I spent Election Day saying “thank you” to people, and it completely changed me. Going into November 3rd, I was a ball of raw nerves and tension and indigestion and fear. And while much of my tension remains, I found myself breathing a little easier despite the lack of immediate electoral clarity. I was even able to manage a four-hour chunk of sleep on Election Night. I had been praying for the election – for safety, especially, and for the process to run its course smoothly. I had been praying for those who are most vulnerable in our society, whose lives change more dramatically than mine does depending on who is in power. I had been praying for myself, for sleep, for peace, for patience. And still I was a ball of tension going into last Tuesday.
Sermon for Sunday, October 13, 2019 || Proper 23C || Luke 17:11-19
This summer, I went to the place where that Gospel story happened. We were heading back to Jerusalem from Galilee, and we stopped in the West Bank town of Burqin, just like Jesus did – except he wasn’t riding an air-conditioned tour bus. We walked up a hill to a church that commemorates the healing of the ten lepers. Preserved there are the ancient underground caverns – holes, really – were people with skin conditions were set apart from the rest of society. I climbed down into one, and I can’t imagine being there for more than a few minutes.
Sermon for Sunday, September 23, 2018 || Proper 20B || Proverbs 31:10-31
Today’s reading from the Old Testament highlights an important issue of biblical interpretation. We might call it the “Now-Then” problem. The Now-Then problem crops up any time we read a passage of the Bible that sounds antiquated to modern ears. While many parts of Bible hold a timeless quality, there are passages that modern readers easily dismiss because those passages seem stuck in their historical context. Take today’s first reading for instance:
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”→
Sermon for Sunday, December 3, 2017 || Advent 1B || 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Today I’d like to talk about the correlation between awareness and thanksgiving. The theme of awareness comes from the Gospel lesson, and the theme of thanksgiving comes from the reading from Paul. Taken together, we can see a deeper truth as to how giving thanks helps keep us aware, as Jesus urges. This sermon began percolating when I was getting ready for the service on Thanksgiving Day, so a few of you heard parts of it that day. But before I get to the correlation between awareness and thanksgiving, I want to tell you about the bedtime ritual at home.
It goes something like this. Right after dinner, at 6:30 in the evening, we take the twins upstairs and brush teeth. Then we have bath time until 6:45. Then jammies and stories. And then we say our “gratefuls.” What are you grateful for today? As you might expect, the children’s answers run the gamut from the silly to the profound, but what you might not expect is that every night they turn the question back around on me. If I don’t answer, they will let me know it. “Daddy, what are you grateful for?”Continue reading “Awareness and Thanksgiving”→
The bedtime ritual at home goes like this. At 6:30 in the evening, we take the twins upstairs and brush teeth. Then we have bath time until 6:45. Then jammies and stories. And then we say our “gratefuls.” What are you grateful for today? As you might expect, the children’s answers run the gamut from the silly to the profound, but what you might not expect is that every night they turn the question back around on me. If I don’t answer, they will let me know it. “Daddy, what are you grateful for?”
Some days, something springs readily to my lips. I’m grateful for the time I got to spend with you, I’ll tell them. Or I’m grateful for getting to perform a baptism or for the yummy dinner mommy made. Other days, I open my mouth to speak and no words come out. My day flashes through my mind, and I realize I don’t remember my day well enough to find within it something I’m grateful for. So I mumble something incoherent which satisfies the kids, and then I sing the good night songs and put them to bed, each with three kisses and an extra kiss.Continue reading “Gratefuls”→
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.
I would like to lead you in a guided meditation for the next several minutes. This meditation is about various aspects of thanksgiving, of gratitude. We will give thanks for things that have always been and things that have never been; we’ll give thanks for the past and the future; we’ll give thanks to God, who is always showering upon us reasons to be thankful. So I invite you to close your eyes, get as comfortable as you can without falling asleep, and take a few deep breaths.
Dinner at a new restaurant. Seeing old friends. Getting my slippers out of storage. I have given thanks for each of these things in recent days, and each has been something new – a change from an earlier condition or a recent addition to the world at large.
Now, I don’t know about you, but for me giving thanks for new things or for things that have recently changed takes up most of gratitude time. The new things jump out at us. They vie for our attention. The things that have always been there remain in the background, quietly making our lives comfortable or joyful or meaningful. Because the things that have always been don’t call attention to themselves, we fail to give thanks to God for them as often as we should.
For the next few moments, I invite you to think of something that you can’t remember doing without: it can be as basic as breath or your dog’s earnest affection. It can be the simple fact that you’ve always had clean clothes in your drawers or a hot meal on the table. Think of something you’ve never given thanks for because it has silently endured throughout your life, never calling attention to itself and never failing to make your life better. Give thanks to God for this something-that-has-always-been.
Now we’ll take a look at the opposite – thanking God for things that have never been. This type of gratitude is possibly even more difficult than the previous kind because it involves stepping into other people’s shoes in order to appreciate your gifts and blessings.
When we stand in another’s shoes, we gain the capacity for perspective. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see things when you’re right up close to them and seeing them from the same angle you always do. To give thanks for something you’ve never had, you might need to view your life from that other perspective. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because diseases that have affected people all over the world for hundreds of years won’t affect you because you were inoculated as a baby. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because you’ve never known a time when your stomach was so empty for so long that you forgot how to be hungry. Perhaps you’ll give thanks because every time you slept outside in your life, you did so because you chose to – and you always had s’mores as the campfire died down.
For the next few moments, I invite you to think of something you’ve never experienced, something you don’t want to experience because it is unhealthy or degrading or worse. Now thank God that this thing has never happened to you. But don’t stop there. Recognize that the thing-that-has-never-been always is happening somewhere in the world – maybe next door, or a few blocks away, or across an ocean. How can you help make that thing change from an always is to a never again?
Sometimes, blessings are hidden within moments of our past that sure didn’t seem like blessings at the time. When we were living through those times, we never expected to give thanks for them one day. But what we forget is that God doesn’t comprehend our lives in the limited linear fashion that we do. God, I think, comprehends our lives as a whole – not as a series of events. We view our lives as though flipping through the pages of a magazine, one to the next. God sees our lives as collages, in which all the pages are pasted together.
So for the next few moments, I invite you to give thanks for something in your past that didn’t seem like a cause for gratitude at the time. Reflect on how this event fits into the overarching narrative of your life. What did you learn from it? How did God support you as you went through it? What do you know now that God knew then?
When we take the long view of events in our pasts, we find the ability to thank God for difficult and challenging times that have led our lives in directions we never imagined. This sort of gratitude accomplishes more than simple thanks to God. By acknowledging that we have no idea how our lives are going to turn out, we practice humility in the face of the expansive unknown that we benignly call “future.”
So for our final few moments, I invite you to give thanks for the vast expanse of possibility the future holds. This sort of thanksgiving is the birthplace of hope – which is the willing expectation that the boundaries of possibility are far wider than we perceive. So give thanks to God for possibility, for newness, for adventure. And then take a step with God into the untamed wilderness that is tomorrow, knowing all the while that God has already explored this jungle and will lead you through.
The next time you go to the table at your church to celebrate the Great Thanksgiving – better known by its Greek name “Eucharist” – I invite you to hold onto these things for which you have given thanks. As you receive the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, offer your thanksgivings back to God. And in the exchange, know that God is always and forever giving thanks for you.
(Sermon for Sunday, October 13, 2013 || Proper 23C || Luke 17:11-19)
Sometimes when I sit down to study a passage of the Gospel such as today’s, I wonder what Luke chose not to include in his text. After all, we don’t have a minute-by-minute account of Jesus’ life. The Gospel writers weren’t following behind Jesus taking dictation. Decades after the events of the Gospel, they collected material – certainly more than they ended up using – and put together their accounts. In those accounts, the writers bounce around, crafting their narratives with stories and themes and progressions that make the most sense to their various audiences. Asking “What did Luke leave out” prompts another set of questions: “Why did Luke put this in? What about this specific story makes it special enough to include in something as important as the greatest story ever told?
These questions surfaced for me this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson. At face value, this story is quite simple. Ten diseased outcasts petition Jesus for mercy, he heals them, and one returns to say, “Thank you.” Seems like a pretty ordinary healing story, doesn’t it? Boilerplate, even. (Well, as ordinary as a miracle can get.) So why would Luke choose to include another healing story? He healed someone with a skin disease way back in Chapter Five, not to mention plenty of people with plenty of other maladies in between.
So what makes this story special? In such a short piece of writing as the Gospel, why this narrative? Turns out there is something extra special in this story, but it’s hidden. There’s one element in the story – the last element I mentioned earlier, the “Thank you” from the Samaritan – that pushes today’s lesson into the extraordinary. I did a quick survey of the rest of the Gospel – all four accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) – and this Samaritan is the only person Jesus heals who then says “Thank you” to him. This hidden thanksgiving makes this story special. We remember this Samaritan ex-leper because he said “thank you” to Jesus.
Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Each week, when we gather to worship God, we engage in the special event known as the Holy Eucharist. This strange word comprehends both our hearing of God’s Word of Holy Scripture and our sharing God’s meal of Holy Communion. Do you know what this strange word – Eucharist – means in its original language of Greek? It means “thanksgiving.”
So each and every Sunday we gather here to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has given us. We do this not to relegate the act of thanksgiving to an hour on Sunday morning, but so that we begin each week with the right frame of mind and heart: a mind aware of blessing and a heart inclined toward gratitude. Giving thanks here on Sunday morning propels us along a trajectory in which we continue thanking God over the course of the week.
With that being said, why engage in the act of thanksgiving in the first place? Right off the bat, giving thanks makes us more generous people. Generosity blossoms in an environment where fear of scarcity holds no sway. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are looking out over a sea of hungry faces. There’s more than five thousand of them, and they haven’t eaten all day. Jesus and his friends have nothing more than one family’s lunch – five loaves of bread and two fish – but he tells them to feed the crowd anyway. Their supplies are laughably meager, and yet Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks to God for it. And somehow all the people in the crowd eat their fill. In the act of giving thanks, Jesus dismisses the fear of scarcity. When we give thanks to God – in times of scarcity and in times of abundance – we move away from fear and toward generosity. The more generous we are, the more apt we are to rely on God’s grace, which continues moving us away from fear. With this movement, a virtuous cycle develops, and the act of giving thanks starts making generosity a defining characteristic of our identities.
And yet giving thanks does so much more. God is always present in our lives, but we are not always present to God. Giving thanks offers us an opportunity to participate and deepen our relationships with God. When we are simply glad, our gladness has no target. We say we are glad about something, but not that we are glad to something. Not so with gratitude. When we are grateful, we can say we are grateful about something and grateful to someone. The Samaritan man in today’s Gospel lesson returns to Jesus to express his gratitude, to give thanks. The other nine are presumably glad they were healed, but they do not show their gratitude. By returning to Jesus, the Samaritan signals his desire to remain in relationship with Jesus, who blesses him again saying, “Your faith has made you well.” When we give thanks to God, we show our gratitude to our creator, who in turn blesses us with deeper relationship.
And yet giving thanks does even more. When Jesus sat at table with his friends on the night before died, he took bread, and gave thanks to God for them and for the time they were sharing together. He implored them not to forget him, and he gave them his presence in the bread, which he called his body. Then he shared the bread with them, and ever since his followers have been doing the same. Thus the act of giving thanks – especially in the meal we will share together in a few minutes – gets us outside ourselves and wards off the illusion of self-sufficiency. We give thanks together. We share Christ’s presence as a community. Giving thanks, then, makes the community stronger.
Because Jesus calls us to give thanks as a community, we can find one more reason (among the thousands we don’t have time to discuss) to engage in thanksgiving. Giving thanks propels us to use our gifts. The best way to give thanks to God for a gift God has given is to use it for God’s greater glory. I can thank God for my singing voice by saying, “Thank you God for the gift of music.” Or I can sing. When we serve one another and the world by using our gifts, then we have truly thanked God for them.
Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. We remember the Samaritan man today precisely because he did what no one else in the entire Gospel does. He returns to thank the one who healed him. I wonder what you are thankful for today? I wonder when was the last time you felt generous or when you felt your relationship with God deepen or when you shared in a community or when you used a gift? I invite you this week to reflect on how natural it is for you to give thanks to God throughout your day. If you find it uncommon, pray for more awareness and generosity. If you find it common, give more thanks for that joyful conclusion. No matter what, know that whenever you find yourself in a position to give thanks to God, God is giving thanks for you.
If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. (Meister Eckhart)
Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:19-20; context)
When we take the long view of events in our pasts, we find the ability to thank God for difficult and challenging times that have led our lives in directions we never imagined. This sort of gratitude accomplishes more than simple thanks to God. By acknowledging that we have no idea whatsoever how our lives are going to turn out, we practice humility in the face of the expansive unknown that we benignly call “future.”
When my heart was broken in the summer of 2006, my life seemed pretty much over from that point on. But you know what? It wasn’t. Try as I might to hold on to the recent past, when I thought things were so good, I kept slipping and sliding into the future no matter what I did. And six years later, I must say that the future I was attempting to avoid is so much better than the future into which I had shoehorned myself and the woman who broke my heart.
So today, I invite you to give thanks for the vast expanse of possibility that the future holds. This sort of thanksgiving is the birthplace of hope – which is the willing expectation that the boundaries of possibility are far wider than we perceive. So give thanks to God for possibility, for newness, for adventure. And then take a step with God into the untamed wilderness that is tomorrow, knowing all the while that God has already explored this jungle and will lead you through.
Dear God, you know our pasts, our presents, and our futures. Help me to open myself up to the future you have designed for me, and help me to invite you on the journey, exploring that future with me. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I leave this moment with you, God, eager to look for your blessing in my life and eager to be a reason that others give thanks to you.