The Meaning in Stories

Sermon for Sunday, June 14, 2020 || Proper 6A || Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

Today, I’d like to share a few stories and talk about how we use them to make meaning. The lessons and meanings of our own stories, our communal stories, and our biblical stories dwell inside us, and we can use what we learn from these stories to make sense of the story we currently find ourselves in. Today, I’m going to tell two and a half stories: first a personal one, then a biblical one. The half story at the end is the story of now, which isn’t finished being written yet.

First, the personal story. Twelve years ago today, I knelt in front of the bishop of West Virginia. He and a dozen or so priests laid their hands on my head, back, and shoulders. And they prayed for God to make me a priest in God’s church. The day of my ordination was a blur, but I remember the next day much more, the day I celebrated Holy Communion for the first time. I was so nervous on the day of my first Eucharist as a priest. I was convinced I was going to knock over the chalice because I had to make specific gestures while clothed beneath a baggy piece of outerwear. 

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Disrupt/Comfort

Sermon for Sunday, May 31, 2020 || Pentecost A || Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit empowering Jesus’ first followers to spread his loving, liberating, and life-giving message. If you were listening closely to the readings, you might have noticed we actually read two different versions of the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the first one from the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit spirals into the house like a rushing wind from heaven and anoints the disciples with tongues like fire. In this story, we sense the glorious upheaval in the lives of the disciples as these elemental forces – wind, fire – disrupt and invigorate them to embrace their new ministry as Jesus’ witnesses.

In the second story from the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to his disciples on the evening of the resurrection. They lean in close as he breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In this intimate story, Jesus delivers the Comforter, the enlivening companion the disciples need to be about their work.

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Be My Witnesses

Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2020 || Easter 7A || Acts 1:6-14

Early on a Wednesday morning last June, I stood in line at a checkpoint leading to the Western Wall below the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. Turning around, I watched the sun rise over the Mount of Olives, turning the distant tower of the Church of the Ascension into a dark silhouette against the thin clouds. And for a brief moment, my heart rose with the sun, and I was transported back to that spot 2,000 years ago. I watched with the disciples as Jesus was taken up into heaven. I gazed up at the sky and felt his final words settle in my gut: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

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The Impulse to Pray

Sermon for Sunday, May 17, 2020 || Easter 6A || John 14:15-21

Today, I’d like to talk about prayer: what prayer is, where it comes from, and why several people have told me recently how much more praying they are currently doing in these days of pandemic. As you listen to me speaking, listen also to yourself. If I mention a particular form of prayer that excites you or interests you or calms you, that might be the type of prayer the Holy Spirit is inviting you to try on right now.

We’ll start off with the fundamental question: what is prayer? The Book of Common Prayer tells us that prayer is responding to God in thought and deed, with or without words. That’s a pretty broad definition, so broad that we could really classify anything as prayer given that the action is motivated by God’s movement in our life. And that’s the key concept when trying to understand the nature of prayer. 

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Into Your Hands

Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2020 || Easter 5A || Psalm 31

It really got to me this week – the isolation, the distance. One day, I got home a little before dinnertime. Leah gave me a hug, and I realized it was the first time that day someone had touched me. I had been feeling agitated all day, and in that moment I knew why. My primal need for physical contact had not been met. What a relief it was to go home to someone who would embrace me. Then I thought about all the people, those I know and love and those I don’t know and am still called to love, who haven’t touched another human being in two months. I couldn’t even make it a day! So when I read our lessons for today, one verse of the psalm leapt off the page:

Into your hands I commend my spirit,
for you have redeemed me,
O Lord, O God of truth.

Into your hands. I talk about God’s hands all the time. Every single time I pray for someone who is sick, I end the prayer with, “May God hold you in the palm of God’s hand.” I love to sing the Irish blessing, which ends in a similar fashion: “May God hold you in the hollow of God’s hand.” For a long time, I’ve been inviting other people to see themselves as being held in this loving grip. For some reason, I hadn’t seen myself as being held there. 

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Why Are You Weeping?

Sermon for Sunday, April 12, 2020 || Easter Day A || John 20:1-18

Today is Easter Sunday, the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Last Sunday, I invited you into the spiritual posture of lamentation, and now here we are on this most celebratory day of the church year. If you’re feeling a sense of emotional or spiritual whiplash because of this abrupt turn from lamentation to celebration, I completely understand, and I feel it too. That’s why I want to spend this sermon speaking not simply about the celebration of the resurrection, but about the complex emotion that results when lamentation and celebration coexist. In this time of global and personal crisis, we cannot leap from sadness to joy and leave sadness completely behind. And the good news is that we don’t need to. In a few minutes, I’m going to reference that great catalogue of modern day meaning making that is the movies of Pixar Studios. But first, let’s turn to the Gospel reading and the character of Mary Magdalene.

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Lamentation

Sermon for Sunday, April 5, 2020 || Palm/Passion Sunday || Passion According to Matthew

Today we begin our journey through Holy Week. We walk with Jesus as he enters triumphantly yet humbly into Jerusalem, as he eats a final meal with his friends and washes their feet, as he prays in the garden, as he is betrayed, arrested, and convicted, as he suffers on the cross and dies, as his body is laid in the tomb, as he rises again on the third day. We call the story of Jesus’ final days his Passion – that’s passion in both senses of the word: passion as his all-consuming love for sinners like you and me, and passion as an act of suffering, his pathos.

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Deep Breaths with Palestrina

Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2020 || Lent 4A || Psalm 23; John 9:1-41

I usually listen to really upbeat music when I’m writing my sermons, often the Piano Guys, who do instrumental mash-ups of pop and classical music. Their driving rhythms mixed with familiar melodies propel me forward as I write. I’m sure I bop my head along, my fingers click-clacking across the keyboard in time with the percussion. When I sat down to write this sermon, I put on the Piano Guys like normal. But about thirty seconds into the first song, I had to switch to something else.

Because today is not normal. Today is about as far from normal as I can remember since the days following September 11, 2001. As I thought and prayed my way into today’s sermon, I noticed just how un-calm I was. I had not slept well in several nights. I had pain in my jaw, always a sign of stress. I had a thick knot of anxiety in my chest. I looked beyond the anxiety and felt a roiling mix of other emotions, which I’ll get into in a moment. Realizing my state on un-calm, I changed the music. I selected a setting of the mass in Latin by the Renaissance composer Palestrina, who never fails to help me take deep breaths.

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