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.

Continue reading “The Whole City”

Affirmation and Celebration

Sermon for Sunday, November 2, 2014 || All Saints Year A

affirmationandcelebrationThe feast of All Saints, which we celebrate today, is about family, namely the family of God. Each saint has a special day commemorating his or her life of devotion and service, but on this day we celebrate all of them. We celebrate them collectively: not as a group of individuals who walked the way of discipleship alone, but as the glistening threads of God’s tapestry woven together to tell the story of God’s presence in creation since the time of Jesus. However, this tapestry is vast, so much bigger than the threads of particular saints could fashion, and so God weaves other threads into the warp and weft in order to complete the story. I have a thread. You have a thread. And Reggie, the beautiful six-month old collection of smiles and joy we’ll be baptizing in a few minutes, has a thread. The tapestry God continues to weave is the story of God’s family from the dawn of time. It is the story of the people of Israel. It is the story of the Gospel. And it is our story because we are all members of God’s great family. Today, we celebrate God weaving us together with all the saints into the story of this great family. And today, we celebrate bringing another person into that story, into this great family, when we baptize Reggie.

So what’s really going on in baptism? The traditional understanding tells us that baptism serves as the initiatory rite of the church and marks the cleansing of our sins. Now neither of these definitions is wrong (let me be clear), but I think if we stop there we will be prone to misunderstanding. We need to dig a little deeper. Here’s one thing to remember about baptism, and this will be on the test (there’s no test): the sacrament of baptism affirms and celebrates a state of being that already exists. The action of baptizing doesn’t create anything new; rather, the sacrament marks our participation in something God is already doing.

Here’s what I mean. At the end of the baptism service, we will welcome Reggie saying: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” However, by virtue of Reggie being born in the image and likeness of God, he is already a member of God’s family. He is already part of God’s household. He already has a thread in God’s tapestry. Thus, his baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being he already possesses. Today we will celebrate his membership in God’s family so that we can see the deep truth of God’s reality: that we are all members of that family.

Participating in this deep truth is what makes baptism one of the sacraments of the faith. If you’ve taken a confirmation class or CCD in the Roman Catholic Church, then you might remember the classic definition of a sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Another way to put this is that sacraments are windows through which God gives us the gift of viewing the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Sacraments take ordinary, everyday things – water and bread, for example – and use them to reveal extraordinary holiness hidden in plain sight.

When we baptize Reggie, the hidden will be revealed for a moment, and we will see the unconditional love of God embracing a soul who has never done a thing to earn that love. And we will learn once again that we can do nothing to earn it either. We can only respond to God’s unconditional love in our lives.

If Reggie has done nothing to earn God’s love, then neither has he done anything to reject it, so you might be wondering why we baptize to cleanse sins, which you’ll recall was the second part of our traditional understanding of baptism. Once again, we are affirming and celebrating a state of being that already exists.

The word “baptism” sounds all fancy until you dig down to its roots. “Baptism” simply means “to wash.” When we bathe, we scrub away all the dirt and sweat and grime that accumulates during our day-to-day lives. We have to bathe regularly because we get dirty regularly. But we baptize only once because baptism is a celebration that our sins are forgiven – not just the ones we already committed but all of our sins past and future, everything that has, does, or will separate us from God. When we wash in the waters of baptism, we join God’s reality in progress, a reality in which nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. The sacrament of baptism allows us to mark the beginning of our participation in this reality.

So if baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being that already exists, you might be wondering if it asks anything of us at all. If we’re just jumping into a river that’s already flowing, what is our responsibility in all of this?

Well, the action of baptism takes place in a few seconds at the font behind me. We’ll pour a few ounces of blessed water on Reggie’s forehead, say the words, and that will be that. But the baptismal life continues from that moment on. The baptismal life is a sacramental life, a life in which each baptized person becomes one of those windows into the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Thus baptism invites us into deeper commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, deeper relationship with God, and deeper resonance with the Holy Spirit’s presence.

When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant in a moment, we will promise with God’s help to commit ourselves once again to serve God in this world. We will remember that nothing separates us from God’s love, that we are all members of God’s great family, that we all have threads woven into God’s tapestry. And we will celebrate that God invites us to live baptismal lives, committed to bearing witness to the true and deep reality of God’s presence in creation.

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.

In My Name

(Sermon for Sunday, September 4, 2011 || Proper 18A || Matthew 18:15-20 )

Near the end of the film Shakespeare in Love, the crowds who have just witnessed the first performance of Romeo and Juliet sit stunned into silence. Then one person begins clapping and soon the playhouse is shaking to thunderous applause. But in the midst of the cast’s curtain call, a group of soldiers storms into the theatre led by Mr. Tilney, the Queen’s Master of the Revels. “I arrest you in the name of Queen Elizabeth,” shouts Tilney.

When asked why he is attempting to arrest everyone present, he says that they all “stand in contempt of the authority vested” in him by Her Majesty because they just participated in a display of public lewdness – because (and here he points to Gwyneth Paltrow who is playing Lady Viola who, in turn, is playing Juliet) “that woman is a woman!” Then he employs the Queen’s authority a third time: “I’ll see you all in the clink in the name of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.”

“Mr. Tilney,” thunders a voice from the audience. Then the Queen reveals herself and says, “Have a care with my name or you will wear it out.” And stepping regally to the stage (as only Dame Judi Dench can), she takes charge of the situation.

Now the monarch happened to be at the play, but neither Mr. Tilney nor anyone else knew that. Mr. Tilney was doing what was expected of him as the person in charge of public performances in the Queen’s realm. The Queen, of course, could not possibly attend to all matters of governance alone, and so she appointed all sorts of people to handle affairs in her name. These people, like Mr. Tilney, used the Queen’s name to generate the authority they needed to do their jobs, which in the big picture always meant looking after the Queen’s affairs. Apparently, in Mr. Tilney’s case, he has traded on her name one too many times.

This is the model that first comes to my mind when the Gospel references doing something in Jesus’ name, as so happens in today’s reading from Matthew. I think of the absent monarch delegating to an underling some portion of her authority so that some minor affair of state runs smoothly. In this model, the name of the monarch functions as a badge or a seal, some sort of official statement that the underling is speaking for the monarch because the monarch is elsewhere.

Now I want you to time travel with me back about three minutes. I climbed into this pulpit, crossed myself, and said, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” You said, “Amen,” and then you sat down while I took a sip of water. And then I started talking about Shakespeare in Love. Okay, back to the present.

How is my invocation of God’s name any different than Mr. Tilney wearing out Queen Elizabeth’s? If Mr. Tilney invokes the Queen’s name primarily because she is absent, what am I saying about God’s presence here with us at St. Stephen’s? Could I possibly be implying that God is an absent sovereign, and I am speaking on God’s authority because God couldn’t quite get here this morning?

I surely hope not. And here is where we disciples of Jesus Christ diverge from the underlings of Queen Elizabeth. Notice what Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel reading: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” Whenever we invoke the name of Jesus, we do not do so in order to stand in for an absent savior; rather, we invoke Jesus’ name to awaken ourselves to the ultimate reality of Christ’s very presence in our midst.

Jesus expresses this ultimate reality when he says, “I am there among them.” In Greek, this phrase literally means, “I am there in the middle of them.” In other words, the presence of Christ forms the invisible connective tissue in our relationships. We make this connection visible when we love one another, when we serve one another, when we respect the dignity of one another, and when we reach out to those who we might not think are all that connected to us.

And we make this connection visible when we gather intentionally in Christ’s name to share Christ’s presence with each other. Later in this service, we will turn our attention to the table. And the very first words out of our mouths will demonstrate that a gathering of at least two is necessary to celebrate God’s connection to us and to each other. I will say, “The Lord be with you.” And you will respond, “And also with you.” We will engage in this short conversation in order to notice that we are gathered together in God’s presence.

During the ensuing prayer, we will thank God for all the gifts God has given us. And because this thanksgiving comes attached to the sharing of something, namely bread and wine, we will be reminded that the best way to thank God for our gifts is to share them with others. At the end of the prayer, I will break the bread so we all can partake in this act of sharing. And through the praying, thanking, breaking, and sharing, we will participate in the presence of God among us. We will celebrate the connective tissue of Christ in each of our relationships.

But this is not the end of our awareness of the connecting power of God. This is the training, the exercise for the real work of disciples of Jesus Christ. When we walk out through those doors, we will bring with us the desire and the ability to make visible the connective tissue of Christ’s presence in all of our relationships. The final dialogue of this service will be, “Let us go forth in the name of Christ,” to which you will respond, “Thanks be to God” (plus a few “Alleluias”).

We go forth in the name of Christ, not to divide, but to gather. We go forth in the name of Christ, not rejecting the chance to form a bond, but rejoicing that the connective tissue of God’s presence stretches forth from us, seeking the lost and the lonely. We go forth in the name of Christ, not as delegates of an absent savior, but as beacons of the light of Christ, which fills the space between people and pulls them closer together.