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”

Better Angels

Sermon for Sunday, November 6, 2016 || All Saints C || Luke 6:20-31

What are the two things your grandparents told you never to talk about? Politics and religion. Well, today I’m going to break that rule. Don’t worry: I’m not going to talk about specific partisan issues or endorse candidates. Rather, I’m going to speak to a common misunderstanding about the intersection of politics and religion in America; then I’m going to talk about Jesus, who was a pretty polarizing political figure in his own right; and then we’ll finish up with some stirring words from Abraham Lincoln. Continue reading “Better Angels”

The Living Among the Dead

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 || Easter C || Luke 24:1-12

thelivingamongthedeadGood morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s Church on this Feast of the Resurrection. You know, every Sunday is a Feast of the Resurrection, but today is special. Do you know why? Because today is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – and that makes today Easter. So if a late night talk show host ever jumps out of a cab and asks you how to calculate the date of Easter, now you know.

Today is also special because of the week we’ve just had here at St. Mark’s. We’ve walked with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to the last supper with his friends to his agony in the garden, to his betrayal and arrest and trial, to his crucifixion, to his burial in the tomb. We’ve been through the darkness of Good Friday; we’ve been to the foot of the cross. Now the dawn breaks on Sunday morning, and once again we set off, walking this time with the women and their spiced ointments.

I doubt they slept much the last two nights, Mary Magdalene and the other women who rose early on the first day of the week to minister to their dead Lord. Every time they shut their eyes, I’m sure they saw the silhouette of Jesus’ cross in the distance, his limp body barely recognizable because of his torturous hours hanging there. No, I doubt these women slept much, though if they did finally fall into fitful slumber, it was because they cried themselves to sleep. When all you have left is your tears, you’d want to hoard them; but that’s when they flow all the more freely.

I’m sure the tears began again when they awoke early Sunday morning. New grief is like that. Each morning you wake and remember again that your loved one is gone, and again the pain stabs you anew, just as fresh as the first time. They bear the rawness of their grief by taking on a mission; after all, staying busy is one way to soften the blow. And so the women take up their burden of fragrant spices and trudge out into the darkness in order to arrive at the tomb at first light.

Out of deep troves of love and compassion, these brave women are ready to care for the body of their Lord and to prepare it for proper burial. It turns out Mary and her friends are making the happiest mistake in the history of mistakes. They are ready to wash and anoint a lifeless body, but what they find is no body at all. They find an empty tomb. For a horrible moment, their grief threatens to overwhelm them because the mission they were planning to perform – the one they had been clinging to since his death – is gone now, too. They didn’t think they could be more desolate, but they are wrong. For this horrible moment, the empty tomb magnifies their desolation.

But into this scene of despair and grief comes the sudden presence of two gleaming messengers. They enlighten the woman as to their happy mistake: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has arisen.”

The messengers continue talking, but the women have ears only for that last word: “Arisen!” For the first time since Friday, they remember Jesus’ words, and first one, then another, then another breaks out into a tentative smile. “Could it be true?” they ask each other.

“Yes, yes, yes it could.”

“Jesus never lied to us.”

“How could we forget his words?”

Then one repeats the messengers’ question: “Why are we looking for the living among the dead?”

This question echoes down through the centuries, and we find ourselves asking it when we read the beginning of the final chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel. Why do you look for the living among the dead? How often in our day-to-day lives could we hear the gleaming messengers ask us this question? How often do we trudge down our own well-worn paths to life-defeating things hoping this time – maybe this time – something life-affirming will happen?

Perhaps you’ve had a string of boyfriends who were real losers. Your friends tell you so at every opportunity, but you’ve got a blind spot for the proverbial bad boy. They treat you with no respect. From time to time they’ve even called you a name that I can’t say during this sermon. And yet you meet another one and all the signs are there, but you dive in headfirst anyway. To you the gleaming messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Perhaps you’ve been sober for three months. Your sponsor hands you your chip and slaps you on the back. You’ve got a couple of other three-month chips in a drawer somewhere, but that’s not on your mind right now. On your way home from the meeting, you run into an old buddy from back in the day. The next morning, you stagger to the drawer and toss the newest chip in. Maybe you’ll get another one in a few months time, but for today your salvation is at the bottom of a bottle. To you, the messengers say, “Why do you look for living among the dead?”

Perhaps you work through your family vacation because you’ve got too many projects on your plate. Or you’ve given into the tiny fearful voice that says you’re too old or too sick or too broken to make a difference in someone else’s life. Or you spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing YouTube and Facebook and Instagram. Or…or…or… Every one of us has a few life-defeating paths that we have no trouble finding. To each of us, the messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”The Resurrection of Jesus Christ spurred this question all those centuries ago. The women made the happy mistake of looking for a dead messiah, when the Risen One was alive again. Our life-defeating paths lead to tombs, as well, but they are not empty, for our dead messiahs are there waiting to suck the life from us. But the tomb of the Risen Lord is empty, and a new, life-affirming path stretches from that tomb and reaches into eternity.

Today, on this first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, on this special Feast of the Resurrection, we see most clearly this new, life-affirming path stretching from our feet off to the sun-drenched horizon. As we walk it together and with our Risen Lord, we will pass by so many people going the opposite way down the life-defeating paths. This may be due to their own choices or because they are caught up in systems that will never produce anything but defeat; systems of poverty, injustice, racism, apathy.

But as we walk this life-affirming path, we have the opportunity to be apostles like those brave women, to show people the power of the Risen Christ in our lives, to hook arms with folks going the other way and help turn them around. We have the opportunity to be the gleaming messengers who ask one simple question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And then we have the glorious opportunity to share the heart of the Good News. “He is not here, but has arisen.”

*I preached a version of this sermon at Easter in 2013. The old version had a lot of problems (mostly, it was two or three sermons smushed into one, which is a sign of lazy thinking and writing on my part). I think this rewrite fixes those things. Of course, in a few years time I might think the same thing about this version, too. And so it goes…

Right and Right

Sermon for Sunday, July 12, 2015 || Proper 10B || Mark 6:14-29

rightandrightI’ve never liked horror movies. I don’t understand the appeal of being scared out of my wits by things that go bump in the night or by gory chainsaw-driven bloodbaths. I don’t want to be afraid or disgusted, so why would I ever pay eleven dollars to subject myself to those emotions at the movie theater? I know that a lot of people out there enjoy horror movies, but if you’re anything like me in this regard, then the story I just finished reading possibly stirred in you the same feelings of fear and disgust that A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the Thirteenth might. The plot is truly dreadful: Herod throws a party to celebrate his birthday, but in the end, it is John the Baptizer’s death that is mourned. But even in the midst of these discomfiting emotions, I think we can still find something of value in this story.

To start, we must remember that Herod is a bad guy in the Gospel, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this flashback doesn’t end well. But we might be surprised that the story begins at least in shouting distance of the realm of good. Herod arrests John, it seems, for John’s own safety. We might call it “protective custody.” After all, Herod’s wife, Herodias, has a grudge against John and wants him dead. But Herod is intrigued by John. He thinks John has guts, and while what John says often bewilders Herod, the petty king likes having the prophet around.

Such is the status quo until Herod makes an ill-advised promise to his daughter (whose name is also Herodias, to make matters more confusing). “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom,” Herod proclaims. The girl conspires with her mother and then asks for something really grisly: the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. What happens next is what I find especially interesting.

“The king was deeply grieved,” Mark narrates, “yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests he did not want to refuse her.”

This is the moment of decision for Herod. I can hear in Herod’s mind, the petty king telling himself: “I have no choice. I don’t want John to die, but I gave my word!” However, Herod does have a choice. He can keep his promise or break it. Breaking a promise seems to me like a small price to pay to save a life, but Herod disagrees. He chooses to keep his word, despite the fact it means John will die. (Just so you know, for the sake of argument, I’m ignoring right now the fact that the promise Herod made was stupid and uninformed.)

Let’s dwell here for a few minutes and put ourselves in Herod’s shoes. Herod has a choice to make, and both options uphold a “good” of one type or another. Both can be defended as “right.” On the one hand, there is the good of keeping a promise. On the other, there is the good of saving someone’s life.

Now choosing between right and wrong is fairly easy in most cases. If you throw your baseball through the living room window just to see what breaking glass sounds like and then lie about it to your father, you’ve made two wrong choices. In general, if you have to keep your actions secret, you’ve done the wrong thing. So choosing between right and wrong is fairly easy. But choosing between right and right is much harder.

Here’s an example I used at a forum on this topic earlier this year. It’s 3 a.m. You’re on your way home from the airport, bone tired from a day of travel. You pull to a stop at a red light. No one’s coming. Do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. Here we have two goods in conflict, and I hope you’ll agree the good of respecting the law overrides the good of expediency.

Let’s add a wrinkle. It’s 3 a.m. Your wife’s contractions are only a few minutes apart. You hear her groaning and panting in the back seat. The baby is coming any minute now! You pull to a stop at a red light. No one’s coming. Now do you run the light? The good of respecting the law is in conflict with the good of protecting the safety of your family.

Choosing between right and right has a way of helping us clarify our values. Our values define us and guide us on the path of our moral lives. Each of us has a particular hierarchy of values instilled in us by our families and society at large, and our own life experience molds those values into certain shapes. Being followers of Jesus adds another dimension, as we seek to conform our values to the ones he displays in the Gospel. We’ll get to some of those in a minute, but first, we need to get back to Herod.

Herod has two goods in conflict: keeping a promise and saving a life. The narrator clues us in on Herod’s hierarchy of values: “Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests” he acquiesces to his daughter’s grisly appeal. For Herod, protecting John’s life ranks lower in his list of values than both upholding a promise and saving face. In the end, Herod cares much more about his own image than whether John lives or dies.

But remember, Herod is the bad guy. Let’s substitute Jesus in for Herod and see what happens to our hierarchy of values. While Herod was supremely concerned with his own image and standing, Jesus routinely ignored his image because rubbing shoulders with the least and the lost was more important to him. While Herod made outrageous oaths, Jesus said simply, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ ” And while Herod was willing to let John die to save face, Jesus himself was willing to die to save us.

We can start to see Jesus’ hierarchy of values unfold here: Humble service over popular image. Simple honesty over dramatic protestations. Self-sacrifice over self-aggrandizement.

If we are paying attention, even just a little bit, during our day to day lives, we’ll start to notice how often we make choices between right and right. Do you read the whole book for class or do you take a break to keep from burning out? Do you work longer hours to put more money away for your kid’s college or do you make sure to see all your daughter’s dance recitals? Do you keep a friendship intact by not speaking up or do you risk the friendship by letting your friend know you’re concerned about his alcohol consumption?

If all our decisions were between what’s right and wrong, life would be so much easier. But that’s not the way it works. The path of our moral lives stretches before us. Our values are guideposts along the path. And Jesus is walking that path with us, pointing out which values he believes are most important. This sermon’s almost over, so I’m not going to tell you which values those are. Instead, I invite you to spend some time this summer reading the Gospel. Pick Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – or read all four. They won’t take you too long. As you read the stories about Jesus, write down what he values. And ask yourself how his values fit into your hierarchy. What is his highest good? What is Jesus prompting you to shift around?

What is to Prevent Me?

Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2015 || Easter 5B || Acts 8:26-40

whatistopreventmeTwice last week, I got to wear a tie. I went to the MASH gala fundraiser and to the Eastern Connecticut Symphony concert, at which several of our parishioners sang their hearts out performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The benefit was fabulous, the concert was wonderful. And I went to both wearing a tie. This may sound like a strange thing for me to report to you, but I assure you, I am going somewhere with this. Whenever I’m getting dressed, I’m faced with a wardrobe decision. Do I wear my black shirt and collar or not? If I decide not to, then I leave the house incognito. I’m still a priest, of course, when wearing a coat and tie or jeans and flip flops, but people at the concert hall or grocery store won’t be able to spot that about me on first glance. (They probably think I’m a college sophomore home on break.)

Sometimes when I’m not wearing my clergy clothes, I revel in the anonymity I have. I can take the twins to the pediatrician without people looking at me funny. Is he allowed to have kids? I can ride in an airplane and not freak out the other passengers when I white knuckle it through takeoff. (I’m not the best flier, and seeing a man of the cloth nearly hyperventilating while taxiing down the runway is not doing anyone any favors.)

The trouble is, when I consciously choose not to wear my black shirt and collar, I can fall into the trap of thinking I’m off the clock, I’m done for the day, my timecard is punched. But that’s not how it works. I get paid to be your rector and spiritual leader. That’s my job. But living as one of Jesus’ disciples, living out my baptism? That started long before I was ordained, long before I had the choice of attire. That started the moment I said, “Here I am,” when God called me into relationship. Living out my baptism, following Jesus – that’s not my job. That’s my life.

And it’s your life, too. You’re just not faced with the same wardrobe decisions. The question I have for you is this: Since your clothes don’t out you as a Christian like mine do, how do people know? What about your life is different because you signed up as a follower of Jesus? If you got into a conversation about the important stuff how long would you talk before mentioning your faith?

We share the Good News of Jesus Christ in many ways – both in word and deed. We tend to focus on the “deed” part, and I think we do it pretty well. But the “word” part is hard. The thing is, the word gives the deed context and shape. In a world as spiritually malnourished as ours has become, the interpretation of our God-inspired deeds with God-inspired words is critical. I know for a fact that people out there are hungry for some connection with something…deeper. Spiritual malnutrition leads to spiritual hunger, though most people don’t have the language to name the lack they feel. We do have that language, and it is our delight to share it.

This is what Philip does with the Ethiopian eunuch in today’s lesson. The Good News of Jesus Christ has just begun to spread, and Philip is on the vanguard. He runs up to the eunuch’s chariot and hears him reading the prophet Isaiah. The eunuch is hungry to know of whom the prophet speaks. Philip shares the good news, and then the eunuch asks my favorite question in the book of Acts: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

What is to prevent me from being baptized? The answer is nothing. Philip baptizes him right there on the side of the road. For we who are already baptized, this question transforms. What is to prevent us from living out our baptism? The answer to this question should also be “nothing.” But it’s not that easy.

What prevents us from living out our baptism? What prevents us from sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed? Many, many, many things. Let’s talk about four of them.

First up is apathy. If we don’t take the time to cultivate our part in our relationships with God, then sinking into apathy is a real consequence. Apathy results when we don’t take our faith seriously – when it lives in the topsoil rather than the bedrock, just one good rainstorm from eroding away. God showers us with the promises upon which faith rests, but it’s up to us to practice our faith and our discipleship so they become constant motivators in our daily lives. If we don’t, we might wake up one day and look out at the vista of all that God calls us to do and be, all whom God calls us to serve, and say, “I don’t care.”

But we aren’t going to sink into apathy because we do care. We live out our baptism by being engaged. But that brings us to our second item: lack of expertise. Once we care, we realize how dwarfed we are by the enormity of the history and tradition and biblical witness undergirding our faith. How could we possibly know enough to be able to share it correctly? Let me set your mind at ease. I studied this stuff for three years at school. I have another seven years as a priest. And I’m still not an expert. I never will be. God doesn’t call us to be experts. God calls us to be authentic versions of ourselves, sharing our faith as we have received it. Yes, we are molded by history and tradition and scripture, and that means we need to trust that God is shaping us using those instruments, whether or not we can read the Bible in its original Hebrew. When we share our faith, we don’t share a particular scholar’s view of faith. We share ourselves.

But again, this leads to our next item: fear of rejection. Sharing something as important as our faith with others makes us vulnerable. What if they stop being my friends? What if they think I’m a weirdo for my beliefs? If your faith is an integral part of who you are, then you have to be willing to risk this rejection. I’m not saying you have to launch into dissertations about Jesus apropos of nothing, but don’t hide your faith either. It’s a part of you. Who knows how you will affect the spiritually malnourished people around you if you show it, no matter the risk?

This leads us to our final item: politeness. Didn’t your parents teach you that the two things you aren’t supposed talk about are politics and religion? I say that’s nonsense. The loudest voices in the media espousing so-called Christianity are people whose brand of our religion makes me physically gag: people who seem to revel in excluding others, people who mangle scripture to suit their own twisted ideologies, people who hate in the name of God. The spiritually malnourished around us hear those voices, too. What kind of picture of Christianity do you think is forming in their minds? But imagine if you got into the conversation about the important stuff that I mentioned earlier with one of those people seeking something deeper. If you shared our wonderful, inclusive, loving expression of Christianity with him or her, what a beautiful image could replace the horrific one that’s probably there!

One of the calls to live out our baptism is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. So many things prevent us from doing that – things like apathy, lack of expertise, fear of rejection, and misplaced politeness. But our faith matters. Our discipleship matters. Our relationship with God matters. These are the things that make us who we are. This is not just part of our lives. This is what undergirds our lives, gives them meaning. How could we not share something so wonderful, despite all that prevents us from doing so? I promise that the next time I have the opportunity to share my faith when I’m not wearing my black shirt and collar, when I’m wearing jeans and flip flops, I will, with God’s help. How about you?

Good News

Sermon for Sunday, December 7, 2014 || Advent 2B || Mark 1:1-8

goodnewsThe Gospel writer Mark wastes no time telling us what his story is about. The very first words of his account of the Gospel proclaim without hesitation: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Matthew begins with a genealogy linking Jesus back to Abraham. Luke begins with a short address about his research methodology. John begins with a mysterious poem about creation. But Mark just hits the ground running and never looks back. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Now, Mark’s Gospel tends to hurtle from one scene to the next. Everything happens immediately after everything else. The fast pace of this sixteen chapter account of the Gospel just makes me want to keep reading and get to the end as quickly as Mark seems to want me to. But if we did such a binge reading, we’d miss the depth and intricacy packed into this, the shortest of the Gospel accounts. So with this in mind and because Advent is upon us, let’s slow down for a few minutes and really digest this first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

In today’s parlance, when we hear the term “good news,” the two words are usually embedded in the sentence: “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” We’ve all used this conversational staple.

“The good news is the rest of this week will be lovely; the bad news is next week we’re in for a Nor’ Easter.”

“The good news is no one was seriously hurt in the accident; the bad news is the car was totaled.”

“The good news is I found the recipe; the bad news is we’re out of eggs.”

In meetings, around kitchen tables, on the bus, we use the words “good news” to talk about the sometimes funny, sometimes bland, sometimes serious details of our lives. These two words are so ordinary, so normal. Because they sound so common, I wonder how we encounter the words “good news” when we hear them right at the beginning of Mark’s account of the Gospel. Perhaps Mark is really excited about the story he’s going to tell. Perhaps Mark is employing a specific term that Jesus’ himself or his first followers used to describe his message. Either way, Mark is almost certainly doing something that we 21st century citizens would miss entirely because of our modern connotation of “good news.”

You see, in the first century Roman Empire, of which Israel was an occupied region, the term “good news” had a special connotation. The word was used exclusively for propaganda about the empire and usually about the Roman emperor himself.

“Good News: the Emperor won a victory in Gaul!”

“Good News: the Emperor’s wife has given birth to a strapping infant boy!”

“Good News: the Emperor has had another birthday!”

The Roman propaganda machine churned out these ancient press releases, and the strong arm of the military bade the cowed citizenry of occupied countries to celebrate. This was one small way that the Empire kept control of all that conquered land.

So when Jesus and later Mark proclaim their own “Good News,” they are tacitly setting their story, their message, their view of who’s really in charge squarely in the face of the Roman establishment. The “Good News,” which Jesus and his followers proclaim, is a stark challenge to the ruling order of the day. Indeed, Mark shows his faith and his gutsiness in the simple act of writing those two rebellious words on the page.

Okay, file this stark challenge away for just a minute and let’s back up to the first two words in the verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The beginning. These two words seem completely innocuous. They obviously start the story. They’re on page one. They would have been at the top of the scroll in Mark’s day. So then why does Mark need to tell us that we are reading the beginning of the story when we are obviously reading the beginning of the story?

Perhaps Mark isn’t just stating the obvious. Perhaps this “beginning” is greater than “the opening verses of Chapter One.” Perhaps the “beginning” that Mark has in mind encompasses the entirety of his sixteen-chapter Gospel. Now we’re on to something.

If the whole, entire Gospel is the “beginning of the good news,” then the natural question becomes, “What is the middle and end of the good news?” And this is where followers of Jesus Christ down through the centuries come in. Jesus lived the beginning of the Good News. Mark, along with Matthew, Luke, and John, wrote down the story of that beginning. And you and I are characters in the middle of that same story begun two thousand years ago. You and I are players in the unfolding drama of the Good News. You and I have taken up the narrative of the Gospel that God continues to tell in our lives.

All right, go ahead and un-file the stark challenge we talked about a minute ago. Remember that Mark’s usage of the term “Good News” was a gutsy, implicit challenge to the ruling order of the day. This ruling order touted their empire as the “Pax Romana,” the “peace of Rome.” Of course, this “peace” was accomplished through conquest, coercion, occupation, and fear. But Jesus Christ replaced this so-called “peace” with a peace of his own invention. Jesus’ own Good News, his own triumph was accomplished through welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

Of course, when these two versions of “peace” clashed, the broken, imperial establishment utterly crushed Jesus. However, by not fighting back, by sacrificing himself to halt the cycle of violence, Jesus succeeded in his challenge, even though he died. But even then, the story was just beginning. With his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that his version of the Good News is truly the Good one. As characters who have now appeared later in this same narrative, we have the opportunity to take up the same challenge that Jesus and Mark after him championed. The Pax Romana of our day rules through apathy, self-centeredness, greed, and fear. But when find ourselves in the middle of the story begun in the Gospel, we find the strength and courage to combat those evils with Jesus’ own arsenal of welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

This opening verse of Mark’s Gospel invites us once again to read the prologue to our own lives as followers of Jesus Christ. This beginning of the Good News gives us who live in the middle our meaning and our purpose and the promise that we are part of the great story of God’s mission to reconcile all creation back to God. The Good News was a challenge in Jesus’ day. And it still is in ours. But we’re up for the challenge because once the Good News of Jesus Christ has lodged itself in your heart, you can’t help but share it in your words and in your deeds.

Now, I’ll end this sermon with some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first? The bad news. Sure. The bad news is there’s still so much brokenness in this world, so many places where God’s reconciling love seems so far away. The good news is that with God’s help, we can challenge the ruling order of our day and bring the wholeness of this reconciliation to those broken places. The good news is that we are the current characters in the story begun in the Gospel. The good news is that the story isn’t over yet.

Yesterday, Today, and Forever

(Sermon for Sunday, September 1, 2013 || Proper 17C || Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16)

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. You may have read in the Carillon that this year at St. Stephen’s we are going to practice sharing our stories, so I thought I’d get a jump start – a sneak preview, if you will – during this sermon. 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. 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.

Detail from "The Calling of Saint Matthew" by Carvaggio)
Detail from “The Calling of Saint Matthew” by Carvaggio)

We’ll start with Jesus Christ “yesterday,” and we’ll start as many Godly Play stories do. Once there was someone who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him. This someone was called Jesus of Nazareth, and he came from seemingly humble beginnings, though his mother knew better. At his birth a disreputable cadre of outcasts claimed him as their savior, and that’s what he was. His very name means “God saves.” When he grew up he left his mother’s house as sons often do, but that was perhaps the last normal thing he ever did.

“Change your hearts and your lives,” he preached to any who would listen. “Because the kingdom of God is so close you can taste it.” This was his good news, his Gospel. But that was not all. Every day he revealed what it was like to live in God’s kingdom, God’s dream for all creation. He healed those who were sick and those who couldn’t walk or see. He renewed the broken to wholeness, he gave hope to the despairing, and he welcomed everyone, especially those no one else would bother with, to his table. His words provoked peace, joy, and courage in some, but, sadly, malice in others.

Jesus told his friends to love and serve others, come what may. He stood against the machinery of the world that enslaves people with false promises and misplaced priorities. He desired with every fiber of his being to replace the machine with a life lived fully in God, a life of blessing and abundance derived from God’s promises, God’s priorities. In the end, the machinery of the world felt threatened by this man, who was also so much more than a man. And for good reason. He was a threat. By putting Jesus to death – and a shameful death at that – the machine thought it had won. But on the cross, Jesus gathered to himself all the brokenness the world wrought, all that separates us from God – sin, shame, guilt, death – and their power died with him.

This is the story of Jesus Christ yesterday. When I read this story in the Gospel, I feel his words penetrate my skin. They delve into my heart and take up residence, and they urge me to live the life Jesus invited his followers to live. As I read Jesus’ story, I long to make it my story. And this is where the story of Jesus Christ “today” begins.

Three days after Jesus died, he rose again. Before dawn that Sunday morning, God the Father returned God the Son to us, resurrected as Jesus himself, yet more than himself. He couldn’t bear to break the promise to be with us always to the end of the ages, so he conquered death itself in order to stay in relationship with us into eternity. He breathed the peace of his Holy Spirit onto his friends, and we are still breathing those breaths even today.

We are still breathing those breaths not just because the two thousand year old air still remains, but because Jesus’ resurrection has no use for the concept of time. While we mark that Sunday morning as the hinge of history, the resurrection did not happen just on that one morning in that one garden. The power of the resurrection emanates out from that moment into every moment, filling all moments with the possibility of entering fully into God’s eternal presence. Jesus’ resurrection ushered in the deeper reality of God’s dream, a dream that each of us can participate in, a dream of bringing God’s reign into the hearts of all people and all people into the heart of God’s love. Jesus’ resurrection is happening now, today, in this place, in our hearts, at our table, in our service, in our love. When I remember the startling truth of this wonderful story, I take the time to look for signs of Jesus’ resurrection in my life. And I try to be a sign of that resurrection in the lives of others.

But there is still one more story, the story that undergirds all the others, the story of Jesus Christ forever. Our first story began with God the Son emptying himself, taking on the form of a human being, and becoming like us so we could become more like him. The Gospel writer John resorts to poetry to enter even the edge of the mystery of this emptying. The Word, says John, was in the beginning with God and was indeed God. This Word became flesh and dwelled among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of God spilling from the person known as Jesus of Nazareth.

But as the Word, he is forever. This Word is the order, the logic behind all of creation. “All things came into being through him,” John’s poem continues, “and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life.” Whenever we look up and try to count the stars, whenever we appreciate the beauty and richness of evolving plants and animals, whenever we smell the coming rain, we encounter the artistry of the Word, the foundation of all things, visible and invisible. This eternal Word was in the beginning with God and abides with God and is God forever. This is the story upon which all others hang, and this is the story that Jesus invites us into. This is the story of God’s presence in and through creation.

This is my story. And this is your story. We read Jesus’ words. We feel them come alive in us through the power of the resurrection. We join God in the great story of bringing all God’s creation back to God. These stories are grand, and sometimes they seem so big and daunting that entering them feels impossible. But its in those moments when Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today, and forever – takes us by the hand and reminds us that each normal day of our lives is part of the story whether we realize it or not. He takes us by the hand and invites us to follow one step behind him as he opens our eyes to all the ways we are already part of the story. And he takes us by the hand to guide us to all the new ways the story is still unfolding.

Books and Bible Studies

Since November 2009, I have been blessed to work with the good people at Abingdon Press to publish a variety of books and Bible studies. My first book, Digital Disciple, arrived in May 2011, and my most recent publication, Unusual Gospel for Unusual People, came out in April 2014. In between, I wrote the novel Letters from Ruby (August 2013) and contributed to the Converge series of Bible studies with Who is Jesus?

If you enjoy the content on this website and receive words of edification or encouragement from it, then I invite you to check out my published works. Here’s a quick overview of them, beginning with the most recent.

Unusual Gospel for Unusual People

UG4UP3It’s probably time for those of us who follow Jesus to realize we are once again the unusual ones in society. Sure, a majority of Americans profess a belief in God and identify as some sort of Christian, but there’s a big difference between checking “Christianity” on the census form and living your life as a follower of Jesus. People who strive to follow Jesus every day of their lives are fewer and farther between than at any point in history since the early church was still illegal. How many of us feel a bit weird talking about our faith in public? How many of us know the dialogue to old Friends episodes better than we know the stories that feed our faith? How many of us want to dedicate ourselves to Christ, but have trouble finding the time? If you’re like me, and you put yourselves in one or more of these categories, then the story you should read is this unusual Gospel of John.

The peculiar way John proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ speaks beautifully to our modern moment, especially to us unusual people. It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that it’s pretty different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It paints the same general picture, yes, but John uses different brushes, different techniques, and different colors than the others. There are no parables in John. Neither are there traditional healing stories nor demonic encounters nor transfiguration. The big moment in the upper room is washing the disciples’ feet, not offering them communion. Flipping over the moneychangers’ tables happens at the beginning, not the end. And Jesus never once keeps his divine identity a secret, as he does in the other three accounts. Let’s face it: John’s account of the Gospel is just plain unusual. Just like us.

Letters from Ruby

LettersfromRuby - Cover 3When the newly ordained Episcopal priest Rev. Calvin Harper arrives in Victory, West Virginia, to be the pastor at an ailing parish, he has no idea how much he still has to learn about being a priest. Thankfully, Ruby Redding takes the young man under her wing and teaches him everything she has learned throughout her long, storied life. Seminary never taught Calvin that the only true way to be a witness to God’s presence in this world is to remain in relationships with people no matter what life throws at them. His studies never taught him that detachment is the bane of ministry. He never learned that deep grief comes only from deep love. But in his first year in Victory, Calvin learns all this and more from Ruby, a woman so full of God’s light that it can’t help but spill onto the people around her.

 

Converge: Who is Jesus?

convergewhoisjesusHave you ever stopped to think just how much better Jesus Christ knows you than you know him? It’s a pretty staggering thought really. Not only that, Jesus knows you better than you know yourself. And although you’ll never know Jesus as well as he knows you, part of following the Son of God is getting to know him better. But you don’t want to fall into the trap of learning stuff “about” Jesus. Rather, you want to know Jesus himself. This study invites you to get to know four elements of what makes Jesus who he is: his name, his voice, his life, and his peace. In Who Is Jesus? you’ll discover that the more you know Jesus, the more Jesus will teach you who you are.

Digital Disciple

digitaldisciple-CVRThis time in our society is unlike any other. People communicate daily without ever having to speak face to face, news breaks around the world in a matter of seconds, and favorite TV shows can be viewed at our convenience. We are, simultaneously, a people of connection and isolation. As Christians, how do we view our faith and personal ministry in this culture? Adam Thomas invites you to explore this question using his unique, personal, and often humorous insight. Thomas notes, “[The Internet] has added a new dimension to our lives; we are physical, emotional, spiritual, and now virtual people. But I believe that God continues to move through every facet of our existence, and that makes us new kinds of followers. We are digital disciples.”

Titles also available at your local bookstore or online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. (But go to your local independent bookstore if you have one, because they are awesome.)

 

The Beginning of the Beginning

(Sermon for Sunday, December 4, 2011 || Advent 2B || Mark 1:1-8 )

The Gospel writer Mark wastes no time telling us what the story he is writing is about. The very first words of his account of the Gospel proclaim without hesitation: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Whereas Matthew begins with a genealogy that links Jesus back to Abraham; whereas Luke begins with a short address about his research methodology; whereas John begins with a mysterious poem about creation, Mark just hits the ground running and never looks back. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Now, until I started thinking about this sermon, I had always taken this verse at face value. The “beginning” that Mark is talking about is simply the launch of the story he is telling. The “good news” is the marvelous effect of the life, death, and resurrection of the main character, whose name and identity Mark helpfully provides at the end of the verse: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The immediate, no frills manner, in which Mark relates the rest of the Gospel, makes this face value interpretation of the opening verse quite attractive. However, just because Mark’s narrative tends to hurtle forward from one encounter to the next, doesn’t mean that the narrative has no depth or intricacy. With that in mind, and because Advent is upon us, let’s slow down for a few minutes and really digest this first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

In today’s parlance, when we hear the term “good news,” the two words are usually embedded in the sentence: “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” We’ve all used this conversational staple.

“The good news is the Patriots won their game; the bad news is so-and-so outside linebacker broke his leg and is out for the season.”

“The good news is no one was seriously hurt in the accident; the bad news is the car was totaled.”

“The good news is I found the recipe; the bad news is we’re out of eggs.”

In meetings, around kitchen tables, on the bus, we use the words “good news” to talk about the sometimes funny, sometimes bland, sometimes serious details of our lives. These two words are so ordinary, so normal. Because they sound so common, I wonder how we encounter the words “good news” when we hear them right at the beginning of Mark’s account of the Gospel. Perhaps Mark is really excited about the story he is going to tell. Perhaps Mark is employing a specific term that Jesus’ himself or his first followers used to describe his message. Either way, Mark is almost certainly doing something that we 21st century citizens would miss entirely because of our modern connotation of “good news.”

You see, in the first century Roman Empire, of which Israel was an occupied region, the term “good news” had a special connotation. The word was used exclusively for propaganda about the empire and usually about the Roman emperor himself.

“Good News: the Emperor won a victory in Gaul!”

“Good News: the Emperor’s wife has given birth to a strapping infant boy!”

“Good News: the Emperor has had another birthday!”

The Roman propaganda machine churned out these ancient press releases, and the strong arm of the military bade the cowed citizenry of occupied countries to celebrate. This was one small way that the Empire kept control of all that conquered land.

So when Jesus and later Mark proclaim their own “Good News,” they are tacitly setting their story, their message, their view of who’s really in charge squarely in the face of the Roman establishment. The “Good News,” which Jesus and his followers proclaim, is a stark challenge to ruling order of the day. Indeed, Mark shows his faith and his gutsiness in the simple act of writing those two words on the page.

Okay, file the challenge away for just a minute and let’s back up to the first two words in the verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The beginning. I’ll confess, until this week, I never thought there was something odd about these two words, which open Mark’s account of the Gospel. But think about them for a second: the beginning. The two words obviously start the story. They’re on page one. They would have been at the top of the scroll in Mark’s day. Why does Mark need to tell us that we are reading the beginning of the story when we are obviously reading the beginning of the story?

Perhaps Mark isn’t just stating the obvious. Perhaps this “beginning” is greater than “the opening verses of Chapter One.” Perhaps the “beginning” that Mark has in mind encompasses the entirety of his sixteen-chapter Gospel. Now we’re on to something.

If the whole, entire Gospel is the “beginning of the good news,” then the natural question becomes, “What is the middle and end of the good news?” And this is where followers of Jesus Christ down through the centuries come in. Jesus lived the beginning of the Good News. Mark, along with Matthew, Luke, and John, wrote down the story of that beginning. And you and I are characters in the middle of that same story begun two thousand years ago. You and I are players in the unfolding drama of the Good News. You and I have taken up the narrative of the Gospel that God continues to tell in our lives.

Alright, go ahead and un-file the challenge we talked about a minute ago. Remember that Mark’s usage of the term “Good News” was a gutsy, implicit challenge to the ruling order of the day. This ruling order touted their empire as the “Pax Romana,” the “peace of Rome.” Of course, this “peace” was accomplished through conquest, coercion, occupation, and fear. But Jesus Christ replaced this so-called “peace” with a peace of his own invention. Jesus’ own Good News, his own triumph was accomplished through welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

Of course, when these two versions of “peace” clashed, the broken, imperial establishment utterly crushed Jesus. However, by not fighting back, by sacrificing himself to halt the cycle of violence, Jesus succeeded in his challenge, even though he died. But even then, the story was just beginning. With his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that his version of the Good News is truly the Good one. As characters who have now appeared later in this same narrative, we have the opportunity to take up the same challenge that Jesus and Mark after him championed. The Pax Romana of our day rules through apathy, self-centeredness, greed, and (as then) fear. But when find ourselves in the middle of the story begun in the Gospel, we find the strength and courage to combat those evils with Jesus’ own arsenal of welcome, healing, sacrifice, and love.

Now, I’ll end this sermon with some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first? The bad news. Sure. The bad news is there is still so much brokenness in this world, so many places where God’s Kingdom seems so far away. The good news is that with God’s help, we can challenge the ruling order of our day and bring the wholeness of the Kingdom to those broken places. The good news is that we are the current characters in the story begun in the Gospel. The good news is that the story isn’t over yet.


A Gospel Medley

Several people who’ve heard me sing this live have asked for a recording, so here it is. And I’m including the lyrics because parts of it (especially the Peter Gabriel section) are a bit difficult to follow. If you want to play it yourself, let me know, and I’ll send you the lead sheet. I hope you enjoy it!

(Oh, btw, I’m working on a second Gospel Medley. If you think of a song I could use for a piece of the Gospel, let me know. Right now, I just have Bryan Adams for the call of the disciples.)

(To download, right-click picture and choose “Save Link As…”)

The Nativity (Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin'”)
Just a virgin girl when the angel said to her,
“You will bear the Son of God.” She said, “Here am I.”
Just a carpenter of David’s line from Bethlehem;
He took her for his wife (the angel told him to).
So Caesar made the census rule
Telling all to go back home
In a stable Mary bears her babe
He’s the Son, the Son, the Son, the Son.

Shepherds grazing up and down the countryside
The wise men searching in the night
Starlight, angels singing ‘bout the Incarnation
Shining on this holy night

Don’t stop believing
Remember it’s with God you’re dealing
Peace to people

– – –

John the Baptizer (John Mellencamp, “Jack and Diane”)
A little ditty about John the Baptist
Whose favorite dinner was honeyed locusts
John, he’s saying, “I’m just the voice crying out:
Prepare the way of the Lord, that’s what I’m talking ‘bout.” (Sayin’)
Oh yeah, it won’t be long:
the kingdom has come near, repent your wrongs
Oh yeah, it won’t be long:
He is coming soon, I can’t tie his sandals’ thong (now walk on)

– – –

The Feeding of the 5000 (The Proclaimers, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”)
Jesus looks up, and he knows he’s gonna feed,
He’s gonna feed the people coming to see him.
The disciples, they all say they’re gonna need
They’re gonna need denarii to feed them all.

But I see there five loaves of bread
And I see there two tiny fish
I will bless this food to feed five thousand people
So sit down in the grass
Gotta lot now! Gotta lot now!
Gotta lot of scraps of bread leftover now!

– – –

Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration (John Parr, “Man in Motion (St. Elmo’s Fire)”)
Jesus asks, “Who do you disciples say has come?”
Peter says, “You’re the Son of God, the Chosen One.”
God revealed this to you, not some fleshly search
So I name you Rock, now go build my church.

Then they climb the highest mountain, underneath the starry sky
And they witness Jesus’ changing, whiter and whiter
Gonna build some tabernacles, but then a cloud descends:
“This is my beloved Son, listen to him”

– – –

The Last Supper (John Denver, “Leaving on a Jet Plane”)
All my friends are here in this upper room.
Their feet are clean, now my Passion looms:
Here’s a four long chapter speech to say goodbye.
See this bread I’m breakin’, it’s a special loaf,
The wine you’re drinkin’ is my blood’s merlot.
Let’s share this meal before I’m brought to die.

So take, eat: you’re sharing me.
Drink this to remember me.
Hear my words ‘cause soon I’ll have to go.
I’ll be dying on the cross soon,
But know that I’ll be back again
Oh, friends, I hate to go…

– – –

The Crucifixion (Peter Gabriel, “In Your Eyes”)
On his head’s placed a crown of thorns;
The temple veil will soon be torn.
Without a noise, without his pride, he reaches out to his bride.

They crucify: the blood, the sweat
His mouth is dry from thirstiness.
Eli, Eli, Have you forsaken
Me to die? You’ll be with me in
Paradise. Oh God forgive them.
Then he cries: I commend my Spirit.
I see the blood and the sweat, oh, but it’s not over quite yet.
Just come on down this Sunday, meet you there at sunrise.

– – –

The Resurrection (U2, “Beautiful Day”)
They go to the tomb, on the first day of the week
But there’s no stone, so Mary takes a peak
She’s out of luck, and the reason that she had to care
Was apparently snuck away when they were unawares
But she knows she’s found a friend when the gardener says her name.
And then Jesus sends her saying, “My return proclaim.”

On this Easter Sunday, the grave falls and you know
On this Easter Sunday, death’s sting is wiped away
On this Easter Sunday…

Touch me, put your finger in my side
When I leave, my Holy Spirit will abide

It’ll be Pentecost Day, tongues of fire, you know
On that Pentecost Day, the Church is here to stay
On that Pentecost Day…