The Gift of God (With 10 Handy Guidelines for Interpretation)

Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2017 || Lent 3A || John 4:5-42

Recently, a few dozen parishioners of St. Mark’s blessed us all with their meditations on Bible passages found in the Lent issue of The Lion’s Tale magazine. Their work got me thinking about biblical interpretation in general and that fact that such an adventure is not reserved for clergy alone. Anyone can be an interpreter of the Bible, though I am aware that most people do not feel equipped to do so. So today, I’m going to give you a crash course on interpreting the Bible, as at least a place to start: Ten Handy Guidelines for Interpretation (or HGIs for short) that we will derive from the Gospel story I just read. There’s a bookmark in your program that lists the Handy Guidelines, and I invite you to stick it in your Bible when you get home. You ready? Here we go. Continue reading “The Gift of God (With 10 Handy Guidelines for Interpretation)”

The Guest Star

Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17; 7:45-52; 19:38-42

The Pharisee Nicodemus is not a member of the main cast of the Gospel according to John. In the parlance of television, he would be known as a recurring character. If each chapter of John’s Gospel were an episode of a TV series, it would fill one standard network season, and Nicodemus would guest star in episodes 3, 7, and 19. We meet him at the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’ ministry, and each time we drop in on him, Nicodemus is somewhere new in his own journey towards an active faith in Christ.

The Gospel writer makes clear that the intention of the Gospel is to help the reader believe by telling the story of Jesus in a certain way. The writer uses Nicodemus’s three-part journey as a stand-in for our own, as we, too, journey towards more active faith in Christ. The world of Nicodemus and our own world share some striking similarities. Nicodemus lived in a world that had yet to be steeped in Christian tradition; people around him were either confused by the message of Jesus, hostile to it, or ignorant of it. Today’s world is similar; the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, while confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply. Today, we’re going to go on the journey of our guest star Nicodemus to see what his participation in the story of Jesus has to tell us about our own.

It is a journey that begins in the dark of night. Nicodemus is both curious and practical. He wants to see this disruptive teacher and take Jesus’ measure. But he doesn’t want his fellow council members knowing what he’s up to. They won’t understand. There is something magnetic about this itinerant preacher; this Jesus from the backwater of Nazareth speaks with both authority and kindness, a pair of qualities not usually associated one with the other. Nicodemus finds him and they have a chat. Our guest star begins from a position of strength: “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” We know.

Right away, Jesus understands what this man needs more than anything else. Nicodemus needs to discover that he does not, in fact, know. So Jesus starts the Pharisee on a new journey, guided by the wild wind of the Holy Spirit, a journey through the uncertainty of the life of faith, but always lived within the gift of God’s everlasting love. I’ve always assumed Nicodemus leaves that first encounter in a daze. Spiritual vertigo takes hold. His narrow worldview has suddenly expanded to include so much he never before thought possible. He is still the same Nicodemus he was when he arrived at Jesus’ door. He’s still a Pharisee, still a member of the ruling council. But a seed has been planted.

This story may sound familiar, especially to folks of my generation, which is the least religious generation of all time. But it doesn’t have to be. Despite the general movement of society away from the Christian worldview, a flickering candle of curiosity might burn inside you. You know it’s not the popular thing to do; your friends might shun you, tell you you’re going a bit daft. Your Google searches on Christianity don’t come up with anything compelling; if anything, such searches remind you why your friends object. But the curiosity persists: this is something you’ll have to experience yourself. So you go to a church service one Sunday; you sit in the back and keep your sunglasses on the whole time, lest someone recognize you. You don’t know whether you should go up for communion, but the candle flames brighter at the thought and so you do. You put out your hands and a mystery wrapped in bread and community is placed in your open palm. You’re used to being filled with the stuff of the world, but this mystery fills you in a different way. You’re still the same person; same friends, same job. But a seed has been planted.

Nicodemus returns in Chapter 7, and again his journey mirrors that of so many people today, myself included. Jesus has caused a stir at a festival in Jerusalem, and the temple police have come back empty handed, awestruck as they were by Jesus’ words. The Pharisees reply: “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?” Our guest star is there, and he pipes up. Nicodemus doesn’t declare his seedling belief, but he does attempt to get his fellow Pharisees to follow their own rules, saying: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” His colleagues do not take kindly for being called out in this way, and the scene ends without a second response from Nicodemus. But at least he spoke up. He tested the waters.

How many of us have been in this situation? Our colleagues or dining companions or extended family think faith in Jesus is antiquated or dangerous or, worst of all, quaint. How could people still believe that stuff? Aren’t Christians just crazy, homophobic, anti-science reactionaries? What was it that Karl Marx said about religion? You sit there clenching your fists and biting your lip. These are people you like and respect. But they don’t know about the seedling belief inside you, the one planted when you put out your hands at the communion rail. What would they say if you told them? You make an innocuous comment – not all Christians are like that, you say. After that you let it go. But at least you spoke up. You tested the waters.

Nicodemus returns again in Chapter 19, and now his journey becomes our inspiration rather than our mirror. The bloody spectacle has finished, and Jesus hangs dead on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea receives permission to bury Jesus’ body. And who should help him, now in the broad light of day, than none other than our guest star. Nicodemus brings an incredibly costly sum of materials and helps Joseph prepare the body. Jesus’ death does not stop him from stepping out from the crowd and claiming his spot as a servant of Christ. His action must have astonished his fellow Pharisees, who would have avoided ritual defilement that came from touching a dead body. His action must have cost him – his standing among his fellows, certainly; perhaps his position on the council. But Nicodemus had found something more important than anything else. The seedling now had roots growing deep and a trunk growing tall and branches growing wide and leaves soaking up the love of his dead savior and breathing the wild wind of the Holy Spirit back out into the world.

At the end of the Gospel, in the moment of decision, Nicodemus proclaims his new identity through his actions. He has been on a long journey from the first furtive nighttime visit through his tentative defense, finally to arrive at the foot of the cross, standing not with those who jeered but with those who wept. He is a servant of Christ, now a daylight member of the Jesus Movement. This guest star, this recurring character in the Gospel, this Pharisee Nicodemus is you and me and everyone who has ever felt the light of Christ, even as a flickering candle of curiosity. The life of faith rarely captures us in a single momentous, mountaintop experience. For most, our journey is like that of Nicodemus: cautious, tentative, measured. My prayer for myself and for each of you is to find inspiration in Nicodemus’s last appearance when, in the moment of decision, he declared himself, regardless of the consequence.

In a world where the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, and confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply, such a public declaration can be ever so difficult – even for people like me, who can’t easily hide it. This is why Nicodemus is my hero. He embodies my prayer for myself and for each of you – that we act as servants of Christ, not just in the dark of night, but in the broad light of day.

The God-Fountain

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

One of my favorite American poets, James Weldon Johnson, opens his book God’s Trombones with a poetic prayer, which begins like this:

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
O Lord—this morning—
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come this morning—
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord—open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.* Continue reading “The God-Fountain”

Transformed (God’s Point of View, part 8 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2017 || last Epiphany A || Matthew 17:1-9

We have reached the final week of our Epiphany sermon series, in which we have been imaging our way into God’s point of view. God sees, names, and celebrates us as beloved, befriended, gifted, blessed, enlightened, unfinished, and finished. This brings us to our final word of the sermon series: God names us “transformed.” The more we practice seeing ourselves and others the way God sees us, the more we participate in our own transformation.

I saved this word for today because I knew we would be reading the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. He goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John and there the Gospel tells us, “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Despite what the text says, I’ve never thought that Jesus himself was changing in any way. This story has always been for me a window into God’s point of view. On the mountaintop, God gives Peter, James, and John a gift. God gives them the gift of seeing Jesus as God sees him, a luminous being awash in God’s love and grace. And I’ve always wondered if the disciples had turned and looked at each other, would they have seen each other similarly transfigured?

Continue reading “Transformed (God’s Point of View, part 8 of 8)”

Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017 || Epiphany 4A || Matthew 5:1-12

I thought I hit record this week, but I didn’t, and with only one service because of St. Mark’s Annual Meeting, I failed to capture the audio for this sermon. Apologies.

Three weeks ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

We began with Belovedness. God sees and names us and each person we meet as God’s Beloved. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Next we talked about God befriending us. God calls us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own. Love leads to friendship, which leads us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Here we claim our giftedness, not to make ourselves feel special, but to use our gifts to make others feel so. We claim our giftedness, which helps us be blessings in the world.

With this word – “blessing” – we return for a fourth time to God’s point of view. God sees, names, and celebrates us as blessed. There are two parts to blessing: sustenance and mission, and neither is particularly well understood. Continue reading “Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)”

Gifted (God’s Point of View, part 3 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 22, 2017 || Epiphany 3A ||Matthew 4:12-23

Two weeks ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

We began with Belovedness. God sees and names us as God’s Beloved. When we enter this reality, we see, name, and celebrate that each person we meet is also the Beloved of God. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Last week we talked about God befriending us. God calls us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own, often befriending the unlikeliest of people, many of whom are those who have received little love.

Love leads to friendship, which leads us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Here we return to God’s point of view because we wonder how we possibly could contribute anything meaningful to such a vast enterprise as God’s mission. We imagine our way into God’s eyes again. We discover that God sees, names, and celebrates us as gifted. Continue reading “Gifted (God’s Point of View, part 3 of 8)”

Befriended (God’s Point of View, part 2 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2017 || Epiphany 2A || John 1:29-42

A week ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

Last week we began with Belovedness. God sees and names us as God’s Beloved. When we enter this reality, we see, name, and celebrate that each person we meet is the Beloved of God. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Claiming belovedness is the best way to stoke our own reserves of compassion for those on the margins, who we’d rather ignore to make our own lives a little more pleasant. Being God’s Beloved does not allow for such a heartless option, for they are God’s Beloved, too.

Thus, imagining how God sees us is not an entirely pleasant exercise. Being beloved is at once comforting and conflicting. We rest in God’s love, and we feel the pinch in our souls that so many out there feel no love at all. And so we decide to do something about that. This decision leads us back to God’s point of view. God befriends us, calling us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own, often befriending the unlikeliest of people. Continue reading “Befriended (God’s Point of View, part 2 of 8)”

Beloved (God’s Point of View, part 1 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 8, 2017 || Epiphany 1A || Matthew 3:13-17

Two years ago I did a sermon series during the season after Epiphany, and I enjoyed writing it so much that I thought I’d give it another shot this year. When I was putting together the materials for our pledge drive last fall, I wrote a paragraph that really energized and focused my share in our collective ministry. The words appeared on the back of the stewardship brochure, and they read: “At St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, we see, name, and celebrate the presence of God in our lives, our church, and our neighborhoods.” The paragraph continued on in a missional vein, but that first sentence, especially the verbs “see, name, and celebrate,” really sparked for me.

See. Name. Celebrate. Wonderful verbs at first glance, but then I started living with them. I don’t know about you, but my eyes don’t work very well, even when I’m wearing my corrective lenses. So seeing is hard. Naming involves gaining intimate awareness of something, and who has time for that? Finally, celebrating often feels like betrayal – with some much wrong in the world, how could we possibly find cause for celebration? Continue reading “Beloved (God’s Point of View, part 1 of 8)”

The Best Christmas Pageant Never (A New Christmas Pageant Script)

Performed at St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT on Sunday, December 18, 2016

In an homage to the preferred story-telling method of one of my writing heroes, Aaron Sorkin, this new Christmas pageant takes place during a rehearsal for a traditional Christmas pageant. Over the course of the play, the traditional elements of the pageant get untangled from each other and we distill the stories as told by Matthew and Luke. Continue reading “The Best Christmas Pageant Never (A New Christmas Pageant Script)”

Halfway Out of the Dark

On the Effects of the Planet’s Axis on Religion
and a few words about the season of Advent

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:3-4)

As we move through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, the fact that Christianity is a religion begun in the northern hemisphere becomes incredibly obvious. Advent begins in the darkest days of the year when the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. The days are short and getting shorter. But a few days before Christmas, the shortest day of the year happens, and everything turns around. The BBC’s Dr. Who opines that we celebrate because, “We’re halfway out of the dark.” Continue reading “Halfway Out of the Dark”