Sermon for Sunday, December 20, 2020 || Advent 4B || Luke 1:26-38
Last year, my children got really into singing Christmas carols. We had the Pentatonix Christmas albums on repeat pretty much all of Advent. The Pentatonix are a high energy a cappella group, and their version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” opens one of their albums. It’s a really catchy track and it gets stuck in your head. It got stuck in my then five-year-old son’s head a lot. And he would walk around the house singing it. But he didn’t have all the words just right. He sang the first few lines correctly; you know, “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn king.’” But then he would sing, “Peace on earth and mercy wild.”
At the end of this sermon, I’m going to talk about the movie Frozen II. But first let’s talk about fear. Whenever an angel of the Lord appears in Holy Scripture, the angel always begins the message for the same four words: “Do not be afraid.” Today’s Gospel lesson is no exception. Mary’s fiancé Joseph has resolved to “dismiss her quietly” because of her pregnancy, but he takes one more night to sleep on the decision. During that night, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. My question is: Why would Joseph be afraid to do this? I can think of many reasons for Joseph’s fear, and I want to talk about three of them this morning. We’ll dispense with the first two quickly because the third is where I really want us to focus.
Sermon for Sunday, December 23, 2018 || Advent 4C || Luke 1:39-45
I told a brief story last Sunday to the folks attending the adult forum hour, and the story has been lodged in my heart since then, so I thought I would share it with everyone. This is a story about an intense moment with God, and I wrestled with whether or not to share it today because I do not want you to go home thinking you are any less a believer or a beloved child of God if you have never experienced what I’m about to describe.
So I begin this sermon with a disclaimer: what follows is one way among many that God encounters us. As followers of Jesus, we aspire to be transformed over the course of our lifetimes into people who more closely reflect the love, peace, and justice of God. God invites us to participate in our own transformation and thus the renewal of our broken world. What follows is the special moment in my life when God pushed me onto the path of that participation. I’m sharing this with you today because of our Gospel lesson when Mary rushes off to see her cousin Elizabeth, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Continue reading “A Moment with God”→
[The stage is set with two chairs next to a table with a third chair behind it, like a late night talk show. The narrator functions as the “host” of the talk show interviewing guests.]
Welcome back. My next set of guests have a wonderful, inspiring story to tell.
This story is about fear and love. I want to tell you that up front so you can listen for those two things — fear and love. The Bible says in the first letter of John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” This story we share today happened because God so loved the world that God gave us this Perfect Love in the form of God’s own child. This story tells how Perfect Love became a person. The fancy word for “became a person” is Incarnation. For the Incarnation to happen, God chose several people to help. Every one of them was afraid, and the love of God gave them the chance to serve despite their fear.Continue reading “God’s Perfect Love: A Christmas Pageant”→
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.
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”→
We all know the Christmas story so well. We’ve listened to it our whole lives: in storybooks about the animals in the stable; in Linus’s monologue in A Charlie Brown Christmas; in the pageant; in carols about angels and little towns; and in the second chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel, which I just read. We all know the Christmas story so well that we tend to crystallize it, to turn the story into a Norman Rockwell painting and hang it over our mantles.Continue reading “Our Impatient Savior”→
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)”→
Sermon for Sunday, January 3, 2016 || Christmas 2 || Luke 2:41-52
Well, here we are in 2016. Another year has come and gone, and oh so quickly. Years are short and not necessarily memorable unless we take the time to remember them, to stitch them into our living tapestries. I love that today’s Gospel mentions that Mary “treasures all these things in her heart.” Mary treasures both the painful memories, like losing Jesus in the caravan, and the happy memories, like finding him again in the temple. Mary treasures her memories, and they become the warp and weft of her life. They become the story of her walk with God.
At the last Confirmation class, we discussed how hard it can be to notice God’s movement in our lives because of how constant God’s presence is. We are hard-wired to notice change, not constancy. So to improve our awareness of God’s movement – and thus improve our chances of responding to that movement – I have a homework assignment for you. I want you to treasure things in your hearts.
Specifically, as we begin another new year, I invite each of you to look back over the past decade. For each year since January 2006, choose one event or theme that crystallizes for you what that year meant for your life. The event or theme doesn’t have to deal overtly with God’s movement, but I suspect that as you stitch these ten important moments together, you might start to see the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing in your life in unexpected ways. For the rest of this sermon, I’d like to present for you a personal example of this homework assignment. So, starting ten years ago:
It’s spring 2006, and my first year of seminary is coming to a close. I refuse to notice that love has already eroded into convenience and is well on its way to indifference. In mid-May, my girlfriend of two years initiates the end of our relationship. I push away the abyss threatening to engulf me because I need to focus on my chaplaincy at the children’s hospital. Back at seminary, I fall into despair. I isolate myself, presumptuously assuming that none of my friends has ever felt this way. I escape into the fantasy world of an online video game. I don’t surface again for many months.
It’s December 2007, and I ask my spiritual director to hear my confession in preparation for my first ordination. We enter the sanctuary. I kneel at the altar rail. I have written some notes on yellow legal sheets. The tears begin to flow as I confess the big things like my arrogant reliance on myself above everything else. I also confess the little things like cheating on that math quiz in fifth grade (sorry Mrs. Goldberg!). I am utterly exhausted when I finish. I feel empty, but in a good way, like there is more space in me for God to fill.
It’s June 2008 and blisteringly hot outside. There’s no A/C at the church, so I’m glad to be wearing seersucker. I kneel before my bishop and his hands are gripping my head firmly. The rest of the priests touch me lightly. I can feel my father’s hand on my shoulder. At the end of the service, people come to me for the customary blessing from the new priest. I don’t know what to say, but the words come just the same.
It’s late 2009, and some situations are just so brutal or hit so close to home that reliance on God is a requirement and not the fallback position. I get a call that a parishioner’s daughter has died suddenly in the night. God finds me cowering on the front stoop. I take a deep breath and enter the house. Every day for a week and a half, I spend time with the grieving parents, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that my normal strength is unequal to the task. I officiate at her funeral, my first for someone my own age. And God is there.
It’s the beginning of 2010, and I’m looking for a new position. I email my former spiritual director about a job on the day after she mentions off-handedly to her husband that she’d like an “Adam Thomas clone” to be her assistant rector. We don’t believe in coincidences, but in the weaving power of God’s movement. I start my new job in Massachusetts six weeks later. Four weeks after that, I meet Leah.
It’s February 2011, and I’m standing at the top of the steps in my church with my father by my side. Leah walks towards me wearing a beautiful white dress. We vow in the name of God to have and to hold each other until we are parted by death. She is my future, and you couldn’t stuff any more gratitude to God in my heart if you tried.
It’s July 2012, and I rush Leah to the hospital. She’s at a ten on the pain scale, and it takes the ER doctors all day to figure out why. The reason is connected to the fact that every month we hope and hope and hope for a positive pregnancy test, and every month our hopes are dashed. We cry a lot. We wonder what’s wrong with us that we can’t seem to do what our bodies are designed to do. The future we planned together dims.
It’s November 2013, and I get off the phone with Chris Barnes, who has just invited me to be your rector. I have to wait patiently for him to stop talking so I could say, “YES!” I feel the same sense of glowing rightness in my chest that I had felt about going to Massachusetts and marrying Leah. The next day, Leah and I have a special medical procedure, and two weeks later we see two tiny heartbeats on the ultrasound monitor.
It’s July 2014, and I watch as first a tiny baby girl and then a slightly less tiny baby boy enter the world. I look in awe at their solemn little faces and their fingers and their miniscule fingernails. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I hold them and whisper to them and change their diapers, and those seem to be the right things to do. I am overwhelmed, and my gratitude comes in kisses, not in words.
It’s the end of 2015, and I’m writing this sermon. I only cry twice (maybe three times) while writing it. It takes me a long time to figure out what to say about this last year. It has been a year of ups and downs, of complete joy and utter exhaustion. It has also been a year of first words and first steps and lots of food dropped purposefully on the kitchen floor. But as I look back, the one word that captures this past year for me is “home.” In all my life, I’ve never felt at home until now – until my children started crawling up the stairs and knowing which room is theirs, until I started walking in the back door and knowing that a pair of sticky hugs was in my immediate future. I am home.
This is what I treasure in my heart today. These are the events from the last decade that have woven themselves into the tapestry of my life. These are the moments – both happy and painful – that have helped sink the moorings of my faith deeper and deeper. As we begin 2016, I invite you to take some time to treasure the last decade in your heart. View your own living tapestry and see how the golden thread of God’s movement weaves through it. If you’d like to write yours down like I did, I would love to read it. Above all, in this new year, I pray that you may find treasure to hold in your hearts, and I pray that you may be the treasure, which others hold in theirs.
The greatest story ever told began
When God breathed deep and bade the light to shine;
Creation burst from Love and Word, then ran
Away and grasped at purpose less divine
Than God would wish or yearn for it. For God
In foolish wisdom wove with freedom’s thread
And gave creation chances to be flawed,
If chance there were to choose the Lord instead.
This freedom came to earth when Eden’s dust
Was poured in human form, but right away
The fruitless choice was made, and broken trust
Turned Eden’s joyful hues to shades of gray.
The freedom God had granted first abused,
When fear and shame were learned and love refused.
With love refused, sad separation reigned:
We littered earth with broken covenants
And chose dark paths to walk and then complained
To God that we were lost beyond all sense.
In longing God would call us to return,
And for a fickle time we would repent.
The cycle thus unleashed: we’d grasp then spurn
The love of God, but God would not relent.
We showed no willingness to come to God
So God in mercy chose to come to us,
As shepherd, comforting with staff and rod,
To teach us sheep again to love and trust.
As love so often does, this love began
When Mary felt a tremor ‘neath her hand.
Her hand leapt up to shield her dazzled eyes
When Gabriel, awash in radiance,
Appeared to her, and much to his surprise,
He saw no fear in Mary’s countenance.
Confusion showed instead on Mary’s face:
She wondered how she ranked as favored one
When her humility would grant no place
As high, yet humble love would bear the Son.
Now God entrusted Mary to decide
If God’s design to walk upon the earth
Would flow through Mary’s womb, thus God relied
On human freedom to approve the birth.
But God chose well: the humble maid said, “Yes,”
And through her love this broken world was blessed.
The world was blessed one night in David’s town,
But so few saw the miracle arrive
That we might wonder whether it came down
At all, or if it simply failed to thrive.
The savior people sought was not a child,
Who nestles helpless at his mother’s breast.
They sought a fighter who like Samson piled
The bodies of the foes he sent to rest.
They sought a soldier who like David led
His troops to bloody victory with ease.
They sought a muscle-bound Messiah bred
To root out rank imperial disease.
So when the unexpected came that night
The people waiting all ignored the light.
The light was fading fast in Bethlehem
When Joseph, hand in hand with Mary, passed
the final house, which closed its doors to them
Like all the rest had done that day. At last
The months of waiting ended with a burst
Of pain that echoed through the darkling gloom;
She knew the birth would now be unrehearsed
And cried to Joseph, “Please go find a room.”
But Joseph would not leave her in the street,
So heaving Mary to his arms he veered
Off down a dusty trail and heard the bleat
Of sheep and goats, and knew a stable neared.
For once, thank God, a door stood open wide,
And breathless, weak, the couple dropped inside.
The couple dropped inside a stable stall,
And Joseph gathered up the fresher hay
While anxious Mary paced from wall to wall
Until the urge to push would not delay.
The universe contracted to the here,
The now, the pain, the prayer, the ancient swell,
The final push, the crystal cry so clear,
The Word made flesh was born — Emmanuel.
The universe expanded once again
As light ascending from within the child,
Reflected in the nighttime sky, and then
The light ignited in a star most wild.
The brilliance shone on heaven and on earth,
Proclaiming God-with-us, the Savior’s birth.
The Savior’s birth took place, yet no one heard
Until the herald angels praised his name
To shepherds (“lowlife rabble,” many slurred),
And yet for outcasts such as these He came.
When eastern wisdom read the star’s good news,
The magi journeyed west toward the flame;
But Herod welcomed them with bloody ruse,
And yet for immigrants like these He came.
For all creation was the Savior born:
Yet not for wealth, nor fortune, nor for fame,
But for the broken, lost, abandoned, scorned,
And Yes — what Joy — for you and me He came.
The greatest story ever told endures
Oh God, keep telling it till we are yours.