The Fire of Faith

Sermon for Sunday, April 26, 2020 || Easter 3A || Luke 24:13-35

I’m not usually still in bed when the rest of my family wakes up. I often wake up some time between three and five in the morning, while everyone else gets up about 6:30. But this past Monday night, for some reason, I slept later than I normally do. I was still dreaming at quarter to six on Tuesday morning. Then, suddenly, the clock said 6:22. Leah and I were awake, waiting for the patter of little feet in footie-pajamas. Sure enough at 6:30 on the nose our five-and-a-half year old daughter came into our room and without preamble crawled into bed between us. The three of us cuddled for a while, in various configurations as dictated by our wiggly child. In one of the cuddling variations, a feeling of deep peace and soul joy came over me. For that particular moment in time, my body and my spirit were perfectly aligned to accept the love that God showers upon us through the gifts of each other. And the strange thing was that I noticed it while it was happening.

Continue reading “The Fire of Faith”

Deep Breaths with Palestrina

Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2020 || Lent 4A || Psalm 23; John 9:1-41

I usually listen to really upbeat music when I’m writing my sermons, often the Piano Guys, who do instrumental mash-ups of pop and classical music. Their driving rhythms mixed with familiar melodies propel me forward as I write. I’m sure I bop my head along, my fingers click-clacking across the keyboard in time with the percussion. When I sat down to write this sermon, I put on the Piano Guys like normal. But about thirty seconds into the first song, I had to switch to something else.

Because today is not normal. Today is about as far from normal as I can remember since the days following September 11, 2001. As I thought and prayed my way into today’s sermon, I noticed just how un-calm I was. I had not slept well in several nights. I had pain in my jaw, always a sign of stress. I had a thick knot of anxiety in my chest. I looked beyond the anxiety and felt a roiling mix of other emotions, which I’ll get into in a moment. Realizing my state on un-calm, I changed the music. I selected a setting of the mass in Latin by the Renaissance composer Palestrina, who never fails to help me take deep breaths.

Continue reading “Deep Breaths with Palestrina”

Beyond Fear

Sermon for Sunday, December 22, 2019 || Advent 4A || Matthew 1:18-25

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to talk about the movie Frozen II. But first let’s talk about fear. Whenever an angel of the Lord appears in Holy Scripture, the angel always begins the message for the same four words: “Do not be afraid.” Today’s Gospel lesson is no exception. Mary’s fiancé Joseph has resolved to “dismiss her quietly” because of her pregnancy, but he takes one more night to sleep on the decision. During that night, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. My question is: Why would Joseph be afraid to do this? I can think of many reasons for Joseph’s fear, and I want to talk about three of them this morning. We’ll dispense with the first two quickly because the third is where I really want us to focus.

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Join the Movement

Sermon for Sunday, February 10, 2019 || Epiphany 5C || Luke 5:1-11

Today marks the beginning of a season of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation in the life of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. This season, which will last at least two years, was initiated by the Annual Convention of our church, as delegates from over 160 parishes and worshiping communities voted together to share in this particular piece of God’s mission. Just like Jesus calls his disciples in today’s Gospel, God calls us to partner with God in working for healing, justice, and reconciliation across many systems that contribute to the broken state of this world. These systems of oppression and degradation overlap and intertwine, and they are all so big and entrenched into the machinery of the world that challenging them seems like an impossibility.

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God’s Perfect Love: A Christmas Pageant

[The stage is set with two chairs next to a table with a third chair behind it, like a late night talk show. The narrator functions as the “host” of the talk show interviewing guests.]

Narrator

Welcome back. My next set of guests have a wonderful, inspiring story to tell.

This story is about fear and love. I want to tell you that up front so you can listen for those two things — fear and love. The Bible says in the first letter of John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” This story we share today happened because God so loved the world that God gave us this Perfect Love in the form of God’s own child. This story tells how Perfect Love became a person. The fancy word for “became a person” is Incarnation. For the Incarnation to happen, God chose several people to help. Every one of them was afraid, and the love of God gave them the chance to serve despite their fear. Continue reading “God’s Perfect Love: A Christmas Pageant”

I Am. I Am Not.

Sermon for Friday, March 30, 2018 || Good Friday || Passion According to John

Way back in Chapter Four of the Gospel According to John, we hear Jesus use a particular phrase for the first time. The phrase is special for it links Jesus’ identity to the divine identity of God. This one little phrase is just two words long, with only three letters among them. The phrase is “I Am.” In Chapter Four, Jesus says these special words to the Samaritan woman at the well. They’ve had a long talk about living water and where to worship, and their conversation ends with Jesus revealing to her his divine identity, saying,  “I Am.”

These two little words reveal his divine identity because of their link to a famous passage in the book of Exodus, in which Moses meets God in the burning bush. God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. To gain some credibility, Moses asks to know God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. Jesus echoes this name many, many times in the Gospel of John, beginning first with the Samaritan woman. Continue reading “I Am. I Am Not.”

I Can Be Love

Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2017 || Epiphany 5A || Matthew 5:13-20

It’s week five of our sermon series where we’re imagining our way into God’s point of view. Today we were going to talk about God seeing, naming, and celebrating us as enlightened. I’m still going to get to the content of what I planned to say in a bit, but I need to start from a different place today.

You see, like many of you the two weeks since the inauguration have set my head spinning. I sat down on Monday afternoon to try to find some clarity in the turmoil, and I accidentally wrote this sermon. I didn’t mean to. I was writing a list of recent events to help clarify for myself what’s been going on. After writing the list and reading it over again, this sermon started pouring out. The list was a distillation of recent tactics employed to centralize governmental authority in a small cadre of like-minded men. As I reviewed what I had written, I found the feeling that has been creeping around inside me since the end of election season suddenly no longer creeping, but strutting. That feeling is fear. Continue reading “I Can Be Love”

I Can Be Love

Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2017 || Epiphany 5A || Matthew 5:13-20

It’s week five of our sermon series where we’re imagining our way into God’s point of view. Today we were going to talk about God seeing, naming, and celebrating us as enlightened. I’m still going to get to the content of what I planned to say in a bit, but I need to start from a different place today.

You see, like many of you the two weeks since the inauguration have set my head spinning. I sat down on Monday afternoon to try to find some clarity in the turmoil, and I accidentally wrote this sermon. I didn’t mean to. I was writing a list of recent events to help clarify for myself what’s been going on. After writing the list and reading it over again, this sermon started pouring out. The list was a distillation of recent tactics employed to centralize governmental authority in a small cadre of like-minded men.*  As I reviewed what I had written, I found the feeling that has been creeping around inside me since the end of election season suddenly no longer creeping, but strutting. That feeling is fear. Continue reading “I Can Be Love”

Name the Stars

Sermon for Sunday, June 28, 2015 || Proper 8B || Mark 5:21-43

namethestarsImagine with me the thoughts of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, in the aftermath of his encounter with Jesus.

I have been afraid my whole life. When I was little, a scorpion stung my friend, and he died drooling and thrashing in his crib. So I feared scorpions. When I was thirteen, my father had a run in at the local garrison and came home a week later all black and blue. So I feared the Romans. When I met my wife, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide for her. When I became leader of the synagogue, I feared I would have no wisdom to share. And when my little girl was born, I feared for her safety every minute of every day. I have been afraid my whole life.

And so when my daughter showed me the tiny puncture on her forearm, and when she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain, my world ended. I found the culprit and stomped its hard, scaly body into the dirt, and then I collapsed to the ground. My wife came around the corner and saw me rocking back and forth, the dead scorpion in pieces next to me. She dropped the washing and began checking me for signs of a sting. I could only find two words to say: “Not me.” She launched herself into the house to find our daughter.

Twelve years old, my little girl. On the verge of womanhood. My wife cataloging potential suitors. Me practicing my menacing glare for those same suitors. Twelve years old, and not so little anymore. She and I used to climb the hill at night, lie down in the scrub grass so that the tops of our heads touched, and name the stars. She always named them after the heroes of the great stories: David and Gideon and Deborah and Esther. “And that one’s you, Daddy.” She always named the brightest one after me. But at the

indefinable moment when she began her adolescence, she stopped wanting to climb the hill. I asked her why. “That’s kid stuff, Daddy.”

The night the scorpion stung her, I climbed the hill alone and screamed names at the sky – not the names of heroes, but blasphemous names I never thought I could utter. The darkness swallowed my rage, and I don’t know if my obscenities reached their intended target.

I stalked back home. The candle threw swaying shadows on the wall as I entered the room. All my fears were confirmed when I looked at my little girl. She was drenched in sweat, her neck twitched, and her eyes darted from corner to corner. I wrapped my arms around her and put my head on her chest. I could barely distinguish one heartbeat from the next. My wife wrapped her arms around me. Thus I spent the remainder of the night – embraced by and embracing the ones I love, but feeling only the heavy grasp of fear.

I awoke with a curse on my lips for having fallen asleep. I bent my ear to my daughter’s mouth, but the sounds of a commotion outside drowned out the low rasping of her breath. “Vultures,” I spat, and my wife woke up. I stabbed a finger at the window: “Here, no doubt, to console us with their wailing performance.”

I looked down at my little girl. I couldn’t just sit there and watch her die. I had to do something. I decided first to run the vultures off. I had enough grief of my own. I didn’t need to pay someone else to manufacture it. I squeezed my wife’s hand and kissed my daughter on the forehead. So clammy. I banged open the front door ready to unload on the would-be grievers. But the commotion was something else entirely. People were running up the street toward the shore. “Jesus of Nazareth is sighted off the beach. He’s coming here.”

Without thinking, I joined the throng. People recognized me as the leader of the synagogue and let me through. I reached the shore in time to see a fishing boat bump into the shallows. The crowd swelled around the vessel. Jesus’ disciples muscled a hole in the multitude and the man himself stepped off the boat. “Jesus, Jesus,” I cried. But mine was only one voice in a thousand. I feared there was no way he heard me.

But he turned and looked right at me. His disciples opened a path for him. I fell at his feet. “My little daughter, my little one is at the point of death.” I swung my arm back in the direction of my house. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” I didn’t know where the words came from. My fear was grasping at the words in my chest, but something stronger than fear ripped them out of me.

We walked back towards my house, but the great crowd slowed our progress. I wanted to run, to sprint home with Jesus keeping up beside me. But then, he stopped. “Who touched my clothes?” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to scream: “There’s a thousand people trying to touch you right now. My daughter is about to die.”

A woman fell down at his feet and started speaking. She probably spoke for less than a minute, but it was a lifetime to me. As Jesus responded to her, my eyes found my brother pushing his way through the crowd. “No. No. No.” I backed away, but he caught me in a tight embrace. “I’m afraid your daughter is dead.” I thrashed about in my brother’s arms. He let go but kept a grip on my hand. “Why trouble the teacher any further?”

I turned back to the woman who delayed me, who kept the teacher from coming to my house on time, and curses curled on the edge of my lips. But Jesus stepped in between us and grabbed my shirt in both hands. “Do not fear,” he said. “Do not fear, only believe.” The stronger something that earlier had ripped words from my chest reflected in his eyes. “Trust me,” he said. The curses died on my tongue, and I let myself be dragged home to face my own death in the still body of my little girl.

The vultures had come while I was out, but I had no ears for their wailing. Jesus looked around at everyone. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” he said. “The child is not dead but sleeping.” A laugh erupted from my chest, but it felt utterly foreign in this house of death. Jesus echoed my laugh, and his sounded perfectly at home. I laughed again. It was not a laugh of disbelief, but of recognition. Did he really speak the truth?

Jesus took my daughter by the hand, brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. She walked up to my wife and me and we picked her up and the three of us held each other and turned in circles, laughing and crying at the same time. I looked at Jesus and realized what had ripped the words from me at the beach. Trust. Something about this man radiated trust. No. Not something about him. He, himself, radiated trust. Jesus stared back at me, and in his dark eyes I saw myself on the hill the night before. And I saw him standing there next to me. And I knew that hurling blasphemies at God meant that somewhere deep down I still believed. I knew that trust is something entirely stronger than fear. I knew that trust and belief are the antidotes for fear.

“She’s had a rough day,” said Jesus. “Give her something to eat.” He smiled at my daughter, who reflected it back at him, then at my wife, and then her smile rested on me. I dropped to one knee and pulled her tight. Twelve years old and still my little girl. “Daddy,” she said, “Can we go up the hill tonight and name the stars?”

“Of course,” I said, and I gathered her into my arms again. I had been afraid my whole life. But not anymore.

Image: detail from NASA’s astronomy image of the day, June 2, 2015: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap150602.html

Christ be with Me, Christ Within Me

(Sermon for Sunday, August 12, 2012 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51)

I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid. Last week, I was excited to go and see the new Batman movie. But then a self-proclaimed Joker – Batman’s chief enemy – calmly walked into a midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado and filled the theater with tear gas…and then bullets…and then dead bodies. Fear – and grief for the victims and their families – replaced excitement, and I haven’t darkened the door of a movie theater since.

This week, I was excited to come to church to celebrate communion and praise God with all of you. But then a white supremacist calmly walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and filled the temple with bullets of his own…and more dead bodies. Fear – and shock and more grief – once again replaced excitement, and I would be lying if I told you that I feel completely comfortable right now exposed like I am in this pulpit. I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid.

And so, as I sat down to write this sermon, fear was on my mind. And I started wondering just why fear is so debilitating. And as I wondered about that, the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel started seeping into my consciousness. And I found that, while my fear didn’t evaporate just like that, someone had sidled up next to the fear and made the fear seem very small in comparison.

But I get ahead of myself. First, why is fear so debilitating? Well, fear has a way of unmaking us. When God created you and me, God made our default position one of loving and trusting. Think of the toddler who will go up to any stranger and say, “Hello.” Then think of the frantic mother who grabs the child by the wrist and yanks him away. Or here’s another example. While on vacation, I met my two-year-old cousin for the first time (which was a real treat, let me tell you) and within half an hour of meeting me, he was flinging himself into my arms from the top platform of the playground. God programmed us to love and trust, not to fear.

So when fear inevitably takes hold, the fear overrides our initial programming. Love and trust move down the list of conditioned responses, and we are no longer the whole people that God intended us to be. Fear motivates people do all sorts of things, the kind of things that unmake us. Some people hole up in their bedrooms never to venture into the world. Some lie to their parents about where they’ve been. Some never settle into mutual, meaningful relationships. Some cheat. Some bully. Some abuse drugs and alcohol. And some go on shooting rampages through temples containing people who look and think differently than they do.

Fear is so debilitating because fear keeps us from being the people God made us to be. Fear hollows out our identity as God’s children. Fear replaces the loving and trusting identity with one that longs to isolate and control. When our identities are tied up in fear rather than in God, we lose who we are; we lose ourselves because there is nothing sustaining or life-giving about fear.

When we feel fearful, when we feel like we are being unmade, what is really happening is that we are losing our connection to our identity as those loving and trusting children of God. And this where the words of Jesus begin seeping into my mind. This is where we make the turn and place Jesus next to the fear and notice how small the fear seems in comparison.

Jesus spends much of his time in the Gospel according to John telling people who he is. His identity is a subject that crops up every other chapter or so, and Jesus signals to us that he is talking about his identity with a special coded phrase. He says the two simple words: “I Am.” But these two simple words carry a lot of weight. By saying “I Am,” Jesus essentially quotes God’s words to Moses. At the burning bush, God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt. Moses wants some insurance to let people know he really met God, so he asks for God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. When Jesus borrows this phrase, he reveals to his listeners and to us his divine identity.

Jesus uses these “I Am” statements over a dozen times in the Gospel according to John. Two of them happen in the story that runs the length of Chapter Six, a part of which we read this morning. I’ll get to the first one in a moment, but before that, let’s talk about the one in our passage today. “I Am the bread of life,” says Jesus. With these words Jesus reveals a piece of his divine identity.

As followers of Jesus, our identities are wrapped up in his. When he discloses a piece of his identity, we discover a piece of ours. When he says, “I Am the bread of life,” he invites us to imagine what bread can tell us about God. Bread nourishes us, just as being in relationship with Jesus nourishes us. Bread in the wider sense of food sustains life, just as through Jesus (as “the Word made flesh”) all life has come into being.

But this is no normal, everyday metaphor. I might say my wife’s smile is the sun on a rainy day, but we all know her smile is not actually the sun. Jesus doesn’t idly compare himself to bread. Jesus is the “bread of life.” Normal, everyday food and drink will satisfy for a time. But eating the food of the bread of life brings us into relationship with Jesus, who is that bread. One of the Eucharistic prayers says this beautifully, praying that we “may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, and [be] made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”

In the Eucharistic meal, which we will share in a few minutes, we take Jesus in, and the Bread of Life opens our eyes to the wonderful reality that his presence surrounds us and penetrates us always. The wonderful hymn known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” describes this ever-present reality:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

When Jesus reveals that he is “the bread of life,” he invites us into the reality that his presence sustains us wherever we are and whatever has happened. This is part of his divine identity, and our identity finds a home in this sustenance.

Whenever fear debilitates us, whenever fear threatens to unmake us, Jesus Christ is there sustaining us, nourishing us so that we can continue on our way, surrounding us with his steadfast presence. We were not made to fear, but to love and trust. The more we rely on the sustaining presence of the Bread of Life, the less of a foothold will we give to fear.

I told you that I would mention Jesus’ other “I Am” statement from an earlier part of this morning’s story. The night before today’s lesson, the disciples row across the sea in their boat. But a storm comes up and threatens to swamp them. Then they see Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water. And do you know what he says to them? He says: “I Am; do not be afraid.”