Discernment Talk

Given at a Youth Retreat the Last Weekend of March 2017

I was blessed to participate in a youth retreat this weekend at Camp Washington in Morris CT, and I was asked to give a talk about discernment. Here it is.

“Discernment” is not a word many of us use in our day to day vocabulary. And yet we engage in discernment every single day of our lives. Discernment is simply a fancy word for the thought that happens before you make a choice. And hopefully the prayer, as well. We tend to reserve the word “discernment” for big decisions: where you’ll go to college, what you want to do with your life, whom you want to spend that life with. But we need not make such a distinction. Every choice you make in your life can involve discernment on some level or other. Continue reading “Discernment Talk”

The Living Among the Dead

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 || Easter C || Luke 24:1-12

thelivingamongthedeadGood morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s Church on this Feast of the Resurrection. You know, every Sunday is a Feast of the Resurrection, but today is special. Do you know why? Because today is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – and that makes today Easter. So if a late night talk show host ever jumps out of a cab and asks you how to calculate the date of Easter, now you know.

Today is also special because of the week we’ve just had here at St. Mark’s. We’ve walked with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to the last supper with his friends to his agony in the garden, to his betrayal and arrest and trial, to his crucifixion, to his burial in the tomb. We’ve been through the darkness of Good Friday; we’ve been to the foot of the cross. Now the dawn breaks on Sunday morning, and once again we set off, walking this time with the women and their spiced ointments.

I doubt they slept much the last two nights, Mary Magdalene and the other women who rose early on the first day of the week to minister to their dead Lord. Every time they shut their eyes, I’m sure they saw the silhouette of Jesus’ cross in the distance, his limp body barely recognizable because of his torturous hours hanging there. No, I doubt these women slept much, though if they did finally fall into fitful slumber, it was because they cried themselves to sleep. When all you have left is your tears, you’d want to hoard them; but that’s when they flow all the more freely.

I’m sure the tears began again when they awoke early Sunday morning. New grief is like that. Each morning you wake and remember again that your loved one is gone, and again the pain stabs you anew, just as fresh as the first time. They bear the rawness of their grief by taking on a mission; after all, staying busy is one way to soften the blow. And so the women take up their burden of fragrant spices and trudge out into the darkness in order to arrive at the tomb at first light.

Out of deep troves of love and compassion, these brave women are ready to care for the body of their Lord and to prepare it for proper burial. It turns out Mary and her friends are making the happiest mistake in the history of mistakes. They are ready to wash and anoint a lifeless body, but what they find is no body at all. They find an empty tomb. For a horrible moment, their grief threatens to overwhelm them because the mission they were planning to perform – the one they had been clinging to since his death – is gone now, too. They didn’t think they could be more desolate, but they are wrong. For this horrible moment, the empty tomb magnifies their desolation.

But into this scene of despair and grief comes the sudden presence of two gleaming messengers. They enlighten the woman as to their happy mistake: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has arisen.”

The messengers continue talking, but the women have ears only for that last word: “Arisen!” For the first time since Friday, they remember Jesus’ words, and first one, then another, then another breaks out into a tentative smile. “Could it be true?” they ask each other.

“Yes, yes, yes it could.”

“Jesus never lied to us.”

“How could we forget his words?”

Then one repeats the messengers’ question: “Why are we looking for the living among the dead?”

This question echoes down through the centuries, and we find ourselves asking it when we read the beginning of the final chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel. Why do you look for the living among the dead? How often in our day-to-day lives could we hear the gleaming messengers ask us this question? How often do we trudge down our own well-worn paths to life-defeating things hoping this time – maybe this time – something life-affirming will happen?

Perhaps you’ve had a string of boyfriends who were real losers. Your friends tell you so at every opportunity, but you’ve got a blind spot for the proverbial bad boy. They treat you with no respect. From time to time they’ve even called you a name that I can’t say during this sermon. And yet you meet another one and all the signs are there, but you dive in headfirst anyway. To you the gleaming messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Perhaps you’ve been sober for three months. Your sponsor hands you your chip and slaps you on the back. You’ve got a couple of other three-month chips in a drawer somewhere, but that’s not on your mind right now. On your way home from the meeting, you run into an old buddy from back in the day. The next morning, you stagger to the drawer and toss the newest chip in. Maybe you’ll get another one in a few months time, but for today your salvation is at the bottom of a bottle. To you, the messengers say, “Why do you look for living among the dead?”

Perhaps you work through your family vacation because you’ve got too many projects on your plate. Or you’ve given into the tiny fearful voice that says you’re too old or too sick or too broken to make a difference in someone else’s life. Or you spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing YouTube and Facebook and Instagram. Or…or…or… Every one of us has a few life-defeating paths that we have no trouble finding. To each of us, the messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”The Resurrection of Jesus Christ spurred this question all those centuries ago. The women made the happy mistake of looking for a dead messiah, when the Risen One was alive again. Our life-defeating paths lead to tombs, as well, but they are not empty, for our dead messiahs are there waiting to suck the life from us. But the tomb of the Risen Lord is empty, and a new, life-affirming path stretches from that tomb and reaches into eternity.

Today, on this first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, on this special Feast of the Resurrection, we see most clearly this new, life-affirming path stretching from our feet off to the sun-drenched horizon. As we walk it together and with our Risen Lord, we will pass by so many people going the opposite way down the life-defeating paths. This may be due to their own choices or because they are caught up in systems that will never produce anything but defeat; systems of poverty, injustice, racism, apathy.

But as we walk this life-affirming path, we have the opportunity to be apostles like those brave women, to show people the power of the Risen Christ in our lives, to hook arms with folks going the other way and help turn them around. We have the opportunity to be the gleaming messengers who ask one simple question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And then we have the glorious opportunity to share the heart of the Good News. “He is not here, but has arisen.”

*I preached a version of this sermon at Easter in 2013. The old version had a lot of problems (mostly, it was two or three sermons smushed into one, which is a sign of lazy thinking and writing on my part). I think this rewrite fixes those things. Of course, in a few years time I might think the same thing about this version, too. And so it goes…

Tend Your Light

Sermon for Sunday, November 9, 2014 || Proper 27A || Joshua 24:14-25; Matthew 25:1-13

tendyourlightLast Wednesday, I was visiting Gene and Judy Roure at home as Judy continues recovering from surgery. I arrived right after lunch and we were having a pleasant conversation when something unforeseen happened. My eyes started to close. I couldn’t help it. I made a conscious effort to keep them open as we talked, but you know if you ever try that tactic, your body just assumes you’re using reverse psychology. I knew the lack of sleep Leah and I have been experiencing would catch up to me eventually, but I sure didn’t want it to happen during a pastoral visit! So I did the only thing I could think to do: I asked Gene and Judy if it would be okay to close my eyes for five minutes while sitting in the terribly comfortable rocking chair in their living room. Being the lovely and gracious people they are, they readily said, “Yes.” I put my head back and let my eyes do what they desperately wanted to do. I shut them and slept for five glorious minutes.

So when I read the end of today’s Gospel lesson, all I can do is chuckle half-heartedly. Jesus sums up the rather strange parable of the ten bridesmaids by saying: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” of the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Keep awake, he says. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last three months since the twins were born, it’s this: trying to keep awake makes you really sleepy.

Even the bridesmaids in the story don’t keep awake. All ten of them — the wise and the foolish — get drowsy and fall asleep when the bridegroom is delayed. They all wake up at midnight, but only the five wise ones have enough oil in their lamps to see the bridegroom coming. These details of the parable make Jesus’ summary sound a little off. Rather than “keep awake” shouldn’t he say, “tend your light” or “keep your lamp lit?” If this parable were one of those stories on a standardized test, one of the questions might be, “Which title best describes this story?” If my choices included both “keep awake” and “tend you light” I think I’d choose the latter. But Jesus chooses the former.

(As an aside, I don’t think Jesus would have been a very good standardized test taker, what with his penchant for answering people’s questions in wildly creative and unexpected ways.)

Whether or not the testing board would accept Jesus’ answer of “keep awake,” that’s the one he gives. This leaves us in the position of reconciling the content of the parable with Jesus’ odd summary. What about tending our lights leads to “keeping awake?”

First of all, we mustn’t take Jesus’ summary literally. Obviously, we can’t survive if we stay awake all the time. If we don’t sleep, eventually we go insane. (There’s a great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about that, by the way.) So if we can’t literally keep awake all the time, how do we live into Jesus’ instruction? At Wednesday’s visit with Gene and Judy, my eyes started closing of their own accord because of my physical exhaustion. But there are plenty other types of exhaustion that lead us to close our eyes and ignore our part in bearing witness to the coming kingdom of heaven.

There’s emotional exhaustion. You carry the burdens of so many others on your heart. You worry. You fret. You can’t help vicariously feeling their pain, and it overwhelms you. There’s the exhaustion of crises. Everything in this world seems to be going haywire. Famine, poverty, war, discrimination, disease. You can’t even watch the news anymore because the compounding crises overwhelm you. There’s the exhaustion of resources. You give and you give, and there’s always more need. It never stops and the direness of the need overwhelms you. You start to see a pattern here. When we feel overwhelmed, we get tired. We just want to close our eyes and enter the blissful ignorance of sleep. So we disengage. We fail to keep awake.

And this is where tending our lights comes into play – because there’s another term for disengagement and failure to keep awake. It’s called “burn out.” Show of hands: how many of us have used the phrase, “I feel so burned out right now,” at some point in our lives? Being like the wise bridesmaids in the parable means keeping oil in our lamps so they don’t burn out. After all, it’s a whole lot easier keeping a fire burning than it is to light a new one.

Burn out happens when we exhaust our supply of oil and have no way to replenish it. You take on too many responsibilities and pretty soon juggling all of them is the biggest responsibility you have. You start to wonder if there’s any way for a day to be more than twenty-four hours. To stick with our metaphor, you’re burning the candle at both ends and your fuel ain’t gonna last much longer. Burn out is inevitable. And when it comes, you don’t necessarily stop. You might continue your breakneck pace with no fuel until you enter freefall and crash land in the desert.

So tending our lights means making good choices about what to spend our oil on, so we don’t exhaust it. If we choose everything, then nothing gets the attention it deserves, we never achieve the excellence that focus instills, and, more to the point, we burn out. But by carefully and intentionally choosing where to place our energy, we keep the oil burning in the lamp longer, and, in a happy coincidence, our choices can lead to replenishment of the oil.

Let’s take Joshua’s speech to the people of Israel for example. At long last they have occupied the Promised Land, and now Joshua puts a choice before them: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” The choices are the Lord, the God of their ancestors or the false gods of their neighbors in their new home. Joshua makes his choice clear: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

This is the first choice Joshua puts before the people. And it is the first choice that confronts us each morning when we wake up. Who will you serve today? The Lord, who calls us to be lamps shining with the light of the kingdom, or the false gods that litter our lives with the junk of the world and scream in our ears words like “more” and “now.” When we wake up in the morning and answer “The Lord,” then all the other choices we make that day will be built on the sure foundation of the God who yearns for us to be shining versions of ourselves. This yearning leads to us burning bright, not burning out.

When we tend our lights to burn brightly, we first choose to serve God each morning. Then, with God’s help, we decide how best to move through the day so that our own personal flourishing contributes to the flourishing of the world and the coming of the kingdom. Rather than taking on too much, we focus on those passions, which God gives us the gifts to pursue. Rather than being overwhelmed by crises and need and emotional entanglement, we say, “I can make a difference,” and then we shine our lights into particular dark corners of this world that we can, in fact, help to brighten.

Today, I invite you, I urge you, to make the active, conscious, and intentional choice to serve the Lord. With this choice made, see how God helps guide your other choices so that your lamp stays lit and so that you keep awake to the coming kingdom of heaven. We’ve all been burned out before. Some of us might be on the edge of burn out right now. When you feel yourself approaching that edge, just stop. Stop and focus on your own light. How much oil is left? Can you really sustain the pace you’ve set or will the fuel run out before the race is run? Tend you light by overhauling your choices. First choose the Lord. Then ask God to guide you to make choices that will replenish your oil so your light will grow all the brighter. And with this fierce conflagration shining inside you, you will awaken to the coming kingdom of heaven.