Shine Through

Sermon for Sunday, February 9, 2020 || Epiphany 5A || Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the light of the world.” Just let that sink in for a moment. It’s an astounding claim that Jesus makes. “Let your light shine before others,” he says, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Let your light shine. We remember so many of the commandments Jesus gave us: Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself, love one another as I have loved you, go into all the world and preach the Gospel. And here is another commandment of Jesus hidden in the midst of the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. Let your light shine before others.

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Old Life, New Life

Sermon for Sunday, January 26, 2020 || Epiphany 3A || Matthew 4:12-23

This past summer, I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The pebbled beach crunched beneath my feet. The windswept waves gurgled in and out. The fresh air filled my lungs just like it did for those first disciples of Jesus, who knelt on the same shore two thousand years ago repairing their fishing nets. The sea felt holy, filled with the memory of fishing boats plying the waves, delivering Jesus the Christ to various destinations on the coast; filled too with the energy of those ancient calls, brought to the present to strengthen and renew my own call to follow Jesus.

Imagine yourselves on that shore. The Sea of Galilee, really a large lake, stretches out before you, its dark blue waters lightening with the dawn under a clear sky, where the last of the brightest stars is disappearing. The Golan Heights and other points of elevation rise on the far side of the sea, gold and green and hazy in the distance. The sun is just rising over the hills across the water, and you’re squatting on the ground with threads of twine between your fingers. You need to repair the net soon so you can get in the water during the best fishing. Simon and Andrew already pushed off and they’re…

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Where Are You Staying?

Sermon for Sunday, January 19, 2020 || Epiphany 2A || John 1:29-42

“What are you looking for?” These are the first five words Jesus speaks in the Gospel According to John. Two of John the Baptist’s disciples are following him – quite literally trailing him after John has revealed Jesus’ identity to them – and Jesus turns around to question them. “What are you looking for?”

Jesus speaks these words, and is so often the case in the Gospel, his question operates on multiple levels. The first layer speaks to the 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 listen for it, who do dive deeply, find rich, life-giving substance in Jesus’ words.

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Beyond the Zone

Sermon for Sunday, February 3, 2019 || Epiphany 4C || Jeremiah 1:4-10

I’m not sure who coined the term “comfort zone,” but I am sure the only reason that term exists is to define the space outside it. We don’t really think about the boundaries of our comfort zones until we have stepped beyond them. We realize that we are feeling uncomfortable, exposed, inadequate. In the moment of that realization we have exactly two choices: we can scurry back to the safety and predictably of the comfort zone or we can remain outside it and discover how God might be calling us to expand the zone.

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A Moment with God

Sermon for Sunday, December 23, 2018 || Advent 4C || Luke 1:39-45

I told a brief story last Sunday to the folks attending the adult forum hour, and the story has been lodged in my heart since then, so I thought I would share it with everyone. This is a story about an intense moment with God, and I wrestled with whether or not to share it today because I do not want you to go home thinking you are any less a believer or a beloved child of God if you have never experienced what I’m about to describe.

So I begin this sermon with a disclaimer: what follows is one way among many that God encounters us. As followers of Jesus, we aspire to be transformed over the course of our lifetimes into people who more closely reflect the love, peace, and justice of God. God invites us to participate in our own transformation and thus the renewal of our broken world. What follows is the special moment in my life when God pushed me onto the path of that participation. I’m sharing this with you today because of our Gospel lesson when Mary rushes off to see her cousin Elizabeth, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
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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.