Sermon for Sunday, January 19, 2020 || Epiphany 2A || John 1:29-42
“What are you looking for?” These are the first five words Jesus speaks in the Gospel According to John. Two of John the Baptist’s disciples are following him – quite literally trailing him after John has revealed Jesus’ identity to them – and Jesus turns around to question them. “What are you looking for?”
Jesus speaks these words, and is so often the case in the Gospel, his question operates on multiple levels. The first layer speaks to the surface meaning. This layer is easy for Jesus’ listeners to access, and so they become drawn in. Then the second, deeper layer of meaning presents itself. Many of Jesus’ listeners resist this deeper level. But those who do listen for it, who do dive deeply, find rich, life-giving substance in Jesus’ words.
Sermon for Sunday, September 29, 2019 || Proper 21C || Luke 16:19-31
This sermon is about walking in love. But before I go there, I need to talk about Jesus the radical. Jesus shares a lot of radical stories in the Gospel. We might not realize how radical they are because they appear in the Bible. And the Bible over time has become such an established collection of writings that we don’t necessarily expect them to be radical. We hear the same stories over and over again, so their shocking nature is dulled both by repetition and the long march of history.
Sermon for Sunday, October 21, 2018 || Proper 24B || Mark 10:35-45
Today I’d like to talk about the concept of mutuality. In a world full of fractures and broken relationships – both personal and societal – mutuality stands as one of the ways Jesus invites us to shine our lights on the life-giving ways of God to a world that has lost its way. Living lives of true mutuality takes intention, selflessness, partnership, and good communication. With God’s help, we can model such mutually beneficial relationships, and in doing so, demonstrate just how joyful it can be to serve one another.
Sermon for Sunday, March 11, 2018 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21
God has blessed Leah and me in the past few months with the opportunity to participate in the Financial Peace University class here at St. Mark’s. The nine-week course is part lesson and part support group as singles and couples gather to examine and change their financial practices. We only have two classes left, and I can’t begin to explain how much the class has changed my outlook on money and on my family’s future.
But I must confess to a fairly large dose of hubris going into the course. I knew the developer of the class, financial guru Dave Ramsey, purported to use “biblical principles” to guide his thinking about money. I assumed such principles would consist of half-baked theology used to prove his points, or else his principles would rise out of the muck of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which is anathema to true Christianity. Boy, was I wrong.Continue reading “The Giver”→
Sermon for Sunday, February 4, 2018 || Epiphany 5B || Mark 1:29-39
There’s a certain line in this morning’s Gospel lesson, and I can’t decide whether it is hyperbole or not. “That evening, at sundown,” Mark tells us, “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” The whole city. Archaeologists tell us the city of Capernaum had a population of about fifteen hundred in Jesus’ day, so imagine a group larger than the student body of Fitch High School crowding around one house on a quiet side street near the sea. “The whole city was gathered around the door.”
Now you might be wondering why I’m harping on about this rather innocuous verse, and I’ll admit it has stuck in my craw this week. To be honest, reading about this whole city gathering around Jesus made me sad and wistful. Imagining this great throng trying to get near this wonderful source of healing made me long for a return to another time in the history of our little piece of the world.
Sermon for Sunday, November 26, 2017 || Reign of Christ, Year A || Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
About two months ago, I got a call from one of the nearby care facilities. An elderly man, whom I had never met, was actively dying, and the staff member on the phone asked if I could come over and pray with him. Now I wish my first thought was, “Yes, of course, I’d be honored.” To be honest, it was one of those days. I was on the run from here to there doing a million things, none of them very attentively because there was so much to do. So my second thought was, “I’ll go if I can squeeze in another visit.” After all, the man wasn’t one of my parishioners, not one of my flock.
Thankfully, a third thought bubbled up from my gut, from that place within that you listen to because you’re pretty sure the thought originated from someone other than yourself. The third thought was a simple imperative: “Go.” I got in my car and drove to the care center. The staff directed me to the room where I found the unconscious man and his wife sitting vigil next to him. Their adult children were on the way, but she wasn’t sure they would make it on time. She and I chatted for awhile about their life together, the blessing of his long years, the pain in seeing him move towards death.Continue reading “The Widow’s Note”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 8, 2016 || Easter 7C || Revelation 22
You probably didn’t realize it, but a few minutes ago _____ read the very last prayer in the Bible. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” These are the words of John of Patmos as he wakes from his vision, which we know as the Book of Revelation. Come, Lord Jesus. A succinct prayer, to be sure, but powerful. It sounds to me like a breath prayer; that is, a prayer short enough to be said slowly in a single breath. <demonstrating>Come, Lord Jesus. Praying a breath prayer is a wonderful practice that helps us stay immersed in the healing waters of God’s presence. A breath prayer can be anything that you can say with one breath: Continue reading “Come, Lord Jesus”→
As many of you know, Tim Evers and I spent much of last week in Haiti visiting our mission partner, St. Luc School. As you will see later in this sermon, I’m so thankful that a coincidence of calendar had us travel there during Advent. My first glimpse of the country came from 10,000 feet in the air. The Haitian landscape rises rugged and mountainous to the east where it abuts the Dominican Republic and flattens to the west where a peninsula bathes in the Caribbean Sea. Our destination was in the countryside west of the capital.
We arrived at the hospital of St. Croix in Leogane after the wildest vehicular ride of my life. Negotiating intersections paired survival of the fittest with a massive game of chicken. There were next to no traffic lights, and the painted traffic lanes seemed merely suggestive. Even which side of the road to drive on was in doubt. But we made it, thanks to our driver’s aggressive skill and liberal use of the horn.
As we drove, both from the airport and on the way to St. Luc, I tried to take in as much of my surroundings as possible. Here are a few impressions in no particular order:
Wherever there is an open patch of ground, there are kids playing soccer on it. Grass is optional. And having a ball is optional.
Most people are dressed the way you or I might when we’re doing yard work. The big exception are kids – particularly girls – wearing immaculate school uniforms. And I mean immaculate. Their blouses are the only thing I saw that I would classify as the color white. Everything else that could be white was painted tan by all the dust.
There are stray dogs all over the place, many with mammary glands obviously swollen with milk. I realized how odd this sight was to me because nearly every dog in the U.S. is spayed or neutered.
The two main forms of transportation are walking and riding small motorcycles — dirt bikes, really. I didn’t know you could fit five people on a dirt bike, but you can.
There are lots of scrawny little goats milling around.
Many of the ramshackle dwellings are fenced in with tarps emblazoned with “USAID” – the United States Agency for International Development. The tarps say, “From the American People” on them. It’s a sad commentary that the emergency tarps provided five years ago after the earthquake have become a permanent fixture in people’s dwellings.
In the distance, the landscape is truly stunning, but focusing on the landscape close by tells what happens when there is no functioning sanitation department. Discarded bottles and Styrofoam food containers collect in piles like raked leaves, along with other unidentified refuse.
All this I saw from the seat of a dented Mazda dualcab truck. All this I saw without actually interacting with anyone. Thankfully, we did interact with people, and so my appreciation for both the blessings and challenges of life in Mercery, Haiti deepened. Our main contact was Fr. Sonley Joseph, the priest in charge of St. Croix and its eight — eight! — satellite parishes, including St. Luc. Sonley and I have a lot in common: we’re both writers and we both lived in the same dormitory at Virginia Theological Seminary (he a couple years after I). I liked him immediately, and not just because of our kinship, but because of his soft-spoken, yet ardent and inviting vision of the mission of God. In Haiti, the Church’s participation in God’s mission has always been linked with education, and most churches have schools attached. Sounds like St. Mark’s, if you ask me.
Fr. Sonley was our guide and interpreter when we went to St. Luc on Wednesday morning to say hello to the students and teachers. We received 270 bon jours in return across the eight classrooms, from 6th grade on down to pre-K. The school has no electricity, but there is enough tropical sunlight to illuminate all the rooms, save one whose windows are shaded by plants. The classrooms are quite noisy because there’s nothing but cinderblocks to keep sounds from one room invading another. And most teaching is done using the blackboard, as there aren’t enough books to go around.
But even with these challenges, the teachers’ love for their profession and their students is evident from the moment you step into the room. Tim and I met with the teachers later in the day, and they all agreed that St. Luc is the best school in Mercery. Their pride for and dedication to their school was wonderful to feel. Access to education is a fundamental human right. And these teachers are realizing this fundamental human right for those 270 beautiful children, in a country were such access is far from assured.
To be involved in the process of educating these children, even in the small way we at St. Mark’s are, is a gift. Our partnership with St. Luc School is a gift from God, a participation in God’s mission as Fr. Sonley described it. Of course, there is so much more we could do. We have a list, prioritized from simple to incredibly ambitious. But that’s only for these 270 kids. What about the other children of Haiti or in other poverty-stricken places (even here in the States) or the other needs and disparities that need to be addressed or the issues of injustice that keep people from having access to fundamental human rights? There is so much more that we could do! There is always so much more we can do — So, so, so, so, so much more that we can easily be overwhelmed; the need can steal our breath, then our balance, then our will to persevere.
And this is where the season of Advent infiltrates our hearts and minds and gives us a little breathing room to stand back and take it all in. Yes, the needs of this world are great. Yes, the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. But Advent teaches us two things that will sharpen our focus and our will.
First, as Stacey so aptly put it last week, Advent reminds that the One we long for is already here. There is a tension at play between God’s kingdom already here and God’s kingdom still to come. God’s kingdom is alive and well in Haiti. Indeed, despite the general poverty of resources and circumstances, the faith of the people of Haiti is deep and abiding. I saw dozens of signs that said “Merci Jesus” on them. Thank you, Jesus! For what, you might ask? For life. For love. For family. For the same things you and I thank Jesus for. That’s the “already” of the kingdom. The “not yet” is still breaking in: it’s in the teachers sweltering at blackboards with 50 students clamoring for attention; it’s in the mother painstakingly washing the uniform each night so it is immaculate again in the morning; it’s in the hungry yet smiling faces of those children who are Haiti’s future, whom we are helping to educate.
Second, Advent teaches us to focus on a particular spot at a particular time on a particular person. The particularity of Jesus’ Incarnation is what we are getting ready for. God came to us in all the particularity of a precious human life, born in a place that could easily have been fenced with a tarp from USAID. Because of this Incarnation, Jesus had a chance to meet people in a way God couldn’t — eye to eye, touching, embracing, walking with, eating with…dying for. When you start to get overwhelmed by the needs of the world, return to Advent. Walk with Mary and Joseph to that starlit stable in Bethlehem and witness the birth of grace and love. See Christ embodied in his own peculiar humanness. Then go back to the needs of this world. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity. Instead, do what God did in the Incarnation: pick a place; pick a person. Be present there. Form a partnership there. Form relationships there in that singular place. Find Christ in that person. And be an incarnation of Christ to that person.
That’s what we’re doing in the partnership between St. Mark’s Church and St. Luc School. It’s an Advent partnership: already begun but never quite finished. It’s also a Christmas partnership, because in that little school off a dirt road in the boondocks of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we incarnate Christ for each other. Thanks be to God.
Sermon for Sunday, September 20, 2015 || Proper 20B || Mark 9:30-37
Every day of my fourth grade year, my class lined up at the end of recess to go back inside. The bell rang, and we raced to our spots in the line. But the race was in vain because no matter who arrived at the door first, we always lined up alphabetically by last name. By last name. What I wouldn’t have given to line up by first name. Then (Oh happy day!) I would have been at the very front of the line. No Aarons or Abigails in my class. No. Adam would have been the first name on the list. But those days were cruel. Every morning, I stood on tiptoes to see over the twenty-three heads in front of me, and only one boy – Shane Yellin – was worse off than I.
Then, on the day when all the mothers began insisting their fourth graders wear winter coats to school, something happened. Mrs. Ida Hughes, my math teacher, challenged us to line up in reverse alphabetical order. And for one cold, drizzly, glorious day, I stood at the front of the line and only one head obstructed my view of the playground doors.
Standing at the front of the line feels good and the benefits are numerous. Being in front means the concert tickets aren’t sold out. The first baseman hasn’t tired of signing autographs. The bucket of fried chicken at the church potluck retains its full complement of chicken legs. Certainly, perks abound for those in front. Go to any shopping center in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving and witness the millions of Americans attempting be first in line simply to purchase new TVs for “doorbuster” prices.
Of course, these benefits are all about me. I get the tickets and the autograph and the preferred piece of chicken. I get the deal on the television. I get all these things because I got in line before you. You are behind me and someone else is behind you and countless faceless others line up behind that someone else. So we stand in our line and stare at the backs of the heads in front of us. In this linear configuration, no one can converse. No one can relate. No one can do anything more than slowly shuffle forward, both surrounded and isolated at the same time.
This isolation is the danger Jesus envisions when he places a little child among his disciples. They’ve been arguing about which one of them is the greatest (in other words, which one of them should be first in line). The prevailing linear culture has thoroughly molded the disciples. They only understand relationships in terms of hierarchy based on class, gender, and age. But they’ve been hanging around Jesus long enough to know that Jesus is thoroughly countercultural. He talks with women. He eats with outcasts. He touches the unclean. And so the disciples lapse into embarrassed silence when Jesus asks them about the content of their argument. They know they’ve provided Jesus with what would now be called a “teachable moment.”
The disciples expect something countercultural and that’s exactly what Jesus gives them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To illustrate the revolutionary nature of this statement, Jesus brings a small child and places the child among the disciples – not before them or after them, but among them. In Jesus’ day, this child was the last of the last. The hierarchy of the society placed children just below farm animals because you could get a lot more out of a goat than a toddler, and the goat would probably live longer. Children had no rights or protections. They weren’t even considered people until they were old enough to work.
But Jesus ignores this cruel stratification when he says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Jesus commands his disciples and us to welcome those whom society deems lowest of all. With this welcome comes the opportunity to see the faces and learn the stories of those who until now were at the end of the line, too far removed from us to register on our radar. And as we hear the stories of the lowest and the last, we seek ways to serve them and serve with them.
But one of the greatest mistakes of our time has been the Western presumption that we know what’s best for the people we serve: “You might not have said you need a well in your village, but we’re going to come and build one anyway.” This imperialistic attitude only perpetuates the linear model, which our service should be attempting to supplant. However, with his command to welcome, Jesus doesn’t allow us to develop a “serve first and ask questions later” mentality. Welcoming provides the framework through which service leads to the building up of relationships.
With his emphasis on relationships, Jesus changes the existing linear model into a circular one. In the line, you can’t welcome anyone because all you see are the backs of heads. You can’t serve anyone because the implied hierarchy of the line makes isolation the norm. You can only count the number of people ahead of you and nurse your own indignation over your rotten place in line. But in the circle, there is no first and no last. We can grasp hands in welcome precisely because we will be unable to quantify our position in the continuous round. And relationships have a chance to flourish because we look not at backs but at each other’s faces.
This circular model of welcome and service stands in laughable contrast to the current situation in this country. Too many incidents to count show that the tired old scourge of racism is alive and well. The drive to produce leads to longer hours, more work, and more money, but assuredly less happiness, less camaraderie. The gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider. Each of these examples depends on the linear model continuing to thrive. And it is. So here we sit with our Lord challenging us to do something, which the loudest voices on the other side of those doors claim is utter nonsense.
To be first you must be last of all and servant of all, he says. Let go of linear relationships based on power and ambition and embrace circular relationships based on welcome and service. If you are standing near the front of the line now, start walking to the back. Grab the hand of the last person in line and form the circle. Welcome the least among us. Listen to their needs, their desires, their dreams. Form new relationships. Partner with them in service because we are only as strong as our weakest members. Jesus invites us over and over again to accomplish these things. And Jesus never issues an invitation without simultaneously offering the gifts needed to embrace it.
So to every fourth grader lining up after recess and to every businessperson lining up at Starbucks and to everyone whose ambition blinds him or her to those standing on tiptoes in the back: Give up your place in line.
Sermon for Sunday, April 26, 2015 || Easter 4B || 1 John 3:16-24
Many of you met (or at least saw) my sister Melinda two weeks ago when we baptized Charlie and Amelia on this very spot. She’s one of the strongest and most loving people I’ve ever known, and I’m glad that my years spent being her “annoying little brother” didn’t damage our long term prospects of maintaining a close connection. This may sound funny, but I think one of the primary reasons we survived our young years with our friendship intact was the movie The Princess Bride. We both loved it, and no matter how long it had been since we last watched it, we would quote it to each other at every conceivable opportunity. And we still do sometimes. Rest assured, you can mute the film, and Melinda and I can supply the dialogue.
So it should come as no surprise to you that when I’m doing pre-marital counseling with couples preparing to be married, wisdom gleaned from The Princess Bride tends to slip in. As of last count, I’m officiating at ten weddings this year, so I’ve had the golden opportunity to give the “As you wish” talk to many couples, with many more to come.
The film opens with a grandfather reading S. Morgenstern’s “classic” tale to his sick grandson. As he reads, the picture melts into a bucolic setting where we meet two beautiful people. Buttercup commands the farm boy, Westley, to do several menial tasks – polish her horse’s saddle, fill buckets with water, fetch a pitcher. Each time, he responds, “As you wish.” Then we hear the grandfather, voiced by Columbo himself, the inimitable Peter Falk, say, “That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying ‘As you wish,’ what he meant was, ‘I love you.’ And even more amazing was the day she realized she truly loved him back.”
This discovery, of course, leads to a sunset kiss, a leave-taking to seek fortune across the sea, a supposed death, and (eventually) a harrowing reunion, a second separation, another supposed death, a rescue, and (finally) an escape together from the homicidal schemes of the evil prince. (It’s a fantastic movie.)
I bring up Westley’s “As you wish” with couples preparing for marriage because I’ve found that often they don’t realize or haven’t processed the ways in which their partners show their love. Rarely do both members of a couple display their love in the exact same ways. Because our husbands or wives show love differently than we do, we have a tendency to miss it and thus fail to appreciate this love.
Our New Testament lesson this morning speaks to the “As you wish” exercise. “Little children,” says the writer of the first letter of John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Just before this, the letter gives an example from Jesus: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
The writer of First John knows that saying, “I love you,” is all too easy – just three little monosyllables. Subject, verb, object. Meaning it is the hard part. Too often, the abused wife returns to her husband because “he says he loves me.” Too often, the college freshman wakes up crying the next morning, after being duped by “I love you.” Too often, “I love you” hurts more than it heals. The abusive husband and the collegiate predator weaponize the phrase, with no thought to its destructive consequences.
But this is where action comes in. This is where service separates truth from manipulation. You may be tempted to say that action is needed to prove that a spoken “I love you” is real. If this were the case, however, there would still be regular jousting tournaments throughout Christendom. Rather, active service is a spontaneous symptom of love – one that makes the spoken words extraneous (even though they are still nice to hear).
Loving and serving – we really mustn’t separate the two. Love expresses itself not only in poetic protestations: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” No. Love expresses itself in holding the beloved’s hair back when she’s bent over the toilet with stomach flu. Love waits all night in the hospital room, visits the prisoner, builds affordable housing, donates mac & cheese. Love gets its uniform dirty.
We will be reaffirming our baptismal covenant in just a few minutes. One of the promises echoes Jesus’ great commandment: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
Will you serve? Will you love? “I will, with God’s help,” you’ll say. How will you serve? What will your love propel you to do?
This week I invite you to talk to your spouse or child or sibling or friend. Ask them how they see you demonstrate love. What ways do you show it above and beyond the spoken “I love you?” To whom are these displays of love directed? How can you employ your unique set of gifts to become an even better version of the loving person that God made you?
Do the same thing for your spouse, child, sibling, or friend. Discover together the ways God is calling you to be God’s loving servant. Discover together how God prompts you to be servants of one another in the power of mutual love. And discover together where God is inviting you to turn that internal love into external service. The writer of First John continues on this theme: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” How indeed?
In The Princess Bride, Miracle Max reminds us that “True love is the greatest thing in the world.”* But unless we display that true love through our service to one another and to our brothers and sisters in need, what good is it? After we share Holy Communion with each other this morning, we will orient ourselves away from the table and toward the door. And we will pray, “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” God sends us out to love and to serve. I pray that we will respond, “As you wish.”
* “Except for a nice M.L.T. Mutton, lettuce, and tomato, where the mutton is nice and lean. They’re so perky. I love that.”