Last week I wrote a brief summary of my initial reactions to the pilgrimage I took with other local clergy to Montgomery, Tuskegee, and Birmingham, Alabama. You can read that essay here. Today, I would like to dwell on the centerpiece of the pilgrimage, the year-old National Memorial for Peace and Justice (sometimes called the Lynching Memorial).
Last week, I took a trip to Alabama with fellow clergy from New London and colleagues from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. For three days we made a pilgrimage to sites, memorials, and museums important to the legacy of Civil Rights. What follows are my initial impressions of the trip in brief. I am still (and will be for a long time) processing and integrating my encounters with historic and current injustice in this country, and I will be revisiting my experience as I write more during this sabbatical time. Continue reading “Sabbatical Notes, Week 2: Peace and Justice Pilgrimage”
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, September 2, 2018 || Proper 17B || Mark 7:1-18, 14-15, 21-23
I’m so excited for the baptism of four-month old L.J. this morning. I’m excited because we get to share in welcoming L.J. into what the baptism service calls “the household of God.” I’m also excited on a personal note because L.J. is the first baby I’ve baptized for a couple whose marriage I officiated. L.J.’s parents were married here in 2015, and they are active members of our faith community. The longer I remain the pastor of this church, the more milestones I will see and participate in – the more births, baptisms, confirmations, graduations, weddings, and funerals. And all that fills me with immense joy. Continue reading “The Baptismal Life”
Sermon for Sunday, August 12, 2018 || Proper 14B || Ephesians 4:25–5:2
It is so good to be back with you here at St. Mark’s after my three weeks of vacation. I’ve never been much for adventurous vacations; I seek only rest, and I got rest in spades during my time away. I also spent much time with my children, who turned four during my vacation. They received their first soccer ball from their Nana and Papa, and I had a great time teaching them how to kick it. I also continued my personal project of reading books that are helping me understand my place in the reality of race and racism in the United States. I read two excellent books during vacation: Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey and The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. If you’d like to learn more about what I’m reading right now, let me know after the service.
All that being said, I’m so happy to back, so let’s talk anger. Continue reading “Be Angry”
Sermon for Sunday, June 24, 2018 || Proper 7B || 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
When I was a brand new priest, one of the biggest mistakes I made was comparing my vocation to other “professional” occupations. I made this mistake because I went to the same number of years of graduate school as a lawyer, and mine was a helping profession like a doctor. Your pastor is right up there with your surgeon or your litigator, I reasoned, and here are my credentials. It took a couple of years for me to learn this was a really foolish approach to pastoring. A mentor of mine pointed out the error in my thinking like this. He said, “People only go to surgeons when they need surgery or to lawyers when they’re in trouble. Don’t you want to walk with people every step of the way?” Continue reading “A Wide Open Heart”
Sermon for Sunday, April 22, 2018 || Easter 4B || 1 John 3:16-24
I know it’s Easter season, but please permit me to begin this sermon quoting a piece of an epic poem about Christmas. Okay, here goes:
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
My kids are on a Dr. Seuss kick right now, so when I read this morning’s lessons, the famous character of the Grinch immediately jumped to mind. In the entire canon of English literature, the Grinch is the best example of an anti-hero that I can come up with. Most stories are about a good guy, a protagonist, who overcomes some obstacle to achieve a goal. But in the Dr. Seuss classic, the main character is the bad guy, the antagonist, who thankfully is redeemed, in the end, by the selfless witness of his victims. I hope I didn’t spoil anything there. (How the Grinch Stole Christmas was published 61 years ago, so I think I’m in the clear.) Continue reading “Heart Expansion”
Sermon for Sunday, October 22, 2017 || Proper 25A || Matthew 22:15-22
Imagine with me the thoughts of a nameless Pharisee, one in the party that seek to trap Jesus with their questions during the time between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion, while he’s teaching daily in the temple.
All week Jesus had been speaking out against us Pharisees. He did it subtle like, not taking it to us directly, but talking in riddles and stories. Stories about vineyards and tenants and weddings and guests, and at the end of them, we took umbrage because all the wrong people got rewarded in his stories. They were insidious, those stories; they rattled around in my head, making up pictures in an incomplete vision that competed with the one I had always been shown. I kept quiet around my brethren that week, lest I let slip the confession that Jesus fascinated me, despite – or maybe because of – his puzzling and radical rhetoric. Continue reading “The Wrong People”
Sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2017 || Easter 5A || Acts 7:55-60
Growing up, I was not the stereotypical rebellious preacher’s kid. I never stole my parents’ car. I never had a fake I.D. I never smoked or did drugs or partied. I was actually a pretty boring teenager. Even so, I committed my fair share of infractions against my parents’ rulebook. No matter the infraction, big or small, my parents never grounded me. They never took away privileges. They certainly never whipped me. They didn’t need to. They had a much more effective punishment at their disposal. They would sit me down for a Talk, look me in the eye, and say, “Adam, we love you. And we are very disappointed in your behavior.”
That was enough. Continue reading “Restoration”
Sermon for Sunday, February 28, 2016 || Lent 3C || Luke 13:1-9
This is a sermon about grace. I’ve been wanting to share with you my definition of grace for a while now, but the time didn’t seem right. Then after spending time with Megan Palmer’s family two weeks ago, preparing for and leading Megan’s service last weekend, and having the stomach flu most of this past week, the time to talk about grace has finally come. Maybe I was waiting for a moment when I was sure I had recently experienced it. But before we talk about grace, I need to tell you about my dad’s sense of humor.
Growing up, my favorite movie was Return of the Jedi. I watched it about once a week, except for the year I was six when I watched it once a day. VCRs were still relatively recent inventions, and none of us realized you could wear out a VHS tape until I wore out Return of the Jedi. Whenever I finished watching the movie and the iconic John Williams score started blasting throughout our house, my father would turn up in the living room doorway and ask, in all seriousness, “Did the rebels win this time?”
Whenever my sister or I got hooked on a particular movie, this same joke would resurface, notably in the late 90s. “Did the Titanic sink this time?” And after I got my Lord of the Rings Special Edition DVDs: “Was the ring destroyed this time?” Now when it comes to senses of humor, mine is a chip off the old block, for better and worse. And so when my kids start watching the same movie over and over again, I will never in a million years be able to resist the urge to ask: “Did they find Nemo this time?”
I tell you all this because, believe it or not, it impacts the way I interpret today’s Gospel lesson. You see, I think the Gospel writer Luke and my dad share this bit humor. Luke narrates Jesus telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Do you get the joke yet? It’s pretty subtle (and not exactly haha funny), and maybe you had to grow up with a dad like mine to see it. The joke is this: that fig tree is never getting cut down. Luke preserved it in his Gospel. Luke knew this great story he was writing would be shared and he hoped it would be shared until the sun stopped putting forth its light. Every time someone read this parable, the fig tree got another chance. Luke wrote these words down about 1,936 years ago, which is 1,935 more years than that fig tree had to produce. And the fig tree is still standing. Every time we read it, there is the tree still standing. Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi – every time – because that’s how movies work. And yes, the fig tree is still standing because that gardener is taking care of it and always will. I told you this is a sermon about grace. Do you see it yet? We’re getting there.
Now you might quibble here and say Luke’s joke doesn’t work because, even though the fig tree is never going to be cut down, it’s also never going to bear fruit. It’s stuck in this in-between time, a time of potential but no results. Yes, this is true, and we’ll get back to that in a minute.
But first, one more word about why I think Luke is playing with his readers here. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a lot in common, so much in fact that we often refer to them as the “synoptic” Gospels. “Synoptic” means “with the same eyes.” But Luke’s version is the only one with this parable about the fig tree. There’s a fig tree in Matthew and Mark, which Luke does not include, and their fig tree fares much worse. In Matthew and Mark, the fig tree withers and dies when Jesus gets a bit petulant that it doesn’t have any figs on it. But Luke doesn’t share that story. Luke shares this one, the one about the fig tree that always has another chance to bear fruit whenever the story is read.
The key words here are “another chance.” That’s grace. “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” Next year. Another chance. We read the parable again. Next year. Another chance. That’s grace.
Growing up, I always heard my dad define the concept of grace together with the concepts of justice and mercy, as a way to distinguish between them. His version went like this: “Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” I’ve always loved that, and these definitions have guided me my whole life. But recently, I’ve added this: “Justice is having a chance. Mercy is having a second chance, or a third, or a fourth. Grace is not having your chances numbered.”
Grace is not having your chances numbered. Grace is being the fig tree that will always have the gardener tending to it, no matter how long it takes to bear fruit. Grace keeps us moving ever on, especially when we are stuck in the in-between time, the time of potential but no results. Grace gives us another breath when grief has knocked the wind from us. Grace gives us another chance when disillusionment or apathy sap our will to seek for justice and peace. Grace gives us another bit of rope when we think we’ve come to the end of ours.
Grace is the sublime consequence of a God who will never give up on us. That’s pretty good news, right? And yet, while God will never give up on us, we still have every opportunity to give up on God. Our chances are not numbered except by how many we are willing to take, by how often we are willing to trust God to be with us, come what may. That’s God’s promise to Moses in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, by the way. “I will be with you,” says God. No matter how often you fail, no matter how many chances you need, I will be with you. That’s grace.
It’s true that our chances are only numbered by how many we are willing to take. It’s also true that another chance is always shimmering on the horizon of possibility. And so grace beckons us to take more chances, to lead more expansive lives, to trust more deeply in the God who will never give up on us. And to bring that God to people who have never even been given one chance, who have never experienced the blessing of justice, let alone mercy or grace.
Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi. Every time. Yes, the Titanic sinks. Yes, the ring is destroyed. Yes, they find Nemo. Yes, the fig tree still stands. And yes, grace abounds in limitless chances to trust in a God who never gives up.