Did you know that you have been sent by God? It’s true. We don’t often think about this reality because our lives stumble down winding roads on their way to various intermediate destinations that we might not even be aware of when we arrive at them. That last sentence was itself a circuitous adventure. But I really mean this. Each one of us, God has sent. Here. Now. This is not an ego thing. This is not someone claiming to be “God’s Gift” because he thinks he is “all that and a bag of chips,” as we used to say. No. This is the Gospel truth. God has sent each of us for a purpose that is written on our hearts, just waiting for our passion to speak it to the world.
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.
Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2020 || Easter 4A || John 1:1-10
I imagine Jesus looking out over the fields beyond Jerusalem and seeing shepherds moving their flocks towards the sparse patches of green in the distance. He turns to his followers and says, “You see those shepherds out there. I am the Good Shepherd.” Then he begins spinning out his metaphor, telling a story as the people watch the grazing sheep beneath the big, open sky. The shepherd goes into the fold,” Jesus continues, and “the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
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…
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.
Sermon for Sunday, August 19, 2018 || Proper 15b || 2 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14*
Today, I’d like to talk about wisdom. Wisdom is a gift from God that combines knowledge, discernment, and compassion to allow one to see deeply into the heart of things. Wisdom is the gift God gives to King Solomon in today’s first reading. And wisdom is desperately needed but in short supply in these strange and tumultuous days.Continue reading “The Wisdom of Solomon”→
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”→
No sermon from me this week, since I was at a conference called CREDO in North Carolina. Instead, here’s something I wrote during a silent Saturday morning, when I was able to get quiet enough to write poetry.
If a tree were unable to sway
It would break
At the first puff of air
Strong enough to ruffle its branches.
So it is with me.
The wind whips and howls here
In this valley between two mountains,
All sound and fury, signifying everything.
The water in the narrow lake ripples,
Then whitecaps leap and curl,
And the trees bend.
How is it possible?
How can they grow straight and tall,
Spindled columns connecting earth and sky,
And yet sway when the wind blows?
I watch them now – evergreens mostly,
With branches high up their trunks –
And a hypnotic peace breathes itself into me.
I notice a finch –
Or some other tiny bird
(I don’t know the difference) –
Land halfway up the bare trunk
Of the largest tree in front of me.
This one’s not an evergreen,
And the first promises of new growth
Are visible at the tips of its branches.
The finch (do they have finches in North Carolina?)
Starts climbing the trunk.
It doesn’t fly up, but hops little hops skyward –
Twenty or thirty feet, a few inches at a time.
Why doesn’t it fly?
Perhaps the wind is too strong,
Would blow the tiny bird off course
If it let go the trunk.
I wonder what its course is.
Where is it going
That a climb up the trunk would suffice?
Whenever I walk in the wind,
I imagine being lighter than I am,
Imagine floating off to God knows where.
God knows where:
Where the finch is traveling,
Where I am traveling.
Seeing the finch reminds me:
I heard tell that a bald eagle patrols Lake Logan,
And suddenly my only desire is to see him,
See him glide through the valley,
Not fighting the wind, nor hiding from it,
But soaring on it.
I stare out past the swaying trees,
Hoping my desire might resonate
Along one of the strings of creation
(The eternal music that God began
With the opening consonance of light)
And twinge the soul of the eagle
To take flight and give me something truly memorable
To treasure in my heart.
But this desire is selfish – I know –
And selfishness does not resonate,
But plays a discordant note,
A quarter-tone flat
And expects the rest of the orchestra
To re-tune their instruments accordingly.
Instead of the eagle,
I am blessed to witness a pair of geese
Skim the surface of the lake
And land atop the water
Sending ripples ahead of them,
Announcing their arrival.
If I had not been looking for the eagle
I would not have noticed the geese,
And they, too, are a gift.
I thank God that my selfish desire
Did not blind me to the gift of the geese,
The ripples catching the mid-morning light,
The water returning to relative calm,
Moved now only by the wind.
Another gust pummels the trees,
And they bend dutifully,
And again I marvel at their swaying.
How is it possible?
The answer comes to me on the wind,
Breathes into me,
Nestles in my heart:
The treasure I receive
Rather than the one I desired.
“You see only part of the tree,” says the wind.
Yes, of course, I had forgotten.
The tree began in the dark earth,
Playing its nascent notes,
A piccolo trill,
A rat-a-tat of the snare.
And then it began to grow –
Both up and down.
The roots reach deeper and deeper;
Stretch through the soil;
Brush the bedrock;
The trunk above sways in the gale
And does not break,
But moves where the wind directs.
Oh God, I pray,
Make it so with me.
After sharing this with a few people at the conference, I was informed that the tiny bird I saw was in all likelihood a Carolina Wren. But I wanted to preserve the authenticity of my wonderings (this is a stream-of-consciousness poem after all), and I personally know exactly zero about birds.
Sermon for Sunday, May 17, 2015 || Easter 7B || Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Last week, we talked about trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life. I invited you to stop and pray the next time you are at the precipice of a decision; to take a deep breath and feel which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is pushing you; to ask God what new thing God is trying to birth through you with the decision. I know many of us, myself included, often have a hard time finding words to put to these prayers for guidance. Silent prayer – with lots of listening – is a beautiful alternative when there are no words, but if you have the urge to speak, then I have the first five words of the prayer, just to get you started. They come from this morning’s first reading. The eleven apostles want to round out their number, so they select two candidates and then pray about which one will take Judas’s spot. And they begin their prayer for guidance with these five words: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.”
What a profound statement of faith – five words that speak to the apostles’ trust in God. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. This one, brief sentence guides their decision-making process in three substantial ways. They acknowledge God’s presence in their endeavor. They understand that making choices involves more than purely mental exercise. And they show humility in the face of a life-altering decision. Let’s take them in turn.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we routinely ignore God’s presence because God is always present. We forget that God is in the midst of not just the miraculous, but also the mundane. Now, our failure to recognize God’s presence is understandable. How many of us note the sound of the engine in the car until there’s an ominous sputtering? How many of us note the reliable glow of the bedside lamp until the transformer blows outside? We adapt to routine. We organize our lives into predictable patterns. But God’s movement in our lives is the very framework upon which our patterns hang, so that movement is often difficult to perceive. On the other hand, like the electricity, we’d notice if God weren’t there.
The apostles combat the tendency to ignore God’s foundational presence by invoking God’s knowledge of their hearts as they make a decision. Lord, you know everyone’s heart is shorthand for, “Lord, you are present in all that we do, and your presence sustains the world we live in and the life we live.” With these words, the apostles invite God into their decision-making process. This invitation may seem superfluous if you believe the assertion that God is ever-present. Indeed, God doesn’t need an invitation to be present in our lives. But we often need to invite God in to remind ourselves to be present to God. Our invitation functions, strangely enough, as an RSVP, as a response to God’s presence. The apostles know this. They know that the Lord is already present, but the invitation prepares their hearts to respond to God’s movement.
Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they pray. The apostles know that making a life-altering decision involves more than mental exercise. Every decision we make has both mental and emotional components, and we ignore the emotional at our peril. When the apostles pray these five words, they combine the mental verb “know” with the feeling word “heart.” They understand that God made separating heart from head so difficult precisely because our decision-making process should not attempt the separation. God gave us minds to interpret our emotions and hearts to provide our minds with the fuel of hope and imagination. God infused our biology with such checks and balances, so we tragically limit ourselves when we shelve our feelings in favor of our thoughts, or vice versa. Only by mingling the two can we make faithful decisions.
The apostles know they are in God’s presence. They employ both their hearts and minds as they make their choice. And they show humility in the midst of a life-altering decision. This humility is key to the whole decision-making enterprise. Every one of my choices affects more than just me, and those effects ripple into the future in permutations that my brain is unequipped to process. I don’t know how my decisions will affect others, let alone myself. Furthermore, I don’t even know myself well enough most of the time to make good decisions. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. If God knows what’s in my heart, then that makes one of us.
Humility comes in when we acknowledge our limited awareness of ourselves and the world around us. If our interior lives are clouded in mystery, how much less can we understand the trajectory of our decisions in the wider world? Inviting God into the decision-making process opens us up to the One who truly knows us. The humble prayer begins, “Lord you know my heart, and you know it much better than I do.” Confessing our shallow understanding of our own inner selves sets us on the path to faithful decisions.
Let’s say you are standing at the edge of a life-altering decision. You are trying to decide what college to go to; or whether to throw yourself fully into a budding relationship; or if you should change jobs. There’s newness shimmering on the horizon, so you stop and pray. You begin with a personalized version of these five words: “Lord, you know everyone’s one.”
Lord, you know my heart.With these words, you invite God into your decision-making process. You make yourself aware of God’s constant, yet elusive presence. You think back to your campus visits at your top three choices. You hadn’t been prepared to look for God’s presence at the time, being so overwhelmed by the experience. But now, looking back in prayer, you notice a flicker of rightness about one school. You imagine yourself there, setting up your dorm room, going to class. And you realize what that flicker of rightness feels like. It feels like home. That’s God’s presence inviting you to choose the best of all possible futures.
Lord, you know my heart. With these words, you allow your head and your heart to team up, mingling your rational mind with your emotions and imagination. A new relationship is budding, and you’re trying to decide whether or not to run with it. Your heart tells you yes, Yes, YES – how could you possibly feel any better than you do right now. You’re skin’s all tingly. You haven’t heard her voice in an hour, which is an hour too long. But here your rational mind breaks through the fog of passion: let’s not pick the china pattern yet. Let’s get to know each other. Let’s take it slow. Let’s test this and see if our nascent passion has what it takes to deepen into the bedrock of lifetime commitment.
Lord, you know my heart. With these words, you humbly acknowledge that alone you don’t have the depth of awareness necessary to make a faithful decision. You’ve been thinking about changing jobs for a while. Right now, the money’s good, but the hours are killer. You tell yourself that you’re sacrificing so that your family can have a good life. And that may be true, but still, you’ve missed a dance recital and three little league games this month alone. You have an offer on the table. It’s less money, but you’d be home most evenings. In humility, you ask for God’s guidance to help you see the future permutations of this decision.
Lord, you know my heart. “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” When you are trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life, begin your prayer for guidance with these five words. With integrated heart and mind, kneel humbly in God’s presence. Unfurl your heart to God. Place yourself in the palm of God’s hand. And know that God will still be there whatever future unfolds.
*Several parishioners have asked me to preach slower, which I’ve been working on for a while now. Recently, I’ve been succeeding. But that means I need to start writing fewer words. This sermon came in about 1:30 longer than I like, so at the later service, I shortened it on the fly and it worked. But the one I recorded was the long one.