Magnetic Mercy

Sermon for Sunday, May 21, 2017 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31

I’m going to start today’s sermon with a statement, which I hope is confusing enough to make sure you want to stay with me for the next ten minutes while I unpack it. Are you ready? The statement is this: None of us has ever actually worshiped God. That’s the statement – none of us has ever actually worshiped or prayed to or talked about God.

Are you sufficiently confused? Good! I was so confused when I started working on this sermon that I spent a good hour trying to figure out what to say first. In the end I decided to invite you into my confusion and see if together we can find our way out. We have the Apostle Paul to blame. In our passage from the book of Acts this morning, Paul finds himself in Athens, Greece. He strolls the boulevards looking at the statuary dedicated to various gods of Greece and other nations. And then he comes across one altar with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul decides this unknown god is the God of of his ancestors and the Father of his Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who he thinks this unknown god is.

Paul’s sermon stirs the Athenians’ hearts with a brief and beautiful account of God’s movement in creation. And yet at the end of it, I wonder if the phrase “unknown god” is still not the most appropriate term. I wonder this because there are so many conceptions of God out there and they disagree. Even within Christianity, there are many conceptions of God. Even within the Episcopal Church. Even here at St. Mark’s. Even here at this service. Even here inside my own heart and mind there are many conceptions of God and they often disagree. Hence my confusion when I realize I’ve never actually worshiped God; I’ve only ever worshiped my faulty understand of God.

Here’s what I mean. On the spectrum of knowing God, there are two extremes. First, there’s knowing God totally and completely. Second, there’s not knowing God at all. Zilch. Zero. Nada. We exist somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum, but to clarify the confusion, it can be helpful to start with the extremes.

In the first case, we know God totally and completely. We have strapped God to the operating table and figured out exactly what makes God tick. When we’re done, we stuff and mount God on the wall like a hunting trophy. This taxidermied version of God is under our control: we can take the trophy down to show it off; we know what to expect of God; we know what buttons to push in order to make God act in our favor. And coincidentally enough, God disagrees with the same people we do. Of course, this is a flawed understanding of God. We’re talking extremes, so flaws are more common out here. The flaw here is the delusion that God is small and mundane enough for us to figure out what makes God tick.

The second extreme is naturally the complete opposite of the first. In the second case, there’s no hope of knowing God at all. Words fail us because none of them measures up. So we wind up using words like “ineffable,” which is just a fancy way of saying “unknowable and unsearchable.” God is so far beyond human comprehension that there’s no point in trying to comprehend. We’re like amoebas trying to read Shakespeare. Of course, this is also a flawed understanding of God. The flaw at this extreme is that God is too big and majestic to bother with amoebas like us, despite the evidence that God has been surprising humanity through encounters with the Divine for several millennia.

These two extremes represent the flawed ends of the spectrum which tracks our capacity to know God. As with all spectra, we exist somewhere in between the two extremes, and our existence is fluid. When we really need something to happen – to get a job or pass a test or receive successful treatment – we might trend toward the first extreme, in which God comes at our beck and call. When something really terrible happens – a huge earthquake or terrorist attack or we lose someone we love suddenly – we might trend toward the second extreme, in which God’s “beyond-ness” explains the apparent lack of intervention.

Do you see what’s happening here? Our knowledge and experience of God changes depending on our needs in the moment. We slide along the spectrum between the two extremes. The unique mixtures of our appetites, yearnings, successes, failures, doubts, and faith paint pictures of the God we worship. And whatever else those paintings may be, there is one thing they are not. They are not accurate portraits of God. This is why I wonder if the term “unknown god” is the best moniker. This is why I sometimes question why I even stand up here to preach with you. This is why I am confused today.

Are you still with me? Good, because C.S. Lewis will help us climb out of our confusion. In a wonderful poem, Lewis acknowledges our faulty understanding of God. He admits that in prayer we “address the coinage of [our] own unquiet thoughts.” He imagines prayer to God as “arrows aimed unskillfully.” Then in a moment of profound faith, Lewis praises God’s “magnetic mercy,” which diverts those poorly aimed arrows so they strike their intended target.*

I am totally on board with C.S. Lewis in this metaphorical imagining. While we worship our own faulty understandings of God, God’s magnetic mercy reorients us. The first extreme falls away because we could never understand or categorize such mercy, such grace. But understanding God is not a prerequisite for belief. The second extreme falls away because God chooses to offer us the gift of revelation, so we might discover and celebrate such mercy and grace.

The only one who truly knows and understands God…is God. Our faulty understandings cannot diminish the truth of God, the truth of the foundation of all being. But such faulty understandings can diminish our participation in God’s mission and our witness to God in the world. If we mistakenly think we can control God, like the graven images of old, we will never step out of our comfort zones to grow into new areas where God is calling us. If we mistakenly think God is completely unknowable, we will never seek God out, will never find God’s presence in the other or in ourselves. But the true God calls to us from within our desire to understand, however faultily. And God’s magnetic mercy aligns us closer to the truth, like a compass spinning to true north.

Of course, faulty understandings of God harm more than just our own discipleship and apostleship. I can’t even begin to catalog how much damage has been done down through the ages in the name of bad understandings of God. When we see and cringe at other people’s faulty understandings of God, which they use to justify all sorts of things, from the well-intentioned to the heinous, know that such understandings do not accurately paint the true God. Such faulty understandings are Lewis’s “coinage of their unquiet thoughts.” Pray for them as you pray for yourselves and each other. And believe that God’s magnetic mercy is working in their lives, just as in ours, to bring all of us to better clarity, better vision, better knowledge of God’s dream for the world.

Paul saw an altar to an unknown god. Ultimately God is unknown, for we filter God through our own perceptions and expectations. But the good news is this: while we may never know God perfectly in this life, there is more than just this life. As Paul says during his great hymn to love: “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”


*C.S Lewis, “A Footnote to All Prayers”

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, muttering Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.

Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless

Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

Mark and the Movement

Sermon for Sunday, April 30, 2017 || The Feast of St. Mark (transferred) || Mark 1:1-15

After services today, we are kicking off our celebration of the 150th anniversary of St. Mark’s Church here in Mystic, Connecticut. While the church’s roots go back to the creation of a Sunday School in 1859, the traditionally accepted date for the founding of St. Mark’s jumps forward to Christmas Eve 1867 and the first service here at the Pearl Street location. Our history tells us that a wooden causeway had to be constructed that December night so members could navigate the tidal pools swirling on the lawn outside.

Of course, our church is more than this building with its simple, bright, lovely interior and occasional problems with flooding; indeed, a church is technically a gathering of people, not a location. We don’t go to church. We are church: we are a community of people gathered for mutual support, to praise and worship God, to deepen our commitment to follow Jesus Christ, and to partner with God in mission in our neighborhood. Continue reading “Mark and the Movement”

Discernment Talk

Given at a Youth Retreat the Last Weekend of March 2017

I was blessed to participate in a youth retreat this weekend at Camp Washington in Morris CT, and I was asked to give a talk about discernment. Here it is.

“Discernment” is not a word many of us use in our day to day vocabulary. And yet we engage in discernment every single day of our lives. Discernment is simply a fancy word for the thought that happens before you make a choice. And hopefully the prayer, as well. We tend to reserve the word “discernment” for big decisions: where you’ll go to college, what you want to do with your life, whom you want to spend that life with. But we need not make such a distinction. Every choice you make in your life can involve discernment on some level or other. Continue reading “Discernment Talk”

Transformed (God’s Point of View, part 8 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2017 || last Epiphany A || Matthew 17:1-9

We have reached the final week of our Epiphany sermon series, in which we have been imaging our way into God’s point of view. God sees, names, and celebrates us as beloved, befriended, gifted, blessed, enlightened, unfinished, and finished. This brings us to our final word of the sermon series: God names us “transformed.” The more we practice seeing ourselves and others the way God sees us, the more we participate in our own transformation.

I saved this word for today because I knew we would be reading the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. He goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John and there the Gospel tells us, “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Despite what the text says, I’ve never thought that Jesus himself was changing in any way. This story has always been for me a window into God’s point of view. On the mountaintop, God gives Peter, James, and John a gift. God gives them the gift of seeing Jesus as God sees him, a luminous being awash in God’s love and grace. And I’ve always wondered if the disciples had turned and looked at each other, would they have seen each other similarly transfigured?

Continue reading “Transformed (God’s Point of View, part 8 of 8)”

Finished (God’s Point of View, part 7 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, February 19, 2017 || Epiphany 7A || Matthew 5:38-48

Just today and next week left in our Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. God sees, names, and celebrates us as beloved, befriended, gifted, blessed, and enlightened. Last week we talked about God designing us to be unfinished products, always ready for further growth as we love and serve the Lord. So it might surprise you that we return to God’s point of view today and see that God also names us “finished.” How can we be both finished and unfinished at the same time? Well, this is one of those experiences of both/and reality so common where God is concerned.

More than any sermon in this series, I am least qualified to talk about this one. In the next few minutes I might say something that is true, but if I do, it will have been by accident because what I’m really going to do is talk about Adam’s point of view about God’s point of view. It springs from Jesus’ command at the end of today’s Gospel: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, be complete, be your entire self, be finished. Now from our own point of view, it is impossible to be our entire selves, to be finished as it were, because we still have many days ahead of us. But God’s point of view is, I think, entirely different.

Continue reading “Finished (God’s Point of View, part 7 of 8)”

Unfinished (God’s Point of View, part 6 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, February 12, 2017 || Epiphany 6A || Matthew 5:21-37

Over a month ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

God sees, names, and celebrates us as beloved, befriended, gifted, blessed, and enlightened. Last week, we had a deviation from the series, but we still mentioned what I would have said if I had written the series’ sermon: We bring the light of love with us out into the world, especially in times of great fear and turmoil.

And every time we go out into world to participate in God’s mission by using our gifts, by being blessings, by shining God’s light, we inevitably realize that we are never going to fulfill our mission perfectly. We will never be perfect partners with God. We will never love or befriend or bless or shine to the fullest of our capacity. And that’s because we are unfinished. Continue reading “Unfinished (God’s Point of View, part 6 of 8)”

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”

Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017 || Epiphany 4A || Matthew 5:1-12

I thought I hit record this week, but I didn’t, and with only one service because of St. Mark’s Annual Meeting, I failed to capture the audio for this sermon. Apologies.

Three weeks ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

We began with Belovedness. God sees and names us and each person we meet as God’s Beloved. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Next we talked about God befriending us. God calls us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own. Love leads to friendship, which leads us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Here we claim our giftedness, not to make ourselves feel special, but to use our gifts to make others feel so. We claim our giftedness, which helps us be blessings in the world.

With this word – “blessing” – we return for a fourth time to God’s point of view. God sees, names, and celebrates us as blessed. There are two parts to blessing: sustenance and mission, and neither is particularly well understood. Continue reading “Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)”

Befriended (God’s Point of View, part 2 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2017 || Epiphany 2A || John 1:29-42

A week ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

Last week we began with Belovedness. God sees and names us as God’s Beloved. When we enter this reality, we see, name, and celebrate that each person we meet is the Beloved of God. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Claiming belovedness is the best way to stoke our own reserves of compassion for those on the margins, who we’d rather ignore to make our own lives a little more pleasant. Being God’s Beloved does not allow for such a heartless option, for they are God’s Beloved, too.

Thus, imagining how God sees us is not an entirely pleasant exercise. Being beloved is at once comforting and conflicting. We rest in God’s love, and we feel the pinch in our souls that so many out there feel no love at all. And so we decide to do something about that. This decision leads us back to God’s point of view. God befriends us, calling us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own, often befriending the unlikeliest of people. Continue reading “Befriended (God’s Point of View, part 2 of 8)”