Sermon for Sunday, August 11, 2019 || Proper 14C || Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
It is so good to be standing here behind this lectern again. I haven’t preached a sermon since Easter Sunday, so I hope I remember how to do it. I have so many things I want to share with you from my time on sabbatical. Many I will share during the adult forum hour throughout the upcoming school year. Some things will surely influence my sermons. But today is not the day to begin that sharing. A week ago two more mass shootings, both perhaps spurred by the scourge of white nationalist terrorism, devastated the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The events were still breaking at the time of last week’s Sunday services, so there was no time to formulate more than just an anguished response – a prayer of lamentation: “How many more, O Lord?”
Yesterday was my final day of sabbatical time: twelve long weeks set apart from (at least some of) my normal rhythms. I spent a good chunk of it in my basement. The parts I didn’t spend in my basement I spent in Alabama, North Carolina, and Israel-Palestine. I also visited my spiritual director three times, and her insights were (as always) helpful, inspired, compassionate, and kind.
I went into this sabbatical time with four written goals and one unwritten goal. The unwritten one was not to be so bound to my four written goals that I didn’t move where the Holy Spirit was leading me. The four written goals were:
Integrate through personal writing much of the reading I’ve done about racism and white supremacy.
Prepare myself for pilgrimage to the Holy Land and make the most out of that opportunity.
Rest, rejuvenate, and step back to see the proverbial forest instead of the trees.
Begin habituating a spiritual practice of silence and Christian meditation into my daily life.
Sermon for Sunday, February 11, 2018 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9
Our spiritual lives are topographically interesting. Two of the most enduring images of walking with God are the mountain and the valley, the high place and the low. You’ve heard of the proverbial “mountain top experience,” which can spark faith for the first time or renew the well-trodden paths of faith. And you’ve prayed the immortal words of Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…thou art with me.” The mountain and the valley: these are the peaks of our spiritual lives and the troughs.Continue reading “Spiritual Topography”→
I began this two-part sermon last week talking about our partnership with God in Christ; how Jesus’ invitation to “take his yoke” upon us is an invitation to plow the field with him, walking alongside each other. If you’re anything like me, you find this invitation easier to accept during terrible and tumultuous times, and you lay aside the yoke during the mundane dailiness of life. I closed last week’s sermon asking these questions: How much more meaningful would our lives be if we invited God to be present in those mundane times: to be part of the washing up and the lawn mowing and the daily commute? To be part of studying for a test and eating dinner and jogging? How much more often would we notice God already at work in the world around us if we invited God to be at work in the world within us?
This noticing happens when we pay attention. And when we pay attention we discover God is already at work in our lives whether or not we sent the invitation. I’d like to take the rest of this sermon to introduce you to a spiritual practice I have been using for the past eleven years in order to remain attentive. It is called the Ignatian Examen, a daily introspective prayer of awareness derived from the work and witness of 16th century Saint Ignatius Loyola. Continue reading “Take My Yoke Upon You: The Examen (part 2 of 2)”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2016 || Proper 24C || Luke 18:1-18
Today’s Gospel lesson begins like this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
This is strange: rarely, if ever, does the Gospel writer tip his hand while introducing a parable. Jesus seems to enjoy speaking in parables for the simple fact that parables make his audience dig deep into his words and find meaning for their lives by searching for meaning in his stories. But I think we should let the Gospel writer Luke slide just this once. He has our best interest in mind, after all. Luke doesn’t want us to miss the meaning of this story because living out this parable makes our lives fundamentally better. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” To pray always and not to lose heart. In other words, the story is about having the stamina and fortitude to pray persistently and to hope all the time.Continue reading “Fueling our Hope”→
Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2015 || Proper 27B || Mark 12:38-44
I’ve been preparing recently for Confirmation class, which begins later today. We have four tenth and eleventh graders and their sponsors ready to begin a five-month journey through their faith: learning, discussing, sharing stories. The next time the bishop visits, these four will have the opportunity to make a mature profession of faith if they so desire, and I am really excited to get to walk with them these next several months. Because I’ve had Confirmation on my mind, I’ve been thinking and rethinking some of the “nuts and bolts” of the way we express our faith as Episcopalians. Every once in a while, I like to preach on these “nuts and bolts” because in my job I get asked the same dozen or so questions about our practice all the time, and exploring such questions can help us all deepen our engagement in worship and in mission.
One of these questions has to do with the second half of our Sunday service – Holy Communion in particular. “What is Holy Communion,” I am often asked, “and why do you say such a long prayer right before it?” The second half of this question hit me again this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson, in which Jesus takes the scribes to task for all sorts of things – a few of which struck a little close to home.
“Beware of the scribes,” says Jesus, “who like to walk around in long robes” (looks down at self wearing an alb and chasuble) “and to be greeted with respect in the market-places” (not many people have the definite article at the beginning of their title, but priests do – ‘the Reverend Adam Thomas’) “and to have the best seats in the synagogues” (I guarantee you my chair is more comfortable than yours – look at that cushion!) “and places of honor at banquets” (Okay, okay, finally something that’s not true – as long as I have a lefty seat at the corner of the table, I’m good). “They devour widows’ houses” (All right, moving further away, this is good) “and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (gulps).
For the sake of appearance say long prayers. We say a lot of long prayers on Sunday morning, and one in particular is longer than all the others put together: the Eucharistic prayer. We haven’t gotten to it yet this morning, since it happens later in the service. You’ll know when we arrive at the Eucharistic prayer because I will be standing behind the altar when we start it. So Jesus indicts the scribes on six different issues, and by my count I’m guilty of three, innocent of two, and the final one is pending. For the sake of appearance, they say long prayers. I can’t dispute that the Eucharistic prayer is long – most graces before a meal don’t last five minutes. So to break even on these six charges, I have to prove that I don’t pray this prayer for “the sake of appearance.”
Before I start my defense, you need to know I’m not the only one implicated in this. You all are co-conspirators. At the beginning of the prayer you and I share a short dialogue, right? (The Lord be with you. And also with you. And so on…). In this dialogue, I ask your permission to pray on your behalf, and you grant it when you say, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” So that’s the first thing to remember: even though I’m the one talking, we’re all praying this Eucharistic prayer together.
Now that you have joined the defendant’s side of this indictment with me, let’s explore this question: If not for appearance, why then do we pray such a long and involved prayer before receiving Communion? My answer is this: we are part of God’s story. We nurture our faith when we take time each week to locate ourselves in this great story. And when we locate ourselves in the story, we realize that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the story is still being told. And when we have this realization, we give thanks to God for our participation in God’s story through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Now I know that was a pretty dense answer, so let’s unpack it a little bit. First, we locate ourselves in the story by praying, “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself.” We fell away from you, but you gave us another chance by sending your Son. We and Us. Not They and Them. This story is about us. We don’t deserve mercy, but God doesn’t care one lick whether or not we deserve it. And that’s called grace.
With this grace emboldening us, we then fulfill Jesus’ request made at his last supper with his friends when he took bread and broke it. But notice that when I narrate the breaking of the bread, I don’t actually break it. Not yet. I break the bread later for the utilitarian purpose of sharing it. The reason I don’t break the bread when Jesus does is because I am not standing in for Jesus. And we are not reenacting the Last Supper. This is important, so listen up. We are not reenacting the Last Supper; we are participating in it. There has only been one Last Supper, and we were there. We are there each time we partake of Christ’s Body and Blood. We are there with everyone who has ever received the sacrament. We are there with the great cloud of witnesses that we invoke later in the prayer. We are there as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. Thus, the broken bread makes us whole: one body in Christ made up of many members, each supporting the others in worship, love, and service.
That’s why we invite the Holy Spirit to fill the bread and wine with the presence of Christ: not simply to remember what Christ did, but to participate in what Christ is doing. The story is not over yet. The Bible might be finished, but the story continues – God’s story of making, redeeming, and sustaining this little Creation of God’s. When you come to the altar rail and put out your hands, you signal your fervent desire to participate in this great story. In the Eucharistic prayer, we tell the story together, and in the telling and in the sharing we take on our role as the characters in the current chapter. We are the people to whom Christ offers his Body and Blood in order that we might both feel closer to him and feel strengthened to serve. We are the people enlivened by this precious nourishment. We are the people with a story to tell.
And that’s why we give thanks. The Eucharistic prayer is a prayer of Great Thanksgiving: thanksgiving for God’s mercy and grace; thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice and sustenance; thanksgiving for the Holy Spirit’s presence and empowerment. We give thanks that we are a part of the story. And it is quite a story. I don’t know about you, but a five-minute praying of the story seems downright short when you realize all that it entails. But of course, we don’t tell the story just once a week for five minutes on a Sunday. We tell the story each day of our lives.
We don’t pray this long prayer just for the sake of appearance. We pray this long prayer to give thanks for our part in God’s great story. And then we receive Holy Communion to strengthen and nourish us to continue telling that story together.
Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2015 || Lent 5B || Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13
This is the last Sunday of the year in which we are worshiping according to the older, Rite I format of our liturgy. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the reason we’ve been using the more traditional language was so we could say that beautiful line about inclining our hearts towards God. But there’s another reason, one that I didn’t mention then because I was fairly sure I was going to preach about it today. There’s a special prayer found in the traditional rite that is not duplicated in the modern one, a prayer we’ve been praying directly before communion for the last several weeks. Today, we will pray it one last time. The “Prayer of Humble Access” goes like this:
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”
Before we dive deep on this prayer, let me tell you why I’ve been wanting to preach about it. For the longest time, I detested this prayer. I never wanted to attend a Rite I service because I did not want to say this prayer. I had my reasons: it felt too much like gratuitous self-flagellation; like I was groveling; like I had forgotten to put on my hair-shirt. It didn’t seem to mesh with the joyfulness of receiving Holy Communion. But, to be honest, those reasons were a smokescreen.
The real problem I had with this prayer was that my Pride* would not countenance me saying these words. The sin of Pride is the sin of forgetting who made you; the sin of reconstructing your life so that all of the good things that happen to you happen because of you. My Pride made me trust in my own presumed righteousness. My Pride generated a false sense of worthiness to sit at the Table. And so I never could get to the part of the prayer where we stop talking about ourselves and start talking about God. I’d be willing to bet, for one reason of another, that some of you have had similar issues with this or other prayers we say in the Episcopal Church.
Somewhere along the way, thanks in large part to my mentor and former rector Margot Critchfield, God engendered a change in me, so that, instead of embracing my Pride, I started to fight it. I still lose a lot of the time, but the Prayer of Humble Access has turned from a stumbling block into a reliable source of defense against my Pride.
So let’s take a look at what we are actually praying when we say this venerable old prayer, the words of which go all the way back to the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549.† What we will find are words that put us in right relationship with God and teach us about the mystery of this Holy Communion we share.
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord…” The first thing to notice is the owner of the table behind me. The altar does not belong to St. Mark’s Parish. It does not belong to the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. It does not belong to you or me. The table is God’s Table. Whether this is your first Sunday with us or you’ve been worshiping here forty years, you are still God’s guest when you come forward to receive Holy Communion. Therefore, when we do come forward, we are practicing our acceptance of God’s invitation again and again. This is one of God’s more obvious invitations, so accepting it each week helps train us to accept the less obvious invitations God sends us when we aren’t surrounding God’s Table.
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” These words answer the question: “Where do we put our trust?” My old prideful answer told me to trust in my own righteousness, but the prayer places our trust in much more secure hands – in God’s “manifold and great mercies.” So what we’re really saying with this first sentence of the prayer is that we cannot hear God’s invitation to the Table until we relocate the object of our trust away from ourselves. The invitation has nothing to do with how good or righteous we are. We come to the Table because God’s mercy draws us there.
This is good news, especially when we are mired in the darkness like the writer of today’s psalm. The poet cries out, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.” Even in the midst of the deepest darkness, God’s mercy and compassion can draw us back home. In Hebrew, the word translated here as “compassion” has the same root as the word “womb.”‡ Thus, God’s compassion can bring us back to a moment of glorious togetherness like when a mother feels when her baby kicks. We find this togetherness, this connection, when God’s mercy draws us to the Table for our sacred meal.
“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” This is the sentence that always made me cringe so much in my Pride. But the next sentence turns the camera around: “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” So what these words lay bare is not our unworthiness, but God’s great generosity in having us as guests at God’s Table. This is the same generosity God extends to the people of Israel through the voice of Jeremiah the Prophet in today’s reading. The people have strayed again and again and again, and still God calls them back, makes a new covenant with them, and writes God’s law on their hearts. Like those ancient people, we are unworthy, except that God’s grace makes us worthy to receive God’s gifts.
And what is the greatest of gifts? The last words reveal all: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” We reach the crux of the prayer, the part my Pride never let me reach in days past. And just look what that Pride barred me from asking for! With these words, we reveal our deepest longing for a mutual indwelling with Christ. Dwelling in him means touching the peace that passes all understanding. And to have him dwell in us means feeling our hearts resonate with the yearnings of his heart, the yearnings that lead us to love and serve and sacrifice and rejoice.
In the end, this beautiful prayer that we will pray later in this service speaks to our longing for the deeper connection with God that Holy Communion offers. So today, when you come up to receive the gifts of bread and wine, which are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, keep the Prayer of Humble Access on your lips. And remember what it teaches: God has invited us to the Table. God’s compassionate mercy allows us to accept this invitation. God’s generosity grants us the grace to connect deeply with God. And this connection blossoms as a mutual indwelling between Christ and us. Praise God that we have the opportunity to connect with God so closely, so intimately. Praise God for the gift of such Holy Communion.
* I capitalize Pride here because I’m speaking of the word in its sinful connotation. There’s a reason that Dante placed Pride at the base of the mountain of purgatory in his The Divine Comedy. All other sins have their roots in Pride. That being said, of course it’s okay to say that you take “pride” in your children, and so on. That’s pride of a different order.
† The version of the prayer we use in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has a few variations form the original form and the modified one still in use today in England. Check out this Wikipedia article to see the other wordings. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Humble_Access
Sermon for Sunday, October 19, 2014 || Proper 24A || Matthew 22:15-22
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Give to God the things that are God’s. Two weeks ago in the sermon and last week at the forum hour between services, we talked quite a bit about giving to God. We said that all giving to God is really and truly giving back to God. We said that good stewardship comprehends the intentional awareness that what we have isn’t really ours; therefore we cultivate an attitude in which all that we are and all that we have is a gift given back and forth between us and God.
But I was struck this week when reading Jesus’ words in our Gospel lesson that we never talked about what giving to God really looks like. If you think for even more than a few seconds about the idea, you realize that this act of giving is, in the end, metaphorical. Or perhaps a better word is ephemeral. We just don’t have the opportunity to hand something physically to God, as I might hand you a birthday present. The trouble is we use the language of “giving” so often when we speak of our interaction with God that I’m afraid we now tend to skip past the real world impact of this necessarily ephemeral action. So I’d like to spend the next several minutes exploring with you this real world impact and at least make a start at answering the following question. What do we really mean when we say we are giving something to God?
Notice first how often we use this “giving” language. Let us give thanks to the Lord God. It is right to give God thanks and praise. Give that burden on your heart to God in prayer. All things come from thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee. These three common phrases illustrate the three biggest categories of our use of the term “giving to God.” We give our thanks. We give our burdens. And we give our material possessions, our stuff.
With each of these categories, let’s start with what they look like when two humans engage in them. Say Tom and Brad go out for ice cream. When they arrive at the cash register, they both reach for their wallets, but then Brad says, “I’ve got this,” and motions for Tom to put his wallet away. Tom then says, “Thank you” to Brad for the ice cream. What is happening in this exchange? Brad gives Tom something, a gift Tom wasn’t expecting. Tom says, “Thanks” in acknowledgement of the gift.
Thus, in regards to giving thanks to God, the act of giving thanks is the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given us. The act of giving thanks is our response to the giver. Therefore, giving thanks keeps us in right relationship with God because by it we practice again and again living into the reality that we are not the prime movers of our own lives. We are simply the respondents.
Our fallen world often causes us to drift toward isolation and disengagement. But the act of giving thanks reminds us that we are not, in fact, unmoored. We are tethered to the God who continually calls us into being. Our lives have a source. And they have a culmination. Both the source and culmination are the eternity of God’s love. In between, we stay anchored to God when we respond to God’s gifts with our thankfulness.
This is one of the reasons we share Holy Communion each week. We begin the Eucharistic prayer by stating how proper it is for us to thank God for everything. In the words of the various prayers, we catalog what we are thankful for. And then we stretch out our hands and receive the Body of Christ, a response to God’s love, which nourishes us to continue to respond.
So giving thanks anchors us to the prime mover in our lives. What about giving our burdens? Let’s return to Tom and Brad. Tom comes to Brad with a heavy heart. He said something that hurt another friend’s feelings. He tried to apologize but the damage had been done and the friend isn’t talking to him anymore. He’s afraid he has irreparably damaged their relationship. He needed someone to talk to and is so glad Brad is willing to talk. By offering an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, Brad helps bear Tom’s burden.
So how does this conversation change when it happens not between two friends but in the context of prayer to God? We don’t necessarily hear audible words of comfort or feel the warmth of a physical embrace. But something important happens nonetheless. Our burdens often make us feel small. They threaten to crush us under their weight if we spend all our time trying to hold onto them. In a way, our burdens function similarly to the idols we talked about two weeks ago. They can warp our lives around the need to carry them and end up taking all our energy.
But giving a burden up to God releases us from this functional idolatry. Rather than the burden being between us and God as a barrier, the burden is shared between us and God as a bridge. The burden becomes another way we connect to God, since we are both carrying it, as do two people trying to lug a couch up the stairs. So just as giving thanks anchors us to God as responders, giving our burdens tethers us to God in the sharing of the weight between us.
These two categories of giving link us to God, and so does the third, but we have to look more closely as we now move from the ephemeral to the concrete and turn to giving our “stuff.” Quickly, back to Tom and Brad. Tom needs a trench coat to finish his Halloween costume. Turns out Brad grew out of his old one, so he gives it to Tom to keep. The important thing to note in this exchange is the physical handing over of the item, wherein perhaps they shake hands or high five or express some form of camaraderie.
When we give God our stuff, we obviously don’t give it directly to God. God can’t use a trench coat, after all. Instead, we give our stuff to other people, either directly like when we purchase, cook, and serve food to those in need at the WARM shelter or indirectly like when we pledge money to God’s work at St. Mark’s. Our other two categories of giving tether us to God in one way or another, and so does this third category, but we have to look more intentionally for the link.
Thankfully, Jesus makes this link for us just a few chapters after our Gospel reading this morning. He tells us that whenever we give food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty or clothes to the naked, we are actually giving to him. Therefore, whenever we give to God some possession of ours, God grants us the opportunity to seek Christ’s presence in the person receiving the gift in God’s stead. By intentionally recognizing God at the heart of the receiver we connect more deeply with that person and with God who makes all connection possible.
This theme of connection animates all of our thanksgiving. We give God our thanks. We give God our burdens. We give God our stuff. In each instance, our giving anchors us, tethers us, connects us more deeply to God and to each other. This is what we mean when we say we are giving something to God; this is what happens: We respond to God with thanks, we partner with God in sharing our burdens, and we meet Christ whenever we give of ourselves to help another.