent reason, considering they will have sated all his immediate needs. They will be strung out, exhausted, ready to fall asleep in the next morning’s bowl of cereal. They will wonder if they can function on 45 minutes of sleep and then they will do it all again the next night. And the one after that.

I’m sure that at some point in his childhood, Connor will break his arm climbing a tree or get an infection that will send him and his distraught parents to the Emergency Room. That kind of thing happens to everyone, but in the moment, Bethany and Steve will be frantic and all kinds of worst-case scenarios will run through their minds. But then Connor’s fever will break or he’ll emerge with a cast ready for signatures, and his parents will breathe a prayer of silent relief for having come through the ordeal.

Notice a pattern here. On the day of Connor’s delivery, Bethany went to the point of no return. And then she returned with a babe in her arms. In the future eventualities of sleepless nights and hospital visits, Bethany and Steve will be at the ends of their ropes, and yet they will keep climbing and they will find more rope. How can I be so sure that they will find more rope? Because I believe God called them to the sacred ministry of parenthood. And when God calls one of us to serve, God always provides us with the gifts that we need to fulfill our callings.

In the delivery room Bethany discovered God’s gift of perseverance and more determination than she ever thought she possessed. God called her to motherhood and then gave her the gifts she needed to make the calling hers. As she grows in this ministry, she will continue to discover new gifts as she faces new challenges as a mother. The same thing happens to us when we accept God’s call in our lives. The call and the gifts to achieve the call go hand in hand. To use a political metaphor, God doesn’t believe in the unfunded mandate.

If you need more convincing, check out this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to John. Jesus arrives at the pool of Beth-Zatha and finds there a man who is waiting his turn to go down into the pool. The popular belief was that when the water was stirred up, from some underground source presumably, the first person to enter the pool would be healed of any affliction. The man had been paralyzed for 38 years; can you image – 38 years of coming to this pool only to be stymied by people who could beat him to the water, 38 years of dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams, all drained into a morass of hardened isolation. 38 years of paralysis; just think, if this encounter were happening today, the man would have become paralyzed while Gerald Ford was president and I wouldn’t be a twinkle in my mother’s eye for quite some time.

To this downtrodden, lonely soul, Jesus comes, and Jesus asks him a question: “Do you want to be made well?” The answer seems obvious. “YES” is what you’d expect. But this man seems to have a well-worn speech ready for whenever anyone approaches him, no matter what they say. “I have no one to put me in the water and when I’m trying to get over there, someone always gets ahead of me,” he says.

Jesus takes this response as a “yes.” And then Jesus just skips all the preliminaries. He doesn’t tell the man his faith has made him well. He doesn’t touch him. He doesn’t pray. Jesus simply commands the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and walk. Jesus calls this man to do something he is absolutely and without a doubt unable to do.

I imagine the man gives Jesus an incredulous look, perhaps a raised eyebrow. A hollow chuckle. Who does this guy think he is, the man wonders? But Jesus’ words ring in the air, strong and solid and shimmering. The man looks up and sees Jesus staring down at him, and he realizes that Jesus is serious. What if? What if I don’t need the pool? What if this is my chance?

He pokes his leg with his finger. No sensation. He tries to wiggle his toes. Nothing. But Jesus’ call to stand up is still ringing in the air, and now the words fall to earth, fall into the heart of the paralyzed man. No more poking. No more wiggling. He reaches up and grasps Jesus’ arm and pulls himself up. He can stand. He can walk.

Somewhere between Jesus’ call and the man’s standing, Jesus gives him the gift of the ability to heed the call. The healing happens in order that the man can obey Jesus’ command. Like I said, God doesn’t believe in unfunded mandates. Jesus tells the man to stand up. But he hasn’t stood in 38 years. And then he does because the call carried with it the gift to accomplish it. He realized Jesus had blessed him with the gift when he used it to stand up.

God called Bethany and Steve to be new parents. And I believe God will give them all the gifts they need to raise Connor to be the child God calls him to be. Jesus called the paralyzed man to stand and gave him the gift to do so. I wonder what God is calling you to do? I wonder what God is calling you to be? How many of us hear God’s call but then shy away from it because we assume we aren’t good enough to accomplish it or we don’t have the necessary gifts to do it?

This story of the man by the pool teaches us that God never issues a call without dispersing the gifts that accompany it. In fact, God calls us to certain things specifically so we can discover our giftedness.

So the next time you pray, I invite you to ask God what God is calling you to do or be. For the duration of the prayer, ignore both the seeming impossibility of the call and your utter inadequacy to accomplish it. Just sit in silence with God, listening to the call ringing in the air, strong and solid and shimmering. And then, like the paralyzed man, stand up, take your mat, and walk. Say “yes” to God. And discover all of the gifts that God has been bursting to shower upon you.

Do You Love Me?

(NOTE: I completely forgot to post my sermon on Sunday, so here it is, two days belated. Devo180 will be back tomorrow.)

(Sermon for Sunday, April 14, 2013 || Easter 3C || John 21:1-19)

I can only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts roiling in Simon Peter’s head in the weeks following Jesus’ resurrection. At the last supper, he promised Jesus: “I will lay down my life for you.” He was willing to draw blood when they came to arrest Jesus in the garden. He followed Jesus all the way to the gate of the high priest’s house. And then everything fell apart. People began recognizing him and he felt afraid and in his fear he did something he never dreamed he would do, not even in his worst nightmare.

But this was worse than his worst nightmare. “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” I am not. “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” No. “You are one of his disciples.” I am not. And at that moment the rooster crowed, signaling the dawn. But Simon Peter remained in the night with his denial – afraid, ashamed, broken. The nickname Simon received from Jesus when they first met – the nickname Peter, “Rock” – must have haunted him from that moment on. How could a rock be so inconstant? He was supposed to be steadfast, strong; but in the moment of decision, he crumbled. As I said, I can only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts roiling in Simon Peter’s head in the weeks following Jesus’ resurrection.

So to quiet the storm raging within, even for just a short time, it makes sense for Peter to suggest a fishing trip – something normal to take his mind off things. He and his friends fish all night but catch nothing. Even though Peter has met the Risen Christ, Peter himself is still shackled to the night, where his shame and fear have kept him since his denial. No wonder he didn’t catch any fish. But then day breaks, and Jesus calls to him from the beach. He and his friends let down the net one more time and catch more fish than they know what to do with.

They bring the catch ashore and have breakfast around a charcoal fire with Jesus. Peter gazes into the flames, and suddenly his maelstrom of thoughts transports him back to another charcoal fire, around which he warmed himself – and denied his Lord. He is still lost in the night of his regret, his fear, and his brokenness. Though a new dawn has come, Peter cannot bring himself to step into the light. He sits around the fire with Jesus and the rest, but he himself is far away, reliving the nightmare.

And so when Jesus says his name, Simon Peter flinches out of his daydream and returns to the present. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks him. Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Do you love me?” And with the third question, a wave of sadness washes over Simon Peter because he realizes what Jesus is doing. The sadness is the echo of the nightmare, the last vestige of the darkness Peter has been mired in. Lord, you know everything (including my shame and my guilt and my brokenness); and you know that I love you.

Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to affirm their relationship three times, once for each denial; and with that, they are reconciled. Peter’s love for his Lord trumps his fear and his brokenness, and he finally steps from the night into the day. This reconciliation shines with the good news of the resurrection. The Risen Christ meets Peter in his brokenness and reaffirms their relationship. The Risen Christ meets us in the same place – in our fear and our brokenness – and affirms that nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from his love.

sheepBut Jesus is only half done with Peter and with us, because Jesus takes this reconciliation one step further. Jesus doesn’t just heal Peter’s brokenness and leave it at that. If he had, then Peter would have no direction to travel, nowhere to bring his healed heart. So Jesus renews their relationship and then gives Peter a mission. “Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.”

Jesus knows that Peter, despite his nickname, has shown inconstancy in the past. Jesus knows that Peter once crumbled because of fear. Jesus knows that Peter isn’t perfect. And still, Jesus affirms their relationship, binds himself to Peter in love, and gives him a mission. The Risen Christ gathers to himself all of Peter’s fear and brokenness and says, “This stuff will not hold you back from doing my work. This stuff may rear its head from time to time, but it will not win. This stuff is now mine, and in its place you can have my love and the promise of eternal relationship with me.”

Sounds like a pretty good deal. Imagine someone coming up to you and saying, “You give me all your junk, everything about yourself that you don’t like or you don’t want, and I’ll give you the most precious thing in the world.”

That’s what Jesus did on the beach with Peter after breakfast. And in the power of the resurrection, that’s what Jesus does with each of us. And after we make such an unbalanced trade, Jesus invites us to join him in a mission. Feed. Tend. Listen. Support. Help. Love. Serve.

If we listen for the Risen Christ’s call in our lives, we will each hear something a little different because Jesus knows what sets each of our hearts on fire. And Jesus knows where the world most needs us to serve. He combines the two and then sails these unique calls to us on the wind of the Holy Spirit. And if we listen for that wind whispering in our hearts, we will hear the call. Peter heard the call to feed God’s sheep. I hear the call to proclaim God’s presence in our lives. What do you hear? What is Jesus healing you to do?

In our story today, Jesus heals Peter with love. This love propels Peter into service. And this service brings healing to all of God’s people. And thus the cycle renews. On down through the ages, God has propelled this cycle of healing, loving, and serving. Now we are the inheritors of the legacy of this chat on the beach after breakfast. The Risen Christ sits with us across our kitchen counters after a bowl of oatmeal – the most ordinary of moments, mind you – and offers us his love, his healing, and his mission.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then notice me healing your brokenness.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then feel my love binding us together.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then go out and serve in my name.

The Seeds of the Kingdom

(Sermon for Sunday, June 17, 2012 || Proper 6B || Mark 4:26-34)

When I was nine or ten years old, I walked into the church across the street from our house really early on a particular morning. Ash Wednesday had always been one of my favorite days. I’m not sure why, but I think I liked going to school with the ashes scraped across my forehead – hence me being in church really early. As many of you know, my father is also a priest, and he met me in the church wearing all of his vestments. But no one else came for the service early that morning. However, as Jesus says, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” So we went ahead with the service, just my dad and me.

When the time came for the ashes, he put his thumb in the gritty, black stuff and scraped first a vertical and then a horizontal line across my forehead, making the sign of the cross. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” he said. Then he knelt down and offered the little bowl with the ashes to me. I was surprised, but I put my own thumb in the gritty, black stuff and scraped the sign of the cross on his forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I echoed with all the solemnity that my fourth-grade voice could muster.

Then we finished the service, he took me to school, and we went about our days, and we went about our lives. And about a decade later, my father and I realized that on that Ash Wednesday morning, God planted a seed in me, one so small that neither of us noticed the seed until the stalk started poking through the topsoil of my life.

This seed was the mustard seed of God’s kingdom, the one that Jesus talks about in today’s parable from Mark’s account of the Gospel. Before we go any further, however, I want to dispel any notion that you may have that such a seed would only be planted in someone destined to be ordained as a priest. While some of the seeds of the kingdom that God planted in my life have germinated into my call to the priesthood, others have grown into my call to be Leah’s husband and to spread God’s love through our marriage. I hope other seeds that are still hidden in the soil will sprout into a call to parenthood. God sows within each of us, not just we few who wear the collar, the seeds that grow into a panoply of kingdom callings. Together, as our seeds stretch upwards into beautiful flowers and trees, we help God transform this planet once again into a garden of God’s kingdom.

I firmly believe that God has sown seeds so wildly, so expansively, that every person on this planet has the seeds of the kingdom nestled in the soil of their souls. The parable before the ones we heard this morning speaks to this belief. The sower doesn’t seem to mind that his seed lands, not just on the good soil, but on the road and on the rocky ground and among the thorns, as well. The sower doesn’t just plant in nice furrows in the prepared field, but across every surface, no matter how ready the ground is to receive the seed.

Because of God’s unrestrained scattering of seed, each of us surely has the seeds of the kingdom within us. But, as Jesus says, the seeds start out so small that we can barely see them. In fact, until the seeds have grown into visible plants, we won’t have much luck seeing them at all. But this is how the life of faith works – oftentimes, the moments when the seeds of the kingdom drop into our soil are as small as the seeds themselves. We miss these moments all too easily because they tend to be subtle and quiet. Or they tend to happen in the midst of really difficult and challenging circumstances. Or they tend to happen when we least expect them, when our soil is least ready for the seeds.

With God’s help, we can train ourselves to notice the seeds of the kingdom earlier and earlier in their development. Perhaps, you have a mustard seed that has grown into the full-fledged plant or perhaps you have a stalk peaking up from the ground. Move into a space of prayerful reflection and trace that plant back to the subtle, quiet moment when God scattered the seed in you.

Consider this example. God has given you the gift of teaching. Even though some of the students can be pains in the neck, you love going into the classroom everyday to teach. You feel that teaching is certainly a way that you respond to God’s call. Now, work your way back past your first year struggles, past your student teaching, past your high school days, and find yourself back in fifth grade when your favorite teacher in the whole wide world instilled in you a love of learning and a desire to teach. There’s the seed. God used the dedication and love of your fifth-grade teacher to plant the seed of the kingdom in you.

Here’s another example. God has given you the gift of cooking. Recently, you began helping at your church to prepare hundreds of meals every week for a local homeless shelter. You can feel in each stir of the pasta and each pour of the sauce that you are doing something in which God takes great joy. Now, work your way back past your joining the church, past all those experiments in the kitchen trying to perfect your pie dough, past that semester at culinary school, and find yourself in the kitchen with your mother on the day she finally let you spice her world famous chili for the first time. There’s the seed. God used your relationship with your mother, who passed on her culinary secrets to you, to plant the seed of the kingdom in you.

No matter how old or young we are now, God has planted seeds in us. Some have grown into the greatest of shrubs and the birds nest in their branches. These are the places where we can see God’s kingdom blooming into beautiful gardens around and within us. Other seeds are still nascent, still tucked in the soil waiting for the right moments to start their journey toward the sun. By tracing the plants we can see back to when they were invisible seeds, we can train ourselves to recognize the currently hidden seeds even sooner in their development. And when we do, we can join God in more active participation of their cultivation.

Every week in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom begins as tiny mustard seeds, which God scatters wildly into our very souls. As we live out our lives as followers of Jesus Christ, we become gardens of the kingdom, spreading the beauty of God wherever we go. The seeds are in each of us. The seeds are sprouting and growing and blooming each day. All we need do is notice.

A Deep Breath

(Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2012 || Epiphany 2B || 1 Samuel 1:1-20 )

People, including many of you, often ask me how I knew that God was calling me to be a priest. Here’s the story. This week ten years ago, I began the second semester of my freshman year of college. At that time, I was enrolled in a four-semester Humanities class that took a holistic approach to studying Western civilization. The second semester of the class moved from the end of the ancient world through the Middle Ages, so we began around the time of the fall of Rome. The first book we read was The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Now, many of my classmates couldn’t stand Augustine’s introspective, theological memoir, but for some reason, I couldn’t put the book down. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Augustine was teaching me to look deep within myself as he had done all those centuries ago. For me, this book turned out to be much more than an assignment in a four-semester Humanities class.

As I slowly, hesitantly began to look deep within, I began to notice a glowing ember. This ember was the source of the blaze that would become my heart’s fire, but at first the ember was nothing more than the tiniest of flames, the mustard seed of flames. With St. Augustine’s help, I caught sight of that tiny flame. And without realizing what I was doing, I took a deep breath, and when I exhaled, the Holy Spirit rode the wind of my breath into that ember. And the fire began – slowly, hesitantly – this fire that was my call to serve God as a priest in God’s church.

In today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture, the boy Samuel is fast asleep on the floor of the temple of the LORD. And God calls to him, “Samuel! Samuel!” This is Samuel’s own glowing ember, the first phase of his call.

The spark, the glimmer that St. Augustine made me aware of was Phase One of mine. Well, from God’s perspective, what I thought was Phase One was probably closer to Phase 23. But to me, the ember was just the beginning. By the end of my freshman year of college, I knew something was going on in the recesses of my being. I knew a flame had been kindled, but I didn’t know yet on what the flame was shedding light. However, if I had been alone, if I had been the only one to notice and nurture the glowing ember, I am convinced there would never have been a Phase Two.

Enter the Reverend Tom Ward, the chaplain at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Once a month for my entire sophomore year, I met with Tom Ward, and we just talked. We talked about my hopes and dreams, my fears and doubts, my past and future. And then one day – the day was so ordinary that I don’t even have a clear memory of the meeting – I told him about the glowing ember. I told him about reading St. Augustine and looking within and being surprised to find the glowing. And then, fully realizing what he was doing, Tom took a deep breath, and when he exhaled, the Holy Spirit rode the wind of his breath. And the fire spread out from my gut and into every corner of my being.

In today’s lesson, the boy Samuel is fast asleep on the floor of the temple of the LORD. And God calls to him, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel cries out, “Here I am!” And then he runs to Eli, the priest under whom he serves, thinking that Eli had called out to him. “I did not call; lie down again,” says a confused Eli. Samuel does so, but God calls again and then again. Each time, Samuel runs to Eli, thinking that Eli has called out to him. Finally, the third time, Eli realizes that the LORD has been the one calling out to Samuel. So Eli instructs his young charge: “If [God] calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ ” Eli understands Samuel’s call, and Eli teaches Samuel how to respond to that call. Elis is Samuel’s Tom Ward, the mentor who teaches the student how to respond to God.

During my junior year of college, Tom Ward gathered a group of six people from the community of Sewanee to meet with me about the fire that God had kindled two years before. Every week, we met and shared stories about ourselves: not just me, but each of us sharing. Some stories had to do with God’s movement in our lives, others not, though you come to realize that every story has something to do with God’s movement. This group tested the fire, attempting to discern if the fire was from God. Through listening and sharing and praying, we decided God was in the flame.

In today’s lesson, Eli sends the boy Samuel back to his bed with a response to God. The LORD stands before Samuel and calls his name. Samuel responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The group that Tom Ward formed for my discernment taught me how to listen – how to listen to their voices and stories, and within them how to listen for the voice of God speaking God’s story for my life.

During my senior year of college, I went before a scary committee in the diocese of West Virginia. We talked through four one-hour meetings, and at the end of the day, they decided to recommend me for postulancy for Holy Orders. Two years of seminary later, I went before the same committee again, though they were less scary this time. We talked more, and at the end of the day, they recommended me for candidacy for Holy Orders. Six months later, the bishop of West Virginia ordained me to be a deacon. And six months after that, he ordained me to be a priest. Of course, discernment of God’s call is never over, so don’t take away from this that my call story ended that day in June, 2008.

Rather, reflect back on these stories I’ve been telling you these last few minutes. Notice how my story and Samuel’s story overlap. In neither case, can we classify these stories as just mine or just Samuel’s. These stories also belong to Eli and Tom Ward, to the group at Sewanee and the scary committee. And these stories belong to you, for you here at St. Stephen’s have always been a part of God’s call in my life. We just didn’t know that a decade ago.

Notice also that nothing in these stories is all that mysterious. Save for the glowing ember and God’s first call of “Samuel! Samuel!” every phase of these stories involves the simple act of talking with other people. God has built this need for conversation, for communion really, into the very fabric of God’s call in our lives. No call from God exists in solitary confinement. No call from God can ignite into full flame without many people blowing on the embers. We need each other to tease out and discover and nurture God’s call because God’s voice most often comes to us in the voices of other people. Why else would Samuel think Eli was calling to him over and over again?

When you are wondering what God might be calling you to, I offer you this guidance. Find a friend whom you trust more than you trust yourself. This person could be a parent or a spouse or another person whose soul is somehow mingled with yours. Ask this person these two simple questions:

“What do you think the world needs?”

and

“What do you think I’m good at?”

As you and your friend talk, listen to her words. At the same time, watch for the glowing ember deep within you. Sooner or later the answers to those two questions will intersect, and the ember will glow just a little bit brighter. And without realizing what you are doing, you will both take a deep breath, and when you exhale, the Holy Spirit will ride the wind of your collective breath and ignite a fire in your heart.

What are you looking for?

(Sermon for Sunday, January 16, 2011 || Epiphany 2, Year A || John 1:29-42)

The hospital was a maze. Children’s Medical Center had several buildings, and they were all connected somehow, but getting from one part of this building to another part of that building always involved multiple corridors and elevators. During the summer of 2006 between my first and second years of seminary, I was learning how to be a chaplain at this sprawling medical complex. One of the first things I learned was the hospital policy of refraining from giving directions to visitors. The hospital was just too confusing. Instead, if little Jimmy’s grandmother asked me how to get to the oncology unit, the hospital policy directed me to take her there myself and to make sure she knew her way back to the parking garage (which happened to be two elevators, three corridors, a skywalk, and two Starbucks away). In effect, hospital employees said, “Come and see” to their visitors and then accompanied them all the way to their destinations. These words – “Come and see” – make up Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the entire Gospel according to John. We’ll get to them in due time. But right now, let’s talk about Jesus’ first line of dialogue.

His first five words would not have been out of place in the labyrinthine hospital: “What are you looking for?” You might hear this question at any hospital elevator as any lost visitor stares helplessly at the building schematics printed on the wall. What are you looking for? Jesus speaks these words to two of John the Baptizer’s disciples after he notices them following him. At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has no followers of his own. He is the new guy in town. John the Baptizer owns the market on charismatic fellows who say compelling, challenging things. But John knows who Jesus is, so John encourages his disciples to begin following Jesus. Right away, Andrew and an unnamed person – quite literally – begin following Jesus.

When Jesus turns around and challenges them with his question –“What are you looking for?” – his words speak on two levels. This dual-layered dialogue is a common occurrence in the Gospel according to John. The first layer speaks to superficial, surface meaning. This layer is easy for Jesus’ listeners to access, and so they become drawn in. Then the second, deeper layer of meaning presents itself. Many of Jesus’ listeners resist this deeper level. But those who do dive deeply find rich, life-giving substance in his words.

With Jesus’ first words in the Gospel, he challenges Andrew, the unnamed disciple, and us to dive deeply to this second level of meaning. At the first level, John’s two disciples probably interpret Jesus’ question as a straightforward query into their present intentions. Do they happen to be going his way by chance or are they following him purposefully? But at the second level, Jesus’ five words penetrate to the deepest places of the human heart. What are you looking for? His question beckons an answer from those same deep places within us. The trouble is there are so many potential answers to this question that digging through them to find the ones that exist in those deep places can become problematic to say the least. Here’s what I mean.

What are you looking for?
A mid-sized sedan with good gas mileage and a high safety rating.
A doctor who understands my symptoms and actually seems to care for my wellbeing.
An assisted living facility for my parent whose mind is rapidly deteriorating.

What are you looking for?
The right greeting card to express my feelings.
A college that’s not too big but still has my major.
A quick hit to forget the day.

What are you looking for?
A boyfriend I can bring home to mom.
A scrap of meaning in a dead end job.
My car keys.

What are you looking for? John’s two disciples seem to understand that the “car key” type of answers will not suffice because Jesus’ words penetrate right into their hearts. So instead of answering his question, they ask one of their own: “Teacher, where are you staying?” Now, Jesus apparently does not hold a monopoly on dialogue with dual layers. At the first level, they want to know just what the question appears to ask: “In what house are you going to rest your head tonight?” But on that deeper second level, their question seeks a much more profound answer. Where are you staying? In Greek, the word that is translated as “staying” means quite a bit more than the English equivalent. Rather than the connotation of “staying at a hotel” or “staying on a friend’s futon,” the Greek word means to “abide” or to “continue to be present.” Thus, at the deeper level, the disciples ask Jesus where he dwells, where he abides, where he is present.

Their question, then, is the best response to Jesus’ own question. What are you looking for? Lord Jesus, I’m looking for where you abide. I’m looking for where you are present in my life. I’m looking for where you dwell in this particular situation I’ve gotten myself into.

When we receive Jesus’ question at the deeper second level, we can feel his words penetrating our hearts. We can hear his voice whispering up from the very depths of our beings: What are you looking for? Paying attention to his words rising from those depths helps us locate our own responses, the ones that originate in the same deep places of our beings. The transient, daily, car key type answers to the question fall away when we search deep within.

The best way to begin this search is with the disciples’ question: “Where are you staying?” When we ask this question, we open ourselves to finding Jesus dwelling somewhere in every facet of our lives. We open ourselves to hearing his voice whispering his presence into and out from our souls. We open ourselves, and in doing so, we turn the depths of our beings outward. The hidden deep places, where our responses to Jesus’ question lie dormant, become the pieces of ourselves that we display to the world. These pieces of ourselves are our callings from God. They are our personal, individual discoveries of Jesus beckoning us to find him in everything we do, in everything we say, and in everyone we meet.

And this brings us back to Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the Gospel according to John: “Come and see.” What are you looking for? Teacher, where are you staying? Come and see. Jesus invites us to see where he abides, where he is present in our lives. He invites us to dwell with him, no matter the situations we find ourselves in. Finding his presence means we have found those deep places within ourselves. Abiding in his presence gives us the grace to be vulnerable and to show the world the deepest yearnings that God has put in our hearts, the callings that God has blessed us to follow.

And the good news is this: “Come and see” means that Jesus will be with us, to take us where we need to go, to show us what we need to see. Just like the hospital employees accompanying a lost visitor to her destination, Jesus remains with us throughout our journeys. He dwells in our hearts whispering his question: “What are you looking for?” And when we ask him in return where he is staying, where he is abiding in our lives, he walks one step before us, saying, “Come and see.”