Renewing Our Minds

Sermon for Sunday, August 23, 2020 || Proper 16A || Romans 12:1-8

When I was a kid, I was a know-it-all and proud of it. I spent two and a half years at Hillcrest Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL, making sure everyone knew I was the smartest kid there. I mellowed a bit in high school, but my know-it-all nature still asserted itself all too often. One time in tenth grade, I got into an argument with my English teacher about the proper pronunciation of the word “conch,” as in “conch shell.” We were reading Lord of the Flies, and I was an idiot. (Turns out, both konk and contsh are correct.*)

It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 – between my first two years of seminary – that I understood that thinking you are a know-it-all is really dumb. First off, it’s never true. Second, thinking you know everything makes you completely impervious to new information and, for that matter, personal growth. Thanks be to God for a summer of hospital chaplaincy that showed me in excruciating detail the vast expanse of things I didn’t know. After that, I no longer conceived of myself as a know-it-all, but a lifetime of inhabiting that identity made it hard to shake. Nearly 15 years later, I find myself lapsing back into it all the time, and so I try constantly to inject myself with the viewpoints of people who differ from me in order to remember there’s always something more to learn.

I mention all this because of a verse we heard this morning, one of the most important sentences the Apostle Paul ever wrote. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Continue reading “Renewing Our Minds”

On the Basis of Love

Sermon for Sunday, September 8, 2019 || Proper 18C || Philemon 1-21

I guarantee you that the Apostle Paul has no idea he was writing scripture. This fact lends a certain authenticity to his words because he was never trying to add to the Bible. Rather, his letters flow from his close relationships with people all over the Mediterranean, people he has met while planting house churches. Today, we heard most of Paul’s shortest surviving letter, his letter to Philemon. We know Paul isn’t aware this letter will become Holy Scripture because his words are so personal, so timely. “One more thing,” he says (after the verses we read this morning), “Prepare a guest room for me.” That’s like me emailing an old college buddy and seeing if I can crash on his couch for a few days. Such a normal, everyday request gives this short letter a down-to-earth quality, a glimpse into Paul’s extraordinary (and yet still very human) life.

Continue reading “On the Basis of Love”

In Christ

Sermon for Sunday, June 17, 2018 || Proper 6B || 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17

Having trouble uploading the video today, so I’ll get it up as soon as I can.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” These are today’s words from the Apostle Paul written to the people of Jesus’ Way found in the city of Corinth, Greece. Except that there’s a couple extra words inserted in the English translation. Paul doesn’t actually say, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” He’s far too excited to bother with appropriate sentence structure or correct usage of linking verbs. No, what Paul really says – and I have to read this with a lot of exuberance to get the right effect – what Paul really says is this: “So if anyone is in Christ – new creation!”

Paul cannot wait to tell us of this new life, this new way of being, this new creation that happens when we live “in Christ.” But my question is: what does that mean? What does it mean to live “in Christ?” Why is Paul so excited? Continue reading “In Christ”

Where God Is, A Brief History

This article first appeared in the Pentecost 2018 issue of The Lion’s Tale, the seasonal magazine of my church, St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT.

This article starts way back. I mean waaaay back – over three thousand years ago, when two people left their home city and journeyed off into the wilderness. Their names were Abram and Sarai (soon to be Abraham and Sarah), and we read their story in the book of Genesis. The reason I need to start so far back is that Abram and Sarai discovered something that no one else in their land had discovered. They realized (a) there was only one true God and (b) God was already present wherever they went.

These were revolutionary ideas in their day. Most people in their neck of the woods assumed that each mountain and each river and each city had their own gods. Those gods stayed put: they were tied to particular places. Then Abram and Sarai ventured into the wilderness to find a new home, and they found God out in the wilderness. They set up altars to worship God wherever they found God, and soon the desert was littered with their shrines. God was everywhere! How amazing! Continue reading “Where God Is, A Brief History”

Magnetic Mercy

Sermon for Sunday, May 21, 2017 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31

I’m going to start today’s sermon with a statement, which I hope is confusing enough to make sure you want to stay with me for the next ten minutes while I unpack it. Are you ready? The statement is this: None of us has ever actually worshiped God. That’s the statement – none of us has ever actually worshiped or prayed to or talked about God.

Are you sufficiently confused? Good! I was so confused when I started working on this sermon that I spent a good hour trying to figure out what to say first. In the end I decided to invite you into my confusion and see if together we can find our way out. We have the Apostle Paul to blame. In our passage from the book of Acts this morning, Paul finds himself in Athens, Greece. He strolls the boulevards looking at the statuary dedicated to various gods of Greece and other nations. And then he comes across one altar with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul decides this unknown god is the God of of his ancestors and the Father of his Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who he thinks this unknown god is. Continue reading “Magnetic Mercy”

Restoration

Sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2017 || Easter 5A || Acts 7:55-60

Growing up, I was not the stereotypical rebellious preacher’s kid. I never stole my parents’ car. I never had a fake I.D. I never smoked or did drugs or partied. I was actually a pretty boring teenager. Even so, I committed my fair share of infractions against my parents’ rulebook. No matter the infraction, big or small, my parents never grounded me. They never took away privileges. They certainly never whipped me. They didn’t need to. They had a much more effective punishment at their disposal. They would sit me down for a Talk, look me in the eye, and say, “Adam, we love you. And we are very disappointed in your behavior.”

That was enough. Continue reading “Restoration”

Finishing the Race

Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2016 || Proper 25C || 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Jeremy is my best friend from college. We co-hosted a radio show together that had exactly zero listeners. (This was quite liberating, by the way.) We spent hours in the quad just tossing a Frisbee back and forth. He’s a great guy, who now has a beautiful wife and daughter. Now he’s an endocrinologist in Georgia, but when we were at Sewanee together, mostly I sang in the choir and he ran. He was a member of the cross country team, so he ran a lot. Like everyday.

I’ve never understood the appeal of running as an end in itself; for me, running has always been a necessary evil, a part of training for soccer. But Jeremy loved it. He was always a good runner, but never truly elite. When he ran marathons, he never started in the front of the pack with the elite runners. He just wanted to finish the race in a time that he set for himself, a personal goal. Continue reading “Finishing the Race”

There’s Only Us

Sermon for Sunday, June 19, 2016 || Proper 7C || Galatians 3:23-29

theresonlyusDuring 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”

Perfect in Weakness

Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015 || Proper 9B || 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

The first weekend of June, I was doing some yard work with my father-in-law outside the rectory. While carrying some brush down the stone front steps, I slipped and fell backwards. I caught myself, but my lower back hit the edge of the step with enough force for me to feel it, go inside, and start icing. The ice helped, and I felt much better the next day. The day after that, I played soccer. I didn’t hurt my back during the soccer game, but running around for two hours at my age didn’t do me any favors. (Yes, yes, I know I’m young, but there’s a reason most professional athletes retire in their early thirties.) Put the soccer and slipping on the steps together with sleeping in a soft bed and picking up two babies for ten months, and Wednesday morning I could barely move. I spent the day lying on the floor, in a sizable amount of pain.

The next morning, I arrived at church to prepare for the 7 a.m. service. The pain was less than the day before but still considerable. I did my best to hide it during the first half of the service, but my acting job was unconvincing. After the peace, folks asked what happened, and I told them the story I just told you. When we came together around the altar for communion, I was about to start the prayer when Barbara Barrett asked: “Adam, can we lay our hands on you and say a healing prayer for your back?”

I looked around at the people circling the altar. They seemed eager to assist Barbara in her request. I had never considered asking for such a gift, but when it was presented, there was only one possible answer, a very thankful, “Yes, of course!”

The fifteen or so people present clustered around me and touched my back and arms and shoulders. Barbara prayed aloud. When she was finished, I exhaled and inhaled. As I breathed, I felt my insides expand and the stiffness in my back stretch out just a little bit. The pain remained, but it was lessened because fifteen people were now bearing it with me.

As I reflect back on that morning, two questions spring up for me. First, why had I never considered asking for the laying on of hands? And second, why did I feel it necessary to hide my obvious pain? I could answer each of these questions at length, but in the end, the answer to both questions boils down to a single word: weakness.

Something inside me convinced me not to show my weakness. That something might have been the myth of the tough guy: “Walk it off. Gut it out. No pain, no gain.” Or perhaps the myth of perfection: “You’ll only be loved if you always get straight A’s or fit in those jeans or never strike out.” Or perhaps the myth of individualism: “I can get on very well by myself, thank you. I don’t need help from anyone.”

Whatever it was that convinced me not to show my weakness, it worked; that is, until Barbara spoke up. Her invitation to healing silenced the myths, and in that silence, the words of Paul we heard today bubbled to the surface: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about [my thorn], that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. There are many countercultural things embedded in the Christian faith, and this is a prime example. In effect, God says, “Don’t look for power where the world looks for power: in the bank account, on the TV screen, at the point of a gun. No, my grace is enough for you to find fulfillment, if you allow my grace to infuse your weakness.”

In his own trials and tribulations, Paul has uncovered something that I personally (and I bet many of you) need to hear over and over again. The power of Christ dwells in us, and it dwells most effectively in the parts of us that the myths tell us to hide. These are the parts of us that need the most help, the parts we don’t want to show other people because we think this or that facet of ourselves is deficient or shameful. The grace of God and the power of Christ enliven our whole selves, but like an antibody targeting a disease, God’s grace heads straight for our weaknesses.

And since God’s grace meets us where we are weakest, we learn to rely on that grace to help us overcome our presumed deficiencies. God uses our weakness to gain a foothold within us. God trains us to rely on God when we think we need to (that is, our weaknesses) in order that we might just start relying on God when we think we don’t need to (that is, our strengths). In that way, we eventually rely on God all the time. If God tried to gain the foothold the other way around, I don’t think we’d ever let God in because our strength, our power, would be telling us we are okay on our own.

When Barbara spoke up about healing prayer, she reminded me that I’m really not okay on my own. I need God. And I need you. Priests can fall into the trap of serving their flock with such single-mindedness that they forget sometimes they need to accept service too. Being unwilling to accept the service of another is a debilitating weakness. I suffer from it. Maybe you do too. Too often I forget what a gift mutuality is. I forget that Christ washed his disciples feet and allowed certain women to wash his. On that Thursday morning, the power of Christ worked through my weakness, and, God met me in the hands of fifteen parishioners, who gave me the gift of healing and helped me bear a burden. My weakness kept me from asking for healing, but perhaps it was that weakness (and not my back), which found healing that day.

My grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness. I’ve experienced this truth. So did the Apostle Paul. So did the disciples when Jesus sent them out two by two with only a staff in their hands, but with the power of Christ dwelling in their hearts. So my questions for you are these: what weakness of yours might God’s grace be trying to shine forth from? What part of yourself are you hiding because of some myth or other? Pray these questions. Ask God to help you face that weakness, to live into it, to find grace in it, to use it to connect with someone else feeling the same weakness. After all, strength and power are not a universal human constant. But we are all weak in some way, somehow. We’ve all been in pain. We’ve all failed at something. So did Jesus. What else but a weak, painful failure was the cross in those few days before the resurrection?

But the good news is this: the power of God’s grace redeemed the cross when Jesus rose from the dead. And the power of God’s grace redeems our weaknesses when we don’t hide them, but instead use them to connect to each other. Thank you Barbara and the rest of the Thursday morning group for your gift to me: the gift of reminding me its okay to be weak because y’all are there to help bear my burdens and because God’s grace is not just sufficient – God’s grace is abundant, extravagant, more than we could ever ask for or imagine.

The Waters of Baptism

Sermon for the Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 4, 2015


2015eastervigilIt’s great to have a baptism scheduled for the Easter Vigil, but we didn’t this year at St. Mark’s. I still wanted to bless the water of baptism before we renewed our baptismal covenant, so my father suggested I build the blessing into my sermon. At the vigil, you can preach before or after the transition from darkness to light, and this year I chose before.

Tonight, we began with fire. We kindled a new flame and processed the Light of Christ into the church. We gave “this marvelous and holy flame” to God during the chanting of the Exsultet, saying: “Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning––he who gives his light to all creation.”

Then we heard the first words ever spoken in that creation; indeed, the Word spoken to call creation forth: “Let there be light!” Creation erupted from this Word and God flung wide the fiery fusion of the stars and billions of years later, here we sit. (I skipped a little bit of the story there.) Our worship this night returns to such primal origins to make sure we know the infinite and eternal reach of the event we are about to celebrate. As I said, tonight, we began with fire.

And now we move from one primal element to another – from fire to water.

(I pour the water into the baptismal font.)

“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” (These are the first words of our baptismal rite’s blessing of the water. The rest are contained throughout this sermon.) The fiery fusion of the stars is there a moment after the beginning, a moment after the blazing creativity of the Holy Spirit dances over the face of the deep. When we give thanks to God for the gift of water, we show our gratitude for one of the fundamental things that makes life possible. We might not normally thank God for water, especially where we live and in this day and age, because water is so plentiful and constant. But tonight we acknowledge the gift of this building block of life, which helps us focus on those things that sustain life.

“Through [water] you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.” We heard this story a few minutes ago, too. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and all the people of Israel stand at the edge of the sea with their enemies bearing down on them. The sea could be a barrier, but God causes it to be their protector and rearguard. They arrive on the other side, but the sea swallows up the Egyptians and all their trappings of war. As the water delivered the people from slavery in a foreign land, for us the water symbolizes freedom from all that enslaves us.

“In [water] your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Jesus’ baptism began his public ministry of healing and bringing people closer to God. You might wonder why Jesus himself was baptized since John’s baptism was a path to repentance. What would Jesus need to repent if he knew no sin? With his baptism, Jesus foreshadows his death on the cross. He did not need to be baptized, not for the reasons the others coming out to the Jordan River did. But he chose baptism in order to wash in the same muddy water and to be in solidarity with his people. In the same way, he chose the cross, not because of his own guilt, but because of ours. In the river, Jesus swims in the sin of the people. And on the cross, the same sin hangs there with him.

“We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.” We show our gratitude again, this time for specific water, the special water of Baptism. This water is like any other, except that we set it apart with prayer and blessing and ask the Holy Spirit to make it holy.

“In [the water of Baptism] we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” We borrow these words from the Apostle Paul, who wrote the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). A baptism is so much more than a ritual washing away of sin, says Paul. Indeed, in baptism we recognize that we have died and risen with Christ. Paul continues, just to make sure we understand his point: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

“Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How could we not invite others into Christ’s fellowship after we have known the supreme gift of the Risen Christ being alive in us? But just in case we think that this new life is too precious to share, but must be hoarded like other precious things, Jesus himself commanded us to “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

“Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.” We ask the Holy Spirit to infuse this ordinary water with the presence of God just like we will do later with ordinary bread and wine. We set the rite of baptism at this point in our service because it serves as the perfect hinge between death in the gloom of Friday and new life at dawn on Sunday. When you feel this water touch your skin in a few minutes after we renew our baptismal covenant, remember that you have died and risen with Christ. You belong not to the old things that are passing away. You belong to the new creation.

“To [Christ], to you (Lord), and to the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”

Art: Detail from “Creation of the World” by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1864