Sermon for Sunday, December 23, 2018 || Advent 4C || Luke 1:39-45
I told a brief story last Sunday to the folks attending the adult forum hour, and the story has been lodged in my heart since then, so I thought I would share it with everyone. This is a story about an intense moment with God, and I wrestled with whether or not to share it today because I do not want you to go home thinking you are any less a believer or a beloved child of God if you have never experienced what I’m about to describe.
So I begin this sermon with a disclaimer: what follows is one way among many that God encounters us. As followers of Jesus, we aspire to be transformed over the course of our lifetimes into people who more closely reflect the love, peace, and justice of God. God invites us to participate in our own transformation and thus the renewal of our broken world. What follows is the special moment in my life when God pushed me onto the path of that participation. I’m sharing this with you today because of our Gospel lesson when Mary rushes off to see her cousin Elizabeth, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Continue reading “A Moment with God”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2015 || Easter 5B || Acts 8:26-40
Twice last week, I got to wear a tie. I went to the MASH gala fundraiser and to the Eastern Connecticut Symphony concert, at which several of our parishioners sang their hearts out performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The benefit was fabulous, the concert was wonderful. And I went to both wearing a tie. This may sound like a strange thing for me to report to you, but I assure you, I am going somewhere with this. Whenever I’m getting dressed, I’m faced with a wardrobe decision. Do I wear my black shirt and collar or not? If I decide not to, then I leave the house incognito. I’m still a priest, of course, when wearing a coat and tie or jeans and flip flops, but people at the concert hall or grocery store won’t be able to spot that about me on first glance. (They probably think I’m a college sophomore home on break.)
Sometimes when I’m not wearing my clergy clothes, I revel in the anonymity I have. I can take the twins to the pediatrician without people looking at me funny. Is he allowed to have kids? I can ride in an airplane and not freak out the other passengers when I white knuckle it through takeoff. (I’m not the best flier, and seeing a man of the cloth nearly hyperventilating while taxiing down the runway is not doing anyone any favors.)
The trouble is, when I consciously choose not to wear my black shirt and collar, I can fall into the trap of thinking I’m off the clock, I’m done for the day, my timecard is punched. But that’s not how it works. I get paid to be your rector and spiritual leader. That’s my job. But living as one of Jesus’ disciples, living out my baptism? That started long before I was ordained, long before I had the choice of attire. That started the moment I said, “Here I am,” when God called me into relationship. Living out my baptism, following Jesus – that’s not my job. That’s my life.
And it’s your life, too. You’re just not faced with the same wardrobe decisions. The question I have for you is this: Since your clothes don’t out you as a Christian like mine do, how do people know? What about your life is different because you signed up as a follower of Jesus? If you got into a conversation about the important stuff how long would you talk before mentioning your faith?
We share the Good News of Jesus Christ in many ways – both in word and deed. We tend to focus on the “deed” part, and I think we do it pretty well. But the “word” part is hard. The thing is, the word gives the deed context and shape. In a world as spiritually malnourished as ours has become, the interpretation of our God-inspired deeds with God-inspired words is critical. I know for a fact that people out there are hungry for some connection with something…deeper. Spiritual malnutrition leads to spiritual hunger, though most people don’t have the language to name the lack they feel. We do have that language, and it is our delight to share it.
This is what Philip does with the Ethiopian eunuch in today’s lesson. The Good News of Jesus Christ has just begun to spread, and Philip is on the vanguard. He runs up to the eunuch’s chariot and hears him reading the prophet Isaiah. The eunuch is hungry to know of whom the prophet speaks. Philip shares the good news, and then the eunuch asks my favorite question in the book of Acts: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
What is to prevent me from being baptized? The answer is nothing. Philip baptizes him right there on the side of the road. For we who are already baptized, this question transforms. What is to prevent us from living out our baptism? The answer to this question should also be “nothing.” But it’s not that easy.
What prevents us from living out our baptism? What prevents us from sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed? Many, many, many things. Let’s talk about four of them.
First up is apathy. If we don’t take the time to cultivate our part in our relationships with God, then sinking into apathy is a real consequence. Apathy results when we don’t take our faith seriously – when it lives in the topsoil rather than the bedrock, just one good rainstorm from eroding away. God showers us with the promises upon which faith rests, but it’s up to us to practice our faith and our discipleship so they become constant motivators in our daily lives. If we don’t, we might wake up one day and look out at the vista of all that God calls us to do and be, all whom God calls us to serve, and say, “I don’t care.”
But we aren’t going to sink into apathy because we do care. We live out our baptism by being engaged. But that brings us to our second item: lack of expertise. Once we care, we realize how dwarfed we are by the enormity of the history and tradition and biblical witness undergirding our faith. How could we possibly know enough to be able to share it correctly? Let me set your mind at ease. I studied this stuff for three years at school. I have another seven years as a priest. And I’m still not an expert. I never will be. God doesn’t call us to be experts. God calls us to be authentic versions of ourselves, sharing our faith as we have received it. Yes, we are molded by history and tradition and scripture, and that means we need to trust that God is shaping us using those instruments, whether or not we can read the Bible in its original Hebrew. When we share our faith, we don’t share a particular scholar’s view of faith. We share ourselves.
But again, this leads to our next item: fear of rejection. Sharing something as important as our faith with others makes us vulnerable. What if they stop being my friends? What if they think I’m a weirdo for my beliefs? If your faith is an integral part of who you are, then you have to be willing to risk this rejection. I’m not saying you have to launch into dissertations about Jesus apropos of nothing, but don’t hide your faith either. It’s a part of you. Who knows how you will affect the spiritually malnourished people around you if you show it, no matter the risk?
This leads us to our final item: politeness. Didn’t your parents teach you that the two things you aren’t supposed talk about are politics and religion? I say that’s nonsense. The loudest voices in the media espousing so-called Christianity are people whose brand of our religion makes me physically gag: people who seem to revel in excluding others, people who mangle scripture to suit their own twisted ideologies, people who hate in the name of God. The spiritually malnourished around us hear those voices, too. What kind of picture of Christianity do you think is forming in their minds? But imagine if you got into the conversation about the important stuff that I mentioned earlier with one of those people seeking something deeper. If you shared our wonderful, inclusive, loving expression of Christianity with him or her, what a beautiful image could replace the horrific one that’s probably there!
One of the calls to live out our baptism is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. So many things prevent us from doing that – things like apathy, lack of expertise, fear of rejection, and misplaced politeness. But our faith matters. Our discipleship matters. Our relationship with God matters. These are the things that make us who we are. This is not just part of our lives. This is what undergirds our lives, gives them meaning. How could we not share something so wonderful, despite all that prevents us from doing so? I promise that the next time I have the opportunity to share my faith when I’m not wearing my black shirt and collar, when I’m wearing jeans and flip flops, I will, with God’s help. How about you?
Sermon for Sunday, December 14, 2014 || Advent 3B || John 1:6-8, 19-28
Just before his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory that corrected a long held belief about our planet’s place in the heavens. Initial curiosity by the establishment, including some power brokers of the Church, unfortunately succumbed to the prevailing wisdom of the day that the sun revolved around the earth and not the other way around. When Galileo picked up Copernicus’s theories a few decades later (and we must mention with less diplomatic tact than Copernicus had shown), Galileo was convicted of heresy, compelled to recant, and lived the rest of his life under house arrest. The heads of the Church could not handle this new information that implied we humans weren’t quite as special as they thought. Despite the definitive nature of Galileo’s proofs and despite further corroboration by other reputable scientists, the establishment for many years shut its collective eyes, covered its collective ears, and said, “We’re not listening!”
Humans have always fallen victim to the particular notion that we each exist at the center of the universe. Just examine some common occurrences if you need evidence. When a young man of a certain disposition goes courting, an observer might say, “What does he think he is, God’s gift?” When doctors are accused of “playing God,” it’s often because their own egos have driven them to risky procedures. When the cult of celebrity that grips this country hails the triumphant return of a professional basketball player as the second coming or heeds the flawed advice of a low-wattage movie star concerning childhood vaccinations, then we’re all left to wonder why we don’t have such personal clout. And to top it off, how many of us have been told, when trying to insert ourselves into a friend’s troubles, “This isn’t about you!”
Thinking we are (or we should be) the center of the universe is just part of the human condition, but it’s a part of the human condition in continual need of rehabilitation. And in today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist gives us a lesson. Recall that one of my favorite things about the Gospel is the fact that people rarely answer questions the way you expect them to. The priests and Levites come to John when he is baptizing in the Jordan and ask him a simple question: “Who are you?” Note how John could have answered as expected: “I’m John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, from down yonder a bit. Favorite pastime: baptizing with water. Likes include locusts and wild honey…”
But that’s not what John says. “Who are you?” they ask. And what does John do? He tells them who he is not. “I’m not the Messiah.” His rejection of messiah-hood throws his questioners for a loop and they start grasping at straws: “Are you Elijah? A prophet? Tell us who you are!” If a cult of celebrity exists today, then a similar one, albeit less fed by the fawning media, existed in John’s day. False messiahs cropped up all the time, attracted followers, and then lost them just as quickly when they couldn’t deliver the goods. That’s why, at the beginning of the Gospel, the establishment doesn’t much worry about Jesus. They assume he’s going to fade into obscurity like everyone else. Indeed, John’s denial of messiah-hood was much more newsworthy than claiming it would have been.
With John refusing the identities that the priests and Levites try to pin on him, they decide to ask him point blank: “What do you say about yourself?” They need an answer to bring to their superiors, but John never gives them satisfaction. Even when asked specifically about himself, John doesn’t take the bait. He deflects the attention from himself and shines it on the one who is to come, saying: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ”
John has no delusions of grandeur. He knows his place in the universe. He knows he is not the Messiah. And he also knows his relationship to the Messiah: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John embraces an identity based in Jesus’ messiah-hood. John is the herald, the special voice that captures people’s attention and turns their eyes to the coming king. “What do you say about yourself?” they ask. And John responds: “My identity is based on the identity of the true Messiah. I am the voice, the herald, the witness. I am the arrow that always points to the one who is coming after me.”
John continues to display this identity throughout his short time in the Gospel. When his disciples see Jesus the next day, John the Arrow points and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” He risks losing his own followers because he knows it is not his place to have followers. Later he repeats that he is not the Messiah, calling himself instead the “friend of the bridegroom.” John has now heard Jesus’ voice, so John proclaims: “My joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
How in touch with his sense of self must John have been fully to embrace his identity as the arrow pointing to Jesus. How many of us would have felt jealous when our turn in the spotlight was over? How many of us would have tried to extend our fifteen minutes of fame? But not John. John knows he has no light of his own. He is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.
And so are we. The lesson we learn from John the Baptist today teaches us to delve within and discover our own true identities, the places in this universe where only you and I were made to fit. None of us was made to be the center of the universe, even if the human condition tries to trick us into believing that to be true. Our true identities are gifts from God; therefore, when you fully embrace your identity, when you try it on and it fits better than your favorite pair of jeans, then you will find yourself spontaneously pointing to the true center of the universe, the true light of the world.
Like John, we are arrows pointing to God. I invite you this week to list out all the different facets of your identity and pray about how each one connects back to the One who makes you who you are. Here’s a snippet of mine to get you started: I am a husband and a father. The love for my family that fuels these pieces of my identity comes directly from the love of God. I am a priest and a pastor. My service to God and others springs from the call Christ places on my heart. I am a singer and writer. My inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit’s creativity living within me.
As I continue to list out facets of my identity, I see this pattern continue: I am who I am because of God’s presence in my life. Claiming and proclaiming that presence makes me an arrow like John the Baptist. And not just me: each of us is an arrow pointing to God. Each of us is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.
Copernicus and Galileo knew the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. But they had no idea how far away from it we actually are in space. Recent modeling shows our own solar system is tucked in a corner of the Milky Way galaxy and the Milky Way galaxy is tucked in a corner of a supercluster of galaxies known as Laniakea, and Laniakea is just one piece of a web of superclusters that make up the known universe. We might not be at the center of this universe, but the Creator of it is at the center of ours.
(Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2011 || Proper 24A || 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 )
Did your parents ever tell you about the first word you ever spoke? More than likely, your first word was “Da,” which is short for, “Daddy, go get Mommy so I can have lunch.” Perhaps, your first word was “Ma,” though this is unlikely, considering the “M” sound is much more difficult to make than the “D” sound. Perhaps, your first word was “No,” which you probably heard your parents say many, many times when they asked each other if the other had slept last night. My first word was “ball.” And thus began a lifetime of me kicking, catching, and throwing any spherical object I could get my hands on.
Christianity has some first words, as well; at least, they’re the first words that we still have a record of today. They aren’t as hesitant or half-formed as are the first words of infants. Rather, they spring from the pages of the New Testament with remarkable (even uncanny) clarity, vitality, and comprehensiveness. We heard these words a few minutes ago when we listened to the first ten verses of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.
Now, before we get to some of Christianity’s first words, we need to clear up one spot of potential confusion and talk for just a minute about the similarities between Thessalonica in 50 AD and the United States in 2011. First, the potential confusion.
If you pull up the Bible on your smartphone, you will notice two things: number 1, the New Testament begins with the Gospel according to Matthew; and number 2, Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is actually eighth on Paul’s depth chart, not first. So how could these ten verses from First Thessalonians possibly be the oldest recorded words in Christian history?
For starters, the folks who put together the New Testament put the four accounts of the Gospel up front because the rest of the pieces didn’t make a lot of sense without first hearing the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the people who wrote the Gospel didn’t start doing so until probably 15 to 20 years after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. As for Paul’s depth chart (and this is a little strange) – his letters are actually in order by length, from longest to shortest, and First Thessalonians is one of the shorter letters. But if the New Testament were ordered chronologically by when the texts were written, our reading from Paul today would be on Page 1. Okay, confusion averted? Great. Let’s keep going.
Our modern moment shares several things in common with mid-first century Thessalonica, the community to which Paul writes the first words of Christianity. Like the modern United States, Thessalonica was a diverse, cosmopolitan place, with a plurality of religions and cultures all rubbing shoulders. As the capital of the region of Macedonia, there were plenty of things to do, not unlike the glut of stimulation that assaults us at every turn. And the Thessalonians had not received the good news of Jesus Christ before Paul arrived, just as people in modern America have lost contact with this great story of the Gospel.
To these people in Thessalonica and to us here on the Interwebs, Paul sends these first words. He, of course, had no idea we would consider them the first words of Christianity, which lends a special kind of authenticity to his message. These are words written to people who hadn’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These are words written to people who lived in a society that knew very little about this faith that Paul brought with him. As such, these are words that can serve us as we practice sharing our faith, as the Thessalonians did, with people outside the walls of this church.
In these first ten verses of the first text of Christianity, there are six words in particular that shimmer for me: grace, peace, faith, love, hope, and joy. Notice how Paul uses each of these special words: “Grace to you and peace,” he writes. “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
These words are special because each has a meaning outside the church and a greater meaning inside the church. The secular understanding of these words can give followers of Christ like you and me a place to establish common ground as we share with others how God is present in our lives.
Let’s quickly look at each of these words to see how we can expand the secular definition to fit into the greater reality of following Jesus Christ.
“Grace” is a perfectly lovely word. We use this word to describe ballet dancers because they move with poise and precision. They throw their bodies into the air trusting that they will land on their feet, and if they don’t they get back up quickly and keep dancing. How easily can we take this understanding of grace and elevate the grace of the dancer to the Grace of God, this grace that picks us up when we fall and teaches us to find beauty in everything.*
We hear the word “peace” when conflict ends and “peacekeepers” enter the recently warring region to monitor the new situation. We use this word to describe a calm ocean after a storm or an infant who has finally dropped off to sleep. We can expand this to the Peace of God, which takes situations of conflict and infuses them with possibilities for unity, justice, and new beginnings.
“Faith” is the trickiest word on this list because all human attempts at “faithfulness” fall short. We put our trust in banks, in governments, in products, in each other, and sooner or later we are always let down. But when we expand the definition of faith to include the Faith of God, we find the one example in all of creation that will never fail. How wonderful to tell someone about this kind of faith!
“Love” is tricky, too, because we use the word in so many different circumstances, from our shoes to our spouses. But when we find that most authentic use of the word, when the word “love” springs unbidden from our lips and doesn’t describe an emotion but a state of being, a state that we entered unwittingly and never want to leave – then we begin to see the edge of the extraordinary Love of God. And we can celebrate that love with each other.
“Hope” is about the future. All people have used this word to talk about what they dream for the days and years ahead. I hope to have children and to teach them to play soccer. These human hopes are safe hopes, the kind that we can see in our mind’s eye five or ten years down the road. This understanding of hope elevates to the Hope of God when God releases us from the boundaries of the merely possible and shows us the realms of glory that exist far beyond our sight. And then we have a greater hope in which our everyday hopes can dwell.
Finally, we talk about “joy” most often when we have “enjoyed” a dinner party or a new film or a ballgame. We mean that we had a good time and might want to come over again. What we don’t realize is that this “joy” we feel is more than happiness. The Joy of God is a feeling of wholeness, of completion that comes when we discover that we are exactly the people who God created us to be.
Each of these words, these first words that Paul used when he wrote to the Thessalonians makes sense outside the context of the Christian faith. But within the greater reality of following Jesus Christ, these words shimmer with new facets of meaning.
I invite you this week to take these first words of Paul and try them out for yourself. Pray with this question in your heart: how has God encountered you when you have had an experience of grace, peace, faith, love, hope, or joy? Then find someone from within your own faith community and try out these words. Practice sharing with one another before you go out and share your Christian life with those outside your church.
Like the first words of an infant, our first attempts in sharing the first words of our faith will be halting. They will be hesitant. They will be half-formed. But they will be ours. And God will take them, shape them, and elevate them into God’s own words.
*I wrote “Grace…teaches us to find beauty in everything” and then realized that I stole those words from U2. Thanks, fellas.
The following post appeared Friday, July 16th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
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I love camp. I love being surrounded by more trees than buildings. I love singing Grace to John Williams’ theme from Superman. I love seeing the half-exhausted, half-excited faces of the campers at breakfast. And I love conversing with children and teenagers because every once in a while they will say something unexpected and profound amidst all the buzzwords and canned phrases that they know will be considered “correct” answers during afternoon Bible studies. Invariably, the profundity of their unexpected contributions comes in the form of the simplest, most direct response to a question.
Here’s why this practice is so profound. Over the years, we adults learn to hedge, to inject some wiggle room into everything we say in order to maintain some deniability later on. We prevaricate, deflect, and obfuscate because we’ve learned from the incessant 24-hour news cycle that a juicy sound byte can tank a career. We’ve learned that a verbal defense mechanism is a necessity for survival.
And with our deniability glands working at full capacity, we say, “Well, that’s not exactly what I meant,” or “I’m not sure you heard me correctly” (when, of course, I purposefully didn’tsay exactly what I mean). But the problem with speaking equivocally creeps in over time: prevarication erodes the truth that has been in each of us since God knew us in our mothers’ wombs. When we hedge, we atrophy the muscles that store the truth, and we cut ourselves off from bits of the truth that is within us.
Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t monitor our words to make sure we always speak hospitably and graciously. Hedging is simply a cheap and ultimately ineffective way to achieve what hospitality and grace achieve naturally – namely, speaking in a way that keeps conversation open and kind. Hedging achieves this end by leading us to speak obscurely so that no meaning can quite be pinned down. Hospitality achieves the same end by leading us to speak truth uncoupled from judgment. One of the epic failures of our time is the withering of this graceful truth when we bury it under our own insecurity and our need to conform to society’s agreed upon level of appropriate vagueness.
Okay, let me get back to why I love camp. I love camp because for a week I get to ascend into the clean and invigorating air of youthful wisdom. The young people just haven’t lived long enough to acquire toxic levels of prevarication. They say all the things that were the first to erode in us adults. God will always be with me. You are my friend. Jesus is awesome. And after a few days of rubbing elbows with the young people, I remember the need to nourish the root system within myself that keeps the truth from eroding.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to preach until Tuesday. I had enough time to drink in the campers’ wisdom, so that when it came time for me to speak I was in less danger of hedging and wiggling. (This was a good thing, too, because children can spot phony commitment a mile away.) I had five minutes to talk about Moses and Aaron, and I had played with several ways to approach the story as I thought about speaking to the campers. When I stood up to speak, I knew my direction of travel, but I was unsure where I would end up.
I began to talk about how Moses was making excuses to God, about how he’s no good at public speaking, about how God might as well get someone else. I looked out at the campers, and then I told them to look at each other. Just then, I realized where the direction of travel was taking me. “God gave everyone special gifts,” I said. “A few of those gifts are within us, but most gifts come wrapped in the people around us. Just because we aren’t good at something doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. It just means we have an opportunity to invite a friend to help us.” These words rang true as I said them, but I didn’t feel them within myself before speaking them. I felt like I was absorbing these words from the young people staring up at me. What a gift.
Of course, as usually happens, I spoke the words aloud, but I’m probably the one who benefited from them more than anyone else. I needed the injection of youthful wisdom to find that truth again, the fundamental truth that I forget more than any other. I am not alone. I am with God. And I am with other people. We are God’s gifts to each other. This is the truth, and it leads to another true statement.