Sermon for Sunday, November 19, 2017 || Proper 28A || 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Before my kids were born, I played a lot of video games. My favorite kind of games were set in medieval fantasy realms where you fight monsters and dragons, all the while collecting treasure and renown. And new armor. In the last game I played seriously, I finished it wearing armor made of dragon scales. That was pretty cool. The armor in these games often have pretty cool names, too: The Gauntlets of Might, The Helmet of Insight, The Boots of Running and Jumping. You get the the idea.
I’ve always wondered if the designers of these games originally took a page out of the Apostle Paul’s book, because as near as I can tell, he invented this naming convention. He says in today’s lesson from his First Letter to the Thessalonians, “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” And yet, while the Breastplate of Faith and Love has an awesome name, it’s not even made of metal, let alone dragon scales. It’s made of faith and love. How could it possibly turn aside the weapons of its bearer’s enemies? Perhaps this is armor of a fundamentally different type.Continue reading “The Breastplate of Faith and Love”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 8, 2017 || Proper 22A || Philippians 3:4b-14
Have you ever noticed that when you borrow someone else’s stuff, you’re always extra careful with it? You return the casserole dish wrapped in towels, lest it break in transit. You don’t dogear the borrowed book or break its spine. Leah and I have friends who are so wonderfully generous in lending that at any given time, our house contains six or seven of their possessions, and I’m irrationally afraid of what might happen to them.
One time I had to retrieve a couch for my previous church’s youth room. I borrowed a truck that could have plowed any other car off the road, but I treated it like the most fragile vehicle out there. I wanted to honor the trust the owner placed in me, and so I treated the truck with much more care and attention than I normally would my own car.
The thing is, if we truly lived our lives as children of God and as followers of Jesus Christ, we would treat our own possessions with the same care and mindfulness as we treat the possessions of others. Because, when you get right down to it, our possessions aren’t really ours at all. Everything we have belongs to God, who is the author of all creation. Continue reading “The Pearl”→
Sermon for Sunday, September 10, 2017 || Proper 18A || Romans 13:8-14
Last week, I talked about cultivating our spiritual awareness so we realize we are encountering God’s presence during the encounter and not after the fact. Moses was our shining example in that sermon, as he turned aside to really look at the burning bush. Jumping forward about 1,700 years, here’s the story of another person who participated in an encounter with God’s presence and whose life was forever changed.Continue reading “The Moment of Encounter, part 2: The Confessions”→
Sermon for Sunday, December 11, 2016 || Advent 1C || Isaiah 35:1-10
To his people in exile, the prophet Isaiah says these words of hope, promise, and comfort:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. […]
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…
I must confess that I needed to hear these beautiful words this morning. I must confess that I have been feeling spiritually dry lately. I must confess that an arid desert of burning sands has grown up within me in recent months when I wasn’t paying attention. There have been a few moments of oasis – notably splashing my hands in the waters of baptism two weeks ago – but overall my spirit has shriveled recently. I’m, quite simply, parched.Continue reading “The Spiritual Desert”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2016 || Proper 25C || 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Jeremy is my best friend from college. We co-hosted a radio show together that had exactly zero listeners. (This was quite liberating, by the way.) We spent hours in the quad just tossing a Frisbee back and forth. He’s a great guy, who now has a beautiful wife and daughter. Now he’s an endocrinologist in Georgia, but when we were at Sewanee together, mostly I sang in the choir and he ran. He was a member of the cross country team, so he ran a lot. Like everyday.
I’ve never understood the appeal of running as an end in itself; for me, running has always been a necessary evil, a part of training for soccer. But Jeremy loved it. He was always a good runner, but never truly elite. When he ran marathons, he never started in the front of the pack with the elite runners. He just wanted to finish the race in a time that he set for himself, a personal goal.Continue reading “Finishing the Race”→
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”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2016 || Proper 22C || Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
Read literally, this passage could have saved the church several thousand dollars this summer. It’s true! After all, we had to have several trees removed from our property, and getting that done safely and expertly was expensive. But Jesus seems to say that a faithful person could just tell a tree to be uprooted and hurled into the Mystic River. I must confess to the members of the vestry and finance committee in attendance that I didn’t try this tactic before we engaged the tree-removal service. I apologize.
Then again, I would not have been my own first choice within this parish as the person of faith to go talking the trees out of the ground. I don’t have nearly as much faith as some sitting in this room.
And right there, with that thought, I fall into the same trap that catches the apostles at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. I fall into the trap of thinking faith has something to do with quantity. “Increase our faith,” they say. “Increase our faith.” Give us more. We don’t have enough yet. Continue reading “Acts of Faith”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 || Easter 2C || John 20:19-31
Both my first and last names come from the Bible. To be sure, a large portion of names used in the United States do, but many if not most of them do not share the dubious pedigree of mine. Every Hannah out there gets to claim as her namesake a woman of complete devotion to God. Every Matthew and Mark and Luke and John out there gets to share a name with a writer of the Gospel. But me? I get the guy who ate the fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat and then shifted the blame to his wife. And I get the Doubter – and that’s Doubter with a capital “D.”
And while I don’t have much energy to defend Adam’s poor decision-making, I do get a bit revved up whenever I hear someone label the disciple Thomas as “Doubting,” as if it’s his first name. As if he’s one of the seven dwarfs: “I know you’ve met Grumpy and Happy and Bashful, but have you met Doubting?” This really irks me – and not simply because Thomas and I share a name. No. Calling him the Doubter is not just unfair (why single him out?); calling him the doubter is actually a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. So let’s unpack Thomas a bit, and hopefully by the end of this sermon we will see that doubt is not an evil thing.
Once we move past the caricature of Thomas as the Doubter, we see a fuller picture of him form. He is one of the more visible disciples in the Gospel of John; indeed, after Peter, he is tied with Philip for most lines of dialogue. When we look at his interactions with Jesus as a whole, we discover a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions.
We see his deep faith in today’s lesson. When the other disciples find him, he sets this condition: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Then when he meets Jesus, he never actually follows through. He sees Jesus there in the flesh, and then makes the most startling claim of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep faith.
Earlier, about halfway through the story, Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is dying. The trouble is that Lazarus lives only about two miles from Jerusalem, and things are pretty hot for Jesus there. In fact, the immediate result of Jesus raising Lazarus was to confirm in the chief priest’s mind the necessity that Jesus be put to death. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to head towards Jerusalem. But it’s Thomas who persuades them, saying: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep convictions.
Soon after, Jesus is having that famous meal with his friends in the upper room. His arrest is imminent, but before they go out to Gethsemane, Jesus speaks many words of truth to his friends. We often quote some of these words at funerals: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling-places…You know they way to the place where I am going.” Here Thomas interrupts Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To this Jesus responds: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” A deep answer to a deep and desperate question. Yes, Thomas is a man of deep questions.
When you combine faith, convictions, and questions, do you know what often results? It’s the recipe for Doubt. Our faith gives us a reason to ask deep questions about God and life and what it all means. These deep questions do not have readily apparent or digestible answers; if they did, they wouldn’t be deep questions. Conviction gives us perseverance, which allows faith to exist within the sphere of uncertainty. This is actually where faith thrives. Certainty is the enemy of faith because it leads to stagnation, or worse, fundamentalism. Doubt, on the other hand, gives us the fuel to push on our beliefs, examine them, strengthen them.
And yet, our Gospel passage today seems to set doubt up as the enemy of belief, to put them on opposite sides of a dichotomy. After all, Jesus chastises Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” Except that’s not what he says. Our English translation takes some liberties to get the word “doubt” out of the Greek word that’s on Jesus’ lips. Another translation reads like this: “No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB). In English, when we add the prefixes “un–” or “dis–” to something, we give it the opposite meaning, right? Kind and Unkind. Belief and disbelief. That’s exactly what happens in Greek when you add the letter “a–” to the front of a word.* In today’s passage, Jesus says just such a pair of opposites. Belief and unbelief. Not belief and doubt.
So what he’s really saying to Thomas is this: “Don’t jettison your belief all in one go. I know you have deep questions, but you have deep conviction too. Your faith is still there in the midst of your doubts. But here I am. It’s really me.” And that’s when Thomas drops to his knees and proclaims: “My Lord and my God.”
We all have our doubts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been brushing my teeth or pumping gas and been stricken by a wave of doubt. What if this is all just a bunch of hokum? Even if there is a God, why would God care about lil’ ole me? And those are just the entry level doubts, the nagging ones that don’t really have a particular trigger. Bigger ones surface when we confront egregious disappointment or untimely death or heinous acts of evil like what took place in Pakistan on Easter Day.
But remember, doubt is not something to be feared. Doubt is not something to ward off at all costs. In fact, doing everything in your power never to doubt is the way to dangerous fundamentalism. Jesus never said not to doubt. He said simply: “Believe!” And belief in the Risen Christ – the One who overcame the power of death itself – can survive an onslaught of doubt. In the power of the resurrection, eternal life swallowed up death. In the same way, belief fueled by the enduring promises of God swallows doubt into itself. Just as death is part of life, doubt becomes a part of belief – the part that keeps it moving and growing and alive.
Thomas was a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions. He desired to follow Jesus no matter the cost; he wanted so fervently to know the way; and in the end he proclaimed Jesus for who he really is: “My Lord and my God.” I’m sure Thomas had his doubts. After all, he was off wandering on his own during those frightening days. I’m sure he was processing his confusion, wondering how it all went wrong. But in the midst of his confusion, his teetering belief, the Risen Christ comes and calls him back: “No more disbelief. Believe!”
When you are struggling with your own doubts – about God, about yourself – remember that doubt is a part of belief, not the opposite. And remember that you’re not alone in your doubts. Don’t be afraid to be like Thomas, who heads back to the upper room even though he hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Ask your deep question. Share your struggle with us. I guarantee you someone else will say, “Oh, me too.” And together, with God’s help, we will find deeper wells of faith and conviction, which will compel us to drop to our knees in front of the Risen Christ and proclaim: “My Lord and my God.”
* Some of these survive in English: atheism (NOT God), anaerobic exercise (NOT exercise that gets your heart pumping).
Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2016 || Last Epiphany C || Luke 9:28-36
Every year on the Sunday before Lent begins, we read this Gospel lesson. We call it the story of the Transfiguration, which is a fancy way of saying “something turning into something else, usually a more beautiful something else.” And if we stopped there with the label we apply to the story, we would get something out of it to strengthen our faith. We would see some evidence that Jesus was really whom he said he was, since his face changed and his clothes dazzled and two famous dead prophets came round for a chat. But I don’t think this evidence is really what Luke means for us to get out of this story. I don’t even think the term “Transfiguration” applies to Jesus. Rather, since the whole story is told from the disciples’ perspective, I think they are the ones who are “transfigured.” I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute, but first I’d like to tell you about my fifth grade science fare project.
While many of my friends were slapping papier-mâché over chicken wire frames to make baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, I was enamored by the properties of light. So for my project, I procured a small triangular prism, glued it inside a shoebox, and positioned a penlight to shine at the prism. Then I cut a slit in the box so the judges could see the subtle rainbow made when the white light broke apart into every child’s mnemonic friend, ROY G. BIV. (That’s Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet for those of you who never met Roy in school.) I remember feeling so proud of that science project, like I had done magic by shining light through a prism. My mother hung prisms in the most sun-drenched windows of our house, so we always had rainbows dancing on the walls, and now I had captured one in a shoebox!
In the end, however, the explosive grandeur of the baking soda and vinegar volcanoes ruled the day, and I did not take home a blue ribbon. But because of my research I did find a way to rationalize my loss. “That blue ribbon is no better than my yellow ‘honorable mention’ ribbon,” I told myself. “It only appears blue because it reflects a certain wavelength of the visible spectrum.” See, I learned something!
I also learned that we humans see because light breaks open in predictable ways. Objects absorb, reflect, and refract light in particular patterns, which allow our brains to catalog them. The first Genesis creation story begins with God saying, “Fiat Lux!” (God speaks in Latin, didn’t you know?) “Let there be light!” Why? Well, because from the human perspective, we need light to give everything else definition and vibrancy. And yet, the light we see is a teeny, tiny part of the spectrum – just a 300 nanometer band, in fact.
Of course, we often labor under the presumptuous notion that only what we see exists, despite all evidence to the contrary. We listen to the radio. We microwave leftovers. We sunburn. All these things happen due to parts of the (electromagnetic) spectrum that we can’t see. But they are just as real as our friend, ROY G. BIV.
Now, the jump from science to theology is a short one here. When he takes the three disciples up the mountain, Jesus also negates the presumptuous notion that only what we see exists. “And while he was praying,” Luke tells us, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The appearance of his face changed. Peter, James, and John see Jesus in a different and more glorious way than they had seen him before. In this moment on the mountaintop, Jesus gives his friends the gift of seeing him with transfigured eyes. They are used to seeing a dusty traveler with ruddy skin weathered by so many nights out of doors. But now they see him as God sees him: a luminous being shimmering in the light of God’s glory and favor. Their transfigured eyes see him for once unfettered by any notion of the usual expectation of humanity. Their transfigured eyes see into their collective memory, see connection to the prophets of old. And their transfigured senses continue to expand when their ears hear a voice that commands them to listen to Jesus.
I’m sure the experience overwhelmed Peter, James, and John. It certainly left them speechless. Just imagine if suddenly you could see the rest of the spectrum: the gamma and x-rays speeding by, the ultraviolet and infrared light expanding your vision, all the other waves crowding your visual cortex. I think I might last about half a second before my brain just stopped working, overloaded by the torrent of stimulation. If the disciples felt anything like that when they saw the true and radiant reality of Jesus on the mountaintop, then it’s no wonder Peter just started rambling incoherently.
The point of this whole thought exercise is to focus us on the following questions. As we approach Lent, a season of rededication to spiritual practice and realignment of skewed priorities, what encompasses the limited spectrum through which each of us views our possibilities? What blinders have we affixed to our eyes that keep us from seeing all the possibilities that God’s grace illuminates around us? And how can we receive the same gift Jesus gave his friends, the gift of transfigured eyes?
Too often we shackle ourselves to the tyranny of the currently possible. The spectrum we see is the one we were taught or the one we are used to or the one we are comfortable with. But there is so much more than the currently possible. Who could have predicted a hundred years ago the technology we have today? And who can predict where your faith might lead you tomorrow if you decide to take a risk today, to trust God today, to say “yes” to something today?
Too often we affix blinders to our eyes so that we see only one path. It’s just so much easier to keep our heads down and trudge along. But the truth of the matter is that our path is not a single road, but a person. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he never meant for us to separate the three. Our path is a dynamic one, full of choices and consequences, and it takes a lifetime, but we never walk the path alone.
Too often we see only what we expect to see. And so we pray for transfigured eyes so we might catch glimpses of how God sees. This Lent, I invite you to join me in praying for such eyes. Each day for practice, make a point to notice something you’ve never, ever seen before. Today’s something might be bird in flight at sunset. Tomorrow’s might be the shape of your child’s face, so different now than it was a year ago. The next day’s might be the lettering on the cardboard sign of a silent and bundled figure at the traffic light. Whatever you see, engage it with appreciation or concern or thanksgiving. Practice noticing. Train your eyes to see past the surface to God’s dazzling reality underneath. That’s what transfigured eyes are for: to discover God’s glorious presence at the heart of all things, and to be thankful.
Sermon for Sunday, November 22, 2015 || Christ the King Year B || John 18:33-37
I find it ironic that the framers of our lectionary chose the Gospel lesson I just read as the one for today. Today is the feast we call “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ.” And yet, for the entire length of his conversation with Pontius Pilate, Jesus specifically dodges Pilate’s questions about his kingship. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? “So you are a king?” You say I am a king. But if Jesus is king of anything, if Jesus claims to reign over anything in this passage, his kingdom would not include land or crops or livestock or resources. His reign would be over “the truth.” For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
A truth kingdom. I like the sound of that. Would that we lived in one of those. But for anyone who’s ever heard a joke about politicians, you know the punch line always involves untruthfulness of some sort. We might give them the benefit of the doubt and say they don’t out and out lie most of the time, but they are masters of prevarication, obfuscation, and equivocation, that’s for sure. We’re used to this behavior from our political leaders; so used to it, in fact, that when a politician stumbles into a genuine moment, we’re amazed and we start asking if it were staged.
In our Gospel passage today, Jesus seems to be engaging in just such an impressive display of political obfuscation. Perhaps he’s trying to meet Pilate where Pilate is. Perhaps Jesus is using Pilate’s own tactics to get through to him. Or perhaps Jesus is simply telling the truth, but we’re so used to prevarication that even the truth sounds false. If that’s the case, I’d like to try something this morning. I’d like to try to rehabilitate the truth simply by speaking Jesus’ truth to you. Truth has a special ring to it, and I hope you hear its crystal clarity this morning. There will be no prevarication or obfuscation. But there will be mystery; after all, the truth is too big for us to understand completely. Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So close your eyes now and listen for Jesus’ invitation to you to enter his kingdom. Listen for Jesus’ truth.
Are you hungry for more? Not for more stuff, more possessions, more things to clutter your house. Not for prosperity at the sake of others’ poverty. Not for more empty calories, the white starch of idolatry and self-deceit. There are so many idols out there scheming to fill you up, but you’ll only be left craving. There’s so much fear to gorge on, but fear will just leave you hollow. Are you hungry for more? For more meaning? For deeper connection? For sustenance that truly sustains? Then listen to Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
But I still have dry times, Lord. I believe, but I still feel empty more often than I’d like. How can I trust your words when I feel like this?
I know how you feel, says Jesus. I felt desolate in the garden of Gethsemane. I felt abandoned on the cross. I know it can be so hard to hear my invitation when you feel lost in the desert. But I’ve been lost there, too. I’m lost there with you right now, so that you may be found. Listen again to my invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The desert I can handle, Lord. At least it’s bright there. But sometimes I look out at the world and all I see is darkness. There’s so much darkness, and I’m afraid there’s a shadow growing over my soul, too.
One time, says Jesus, I was looking out over the city of Jerusalem, and the tears just started flowing. Another time, my beloved friend died, and all I could do was weep. I know what it means to be a light shining in the darkness: a flickering flame that might snuff out at any moment. But have you ever seen a ray of darkness? There’s no such thing. Have you ever seen the darkness of a hallway flood into a bright room when the door opens? No. The light wins every time. The light will always win. As for the shadow growing over your soul, make sure it listens to my words: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The light of life, Lord? How could I ever be worthy of such a prize? I spend too much time in darkness to deserve the light of life.
Nonsense, says Jesus. Do you think anyone has ever been worthy of the gifts God gives them? Do you remember that story I told about the son who takes his inheritance and squanders it? He came home penniless and ashamed, and what did his father do? His father ran out to him! His father could not wait another second to rekindle their relationship even though the son didn’t deserve it. Don’t be paralyzed by unworthiness. My love makes you worthy of my love. So listen to my truth, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
But it can’t be all about me, Lord, can it? You helped so many people in your life, but up to now I’ve just been concerned with myself? There’s got to be more.
Oh, there is more, says Jesus. So much more. When you realize I am with you, you’ll also realize I’m with everyone else. And with that realization will come the desire to serve others as you serve me, especially those who are poor and lost, those who are my special project. You’ll find joy in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. You’ll find joy in welcoming the stranger. You’ll find joy in clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned. Do you want to know the truth? Listen to this: “Just as you [served] one of the least of these who are members of my family, you [served] me” (Matthew 25:40).
Okay, Lord, so I live my life serving others, being a light in the darkness, and finding refreshment in your arms. But I’m still going to die someday. And I’m afraid.
I understand, says Jesus. I was, too. I even prayed to be spared, to let the cup pass from me. I can’t promise you a life free of pain. I can’t promise you a death free of pain, either. But I can promise to be with you in the pain of life and death. If you love others as I love you, then pain is inevitable. But so is joy. In the end, there is nothing but love and joy. Or should I say the new beginning? Listen to my truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
Yes, Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.
A truer prayer has never been uttered, says Jesus. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So listen for my word in your life. Listen for my truth. Live my truth: For “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).