This sermon is about God remaining faithful even when tragedy or pain or grief keep us from acting out our faith. Before I start, though,I need to share a trigger warning. I will be briefly talking about the death of a child.
Between March 2020 and May 2021, this building was closed to the public due to the pandemic restrictions. For fourteen long months, we gathered together via Zoom and YouTube, worshiping together in love any way we could as we supported one another through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic. During those services of Morning Prayer, I shared with you 27 of the songs I’ve written over the course of my life. That’s every song I’ve ever written (that’s fit for people to listen to). Well, every song but one. There’s one particular song of mine that I deliberately did not sing during those fearful months because I didn’t think I’d be able to get through it. The song is raw and it does not end on a particularly joyful note. But I think now the time is finally right to sing this song for you.
Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2022 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10
There’s a great moment in Handel’s Messiah where the composer musically paints a flock of sheep scattering. The text comes from Isaiah 53: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.” Handel begins with the whole flock together: 🎶 “And we like sheep.” 🎶 Then every voice runs off on its own line for the “going astray” part: 🎶 “Have gone astr-a-a-a-a-a-ay.” This musical painting of sheep dashing off and getting lost happens over and over again. It’s a brilliant musical illustration of the verse and a pretty apt description of what happens to us when we “turn to our own way” and lose ourselves.
On Monday morning last week, the buds on the maple tree in front of my house appeared. They weren’t there last Sunday, and then – BOOM – there they were in all their potential glory. I knew they were coming in the vague sense that it was spring and that’s what happens to trees. But I hadn’t spared much thought as to when. And then, suddenly, there they were: skeletal sticks one day, green buds the next, like a quick costume change between scenes of a play.
At least that’s what I saw from my perspective. What about the tree’s perspective? What would we see if we imagined our way into that majestic maple? We would feel the slow return of warmth and sunlight that would get the sap moving again after the near dormant days of winter. We would explore deeper with our roots, seeking nutrients and water. We would spend weeks gathering and converting energy to power all the tiny interactions within our complex body to send forth those little green buds. Over the course of one night, the buds would slowly unfurl from the ends of their little flagpoles.
What looks to me like a spontaneous greening, the maple spent all winter preparing for. What looks to me sudden and surprising was for the maple slow and deliberate. What a difference our perspective makes.
Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2020 || Easter 4A || John 1:1-10
I imagine Jesus looking out over the fields beyond Jerusalem and seeing shepherds moving their flocks towards the sparse patches of green in the distance. He turns to his followers and says, “You see those shepherds out there. I am the Good Shepherd.” Then he begins spinning out his metaphor, telling a story as the people watch the grazing sheep beneath the big, open sky. The shepherd goes into the fold,” Jesus continues, and “the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
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.
No sermon this week, so instead, I am excited to share with you a project that I was blessed to work on last summer. Stories of God at Home is a new book by Godly Play founder Jerome Berryman. The book takes several of the most beloved Godly Play stories and adapts them for use by families at home at various points in the year.
Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2017 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10
There was a problem with the audio for this sermon, so unfortunately, it’s just text this week.
Whenever I watched The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, I would always fast forward through one particular scene because it terrified me. Luke Skywalker is training with Jedi Master Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah when Luke feels the cold presence of death emanating from a nearby cave. “That place is strong with the Dark Side of the Force,” says Yoda. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”
Luke enters the cave, lightsaber in hand. From the shadows appears Darth Vader. They duel for a few desperate seconds, and then Luke cuts off Vader’s helmeted head. The helmet comes to rest, and the black mask blows off, only to reveal Luke’s own face. As a child, this scene terrified me because Darth Vader was really scary, and the darkness of the cave and the tremulous musical score only added to my fear. As an adult, watching this scene still touches my heart with fear, but fear of a different kind: fear of the truth that Luke discovers in the cave and that I discover whenever I look within myself.
Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2016 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10
The unsavory elements of society come to listen to Jesus, and he does not send them away. The scribes and Pharisees watch from a distance so as not to rub shoulders with such disreputable people, and at every turn Jesus’ behavior confirms their opinion of him. Either he does not understand the basic tenets of society, which force the unsavory elements to the margins where upstanding folks can ignore them. Or he does not care that he risks his own reputation by welcoming them into his presence. Either way, his behavior allows the scribes and Pharisees to write him off.
But there’s a third option that I doubt ever enters their tightly closed minds. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. Maybe he does care; maybe he cares about the people and not about his reputation. Perhaps the reason he welcomes those on the margins is that he has accepted his life’s mission, and he is living that mission to the fullest.Continue reading “Claiming our Mission”→
(Sermon for Sunday, May 11, 2014 || Easter 4A || Psalm 23)
In six years of priesthood, I’ve preached on the psalm exactly twice. Today, I’m going to make it three times. Psalm 23 is among the most well-loved and oft-quoted passages of scriptures. We read it at funerals or by the bedsides of those who are sick. When you listen to these words, you might hear an echo of your grandmother reciting it to you when you were a child. The words of Psalm 23 are powerful and gentle at the same time. But, as with anything you hear over and over again, the words can grow stale and distant. So I’d like to try something. I’d like to offer a meditation on Psalm 23 by expanding the thoughts contained in each of the six verses. Saint Francis of Assisi did something similar with the Lord’s Prayer, and I’m going to follow his example. As you listen, see how the venerable words of the twenty-third Psalm strike you anew.
The LORD is my shepherd.
For most, our agrarian days are long past and we see pastureland only from the car window as we drive by on the highway. We see the animals in the field, and we think, “How quaint and how beautiful.” But something tugs inside, and we notice a secret longing for a simpler time. We desire to tramp through the long grass, the only sounds the swish of our clothes rubbing together and our voices calling the flock. Each sheep has a name, and as we call, they come. We have a shepherd, too, who calls us each by name. We have a guide. A protector. A provider. The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
It’s a statement of faith that hangs on the promise of provision, the expectation that the Lord will provide. But this English rendition of the Hebrew words gives them more than one meaning. We will not be in want; that is, we will lack for nothing we need to sustain us. But we will also be free from the concept of “wanting”; that is, when we believe the Lord will provide, we will resist the siren song of consumer culture that seduces us, that tries to tell us security only comes with more stuff. “I shall not be in want,” means that we understand proportion, that we have a realistic notion of the word “enough,” and that we find contentment in living simply.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
These are the good days – the days of plenty, the days of refreshment. The still waters reflect God’s peace. The green pastures announce God’s abundance. Peace and abundance feed our awareness of the One who leads us. We notice that, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”* Noticing this grandeur re-“charges” us. Or in the words of the psalmist:
He revives my soul
My essence. My life-force. The gift God gave each of us in the sparkling moment of creation that connects our fleetingness to God’s eternity. God’s grandeur is present, and yet we might still miss it. We tire. We burn out. We feel more fleeting than eternal. Thus our Lord revives our souls time and time again…
And guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Oftentimes in the psalms the poet reiterates a thought with a parallel one, which is why many psalms have a repetitive nature to them. Here we have a hidden parallel: reviving our souls and guiding us along right pathways are two sides of the same coin. The pathways along which our shepherd guides us lead to revival, to green grass and refreshing water. And all for God’s name’s sake; in other words, all to make God’s grandeur apparent. And yet…
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
If the shepherd is leading us, why do we walk through this particular valley? Why is it on the route at all? Do we stumble into the valley of the shadow of death because we have strayed from right pathways, or do the right pathways include a road through this valley? We all know life isn’t just green pastures and still waters. We are a people formed by the reality of the cross. But the cross – the shadow of death – is not the end of the story. The joy of the resurrection proclaims that we are not abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death. No. We walk through the valley and out the other side. Perhaps we make this journey because there are people stuck in the valley. It is our duty and our joy to help them find their way out.
In the valley we fear no evil; not because evil doesn’t exist, but because fearing evil gives it power. Fear keeps us from trusting that we will make it out the other side of the valley. Evil seeks to separate us from the One in whom we put our trust. But evil will not succeed…
For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
This is our mantra while in the valley: “You are with me. You are with me.” Just because we have trouble noticing God’s presence doesn’t mean God is absent. And so we breathe these words, “You are with me,” until they become, “I am with you.” And dwelling in that truth, we find comfort. Comfort and sustenance, for…
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.
On the bad days, we might not be able to find the green pastures or the still waters. We might stop believing we have enough and start listening to the seductive voices of those who trouble us, those who chant: “More. More. More. Then you’ll find comfort.” And so, on those bad days, instead of leading us to the pasture to forage for ourselves, the Lord sets a banquet before us. The Lord places what we need right in front of us so we can’t miss it. And we discover once again the abundance inherent in trusting in the Lord to provide.
You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
When the Lord provides, the Lord provides. What we are fearful won’t be enough overwhelms us instead. Our cups overflow with blessing, both because there is so much blessing, and also because we have made ourselves too small to contain it. The extravagance of God’s blessing fills us in a way that the “More” of the seductive voices could never achieve. When our cups run over, we have the opportunity to spill God’s blessing on all those we meet. As the Lord guides us along right pathways, overflowing blessing marks the way for us and for those who will come after. And as we walk those ways…
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
The Lord, our shepherd, guides us, leads us by the hand through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and still waters. The Lord takes the lead. We follow. And notice what follows us: God’s goodness and mercy trails us like the churning wake of a ship at sea. Thus, we are surrounded: God’s blessing and abundance before us, God’s goodness and mercy behind us. And above, below, and within us is the truth of God’s promise that…
I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
For ever includes right now. To dwell means not just to live, but to abide. To unpack all our boxes. To put our clothes in the drawers and fill the refrigerator. To make a home for ourselves in the palm of God’s hand. This is the witness of this beautiful poem, Psalm 23. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we have a home in our Lord’s house. We have a provider in the Good Shepherd. And we have eyes to witness, here and in the life to come, a world “charged with the grandeur of God.”