Sermon for Sunday, March 29, 2020 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45
Here we are. Week three of our church dispersed to the four corners of our community. The pews that you normally inhabit are empty, but we still gather together in prayer and worship of God this day. When my daughter was smaller than she is now, she couldn’t quite make her fingers do the “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the people.” Her fingers wouldn’t interlock inside the church, so when she did the motion along with the rhyme, the people were outside the doors of the church. Appropriate for today, I think. We are still the church, even when we are unable to gather in a particular building.
I’m reminded of our distance from each other today, not just because of the empty pews, but because of the beginning of our long Gospel story. Jesus receives a message from Martha and Mary about Lazarus being ill. Then Jesus waits where he is two days worth of social distancing for two days before heading to Bethany, where he finds Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. After meeting with Martha and then Mary, the Gospel says this: “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.”
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.
In her last sermon with us Pastor Stacey Kohl reminded us that stories are powerful things. Sharing stories helps us make meaning, pass on tradition, teach lessons, deepen relationships, learn from one another’s experience, and grow closer to God. Today, I’d like to share with you three stories, all sparked by a single verse from today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” I’d like to share with you a story about Jesus Christ yesterday, a story about Jesus Christ today, and a story about Jesus Christ forever. Each of these stories is about Jesus and about me, and if I do my job right, each will also be about you.
Sermon for Sunday, August 25, 2019 || Proper 16C || Luke 13:10-17
When I was a freshman in high school, I had back problems. I grew an entire foot during the first two years of high school, from five feet to six feet. And it hurt. A lot. The bones in my legs grew faster than my ligaments could stretch. This caused my hamstrings to tighten, and the extra taut ligaments connected to my lower vertebrae caused my lower back to be thrown out of alignment. The growing pains were bad, but the worst part was that I couldn’t run. And since I couldn’t run, I couldn’t play soccer. (I did musical theatre instead…and it was awesome, but that’s beside the point.)
When I read the story of the woman with the crippled back, the memory of my back pain tingles and reminds me to stretch those hamstrings that are still really tight to this day. My back issues only lasted a year during a major growth spurt. I can’t begin to comprehend the debilitating nature of this woman’s eighteen years of back problems. I mean, we need our backs, right? Without the use of our backs, the rest of our bodies fall out of commission pretty quickly.
Sermon for Sunday, April 21, 2019 || Easter Day C || JOHN 20:1-18
Here we are at long last: Easter Sunday, a long wait this year, two-thirds of the way through the month of April. But it could have been longer. April 25th is the latest Easter can be, but that hasn’t happened since 1943 and won’t happen again until 2038, which coincidentally is the year I’ll be eligible to retire. Unlike most holidays, which are fixed on a particular date or day of the month, the date of Easter (and the Jewish Passover) springs from something much grander – the motion of celestial bodies. We start with the vernal equinox, the day in March when the earth is tilted just so in relation to the sun to make day and night the same exact length. Then we find the next full moon, and the Sunday following is this day of Resurrection.
This article first appeared in the Pentecost 2018 issue of The Lion’s Tale, the seasonal magazine of my church, St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT.
This article starts way back. I mean waaaay back – over three thousand years ago, when two people left their home city and journeyed off into the wilderness. Their names were Abram and Sarai (soon to be Abraham and Sarah), and we read their story in the book of Genesis. The reason I need to start so far back is that Abram and Sarai discovered something that no one else in their land had discovered. They realized (a) there was only one true God and (b) God was already present wherever they went.
These were revolutionary ideas in their day. Most people in their neck of the woods assumed that each mountain and each river and each city had their own gods. Those gods stayed put: they were tied to particular places. Then Abram and Sarai ventured into the wilderness to find a new home, and they found God out in the wilderness. They set up altars to worship God wherever they found God, and soon the desert was littered with their shrines. God was everywhere! How amazing! Continue reading “Where God Is, A Brief History”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2016 || Pentecost C || Acts 2:1-21
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started describing God’s presence while writing a sermon and then realized that I accidentally quoted Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movie. It has happened at least a dozen times. So today, instead of accidentally quoting him, I’m just going to quote the dialogue delivered by the legendary Alec Guinness in 1977. He says this about the mysterious energy field that gives the Jedi their power: “The Force…surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Continue reading “On the Holy Spirit (With Help From Obi-Wan Kenobi)”→
Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2015 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51
It’s great to be back with you after three weeks away. I spent much of my vacation traveling to Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I visited a friend going through an agonizing medical issue and reconnected with an old friend from college. I got to shoot a bow and arrow, which I haven’t done since I earned the archery merit badge about twenty years ago. And I got to hang out with the now one-year-old twins and their mother a lot. It was a good vacation. But I’m glad to be back with you ready to preach a sermon about six of my favorite words in the Gospel. Those six words are: “I am the bread of life.” Embedded in these words are three things that so often dance beneath the surface of what Jesus says: a promise, an invitation, and a mission.
But before we get to these three things, we need to mention one of the idiosyncrasies of the Gospel according to John. In John, Jesus desires to tell everyone exactly who he is. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he is more circumspect about his identity: he keeps it secret for the most part, preferring instead to let others draw their own conclusions when they witness his actions and hear his words. But John’s Jesus keeps no secrets; instead, he presents truth wrapped in deep mystery and captivating imagery. The enigmatic quality of some of Jesus’ statements can make it seem like he’s keeping secrets, but the difference between secret and mystery is that secrets want to stay hidden and mysteries want to be revealed.
John lets us know of this desire for revelation right from the start with these poetic lines: “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known” (1:14, 18 CEB). With these two beautiful verses of poetry, John presents Jesus’ task. Jesus Christ – God the only Son, the Word made flesh – came to make God known to us by making his home among us. By revealing his own identity, Jesus reveals God’s identity, and when we encounter this revelation, we discover who we are, too.
Jesus signals when he is disclosing this divine revelation with a pair of code words: “I Am.” He says these words a couple dozen times in the Gospel according to John, and each time they hearken back to God’s encounter with Moses at the burning bush. When Moses asks God for God’s name, God responds, “I Am Who I Am.” Jesus borrows these words in his conversation with the crowd the day after the feeding of the five thousand. Their minds are still on yesterday’s bread, so he runs with that image. “I am the bread of life,” he says. These words are so much greater than mere metaphor; they reveal a piece of Jesus’ divine identity. And remember: when we encounter this revelation, we discover who we are, too.
To make this discovery, let’s return to the three things dancing beneath the surface of Jesus words: “I am the bread of life.” There’s a promise, an invitation, and a mission all squeezed in those six words. First, the promise.
Jesus links his identity as the bread of life to his people’s communal memory of the flight from Egypt many hundreds of years prior. Reading Exodus Chapter 16, you might notice how the people begin complaining to Moses about their hunger as soon as the threat of the Egyptians has vanished. If the situation weren’t so dire, it would be comical: the moment the threat is gone, they realize their stomachs are rumbling. And then the histrionics start: “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt…You’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death” (16:3 CEB). Of course, God has other plans and begins providing for them immediately with manna that appears like dew six mornings a week. Each day they collect enough to sustain them for that day, and they receive a warning not to store up the manna for tomorrow because it will spoil. They had to trust the manna would appear the next day, too. And you know what? It did.* That’s the promise Jesus makes when he names himself the “bread of life.” He promises to be the daily source of nourishment for his people, as the manna was during the wandering in the desert.
We receive this daily nourishment when we respond to Jesus’ invitation. As he talks to the crowd, Jesus tries to move them away from focusing on their physical craving for the barley loaves they received the day before and toward a deeper craving – the desire for relationship. When we take in the “bread of life,” Jesus becomes a part of us, as close to us as we are to ourselves. He invites us into the intimacy of this relationship, a relationship built on daily trust that we stand in his sustaining presence whether or not we have the eyes and heart to notice it. Think of the manna clinging to the grass like dew. How easy would it have been to trample right over it, too caught up in our hunger to notice our nourishment all around us? When he says, “I am the bread of life,” Jesus invites us to stop, to notice, and to take him in.
Because we’re not too good at that stopping and noticing, the church ritualized this taking him in. We call it Holy Communion, and when we come to the altar rail in a few minutes, we’ll find that Jesus’ promise and invitation have blossomed into our mission. We kneel together as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. We are knit one to another and all to God through Christ who dwells in us as we dwell in him. We rediscover that we are stronger together than we are alone. The “bread of life” provides us nourishment in order that together we may become nourishment to a hungry world. In the book of Genesis, God blesses Abraham to be a blessing – not so that he can be rich and famous and secure – but so that he will be a blessing. In the same way, our relationship with Christ, our reliance on his sustaining presence, is not for ourselves alone. We are blessed to be blessings, as well. We are nourished to be nourishment.
When we encounter Jesus’ revelation of his identity, we discover who we are, too. Our identity is wrapped up in the promise, invitation, and mission Jesus reveals when he says, “I am the bread of life.” By naming himself the “bread of life,” Jesus promises to sustain us like the manna in the desert. By eating of his bread, we accept the invitation to be in relationship with him. By sharing it together, we participate in the deeper reality of being members of the Body of Christ. We remember we’re not in this alone. We remember that God calls us to serve and to be served. We remember that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. That is where our true identity finds its home. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus promises. “Come to me. Be fed so you might feed others. Be blessed to be a blessing.”
* Well, there was one day a week (the day before the Sabbath) in which they collected two days worth so they didn’t have to work on the Sabbath. But explaining that in the sermon would have wrecked my flow.
Sermon for Sunday, July 20, 2014 || Proper 11A || Genesis 28:10-19a
Dear Baby Boy and Baby Girl,
Right now you are still in Mommy’s tummy, but only for a few more days. The doctors tell us everything is going well, and they are really excited that you’ve managed to stay inside as long as you have. As for Mommy and me, we can’t wait to meet you, now that you’re big enough to live out here in this messy, yet beautiful world. But before you arrive, there are a few things I need to tell you. You probably already know everything I’m about to say (you being so close to God and all), but at times, like the rest of us, you will forget. That’s why I’m writing this letter to you. It’s not just for you, but for me, and for everyone who hears it, as well.
This morning at church we read the story of a fellow named Jacob who camps out one night under the stars. Maybe we’ll do this someday, too, but Daddy doesn’t really like camping so you’ll have to persuade me. Anyway, Jacob dreams that angels are connecting earth to heaven, and he hears God speak promises to him. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” says God. God had said something similar to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, but before then people didn’t understand that “all of God was in every place.”* Instead, people thought there were all sorts of little gods who lived inside of things like rivers and mountains. They couldn’t take those little gods with them when they traveled. But Abraham left home and discovered that God was already present wherever Abraham went. It was a wonderful and staggering notion.
In fact, my children, even though thousands of years have passed since then, this notion is still so wonderful and staggering that even today we have to remember over and over again that all of God is present everywhere we go. When Jacob wakes up the next morning after his vision of God, he says, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!” I’ve said the same thing many times when I didn’t expect to find God only to be surprised when God showed up.
You two are smart, so you might be wondering why we have so much trouble noticing God’s presence even when that presence is everywhere all the time. Well, that’s the rub. The very constancy of God’s presence keeps us from noticing it. Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate this point. Mommy’s been having me read you guys a story every night recently, so I hope you like it when I tell you stories. Here goes: A long time ago our ancestors didn’t live in towns with grocery stores. They didn’t even have farms to grow vegetables and raise cows. (What sound does the cow make? Moo! You got it!) Instead, they had to go out into the dangerous wilderness to search for food. There were certain animals in the wilderness searching for food, too, and our ancestors were on their menus – animals like lions and tigers and…well, you get the idea. Our ancestors started noticing rustling in the underbrush and new odors coming to them on the wind. These changing signals warned them when they were in danger. The people who were best at noticing the changes in their environment flourished and passed their instincts on to their children.
We still have those instincts in us. Mommy and I passed them on to you. While we don’t usually have to worry about animals that have us on their menus, we do live in a world where things are changing all the time. Keeping up with everything that’s changing takes nearly all our attention. And so we forget to focus on the one thing that remains constant through it all, and that is the presence of God.
This is what I wanted to tell you in this letter, children: Sometimes you have to fight against your instincts. Sometimes you have to shut out all your distractions – all the change swirling around you – and just be. Just sit in a comfortable chair like your Daddy. Just lay on the ground at night under the stars like Jacob in the story. As you lay under the stars remind yourselves that you are in God’s presence. Acknowledge that it can be hard to notice because God’s presence is so constant, and we aren’t wired to notice constancy. But God knows this. God knows our instincts tell us to perceive change instead of constancy. That’s why God gave us the gift of memory.
As you lay under the stars reminding yourselves that you are in God’s presence, remember also that you were in God’s presence even when you didn’t notice it. Look back over your day or week or month or lifetime and start to uncover the footprints of God’s presence when you least expected to find it but needed it most.** You’ll be surprised to discover all the subtle and startling ways God was moving in your lives in the past. Doing this work of reflection will then help you see those same patterns of God’s movement in the future. And the more you do this work, the more readily you will notice God’s movement in the present.
I know it will be a long time before you, Baby Boy and Baby Girl, will have the ability or need to do this reflective work. But this is where the other facet of God’s presence arrives. Right now you two are reminders of God’s presence for your Mommy and me. As each day rolls into the next and your birth approaches, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present in our lives because God has given us the gift of the two of you. The fact that God has also given us a beautiful community in which to raise you makes God’s gift even more wonderful and staggering.
Being a reminder of God’s presence in the life of someone else will not only make that person’s life better, it will also help you discover God’s presence in your own. When you serve as such a reminder you trick your instincts into thinking God’s presence is one of the things that is changing, which helps you notice it. But what’s really changing is you. As you grow up, you will have the opportunity to be signs of God’s presence in so many ways. Grab hold of those opportunities with both hands and with your heart. Never let a chance to serve God by helping someone pass you by. Never assume you are too small to make a difference because assuming that makes you much smaller than you are. Know that you began your lives as reminders of God’s presence, and you will continue to be your whole lives long.
Your Mommy and I love you very much, and we can’t wait to meet you. In a few days, we’ll be in the hospital. We’ll be waiting for you. And then, suddenly, you’ll be there. And when I hold you and smell the tops of your heads and touch you to my skin, I will know that I am in the presence of God through God’s gift of you, Baby Boy and Baby Girl. We are in God’s presence all the time, yet we rarely notice it. But on that day, I will say, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I do know it.” May you have many days when you can say the same thing.
With all the love in my heart,
* Quoted from “The Great Family” Godly Play story by Jerome Berryman (my favorite story to tell)
** Borrowed from my father. It’s his favorite thing to say.
Sermon for Sunday, September 15, 2013 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10 )
Have you ever been found before? I know this is an unusual question. A more normal one might be: “Have you ever been lost before?” but I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that one. I want to know if you’ve ever been found. I have. Let me share with you a quick story from the “Stupid Things Adam Did as a Child” file.
Moundville, Alabama is so named for the Native American burial mounds that dot the landscape. The mounds are both eerie and fascinating, which makes Moundville a great place for Boy Scouts to go camping. Well, the camping trip ended, and I was waiting for my father to pick me up. I was twelve or thirteen at the time. We had agreed he would meet me at the parking lot closest to our campsite, so that’s where I waited. And then I waited some more. He was running late, so I decided we could save a few minutes if I met him at the entrance to the park instead. (This was in the days before cell phones by the way. Ancient history, I know.)
I walked for a few minutes to the front of the park and perched myself on a stone sign with a good view of the road so I could flag down my dad’s car. But unbeknownst to me, he had already entered the park from a different direction. An hour later, I still had my eyes on the road when my father’s car came screeching to a halt behind me. He jumped from the car and ran to me, yelling my name all the while. Suffice it to say, he was not happy.
Where were you…Didn’t we agree to meet…You scared me half to…I’ve been looking everywhere…
All of this spilled from him as he approached me. His eyes blazed with anger – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so upset, before or since. But then his hand touched my arm, and everything changed.
Now, parents out there, you might be able to identify with what happened next. When he touched me, it was as if he confirmed that I was really, truly there, that I wasn’t merely a figment he had been chasing through the mounds for the last heart-pounding hour. All the scenarios of kidnapping or being mauled by a wild animal or getting lost in the forest – all these scenarios that had been shuddering though his mind vanished when he touched me. And with the touch came relief. And with relief came joy. And with joy came an embrace brimming with all the spoken and unspoken love of father for son.
I was still in trouble. I was chastened for my foolhardiness. But above and beyond that, I was found. Have you ever been found before?
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus responds to his opponents’ critique of his unsavory dinner companions. “He told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.’ ”
Now, for Jesus’ opponents it was quite easy to separate the sinner from the righteous. The system of sacrifice and purification allowed people to proclaim themselves blameless before God – indeed, even Paul does this in his letter to the Philippians. This system created an in-group and everyone else. But by eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus proclaims that God doesn’t just move in the lives of the so-called “in-group.” In fact, God is present in the lives of all people. God seeks out and finds all people. Let me assure you, this was a radical claim in Jesus’ day.
And I think it remains a radical claim. How many of us have heard one religious group or another claim that God is on their side and no other? How many of us have been jealous of other people, who we assume God has favored because, darn it, everything seems to go their way? In our fallen state, we have a kneejerk reaction to exclude, to isolate, to create cliques and in-groups just to make ourselves feel better. But when Jesus sits down with all the wrong people, he punctures the false assumptions that God belongs to any one group and that God seeks to find only one type of person, the kind with white teeth and perfect cheekbones.
In truth, each and every person on this earth is the sheep who has gone astray. We have all wandered off alone and gotten lost. The path is there – perhaps a bit overgrown, but there. And yet, something shiny catches our eye and we strike out for it. But it’s just a trick of the light, and now it’s growing dark and the path is away to the left somewhere but good luck finding it. We stagger around in the gathering gloom, hoping against hope we are going in the right direction.
Into this gathering gloom, the light of Christ shines. Into the underbrush, Jesus tramps. Onto his shoulders, he lifts us up and carries us back to the path. And guess what? Tomorrow he’ll do the same thing again. Last week, Margot invited us each to go deeper in our commitment to God’s work in our lives. This week, Jesus invites us to celebrate God’s commitment to do whatever it takes to remain in relationship with us, no matter how often God has to find us and return our meandering feet to the path.
This commitment is no idle tale. God’s presence in the lives of all of us lost sheep gives us the hope that we are being found each day. And in being found, being nourished. And in being nourished, being molded into the people God calls us to be.
Now being found takes on all shapes and sizes, so I invite you to be aware of the unique ways God is actively finding you. Perhaps you are sitting in your pew and the choir’s anthem pierces your heart with the truth of God’s majesty. And God finds you in a moment of pure delight.
Perhaps you are holding your mother’s hand as she lies dying. She holds your hand back…until she doesn’t. You don’t think you have any more tears, but you are wrong. Your deep grief reveals not how deeply you loved her, but how deeply you love her, and you realize your love will never become a past tense thing. And God finds you in the continued connection between the living and the dead.
Perhaps you are waiting for your father to pick you up and you wander off and when he finally reaches you, you feel his desperation and anger melt into relief and joy. And God finds you in the fervent embrace of father and son.
God finds us every single day of our lives, no matter how far we have strayed from the path. We participate in this reality when we notice God finding us, when we realize just how God is weaving the strands of our lives together, and when we act as the vehicles of God’s finding in the lives of others.
After the service, I invite you to go to the Bartow Room and look at Ann Musto’s beautiful painting hanging over the fireplace. In the foreground, sheep gambol on a sun-drenched field bisected by a dusty path. In the background, there is a small, red figure walking up the path, walking towards the viewer. He’s small enough to miss unless you’re really looking at the painting, unless you’re paying attention, unless you really take the time to notice. Jesus is walking towards us from the back of the painting. He’s walking toward us, his lost sheep. He will seek until he finds us. He will find us wherever we are. And wherever we are, he is there already, inviting us to open our eyes and find him, even as we are being found.