Spiritual Topography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live Deep, Live Wide

Sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2018 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28

One of the enduring images of my childhood is my father never taking off his cross necklace. He wore that cross under his clothes close to his heart. He wore it (and still wears it) all the time: while sleeping, while exercising, even while showering. I can see him in my mind’s eye at the beach wearing just swim trunks and a three-inch by two-inch piece of silver metal.

I wanted to be like him so badly that I asked for a cross of my own to wear. So my parents gave me one for my birthday when I was about fourteen or fifteen. I tried to wear it all the time like my dad, but the chain would chafe my neck while I slept, so I took it off at night, and sometimes I’d forget to put it back on. It was against the rules to wear jewelry on the soccer field, so off came the cross then too. I lost it in the depths of my car for a few months my senior year of high school. Then one day during my first semester of college the chain broke, and I lost the cross for good. I had wanted to wear the cross to be like my dad, but I had failed. He never took his off, never lost it.
Continue reading “Live Deep, Live Wide”

They Could Not Take Your Pride

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride.

U2 continues with the chorus: “In the name of love / What more in the name of love.” They repeat these words over and over again, astonished and overwhelmed by the lengths to which love calls us to go. From 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, the song bears the title “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and easily slots into my Top 10 list of all-time favorite U2 songs. It’s one of those songs that I never skip when those first rifts from The Edge’s guitar bloom on my radio.

I love this song because it is about a profoundly misunderstood concept, but which U2 understands profoundly in their lyrics. The song is about martyrdom* and the reason someone would die in witness to a cause. For U2, there is only one reason that could ever lead someone down the martyr’s path, and that is Love. Continue reading “They Could Not Take Your Pride”

The Uniqueness of the Incarnation

Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017 || The Eve of the Feast of the Nativity || Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14

Imagine the scene in your mind’s eye: Mary collapses in the hay, her body racked with the utter exhaustion of labor. Joseph wraps the newborn in cloth he has ripped from his own traveling cloak and kisses his son’s eyes clean of the life-giving fluids of the womb. The baby boy tests out his lungs, and the shrill shriek of new life startles the placid animals dozing in their stalls. Mary beckons Joseph to hand her the baby, which he does – reluctantly. She places the naked infant on her own bare brown skin, and he inches his way to her milk, an impossible crawl for one so new, but he manages it just the same. Joseph watches, rapt with awe and wonder. The wild star burning bright in the night sky, the echoes of angels’ song – neither could compare to the beauty of the newborn, this treasure Mary holds to her breast.

Christus Natus Est. Christ is born. Continue reading “The Uniqueness of the Incarnation”

Part of God’s Story: A Christmas Pageant

This is the script for a new Christmas Pageant written for Advent 2017. At St. Mark’s we have an abundance of small children (under 4), so this pageant is written with them in mind. Seeing them jump up excited when it was their turn to run up on stage was so wonderful!

If you’d like to hear a monologue version of this from the early service, please click here.

Narrator is seated on a stool slightly stage right of central entrance. Children are all seated on the floor in front of narrator, speaking characters are in the sacristy.

In the beginning, God had a story to tell: the greatest story ever told, the story of Creation. And God began that story with four simple words: “Let there be light.” Everything God created was a character in the story: birds and bugs, land and lizards, fish and flowers, mammals and the moon. Birth and life, death and decay were also characters, as were both cataclysm and cultivation. For untold generations, God’s story of Creation grew in the telling until a new group of characters entered the tale, characters who somehow knew the story was being told. Continue reading “Part of God’s Story: A Christmas Pageant”

Awareness and Thanksgiving

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

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

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

The Widow’s Note

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”

Bursting Bubbles

Sermon for Sunday, November 12, 2017 || Proper 27A

For people of my age and background, a certain horrific event in our country’s history shapes us. We’re too young to remember the Kennedy assassination or even the loss of the Challenger space shuttle. And yes, September 11, 2001 was a seminal event for us as it was for everyone. But that’s not the event that shaped people who, like me, were in high school in the late 1990s. The horrific event that shaped us happened on April 20, 1999 when a pair of students armed with assault weapons and explosives attacked their own high school in Columbine, Colorado.

You may or may not remember it, but if you grew up like me, I guarantee you do. That was the day we were confronted with the stark reality that nothing and nowhere is truly safe, that whatever bubbles we lived in could burst at any moment. And yet, what always happens after horrific events, happened after the Columbine massacre. I knew the bubble was there. I knew it could burst. But I still lived inside the bubble, content to exist adjacent to horror, knowing that my odds of personal victimhood were microscopically small. Continue reading “Bursting Bubbles”

The Path of Totality

Sermon for Sunday, August 27, 2017 || Proper 16A || Romans 12:1-9

Unfortunately, New England did not fall along the “path of totality” during the eclipse last Monday. I had friends in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kansas who posted their excitement and wonder on Facebook, along with some grainy cell phone shots of the moon getting in the sun’s way. In 2024, we’ll be much closer to the “path of totality” during the next eclipse, which will cut a swath from Texas to northern Maine, and we’ll get a better taste of what our lucky friends got to experience last week.

The eclipse may have come and gone, but the phrase “path of totality” has really stuck in my mind. It’s a fabulous, weighty term, and does an equally good job of explaining the kind of life God invites us to live as followers of Jesus Christ. We strive to follow the path of totality, a life given over fully to God. Of course, most of us don’t exist along this path of totality too often: most of the time, we live in Connecticut, which only received about a two-thirds eclipse on Monday. Continue reading “The Path of Totality”

God is Love, and Love Wins

Sermon for Sunday, August 13, 2017 || In response to the Violence in Charlottesville, VA

You might be wondering why I didn’t shave today. I have enough grandmothers in this congregation that I assure you someone is wondering that. Well, at about quarter to six this morning, I scrapped my sermon. I had just finished revising it when I decided to check the news and learned what had happened yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you were tuned out yesterday like I was, here’s the short version. A large group of white supremacists gathered on and near the campus of the University of Virginia to, according to them, protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Counter-protesters also gathered. There were verbal and physical clashes, culminating in a car plowing into a the latter group, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Later in the day, a police helicopter crashed, killing both officers aboard (though foul play was not suspected). Continue reading “God is Love, and Love Wins”