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.”
Sermon for Sunday, December 10, 2017 || Advent 2B || Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
The second semester of my sophomore year of college, the choir of Sewanee performed in concert an extraordinary piece of music that I bet most of you have never heard of. The Dona Nobis Pacem by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is a work for choir, soloists, and orchestra in a similar vein as something like Handel’s Messiah but with a more eclectic text. The words of the Dona Nobis Pacem come from the Bible, a political speech, the church service, and the poetry of nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. Written in 1936 as fascism was on the rise in Europe, Vaughan Williams work acknowledges the horror and heartbreak of war even as it cries out for peace. Dona nobis pacem: give us peace.
Now, the choirmaster at Sewanee, Dr. Robert Delcamp, programmed the music for the entire school year the summer beforehand. So he could never have known what would happen the same week we sang our song of peace. It was the spring of 2003: Shock and Awe, the bombing of Baghdad, the beginning of the Iraq War. And here we were, a little choir at a little college, tucked away on a mountaintop in Tennessee, singing our plaintive cry for peace while the drums of war sounded both within the music and out in the world.Continue reading “Dona Nobis Pacem”→
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.
Sermon for Sunday, November 23, 2014 || Christ the King, Year A || Matthew 25:31-46
When I was a kid, there was a series of books called the Magic Eye books. Each page of these books was filled with what looked like very precise and geometric versions of Jackson Pollock’s art work. The pictures were just jumbles of kaleidoscopic lines and shapes, and if you didn’t know any better, that’s all you saw. But the trick with these books was that if you looked at the pictures a different way – sort of squint a bit – then you saw an image hiding beneath the jumbled surface picture. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I never once saw anything besides the geometric Jackson Pollock’s. No matter how often I lied to my friends and said, “Of course, I can see the person walking the dog,” I just could never get my eyes to focus correctly to see the hidden images. Let me tell you, it was quite frustrating.
Every single day, we live in a world like the Magic Eye books, and the feast we celebrate today reminds us of the true picture buried beneath the jumble of lines and shapes. The foundation of our existence is the reign of our king Jesus Christ. This fundamental reality of existence is, if you will, the image concealed beneath the geometric Jackson Pollock. The kingdom of Christ is our true home; this is where we live and move and have our being. But most of us spend much of our time seeing only the jumble of lines and shapes, all the clatter of this broken world that redirects our attention away from the reign of Christ. I could never see the image hidden in the Magic eye, and my success rate at perceiving the reign of Christ in our midst isn’t much better.
And yet, I believe Christ isn’t through with me yet. Unlike other kings, who might have cast me from their service upon my first failure, Jesus, in his mercy, gives me a second chance. And then a third chance. And then a fourth chance. That’s what mercy is, by the way. Mercy is the action of giving someone another chance.
In today’s Gospel lesson, neither the sheep nor the goats see into the heart of the Magic Eye picture. When the king says those famous words about being hungry and thirsty and alien and naked and sick and imprisoned, both groups ask, “Lord, when was it?” When did we see you in these circumstances? And he responds, “That was me. I was there shining from within the least of those who are members of my family.” One group serves and the other does not, but neither group knows whom they, at least, have the potential to serve. They do not have Kingdom Eyes. They do not see the presence of Christ buried beneath the need.
When we see those who are in need, we have so many different reactions. We might cringe and turn away. Or we might be spurred to help, to show compassion. We might be paralyzed by indifference. Or we might reach out in love. We might wonder where the reign of Christ is in the face of so much need. And that’s when we need to pray for Kingdom Eyes, so that, with God’s help, we can see the presence of Christ in the least of the members of Christ’s family. And in witnessing that presence be spurred to help, to show compassion, to reach out in love.
But even when we witness God’s presence amongst the need in this world, even when we see the image hidden beneath the Magic Eye picture, we are not guaranteed to respond in a way that makes the reign of Christ more complete in this broken world. And this is where the mercy of Christ returns to this sermon. You see, none of us is a sheep or a goat. It’s just not that cut and dried. Sometimes we act like one and sometimes like the other. But Christ is not through with us yet. We have a second chance to respond with compassion when we see Christ’s presence in the least of these. And then we have a third chance. And then we have a fourth chance. That’s what mercy is. Through the mercy of God, we have a chance each and every day to respond with compassion when we say, “When was it, Lord? When did we see you? Oh, right there…today…on the street corner.”
The Latin phrase for “Have mercy on me” is Miserere Mei, which is the title of the song I’d like to share with you to close this sermon. This is a song about second and third and fourth chances. It is a song about seeing the reign of Christ in the midst of need and praying for the will to engage that need.
Miserere Mei, by Adam Thomas
Lord, I saw you yesterday
You were holding a cardboard sign near the highway
I tried not to notice when you looked at me
All I saw were a duffel bag and tattered jeans
I looked without seeing
I felt without feeling
You were so easy to ignore
How can I stand here being
A rich man while I’m stealing
The lives of the least of these your children, Lord?
Lord, I saw you on the TV screen
Your belly distended, your arms so lean
You looked at the camera, your dark eyes burned
But I pressed fast-forward till my show returned
I’m all the time pretending
The next time you’ll be sending
Me out to serve is not today
But I feel my lethargy is ending
My tattered heart is mending
When next I see you Lord help me not to turn away.
Lord, I saw you at the hospital
You were lying in a bed surrounded by white-coated people
You watched me standing frozen at the door
I was looking for the courage to take one step more
I feel myself regressing
My lack of faith is pressing
Me to rely on self alone
I am always second-guessing
When I should be confessing
That I will trust your strength O Lord and not my own
Lord have mercy on me.
*You can listen to the live recording of “Miserere Mei” in the sermon audio above or download the original recording here.
**The image associated with this post comes from magiceye.com and serves as the sample image there. I still can’t see the hidden image, even with instruction.