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.
Sermon for Sunday, September 28, 2014 || Proper 21A || Philippians 2:1-13
I 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.
(Sermon for Sunday, May 5, 2013 || Easter 6C || John 5:1-19)
I have some really exciting news that I’ve just been bursting to tell you. Last Monday, I became an uncle. I wasn’t an uncle, and then my sister-in-law had her baby boy, and now I’m an uncle! But since I played absolutely no part in the whole “becoming an uncle thing,” let me talk a little more about the actual players in this little slice of joy, my nephew Connor and his parents, Bethany and Steve.
Bethany labored to birth Connor on Sunday and Monday, and he entered the world Monday afternoon, just under eight pounds of radiant, new life: squishy elbows and beating heart and astonishingly alert eyes. I’m sure there were moments during delivery when Bethany was certain she couldn’t do it, that one more push was out of the question, that one more contraction would send her over the edge. But then she did do it, and her son was placed in her welcoming arms.
I’m sure that in the weeks and months to come, Bethany and Steve will spend many a night awake trying to sooth the baby who will seem to be crying for no apparent reason, considering they will have sated all his immediate needs. They will be strung out, exhausted, ready to fall asleep in the next morning’s bowl of cereal. They will wonder if they can function on 45 minutes of sleep and then they will do it all again the next night. And the one after that.
I’m sure that at some point in his childhood, Connor will break his arm climbing a tree or get an infection that will send him and his distraught parents to the Emergency Room. That kind of thing happens to everyone, but in the moment, Bethany and Steve will be frantic and all kinds of worst-case scenarios will run through their minds. But then Connor’s fever will break or he’ll emerge with a cast ready for signatures, and his parents will breathe a prayer of silent relief for having come through the ordeal.
Notice a pattern here. On the day of Connor’s delivery, Bethany went to the point of no return. And then she returned with a babe in her arms. In the future eventualities of sleepless nights and hospital visits, Bethany and Steve will be at the ends of their ropes, and yet they will keep climbing and they will find more rope. How can I be so sure that they will find more rope? Because I believe God called them to the sacred ministry of parenthood. And when God calls one of us to serve, God always provides us with the gifts that we need to fulfill our callings.
In the delivery room Bethany discovered God’s gift of perseverance and more determination than she ever thought she possessed. God called her to motherhood and then gave her the gifts she needed to make the calling hers. As she grows in this ministry, she will continue to discover new gifts as she faces new challenges as a mother. The same thing happens to us when we accept God’s call in our lives. The call and the gifts to achieve the call go hand in hand. To use a political metaphor, God doesn’t believe in the unfunded mandate.
If you need more convincing, check out this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to John. Jesus arrives at the pool of Beth-Zatha and finds there a man who is waiting his turn to go down into the pool. The popular belief was that when the water was stirred up, from some underground source presumably, the first person to enter the pool would be healed of any affliction. The man had been paralyzed for 38 years; can you image – 38 years of coming to this pool only to be stymied by people who could beat him to the water, 38 years of dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams, all drained into a morass of hardened isolation. 38 years of paralysis; just think, if this encounter were happening today, the man would have become paralyzed while Gerald Ford was president and I wouldn’t be a twinkle in my mother’s eye for quite some time.
To this downtrodden, lonely soul, Jesus comes, and Jesus asks him a question: “Do you want to be made well?” The answer seems obvious. “YES” is what you’d expect. But this man seems to have a well-worn speech ready for whenever anyone approaches him, no matter what they say. “I have no one to put me in the water and when I’m trying to get over there, someone always gets ahead of me,” he says.
Jesus takes this response as a “yes.” And then Jesus just skips all the preliminaries. He doesn’t tell the man his faith has made him well. He doesn’t touch him. He doesn’t pray. Jesus simply commands the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and walk. Jesus calls this man to do something he is absolutely and without a doubt unable to do.
I imagine the man gives Jesus an incredulous look, perhaps a raised eyebrow. A hollow chuckle. Who does this guy think he is, the man wonders? But Jesus’ words ring in the air, strong and solid and shimmering. The man looks up and sees Jesus staring down at him, and he realizes that Jesus is serious. What if? What if I don’t need the pool? What if this is my chance?
He pokes his leg with his finger. No sensation. He tries to wiggle his toes. Nothing. But Jesus’ call to stand up is still ringing in the air, and now the words fall to earth, fall into the heart of the paralyzed man. No more poking. No more wiggling. He reaches up and grasps Jesus’ arm and pulls himself up. He can stand. He can walk.
Somewhere between Jesus’ call and the man’s standing, Jesus gives him the gift of the ability to heed the call. The healing happens in order that the man can obey Jesus’ command. Like I said, God doesn’t believe in unfunded mandates. Jesus tells the man to stand up. But he hasn’t stood in 38 years. And then he does because the call carried with it the gift to accomplish it. He realized Jesus had blessed him with the gift when he used it to stand up.
God called Bethany and Steve to be new parents. And I believe God will give them all the gifts they need to raise Connor to be the child God calls him to be. Jesus called the paralyzed man to stand and gave him the gift to do so. I wonder what God is calling you to do? I wonder what God is calling you to be? How many of us hear God’s call but then shy away from it because we assume we aren’t good enough to accomplish it or we don’t have the necessary gifts to do it?
This story of the man by the pool teaches us that God never issues a call without dispersing the gifts that accompany it. In fact, God calls us to certain things specifically so we can discover our giftedness.
So the next time you pray, I invite you to ask God what God is calling you to do or be. For the duration of the prayer, ignore both the seeming impossibility of the call and your utter inadequacy to accomplish it. Just sit in silence with God, listening to the call ringing in the air, strong and solid and shimmering. And then, like the paralyzed man, stand up, take your mat, and walk. Say “yes” to God. And discover all of the gifts that God has been bursting to shower upon you.