Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2016 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10
The unsavory elements of society come to listen to Jesus, and he does not send them away. The scribes and Pharisees watch from a distance so as not to rub shoulders with such disreputable people, and at every turn Jesus’ behavior confirms their opinion of him. Either he does not understand the basic tenets of society, which force the unsavory elements to the margins where upstanding folks can ignore them. Or he does not care that he risks his own reputation by welcoming them into his presence. Either way, his behavior allows the scribes and Pharisees to write him off.
But there’s a third option that I doubt ever enters their tightly closed minds. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. Maybe he does care; maybe he cares about the people and not about his reputation. Perhaps the reason he welcomes those on the margins is that he has accepted his life’s mission, and he is living that mission to the fullest.Continue reading “Claiming our Mission”→
Sermon for Sunday, July 3, 2016 || Proper 9C || Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
During the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.
Last week, we started a sermon series on being “born again.” We talked about this new life of Jesus Christ, this unreasonable life of love and service. And today, we are going to move on to the next part of the series – and I’ve added a couple things by the way – new hands, new feet, and new eyes. We’ll get to those in just a few minutes.
Sermon for Sunday, June 19, 2016 || Proper 7C || Galatians 3:23-29
During the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.
This is a sermon about two pronouns. The two pronouns today are “us” and “them.” Remember that for just a minute, because first I need to tell you why Paul is so mad. We’ve been reading the letter to the Galatians for the last month, and we haven’t really mentioned it in a sermon yet. But just quickly, here’s why Paul is upset during the letter to the Galatians. Continue reading “There’s Only Us”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 17, 2016 || Easter 4C || Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17
Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we read Psalm 23. We affectionately call today “Good Shepherd Sunday,” since we always pair the shepherd of the beloved psalm with the Good Shepherd, which Jesus describes in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. And yet I doubt it has escaped your notice that we read Psalm 23 more often than once a year. We read it yesterday, in fact; and two weeks before that at the funerals of Ed Carlson and Barbara Noonan. We’re not quite a third of the way through 2016, and we’ve already had six funerals this year. Sometimes the grave seems too close. Sometimes the bitter taste of loss overwhelms all the other sensations we could be feeling. Sometimes the promise of the resurrection seems to lose its luster in comparison to the stark reality of death.
And still we believe that death is an end, but not the end. We believe that the new and superlative life of the resurrection treats death as a threshold through which we walk, not as a tomb at which we stop. A cynic might say that we believe in this way just to make ourselves feel better when a loved one dies. But what the cynic doesn’t understand is that our belief does not make death hurt any less. Our belief enwraps our grief in the warm folds of hope. And hope helps us spread our pain out over the long haul, so that it doesn’t strike us all at once, which would surely kill us. Instead, the pain nestles in our depths and mixes with faith, hope, and memory. And in time, one ingredient in the recipe of grief begins standing out above the rest. And that ingredient is love. So we respond to the cynic: our belief doesn’t make us hurt less, but it does help us love more. In fact, our belief helps us love forever, which is what the resurrection is all about.
Psalm 23 ends with the word “forever.” And in Hebrew it begins with the holiest of God’s names, the “I Am Who I Am” name, the eternal name, the forever name. In between these two mentions of eternity are several promises: promises about sustenance, peace, revival, guidance, companionship, protection, abundance, goodness. We tend to read Psalm 23 at funerals because, in the first days of ragged grief, we need to be reminded of these promises, since we more than likely are having trouble finding ourselves at home in them.
The promises of God continue in our second lesson this morning, from the book of Revelation. Most of this final book of the Bible is strange and scary and sorely misunderstood, but every few chapters, the clouds break and we see the Son shining through. During Easter season, we are reading these shining moments of promise from Revelation. Today, we listen to a promise concerning ones who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The elder says to John,
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Sounds a lot like Psalm 23, right? The promises are the same because the promises of God are eternal. They existed in the early days, when people were first waking up to the presence of God, were first writing down their experiences, some like King David, poetically. The promises continued to exist hundreds of years later when John of Patmos wrote his prophecy in the book of Revelation. And we know these promises still operate now, for we live our lives in their sway.
And yet, it would be folly to think that our lives as followers of the Good Shepherd are complete when we accept these promises for ourselves. No. Stopping there leads to self-centeredness and isolation. Believing God’s promises about sustenance, peace, guidance, abundance, and all the rest compels us to live outside ourselves, to accept our piece of God’s great mission of healing and reconciliation. There are people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And God calls us to them.
Reading this week the promise from Revelation that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” reminded me of a young boy I met when I was a hospital chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas ten summers ago. I was assigned to the tenth floor, which housed the neurological and plastic surgery units. Many of my patients were in for cleft palette procedures, some for brain cancers, and every once in a while a crash victim. Derrick* was one such case. His entire family had been involved in a horrible motor vehicle collision, which killed one of his siblings, sent two others to my hospital, and his parents to neighboring ones.
I don’t remember exactly which bones or vertebrae Derrick had broken in the crash, but when I walked into his room the first time, he couldn’t move his head to see who was at the door. His head and neck were braced in what they call a “halo.” He sat motionless because he literally was unable to move. I babbled out my nervousness for a few ineffectual minutes until the weight of Derrick’s loss pummeled me into silence. My usual chaplain’s patter was not going to work in this case. (And I would discover later that patter of any kind never works.)
I visited him everyday while he was on my floor. Some days we talked a bit – stilted conversation punctuated by long silences. Mere words could not reach the depths of his loss or his loneliness. So we watched TV – the types of shows eleven-year-olds like. The World Cup was that summer, so we watched soccer too. I think Derrick found a teeny tiny morsel of comfort in my visits, but it was utterly apparent that I was a poor substitute for what he really needed, which was his family, who were all still hospitalized themselves. Grandparents came and did what they could. The nurses arranged for his sister, who wasn’t injured as badly, to visit him from her floor occasionally. But his parents could not come.
One morning, I visited him first thing. His eyes flicked over and tracked me as I came around and sat down by his bedside. And that’s when I noticed them: Three perfectly straight lines of salt running from his eye down his dark cheek. Now Derrick couldn’t move because of the halo. This meant that during the night, his bed had been raised and lowered to three different positions, and he had cried at each one. And no one was there to wipe away his tears.
That was the day I finally understood what God was calling me to do. To be. I had been in the process to become a priest for years, but didn’t really know why until I saw those three perfect lines of salt on this broken and devastated child. I couldn’t replace his parents. I couldn’t make him feel better. I couldn’t bring his brother back to life. But I could be there. Just be there…to wipe away his tears.
When you look out over this broken world full of broken promises, I hope you will not let this brokenness overcome you. We who believe God’s promises have a mission to help extend those promises to people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And in this mission, we are not alone. We have a Good Shepherd guiding us to those people, and then guiding us together with them to the springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Sermon for Sunday, December 13, 2015 || Advent 3C || Luke 3:7-18
I think the Gospel lesson I just read sounds harsher than it really is. Notice the last line: “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.” Either this means that the “good news” came in these other exhortations spoken off camera, or everything that John says is to be considered “good news.” I think it’s the latter. Of course, good news doesn’t usually begin by calling people a “brood of vipers.” John the Baptist is not exactly a people person; after all, he’s spent a lot of time by himself in the wilderness. He’s definitely a loner, unlike his cousin Jesus who comes on stage in a few verses and who surrounds himself pretty quickly with a group of friends. But even though John’s social skills may have suffered from his solitude, he’s astute enough to know the crowds expect a spectacle. And he gives them one right off the bat by calling them a “brood of vipers.”
In Matthew’s account of this story the name “brood of vipers” specifically targets the Jewish leadership, but here in Luke’s account, John broadens this designation to include everyone in the crowds (which includes us, by the way). My favorite modern translation of the Bible renders this verse with a little less fervor and a little more silliness: instead of “You brood of vipers” it’s “You children of snakes!” Not quite as punchy.
But I don’t think John is naming the crowds “children of snakes” simply to give them the spectacle they desire. Rather, he’s pre-empting an argument they might make after he instructs them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” This pre-empting continues when he says, “Do not even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ ” In other words, your heritage does not make you bear good fruit nor give you a free pass. The crowds may be “children of Abraham,” but they are also children of snakes. And be assured that everyone in the crowd would hear a hissing of the memory of Adam and Eve’s temptation in the garden when John names them a snake’s descendants and talks about the fruit of the tree.
Thus, in just these opening lines of John’s exhortations, he sets up the duality inherent in all of us. We are none of us entirely good or entirely bad. We are children of Abraham (that is, children of God’s promise) and we are children of snakes (that is, children schooled by separation, temptation, and distrust). I bet each of you has had, at one time or another, these two natures war within you. In real life this war is much less comical than the angels and devils sitting on the shoulders of old Looney Toons characters.
Most often, the war plays out between what is right and what is easy. You can have a reasonable discussion in the wake of a disagreement or you can punch below the belt with slurs and hurtful epithets. You can stand up for those in need or you can ignore their plight. You can tell the truth or you can lie. Everyday, we face choices like these. And everyday, the whispered power of God contends with the hiss of the snake. Every time we listen to the snake, we end up just a bit more alone and isolated than we were before, which makes us so much easier to pick off. Every time we listen to God, we resonate with the song of love and faith and freedom – we sing and dance and exult and fall down weeping in gratitude for God’s gift of grace.
But if that’s the case, if the whispered power of God is so attractive, then why do we give into temptation as often as we do? The simple answer is this. Giving into temptation involves doing absolutely nothing because doing absolutely nothing leads to complacency, and complacency is the root of so much of the world’s despair. That’s why John warns the crowds not to get too comfortable in their heritage as Abraham’s descendants. And that’s why he gives them something to do: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Food and clothing: if these were dispersed fairly throughout the world, a lot of problems would be solved. It was true in John’s day. It remains true in ours. The world has enough, but this “enough” is divided poorly. And we don’t work to change this reality because the one thing the world has too much of is complacency.
If you’ve ever wondered why we confess “things done and things left undone,” now you know. Things left undone make us slip into complacency and from complacency into despair. The whispered power of God invites us to get up like the paralyzed man at the pool, take our mats, and walk; to say with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”; to leave our nets like the fishermen and follow Jesus. But too often the hiss of the snake lulls us back to sleep. Every time we hit the snooze button on life, the duality of nature skews further toward the snake, towards complacency.
So why does John call people a “brood of vipers?” Why does he dunk them under the cold water of the River Jordan? To shake them out of their complacency. To remind them that God is and always will be moving in their lives, urging them to serve and love with active passion and fervor. It’s no wonder then that we prayed what we did in today’s collect. Did you notice the power you invoked a few minutes ago? “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
Are you ready for this? I’m not sure I am. There’s still way too much child of snake in me to desire the wind of the Holy Spirit to stir me up and push me to God knows where. But it’s too late now. The prayer has been prayed. And now it’s up to us to partner with God to see how God’s power will be revealed. Perhaps, you will find this power in new courage to face a difficult circumstance or in new patience amidst uncertainty. Perhaps you will find this power in advocating sensible gun control on this third anniversary of the shooting in Newtown. Or in welcoming a stranger to our community, maybe a refugee family fleeing terror.
However the whispered power of God manifests in your life, know that it is and always will be stronger than the hiss of the snake. The inertial force of complacency is powerful too, but it is no match for the Creator-of-All-that-Is. Remember, it might seem like we’re just sitting still, but in reality we’re spinning at about 800 miles per hour around the earth’s axis. And if that’s not fast enough for you, we’re also moving at about 67,000 miles per hour around the sun. And that’s not even thinking about what our galaxy is doing in space. Talk about being stirred up.
The power we invoked during our collect this morning keeps this universe moving. And it keeps us moving, always ready to harness our birthright as children of the promise and to participate in God’s mission here on earth. During Advent, we don’t wait for the Lord in complacency. No. During Advent, we don’t wait. We prepare.
Art: Detail from “Baptism of the People” by Andrea Del Sarto (1515)
As many of you know, Tim Evers and I spent much of last week in Haiti visiting our mission partner, St. Luc School. As you will see later in this sermon, I’m so thankful that a coincidence of calendar had us travel there during Advent. My first glimpse of the country came from 10,000 feet in the air. The Haitian landscape rises rugged and mountainous to the east where it abuts the Dominican Republic and flattens to the west where a peninsula bathes in the Caribbean Sea. Our destination was in the countryside west of the capital.
We arrived at the hospital of St. Croix in Leogane after the wildest vehicular ride of my life. Negotiating intersections paired survival of the fittest with a massive game of chicken. There were next to no traffic lights, and the painted traffic lanes seemed merely suggestive. Even which side of the road to drive on was in doubt. But we made it, thanks to our driver’s aggressive skill and liberal use of the horn.
As we drove, both from the airport and on the way to St. Luc, I tried to take in as much of my surroundings as possible. Here are a few impressions in no particular order:
Wherever there is an open patch of ground, there are kids playing soccer on it. Grass is optional. And having a ball is optional.
Most people are dressed the way you or I might when we’re doing yard work. The big exception are kids – particularly girls – wearing immaculate school uniforms. And I mean immaculate. Their blouses are the only thing I saw that I would classify as the color white. Everything else that could be white was painted tan by all the dust.
There are stray dogs all over the place, many with mammary glands obviously swollen with milk. I realized how odd this sight was to me because nearly every dog in the U.S. is spayed or neutered.
The two main forms of transportation are walking and riding small motorcycles — dirt bikes, really. I didn’t know you could fit five people on a dirt bike, but you can.
There are lots of scrawny little goats milling around.
Many of the ramshackle dwellings are fenced in with tarps emblazoned with “USAID” – the United States Agency for International Development. The tarps say, “From the American People” on them. It’s a sad commentary that the emergency tarps provided five years ago after the earthquake have become a permanent fixture in people’s dwellings.
In the distance, the landscape is truly stunning, but focusing on the landscape close by tells what happens when there is no functioning sanitation department. Discarded bottles and Styrofoam food containers collect in piles like raked leaves, along with other unidentified refuse.
All this I saw from the seat of a dented Mazda dualcab truck. All this I saw without actually interacting with anyone. Thankfully, we did interact with people, and so my appreciation for both the blessings and challenges of life in Mercery, Haiti deepened. Our main contact was Fr. Sonley Joseph, the priest in charge of St. Croix and its eight — eight! — satellite parishes, including St. Luc. Sonley and I have a lot in common: we’re both writers and we both lived in the same dormitory at Virginia Theological Seminary (he a couple years after I). I liked him immediately, and not just because of our kinship, but because of his soft-spoken, yet ardent and inviting vision of the mission of God. In Haiti, the Church’s participation in God’s mission has always been linked with education, and most churches have schools attached. Sounds like St. Mark’s, if you ask me.
Fr. Sonley was our guide and interpreter when we went to St. Luc on Wednesday morning to say hello to the students and teachers. We received 270 bon jours in return across the eight classrooms, from 6th grade on down to pre-K. The school has no electricity, but there is enough tropical sunlight to illuminate all the rooms, save one whose windows are shaded by plants. The classrooms are quite noisy because there’s nothing but cinderblocks to keep sounds from one room invading another. And most teaching is done using the blackboard, as there aren’t enough books to go around.
But even with these challenges, the teachers’ love for their profession and their students is evident from the moment you step into the room. Tim and I met with the teachers later in the day, and they all agreed that St. Luc is the best school in Mercery. Their pride for and dedication to their school was wonderful to feel. Access to education is a fundamental human right. And these teachers are realizing this fundamental human right for those 270 beautiful children, in a country were such access is far from assured.
To be involved in the process of educating these children, even in the small way we at St. Mark’s are, is a gift. Our partnership with St. Luc School is a gift from God, a participation in God’s mission as Fr. Sonley described it. Of course, there is so much more we could do. We have a list, prioritized from simple to incredibly ambitious. But that’s only for these 270 kids. What about the other children of Haiti or in other poverty-stricken places (even here in the States) or the other needs and disparities that need to be addressed or the issues of injustice that keep people from having access to fundamental human rights? There is so much more that we could do! There is always so much more we can do — So, so, so, so, so much more that we can easily be overwhelmed; the need can steal our breath, then our balance, then our will to persevere.
And this is where the season of Advent infiltrates our hearts and minds and gives us a little breathing room to stand back and take it all in. Yes, the needs of this world are great. Yes, the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. But Advent teaches us two things that will sharpen our focus and our will.
First, as Stacey so aptly put it last week, Advent reminds that the One we long for is already here. There is a tension at play between God’s kingdom already here and God’s kingdom still to come. God’s kingdom is alive and well in Haiti. Indeed, despite the general poverty of resources and circumstances, the faith of the people of Haiti is deep and abiding. I saw dozens of signs that said “Merci Jesus” on them. Thank you, Jesus! For what, you might ask? For life. For love. For family. For the same things you and I thank Jesus for. That’s the “already” of the kingdom. The “not yet” is still breaking in: it’s in the teachers sweltering at blackboards with 50 students clamoring for attention; it’s in the mother painstakingly washing the uniform each night so it is immaculate again in the morning; it’s in the hungry yet smiling faces of those children who are Haiti’s future, whom we are helping to educate.
Second, Advent teaches us to focus on a particular spot at a particular time on a particular person. The particularity of Jesus’ Incarnation is what we are getting ready for. God came to us in all the particularity of a precious human life, born in a place that could easily have been fenced with a tarp from USAID. Because of this Incarnation, Jesus had a chance to meet people in a way God couldn’t — eye to eye, touching, embracing, walking with, eating with…dying for. When you start to get overwhelmed by the needs of the world, return to Advent. Walk with Mary and Joseph to that starlit stable in Bethlehem and witness the birth of grace and love. See Christ embodied in his own peculiar humanness. Then go back to the needs of this world. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity. Instead, do what God did in the Incarnation: pick a place; pick a person. Be present there. Form a partnership there. Form relationships there in that singular place. Find Christ in that person. And be an incarnation of Christ to that person.
That’s what we’re doing in the partnership between St. Mark’s Church and St. Luc School. It’s an Advent partnership: already begun but never quite finished. It’s also a Christmas partnership, because in that little school off a dirt road in the boondocks of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we incarnate Christ for each other. Thanks be to God.
Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2015 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31
Jesus feels drawn to the man kneeling in front of him. His heart is warmed, and he feels the stirrings of love and compassion for this frightened soul in the midst of an existential crisis. Perhaps the man recently had a parent or friend die, or perhaps he himself had experienced an accident or illness that brought death near. Whatever the trigger, the man comes to Jesus with a serious question that has obviously been plaguing him because of some unspoken dread roiling within him.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus lists off some of the standard commandments, and the man checks each box. That’s when Jesus looks at him with love and compassion. Here is this man in fine clothes getting dirty in the dust of the road. Here is this man with obvious wealth and power coming to an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head. “I know what’s holding you back,” Jesus says. “It’s always something. There’s always something in the way that only you can shift. I can help. I can encourage. I can give you strength and courage. But you must decide.”
“What? What is it?” pleads the man.
“In your case: sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”
Shocked into speechlessness, the man gives Jesus a hard look, stands, dusts off his finery, and stalks away, not really understanding the source of his tears. Jesus invited this man to give away his possessions. He was holding his stuff so tightly that he couldn’t open his hands to receive what Jesus was offering him. He couldn’t let go, so he never discovered how life-changing it can be to release your grip, to uncurl your hand ready to give and ready to receive.
Jesus diagnoses this man on the spot. Jesus loves him enough not to sugarcoat what he needs to do to get past the barriers his own wealth has set up. Give it all away. Just give it all away. This action of giving is one of the more powerful steps we can take in our lives of faith in response to God’s movement in those lives. So it makes sense that Jesus invites each and every one of us, like the man in the story, to give. And as near as I can tell, this giving follows a general pattern.
First we have giving up. I know, I know, the great American sports movie teaches us differently: every single one of them follows the same pattern: upstart team or individual gets trounced by dominant team or individual. Upstart trains, learns something about teamwork or grit, and challenges the champion. The game goes horribly for our heroes until the last minute – it’s gut check time – and they decide never to give up. With renewed strength and faith, the upstart wins in the last second. That’s the narrative we are steeped in here in the United States. Never give up.
And yet, that’s exactly what our faith calls us to do. Give up. So we ask ourselves: what does God desire us to give up? Most questions we put to God are hard. But not this one. God dreams for us to have as close a connection to God as God has to us. Therefore, we have to give up all that stands in the way of such intimate connection. There’s a special word for this stuff that stands in the way: “idol.” Whatever it is, each of us has something we tend to put ahead of God. We look to that something to give us life. But since the idol will never be able to give us what we need, our lives shrivel until they are brittle and paper thin, starved because the idol provides such poor nourishment.
So God urges us to give up such idols. But that’s just step one. Step two is giving in. It’s not enough to do away with the idols. If we don’t give in – if we don’t surrender ourselves into God’s loving and sustaining care – then the power vacuum will just attract another idol to take the place of the old one. So we give in to God. We surrender ourselves to God’s love and mercy.
This giving in is so hard. It continues going against the grain we’ve been taught. Now the war movie takes center stage. Of course, we’d never surrender! But again, we must ask ourselves: to whom are we surrendering. Not to the enemy. Not to the bad guy. We surrender to our own commander. We were in rebellion all along, and now we’re coming home.
So we give up, then we give in. And then we give ourselves over to trusting God with our whole beings. It’s not enough simply to surrender. Giving over means joining God’s side. You say, “You’re in charge, Lord, not me. Of the two of us, I’m not the better decision maker, so why don’t you take the lead. I’ll follow.”
Again, giving over is no cakewalk. Our socialization is still against us. We’ve seen too many movies, and now the Teacher-Pupil archetype comes to mind – the one where the hard luck case puts trust in a mentor who turns out not to be as perfect as the hard luck case thought, and drama ensues. We are the hard luck cases, but our mentor just so happens to be as perfect as we think. (More perfect even, since we can’t begin to perceive the wonder of God.)
So we give up, then we give in, then we give over. Now we’re ready to give back. We remember the TV shows and movies in which the teenager gets a first credit card and goes on a crazy buying spree. Yep, that’s us, if given half a chance, so maybe we shouldn’t be in charge. Since we trust God more than we trust ourselves, we conclude, it’s time for God to take charge of all our stuff. We can be stewards of the stuff, but it’s not ours anymore.
Each year, God gives us stewardship of most of this stuff and keeps a small percentage to be used for God’s mission here at St. Mark’s and elsewhere. We partner with God by pledging this small percentage towards God’s mission. That percentage might be 10% or a little less or a little more. Through prayer, we can discern what’s right for each of us in our circumstances.
This giving back transitions into the final act of giving: giving forward; that is, not only financing God’s mission but participating in it with our own gifts and passions. Think of disaster films in which everyone bands together to beat the odds. Giving forward means making decisions and making sacrifices with people other than ourselves in mind. Giving forward means propelling into God’s bright future those people who think they have no future.
Just as Jesus invites the man in today’s Gospel to give away all he has, Jesus invites us to give. With God’s help, we give up our idols. We give in to God and surrender our malfunctioning wills. We give over to God our self-determination and trust God’s guidance. We give back to God all that we have, knowing that our stuff is safer in God’s hands. And we give forward for God, partnering with God in the great mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. To give up, in, over, back, forward – to give – is a great act of faith. Thanks be to God, then, that God began this entire process by giving first: giving us God’s son, God’s grace, love, hope; giving us our own deep desire to give.
Sermon for Sunday, September 20, 2015 || Proper 20B || Mark 9:30-37
Every day of my fourth grade year, my class lined up at the end of recess to go back inside. The bell rang, and we raced to our spots in the line. But the race was in vain because no matter who arrived at the door first, we always lined up alphabetically by last name. By last name. What I wouldn’t have given to line up by first name. Then (Oh happy day!) I would have been at the very front of the line. No Aarons or Abigails in my class. No. Adam would have been the first name on the list. But those days were cruel. Every morning, I stood on tiptoes to see over the twenty-three heads in front of me, and only one boy – Shane Yellin – was worse off than I.
Then, on the day when all the mothers began insisting their fourth graders wear winter coats to school, something happened. Mrs. Ida Hughes, my math teacher, challenged us to line up in reverse alphabetical order. And for one cold, drizzly, glorious day, I stood at the front of the line and only one head obstructed my view of the playground doors.
Standing at the front of the line feels good and the benefits are numerous. Being in front means the concert tickets aren’t sold out. The first baseman hasn’t tired of signing autographs. The bucket of fried chicken at the church potluck retains its full complement of chicken legs. Certainly, perks abound for those in front. Go to any shopping center in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving and witness the millions of Americans attempting be first in line simply to purchase new TVs for “doorbuster” prices.
Of course, these benefits are all about me. I get the tickets and the autograph and the preferred piece of chicken. I get the deal on the television. I get all these things because I got in line before you. You are behind me and someone else is behind you and countless faceless others line up behind that someone else. So we stand in our line and stare at the backs of the heads in front of us. In this linear configuration, no one can converse. No one can relate. No one can do anything more than slowly shuffle forward, both surrounded and isolated at the same time.
This isolation is the danger Jesus envisions when he places a little child among his disciples. They’ve been arguing about which one of them is the greatest (in other words, which one of them should be first in line). The prevailing linear culture has thoroughly molded the disciples. They only understand relationships in terms of hierarchy based on class, gender, and age. But they’ve been hanging around Jesus long enough to know that Jesus is thoroughly countercultural. He talks with women. He eats with outcasts. He touches the unclean. And so the disciples lapse into embarrassed silence when Jesus asks them about the content of their argument. They know they’ve provided Jesus with what would now be called a “teachable moment.”
The disciples expect something countercultural and that’s exactly what Jesus gives them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To illustrate the revolutionary nature of this statement, Jesus brings a small child and places the child among the disciples – not before them or after them, but among them. In Jesus’ day, this child was the last of the last. The hierarchy of the society placed children just below farm animals because you could get a lot more out of a goat than a toddler, and the goat would probably live longer. Children had no rights or protections. They weren’t even considered people until they were old enough to work.
But Jesus ignores this cruel stratification when he says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Jesus commands his disciples and us to welcome those whom society deems lowest of all. With this welcome comes the opportunity to see the faces and learn the stories of those who until now were at the end of the line, too far removed from us to register on our radar. And as we hear the stories of the lowest and the last, we seek ways to serve them and serve with them.
But one of the greatest mistakes of our time has been the Western presumption that we know what’s best for the people we serve: “You might not have said you need a well in your village, but we’re going to come and build one anyway.” This imperialistic attitude only perpetuates the linear model, which our service should be attempting to supplant. However, with his command to welcome, Jesus doesn’t allow us to develop a “serve first and ask questions later” mentality. Welcoming provides the framework through which service leads to the building up of relationships.
With his emphasis on relationships, Jesus changes the existing linear model into a circular one. In the line, you can’t welcome anyone because all you see are the backs of heads. You can’t serve anyone because the implied hierarchy of the line makes isolation the norm. You can only count the number of people ahead of you and nurse your own indignation over your rotten place in line. But in the circle, there is no first and no last. We can grasp hands in welcome precisely because we will be unable to quantify our position in the continuous round. And relationships have a chance to flourish because we look not at backs but at each other’s faces.
This circular model of welcome and service stands in laughable contrast to the current situation in this country. Too many incidents to count show that the tired old scourge of racism is alive and well. The drive to produce leads to longer hours, more work, and more money, but assuredly less happiness, less camaraderie. The gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider. Each of these examples depends on the linear model continuing to thrive. And it is. So here we sit with our Lord challenging us to do something, which the loudest voices on the other side of those doors claim is utter nonsense.
To be first you must be last of all and servant of all, he says. Let go of linear relationships based on power and ambition and embrace circular relationships based on welcome and service. If you are standing near the front of the line now, start walking to the back. Grab the hand of the last person in line and form the circle. Welcome the least among us. Listen to their needs, their desires, their dreams. Form new relationships. Partner with them in service because we are only as strong as our weakest members. Jesus invites us over and over again to accomplish these things. And Jesus never issues an invitation without simultaneously offering the gifts needed to embrace it.
So to every fourth grader lining up after recess and to every businessperson lining up at Starbucks and to everyone whose ambition blinds him or her to those standing on tiptoes in the back: Give up your place in line.
Sermon for Sunday, August 30, 2015 || Proper 17 || James 1:17-27
My tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Lewis, disliked linking verbs – passionately disliked linking verbs. She disliked linking verbs so much that she would count the number of times we students used the words “is” and “was” (and all the others) in our papers and deduct points if we exceeded more than one or two per paragraph. She nursed a particular vendetta against the word “become,” if memory serves. Do you know how hard it is to write a paper with next to no linking verbs? (I just used one in the last sentence, and you probably didn’t even notice.) Now we students grumbled about this strict grading procedure every time we wrote an essay, but Mrs. Lewis stuck to her guns. And God love her for it, because I count Mrs. Lewis as one of the teachers that made me the writer I am today. (Dang! I just used another linking verb.)
By forcing us to use action verbs, Mrs. Lewis taught us to make our essays hum with energy and movement. I remember editing my papers to ferret out every last linking verb and trying to shove as much action as I could into them. The sentence “The Lord of the Flies is a book about the aftermath of a plane crash” changed to “In The Lord of Flies, boys survive a plane crash, but not each other.” Sounds like a movie trailer right? That’s what Mrs. Lewis was pushing for – pulsing, active writing from a group of tenth graders who didn’t really care that much.
I think Mrs. Lewis had a little bit of the Apostle James in her, judging by his letter tucked away near the back of the New Testament, a portion of which we just read. “Be doers of the word,” says James, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Be doers of the word. Use action verbs in your life. The Word of God is not just words on the pages of a dusty book on the shelf. The Word of God rushes up off those pages and implants in our hearts. The Word of God propels us to get ourselves off the couch and do something. Be doers of the word.
Throughout his somewhat labyrinthine prose, James hammers on this point again and again. At the end of today’s passage, James offers a rare moment of succinct clarity: true religion, he says, “is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James uses action verbs: care for the marginalized, and keep yourself clean, unsullied by the misplaced priorities of the world.
In a few moments, we will stand up and say a host of action verbs, as well. We will affirm our Baptismal Covenant, standing with the soon-to-be-baptized and renewing the actions that our baptismal life compels us to do. I know many of you were baptized long before the Baptismal Covenant was even written, but I hope since its publishing in 1979 you have come to adopt it as your own. The Baptismal Covenant is the Episcopal Church’s own rare moment of succinct clarity, like James’s caring for orphans and widows. The Covenant begins with belief – an adapted version of the Apostles’ Creed – and then moves on to five promises that this belief stirs us to act upon.
Mrs. Lewis would like these five promises. There’s not a linking verb to be found. Every verb in these five promises propels us to act.
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” The verb “continue” assumes these actions of learning, sharing, and praying have always been ongoing. These actions have persisted since the time of the apostles, and we are stepping into the ever-flowing stream of their legacy. This first promise invites us to join a movement already in progress and lend it our hands and voice and heart.
The second promise: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” The verb “persevere” speaks to the weariness that creeps in while we resist evil. Evil wears us down, preferring not to strike all at once, but rather to gnaw on us while we’re not looking, until we do look one day and find there’s nothing left. But we promise to persevere and to repent and return to God when we do fall into sin. Notice we don’t say “if” we fall into sin. We say “when,” which is why God always leaves open to us the actions of repenting and returning.
The third promise: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” The verb “proclaim” urges much more than mere speaking. We’re talking about shouting from the rooftops here; we’re talking about putting your whole self forward, staking a claim, taking a stand, making your words line up with your actions. That’s proclamation. And what are we proclaiming? The Good News of God in Christ – I can’t think of anything worthier of such a strong verb as “proclaim.”
The fourth promise: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Seek, serve, love – this is the heart of our duty and our joy as followers of Jesus Christ. If you take this promise seriously, you soon realize just how hard it is to embody. But Jesus never said being his follower would be easy. He said it would bring life – abundant life to each follower and each person his followers touch.
The fifth promise: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The verb “strive” is like the verb “persevere.” It reminds us that we will never be done working for justice and peace. There is no happily-ever-after this side of heaven. But perhaps in the daily working for justice, we move an inch closer than we were before: a quarter teaspoon more fairness stirs into the mix, a splash more peace, and that’s all we can do for today. And it all starts simply by respecting everyone’s dignity, looking each person in the eye and saying, “We’re all in this together.”
In response to each promise, we say, “I will, with God’s help.” We acknowledge that we can take none of these actions without God’s patient urging and steadfast partnership. Our baptism is not just a symbolic act of washing and welcome. Our baptism catalyzes a life of action. With God’s help, we continue in learning, sharing, and praying. We persevere in resisting evil. We repent and return to the Lord. We proclaim the Good News. We seek, serve, and love Christ in others. We strive for justice and peace. We respect all people.
I wonder which of these actions captures you today? I wonder which action compels you to leave this church today on fire to do it? I wonder what rare moment of succinct clarity you hear from God this day? Each of us is a doer of the word. So go with God: learn, share, pray, persevere, repent, proclaim, seek, serve, love, strive, respect. Each of us is a doer of the word. So go with God. Do.
Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015 || Epiphany 1B || Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
You may recall during a sermon last spring, I challenged you to choose six words to proclaim your faith. I remembered the “Six-Word Witness” challenge as I began to prepare for this new season after Epiphany, as there happen to be six Sundays between now and Lent. If you read my article in the recent issue of The Lion’s Tale, you got a sneak peak at a particular six-word witness, one that describes the trajectory of the next six weeks as we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. My plan during this season after Epiphany is to connect this sermon with the next five to tell a much larger story of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
Yes, you heard that right. Today’s sermon is the beginning of a six-part series. That means if you have plans to go skiing in a couple of weeks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to cancel.
We begin today with the first word: Affirmation. And we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning. What we find when we enter the story as early as we possibly can is the affirmation of goodness. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”
Right away, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God has already affirmed something as good. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the creation story. Each day God creates, and that which God creates God affirms as good. Thus the fundamental goodness of creation is built into the very fabric of creation. From the sweeping array of celestial bodies to the lowliest tadpole dwelling in the muck to us troublesome and ungainly humans, God affirms everything God makes with the seal of goodness.
(As an aside, God calls us humans “very” good while the rest of creation is merely good, but I think that has more to do with the fact that we humans we were the ones who wrote it all down.)
The reality that goodness entered creation on the ground floor is of utmost importance for the rest of the ongoing story. There have been folks in the past, notably in the early centuries of Christianity, who taught that the physical creation God made — the matter, the flesh, the stuff we can see and touch — was, in fact, inherently evil. They taught that only the spiritual realm held any goodness, and so they sought to divorce themselves from the flesh entirely. Of course, to make this heretical mental leap, they had to ignore the bulk of the Biblical witness, which they did with no qualms at all. Their path led to disengagement from the world; the founding of secretive, insular societies; and what I imagine was quite a lot of struggle against instincts that are totally normal, but which they decided were base and evil. Thankfully, the majority of Christians were not led astray by this faulty understanding of creation. And so we still have the witness of Genesis reminding us of God’s affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation.
But now comes our own mental leap. Or call it a leap of faith. We move from one beginning to another, from the beginning of creation to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the outset of Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water of the River Jordan during his own baptism. He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Notice the placement of this piece of the Gospel. Before Jesus has a chance to do anything of consequence; before his ministry gets off the ground; before any miracles or teachings or healings or his death or resurrection, God showers upon Jesus God’s love and pleasure. Just like God affirms creation as good right from the start, God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son before he has a chance to earn the right to such a name.
Now, you might be thinking: “Of course God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son — that’s who he is! What about me?!” Yes, what about the rest of us troublesome, ungainly, and yet “very” good humans? Well, to make our leap of faith, we need a little help from our friend the Apostle Paul. He writes to the church in Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).
If the writers of Genesis were presumptuous to call us “very” good, then Paul must be doubly so to claim that we are joint heirs with Christ. Or is he? Perhaps, instead, Paul has seen into the truth of the matter, seen Jesus’ plan all along, a plan to show us what we have always been and to reaffirm our inherent goodness, our lovableness.
And here’s where our own version of the heresy I spoke of earlier comes to into play. While those folks taught the matter of creation was inherently evil, there is an overriding voice in our modern American society telling us that we aren’t exactly evil, but we sure are deficient. I’m of course referring to my favorite homiletical punching bag, the ubiquitous marketing department. Marketing campaigns work like this: they tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.
All this must be true, right? I mean, we’re bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. That’s when we forget our inherent goodness, the goodness God affirmed in the first rushing breath of creation.
Here our leap of faith continues, because the marketing department has convinced us of our utter worthlessness. And so we might not want to believe that Jesus has invited us — yes, even you and me — to be joint heirs with him of the love and pleasure of God. Jesus received this affirmation of his belovedness before his ministry even started. Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are. God’s love and pleasure are nestled at the very core of our beings, nestled right next to the affirmation of goodness, which God breathes into all creation.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed this up in one dazzling sentence. He once said, “God does not love us because we are lovable; we are lovable because God loves us.” This love is the core of our identity, not something we earn, not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we choose to believe this fundamental truth, we will be ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives. It is to these invitations we turn next week as our six-part series continues. But for today, feel this truth in your bones. Feel God say this to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
Sermon for Sunday, January 18, 2015 || Epiphany 2B || 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
Last Sunday, we started our six-part sermon series about our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. And we began with the word “Affirmation.” God affirmed in the earliest moment of creation the fundamental goodness of that creation. And God affirmed Jesus – and by extension we who are also God’s children – as the beloved, in whom God is well pleased. The love and goodness of God form the core of our identity. They are not something we earn. They are not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we embrace this fundamental truth, we are ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives.
That’s the second word: Invitation. As we move on, you’ll see how closely linked our two words are, and you’ll see why we had to start with affirmation in the first place.
Invitations offer specific, time-sensitive choices about how you are going to spend your time and resources. A friend may invite you to her birthday party. A head hunter may invite you to apply for a new job. A coach may invite you to join a club soccer team. Or God may invite you. Let me rephrase – God does invite you, me, each of us to join God in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world.
We’ll get to that mission next week since “mission” is our third word. For now, let’s stay with “invitation” – God’s invitation. When God invites us to partner with God in mission, we always have a choice and the mission is always specific. Individual invitations may be time-sensitive due to the exigencies of what a particular mission is, but God’s invitations never expire. God renews them day by day, hour by hour. God is always inviting us into deeper relationship, into closer partnership, into greater service.
In our story this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures, God calls to the boy Samuel four times. No three strikes and you’re out here. On the fourth time, Samuel responds to God’s invitation, but I imagine God would have kept calling until Samuel and Eli figured out what was happening.
Sadly, unlike Samuel, we often turn away from the invitations God sends us. We ignore them or decline them because of where or why God delivers them. This is because, most often, God’s invitation intersects with our inadequacies, our pain, our brokenness. Each of us is broken in one way or another, or in many ways. Brokenness is part of the human condition because perfection is far from us and sin is near. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves.
But when we allow God to move in our lives, we discover God redeeming this brokenness by offering us invitations to go to the center of our pain. Because only at the center of our pain can healing begin. And because only at the center of our pain will we find solidarity with others feeling the same pain as we. God’s desire to extend holy invitations is not the reason we are broken; rather, accepting a holy invitation is the best way to make our brokenness mean something for ourselves and to others.
I’d like to share with you a deeply personal story about my own brokenness to illustrate this point. I share this not to garner sympathy, but to demonstrate from my own experience God’s astonishing ability to redeem brokenness and refashion old pain into new possibility.
When I was eleven years old, the church broke me. My father was three years into his rectorship at his first church when everything started to fall apart. His misplaced enthusiasm and zealous naïveté collided with an intransigent establishment that said it wanted change and growth, but was not ready to face the consequences of such things. My father was the proverbial unstoppable force, and the establishment the immovable object. And my mother, sister, and I were caught in the middle.
I do not remember much about the conflict. But I do remember one Sunday morning. It is a fixed point in my life. I was acolyting at the 8 o’clock service. My father stood up to preach, but a few minutes into his sermon, a man in the congregation also stood up, a man who had been a friend to our family when we first moved. He spoke out sharply, telling my father to “sit down and shut up.” I had never heard anyone speak to my dad that way, let alone during a church service. I started to cry. My father came over and calmly asked if I’d like to go home. I nodded, and he hugged me and helped me back to the sacristy. Later that week, several parishioners accused my father of planning and then staging my tearful departure from the church.*
A few months after that, we moved to Alabama and were met by the most gracious and loving congregation a clergy family could ask for. But I didn’t trust them. I always wondered when the betrayal would happen. I was broken.
Where is God’s holy invitation in this story? How is God redeeming this brokenness? Let me tell you. The church that broke my family was also called St. Mark’s. It was here in New England, about sixty miles from this spot. It was my father’s first call as rector. We lived next door in the rectory. Our family had two young children, a boy and a girl. You might see a pattern here.
Somehow, by accepting God’s holy invitations throughout my life, my family has arrived at a place close to the center of my childhood pain. And I feel God redeeming that pain every day as I collaborate in ministry with the wonderful people at this St. Mark’s; and as I walk with people who have also been broken by the church.
Each of us is or has been broken in one way or another. But through God’s invitations, our brokenness can mean something. Perhaps alcohol ruined your life years ago, but you’re a dozen years sober, and now you sponsor new members of AA who are trying to turn their lives around. Perhaps the scourge of gun violence cruelly took the life of a loved one, and now you rally support to end such senseless killing. Perhaps you were in the closet in high school and know the pain of one living a lie, and now whenever you meet a gay teen you do all in your power to bring hope to that person’s life. “It gets better,” you say, and you mean it. These are God’s invitations, delivered to the heart of our own pain and brokenness.
And this is where affirmation re-enters our discussion. Since so many of God’s holy invitations originate in our brokenness, our pain can trick us into thinking the invitation is meant for someone else. But we err when we think that God can only use the whole parts of us, as there aren’t many of those anyway. That’s why we must remember that before anything else, God affirmed us as God’s good and beloved children. No amount of brokenness can keep God from inviting us into deeper relationship, closer partnership, and greater service.
We’ll pick up this greater service next week when we reach the third word: “Mission.” But for now, I’d like to share one last story of finding God’s invitation in our brokenness. It comes from Leo McGarry, the chief-of-staff on the fabulous TV show, The West Wing, and a recovering drug and alcohol addict. Leo tells the struggling Josh Lyman this parable:
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’ ”
*I shared with my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, the few paragraphs concerning my experience as an eleven-year-old, and he asked me to share with you what happened after I left the church from his perspective. He writes: “This is a powerful part of your story. You should and must tell it. I would, however, ask you to consider adding what happened after you left the sanctuary (interesting word: not a place of safety for you at that time!). I resumed my sermon, the text was on the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain and the whining that accompanies unrealistic expectations: no wonder I was challenged. The most odd and graceful thing for me occurred as we shared holy communion. Everyone came to the altar rail, including my antagonist. The blessing (and irony) of offering him and the other antagonists the grace found within the sacrament still prompts a sense of wonder and joy when the hugeness of God’s love is made evident.
Sermon for Sunday, January 25, 2015 || Epiphany 3B || Mark 1:14-20
Two weeks ago, we felt God affirm us as God’s good and beloved children. Last week, that affirmation allowed us to accept God’s holy invitations, which most often originate in our own brokenness. This week, we ask where those invitations lead us, and we find our third word in this six-part series. That third word is Mission.
In church lingo, the word “mission” is usually followed by the word “trip.” Perhaps you went on a mission trip as a teenager to a Native American reservation or spent a week painting a church in a town in El Salvador. When I was in seminary I went on a mission trip to New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. The group went down with Habitat for Humanity thinking we were going to be rebuilding homes. Turns out it was too soon to begin rebuilding, so we spent much of the week mucking putrid, knee-deep mud and silt out of water-logged homes on streets, whose road signs had been ripped off their poles by hundred mile an hour winds. We wore white coveralls, masks, and plastic gloves, which we duct-taped to our wrists. We spent the days bent over our shovels, thinking of nothing more than the next scoop of muck, because if you tried to think bigger thoughts, you became suddenly and irreversibly overwhelmed by the sodden despair clinging to every surface. Everywhere you looked, the five-month old disaster was still raw, still fresh.
When we returned to Virginia, it felt like coming home from a trip to Mars. I woke up the morning after we got back, and I wondered if it had all just been a bad dream. Then I rose and felt the bone-deep ache in my muscles and knew it was no dream. We had been there. We had helped. A little.
For that week in January 2006, bending over a shovel in a house on the outskirts of New Orleans was my mission from God. I have no doubt about that. I bring up this particular, weeklong excursion, however, to point out just how atypical it is. Most people never go on mission trips. If you do regularly, you’ll go probably a single week a year. I’ve only been on one other since New Orleans. Surely, there’s more to mission than just the trips?
When Jesus invites those four unsuspecting fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he doesn’t say, “Follow me for a week.” He just says, “Follow me.” And then he gives them their mission: “And I will make you fish for people.” What Jesus offers is not just a break from their nets, but a complete change in their lives as they know them. Simon, Andrew, James, and John do not sign up for a mission trip. They sign up for a mission life.
This is the opportunity Jesus offers us today. He offered it yesterday, too, and he will offer it again tomorrow. He doesn’t say, “Follow me for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when you are around your church friends.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when it is convenient.” He just says, “Follow me.” The invitation embedded in those two words promises a life of meaning, of service, of sacrifice, and of joy; not an easy life, but a full life, a life of purpose.
And all Jesus wants in return is you. All of you. Everything that makes you, you: your gifts and talents, as well as your pain and brokenness; your hopes and dreams, as well as your fears and nightmares. Offering everything we are to Jesus helps God tailor our missions to our lives. God will only use the parts of us that we give back to God. So if we want our missions to be authentic outpourings of ourselves for God’s work in the world, then we have to be willing to give everything — and I mean everything — back to God. There may be a dark corner of your life that you don’t want anyone to see. But shining a light into that dark corner may be the exact mission God yearns for you to accomplish. It may be painful. It may lead you to places you never thought you’d go. But it will be your mission. And because you will be following Jesus, he will arrive there ahead of you.
Like the original disciples, when we sign up to follow Jesus, we sign up for mission lives. But before you cringe away from the level of commitment that Jesus calls forth from us, let’s consider those original disciples. For them, following Jesus was an immersive experience. They lived with him. They ate with him. They could tell us if he snored or which sandal he always put on first. And still they often misunderstood him, disbelieved his power, and even abandoned him in his own hour of need. And these were the fellows who knew him in person.
Living mission lives does not mean living perfect lives. Like I said, Jesus wants us – warts and all – to follow him. The brokenness the disciples exhibit in the Gospel is the same brokenness that leads us to God’s holy invitations and then on to our missions.
Jesus’ own mission led him to the cross, and it is the image of the cross that I’d like to dwell on for a moment. Think of the vertical plank of the cross as all the possible missions God could call you to, everything that leads to healing and reconciliation in this world. Now think of the horizontal plank as the entirety of yourself that you have to give to the one who invited you to follow him. The spot where the two planks meet is the center of your mission life. And it is also the spot where Christ gave up his life in order to give you yours.*
The center of the cross is not a pleasant place. Neither will be many of the places where we find ourselves engaged in our mission lives. But just as Jesus transformed the cross from a symbol of death and brokenness into a symbol of life and wholeness, Jesus has already gone ahead of us to our mission fields and prepared the way for us to participate in this same transformation. All we need do is leave our nets and follow him there.
As you contemplate the mission God is inviting you to accomplish with your life, remember these things: Because your authentic mission life resides at the center of the cross you have taken up, it will be something uniquely tailored for your gifts and passions. You will identify with it because it will recall something about you that is or was broken. And, though it might be the most difficult thing you have ever done, you will still feel the glow of rightness about it even when everything is going wrong.
A final story about my own awakening to a life of mission: about five months after the trip to New Orleans, I found myself in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas for a summer residency as a chaplain. There were eight of us, all young and zealous. We had just gotten our hospital badges, but surely there was a mistake. The badges said, “CHAPLAIN.” Not Chaplain Intern. Not Chaplain-in-Training. Just CHAPLAIN. You see, our advisors borrowed their teaching techniques from mother birds. On day one, they flung us out of the nest to see if we could fly. We had our mission: it was right there on the badge. We were chaplains, like it or not. But of course, we could not fly. Within a week, each of us had crash-landed. We had met children living with and dying from cancer. We had seen disease and trauma ravage these small bodies. I had witnessed my first death, a three-month-old baby boy. We brand-new chaplains had a mission: to care for and comfort these young patients and their families. But we could not fly. And so we plummeted. We hit rock bottom. And at rock bottom is where our mission truly began, where Jesus was calling us to follow him. Because when we hit rock bottom, we found our young patients and their families there.
*Thanks to the Rev. Tim Hodapp for reminding me of this image for mission at a recent meeting.
Sermon for Sunday, February 1, 2015 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28
Over the last month we have been considering our walks as followers of Jesus Christ. God affirms us as God’s good and beloved children. God invites us to the center of our own brokenness, where we seek the missions God yearns for us to pursue. We trudge with Jesus to the cross and find those missions where the two planks meet, at the intersection of the world’s need and our passions. So what happens when we engage those missions on a personal level? What happens when we join together to accomplish those missions on a larger scale? What happens when we partner with God to bring God’s healing and reconciliation to this world? The answer is our fourth word. The answer is Confrontation. The world fights back. Those who profit from the status quo fight back. The spiritual uncleanness that festers in the dank recesses of everyone’s heart fights back.
Here’s a recent example from a part of the world most of my generation participates in: video games. (Before you scoff it off as kids’ stuff, know that in the United States, the video game industry now pulls in more revenue than the film industry.) In the last six months, many brave women have started speaking out about the truly disgusting way women are sexualized (and sometimes brutalized) in video games, as well as about the utter lack of women working in the Tech industry in general. While there has been good positive reaction to this burgeoning discussion, the bulk of the reaction that has been grabbing headlines is negative. Grossly negative. Horribly negative. A subgroup of truly vicious male gamers has taken upon itself to lash out at these women in the most demeaning and degrading ways: death threats, rape threats, constant harassment, hounding on social media with language that makes me sick to my stomach, and even disclosure online of the women’s home addresses and telephone numbers to make them fear for their safety. These brave women, and their many male allies, have a mission: to alter an industry badly in need of change, to make it safer for men and women alike. And they are even now confronting a demonic piece of that industry, which seeks to terrorize them into submission.
I use the word “demonic” here on purpose. Whenever we engage in the missions God has invited us to pursue, demonic forces, both interior and exterior to ourselves, confront us and try to dissuade us by any means necessary from following through. Just look at the Gospel lesson for today. We aren’t even done with the first chapter of Mark, Jesus has barely begun his mission, and already he confronts an unclean spirit. This unclean spirit seeks to expose who Jesus is before Jesus is ready to do so for himself. But Jesus rebukes the spirit, silences it, and drags it kicking and screaming from its victim. This confrontation typifies Jesus’ ministry: in each encounter, Jesus confronts something that stands in the way of people being reconciled to God and to each other; and in each encounter, Jesus conquers, though not always in the ways we might expect.
Now, I know that dismissing this kind of Biblical story is easy in our day and age. We look to psychology for a comfortable, modern lens with which to interpret unclean spirits. Demonic possession belongs to horror films and to fantasy worlds populated by vampires, zombies and werewolves. But for all the science and science fiction that we can use to explain away stories like today’s Gospel, the fact of the matter remains that we ourselves and the world at large are afflicted by spiritual uncleanness. We have voices inside us that coerce and cajole us away from the missions God sets before us – demonic voices like apathy, lethargy, fear, greed, dominance. Society has these same voices, and in society these voices are bankrolled.
To these many voices, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.” Be silent, so we can hear the deeper, more constant voice of Christ propelling us away from these unclean voices. Heeding the voice of Christ amongst the clatter within prepares us to confront the same unclean voices in their entrenched forms in society.
A week and a half ago, I was blessed to listen to Dr. Cornel West’s keynote address to the Trinity Institute, which we webcast at St. Mark’s. Quoting the great W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. West offered four questions that always surface when good people confront the entrenched demons of society. Number one: “How shall integrity face oppression?” Number two: “What does honesty do in the face of deception?” Number three: “What does decency do in the face of insult?” And number four: “How does virtue meet brute force?” *
With these questions Cornel West outlines the confrontation that we people striving to follow Jesus Christ encounter. Being part of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation means choosing, as often as we can in our brokenness, the first option in each of these questions. How do we confront oppression? By exhibiting enough integrity to stand with the oppressed, especially when it is inconvenient or unpopular. How do we confront deception? By holding steadfastly to the truth, especially when it gets mangled by extremism. How do we confront insult? By nurturing the dignity of all people, especially when injustice has strangled any notion of decency from the equation. How do we confront brute force? By not submitting to it all that is good and virtuous about us; by not fighting fire with fire.
Remember the ultimate confrontation, in which our savior defeated each of these demonic forces. Jesus took all the oppression, deception, insult, and brute force the world could muster with him to the cross. And in his resurrection, he exposed them for what they are: a sham. Whenever we are seduced by the demonic voices within, we are falling victim to all that is counterfeit about our fallen world. Whenever we side with the entrenched injustice of society we perpetuate the fraudulent narrative the world loves to tell. Confronting this narrative with the true one that God continues to tell takes all the integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue we can muster – and more. Confronting this narrative takes embracing the love of God and letting it shine through us to bring to light everything that would prefer to stay in darkness.
That’s why we confess our sins every single week. We don’t do it because of our individual, personal sins, though those are subsumed into the act of confession. No. We confess every week as a sort of inoculation against the demonic voices that seduce us away from God’s mission. We confess every week to remember that God calls us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We confess every week to announce to ourselves and to each other that we are willing (and with God’s help ready and able) to confront the entrenched sins of the world.
When we joined up with Jesus, this is what we signed on for. This was his mission, and he continues it through us. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes I think it’s too big. I quiver in fear. I find myself rigid with spiritual lethargy. I start to give in to the coercing and cajoling voices that seek to muzzle my witness. When this happens to you, remember that you are walking with Jesus. And hear his voice rise over the clatter and say, “Be silent, and come out of him.”
*Hear Cornel West’s keynote address here. (Scan to 1:00:28 for the speech.)
(No audio this week: I forgot at the early service,
and then I thought I pressed record at the later service, but didn’t. Sorry!)
Sermon for Sunday, February 8, 2015 || Epiphany 5B || Isaiah 40:20-31; Mark 1:29-39
Next week ends our Epiphany sermon series, which means today we have come to our fifth word. But let’s start with a recap. Our first word was Affirmation: Nothing can take away God’s affirmation of us as God’s good and beloved children. Our second word was Invitation: God’s holy invitations most often originate in the center of our brokenness. Our third word was Mission: When we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, we find God’s missions for us where the plank of the world’s need intersects with the plank of our passions. Our fourth word was Confrontation: All the forces of this fallen world fight back when we embrace God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.
And this brings us to today, to our fifth word. And that word is Rejuvenation. When I was deciding on the six words to highlight during this series, today’s word was the most difficult to find. I read the Gospel lesson over and over again, but nothing stood out. The whole passage was just more confrontation. But then on the tenth or eleventh reading, I noticed a verse I had always skimmed over before. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
How wonderful is it that Mark, in all his hurry to move the narrative forward, would stop for a brief moment and give us this insight into Jesus’ character. Jesus must have been bone weary after the day he had. He spent most of the day at the Sabbath assembly, where we heard last week’s story of casting out the unclean spirit. Then he went to Simon and Andrew’s house, presumably for some respite. But he was needed there, too, as Simon’s mother-in-law was abed with fever. That evening, perhaps Jesus was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. But no. The people of Capernaum heard tell of his power, and “the whole city” (Mark tells us) gathered around the door clamoring for healing. Who knows how late into the night Jesus spent confronting demons and diseases. It seems no one, not even Jesus, can keep the pace he set that bone weary day in Capernaum.
And so we find Jesus in the wee hours of the morning escape to a deserted place. “And there he prayed.” And there he found his own Sabbath rest. And there he took a deep breath and reconnected with God his father. And there he reflected on the events of today so he’s better equipped for the events of tomorrow. And there he was rejuvenated.
This rejuvenation lasts only a single verse. In the next, Simon and his companions hunt for Jesus, find him, and he’s right back in the melee again, confronting all that separates his people from God. But for this one indefinite moment of time early in the morning in the deserted place, Jesus teaches us the value of rejuvenation: of Sabbath rest, prayerful reconnection, and spiritual reflection. Let’s take these three pieces of rejuvenation in turn.
We live out our missions from God throughout our daily lives and during special times of confrontation with the entrenched sins of the world. But what most of us fail to realize most of the time is that Sabbath rest is part of our missions. We have been suckered in by the myth of the full calendar. In recent years, school-aged children have started getting scheduled to within an inch of their lives. When I was a child and adolescent, I played a lot of sports, but I still remember spending plenty of time just hanging out with my friends, too. Those days seem to be long gone. And the over-scheduling we are subjecting our young ones to is now infecting us all.
Taking time to pause when this maelstrom of activity is swirling around you is totally countercultural. Over-scheduling is a form of the sin of gluttony, to which society is addicted in the extreme. But when we take Sabbath rest, we resist the false claim that doing more leads to greater happiness. You don’t need to take this rest on the actual day of the Sabbath, but I urge you to carve some white space out on your full calendar. Start with an hour of rejuvenation and try over time to stretch it to a full day.
Our time of rejuvenation begins with rest, which then deepens into prayerful reconnection with God. Engaging in our God-given missions, confronting the demons of the world, and – for that matter – just living our lives tend to untether us from our moorings. The currents of entrenched sin pull us out to sea. And the farther we drift from the source of all goodness, the more our priorities rearrange themselves. Greed and self-preservation rise up the list even as love and self-sacrifice fall. But returning to God regularly in prayer helps us examine those priorities and order them in the way God desires us to do. We come together each week to share Holy Communion because the Eucharist both physically reconnects us to the nourishment of God in Christ and reminds us of our true priorities: gratitude, community, love, and service.
Our rejuvenation begins with rest, continues with reconnection, and concludes with reflection. When we intentionally make available enough free space and time for reflection, then everything we do becomes more effective. I can hear my father’s voice in my head saying over and over again as I was growing up: “You don’t learn from experience. You learn from reflection on experience.” The most productive form of reflection couples self-examination with counsel from a coach, mentor, or friend. The best athletes in the world still have coaches to help them reflect on their games, learn from the mistakes, and get better at sports they are already the best at. The same holds true in our walks with Jesus Christ. Each of us can follow more nearly when others help us to reflect on our experiences to learn what holds us back.
When Jesus sneaks off by himself to be alone in prayer, he rests for a few precious moments, away from the demands of his ministry. He reconnects in prayer with the source of his strength. And I imagine that he reflects on an action packed day so that the days ahead can be more effective. And in so doing, God rejuvenates him to continue his mission. Likewise, God offers us this same opportunity to retreat strategically from our confrontations, engage a different piece of our mission, and rediscover ourselves moored to God’s goodness and love. When we accept the invitation to this opportunity, we find ourselves rejuvenated to continue our journeys towards the sixth and final word. That word is Revelation. But that will have to wait until next week.
For now, I urge you to carve that white space out on your calendar so that you have the space to hear one of God’s great and enduring promises, which the prophet Isaiah proclaims in today’s reading: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:30-31).
Sermon for Sunday, February 15, 2015 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9
We’ve spent the last five weeks walking with Jesus during the first days of his ministry. We stood on the shore of the Jordan River as Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism. We also stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as Jesus called his first disciples and gave them their mission. We wandered into the Sabbath assembly and watched him confront an unclean spirit. And we escaped with him into the desert to rest, reconnect, and reflect with God. Today, in our last sermon in this series, we skip forward to the middle of the story, and we find ourselves following Jesus as he picks his way up the mountain path with Peter, James, and John. And at the top of the mountain, we find our sixth and final word: Revelation.
“Revelation” comes from the same root as the word “reveal.” A revelation is an unveiling, a pulling back of the curtain that separates the known from the unknown. You might say the difference between revelation and ordinary discovery is that we usually attribute revelation to an outside source, namely God, while discovery is the product of our own learning and experimentation. But I think this is a false dichotomy. Rather, God is always offering us the blessing of revelation; in fact, I believe God desires nothing more than for us to know God better. But we are not always in places that allow ready embracing of such revelation. Revelation is available to us, but we are not always available to revelation.
And this is where the process of ordinary discovery comes in. Think back to a time in school. You were in math class – say, geometry. And you had no idea what your teacher was talking about. You’d been taking math classes your whole life. You’d learned addition and subtraction and your multiplication tables. You’d struggled with long division, but got it in the end. Then came fractions. Yikes! But those too made sense in time. Algebra next – the slope of a line. Y=MX + B. No problem. But now you’re stuck. You see the formulas to find the areas of various shapes on the dry erase board, and the only sound in your brain is the dull buzz of incomprehension. But you like math, so you buckle down. You ask a friend who understands it to help you learn. You draw circle after circle, triangle after triangle, trying to figure out the material. Thankfully, your friend is patient with you, and one day in the library after school, you get it. You’ve put in the legwork. You’ve applied your elbow grease. And now you own that geometric discovery for yourself.
We can apply this same legwork and elbow grease when it comes to nurturing our faith. We call it discipleship. While revelation is always available to us, we make ourselves more and more available to revelation when we actively participate in our relationships with God, when we strive to follow Jesus with intention. In geometry class, we could have just let the material pass us by. We could have just limped along not really understanding the lesson. But that’s not what we signed up for. In the same way, when we make every effort to pair our drive for discovery with God’s desire to pull back the curtain, we find ourselves open to revelation. And we find ourselves on the mountaintop with the disciples.
Jesus stands before us in the darkness. But suddenly the light from within Jesus blazes forth, and the darkness flees. Or at least that’s what seems to happen. We perceive Jesus changing, and as Mark tells us, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” But I think something else is going on here, and to see it, we have to reorient our perspective. In the evening, we say the sun sets beneath the horizon. But what really happens is that our little plot of earth rotates away from the sun. Likewise, I don’t think anything at all changes about Jesus during the mountaintop visit. Rather, I think God gives the disciples the gift of revelation. God gives them transfigured eyes – eyes that, for a moment, are able to see Jesus as God sees him, as a luminous being from whom the darkness can do nothing but flee.
When we stumble into a moment of revelation – and it almost always is a stumbling in – we discover new or deeper truths about God’s movement in our lives and God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this broken world. In these moments of revelation, our perspective shifts, deepens, and we catch a clearer glimpse of what God is up to.
And everything begins again.
We look back at where our feet have taken us, and we know we’ve moved along the path following Jesus. And yet, we find ourselves back at our first word, Affirmation. And we hear once again God say to Jesus the same words God spoke six weeks ago. “This is my Son, the beloved.” Once again, God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved child, and by extension God affirms us – warts and all – as fundamentally good children beloved by God. But the affirmation is deeper now because of the journey we’ve taken. We’ve gone to the center of our brokenness; we’ve taken up our crosses; we’ve confronted the entrenched demons of society; we’ve collapsed exhausted for a time of Sabbath rest – and now we discover God revealing to us that God loves us even more than we thought possible.
With that deeper affirmation of goodness and love resonating in our hearts, we are ready for new Invitations, to go even closer to the center of our brokenness than we were willing to go before. We are ready to embrace with even more zeal the authentic Missions that Christ offers us when we pick up our crosses. We are ready to trust God with ever-expanding reserves of courage and faith when we Confront all that stands in the way of creation reconciling at last to God. We are ready to drink even more deeply from the waters of Rejuvenation. And each time we walk this path as it spirals upwards, we are ready to embrace greater Revelation, to see more often with those transfigured eyes.
That’s the goal, really: seeing more and more often with transfigured eyes, seeing this world as God sees it, as broken and beautiful at the same time. And in seeing as God would want us to see, we begin to notice with greater regularity those whom God yearns for us to love. We begin to serve with greater passion those whom God yearns for us to serve. And we begin to live with greater vitality the abundant life that Christ offers to all.