Sermon for Sunday, August 14, 2022 || Proper 15C || Luke 12:49-56
There’s an old saying in church that Jesus came to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” We see this throughout the gospel when Jesus cares for and lifts up those on the margins of his society while at the same time denouncing the excesses and abuses of those in power. Jesus comforts and challenges in equal measure, depending on the needs and station of his subject.
Sermon for Sunday, June 27, 2021 || Proper 8B || Mark 5:21-43
I’d like to talk this morning about hands, specifically about why I think God gave us two hands. But before I let you in on why I think God gave us two hands, I invite you to think back to a time when you remember holding someone’s hand.
Perhaps, the hand you held was your child’s. When I was little, my parents would each hold one of my hands and do what we called, “1-2-3-whee!” (which is where you swing the kid by their arms as you’re walking). I absolutely love holding my children’s hands when we are walking, and they are finally tall enough where I don’t have to stoop to do it.
Perhaps, the hand you held was a parent’s hand as she lay dying. Your mother held your hand back…until she didn’t. You kept clinging even when the muscle tension left her fingers, and you can still feel her papery skin held in your hand all these years later.
You’re going to get sick of me saying this, but it has fascinated me for years, so I will say it again. Jesus almost never answers the questions people ask him. I know I started my sermon a few weeks ago with this same thought, but it’s so important for understanding how Jesus related to people in the Gospel. Jesus responds to questions, but he rarely answers them. When we take the time to compare his response to the thing the questioner was looking for, we see more clearly the path Jesus invites us to walk.
Sermon for Sunday, October 13, 2019 || Proper 23C || Luke 17:11-19
This summer, I went to the place where that Gospel story happened. We were heading back to Jerusalem from Galilee, and we stopped in the West Bank town of Burqin, just like Jesus did – except he wasn’t riding an air-conditioned tour bus. We walked up a hill to a church that commemorates the healing of the ten lepers. Preserved there are the ancient underground caverns – holes, really – were people with skin conditions were set apart from the rest of society. I climbed down into one, and I can’t imagine being there for more than a few minutes.
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, February 10, 2019 || Epiphany 5C || Luke 5:1-11
Today marks the beginning of a season of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation in the life of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. This season, which will last at least two years, was initiated by the Annual Convention of our church, as delegates from over 160 parishes and worshiping communities voted together to share in this particular piece of God’s mission. Just like Jesus calls his disciples in today’s Gospel, God calls us to partner with God in working for healing, justice, and reconciliation across many systems that contribute to the broken state of this world. These systems of oppression and degradation overlap and intertwine, and they are all so big and entrenched into the machinery of the world that challenging them seems like an impossibility.
Sermon for Sunday, November 26, 2017 || Reign of Christ, Year A || Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
About two months ago, I got a call from one of the nearby care facilities. An elderly man, whom I had never met, was actively dying, and the staff member on the phone asked if I could come over and pray with him. Now I wish my first thought was, “Yes, of course, I’d be honored.” To be honest, it was one of those days. I was on the run from here to there doing a million things, none of them very attentively because there was so much to do. So my second thought was, “I’ll go if I can squeeze in another visit.” After all, the man wasn’t one of my parishioners, not one of my flock.
Thankfully, a third thought bubbled up from my gut, from that place within that you listen to because you’re pretty sure the thought originated from someone other than yourself. The third thought was a simple imperative: “Go.” I got in my car and drove to the care center. The staff directed me to the room where I found the unconscious man and his wife sitting vigil next to him. Their adult children were on the way, but she wasn’t sure they would make it on time. She and I chatted for awhile about their life together, the blessing of his long years, the pain in seeing him move towards death.Continue reading “The Widow’s Note”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016 || Easter 6C || John 5:1-9
At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins leads a comfortable, if unexciting life in his home at Bag End in the town of Hobbiton in the idyllic land called the Shire. Bilbo had never left the Shire, nor had any but a few hobbits, whom the rest of hobbit society thought a bit addled in the head. Bilbo contented himself with a leisurely life of eating, walking about town, relaxing with a good pipe, and eating some more.
Even if you’ve never read The Hobbit, you know it’s an adventure story, so obviously something needs to happen to Bilbo, something known in the study of literature as “the inciting incident.” JR.R. Tolkien has a whole world to show Bilbo, a world that starts at his doorstep and leads to a solitary mountain where Bilbo bandies words with a terrifying dragon.
Well, such an inciting incident happens when Bilbo hears a knock on his round front door. The wizard Gandalf has come to invite Bilbo on an adventure with a dozen dwarves. Their tale of the dragon seizing and laying waste to their homeland sends Bilbo’s imagination soaring off to distant places. But when dinner is over and the dwarves have finished their hauntingly beautiful song, Bilbo’s good sense reasserts itself. He thanks them for their offer but politely declines. Tolkien has presented his protagonist with the perfect inciting incident, but for the moment, Bilbo doesn’t bite.
The next day Bilbo begins going about his day as usual, but something has changed within him. He has awoken to the wider world beyond his door, and suddenly he realizes he simply cannot miss this chance. He dashes out of his house in such a rush that he leaves his pocket-handkerchief. He catches up with the dwarves and the adventure sweeps him away. The inciting incident has happened, and Bilbo’s life is forever changed.
Every story, both fiction and nonfiction, has an inciting incident. Sometimes the character has no choice in the matter; events conspire in such a way to make the path inevitable. Sometimes, as in The Hobbit, the character does have a choice as to whether he or she wants to remain in the relative security of the normal or risk the adventure of the unknown. Harry Potter chooses to step with Hagrid into the wizarding world. Katniss Everdeen chooses to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games. Like Bilbo and Harry and Katniss, you and I have a choice. An inciting incident presents itself to us this morning. We can choose to stay home. Or we can dash off without our pocket-handkerchiefs.
This inciting incident comes in the form of Jesus walking up to you and me and asking us the same question he asks the man by the pool of Beth-zatha: “Do you want to be made well?” It seems like a question with such an obvious answer, doesn’t it? “Do you want to be made well?” Yes! is the answer you’d expect, right? But that’s not what the man says. Rather, he gives a resigned speech about why he’s never made it into the legendary healing waters of the pool. It’s been 38 years, and by now, he seems resigned to his lot in life as the one who never makes it to the water on time.
In response to the man’s resignation, Jesus skips the preliminaries and goes straight for the command: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Perhaps the man thinks Jesus is having a bit of fun at his expense. But the tone is all wrong. This was an invitation, not a joke. The inciting incident is here, and the man has a choice. He can stay put and not realized he has been given the gift of healing. Or he can get up: he can make the choice that will change his life for the better. And still, the choice is not as obvious as we might first think. Change for the better is still change. And change is scary, no matter if it’s for good or for ill.
The man by the pool chooses to engage his inciting incident. He chooses to stand up. When he does, he realizes Jesus healed him, and his life takes a sharp turn from the paralytic monotony of the last 38 years. In light of this, my questions for you this morning are these: when have you responded to an inciting incident in your life? How did your life change when you took the risk to venture into the unknown? How was God present to you as you walked from security into uncertainty? As you ponder how you’ve responded to inciting incidents in the past, pray with this one final question from Jesus himself: “Do you want to be made well?”
Perhaps you’re in a toxic work environment, and the personalities you work with have made you dread stepping through the doors of the office. Your physical and emotional health have both declined precipitously because of the stress your workday puts on you, but you need a paycheck. When you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well,” you realize the choice before you boils down to how much your own health is worth to you.
Perhaps your family has a history of diabetes, and you’ve started noticing lately that you get pretty sluggish when you eat sugar. It makes you feel awful, but you crave it just the same. When you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well,” you realize the choice before you pits immediate gratification against long-term health.
Perhaps a close friend has confided in you a concern that you drink more than you should. At first, you ignore the concern, then you get defensive about it, then angry, and suddenly you start to wonder why you’re upset. It’s because you really do have a problem, you realize. And that’s when you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well?”
Jesus’ question exposes the fact that we all have choices to make that will lead to better health. The status quo may be comfortable, if unexciting, but in the end it leaves us paralyzed by the pool. Jesus’ question is a new inciting incident in each of our lives. Each of us can make a choice to lead a life that promotes wellness, for ourselves and those around us.
For me personally, the inciting incident began when I went to the CREDO conference a few weeks ago. I was introduced to a concept called “margin.” Margin is the space in our lives between the loads we carry and the limit to our carrying capacity. I realized I spend too much of my life with my load and my limit being equal, which means collapse is a real possibility whenever my load increases. At the conference, I heard Jesus ask me his inciting question. My response was “Yes!” followed by the obvious question: “But how?” A simple answer came to me: “You are not alone.”
We’re all in this together, and Christ is here, both calling us to greater health and giving us the gifts to achieve the changes we need to make in our lives. In whatever way Jesus calls you to a life of better wellness, know that you are not alone. You have us to support you when you respond to that inciting incident; when you dash off without your pocket-handkerchief; when you hear Jesus ask, “Do you want to be made well,” and you answer, “Yes!”
Sermon for Sunday, April 17, 2016 || Easter 4C || Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17
Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we read Psalm 23. We affectionately call today “Good Shepherd Sunday,” since we always pair the shepherd of the beloved psalm with the Good Shepherd, which Jesus describes in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. And yet I doubt it has escaped your notice that we read Psalm 23 more often than once a year. We read it yesterday, in fact; and two weeks before that at the funerals of Ed Carlson and Barbara Noonan. We’re not quite a third of the way through 2016, and we’ve already had six funerals this year. Sometimes the grave seems too close. Sometimes the bitter taste of loss overwhelms all the other sensations we could be feeling. Sometimes the promise of the resurrection seems to lose its luster in comparison to the stark reality of death.
And still we believe that death is an end, but not the end. We believe that the new and superlative life of the resurrection treats death as a threshold through which we walk, not as a tomb at which we stop. A cynic might say that we believe in this way just to make ourselves feel better when a loved one dies. But what the cynic doesn’t understand is that our belief does not make death hurt any less. Our belief enwraps our grief in the warm folds of hope. And hope helps us spread our pain out over the long haul, so that it doesn’t strike us all at once, which would surely kill us. Instead, the pain nestles in our depths and mixes with faith, hope, and memory. And in time, one ingredient in the recipe of grief begins standing out above the rest. And that ingredient is love. So we respond to the cynic: our belief doesn’t make us hurt less, but it does help us love more. In fact, our belief helps us love forever, which is what the resurrection is all about.
Psalm 23 ends with the word “forever.” And in Hebrew it begins with the holiest of God’s names, the “I Am Who I Am” name, the eternal name, the forever name. In between these two mentions of eternity are several promises: promises about sustenance, peace, revival, guidance, companionship, protection, abundance, goodness. We tend to read Psalm 23 at funerals because, in the first days of ragged grief, we need to be reminded of these promises, since we more than likely are having trouble finding ourselves at home in them.
The promises of God continue in our second lesson this morning, from the book of Revelation. Most of this final book of the Bible is strange and scary and sorely misunderstood, but every few chapters, the clouds break and we see the Son shining through. During Easter season, we are reading these shining moments of promise from Revelation. Today, we listen to a promise concerning ones who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The elder says to John,
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Sounds a lot like Psalm 23, right? The promises are the same because the promises of God are eternal. They existed in the early days, when people were first waking up to the presence of God, were first writing down their experiences, some like King David, poetically. The promises continued to exist hundreds of years later when John of Patmos wrote his prophecy in the book of Revelation. And we know these promises still operate now, for we live our lives in their sway.
And yet, it would be folly to think that our lives as followers of the Good Shepherd are complete when we accept these promises for ourselves. No. Stopping there leads to self-centeredness and isolation. Believing God’s promises about sustenance, peace, guidance, abundance, and all the rest compels us to live outside ourselves, to accept our piece of God’s great mission of healing and reconciliation. There are people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And God calls us to them.
Reading this week the promise from Revelation that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” reminded me of a young boy I met when I was a hospital chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas ten summers ago. I was assigned to the tenth floor, which housed the neurological and plastic surgery units. Many of my patients were in for cleft palette procedures, some for brain cancers, and every once in a while a crash victim. Derrick* was one such case. His entire family had been involved in a horrible motor vehicle collision, which killed one of his siblings, sent two others to my hospital, and his parents to neighboring ones.
I don’t remember exactly which bones or vertebrae Derrick had broken in the crash, but when I walked into his room the first time, he couldn’t move his head to see who was at the door. His head and neck were braced in what they call a “halo.” He sat motionless because he literally was unable to move. I babbled out my nervousness for a few ineffectual minutes until the weight of Derrick’s loss pummeled me into silence. My usual chaplain’s patter was not going to work in this case. (And I would discover later that patter of any kind never works.)
I visited him everyday while he was on my floor. Some days we talked a bit – stilted conversation punctuated by long silences. Mere words could not reach the depths of his loss or his loneliness. So we watched TV – the types of shows eleven-year-olds like. The World Cup was that summer, so we watched soccer too. I think Derrick found a teeny tiny morsel of comfort in my visits, but it was utterly apparent that I was a poor substitute for what he really needed, which was his family, who were all still hospitalized themselves. Grandparents came and did what they could. The nurses arranged for his sister, who wasn’t injured as badly, to visit him from her floor occasionally. But his parents could not come.
One morning, I visited him first thing. His eyes flicked over and tracked me as I came around and sat down by his bedside. And that’s when I noticed them: Three perfectly straight lines of salt running from his eye down his dark cheek. Now Derrick couldn’t move because of the halo. This meant that during the night, his bed had been raised and lowered to three different positions, and he had cried at each one. And no one was there to wipe away his tears.
That was the day I finally understood what God was calling me to do. To be. I had been in the process to become a priest for years, but didn’t really know why until I saw those three perfect lines of salt on this broken and devastated child. I couldn’t replace his parents. I couldn’t make him feel better. I couldn’t bring his brother back to life. But I could be there. Just be there…to wipe away his tears.
When you look out over this broken world full of broken promises, I hope you will not let this brokenness overcome you. We who believe God’s promises have a mission to help extend those promises to people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And in this mission, we are not alone. We have a Good Shepherd guiding us to those people, and then guiding us together with them to the springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Sermon for Sunday, March 6, 2016 || Lent 4C || 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
We live in a broken world: broken homes, broken promises, broken government, broken ecosystems. We’re used to brokenness. We learn to live with it. We hear about another mass shooting or another intractable political standoff or another couple dissolving their marriage, and we might shake our heads for a minute and sigh and say, “Boy, I don’t know.” And then we go back to whatever we were doing. And yet, even in the midst of this listless response to brokenness, something niggles and naggles at us, unsettles us; something deep within reminds us that “broken” is not the way things are supposed to be. We believe that God created everything and called Creation “good” and never made a thing called “brokenness.” And yet, brokenness crept into Creation. Separation and division soon followed. Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better.
And in that seeing, in that knowing, God invites us to participate in God’s mission to repair this brokenness. In today’s lesson from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” He continues, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”
Did you hear that? We are ambassadors for Christ – representatives of Jesus bringing his message of reconciliation to this broken world. Reconciliation is the healing of brokenness. When Jesus welcomes and eats with “tax collectors and sinners” in this morning’s Gospel, he models the ministry of reconciliation. The scribes and Pharisees like their society just fine the way it is. They’ve learned to live with the brokenness, profit from it even. And so they grumble when Jesus upsets the status quo and shows them what wholeness can look like. Jesus tells them a story about a family, a family marred by brokenness, a family in need of reconciliation.
The younger of two sons basically says to his father, “I wish you were dead so I could have my inheritance.” His father acquiesces, and the younger son takes his portion and travels to a distant country where he squanders his fortune in what the King James Version calls “riotous living.” At first glance, the younger son’s sin sure seems to be his debauchery, given his status as a decadent wastrel. But I don’t think his prodigality takes the top seed.
Instead, his major sin is the rift caused by his separation from his family. Jesus makes a point to say that the father divides his household to fulfill his son’s wish. And then the son doesn’t settle nearby, but in a “distant” country. With the division and separation complete, all that’s needed is a famine for the younger son to notice his folly. When he comes to himself sitting in the filth among the pigs, he realizes the brokenness his departure caused. He no longer feels worthy to be called a son, so he prepares himself to live with the brokenness and to be considered a hired hand rather than a member of the family.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees nodding their heads in approval. The younger son defiled himself. He is unclean after touching all those pigs. Of course, he mustn’t be welcomed home. But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
The younger son travels back to his father’s house, prepared for the sad reality that it will never be home again. But when he is still a vaguely human shape on the twilit horizon, his father sees him and runs out to meet him and embraces him and kisses him. The young man begins his prepared speech: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But his father will not tolerate the separation, the brokenness any longer. “This son of mine,” he says, “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” This son of mine. With these words, the father repairs the broken relationship, and the two are reconciled.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees raising incredulous eyebrows. Now the father is unclean, as well, because he touched the younger son before he purified himself with the appropriate rituals. What kind of family is this? But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
When the elder brother hears the revelry coming from the house, he learns of his brother’s return, and he will not enter the house or join the party. The elder son echoes his brother’s sin by separating himself from the celebration. When the father comes out to plead with him, the elder son shows his own division from the family. He calls his brother “this son of yours,” thus ignoring the fraternal relationship. And rather than working like a son, he says, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.” Like a slave. Like the hired hand the younger son was prepared to be.
But the father continues to repair the brokenness in his family. “Son,” he calls his eldest. There is no division between us because “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Then the father attempts to heal the fraternal separation by emphasizing the sons’ relationship to one another: “This brother of yours was…lost and has been found.”
I imagine the scribes and Pharisees noticing that they themselves look an awful lot like the elder brother. I bet their own irritation with Jesus deafens them to the reconciling nature of the father in the parable. But while the parable ends, Jesus still isn’t finished telling the story yet.
Both sons separate themselves from the family, but their father goes out and meets both sons in their brokenness. He runs up to the younger when his son is still far off. He leaves the party to be with the elder. Jesus continues his ministry by mirroring the action of the father in the parable. He doesn’t just wait for people to come to him. He seeks people out where they are, eating with tax collectors and sinners, healing the sick, touching the unclean, standing with the marginalized, dying with the criminals in the refuse dump on the outskirts of the city.
That’s our savior, the one who will never let any barrier or rift or division – not even death – separate us from his love. Our savior leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one that is lost. Our savior seeks out and finds the man born blind after he’s thrown out of the synagogue. Our savior reconciles Peter to him after Peter’s triple denial of ever knowing him. Our savior left his home in order to bring us to it. And we are his ambassadors.
Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better. We know in that deep place within that the world is not supposed to be broken. Participating in God’s mission of reconciliation begins when we listen to this deep place within, the voice of Christ our Savior telling us that we can make a difference. We can make a difference when we react to brokenness not with listlessness, not with apathy, not with indifference. We can make a difference when we react to brokenness with compassion, with the desire to be like the father in the parable and go out and meet our broken world head on.
It may seem like a fool’s errand, participating in God’s mission of reconciliation when the brokenness of the world is so great. It may seem insurmountable. But remember, Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
*There’s a stealthy nod to The West Wing in this sermon. First person to figure it out gets five points.
Art: Detail from “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt.