Spiritual Topography

Sermon for Sunday, February 11, 2018 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9

Our spiritual lives are topographically interesting. Two of the most enduring images of walking with God are the mountain and the valley, the high place and the low. You’ve heard of the proverbial “mountain top experience,” which can spark faith for the first time or renew the well-trodden paths of faith. And you’ve prayed the immortal words of Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…thou art with me.” The mountain and the valley: these are the peaks of our spiritual lives and the troughs.


The stories of the Bible often involve such peak moments, literal ones that take place on actual mountains. Noah’s ark comes to rest in the mountains after withstanding the flood. Abraham’s faith is renewed when the Lord provides the ram for the sacrifice; Moses receives the ten commandments and speaks with God; Elijah discovers God’s presence when he’s on the run; even the holy reign of God is envisioned as a mountain – Mount Zion. The valley times are less literal in the scriptures, but still very present, especially in the book of Psalms. The poet laments of sinking into mire or drowning in the sea or falling into a deep pit or generally being unable to find God’s presence.

In the life of Jesus we see both the mountain top and the valley. He’s in the valley when praying in the garden of Gethsemane and when crying out his abandonment on the cross. Jesus preaches his most famous sermon on a mountain and commissions his disciples on a mountain. In today’s lesson, he takes his inner circle up a mountain, and there he is “transfigured before them, and his clothes become dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

In this event, Jesus gives Peter, James, and John a proverbial and literal mountain top experience, a vision that will hopefully strengthen their faith and steel their nerve for the days to come. For Jesus knows what’s about to happen in Jerusalem; his friends are going to need all the spiritual fortitude than can get. But Peter doesn’t seem to want to leave the mountain. When Moses and Elijah, two other prominent spiritual mountaineers, arrive to speak with Jesus, Peter blurts out his plan. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter doesn’t really know what to say, but his words suggest he is content to remain on that mountain top while these three great prophets set up shop. I can hear him saying, “No, no. It’s no trouble. You three, just take your time. We’re good.” I think a part of Peter – the small part designated for self-reflection – knows something is going to happen once they leave mountain. There have been rumblings. Jesus has told them his death is near, and Peter didn’t want anything to do with it. Peter knows there’s a valley awaiting him below, so he’s content to stay put on that mountain, thank you very much.

I know how Peter feels. Obviously, the mountain is so much more fun and relaxing and – hey – it’s just easier than the valley. Why would anyone want to leave? Well, for most of us it doesn’t happen on purpose. Sometimes, tragedy strikes and we’re heaved off the mountain like that page in the great children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon when Harold draws one side of the mountain, but then falls off the undrawn other side. We could be tempted into thinking this is the only way to come down from the mountaintop – that without tragedy we would get to stay up there for the long haul. But that’s not the reality of our walks with God. Most mountain tops are merely sugar rushes for the soul. We might stay up there for a little while, but inevitably we crash.

Here’s what happens to me. When I’m on a spiritual high, I’m in the most danger – for one simple reason. It’s on the mountaintop that I forget to pray. I’m really good at remembering to pray when everything’s going horribly. In the valley, prayers just bubble up from some secret well of my soul. I enter spiritual survival mode and begin frantically looking for God, only to have the walls of anxiety or fear or exhaustion limit my sight. And my prayer becomes the call of the psalmist, crying out for a God who no longer seems to be around. But on the mountaintop, things are going so great that I trick myself into thinking I don’t need to pray. Prayer is for the lean times, I tell myself, not the times of plenty.

Of course, prayer is for both the lean and plentiful times, which is why prayer includes both gratitude and petition; that is, thanking God for blessings and asking God for more blessings. But I guarantee you, I am constitutionally incapable of remembering this when I’m riding that spiritual sugar rush. I know the deficiency in my brain, but such knowledge doesn’t transfer into practice as often as it could. Like Peter, I want to stay on the mountaintop. Like Peter, I tumble back to earth.

If you’re anything like me, and you have trouble taking your spiritual life seriously when everything is going well, then I invite you to join me in a discipline. It’s a more intense variation on counting our blessings. I do that simpler level of discipline in my journal, but too often the lists become fairly homogenous and perfunctory. I simply list my blessings and forget to thank God for them. But this variation doesn’t allow such limited interaction.

Take a few moments to look at the current state of your life. Orient yourself on the topographical map of your walk with God. Where are you in relation to your most recent valley? If you know that you are no longer in the valley, force yourself to do more than think about or list your blessings. Rather than an amorphous abstraction you call “blessing,” separate each small blessing into individual shimmering lights of grace. Write each one down. Then thank God for the blessings individually, and be creative. Thank God not just in thought but via action. If your blessing is having enough food, go feed someone who is starving. If your blessing is living near the ocean, go stomp around in the shallows (though you may want to wait until summer for this one). If your blessing is being a member of a loving family, go tell them how much they mean to you. If your blessing is simply the song in your heart, go sing.

This discipline will not guarantee a return to the mountain nor a vaccine against the valley, but it will keep our prayer lives more consistent and more active. If we only pray when we enter survival mode, we condition ourselves into thinking that survival is prayer’s only function. But it’s not true. God invites us into prayerful relationships at every stage of life and state of being: on the mountaintop, in the valley, and everywhere in between. This morning I feel blessed to be here with you, preaching this sermon. And I close today praying my gratitude, acting out this wonderful blessing. Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to speak the words you have placed on my heart. Thank you for these people who listen: for ears to hear and hearts to love. Thank you, Lord for this blessing. Amen.

Awareness and Thanksgiving

Sermon for Sunday, December 3, 2017 || Advent 1B || 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Today I’d like to talk about the correlation between awareness and thanksgiving. The theme of awareness comes from the Gospel lesson, and the theme of thanksgiving comes from the reading from Paul. Taken together, we can see a deeper truth as to how giving thanks helps keep us aware, as Jesus urges. This sermon began percolating when I was getting ready for the service on Thanksgiving Day, so a few of you heard parts of it that day. But before I get to the correlation between awareness and thanksgiving, I want to tell you about the bedtime ritual at home.

It goes something like this. Right after dinner, at 6:30 in the evening, we take the twins upstairs and brush teeth. Then we have bath time until 6:45. Then jammies and stories. And then we say our “gratefuls.” What are you grateful for today? As you might expect, the children’s answers run the gamut from the silly to the profound, but what you might not expect is that every night they turn the question back around on me. If I don’t answer, they will let me know it. “Daddy, what are you grateful for?” Continue reading “Awareness and Thanksgiving”

Gratefuls

Homily for Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2017

The bedtime ritual at home goes like this. At 6:30 in the evening, we take the twins upstairs and brush teeth. Then we have bath time until 6:45. Then jammies and stories. And then we say our “gratefuls.” What are you grateful for today? As you might expect, the children’s answers run the gamut from the silly to the profound, but what you might not expect is that every night they turn the question back around on me. If I don’t answer, they will let me know it. “Daddy, what are you grateful for?”

Some days, something springs readily to my lips. I’m grateful for the time I got to spend with you, I’ll tell them. Or I’m grateful for getting to perform a baptism or for the yummy dinner mommy made. Other days, I open my mouth to speak and no words come out. My day flashes through my mind, and I realize I don’t remember my day well enough to find within it something I’m grateful for. So I mumble something incoherent which satisfies the kids, and then I sing the good night songs and put them to bed, each with three kisses and an extra kiss. Continue reading “Gratefuls”

The Gospel’s Only Thanks-Giver (Besides Jesus)

(Sermon for Sunday, October 13, 2013 || Proper 23C || Luke 17:11-19)

Sometimes when I sit down to study a passage of the Gospel such as today’s, I wonder what Luke chose not to include in his text. After all, we don’t have a minute-by-minute account of Jesus’ life. The Gospel writers weren’t following behind Jesus taking dictation. Decades after the events of the Gospel, they collected material – certainly more than they ended up using – and put together their accounts. In those accounts, the writers bounce around, crafting their narratives with stories and themes and progressions that make the most sense to their various audiences. Asking “What did Luke leave out” prompts another set of questions: “Why did Luke put this in? What about this specific story makes it special enough to include in something as important as the greatest story ever told?

CodexAureusThese questions surfaced for me this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson. At face value, this story is quite simple. Ten diseased outcasts petition Jesus for mercy, he heals them, and one returns to say, “Thank you.” Seems like a pretty ordinary healing story, doesn’t it? Boilerplate, even. (Well, as ordinary as a miracle can get.) So why would Luke choose to include another healing story? He healed someone with a skin disease way back in Chapter Five, not to mention plenty of people with plenty of other maladies in between.

So what makes this story special? In such a short piece of writing as the Gospel, why this narrative? Turns out there is something extra special in this story, but it’s hidden. There’s one element in the story – the last element I mentioned earlier, the “Thank you” from the Samaritan – that pushes today’s lesson into the extraordinary. I did a quick survey of the rest of the Gospel – all four accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) – and this Samaritan is the only person Jesus heals who then says “Thank you” to him. This hidden thanksgiving makes this story special. We remember this Samaritan ex-leper because he said “thank you” to Jesus.

Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Each week, when we gather to worship God, we engage in the special event known as the Holy Eucharist. This strange word comprehends both our hearing of God’s Word of Holy Scripture and our sharing God’s meal of Holy Communion. Do you know what this strange word – Eucharist – means in its original language of Greek? It means “thanksgiving.”

So each and every Sunday we gather here to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has given us. We do this not to relegate the act of thanksgiving to an hour on Sunday morning, but so that we begin each week with the right frame of mind and heart: a mind aware of blessing and a heart inclined toward gratitude. Giving thanks here on Sunday morning propels us along a trajectory in which we continue thanking God over the course of the week.

With that being said, why engage in the act of thanksgiving in the first place? Right off the bat, giving thanks makes us more generous people. Generosity blossoms in an environment where fear of scarcity holds no sway. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are looking out over a sea of hungry faces. There’s more than five thousand of them, and they haven’t eaten all day. Jesus and his friends have nothing more than one family’s lunch – five loaves of bread and two fish – but he tells them to feed the crowd anyway. Their supplies are laughably meager, and yet Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks to God for it. And somehow all the people in the crowd eat their fill. In the act of giving thanks, Jesus dismisses the fear of scarcity. When we give thanks to God – in times of scarcity and in times of abundance – we move away from fear and toward generosity. The more generous we are, the more apt we are to rely on God’s grace, which continues moving us away from fear. With this movement, a virtuous cycle develops, and the act of giving thanks starts making generosity a defining characteristic of our identities.

And yet giving thanks does so much more. God is always present in our lives, but we are not always present to God. Giving thanks offers us an opportunity to participate and deepen our relationships with God. When we are simply glad, our gladness has no target. We say we are glad about something, but not that we are glad to something. Not so with gratitude. When we are grateful, we can say we are grateful about something and grateful to someone. The Samaritan man in today’s Gospel lesson returns to Jesus to express his gratitude, to give thanks. The other nine are presumably glad they were healed, but they do not show their gratitude. By returning to Jesus, the Samaritan signals his desire to remain in relationship with Jesus, who blesses him again saying, “Your faith has made you well.” When we give thanks to God, we show our gratitude to our creator, who in turn blesses us with deeper relationship.

And yet giving thanks does even more. When Jesus sat at table with his friends on the night before died, he took bread, and gave thanks to God for them and for the time they were sharing together. He implored them not to forget him, and he gave them his presence in the bread, which he called his body. Then he shared the bread with them, and ever since his followers have been doing the same. Thus the act of giving thanks – especially in the meal we will share together in a few minutes – gets us outside ourselves and wards off the illusion of self-sufficiency. We give thanks together. We share Christ’s presence as a community. Giving thanks, then, makes the community stronger.

Because Jesus calls us to give thanks as a community, we can find one more reason (among the thousands we don’t have time to discuss) to engage in thanksgiving. Giving thanks propels us to use our gifts. The best way to give thanks to God for a gift God has given is to use it for God’s greater glory. I can thank God for my singing voice by saying, “Thank you God for the gift of music.” Or I can sing. When we serve one another and the world by using our gifts, then we have truly thanked God for them.

Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. We remember the Samaritan man today precisely because he did what no one else in the entire Gospel does. He returns to thank the one who healed him. I wonder what you are thankful for today? I wonder when was the last time you felt generous or when you felt your relationship with God deepen or when you shared in a community or when you used a gift? I invite you this week to reflect on how natural it is for you to give thanks to God throughout your day. If you find it uncommon, pray for more awareness and generosity. If you find it common, give more thanks for that joyful conclusion. No matter what, know that whenever you find yourself in a position to give thanks to God, God is giving thanks for you.