Today marks the one year anniversary of closing the building of St. Mark’s due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two days before the Third Sunday in Lent last year, the vestry met in an emergency capacity and made the heart-wrenching decision to close the church building for two weeks. At the time, the two-week closure was designed to help public health officials get a handle on where the virus was so they could begin tracking it. But two weeks became four, then a season, and now we mark a year. I went back and found the letter I sent to the parish about closing. It is clear in the letter that I had no conception that our building closure would last as long as it has. I could only comprehend two weeks at a time. I nursed a hope that we would be together by Easter. In March 2020 I would never have been able to conceive that we would still be apart the following Easter. But our building closure will last at least that long and most likely longer.
This is a sermon about prophecy, but first I want you to put a question in your mind because I’m going to ask it again at the end, and I don’t want you to be caught off guard. Here’s the question. How are you challenging the world of today in order to make the future better?
Got it in your mind? Good. Because that question is the essence of prophecy. How are you challenging the world of today in order to make the future better? We’ll get back to that question in a few minutes. For now, let’s talk about Moses and prophecy.
Today I’d like to talk about prayer and anxiety. You can probably figure out why these things are on my mind since we are less than three weeks from a presidential election, cases of covid-19 are spiking in our county, millions of people are out of work, many are on the verge of eviction, and the governor of Michigan was recently the target of an attempted kidnapping by a group by domestic terrorists. And that’s like ten percent of the stuff I wanted to put in this introduction. Whew. Deep breath.
At the end of this sermon, I’m going to talk about the prophetic voice of the movie Frozen II, but first let me talk about the church hymn board affixed to the wall to my left. This is the attractive wooden rack into which our altar guild slides in the numbers that correspond to particular songs in our hymnal. At the top of the rack, we display the particular Sunday of the church year. I haven’t touched the hymn board since the last time we used it. I’ve left it alone as a memento from our last in-person gathering. Right now the hymn board reads the “3rd Sunday in Lent.” Half a year ago.
I remember the anguished discussion the vestry had about closing the church building back in March. We had no idea how bad the pandemic would get, but the writing was on the wall. Thankfully, the vestry made the hard choice in that moment of uncertainty. Now, six months later, we are faced with the opposite hard choice: how and when to invite people back to in-person services as we balance our need for physical proximity with our collective goal of deterring the spread of the virus.
Sermon for Sunday, September 3, 2017 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15
I wonder what would have happened if Moses had ignored the burning bush. Would he have simply led his sheep down from the mountain and lived out the rest of his days in placid comfort in his father-in-law’s house? Or would God have thought up another way to catch his attention? Our faith tells me the latter is more plausible: God would have shown up again in another manner, and perhaps then Moses would be ready for the encounter. And if not then, a third time. And a fourth. And so on. Continue reading “The Moment of Encounter, part 1: The Burning Bush”→
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”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15
There’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.”
Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2015 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51
It’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.
Sermon for Sunday, March 8, 2015 || Lent 3B || Exodus 20:1-17
A 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.”
Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2014 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15
I’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.”