Directing Creativity: The Story of Joseph

Sunday, August 20, 2017 || Proper 15A || Genesis 37-47

In honor of holding a Godly Play storyteller training here at St. Mark’s this weekend, I’d like to take today’s sermon to tell you a story. It is an old, old story, one which we heard the end of just a few minutes ago. We heard the beginning of the story last Sunday, and then we skipped the long roller coaster ride in the middle. It is the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis. The story of Joseph teaches one thing above all. It teaches that God’s directing creativity can work through any earthly situation, good ones and bad ones, joyful ones and painful ones. Continue reading “Directing Creativity: The Story of Joseph”

God’s Presence: A Letter to My Children

Sermon for Sunday, July 20, 2014 || Proper 11A || Genesis 28:10-19a

godspresenceDear Baby Boy and Baby Girl,

Right now you are still in Mommy’s tummy, but only for a few more days. The doctors tell us everything is going well, and they are really excited that you’ve managed to stay inside as long as you have. As for Mommy and me, we can’t wait to meet you, now that you’re big enough to live out here in this messy, yet beautiful world. But before you arrive, there are a few things I need to tell you. You probably already know everything I’m about to say (you being so close to God and all), but at times, like the rest of us, you will forget. That’s why I’m writing this letter to you. It’s not just for you, but for me, and for everyone who hears it, as well.

This morning at church we read the story of a fellow named Jacob who camps out one night under the stars. Maybe we’ll do this someday, too, but Daddy doesn’t really like camping so you’ll have to persuade me. Anyway, Jacob dreams that angels are connecting earth to heaven, and he hears God speak promises to him. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” says God. God had said something similar to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, but before then people didn’t understand that “all of God was in every place.”* Instead, people thought there were all sorts of little gods who lived inside of things like rivers and mountains. They couldn’t take those little gods with them when they traveled. But Abraham left home and discovered that God was already present wherever Abraham went. It was a wonderful and staggering notion.

In fact, my children, even though thousands of years have passed since then, this notion is still so wonderful and staggering that even today we have to remember over and over again that all of God is present everywhere we go. When Jacob wakes up the next morning after his vision of God, he says, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!” I’ve said the same thing many times when I didn’t expect to find God only to be surprised when God showed up.

You two are smart, so you might be wondering why we have so much trouble noticing God’s presence even when that presence is everywhere all the time. Well, that’s the rub. The very constancy of God’s presence keeps us from noticing it. Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate this point. Mommy’s been having me read you guys a story every night recently, so I hope you like it when I tell you stories. Here goes: A long time ago our ancestors didn’t live in towns with grocery stores. They didn’t even have farms to grow vegetables and raise cows. (What sound does the cow make? Moo! You got it!) Instead, they had to go out into the dangerous wilderness to search for food. There were certain animals in the wilderness searching for food, too, and our ancestors were on their menus – animals like lions and tigers and…well, you get the idea. Our ancestors started noticing rustling in the underbrush and new odors coming to them on the wind. These changing signals warned them when they were in danger. The people who were best at noticing the changes in their environment flourished and passed their instincts on to their children.

We still have those instincts in us. Mommy and I passed them on to you. While we don’t usually have to worry about animals that have us on their menus, we do live in a world where things are changing all the time. Keeping up with everything that’s changing takes nearly all our attention. And so we forget to focus on the one thing that remains constant through it all, and that is the presence of God.

This is what I wanted to tell you in this letter, children: Sometimes you have to fight against your instincts. Sometimes you have to shut out all your distractions – all the change swirling around you – and just be. Just sit in a comfortable chair like your Daddy. Just lay on the ground at night under the stars like Jacob in the story. As you lay under the stars remind yourselves that you are in God’s presence. Acknowledge that it can be hard to notice because God’s presence is so constant, and we aren’t wired to notice constancy. But God knows this. God knows our instincts tell us to perceive change instead of constancy. That’s why God gave us the gift of memory.

As you lay under the stars reminding yourselves that you are in God’s presence, remember also that you were in God’s presence even when you didn’t notice it. Look back over your day or week or month or lifetime and start to uncover the footprints of God’s presence when you least expected to find it but needed it most.** You’ll be surprised to discover all the subtle and startling ways God was moving in your lives in the past. Doing this work of reflection will then help you see those same patterns of God’s movement in the future. And the more you do this work, the more readily you will notice God’s movement in the present.

I know it will be a long time before you, Baby Boy and Baby Girl, will have the ability or need to do this reflective work. But this is where the other facet of God’s presence arrives. Right now you two are reminders of God’s presence for your Mommy and me. As each day rolls into the next and your birth approaches, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present in our lives because God has given us the gift of the two of you. The fact that God has also given us a beautiful community in which to raise you makes God’s gift even more wonderful and staggering.

Being a reminder of God’s presence in the life of someone else will not only make that person’s life better, it will also help you discover God’s presence in your own. When you serve as such a reminder you trick your instincts into thinking God’s presence is one of the things that is changing, which helps you notice it. But what’s really changing is you. As you grow up, you will have the opportunity to be signs of God’s presence in so many ways. Grab hold of those opportunities with both hands and with your heart. Never let a chance to serve God by helping someone pass you by. Never assume you are too small to make a difference because assuming that makes you much smaller than you are. Know that you began your lives as reminders of God’s presence, and you will continue to be your whole lives long.

Your Mommy and I love you very much, and we can’t wait to meet you. In a few days, we’ll be in the hospital. We’ll be waiting for you. And then, suddenly, you’ll be there. And when I hold you and smell the tops of your heads and touch you to my skin, I will know that I am in the presence of God through God’s gift of you, Baby Boy and Baby Girl. We are in God’s presence all the time, yet we rarely notice it. But on that day, I will say, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I do know it.” May you have many days when you can say the same thing.

With all the love in my heart,


* Quoted from “The Great Family” Godly Play story by Jerome Berryman (my favorite story to tell)

** Borrowed from my father. It’s his favorite thing to say.

The Autonomic Spiritual System

(Sermon for Sunday, July 17, 2011 || Proper 11 Year A || Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23)

What would your life be like if you had to think consciously about every breath you take? What would your life be like if your brain had to work your lungs like your hands might work a bicycle pump? What would your life be like if you needed to be aware of each of those millions of oxygen atoms that squeeze their way into your red blood cells for their continual circuit around your body? Well, for starters, you would never be able to sleep. You might be able to get a little work done by holding your breath for thirty seconds at a time and then concentrating furiously at the task at hand. You certainly wouldn’t be able to pay attention to this sermon. But that’s okay because I wouldn’t be able to preach in any coherent fashion either.

We are blessed, therefore, that God created us with “an autonomic nervous system,” which removes breathing from the list of bodily functions that require conscious thought. Of course, you might notice your breathing after walking up a particularly long flight of stairs or during a brisk run or when you are in labor. But for the vast majority of our lives, we simply breathe and never give the miracle of respiration a second thought.

I bet your high school anatomy class covered the wonder of the autonomic nervous system. Our bodies do so many things involuntarily, and the autonomic nervous system takes care of each one of them. What I’m sure the anatomy class didn’t cover, however, is the fact that, in addition to our bodily ones, every person here also has an autonomic spiritual system. God’s presence is even more constant than breathing, and so each of us has developed an autonomic spiritual system in order to handle our relationship with God during the vast majority of our lives when we are not consciously responding to that relationship.

Unlike the autonomic nervous system, which controls breathing and other things, none of us is born with an autonomic spiritual system. When you see a child’s eyes go wide at the splash of a stone in a pond or at the scurry of a squirrel on a branch, the child is experiencing God’s presence unfiltered by the involuntary sifting of the autonomic spiritual system. As we grow up, we develop this involuntary filtration, preferring the concrete stuff of the world over the spiritual substance of God’s presence. This is why the children in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia cannot return to Aslan’s domain once they’ve reached a certain age. The cares of the world keep them from wishing to go back to Narnia, and so they never find another gateway.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jacob demonstrates that even someone a mere two generations removed from Abraham has developed the problem of the autonomic spiritual system, this involuntary sifting of God’s presence from our daily experience. Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau, whose birthright and blessing Jacob has stolen. On his way to Haran, Jacob beds down in a certain place, which must have been quite rustic considering he uses a rock for a pillow. During the night, Jacob dreams of a ladder filled with angels going back and forth between earth and heaven. The Lord stands next to Jacob in this dream and says to him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

Jacob wakes up and proclaims to the sky and to the rocks: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Jacob’s involuntary filtration had prevented him from noticing that presence when he went to sleep, but his dream alerts him to override his autonomic spiritual system. Just like during the brisk run when you notice your breathing, Jacob wakes up dazzled by God’s presence.

And then, as so often happens, Jacob makes a common mistake that turns the autonomic spiritual system back on. He says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jacob’s mistakes his physical location as the catalyst for his spiritual awakening. By assigning spiritual meaning to that particular rock-strewn piece of ground, Jacob fails to remember the words that God spoke to him in his dream: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” God doesn’t say: “Know that I am here. God will bring Jacob back to that land, but in the meantime, Jacob will be in God’s presence wherever he goes.

The psalmist may have had Jacob’s mistake in mind while writing Psalm 139:

Where can I go then from [God’s] Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.

The psalmist understands that God’s presence is everywhere we might go because God’s presence is everywhere. These verses, then, are the psalmist’s way of remembering that God’s hand leads us, that God’s right hand holds us fast, no matter how often we might forget to search for God. The good news is that our autonomic spiritual systems do not define our spiritual existence. We can override them by accepting the ever-present help of God. There have been people throughout time who never developed the involuntary filtration: the Church calls them saints. I’m sure you know someone the church hasn’t canonized who lives a life fully present to God, a life without an autonomic spiritual system.

But for those of us who have difficulty overriding the system, we can take solace and strength in holding fast to an essential truth: God’s presence is not dependent on our awareness of God’s presence. Our awareness only matters insofar as we are present to God. We practice this awareness by taking on disciplines that slowly wean us from our reliance on the autonomic spiritual system: counting blessings, praying at times we might otherwise not pray, appreciating the majesty of the simplest created things, loving each other without thought of reciprocation, serving those in need.

Think about the last time you were stressed out – I mean really stressed out – I mean “I have four papers due on Monday and I washed a red shirt with the whites and I’ve been stuck on the tarmac at Logan for two hours for no discernible reason” stressed out. What did your friends do? They took you for coffee or for ice cream or, perhaps, for coffee ice cream. They told you to take a couple deep breaths. They told you to focus on breathing. Everything will be alright, they said. They knew that breathing, like God’s presence, is a constant in our lives. They knew that we don’t have to focus on constant things in order for those constant things to continue happening. But they also knew that when we do focus on those constant things, we often find peace – peace and new beginnings.