The Twelve

Sermon for Sunday, June 18, 2017 || Proper 6A || Matthew 9:35 – 10:8

Today I’d like to talk about Jesus’ twelve disciples. Matthew catalogs their names in the Gospel lesson I just read; it is a list of some famous names and some obscure names and one notorious name. The caveat here is that we know many other people followed Jesus besides these twelve men, including an undefined but certainly large group of women, some of whom financed Jesus’ operation. A few of their names are recorded in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; indeed, they remained stalwart in the face of danger when most of the twelve fled. Would that we had more of their stories recorded for posterity.

What the Gospel writer Matthew chooses to record is the names of twelve men, who formed something on an inner circle. Reflecting on their roles in the Jesus Movement as recorded in the Gospel gives us models for our own roles in that same movement. Matthew lists the disciples as “Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” Continue reading “The Twelve”

Green and Growing

Pentecost and Youth Sunday combined at St. Mark’s, and we had a graduating senior give the homily, so no sermon from me today. Instead, here’s an article about the season following Pentecost. It is an update to a piece I wrote many years ago for Episcopal Cafe.

Every February of my college years, the entire student body suffered from a mass case of seasonal affective disorder. The campus of Sewanee is one of the top five most beautiful spots on the planet, but the beauty of the Domain was difficult to appreciate during that dreadful month. What neophytes mistook for simple fog, veterans of Sewanee winters knew was in reality a low-hanging raincloud that hovered over the campus, sapping students of the will to do anything besides curl up under a blanket and nap. The weather lasted for weeks, and when the sun finally broke through the clinging barrier, we students discovered our vigor once again, as if by some sudden leap in evolution, we had developed the ability to photosynthesize. Continue reading “Green and Growing”

Worst Enemies

Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2017 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10

There was a problem with the audio for this sermon, so unfortunately, it’s just text this week.

Whenever I watched The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, I would always fast forward through one particular scene because it terrified me. Luke Skywalker is training with Jedi Master Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah when Luke feels the cold presence of death emanating from a nearby cave. “That place is strong with the Dark Side of the Force,” says Yoda. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”

Luke enters the cave, lightsaber in hand. From the shadows appears Darth Vader. They duel for a few desperate seconds, and then Luke cuts off Vader’s helmeted head. The helmet comes to rest, and the black mask blows off, only to reveal Luke’s own face. As a child, this scene terrified me because Darth Vader was really scary, and the darkness of the cave and the tremulous musical score only added to my fear. As an adult, watching this scene still touches my heart with fear, but fear of a different kind: fear of the truth that Luke discovers in the cave and that I discover whenever I look within myself.

Like Luke, I am my own worst enemy. Continue reading “Worst Enemies”

Two Gardens

Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2017 || Easter Day, Year A || John 20:1-18

On three occasions over the last couple years, I have left Home Depot laden with weather-treated boards and decking screws. I brought the materials home, lugged them to the backyard, and set about shaping them into rudimentary boxes. I’m not much of a carpenter, so “rudimentary” is actual quite a compliment. Thankfully, all these boxes have to do is sit in the sun and rain, full of soil and compost and manure.

You see, my wife Leah has become quite the gardener since we moved to Mystic. There was a single three foot by six foot box in the yard when we arrived, a remnant from a previous occupant. I built another the same size, and, let me tell you, the tomatoes Leah grew that first year were…mwah…delicioso! I put in a 4 x 8 bed last fall, which now has little stalks of garlic reaching through the soil. And a few weeks ago, I knocked together the last box, a long narrow one, 12 x 2, for peas. Needless to say, the surface area for gardening at the rectory has tripled in the last year, and I am looking forward to eating the results. Continue reading “Two Gardens”

The Guest Star

Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17; 7:45-52; 19:38-42

The Pharisee Nicodemus is not a member of the main cast of the Gospel according to John. In the parlance of television, he would be known as a recurring character. If each chapter of John’s Gospel were an episode of a TV series, it would fill one standard network season, and Nicodemus would guest star in episodes 3, 7, and 19. We meet him at the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’ ministry, and each time we drop in on him, Nicodemus is somewhere new in his own journey towards an active faith in Christ.

The Gospel writer makes clear that the intention of the Gospel is to help the reader believe by telling the story of Jesus in a certain way. The writer uses Nicodemus’s three-part journey as a stand-in for our own, as we, too, journey towards more active faith in Christ. The world of Nicodemus and our own world share some striking similarities. Nicodemus lived in a world that had yet to be steeped in Christian tradition; people around him were either confused by the message of Jesus, hostile to it, or ignorant of it. Today’s world is similar; the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, while confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply. Today, we’re going to go on the journey of our guest star Nicodemus to see what his participation in the story of Jesus has to tell us about our own. Continue reading “The Guest Star”

Naaman Syndrome

Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2016 || Proper 23C || 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

*Plays the opening riff to the Beatles’ “Blackbird”*

Does anyone know what this song is? (Hopefully someone will.) That’s right. “Blackbird” by the Beatles. I’m having something of a Beatles kick in my sermons recently. Not only is it “Blackbird” by the Beatles; it is also the very first song I ever tried to learn on the guitar.

It was the day after Christmas my senior year of high school. I had used my Christmas gift money to buy an incredibly cheap acoustic guitar from the local shop. My friends in musical theatre class all knew how to play guitar, and it seemed like a really good way to impress girls.

So I thought to myself, “What was in impressive song I could learn on the guitar?” And, of course, “Blackbird” came to mind. The trouble is, “Blackbird” is not an easy song to play. Your left hand has to move away from the precious comfort zone near the neck of the guitar where most chords are played and venture into the hazardous territory closer to the body of the instrument. Your right hand has to pluck the correct strings at the correct times, in concert with the movement of your left hand hand. Continue reading “Naaman Syndrome”

Jesus’ Sales Pitch

Sermon for Sunday, September 4, 2016 || Proper 18C || Luke 14:25-33

The date is March 29, 2010, just over one month since I moved to Massachusetts. The rain is so heavy that I feel like I’m driving through a carwash. I can barely see out the windshield, and I keep thinking that I’ve missed Furnace Brook Parkway. But just when I decide I need to turn around, I spot the sign, turn left, and five minutes later, I make a mad dash for the dryness and warmth of the Coffee Break Cafe.

The rain still manages to soak my jeans during the ten seconds I’m out in the elements, but the moment I step into the café, I forget the torrential downpour. I forget the dangerous drive. I forget the soaked jeans and the English language and my name and how to walk correctly. The woman I planned to meet stands before me wearing houndstooth rain boots, holding a steaming cup of tea, and smiling. And I forget everything about myself except for the fact that she is there to meet me – me of all people. Continue reading “Jesus’ Sales Pitch”

Born Again, part 1: New Life

Sermon for Sunday, June 26, 2016 || Proper 8C || Luke 9:51-62

bornAgain-NewLifeDuring the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 10 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.

As I was preparing for this morning’s sermon, I was having trouble, and I realized the reason I was having trouble is that I was actually preparing for four sermon, and not for one sermon. So today is the beginning of a four part series that goes all the way until I start my vacation. So you have to come back for the next three Sundays to get the whole thing. The topic of this sermon series is a topic we don’t talk a lot about in the Episcopal Church, but it is something you hear a lot of in other churches and in popular culture. It is the concept of being “born again.” You’ve heard that before, right? Probably not here. Continue reading “Born Again, part 1: New Life”

Let Me See Again

Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2015 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52

letmeseeagainImagine with me the beggar Bartimaeus. He is remembering the fateful day when a large crowd passed his perch beside the road from Jericho. It started like every other day, with a certain memory dancing before his sightless eyes.

I was seven and a half years old when I got sick. It was the kind of illness you don’t usually recover from, but I did. Almost. The last image my eyes captured was my mother’s face – beautiful and distressed, a smile worn for my benefit betrayed by a furrowed brow. When I returned to the land of the living, if not the sighted, I could touch her face with my fingers and know the smile and the worry lines were still fighting with each other. I could hear her singing me to sleep. I could smell her bread baking, and I could taste it, too. But I could not see. With no new picture to replace it in my memory, the image of my mother hovering over my sickbed remained with me all those years.

I was remembering the way her hair always fell across one side of her face until she pushed it behind one ear, the way her tears ran over her cheekbones, the way her smile battled her furrowed brow, when I heard it – a large crowd coming down the road from Jericho. You might think the prospect of so many people passing me by would excite me, since my only source of income was the kindness of strangers. But large crowds rarely yielded much coin in my experience. People couldn’t really stop for fear of being run into; they usually were just paying attention to each other; and they always kicked up such a cloud of dust that I was probably as invisible to them as they were to me.

Or at least those were those reasons I told myself. To be honest, I think I made their excuses for them because of how disheartened I got when so many people passed me by without noticing me. It was as if my blindness struck them blind too. But not that day. The moment I heard Jesus of Nazareth was in the party, people would have to have been both blind and deaf not to notice I was there. This was my one chance. I had heard stories of him from other beggars and from people coming down from Galilee. I knew he had the power to heal me. I believed he could restore my sight. This was my one chance. And I took it.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” I shouted as loud as I could. But someone hit the side of my head and told me to shut my mouth. Other voices joined the first, a chorus of shush-ers. It wasn’t enough for them that I be blind; apparently, they wanted me to be mute too. But this was my one chance, and I was not going to be deterred. I yelled again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And then something happened. The tremor of hundreds of feet stamping the ground just stopped. The sound of voices died away. I could hear the echo of my own shouted words fleeing for the hills. For a moment there was no noise, save for the grunts of pack animals and the laughter of children. Then I could feel next to me a looming presence, a hand on my shoulder, a few flecks of spittle on my face when the man spoke. He smelled of sweat and old fish. “Take heart,” he said. “Get up, Jesus is calling you.”

The vision of my mother swam in front of me. I could see her mouthing the words, “Take heart.” I could see the smile gaining ground on the furrowed brow. I jumped to my feet and clung to the man’s hand as he led me away from my beggar’s nest. I counted the steps I took in case I had to make my way back there if Jesus wouldn’t help me…or couldn’t help me. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Stop.

A new pair of hands gripped my shoulders, gentler but still strong. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. It was the most extraordinary question. He could have assumed I wanted my sight back. He could have assumed I wanted to leave the life of begging. He could have assumed any number of things about me. But instead of just mandating my cure, he asked me what I wanted. He engaged me in conversation. He let me take the lead.

“My teacher, let me see again.” Once more, my mother’s face danced in front of me, and her smiling mouth formed the word, “Go.” And as she spoke, her smile turned into someone else’s: a man’s smile, a man about my own age with piercing dark eyes and no furrow whatsoever in his brow. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.

I turned my head this way and that. Everything was so bright. Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach, dizzy, my balance gone. But as I started to fall, Jesus’ strong arms clenched my shoulders tighter, and he kept me on my feet. “Look at my eyes,” he said. “The vertigo will pass. Just at my eyes, nothing else.” For a long moment – a minute, five, ten, I don’t know – he anchored me with his gaze. And in that long moment, I memorized his face like I had memorized my mother’s. I had seen her face everyday of my blindness. Now I see his.

But not everyday. While he was still with us, I saw him in the flesh most days, but now that he’s here only in Spirit, I find it hard to see his face. My eyes work perfectly, but to see him now takes a different set of eyes. He said my faith had made me well. And now it’s the eyes of faith I need, the eyes that see beyond what’s in front of me, the eyes that see God’s reality swirling beneath the mundane.

And so I repeat my request: “Lord, let me see again.” Let me look again at your presence in the world around me. Let me notice again the people who are usually invisible. Let me see again your face in their faces. Let me serve again. Let me help again. Hope again. Love again.

Lord, I asked for mercy, I shouted at the top of my lungs for mercy. And mercy is all about second chances. Mercy is all about “again.” And so my first request remains the most fervent longing from the depths of my heart. I have made this my prayer for all time: “Lord, let me see again.”

Three Little Deaths

Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2015 || Proper 24B || Mark 10:(32-34) 35-45

Over the last six weeks, our Gospel lessons have been tracking Jesus’ movement. We began in the Roman garrison town of Ceasarea Philippi, then to Galilee, then south to Judea, and now we find ourselves on the road towards Jerusalem. In each of these places, Jesus performed wonders that restored people to health and wholeness. He also sparred with his opponents over various issues, and he taught his disciples many things. But one thing he taught them just didn’t sink in, and so he teaches it to them over and over again – three times to be exact – he teaches that he is walking to his death.

In Caeserea Philippi, after Peter makes his famous declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be condemned, killed, and after three days rise again. Peter just can’t handle this information, so he tells Jesus off. As they pass through Galilee, Jesus tells them a second time he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again. They don’t understand what he is saying, and they lapse into an argument about which of them is the greatest. Now they’re on the road to Jerusalem. The time is near at hand. So Jesus tries one more time to prepare them for what is coming.

The problem is – we skipped those verses this week. For over a month, we’ve read every verse of chapters 9 and 10* of the Gospel according to Mark, and now suddenly we skip three verses. Apparently, the framers of our lectionary don’t think we need to hear all three predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I disagree. So here’s the third one, which is sandwiched between last week’s Gospel reading and the one I just read.

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

(Quick aside – They’re afraid because Jesus was relatively safe in the boondocks of Galilee, but his fame has spread south to Jerusalem, where he has few friends. Apart from his seemingly clueless disciples, no one thinks he’s coming home from this trip.)

The skipped verses continue: “He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ ”

Of the three predictions, this last one is the longest and most explicit. It’s the only one that mentions his mistreatment at the hands of the Roman soldiers. In fact, all three predictions are different, but they all share one common phrase: he will be killed, and after three days he will rise again.

Even after this third most strident attempt, the notion that their Lord could ever suffer such an ignominious fate still doesn’t sink in. And once again, the disciples lapse into an argument about places of prominence when Jesus enters into glory. You can see that their current outlook is untroubled by such a mundane thing as reality. They are stubbornly unwilling to engage Jesus on such a weighty topic as life and death.

Or should I say death and life. This small distinction, this tiny flipping of two words, makes all the difference. The disciples put their fingers in their ears the moment Jesus starts talking about dying in Jerusalem, and so they miss the most important part. They miss that life comes after death. They miss the rising again.

And we miss it too. We miss the resurrection because we tend to place it in chronological order after our own physical deaths. This makes sense because the death of our bodies terrifies us, and so hoping in the resurrection gives us some comfort. Let me be clear, this chronological thinking about the resurrection is not wrong, but it’s also not the whole picture. The whole picture is drawn on the canvas of eternity. If we believe we are given the gift of eternal life in the power of the resurrection, then we already have it – even now, here, this day, long before our physical deaths. Eternity, after all, has no start date.

But this eternal life, this resurrection life, does have one kind of beginning: the day we awaken to this beautiful reality, the day we decide to participate in God’s mission of renewal, the day we choose to live. This awakening doesn’t happen just once, God knows, but again and again – because, like the disciples, we are clueless and stubbornly unwilling some of the time. How does this awakening happen? Remember, we’re not talking life and death here. We’re talking death and life. Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death. Let me say that again: Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death.

Here’s what I mean. Notice that each time Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, he follows his disciples’ lack of understanding with a call for them and us to let little gangrenous pieces of ourselves die. After the first prediction, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Deny yourself – in other words, let your own will die. Too often, we let the selfish or petty or abusive or apathetic or ruthless pieces of ourselves take the wheel. We lapse into these death-dealing behaviors when we are scared, which is why Jesus tells us so many times not to be afraid. Let your will die a little death, he says, so mine can come alive in you.

After the second prediction, Jesus puts a little child among his quarreling disciples and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Welcome the lowest of the low – in other words, let your own presumption of privilege die. Too often, we allow ourselves to get caught up in death-dealing hierarchies – caste systems built around money or race or any number of ways we can differentiate ourselves from others. Let your presumption of privilege die a little death, says Jesus, so my compassion for all life can come alive in you.

And today, after the third prediction, Jesus silences the disciples anger toward James and John when he says: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Serve each other – in other words, let your own complacency die. Too often, we expect life to be easy. We like to coast along, untroubled by the death-dealing evils of world around us. And to be honest, life is easy when we ignore everything that makes it hard. Jesus invites us to awaken to the power of servanthood so we can help others awaken to the power of the resurrection in their own lives. Let your complacency die a little death, says Jesus, so my mission of healing and reconciliation can come alive in you.

Three times Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection. Three times he encourages us to let parts of ourselves die little deaths in order that we might awaken again and again to the beautiful reality of resurrection life here and now. As we live into this reality, as we participate in resurrection life, remember this: our faith is not a matter of life and death. Jesus turned everything around, so our faith is really a matter of death and life.


*I lied a tiny bit. We also skipped verse 10:1.