Green and Growing

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

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

There’s Only Us

Sermon for Sunday, June 19, 2016 || Proper 7C || Galatians 3:23-29

theresonlyusDuring the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.

This is a sermon about two pronouns. The two pronouns today are “us” and “them.” Remember that for just a minute, because first I need to tell you why Paul is so mad. We’ve been reading the letter to the Galatians for the last month, and we haven’t really mentioned it in a sermon yet. But just quickly, here’s why Paul is upset during the letter to the Galatians. Continue reading “There’s Only Us”

Tell Me a Story

Sermon for Sunday, February 14, 2016 || Lent 1C || Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

tellmeastoryRight now, the bedtime ritual at home goes something like this: bath time around 6:15; diapers and pajamas at 6:30; stories, snuggles, and songs until 6:45; and then, blessedly, sleep. We rotate through many beloved and well-worn bedtime books: Goodnight, Moon; Time for Bed; Guess How Much I Love You; The Going to Bed Book. Leah and I can recite every one of these and more. But I tell you, I can’t wait until Charlie and Amelia are old enough to ask us to make up bedtime stories.

“Tell me a story.” They’ll say these four magical words, an integral part of any bedtime liturgy, and their request will lead to a holy moment of collective imagination. I will ask, “What would you like a story about?” Pirates? Faeries? Princesses? Dragons? A faerie princess who saves a dragon from pirates? Okay. Here we go. Then the liturgy continues with four more magical words: “Once upon a time…”

Story shapes us. We make meaning by telling stories, which is one of the reason I love our Godly Play program so much. Godly Play stories teach the language of faith and celebrate the wonder of God’s movement. Those fantastical bedtime stories fill us with fervent hopes for lives of high adventure and romance, through which we learn chivalry, fidelity, and courage. We all have family stories, which rehearse the triumphs, failures, and oddities of life. There’s the endearing one about how your parents met; or the painful one about the Pacific Theater in 1944; or the embarrassing one that you hope your mom made up, but you know she didn’t. You don’t remember this, Adam, but one time, when you were potty training, your grandmother helped you, and then you sent her out of the room because you wanted privacy to wash your hands.

Above and around and within each of our little stories, the one, great story weaves: the story of God’s relationship with creation. This great story subsumes and explains and connects our stories with those of the rest of humanity. The one, great story has been recorded and bound, but it has never finished being written. When we tell the story, we participate in it. Put another way, when we remember the story, the story remembers us. We are each members of the story, and we discover our place in it when God re-members – reconnects – us. So let’s tell a version of that story now, beginning with our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.

In today’s lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses directs the people of Israel to observe this work of remembering when they enter their new home after forty years of wilderness wandering. From the first harvest of your newly settled land, he says, take the first fruits of the ground and offer them to the Lord. While you faithfully give up the only piece of the harvest you are assured of reaping, rehearse your faith by telling this story. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” Moses bids the people to locate themselves in the collective memory of Israel. Each member can be re-membered by identifying with the story, by seeing themselves in the story. Even the youngest can say, “That’s me. I’m part of that great nation. I cried out to the Lord when the Egyptians afflicted me. The Lord heard my voice, brought me out of Egypt, and promised me a land flowing with milk and honey. And, see, here I am in that land offering my first fruits to God in thanksgiving.”

By directing the people to tell the story when they settle in the promised land, Moses hopes they will remember who they are and whom they belong to. But his hopes are in vain. Over the next couple hundred years, the people of Israel do a horrible job remembering. By the end of the Book of Judges, when a downward spiral has led to civil war, wanton rape, and vicious murder, no connection exists, no shaping happens. What does happen is entirely brutal and stomach-churning, and I’m telling you now only because it’s part of the story. Instead of the re-membering that occurs with the storytelling Moses urges, there is literal dis-membering of a rape victim (19:29). At this low point in the story of Israel, Moses’s bidding to rehearse the collective memory all but vanishes.

But all is not lost. The beginning of the book of Samuel tells us “the lamp of God had not yet gone out”: the story still remains in the hearts of the faithful (1 Samuel 3:3). The prophet Samuel learns how to listen to God from his teacher, Eli. Samuel then holds the story in trust as David’s monarchy establishes itself in Israel and Judah. Generations later, King Josiah rediscovers the “book of the law” (which may be Deuteronomy) and realizes how much of the story has been forgotten (2 Kings 22). When the people are forced into exile, the connecting nature of the story sustains them. They remember how the Lord brought them out of their bondage in Egypt. The prophets tell and retell the story of God’s relationship with creation until its shaping power begins to work a change in the people of Israel and Judah.

That change reaches fruition in the great story found in the Gospel. In today’s reading, Luke connects Jesus back to the story of Moses, as Jesus’ forty days in the desert mirror the Israelites’ forty years of wilderness wanderings. Jesus meets the devil on several occasions, and Jesus resists the Evil One with the power of the great story. Unlike the people at the end of the Book of Judges, Jesus remembers what is written: “One does not live by bread alone…Worship the Lord and serve only him.” In desperation the devil then tries the same tactic, quoting the story to Jesus, but it isn’t the devil’s story to use. And Jesus frustrates the devil with the collective memory of the people of God: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

The early church shared this collective memory during the forty days of Lent with the culmination of a years-long program of formation. Seekers discovered that they had been members of the great story all along. When they learned their part in it, the community of faith re-membered them with the sacrament of baptism on Easter. The story shaped them, as it shapes us when we take the time to remember it and tell it.

Today, fewer and fewer people know this story, this great story that connects us all to each other and together to God. And yet never has there been a better time for the kind of re-membering that telling this story can cultivate. How many of us know people who are lost, disconnected, untethered to anything greater than themselves? I know I do. And sometimes I am one of the lost. But then someone tells a piece of the story, and I remember who I am and whom I belong to. This is one of our great duties and joys as followers of Jesus: to tell the story, and to live the current chapter of the story. The Gospel according to John ends with this curious verse: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). We are those books.

So this Lent, practice the story: read it, tell it, live it. And if a child looks up from under the covers at bedtime and says to you those four magical words, “Tell me a story,” then I hope you’ll join me in beginning like this: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”

Art: Detail from Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown; illustration by Clement Hurd

Speaking in Parables

Sermon for Sunday, June 14, 2015 || Proper 6B || Mark 4:26-34

speakinginparablesI first learned how to tell Godly Play stories back in 2006 when I was interning as a hospital chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. We chaplains had these miniature golden parable boxes, which we would bring to the patients’ rooms and lay out the stories on their beds. The first one I got my hands on comes from today’s Gospel lesson. The kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

As I said these words, I unrolled a green piece of felt cut in the shape of a tree and affixed to it nests and birds illustrated on tiny pieces of wood. This parable is very short, and the Godly Play story did not embellish it at all. So I would say the words slowly, with lots of pauses to put more and more nests and birds in the tree. Now the Godly Play method, which we use in our children’s education program, does not direct the storyteller to explain the parable. Instead, when you’re done, you ask open-ended wondering questions so that the children can explore for themselves what the parable teaches. The storyteller facilitates the children’s own discovery, walking with them and pointing things out, but resisting the urge to explain.

Thus, in a way, Jesus himself was the first Godly Play storyteller. He knew the value of personal encounter with the holy. He knew that offering pat answers is never as fruitful as offering food for thought. He knew that teaching a man to fish was better than giving a man a fish.* And yet, we often find ourselves wishing that Jesus had made it all just a little bit easier. I mean, this being one of his followers isn’t exactly easy, right? And yet Jesus seems to have made it even harder by speaking so enigmatically. And so we ask: why did Jesus speak in parables?

For starters, Jesus knew that when you have to work at something, you really start to own it. My parents made me pay for my first car for two reasons. First, they couldn’t afford to buy me a car. And second, they knew what Jesus did: that if I put my hard-earned money into that automobile, I was much more likely to cherish it. I’ll tell you – I had that tan 1992 Mazda Protégé with the manual transmission from my sophomore year of high school until my second year of seminary. I took care of that car because I had made a long personal investment in it.** In the same way, Jesus’ parables – even the shortest ones like the mustard seed – give us plenty of fodder to work with.

Why did Jesus speak in parables? He knew that narrating a story is much more effective than giving a direct answer. Indeed, we make meaning by sharing stories. Humans have always been like this. When you sit around a campfire, the urge to tell stories is so great because you’re tapping into this primal instinct to speak of what’s most important.

Or let me put it like this: I was pretty insufferable when I was in my early teens. I was an obnoxious know-it-all, and I wanted you to know it. And I wasn’t good at making friends because of the obnoxious thing and because my family moved around so much. Then in ninth grade, I read The Lord of the Rings. When I finally put the book down after 900 plus pages, I was different somehow. I had journeyed with Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamge to Mount Doom, and dwelling page after page in their incredible friendship – friendship that literally stood the test of fire – changed me. People could have told me the answer to friendship is being loyal and giving of yourself. But I would not have understood until I read that story. In the same way, when we enter a parable, when we really live in the world Jesus creates in those few short sentences, we find so much depth of meaning.

This depth often comes not from one encounter with the parable but many. Why did Jesus speak in parables? He knew that using everyday images helps illustrate abstract concepts. The more ordinary the image, the more likely you are to encounter it day in and day out. Thus, Jesus shares images so that when we see them, the story triggers in us again. I guarantee you that at the parish picnic this afternoon, when you see birds flying around the trees, you will think about the parable of the mustard seed. And as you watch those birds nesting in those trees, you will connect more deeply to the kingdom of God.

And finally, Jesus spoke in parables because parables resist sound bite theology. He knew that his opponents were looking for evidence against him, and so instead of giving them ammunition, he told them stories: innocuous little stories, that, if you really let them get inside you and do their work, you realize that the kingdom has sprouted within you while you were sleeping. The problem is that these days we are so used to sound bites ruling public discourse that any speech, which calls for deep thinking, seems too difficult or time-consuming to wrestle with. We’ve lost the attention span necessary for stories to do their work. We are a people molded by story, who no longer seem to have time for them.

And that’s why Jesus’ parables are still so vital to our lives today. He invites us to slow down and place more and more nests and birds in that green felt tree. His stories sail to us on the wind of the Holy Spirit and impel us to dive in and swim around and make them our own. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” he asks. He says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows to be the greatest of all shrubs and puts for large branches so that the birds can nest. That’s the kingdom of God: Our true home that we might not be able to see at first, but which grows and grows and grows until it contains all the nests of all the birds. In Godly Play, we invite the children to name the birds, and we find that those birds’ names are the children’s names. Our names. The names of everyone, regardless of any ungodly reason – and I mean that literally – that we might discriminate. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.

Why did Jesus speak in parables? Because the kingdom of God is like a story, in which everyone has a role.

* Mark’s text does say that Jesus explains everything in private to his disciples. I would argue that might have done more harm than good, as you can see how they act for the rest of the Gospel.
** I did blow the head gasket about six months after getting the car. But that’s because I didn’t know what the Hot-Cold gauge was for. Oops. The repair cost about 2/3 what the car was worth. My parents did pay for that. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Inside the Golden Box

Sermon for Sunday, July 13, 2014 || Proper 10A || Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


InsidetheGoldenBoxOkay, to start off: I’m not going to preach this morning about my rapidly approaching fatherhood. But I just want to point out God’s divine sense of humor in us reading in the Hebrew Scripture a story about the birth of twins. Rather, this morning, I’m going to preach about God’s persistence and God’s extravagance. To do this, I’d like to talk about the second of my three days of Godly Play training.

In Godly Play, Jesus’ parables reside in golden boxes, and on this second day of training, the leader invited the students to pair up and choose a box. Now, I don’t remember if I chose the parable of the sower or if the parable of the sower chose me, but either way, my partner and I opened our golden box to reveal a long piece of brown felt, three types of ground depicted on wooden cutouts, some tiny birds, and a sower with arm sweeping up from his satchel of grain.

We laid out the parable and started learning how to tell it in Godly Play style. We rolled out the long piece of felt underlay and slowly placed the types of ground on it. In Godly Play, everything happens slowly and deliberately. You take each piece out of the box, hold it, look at it, and draw the children into the story through your own focus and intentionality. Well, at that day of training, as I had just learned this theory, I was extra careful to move slowly, deliberately, and intentionally. I studied each piece as I removed it from the golden box. I held the sower. I held the birds. I held the rocky ground. I held the thorny soil. I held the good soil.

At the end of my first rehearsal of the story, all I could think was this: “Why waste so much seed?” Out of four types of ground, only one yielded grain. A mere 25 percent of the seed was successfully planted. The rest was stolen by birds or scorched in the sun or choked by thorns. What kind of sower would waste three-quarters of his seed?

Turns out, God is that kind of sower. Our God is a God of abundance, of surpassing love and extravagant grace. God scatters the seed of God’s word everywhere in creation and within the hearts of all people. What might seem like waste to us who are so often concerned with the scarcity of things, to God the scattering of seed among all things is simply standard operating procedure. The word of God is eternal. The word of God is never going to be exhausted. Thus, God can scatter as much of the seed of the word wherever God wants with no care given to it ever running out.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims such a reality when he speaks this word from God: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:10-11).

So if God’s word accomplishes that for which God sent it, what of the seed that seems to be wasted? What of the seed that fell on the path, on the rocky ground, and among the thorns? These questions were on my mind as I continued preparing the parable of the sower for presentation at Godly Play training. But it wasn’t until I was putting away the parable for the final time that God gave me the gift of a small insight. I had already put the sower, the birds, and the types of ground back into the golden box. All that was left was the long strip of brown felt, the simple underlay for the other pieces. I sat there staring at it.

In a parable story, the felt underlay exists mostly to give shape to the other pieces. But as the first thing you pull from the golden box when you begin a story, the underlay can also serve as a warm-up activity to fire the imaginations of the children. “ ‘I wonder what this could be?’ you say,” as you turn the felt over in your hands, looking at both sides before smoothing it out on the floor. It’s a chocolate bar, a child might offer. It’s a brown snake. It’s a belt for a giant.

But as I sat there staring at the brown underlay all alone, I said, “I wonder what this could be?” and the answer came back, “It could be me.”

The brown felt upon which I placed the different kinds of ground could be any of – is each of us. Each of us, at various moments in our lives, has been the path upon which the birds came and ate. We have been the rocky ground. We have been the thorns. And hopefully, at some points, now or in the past or future, we have been the good soil. Thus, the kinds of ground upon which God’s seed falls are not different people, but different moments in the lives of each individual person.

Sometimes we receive the word with apathy and allow the birds to eat it up. Sometimes we dedicate ourselves with renewed fervor, only to have the fire burn hot and quick and die as soon as it started. Sometimes we allow the cares of the world to drown out the whispers of the abiding promises of God. And sometimes…sometimes we are receptive to God’s word, and the seed sprouts up abundantly.

I said at the beginning of this sermon that it would be about God’s persistence and God’s extravagance. Have you noticed them yet? The sower could plant the seed only in the good soil, but instead the sower flings it far and wide, trusting that even on challenging ground, the seed makes some impact. This is God’s extravagance – an expansive gesture of love and grace on the receptive and unreceptive alike.

And what of God’s persistence? Well, to extend the metaphor of the parable, the birds eat up the seed only to deposit it somewhere else. The seeds that die by scorching sun and choking thorn still sink into the loam to fertilize the ground. Thus, none of the seed is wasted; even the seed that falls outside the good soil can accomplish the purpose for which God cast it in the first place. Likewise, when you and I are at places in our lives when we are not exhibiting traits of good soil, God still casts seed upon us, knowing that even a hint of the word can make an impact, however small. Each seed cast upon us when we are unreceptive prepares us to become good soil at some future time. God yearns for us to be good soil, but God can wait because God is persistent.

As you take stock of your current relationship with God, ask God what kind of ground you are right now. What steps can you take to partner with God to till your soil into the kind receptive to God’s word? Trust that God continues to shower seed upon you because of God’s extravagant grace and persistent love no matter how many rocks or thorns stand in the way. The good news is this: sooner or later, in this life or the next, God’s word will take root in each of us because the sower will never run out of seed.

Art: The Parable of the Sower Godly Play story

The Heart’s Square Footage

(Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2012 || Feast of the Holy Name || Luke 2:15-21; Philippians 2:5-11)

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to invite you to make a New Year’s resolution, but don’t worry because you only have to fulfill the resolution for a week, which I think is the standard longevity of such things anyway.

But first I have a couple of wondering questions that this morning’s Gospel calls to mind. We read that the shepherds “made known what had been told them about this child.” I’m wondering to whom did they make this known? I’m really curious. Did they run through Bethlehem Paul Revere style (“The messiah is coming! The messiah is coming!”)? Did they go to the local census bureau and tell them to add another Israelite to the rolls? Did they go to the religious leaders and tell them that their hopes had been fulfilled?

In fine Godly Play style, I’m just going to let that first question hang in the air while I pose a second one. I’m wondering what kind of reaction the shepherds received. Luke tells us “all who heard [the shepherds’ testimony] were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” But “amazed” is neither a positive nor a negative word. As far as the shepherds are concerned, I suspect that they received quite a few responses that went along the lines of: “That’s amazing; ridiculous, but amazing.” Others probably said, “Get off my front stoop, you mangy shepherds.”

In the end, the narrative gives us single answers to both these wondering questions. While the shepherds surely told a wide array of people and received a wide array of amazed responses, we are privy to only one, and that is Mary’s. The shepherds burst in on the exhausted new parents with their witness to the angel’s words about the infant. The angel had said, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The shepherds proclaim this good news to Mary and Joseph. And “Mary treasure[s] all these words and ponder[s] them in her heart.”

Notice what is happening here with Mary’s response to the shepherds’ news. For nine months, since the angel appeared to her on that fateful day, Mary has carried within her the Incarnate Word. She has nurtured in her womb the physical embodiment of God’s good news to the world. She has felt the Son of God kick. Then, on the night we celebrated last week, she delivers him. Jesus is born to the rest of the world, and Mary’s womb is empty once again.

And yet, even though her womb is now empty, is her body void of the Word of God? Thanks to the shepherds: No. They bring the first message of the Gospel back to Mary, and she fills herself with the good news. She treasures their words in her heart as she had so recently treasured the Word in her womb.

Each of us bears the Gospel inside of us. The good news of Jesus Christ is treasure hidden in our hearts waiting to be shared. But our hearts are also home to all of the boxes and baggage and bulk that accumulate over lifetimes of focusing our attention away from the things that really matter, away from God and loving relationships. Our hearts are storage units for all of our misplaced priorities, inflated egos, broken promises, habituated distrust, forgotten loyalty, and shackling fears. These things clutter our hearts and leave less room for the good news of Jesus Christ to dwell.

Mary’s brave agreement to carry the Christ child makes a space within her, and God fills her emptiness with the embodiment of this good news. In today’s passage from the Letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us of another emptying, one that the Word made flesh accomplished in order to inhabit Mary’s womb. Paul says of Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The Greek word translated “something to be exploited” might be better translated as “something to be grasped” or even “something to be hoarded.” Even though he was in the form of God, Jesus let go of his station. Even though he was part of all the might and majesty and magnificence of God, he did not hoard them. Even though he shared the most precious thing in the universe — equality with God — he shared himself with us by emptying himself; by taking on the form of a slave; by filling Mary’s empty womb and being born in human likeness.

All this happened because Jesus was willing to let go of his grasp on his divine form. All this happened because Jesus refused to hoard the incomprehensible harmony of light and love and grace that is our God. All this happened because Jesus emptied himself. And Jesus emptied himself to fill Mary’s emptiness, to fill our emptiness.

So the question is: how empty are we? How much space within our hearts is left for the good news of Jesus Christ to fill?

If you’re anything like me, then the boxes and baggage and bulk take up a majority of your heart’s square footage. But we can begin to clear away this accumulation by resonating with Jesus’ own self-emptying and echoing Mary’s assent to be filled with God. The resulting emptiness is unlike any other instance of emptiness out there. This is not the emptiness of a bare pantry or a sock drawer on laundry day. This is purposeful emptiness, holy emptiness. This holy emptiness makes room for the grace of God to expand within us. Our internal storage units, once the depositories for those misplaced priorities and shackling fears, transform into the sanctuaries they were always meant to be. The emptier we become, the greater is our opportunity to discover true fullness.

This wonderful paradox is at the heart of our life of faith. As we begin the slow process of self-emptying, we realize that God has been at work in us all along: breaking down the boxes, removing the baggage, and shaving off the bulk. When we, like Mary and Jesus, empty ourselves, we find ourselves ready to respond to God. We are eager to serve others. We are prepared to give of ourselves because we know the fullness of God expanding within us has no bounds.

I invite you to join me in a New Year’s resolution this week. Each night before you go to sleep, focus your mind and heart in prayer. Identify something in your life that is taking up too much square footage within you, that is cluttering your heart. Perhaps this something is trouble at work or doubt about your financial future or concern for a loved one. Give this something to God in prayer. Ask God to inhabit the space vacated by this offering. Do this every night. Each time give something else to God. Practicing this holy emptiness will allow more space for the good news of Jesus Christ to breathe and move and dance within you. Soon you will empty yourself of enough clutter to notice that God has been at work in you from the beginning, and you will be able to dance along.