The Whole City

Sermon for Sunday, February 4, 2018 || Epiphany 5B || Mark 1:29-39

There’s a certain line in this morning’s Gospel lesson, and I can’t decide whether it is hyperbole or not. “That evening, at sundown,” Mark tells us, “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” The whole city. Archaeologists tell us the city of Capernaum had a population of about fifteen hundred in Jesus’ day, so imagine a group larger than the student body of Fitch High School crowding around one house on a quiet side street near the sea. “The whole city was gathered around the door.”

Now you might be wondering why I’m harping on about this rather innocuous verse, and I’ll admit it has stuck in my craw this week. To be honest, reading about this whole city gathering around Jesus made me sad and wistful. Imagining this great throng trying to get near this wonderful source of healing made me long for a return to another time in the history of our little piece of the world.


You see, back in colonial times and stretching even into the first decades of the United States, towns in the state of Connecticut were not recognized as such until they boasted a congregational church located on their greens. In those days, the church was the meeting space for the town. It served as local government as well. Every Sunday, the whole town would show up for worship. It’s just what you did.

My favorite high school teacher ran an exercise in a United States history class, in which we built a colonial town based on the occupations of our parents. Some students lived in town, others in farms on the outskirts. And I remember feeling perhaps a little bit too proud that I got to live in the center of town, right next to the church because my father was the pastor.

You might remind me that currently I do live in the center of Mystic because I’m the pastor, but the Connecticut of 2018 bears little resemblance to that of colonial times. According to a 2016 Pew Foundation study, Connecticut is the fifth least religious state in the country. Want to know the four we beat? Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.*

They brought to him all who were sick…and the whole city gathered around the door. That doesn’t happen anymore. We don’t live in the world were the whole town turns out for church, and people go check on you if you miss, just in case you fell down the well or something. According to Pew, just over a quarter of Connecticut residents attend worship weekly. Seventy-two percent of our neighbors are home sipping orange juice and watching Meet the Press.

And yet here we are. Why?

Because we found something. Or better yet, something found us. Someone said,  “Follow me,” and we did. And we discovered that such following was so much more fruitful when done together. Whereas our ancestors went to church because it’s what they did, we come here because we have made church a priority in our lives. Our lives are enriched because of our participation in God’s mission in this place. And that enrichment ripples out from us and touches everyone we meet.

My wistful desire to return to the colonial model of church got me thinking: besides the fact that you all pay me, why do I come? Why is church, and by extension, living out my relationship with God among you, a priority? Four main reasons spring to mind.

First, this is a place of worship. The other three reasons I will list could be fulfilled by other organizations, but not this one, which makes worship the church’s primary responsibility. Worship simultaneously grounds us and elevates us. Worship connects us intentionally to the Foundation of all existence. Such connection keeps us grounded: granting peace in the maelstrom of activity that tends to rule our days; lending perspective when we begin to think of ourselves as either more or less than we truly are; and steadying us with the gift of fundamental identity – that of God’s beloved children. At the same time, worship lifts our spirits, as God’s very presence draws praise and adoration forth from us. Thus we exist between the depths and the heights of God’s love, ever wrapped and enfolded by the One we worship.

Second, this is a place of community. While we have many other communal outlets we could and do attend, church is special. Nowhere else do so many generations rub shoulders. Think about that. Can you come up with another institution where a teenager and an unrelated great-grandmother might sit and share together? Nowhere else do people gather who have such diverse interests and skills. Most community groups meet around a specific affinity or passion, but we come together simply because we are God’s children seeking to follow God’s Son. I have learned so much from so many people because their life experiences differ so widely from mine.

Third, this is a place of service. Our God is a God of mission and so we are a people on a mission. Indeed, throughout scripture, God holds up caring for the orphan and widow as the ruler by which God’s people will be measured. They were the most vulnerable in their society, and by extension, God calls us to care for the most vulnerable in our own. Several of our newer parishioners have told me that they were excited to come to St. Mark’s because of our partnership with St. Luc in Haiti. They saw the God of mission active here, as indeed God is. The God of mission is alive in Haiti, as well. Did you know that the vast majority of schools in Haiti are attached to churches? Education is their mission, and we are partners in it.

Fourth (and lastly for today, but certainly this is not an exhaustive list), this is a place of both solace and celebration. In this place, we mark the passage of our lives: birth, baptism, marriage, death, and all the sad and joyful moments in between. We love hard here even at times when it is hard to love: when tragedy strikes, when pain is near, when grief drains the light from our eyes. When someone is given a terminal diagnosis, we are there. When someone goes through a divorce, we are there. When someone loses a child or a parent, we are there. We are there bearing witness to the God of love, who moves through both tragedy and triumph. We are there praying and embracing and sitting silently in the next chair in the hospital room.

At its best, the church is a truly wonderful place of worship, community, service, solace and celebration. After reciting this list, I no longer wish for the colonial days of compulsory attendance. I wish only for the grace to show others by my words and actions what I have found and what has found me.


*http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/29/how-religious-is-your-state/?state=connecticut

Mark and the Movement

Sermon for Sunday, April 30, 2017 || The Feast of St. Mark (transferred) || Mark 1:1-15

After services today, we are kicking off our celebration of the 150th anniversary of St. Mark’s Church here in Mystic, Connecticut. While the church’s roots go back to the creation of a Sunday School in 1859, the traditionally accepted date for the founding of St. Mark’s jumps forward to Christmas Eve 1867 and the first service here at the Pearl Street location. Our history tells us that a wooden causeway had to be constructed that December night so members could navigate the tidal pools swirling on the lawn outside.

Of course, our church is more than this building with its simple, bright, lovely interior and occasional problems with flooding; indeed, a church is technically a gathering of people, not a location. We don’t go to church. We are church: we are a community of people gathered for mutual support, to praise and worship God, to deepen our commitment to follow Jesus Christ, and to partner with God in mission in our neighborhood. Continue reading “Mark and the Movement”

Great Chasms

Sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2016 || Proper 21C || Luke 16:19-31

This past summer marked the 10th anniversary of a fateful decision in my life. I had just started my hospital chaplaincy in Dallas and the two-year long relationship I expected to fill my free time had evaporated mere days before. So I picked up the game. Several of my friends played World of Warcraft, and they encouraged me to give this immersive online fantasy game a try. I did. And I got immersed. I got addicted. And I became detached. Continue reading “Great Chasms”

Digital Disciple Preview: Virtual People (part 2 of 3)

Digital Disciple will be on the physical bookstore shelf and the virtual website shelf on May 1. You can pre-order it here. Here’s the second part of a three part preview that can also be found on my Facebook page and on Episcopal Cafe.com.

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As I view the intersections between connection and isolation, Tech culture and following Jesus, you should know that I make my observations from the perspective of a member of the first generation that has never known a world without the Internet. I’m a Millennial, one of the vanguard of the generation whose first members were born in 1982. As one of the eldest of the Millennials, I remember artifacts such as Prodigy and CompuServe, which lost the evolutionary battle to AOL. I remember when Napster was new and innovative and not at all threatening to the music industry. I remember when e-mail caught the attention of spellcheck.

But I don’t remember a time before http and www were more than just letters. I don’t remember my father owning a computer without a port for a phone cord. Ask younger members of the generation, and they won’t even realize that computers came with phone ports rather than Ethernet ones. My first cell phone was for emergencies only because it had a paltry fifteen minutes a month. (Don’t tell my dad, but most of my emergencies were of the pizza-ordering variety.) Younger Millennials have had cell phones since they were in elementary school. But from the eldest of us who remember the cretaceous period of dial-up to the youngest who were born with Bluetooth implants, we Millennials are dependent on the Tech, on all the gadgets and machines and Series of Tubes that connect us one to another and each to the world.

It's only a short leap from walking around with your bluetooth in your ear all day to the Borg. But they're still in the Delta quadrant, so we're safe for a couple hundred more years, right?

Of course, Millennials aren’t the only ones affected by the rise of the Internet and associated Tech. GenXers, Boomers, and computer-savvy older people like my grandmother feel the strong current of the Internet pulling them online just as much. As a Millennial, I have felt this current pulling me since I could reach the keyboard. As a follower of Christ, I feel God moving in both my virtual and my real lives. Knowing that these dual influences are neither mutually exclusive nor entirely compatible gives rise to a series of questions.

How do the Tech’s simultaneous forces of connection and isolation affect our walks with Christ? How does living in a virtual world influence living in both the physical and the spiritual ones? How do we maintain the body of Christ when the physical bodies we see and touch in church expand to include the virtual bodies we inhabit online? What place does prayer have in our instantaneous, Tech-driven world? Where do we keep our knowledge of God when our preferred method of storing information has shifted to the external? How do we resist isolation while remaining plugged into the Series of Tubes?

Now, I can speak only from my own experience. But I know that we humans are ineffective at arriving at the truth on our own, so I hope and pray that you will interact with my experience to delve more deeply into the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Each of us has a call from God, each a ministry. Within each of the questions above, we find this fundamental one: How do we continue in the tradition of the personal nature of the ministry of Jesus in lives that are increasingly siphoned off into remote, disembodied, virtual space? I invite you to explore this question with me.

But first, you might be wondering why you should take what I say seriously. Who am I to write this book? Well, I claim neither special revelation from the Almighty nor a mandate from my generation. I’m just another disciple of Jesus Christ who has a few words to share with you. I endeavor to follow Christ wherever he leads me, but increasingly I find myself walking along the data streams and fiber-optic paths of the virtual world. Is it possible that Jesus might find me and I might find him on those virtual paths? Is it possible that God can use the Tech to create better followers of Jesus Christ? I am convinced that the answer is a resounding yes, but a yes stamped with a necessary warning label. Our Tech-driven world is changing rapidly, and we are changing with it. Unlike the great cloud of Christian witnesses that has preceded us, we’re not simply earthbound, pavement-pounding disciples of Jesus Christ. The Tech has added a new dimension to our lives; we are physical, emotional, spiritual, and now virtual people. But I believe that God continues to move through every facet of our existence, and that makes us new kinds of followers. We are digital disciples.

Forty days

Americans are rarely a self-reflective people. We have eyes only for result and effect, caring little for process and cause. We seek to assign blame, caring little for our own culpability. We repeat the mistakes of the past, caring little for the lessons those mistakes teach. Never look back. Never let ‘em see you bleed. Never stop to think or the world will pass you by.

Living in this results-driven world is, at the same time, both exceedingly difficult and quite easy. It’s difficult because true joy, the fuel for any fruitful life, is a scarce commodity. Joy happens during not after, and in a results-oriented society, the during is dismissed as superfluous. 50percentBut this dismissal is why the results-driven life is also quite easy. You crop half of life away. The journey becomes unimportant: only the destination matters. How easy would a test be if you only had to score a 50% to pass?

Self-reflection makes life hard, but it also allows us to recognize that joy abounds, poised to infuse our lives with meaning. Because we are such poor practitioners of self-reflection and because our culture tells us not to take time for such a revealingly honest enterprise, we need a swift kick in the trousers to boot us from the grasping current of the results-driven half-life.

In the Church, this swift-kick-in-the-trousers is called the season of Lent. “Lent” is an old translation of the Latin word quadragesima, which simply means “forty days.” Forty days is a significant period of time in the Bible: Noah, Moses, and Elijah all had forty days of something –flooding, fasting, sitting around with God on the mountaintop. Jesus spent forty days in the desert, during which Satan tempted him. Begun this year on February 25 (on the fast the church names “Ash Wednesday”) Lent continues until the day before Easter. Historically, the season of Lent was the period of time that people used to prepare for baptism, which took place at the Great Vigil of Easter on Easter Eve.

During these forty days that bring us to Easter, we examine our lives and discern how attuned to God’s movement we are. We pray for God to create in us clean hearts and renew right spirits within us, as Psalm 51 says. We rededicate ourselves to following Christ and wonder how last year’s dedication faded away. We slow down and turn our thoughts inward. How have my actions and inactions contributed to the brokenness in the world? To what have I enslaved myself? Where is my joy and freedom? Do I really want to follow Christ?

When we enter this period of self-reflection, when we honestly answer questions such as these, it often becomes apparent just how skin deep and results-oriented we’ve become. The season of Lent helps us see the error in statements such as “It’s only cheating if you get caught” and “The ends justify the means.” Living a full life – not a half-life of results only – means valuing the moral fortitude that counters wanton opportunism and caring about how things are accomplished, not just that they are. Observing Lent means taking a hard look at ourselves and borrowing enough strength from God to be capable of seeing those festering things that we usually ignore. Then we borrow enough faith from God to know that God will help us change and will reawaken within us those faculties of hope and love that have long lay dormant.

I invite you to turn your gaze inward during this season of Lent and discover the true joy that comes from a full life lived in the love of God.

* This post began its life as an article in my local newspaper.