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.
Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2015 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52
Imagine with me the beggar Bartimaeus. He is remembering the fateful day when a large crowd passed his perch beside the road from Jericho. It started like every other day, with a certain memory dancing before his sightless eyes.
I was seven and a half years old when I got sick. It was the kind of illness you don’t usually recover from, but I did. Almost. The last image my eyes captured was my mother’s face – beautiful and distressed, a smile worn for my benefit betrayed by a furrowed brow. When I returned to the land of the living, if not the sighted, I could touch her face with my fingers and know the smile and the worry lines were still fighting with each other. I could hear her singing me to sleep. I could smell her bread baking, and I could taste it, too. But I could not see. With no new picture to replace it in my memory, the image of my mother hovering over my sickbed remained with me all those years.
I was remembering the way her hair always fell across one side of her face until she pushed it behind one ear, the way her tears ran over her cheekbones, the way her smile battled her furrowed brow, when I heard it – a large crowd coming down the road from Jericho. You might think the prospect of so many people passing me by would excite me, since my only source of income was the kindness of strangers. But large crowds rarely yielded much coin in my experience. People couldn’t really stop for fear of being run into; they usually were just paying attention to each other; and they always kicked up such a cloud of dust that I was probably as invisible to them as they were to me.
Or at least those were those reasons I told myself. To be honest, I think I made their excuses for them because of how disheartened I got when so many people passed me by without noticing me. It was as if my blindness struck them blind too. But not that day. The moment I heard Jesus of Nazareth was in the party, people would have to have been both blind and deaf not to notice I was there. This was my one chance. I had heard stories of him from other beggars and from people coming down from Galilee. I knew he had the power to heal me. I believed he could restore my sight. This was my one chance. And I took it.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” I shouted as loud as I could. But someone hit the side of my head and told me to shut my mouth. Other voices joined the first, a chorus of shush-ers. It wasn’t enough for them that I be blind; apparently, they wanted me to be mute too. But this was my one chance, and I was not going to be deterred. I yelled again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And then something happened. The tremor of hundreds of feet stamping the ground just stopped. The sound of voices died away. I could hear the echo of my own shouted words fleeing for the hills. For a moment there was no noise, save for the grunts of pack animals and the laughter of children. Then I could feel next to me a looming presence, a hand on my shoulder, a few flecks of spittle on my face when the man spoke. He smelled of sweat and old fish. “Take heart,” he said. “Get up, Jesus is calling you.”
The vision of my mother swam in front of me. I could see her mouthing the words, “Take heart.” I could see the smile gaining ground on the furrowed brow. I jumped to my feet and clung to the man’s hand as he led me away from my beggar’s nest. I counted the steps I took in case I had to make my way back there if Jesus wouldn’t help me…or couldn’t help me. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Stop.
A new pair of hands gripped my shoulders, gentler but still strong. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. It was the most extraordinary question. He could have assumed I wanted my sight back. He could have assumed I wanted to leave the life of begging. He could have assumed any number of things about me. But instead of just mandating my cure, he asked me what I wanted. He engaged me in conversation. He let me take the lead.
“My teacher, let me see again.” Once more, my mother’s face danced in front of me, and her smiling mouth formed the word, “Go.” And as she spoke, her smile turned into someone else’s: a man’s smile, a man about my own age with piercing dark eyes and no furrow whatsoever in his brow. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.
I turned my head this way and that. Everything was so bright. Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach, dizzy, my balance gone. But as I started to fall, Jesus’ strong arms clenched my shoulders tighter, and he kept me on my feet. “Look at my eyes,” he said. “The vertigo will pass. Just at my eyes, nothing else.” For a long moment – a minute, five, ten, I don’t know – he anchored me with his gaze. And in that long moment, I memorized his face like I had memorized my mother’s. I had seen her face everyday of my blindness. Now I see his.
But not everyday. While he was still with us, I saw him in the flesh most days, but now that he’s here only in Spirit, I find it hard to see his face. My eyes work perfectly, but to see him now takes a different set of eyes. He said my faith had made me well. And now it’s the eyes of faith I need, the eyes that see beyond what’s in front of me, the eyes that see God’s reality swirling beneath the mundane.
And so I repeat my request: “Lord, let me see again.” Let me look again at your presence in the world around me. Let me notice again the people who are usually invisible. Let me see again your face in their faces. Let me serve again. Let me help again. Hope again. Love again.
Lord, I asked for mercy, I shouted at the top of my lungs for mercy. And mercy is all about second chances. Mercy is all about “again.” And so my first request remains the most fervent longing from the depths of my heart. I have made this my prayer for all time: “Lord, let me see again.”
Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015 || Proper 9B || 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
The first weekend of June, I was doing some yard work with my father-in-law outside the rectory. While carrying some brush down the stone front steps, I slipped and fell backwards. I caught myself, but my lower back hit the edge of the step with enough force for me to feel it, go inside, and start icing. The ice helped, and I felt much better the next day. The day after that, I played soccer. I didn’t hurt my back during the soccer game, but running around for two hours at my age didn’t do me any favors. (Yes, yes, I know I’m young, but there’s a reason most professional athletes retire in their early thirties.) Put the soccer and slipping on the steps together with sleeping in a soft bed and picking up two babies for ten months, and Wednesday morning I could barely move. I spent the day lying on the floor, in a sizable amount of pain.
The next morning, I arrived at church to prepare for the 7 a.m. service. The pain was less than the day before but still considerable. I did my best to hide it during the first half of the service, but my acting job was unconvincing. After the peace, folks asked what happened, and I told them the story I just told you. When we came together around the altar for communion, I was about to start the prayer when Barbara Barrett asked: “Adam, can we lay our hands on you and say a healing prayer for your back?”
I looked around at the people circling the altar. They seemed eager to assist Barbara in her request. I had never considered asking for such a gift, but when it was presented, there was only one possible answer, a very thankful, “Yes, of course!”
The fifteen or so people present clustered around me and touched my back and arms and shoulders. Barbara prayed aloud. When she was finished, I exhaled and inhaled. As I breathed, I felt my insides expand and the stiffness in my back stretch out just a little bit. The pain remained, but it was lessened because fifteen people were now bearing it with me.
As I reflect back on that morning, two questions spring up for me. First, why had I never considered asking for the laying on of hands? And second, why did I feel it necessary to hide my obvious pain? I could answer each of these questions at length, but in the end, the answer to both questions boils down to a single word: weakness.
Something inside me convinced me not to show my weakness. That something might have been the myth of the tough guy: “Walk it off. Gut it out. No pain, no gain.” Or perhaps the myth of perfection: “You’ll only be loved if you always get straight A’s or fit in those jeans or never strike out.” Or perhaps the myth of individualism: “I can get on very well by myself, thank you. I don’t need help from anyone.”
Whatever it was that convinced me not to show my weakness, it worked; that is, until Barbara spoke up. Her invitation to healing silenced the myths, and in that silence, the words of Paul we heard today bubbled to the surface: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about [my thorn], that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. There are many countercultural things embedded in the Christian faith, and this is a prime example. In effect, God says, “Don’t look for power where the world looks for power: in the bank account, on the TV screen, at the point of a gun. No, my grace is enough for you to find fulfillment, if you allow my grace to infuse your weakness.”
In his own trials and tribulations, Paul has uncovered something that I personally (and I bet many of you) need to hear over and over again. The power of Christ dwells in us, and it dwells most effectively in the parts of us that the myths tell us to hide. These are the parts of us that need the most help, the parts we don’t want to show other people because we think this or that facet of ourselves is deficient or shameful. The grace of God and the power of Christ enliven our whole selves, but like an antibody targeting a disease, God’s grace heads straight for our weaknesses.
And since God’s grace meets us where we are weakest, we learn to rely on that grace to help us overcome our presumed deficiencies. God uses our weakness to gain a foothold within us. God trains us to rely on God when we think we need to (that is, our weaknesses) in order that we might just start relying on God when we think we don’t need to (that is, our strengths). In that way, we eventually rely on God all the time. If God tried to gain the foothold the other way around, I don’t think we’d ever let God in because our strength, our power, would be telling us we are okay on our own.
When Barbara spoke up about healing prayer, she reminded me that I’m really not okay on my own. I need God. And I need you. Priests can fall into the trap of serving their flock with such single-mindedness that they forget sometimes they need to accept service too. Being unwilling to accept the service of another is a debilitating weakness. I suffer from it. Maybe you do too. Too often I forget what a gift mutuality is. I forget that Christ washed his disciples feet and allowed certain women to wash his. On that Thursday morning, the power of Christ worked through my weakness, and, God met me in the hands of fifteen parishioners, who gave me the gift of healing and helped me bear a burden. My weakness kept me from asking for healing, but perhaps it was that weakness (and not my back), which found healing that day.
My grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness. I’ve experienced this truth. So did the Apostle Paul. So did the disciples when Jesus sent them out two by two with only a staff in their hands, but with the power of Christ dwelling in their hearts. So my questions for you are these: what weakness of yours might God’s grace be trying to shine forth from? What part of yourself are you hiding because of some myth or other? Pray these questions. Ask God to help you face that weakness, to live into it, to find grace in it, to use it to connect with someone else feeling the same weakness. After all, strength and power are not a universal human constant. But we are all weak in some way, somehow. We’ve all been in pain. We’ve all failed at something. So did Jesus. What else but a weak, painful failure was the cross in those few days before the resurrection?
But the good news is this: the power of God’s grace redeemed the cross when Jesus rose from the dead. And the power of God’s grace redeems our weaknesses when we don’t hide them, but instead use them to connect to each other. Thank you Barbara and the rest of the Thursday morning group for your gift to me: the gift of reminding me its okay to be weak because y’all are there to help bear my burdens and because God’s grace is not just sufficient – God’s grace is abundant, extravagant, more than we could ever ask for or imagine.
Sermon for Sunday, June 28, 2015 || Proper 8B || Mark 5:21-43
Imagine with me the thoughts of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, in the aftermath of his encounter with Jesus.
I have been afraid my whole life. When I was little, a scorpion stung my friend, and he died drooling and thrashing in his crib. So I feared scorpions. When I was thirteen, my father had a run in at the local garrison and came home a week later all black and blue. So I feared the Romans. When I met my wife, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide for her. When I became leader of the synagogue, I feared I would have no wisdom to share. And when my little girl was born, I feared for her safety every minute of every day. I have been afraid my whole life.
And so when my daughter showed me the tiny puncture on her forearm, and when she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain, my world ended. I found the culprit and stomped its hard, scaly body into the dirt, and then I collapsed to the ground. My wife came around the corner and saw me rocking back and forth, the dead scorpion in pieces next to me. She dropped the washing and began checking me for signs of a sting. I could only find two words to say: “Not me.” She launched herself into the house to find our daughter.
Twelve years old, my little girl. On the verge of womanhood. My wife cataloging potential suitors. Me practicing my menacing glare for those same suitors. Twelve years old, and not so little anymore. She and I used to climb the hill at night, lie down in the scrub grass so that the tops of our heads touched, and name the stars. She always named them after the heroes of the great stories: David and Gideon and Deborah and Esther. “And that one’s you, Daddy.” She always named the brightest one after me. But at the
indefinable moment when she began her adolescence, she stopped wanting to climb the hill. I asked her why. “That’s kid stuff, Daddy.”
The night the scorpion stung her, I climbed the hill alone and screamed names at the sky – not the names of heroes, but blasphemous names I never thought I could utter. The darkness swallowed my rage, and I don’t know if my obscenities reached their intended target.
I stalked back home. The candle threw swaying shadows on the wall as I entered the room. All my fears were confirmed when I looked at my little girl. She was drenched in sweat, her neck twitched, and her eyes darted from corner to corner. I wrapped my arms around her and put my head on her chest. I could barely distinguish one heartbeat from the next. My wife wrapped her arms around me. Thus I spent the remainder of the night – embraced by and embracing the ones I love, but feeling only the heavy grasp of fear.
I awoke with a curse on my lips for having fallen asleep. I bent my ear to my daughter’s mouth, but the sounds of a commotion outside drowned out the low rasping of her breath. “Vultures,” I spat, and my wife woke up. I stabbed a finger at the window: “Here, no doubt, to console us with their wailing performance.”
I looked down at my little girl. I couldn’t just sit there and watch her die. I had to do something. I decided first to run the vultures off. I had enough grief of my own. I didn’t need to pay someone else to manufacture it. I squeezed my wife’s hand and kissed my daughter on the forehead. So clammy. I banged open the front door ready to unload on the would-be grievers. But the commotion was something else entirely. People were running up the street toward the shore. “Jesus of Nazareth is sighted off the beach. He’s coming here.”
Without thinking, I joined the throng. People recognized me as the leader of the synagogue and let me through. I reached the shore in time to see a fishing boat bump into the shallows. The crowd swelled around the vessel. Jesus’ disciples muscled a hole in the multitude and the man himself stepped off the boat. “Jesus, Jesus,” I cried. But mine was only one voice in a thousand. I feared there was no way he heard me.
But he turned and looked right at me. His disciples opened a path for him. I fell at his feet. “My little daughter, my little one is at the point of death.” I swung my arm back in the direction of my house. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” I didn’t know where the words came from. My fear was grasping at the words in my chest, but something stronger than fear ripped them out of me.
We walked back towards my house, but the great crowd slowed our progress. I wanted to run, to sprint home with Jesus keeping up beside me. But then, he stopped. “Who touched my clothes?” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to scream: “There’s a thousand people trying to touch you right now. My daughter is about to die.”
A woman fell down at his feet and started speaking. She probably spoke for less than a minute, but it was a lifetime to me. As Jesus responded to her, my eyes found my brother pushing his way through the crowd. “No. No. No.” I backed away, but he caught me in a tight embrace. “I’m afraid your daughter is dead.” I thrashed about in my brother’s arms. He let go but kept a grip on my hand. “Why trouble the teacher any further?”
I turned back to the woman who delayed me, who kept the teacher from coming to my house on time, and curses curled on the edge of my lips. But Jesus stepped in between us and grabbed my shirt in both hands. “Do not fear,” he said. “Do not fear, only believe.” The stronger something that earlier had ripped words from my chest reflected in his eyes. “Trust me,” he said. The curses died on my tongue, and I let myself be dragged home to face my own death in the still body of my little girl.
The vultures had come while I was out, but I had no ears for their wailing. Jesus looked around at everyone. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” he said. “The child is not dead but sleeping.” A laugh erupted from my chest, but it felt utterly foreign in this house of death. Jesus echoed my laugh, and his sounded perfectly at home. I laughed again. It was not a laugh of disbelief, but of recognition. Did he really speak the truth?
Jesus took my daughter by the hand, brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. She walked up to my wife and me and we picked her up and the three of us held each other and turned in circles, laughing and crying at the same time. I looked at Jesus and realized what had ripped the words from me at the beach. Trust. Something about this man radiated trust. No. Not something about him. He, himself, radiated trust. Jesus stared back at me, and in his dark eyes I saw myself on the hill the night before. And I saw him standing there next to me. And I knew that hurling blasphemies at God meant that somewhere deep down I still believed. I knew that trust is something entirely stronger than fear. I knew that trust and belief are the antidotes for fear.
“She’s had a rough day,” said Jesus. “Give her something to eat.” He smiled at my daughter, who reflected it back at him, then at my wife, and then her smile rested on me. I dropped to one knee and pulled her tight. Twelve years old and still my little girl. “Daddy,” she said, “Can we go up the hill tonight and name the stars?”
“Of course,” I said, and I gathered her into my arms again. I had been afraid my whole life. But not anymore.
Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2015 || Pentecost B || Romans 8:22-27
Today, on this day of Pentecost, I’d like to tell you a story about the Holy Spirit. It’s going to sound like a story about me, but if I tell it right, you’ll see that the Holy Spirit is the main protagonist of this little tale. The story takes place a stretch down River Road about three miles from the Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.
The summer before my senior year of college saw me driving down this stretch of River Road toward Peterkin Camp and Conference Center, and my job as counselor. The first day of camp, about a hundred high schoolers descended on the camp, and strangely enough, their enthusiasm and laughter and hugs of reunion were unhindered by the lack of a cell phone tower within 50 miles. Right away I could see their love for the place in their wide expectant eyes as they queued up to turn in medications and decorate nametags. They loved Peterkin because they got to be themselves around other kids who also got to be themselves. Places where teenagers are unafraid of coming out of their shells are few and sacred. Peterkin was one of them.
We shared Eucharist every day of camp, and with each day the volume of our singing increased as the more reticent campers started joining in. By Friday, the passing of the Peace had reached epic proportions because everyone tried to hug everyone else. The service that day included special prayers for healing, and I volunteered to assist with the laying on of hands because I’d never done it before. After communion, I walked to the back of the chapel with the priest Zach and a pair of sisters, Kenan and Leigh. We circled a metal folding chair, and Zach beckoned the first camper towards us. I remember looking down at my hands, seeing the dirty fingernails and calluses cut by guitar strings, and wondering: “What are these supposed to do?”
The boy sat down, and Zach leaned in close. “My parents are divorced and I keep thinking it’s all my fault and I feel sad all the time.” The truth of the boy’s words startled me out of my self-centered musings about my hands. Here was someone hurting profoundly, with his whole world crumbling around him and misplaced shame eating him away. And yet he trusted the four of us to place our hands on him, to whisper words of healing, which would never make everything all better again, but maybe just maybe might allow him to breath with a bit more space and by God’s grace start letting himself off the hook.
As Zach dabbed oil on the boy’s head, I touched his shoulder, lightly, like I was testing a bruise. Doubt gnawed at the back of my mind: how am I qualified even to be standing here, let alone be expected to participate in healing? The self-centered feeling of inadequacy threatened to wash over me again, but then a prayer blossomed in my mind and in my heart, a prayer that I had no hand in writing. I exhaled slowly, and the Holy Spirit carried her words on my breath: “Lord, make him whole, make him holy, make him wholly new.”
This became my breath prayer. As the campers kept coming and coming, the Holy Spirit kept speaking these words through me and I prayed with a fervor I didn’t know I possessed: “Holy Spirit, fill me and flow out of me, down my arms, into my hands, and into these broken, beautiful boys and girls. Make me your conduit. Make me your vessel.”
Their need for healing was so great, these young people in so much pain: depression, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, the urge to cut themselves, feelings of abandonment, grief, loss… Lord, make her whole, make her holy, make her wholly new.
I kept asking the Holy Spirit to fill me to overflowing so she could spill out my fingertips and the campers could know the healing presence of God. When the service was over, the campers filed toward the dining hall, but we who had manned the three healing stations gathered around the altar and said a final prayer. As I backed away from the altar, I felt a tear moisten my cheek, then another and another. Suddenly, I was crying. I sat down in the second pew and just as suddenly, I was no longer crying. I was weeping. For twenty minutes, my chest heaved and fell, and I knew nothing but my ragged breaths and fat tears…and the truth.
God granted me exactly what the Holy Spirit had prompted me to I asked for – an abundance of that same Spirit, an excess, a proportion so much bigger than was meant for me alone. The tears puddling at my feet were the Holy Spirit spilling out of me. When the tears stopped, I noticed a hand on my back. Leigh, one of the sisters I had partnered with, had stayed behind and sat with me in silence. She had said nothing. She had not tried to hand me a tissue. She had let me weep, alone and yet not alone, laying her hand on me as we had done for the campers. Remembering that act of kindness still brings tears to my eyes.
I tell you this story because it taught me about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does not come at our beck and call. We come at hers. We would be unable to ask for the Spirit’s help if she were not already helping us in the asking. Paul speaks this truth to the church in Rome: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
At Peterkin, the Holy Spirit made her presence known in my life, and I fervently hope in the lives of the campers as well. That experience was so overwhelming, I expect, because the Spirit knows me well enough to appreciate that I need to be whacked upside the head in order not to misunderstand my role in all of this. But even when the experience doesn’t leave us pooling tears on the chapel floor, the Spirit is still ever present, interceding for us, helping us in our weakness.
Remember when you stood on the beach at dawn, and the first rays of sun turned the ocean to liquid gold, and gratitude unbidden caused you to raise your arms to the heavens? Your prayer of thanks rose from the Holy Spirit prompting you to notice – to see with more than your eyes – God’s glory in creation.
Remember when you had to take your daughter to the emergency room because her stomach flu just wasn’t getting any better? The unimagined patience you showed in the hours of waiting rose from the Holy Spirit speaking peace into your panicked heart.
Remember when your mother died and you never thought you’d take another breath? And then you did. The breath that came when tragedy squeezed all the air from your lungs rose from the Holy Spirit leavening your agonized grief with a dash of hope.
Remember when the Holy Spirit showed you the person in need? Remember when the Holy Spirit stirred you to help? Remember? If you don’t remember something like this in your own life, I challenge you to look again. Ask the Spirit for help in the looking. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to a lucky few or just to the people who ask for her intercession by name. The Holy Spirit has always been moving through your life like the wind through the trees. And she still is. I wonder what your next memory of the Holy Spirit will be.