A Meditation on the Priestly Prayer

Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2017 || Feast of the Holy Name || Numbers 6:22-27

On this day the Western World calls “New Year’s” and the church calls the “Feast of the Holy Name,” I can think of nothing more appropriate than to have read God’s blessing delivered through Moses in the book of Numbers. Moses then gave it to his brother Aaron the priest, who spoke these words as a special priestly blessing:

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

These are familiar words, so familiar in fact that we probably don’t even realize they come from the Bible. In the Episcopal tradition, we hear them when we gather around a grave and bid our loved ones farewell. We hear these words in the context of death and resurrection; they are a promise and a hope for new life in closer communion with God beyond the gate of death.

But this morning, on the feast of the Holy Name and New Year’s Day, we hear them in a different context. These words are not just for those who have died; they are for us, as well. So this morning, I’d like to continue the sermon as a meditation on this priestly blessing. Continue reading “A Meditation on the Priestly Prayer”

God and Not-God: A Short History

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15

GodandNotGodThere’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”

So with that humorous word of caution in my mind, I turned my attention to Trinity Sunday, traditionally one of the thornier preaching days of the year. Continue reading “God and Not-God: A Short History”

Promise. Invitation. Mission.

Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2015 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51

promiseinvitationmissionIt’s great to be back with you after three weeks away. I spent much of my vacation traveling to Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I visited a friend going through an agonizing medical issue and reconnected with an old friend from college. I got to shoot a bow and arrow, which I haven’t done since I earned the archery merit badge about twenty years ago. And I got to hang out with the now one-year-old twins and their mother a lot. It was a good vacation. But I’m glad to be back with you ready to preach a sermon about six of my favorite words in the Gospel. Those six words are: “I am the bread of life.” Embedded in these words are three things that so often dance beneath the surface of what Jesus says: a promise, an invitation, and a mission.

But before we get to these three things, we need to mention one of the idiosyncrasies of the Gospel according to John. In John, Jesus desires to tell everyone exactly who he is. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he is more circumspect about his identity: he keeps it secret for the most part, preferring instead to let others draw their own conclusions when they witness his actions and hear his words. But John’s Jesus keeps no secrets; instead, he presents truth wrapped in deep mystery and captivating imagery. The enigmatic quality of some of Jesus’ statements can make it seem like he’s keeping secrets, but the difference between secret and mystery is that secrets want to stay hidden and mysteries want to be revealed.

John lets us know of this desire for revelation right from the start with these poetic lines: “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known” (1:14, 18 CEB). With these two beautiful verses of poetry, John presents Jesus’ task. Jesus Christ – God the only Son, the Word made flesh – came to make God known to us by making his home among us. By revealing his own identity, Jesus reveals God’s identity, and when we encounter this revelation, we discover who we are, too.

Jesus signals when he is disclosing this divine revelation with a pair of code words: “I Am.” He says these words a couple dozen times in the Gospel according to John, and each time they hearken back to God’s encounter with Moses at the burning bush. When Moses asks God for God’s name, God responds, “I Am Who I Am.” Jesus borrows these words in his conversation with the crowd the day after the feeding of the five thousand. Their minds are still on yesterday’s bread, so he runs with that image. “I am the bread of life,” he says. These words are so much greater than mere metaphor; they reveal a piece of Jesus’ divine identity. And remember: when we encounter this revelation, we discover who we are, too.

To make this discovery, let’s return to the three things dancing beneath the surface of Jesus words: “I am the bread of life.” There’s a promise, an invitation, and a mission all squeezed in those six words. First, the promise.

Jesus links his identity as the bread of life to his people’s communal memory of the flight from Egypt many hundreds of years prior. Reading Exodus Chapter 16, you might notice how the people begin complaining to Moses about their hunger as soon as the threat of the Egyptians has vanished. If the situation weren’t so dire, it would be comical: the moment the threat is gone, they realize their stomachs are rumbling. And then the histrionics start: “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt…You’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death” (16:3 CEB). Of course, God has other plans and begins providing for them immediately with manna that appears like dew six mornings a week. Each day they collect enough to sustain them for that day, and they receive a warning not to store up the manna for tomorrow because it will spoil. They had to trust the manna would appear the next day, too. And you know what? It did.* That’s the promise Jesus makes when he names himself the “bread of life.” He promises to be the daily source of nourishment for his people, as the manna was during the wandering in the desert.

We receive this daily nourishment when we respond to Jesus’ invitation. As he talks to the crowd, Jesus tries to move them away from focusing on their physical craving for the barley loaves they received the day before and toward a deeper craving – the desire for relationship. When we take in the “bread of life,” Jesus becomes a part of us, as close to us as we are to ourselves. He invites us into the intimacy of this relationship, a relationship built on daily trust that we stand in his sustaining presence whether or not we have the eyes and heart to notice it. Think of the manna clinging to the grass like dew. How easy would it have been to trample right over it, too caught up in our hunger to notice our nourishment all around us? When he says, “I am the bread of life,” Jesus invites us to stop, to notice, and to take him in.

Because we’re not too good at that stopping and noticing, the church ritualized this taking him in. We call it Holy Communion, and when we come to the altar rail in a few minutes, we’ll find that Jesus’ promise and invitation have blossomed into our mission. We kneel together as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. We are knit one to another and all to God through Christ who dwells in us as we dwell in him. We rediscover that we are stronger together than we are alone. The “bread of life” provides us nourishment in order that together we may become nourishment to a hungry world. In the book of Genesis, God blesses Abraham to be a blessing – not so that he can be rich and famous and secure – but so that he will be a blessing. In the same way, our relationship with Christ, our reliance on his sustaining presence, is not for ourselves alone. We are blessed to be blessings, as well. We are nourished to be nourishment.

When we encounter Jesus’ revelation of his identity, we discover who we are, too. Our identity is wrapped up in the promise, invitation, and mission Jesus reveals when he says, “I am the bread of life.” By naming himself the “bread of life,” Jesus promises to sustain us like the manna in the desert. By eating of his bread, we accept the invitation to be in relationship with him. By sharing it together, we participate in the deeper reality of being members of the Body of Christ. We remember we’re not in this alone. We remember that God calls us to serve and to be served. We remember that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. That is where our true identity finds its home. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus promises. “Come to me. Be fed so you might feed others. Be blessed to be a blessing.”

* Well, there was one day a week (the day before the Sabbath) in which they collected two days worth so they didn’t have to work on the Sabbath. But explaining that in the sermon would have wrecked my flow.

Incline Our Hearts

Sermon for Sunday, March 8, 2015 || Lent 3B || Exodus 20:1-17

inclineourheartsA few people have asked me recently why we are using Rite I during Lent. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the red Book of Common Prayer, it contains two versions of our normal Sunday worship. We usually use Rite II, which includes more modern language and more overall choices than Rite I. But during Lent this year, I chose to use the older rite, which is why we’ve been saying words like “thee,” “thou,” and “beseech” over the last few weeks. Some churches choose Rite I during Lent because they think it has a more penitential tone than Rite II, but that’s not why we’re using it. Honestly, I don’t agree with that reasoning. Rather, we are using Rite I because of a single beautifully written sentence that we repeat nine times at the beginning of each service. In our normal service, Rite II, that sentence is rendered: “Amen. Lord, have mercy.” But in Rite I, we have the opportunity to pray this beautiful sentence after all but the last of the Ten Commandments: “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”

Incline our hearts to keep this law. This is the prayer we pray upon hearing the commandments, which Moses brought down from his meeting with God on Mount Sinai. When we pray these words, we ask God to tilt us in God’s direction, to orient us toward God’s life-giving path. Incline our hearts to keep this law. This is not a Sunday-morning-worship-only type of prayer. This is an all-the-time type of prayer. This prayer takes our recitation of the Ten Commandments out of Sunday morning worship and puts them on our daily radar. When we incline our hearts to keep this law we intentionally lean towards God every single day, thus signaling our desire to participate in this most important relationship of our lives.

The trouble with the Ten Commandments, however, is that most of them are simple prohibitions. With two notable exceptions, they tell us what not to do. It’s hard for us, or at least it’s hard for me, to incline my heart towards keeping God’s commands when those commands mostly call for inaction. For example, there’s nothing I can do to accomplish the commandment: “You shall not steal.” Accomplishing this commandment is all about not doing something. On the other hand, one of the notable exceptions says, “Honor your father and your mother.” Now here’s a commandment that invites positive action.

By my count two of the commandments invite such positive action, while the other eight say, “You shall not [fill in the blank].” So if we desire to incline our hearts to keep these laws, we need to reframe all the commandments so they actively engage our imaginations, affect our priorities, and lead us to closer companionship with Jesus Christ. We’re not the first to do this positive spinning, by the way. Jesus himself did it when he gave his summary of the law, as influenced by Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” So let’s join Jesus in imagining how to live out these commandments with positive action, as opposed to negative prohibition.

The first two commandments begin the list for a reason: they are the most important. “I am the LORD your God…you shall you no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol.” Inclining our hearts to keep these laws means ordering our priorities again and again to place God first. Because so many other things clamor for our attention, it’s easy for us to let God slip down the list. But when we keep God at the top, the other things have a way of shaking out into the right places. The more we focus on God, the more we allow God to shape our focus on the rest of life. By looking for God always, we end up discovering what God would have us see.

The third commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God.” I can’t tell you how many people have apologized to me for saying “Oh my God!” or “For Christ’s sake!” in my presence. They tend to be people who aren’t very comfortable around clergy. The way I look at this commandment is this: if ever “Oh my God!” escapes my lips, I better mean it. We can transform the oft-said “Oh my God!” from a thoughtless interjection into an authentic prayer. Whenever you say the Lord’s name, in any context, make it a prayer. Take that moment in time to pause and remember whom your life belongs to.

The fourth and fifth commandments are already formulated as positive actions. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” In other words, take time to rest in God’s presence in order to renew your devotion. Make a commitment to lie fallow so that, like uncultivated farmland, nourishment can seep back into your souls. “Honor your father and your mother.” In other words, commit to relationships that will last. Let the wisdom of age and experience speak. Allow tradition and memory to help shape the future. (And more mundanely, for our younger members, “Do what your parents say.”)

The last five commandments all prohibit certain egregious acts. So how do we incline our hearts to keep these laws with positive action?

Number Six: “You shall not murder” becomes “Make choices that promote the wellbeing of all life.” So many of our choices feed unconsciously into the broken systems of this world that deny this wellbeing to a substantial number of people. Therefore, this commandment compels us to make all our choices consciously, so we know how they affect other people as well as the planet we live on.

Number Seven: “You shall not commit adultery” becomes “Practice fidelity in all your relationships.” Be committed to your friends and loved ones through thick and thin. Be the person in whom others confide their hopes and fears. Be reliable. Be devoted. Be loyal. And in so doing, discover how much deeper your relationships can go.

Number Eight: “You shall not steal” becomes “Strive for justice in all circumstances.” Be a force for raising up those who have had their livelihoods stolen by the greed of others. Be an outspoken proponent of fairness and equal treatment. Live with integrity.

Number Nine: “You shall not bear false witness” becomes “Always tell the truth.” Be like the child at the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes, speaking the truth even when it’s unpopular. Be honest, no matter how hard it is or how disadvantaged you end up being in a world full of lies. In the end, the truth is easier to remember anyway.

And Number Ten: “You shall not covet” becomes “Cultivate a spirit of generosity.” Be welcoming. Be hospitable. Carry what you own lightly, neither grasping nor hoarding, but remembering that nothing really belongs to us in the long run.

With this exercise in turning the prohibitions around, my intent is not to discard the Ten Commandments as we have received them. Rather, I’m working to orient us toward living each day the positive actions which the commandments lead us to. So incline your hearts to keep these laws:

Love God. Focus on God. Make God’s name your prayer. Remember the Sabbath. Honor your parents. Promote the wellbeing of all life. Practice fidelity in all relationships. Strive for justice in all circumstances. Always tell the truth. And cultivate a spirit of generosity. I don’t know a better way to live. I don’t know a better path to follow. And so I pray in the words we said this morning after the final commandment: “Lord, write all these thy laws on our hearts, we beseech thee.”

A Resounding Yes

Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2014 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15

 

aresoundingyesI’ll tell you all the truth: I’ve been struggling lately. The day the twins were born, about a month ago now, life took a dramatic turn. I knew this tectonic shift in life was going to happen, but I sure wasn’t prepared for it. At times over the past month, I have felt helpless. I have felt frantic. I have felt desperately inadequate. The learning curve for new parenthood is steep, and I’ve had to adjust my expectations about how fast I catch on. I’ve always been a quick study, but in this particular case, there’s no substitute for the exhausting daily grind of caring for the twins. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I knew it was going to be hard, but my definition of “hard” has never reached the superlative level of caring for multiple newborns.

Of course, there is joy, too. And love – so much love that it leaks from my tear ducts when I gaze upon their sleeping faces. But both joy and love often get buried under the weight of bone-wearying exhaustion, and at the end of the day or at the end of the night – and with newborns they are pretty much the same thing – all you can say is, “We survived.” And you’re too tired most of the time to appreciate that survival, in itself, is a pretty astounding gift.

In light of the last month, I read our passage from the Hebrew Scriptures this week with new eyes. I have read the story of Moses and the burning bush hundreds of times, but this time around new words shimmered for me. My feeling of desperate inadequacy led me to see the same feeling in Moses. Today’s story takes place on Mount Horeb, but let’s back up and see how Moses got there.

After growing up the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses was caught between two worlds, the life of privilege of the king’s house and the life of slavery of Moses’s family of origin. One day Moses visits the work camps and sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. While the book of Exodus skips Moses’s upbringing, we can easily conjure a scenario where he had no firsthand knowledge of the plight of his people before this. Sure he heard rumors, but they were easily dismissed by his Egyptian family. Then he sees for himself the rumors are true, and his sense of betrayal mingles with his sense of justice. Moses secretly kills the offending Egyptian. But such an act cannot stay secret for long, and when Pharaoh finds out, Moses flees.

Settling in the land of Midian, Moses meets his wife at a well (which is where everyone meets his spouse in the Hebrew Scriptures). Zipporah brings Moses home to her father, who takes him in and teaches him to be a shepherd. A long time passes, and Moses finds himself with the flock beyond the wilderness on the mountain. God calls to him from the burning bush and gives Moses the task of delivering God’s people from the hands of the Egyptians. And this is where Moses’s feeling of desperate inadequacy rises to the surface. He asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

You can see where Moses is coming from. He’s been gone so long. Who would remember him? He wasn’t even raised among his own people. Who would accept him? Later, he mentions he’s not a very persuasive talker. Who would listen to him? All of these worries and fears boil under the surface of Moses’s question. But God stops Moses in his tracks.

And here we must pause for a moment for an aside. Whenever you read the Bible, I want you to pay especially close attention to how questions are answered. More often than not questions are not answered directly in scripture. When God in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus in the Gospel answer questions, they often answer the one they wish they had been asked, rather than the one that was asked. So – Bible study tip – pay special attention to how questions are answered.

So let’s turn this special attention to Moses’s question. Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” His feeling of deep inadequacy weighs the question down. But God lifts him back up with the answer. “I will be with you.”

This doesn’t answer the question Moses asked. “Who am I?” he pleads. And the response. “I will be with you.” The question God answered, the question God wished Moses had asked, was: “Will you be with me?” And the answer: a resounding “Yes.”

God’s answer to this question reverberates throughout the Bible. God shows Abraham the way through the desert to a new home. God comes to Elijah not in the storm but in the sound of sheer silence. God descends into the den of lions with Daniel. God gives Jesus a second name, Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”

And so when I read the story of Moses and the burning bush in the light of my own desperate inadequacy this past month, I realize I have been asking the wrong question. Like Moses, I have been asking, “Who am I? Who am I that I should be able to accomplish the task of helping to care for these two precious lives?” But that’s not the question God is answering right now.

Instead, God has prompted me to ask the question God yearned for me to ask all along: not “Who am I” but “Will you be with me?” And God has answered that question with the same resounding “Yes” which God promised Moses. Yes, I am with you in the helping hands and loving hearts of the friends and family who have given countless hours of their time. Yes, I am with you when you breathe deeply in moments of serenity and when your patience stretches past the breaking point when the crying won’t stop. Yes, I am with you in the peace that comes from a few hours of treasured sleep. Yes, I am with…always.

The feeling of desperate inadequacy can paralyze us. Perhaps a challenge seems too big for us to even begin to grasp. Perhaps we’ve been down a certain road before and failed. Perhaps we’re facing something new and the fear of the unknown cripples us. Whatever the case, we can begin to move past our inadequacy or whatever else is holding us back by changing the question we ask of God. Rather than asking, “Who am I to take care of my aging parents”; or “Who am I to be able to find friends at my new school”; or “Who am I to make the slightest difference in a world full of pain”; rather than asking, “Who am I” ask the question God yearns for you to ask.

Ask, “Will you be with me?” And believe in the deepest core of your being that the answer to that question is always and will always be, “Yes.” When you hear that “Yes” resound in your core, you will begin to see with new eyes and reach out with less burdened arms and discover all the ways God is already using you to shine God’s light in this darkened world, no matter the inadequacy you feel.

I still feel inadequate when the twins start crying. I’m still exhausted most of the time. But we’re doing it. One day becomes the next, and that in itself is a gift, as is God prompting me to change the question I was asking, so that God could answer with a resounding “Yes.”

What Kind of Life?

Sermon for Sunday, February, 16, 2014 || Epiphany 6A || Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37

whatkindoflifesquareWhen I was a little kid, I wanted to grow up to be a fireman. Well, a fireman and a garbage man. Well, a fireman, a garbage man, and a baseball player. Well, a fireman, a garbage man, a baseball player, and a paleontologist. I wanted to be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. And you know what? That didn’t happen. Something even better happened. I got to be someone whose job it is to walk with people during the most important moments of their lives and point out God’s movement in those moments. I got to be a priest. And I got to be your priest.

But getting back to my childhood’s occupational dreams, I can tell you one absolutely essential thing about them, which is this: My parents never quashed them. They never told me to stop dreaming. They never told me I was being silly or that I couldn’t, in fact, be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. Instead, they encouraged me to reach for the stars and to fuel my dreams with all the fodder of my boundless imagination. When so-called “reality” set in years later, I didn’t feel betrayed by this encouragement, as one might expect; rather, the early training in dreaming big helped me retain the capacity to imagine more and better possibilities than so-called “reality” presented.

Such a capacity involves consciously making choices about what kind of life you want to live. Do you want to live a small life boxed in by the scarcity inherent in subscribing only to the notion of the currently possible? Or do you want to live a full life unbounded due to the abundance inherent in trusting in the creativity of our God? What kind of life do you want to live?

This is the question that both Moses and Jesus address today in our readings from the book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel according to Matthew. And this is the question they challenge us with today. What kind of life do you want to live?

Moses has stood on the mountaintop and looked on the vista of the Promised Land. But he knows he himself will never get there. He’s about to die, but before he does, he has a few more words to say to the people of Israel who have been walking with him through the desert for forty years. These words make up the book of Deuteronomy: Moses’ last speech, the last piece of the law, the restatement of the Ten Commandments and more, and these words today, in which Moses gives the people a choice:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity,” he says. “…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses…” And then Moses, with all the fervor of someone who knows his time is short and his words precious, implores the people, saying: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

Well, we know those people and their descendants had a, shall we say, checkered history with this choice. Sometimes they listened to Moses’ final invitation, but more often than not, they didn’t. The rest of the Hebrew Scriptures trace the trajectory of this choice and of God’s constant and persistent calls through the prophets to renew it and once again “choose life.”

When Moses issued the original invitation before his death, he was speaking about all the fullness of life with God and one another that the Law was designed to promote. But over the centuries, people interpreted and reinterpreted the Law into smaller and smaller boxes. By the time of Jesus, the Law of Moses had been parsed to within an inch of its life. The people, against whom Jesus spoke, had gotten lost in the minute details of the Law and forgotten its original intent to promote the fullness of life, the dream that God always had for God’s people.

And so we watch Jesus ascend the mountain, sit down, and begin a long sermon. He speaks of blessings for people not normally considered blessed (what we call the “Beatitudes”). He speaks of the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And then he says something curious, which we read last week. He says this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

To fulfill the law. To complete it. To make it what it was always designed to be. In his fulfillment of the law, Jesus takes one step past Moses’ original choice. For Jesus, the choice isn’t simply between life and death because he has already chosen life for each of us. His choice is what kind of life.

And now we hear Jesus offer examples of the kinds of life we might lead. In each one, he takes a piece of the law and expands it, deepens it. Not just “do not murder,” but also, be reconciled to those you are estranged from. Not just “do not commit adultery,” but also, act with virtue and fidelity in all things. Remain in relationship rather than looking for easy outs. Speak truthfully always rather than trying to convince people through deceptive oaths.

In each example, Jesus offers two paths to choose: division or reconciliation? Depravity or virtue? Isolation or relationship? Dishonesty or truth? Each choice builds the kind of life we lead. Our lives can be small – empty of meaningful relationships, bursting with regret, littered with the collateral damage of strife, envy, and enmity. Or our lives can be full of all the good things God yearns to share with us – the abundance of lives lived with and for others, the joy of trusting and being trustworthy, the simple grace of acting virtuously.

Just a quick aside—I know Jesus’ language seems awfully harsh, and, in reality, it is. But we have to remember that he lived in a world where punishments included actually having body parts chopped off and where divorces could be handed out for baking mishaps. While some of his words might be hard for us to digest, the seriousness of his tone and the weight of the message can still sink in.

This message offers us the expansive dream that God invites us to be a part of – the kind of dream where someone might actually grow up to be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. Or more to the point, the kind of dream where someone might actually choose the abundance of reconciliation, virtue, positive relationship, and trust.

If we are to take a step today to not only choose life, but choose the abundant life that Christ offers us, what might we do? Let’s start with a baby step. A mentor of mine, the Rev. Dr. David Lose, suggests this: think of two relationships you currently have. One should be the most wonderful, fruitful, mutual, and loving relationship of your life. The other should be one that’s on the brink of failure because of neglect or hurt feelings or betrayal. Take both of these relationships to God in prayer. Ask God to help you see what sustains and strengthens the first one. Why is that relationship important to you? What about it do you have to thank God? For the second relationship, don’t try to place blame, but instead hold the other person up in prayer to God. Offer God the brokenness of the relationship as something that can’t be mended without God’s help. What actions and choices can you make to move that second relationship to better health?

As you pray about these two relationships, remember the choice that Jesus puts before us today. What kind of life do you want to lead? A life full of reconciliation, virtue, uplifting relationships, and trust? A life of abundance? Yes, all that and more. A life of dreams that are so big that only God can contain them.

The Dragon’s Skin

(Sermon for August 28, 2011 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15)

Eustace Scrubb had read only the wrong books. The books he had read had “a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but,” says C.S. Lewis, “they were weak on dragons.” And so when Eustace accidentally accompanies his cousins Edmund and Lucy on a voyage aboard the ship Dawn Treader, you might imagine that he is, shall we say, out of his element. The further the ship sails from Narnia, the more ghastly becomes Eustace’s behavior. He is truly a horrible boy – lazy, selfish, dishonest, self-centered, and his attitude only goes from bad to worse.

So you won’t be surprised to hear that, when the ship finally comes ashore after a brutal storm, Eustace slips off by himself to avoid a day of hard work. And because he’s read only the wrong books, you also won’t be surprised to hear that, when he stumbles into a cave full of treasure, he has no idea that he has trespassed into a dragon’s lair. He has no idea that falling asleep on a dragon’s hoard turns one into a dragon. And he has no idea that he has become a dragon until he realizes that he’s running on all fours and that the reflection in the pool is his own. Now that he has become a dragon, “an appalling loneliness” comes over him, and he begins to see in himself the monster that his cousins and the crew of the Dawn Treader had tolerated for the entire voyage. How could Eustace possibly undo the enchantment? How could he shed the dragon’s skin?

Consider that your cliffhanger until later in the sermon. Before we return to Eustace the dragon, let’s turn our attention to this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture. Moses grazes the flock of his father-in-law far afield. At Mount Horeb, he sees a bush blazing merrily, but the bush isn’t turning to coals and ash. Intrigued, Moses turns aside to look more closely. And God encounters him there. “Come no closer,” God calls to Moses. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Remove the sandals from your feet. On the surface, this command reminds Moses that he and God don’t share the same position. Moses is a supplicant, and he comes into God’s presence unshod to show the vast disparity between the two. Okay, show of hands – which of you took off your shoes when you settled into your pew this morning? Yeah, neither did I. From a cultural point-of-view, removing our footwear signals informality rather than respect. So, we need to look at God’s command here from a different perspective.

On a deeper level than the simple removal of a garment, God’s command to Moses to take off his sandals presents a challenge to each of us who hears this story. This challenge begins with a question. What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter into God’s presence?

Our answers to this question build the wardrobe of costumes we wear all the time without realizing that we are dressed up. We wear these invisible costumes and affix invisible masks to our faces in order to set up buffers between ourselves and other people. If other people get too close, then they might impel us to change, to see the world differently than we desire, to remove ourselves from the centers of our existence. Our costumes are our first line of defense to remain the people we’ve always told ourselves we want to be. The trouble is that the costumes also disguise us from ourselves.

And so we stumble into God’s presence wearing carefully crafted costumes and masks that create barriers between us and everything that is not us. And just as God commands Moses to remove his shoes, God tells us to take off the costume.

What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter God’s presence? What makes up our costumes? Here I can only speak for myself, so listen for where your experience connects with mine. After praying with the question, I decide that the first piece of my costume to remove is Fear. This is the fear that forestalls any type of change. This is the fear that keeps me from entering into any kind of relationship because the other will cause some sort of transformation in me. This is the fear that keeps me from diving into a pool, not because I’m afraid of diving, but because I don’t want to get wet.

The second piece of the costume is Ignorance. When fear keeps relationships from beginning, ignorance is the necessary byproduct. I am blind to the situations of those I don’t take the time and energy to know. Again, this is part of the buffer. If I actively keep myself from developing an understanding of another’s plight, I won’t be putting myself in the position to have to decide whether or not to help, to relate, to get my hands dirty.

The third piece of the costume is Apathy. When ignorance fails, and I do find myself in the position to make a choice – to be in relationship or not – apathy sings the siren’s song. Apathy is the inertial force that keeps me complicit and complacent to the woes of others because I just can’t quite dig up enough empathy to care.

There are many more pieces of the costume, too many to talk about in this sermon, but there’s still the mask. My mask is Pride. When fear and ignorance and apathy all fail to keep me from being in an authentic relationship with another, there’s always pride to keep me living a disguised life. This is the pride that takes all the credit for my giftedness and assumes that I can get along quite well on my own because I seem to have done so thus far.

And this is where we return to Eustace, the horrible boy of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After he becomes human again, Eustace relates to his cousin Edmund how he left the dragon behind. A lion had come to him in the night and bade him undress. Since he had no clothes, he began shedding his skin like a snake. He scraped off his scales and stepped out of the skin. But then he looked down and saw another layer was there. He peeled this off as well. And “exactly the same thing happened again,” said Eustace.

And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? …So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

Then the lion said… ‘You will have to let me undress you.’

The desperate Eustace lay down and

The very first tear [the lion] made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been.

When we stumble into God’s presence, God invites us to remove our costumes. Like Eustace, we might be able to slough off some pieces ourselves, but the real costume only comes off when God intervenes and pulls the invisible garments away. When we pray, “I will, with God’s help,” we acknowledge that we cannot take off our disguises until we stand before the God who is the only one who truly knows what we look like. We cannot remove our costumes until we ask God to take them away, to leave them lying next to us, thick and dark and knobbly-looking.

And when we participate with God in this removal, there is just so much room to fill. Hope takes the place of Fear. Awareness fills in the gap left by of Ignorance. Engagement replaces Apathy. And Humility settles in where Pride once kept the disguise wrapped around us so tight. Shedding the costume is hard work that takes a lifetime. But we are not alone. We are in God’s presence, and God is forever helping us shed the dragon’s skin.

Horizons

(Sermon for February 22, 2009 || Last Epiphany, Year B, RCL || Mark 9:2-9)

Imagine you are strolling down a pier on the cold, rocky coast of Massachusetts. You stop, lean your elbows on a metal railing, and look out at the vastness of the ocean before you. You can feel the impatient energy of morning and smell the sun about to rise. First, the door of the sky opens just a crack and lets a sliver of light ripple across the face of the water. Then, all in one breath of reckless animation, the sun spills out of the distant horizon, red and completecoast

Then something strange and altogether unexpected happens. As the sun continues to rise, you notice the line of the horizon crumbling into the ocean. With the horizon gone, the thousands of miles of brooding Atlantic open before you. You see the waves crashing into the northwest coast of Spain. You see skiers flying down the slopes of the Alps. You see oil derricks pounding the banks of the Caspian Sea. Abandoned missile silos in Kazakhstan. Mongolian shepherds driving their flocks. The Great Wall of China. The DMZ. Tokyo skyscrapers. The Pacific Ocean. California a distant speck but growing…

You snap your eyes shut and grip the metal railing. You’re overwhelmed, unsteady on your feet, nauseous. Your brain attempts to catalogue all the far-flung images you just saw. But it shuts down, unable to process this excess of information. After several weak-kneed minutes, your heart rate begins to slow, and you hesitantly reopen your eyes. The horizon has returned to its accepted place at the end of the reach of your vision.

Near as I can tell, this is how Peter, James, and John must feel during the event described in this morning’s Gospel reading. With Jesus leading, they hike up a high mountain, a pastime not unknown to Jesus’ friends, who are always chasing him up hills and through deserts. But this time, at the top, something new happens. These three disciples look at Jesus and, with neither warning nor preparation, they see far past all reasonable limits of normal human vision.

Peter, James, and John look at Jesus with new eyes. And the biological horizon limiting their perception crumbles. Until now, they have been used to seeing only what they expect to see. Until now, they have been lulled to sleep by the monotony of the mundane. Until now, they have looked at Jesus, but have never seen him. Until now.

The horizon of Jesus’ body cannot contain his dazzling glory, and the disciples see him as he really is. The horizon between this life and the next cannot veil their eyes, and they see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, two of the great prophets they had heard stories about their whole lives.

Peter, it seems, cannot handle this raw data, this overabundance of visual stimulation. He’s terrified, and understandably so. Horizons seem to exist to limit our sight, and limits are comforting. When the horizons crumble, Peter doesn’t know what to say. But, being Peter, he says something anyway: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Now, from all those stories Peter had heard, he knew that back when the people of Israel were wandering around the desert for forty years, they lugged about a special portable dwelling, a tent really. Inside this tent, they arranged all their sacred luggage. The people thought the tent holy because they believed God, while eternal, omnipotent and ever-present, also dwelled in the tent.

So, when Peter suggests constructing a trio of tents, he is attempting to circumscribe the event unfolding in dazzling brightness before him. He is trying to erect temporary horizons, trying to control the situation, trying to jam the impossible back into a box consisting of normal, everyday things.

On the other hand, he may just be so dumbfounded that he blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind. Again, knowing Peter, this is a distinct possibility. But, it’s a bit harder to preach about, so let’s stick with the horizons.

When Peter sees Jesus’ biological horizon crumble, revealing the dazzling brightness of Jesus’ connection to God, Peter’s first response is to put Jesus in a holy box in order to contain him. Peter had seen Jesus do some impossible things – feed five thousand with one person’s lunch, calm a storm, heal Peter’s own mother-in-law – but this, this transfiguration is something else entirely. You could explain away those other things if you wanted to: persuasion, charisma, being in the right time at the right place. You could store those other things in a box and refuse to believe the horizon between God and humanity is more permeable than was originally thought.

But this, this transfiguration, this holy event Peter witnesses with his own eyes would never fit in the box, no matter how precisely he might have constructed those three tents. And why not? In this event, Jesus doesn’t change. He is neither better nor more holy than he was before. But Peter, James, and John are granted the gift of seeing Jesus as God sees him – dazzlingly bright and beloved. The Greek word we translate as “Transfiguration” has been transmitted directly into our own language. The English equivalent is metamorphosis, a complete change in form or shape. So, in this transfiguration, what changes, if not Jesus?

Until the mountaintop, the disciples had seen some things, some miracles, and they thought they understood them. But their small understanding was dangerous because it amounted to just enough to create an unwarranted category labeled “impossible.” In this category, in this box, they stored everything that ran counter to what they thought they knew about the world. They were terrified of the walking on water. Their hearts were hardened about the multiplied loaves. “Who then is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” And yet, Jesus did all these things, and he couldn’t care less what they labeled “impossible.”

The change, the metamorphosis, that occurs on the mountaintop happens when Peter fails to begin his construction of the three tents. A cloud overshadows the disciples, and they hear a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” Then, all of sudden, they look around and the horizon is back to normal. But nothing would ever be “normal” again.

When God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus, God implicitly commands them and us to rid ourselves of the box labeled “impossible.” If we listen to Jesus and obey him, then we trust that everything he does is the “real” thing – not a parlor trick or smoke and mirrors, not mere charisma or happenstance. He doesn’t bend the rules of a set universe, but he does bend the ones that our dangerously limited understanding has contrived. Miracles aren’t glitches in the natural order. They are the natural order, the natural order that we dumped into the box long ago. The change, the metamorphosis, that occurs on the mountaintop prepares us for the even greater change that happens when Jesus rises from the dead, when Jesus tips the box over and removes the first two letters from the word “impossible.”

You see, the horizon exists not to limit our senses, but to give us something beyond which our dreams can thrive. The transfiguration we celebrate this morning shines in our lives with dazzling brightness, reminding us of two things. First, there is something wonderful and glorious beyond the horizon. And second, that wonderful and glorious something couldn’t care less about horizons. The dazzling brightness of this morning foreshadows the even greater brightness of the resurrection, the brightness that rises in one breath of reckless animation. We will celebrate this triumph seven weeks from today.

During that time, I invite you to look at the horizon. What do you see beyond it? What sliver of light ripples across the water? I also invite you to look inside yourselves. What have you restored to the box that Jesus once overturned? What change in your life are you resisting? Reflect on these questions. And, at the same time, know that Jesus stands forever before you, beckoning you to see him in all his dazzling brightness, beckoning you to see him with transfigured eyes, with eyes that see beyond the horizon.

Rambling in the presence of God

(Sermon for October 19, 2008 || Proper 24, Year A RCL || Exodus 33:12-23)

Moses is a bit of a rambler. I know, because I am a bit of a rambler, as well. If Dr. House were performing a differential diagnosis on “anxiety,” rambling would be the first symptom written on the dry-erase board. In my case, anxiety-induced rambling usually happens when I am attempting to converse with a woman I find attractive. In especially acute attacks, my rambling begins to sound like the dialogue in a Jane Austen novel. Much to my own chagrin, I tend to use phrases like “would that you were amenable to my ardent affection” and “how diverting it must be to tarry in the presence of such loquacious interlocutors.”

Now, Moses is already married to the lovely Zipporah (whom he met at the well) so he doesn’t have to worry about accidently quoting Pride and Prejudice in conversation. Rather than rambling in the presence of women, Moses’ anxiety leads him to ramble in the presence of God. No one could fault him for being anxious. After all, the people of Israel have been grumbling about the good old days in Egypt ever since they stepped on the far bank of the Red Sea. The daily delivery of manna and quail and the water gushing from the rock don’t seem to have curbed their discontent. And just last week, they melted down all their jewelry to make a nice, little pet god, which, of course, broke one of those pesky commandments. Needless to say, Moses has his hands full. Add to all this the anxiety caused by a heart to heart with the LORD, and Moses breaks down into an acute rambling attack.

The way the book of Exodus structures the conversation we heard this morning makes this rambling difficult to notice. This is one of those instances where the Bible overuses the third-person singular pronoun “he” so that you’re never quite sure who’s talking. Here’s Moses’ first ramble:* “See, you have said to me, `Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, `I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”

And the LORD says to Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

But Moses apparently doesn’t hear this, because he is already halfway into his next ramble:* “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

The LORD responds: “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

I imagine Moses hearing this and slumping to the ground, allowing the full weight of his calling and all of his anxieties to wash over him. He lets the LORD’s words sink in. He shudders at their impact. He looks up, and his next frenetic ramble dies on his lips. Instead, he says, “Show me your glory, I pray.”

And the LORD says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD.’”

So, after the LORD takes the necessary precautions to keep Moses from overexposure, the glory of the LORD passes Moses by. Moses, safe in the palm of God’s hands, feels the presence of the LORD. Moses’ anxious rambling ceases. Secure in the knowledge that he is in the LORD’s presence, Moses begins his work anew.

These are anxiety-ridden days. The presidential election is heading into the ninth inning. Unemployment is up and home-ownership down. The stock market graph looks like a heart monitor in the ICU. Add to all this the anxieties of work, school, and family, and rambling is going to be the least of our symptoms.

Thankfully, Moses is not the only person with whom God has the kind of conversation we’ve been discussing this morning. Oftentimes, when we come to God in prayer, our minds are already starting the sixtieth lap at Talladega. We just can’t slow down, can’t shift into a lower gear. We get frustrated because our prayer time becomes just another opportunity to review the grocery list and dwell on the need to get the oil changed and wonder how big a hit the investment portfolio took today.

But in our frustration, we fail to realize something. The grocery list, the oil change, the portfolio—these are just as good a place to start as any. Rather than seeing these things as intruding on our prayers, we can see them as entrances into authentic conversations with God. I don’t think God expects us to shut off our anxiety when we enter into prayer. Quite the opposite. God expects us to offer our anxieties as prayer.

Moses rambles about the people and finding favor in God’s sight and the nation of Israel. Rather than addressing any one manifestation of anxiety directly, the LORD speaks to the very core of Moses being: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” In other words, God says, “Moses, you are still going to lead the people. I’m not going to let you off the hook. But, remember, please remember that I am with you, and you can find rest in me.”

When we offer our anxieties to God in prayer, we acknowledge that the sources of those anxieties have power over us and keep us from being the people God calls us to be. But God whispers to the very core of our beings: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Moses continues to ramble. So God reminds Moses of the relationship they share. The LORD knows Moses’ name and Moses hears God speak that special, holy, intimate divine name that the Israelites wrote down but never spoke aloud. In revealing this special name to Moses, God invites Moses into a deeper relationship.

When we offer our anxieties to God in prayer, God gives us the opportunity to notice that God has heard what our hearts have been divulging. Through all our rambling, God is speaking God’s name to us, inviting us to that deeper relationship, in which trust begins to mitigate anxiety.

Finally, Moses stops rambling. He realizes that God is with him, bearing him up as the waves of anxiety crash over him. Moses asks to see God’s glory. All the goodness and the glory of the LORD pass him by. When we acknowledge the anxieties weighing on our hearts, we can begin to hear God speaking peace to us in the midst of those anxieties. And we, too, can settle into the cleft of the rock, rest in the palm of God’s hand, and feel the presence of the LORD pass us by.

Footnotes

* This is one of those times when reading a sermon doesn’t give you the effect of the delivered message. To get said effect, read Moses’ bits like Dr. Cox from Scrubs. He is a rambler, also.