The God Who Sees

Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2020 || Proper 7A || Genesis 21:8-21

Today, I’d like to talk about Hagar. Specifically, I’d like to talk about Hagar’s vision and how God grants us the same capacity for faithful seeing that Hagar has. First, though, you might be wondering who Hagar is. Hagar is an Egyptian servant (or slave) in the household of Abram and Sarai (who during the course of the Genesis story have their names changed to Abraham and Sarah). When God promises Abram that God will give Abram countless descendants, the old couple don’t know what to do. They’ve never had children of their own, and now they’re way too old. Taking God’s promise into her own hands, Sarai offers her servant Hagar to Abram, saying, “It may be that I shall obtain children by her.” (If this sounds eerily like The Handmaid’s Tale, it is.)

Continue reading “The God Who Sees”

Into Your Hands

Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2020 || Easter 5A || Psalm 31

It really got to me this week – the isolation, the distance. One day, I got home a little before dinnertime. Leah gave me a hug, and I realized it was the first time that day someone had touched me. I had been feeling agitated all day, and in that moment I knew why. My primal need for physical contact had not been met. What a relief it was to go home to someone who would embrace me. Then I thought about all the people, those I know and love and those I don’t know and am still called to love, who haven’t touched another human being in two months. I couldn’t even make it a day! So when I read our lessons for today, one verse of the psalm leapt off the page:

Into your hands I commend my spirit,
for you have redeemed me,
O Lord, O God of truth.

Into your hands. I talk about God’s hands all the time. Every single time I pray for someone who is sick, I end the prayer with, “May God hold you in the palm of God’s hand.” I love to sing the Irish blessing, which ends in a similar fashion: “May God hold you in the hollow of God’s hand.” For a long time, I’ve been inviting other people to see themselves as being held in this loving grip. For some reason, I hadn’t seen myself as being held there. 

Continue reading “Into Your Hands”

Beyond Fear

Sermon for Sunday, December 22, 2019 || Advent 4A || Matthew 1:18-25

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to talk about the movie Frozen II. But first let’s talk about fear. Whenever an angel of the Lord appears in Holy Scripture, the angel always begins the message for the same four words: “Do not be afraid.” Today’s Gospel lesson is no exception. Mary’s fiancé Joseph has resolved to “dismiss her quietly” because of her pregnancy, but he takes one more night to sleep on the decision. During that night, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. My question is: Why would Joseph be afraid to do this? I can think of many reasons for Joseph’s fear, and I want to talk about three of them this morning. We’ll dispense with the first two quickly because the third is where I really want us to focus.

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Psalm 130, Expanded

Sermon for Sunday, July 1, 2018 || Proper 8B || Psalm 130

Psalm 130 holds a special place in my heart. You all know my father comes up fairly often in my sermons because his nearly 30 years of ordained ministry have had such a profound impact on my own. Psalm 130 is his favorite psalm. I’ve often heard him recount with eloquence and tenderness a moment with God out on the ocean when he felt like the watchmen waiting for the morning. Because Psalm 130 is his favorite, it has become one of mine too. So when the psalm came up in our rotation today, it called out to me, and I’d like to share my thoughts on it with you in the form of a meditation. Continue reading “Psalm 130, Expanded”

I Can Be Love

Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2017 || Epiphany 5A || Matthew 5:13-20

It’s week five of our sermon series where we’re imagining our way into God’s point of view. Today we were going to talk about God seeing, naming, and celebrating us as enlightened. I’m still going to get to the content of what I planned to say in a bit, but I need to start from a different place today.

You see, like many of you the two weeks since the inauguration have set my head spinning. I sat down on Monday afternoon to try to find some clarity in the turmoil, and I accidentally wrote this sermon. I didn’t mean to. I was writing a list of recent events to help clarify for myself what’s been going on. After writing the list and reading it over again, this sermon started pouring out. The list was a distillation of recent tactics employed to centralize governmental authority in a small cadre of like-minded men. As I reviewed what I had written, I found the feeling that has been creeping around inside me since the end of election season suddenly no longer creeping, but strutting. That feeling is fear. Continue reading “I Can Be Love”

I Can Be Love

Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2017 || Epiphany 5A || Matthew 5:13-20

It’s week five of our sermon series where we’re imagining our way into God’s point of view. Today we were going to talk about God seeing, naming, and celebrating us as enlightened. I’m still going to get to the content of what I planned to say in a bit, but I need to start from a different place today.

You see, like many of you the two weeks since the inauguration have set my head spinning. I sat down on Monday afternoon to try to find some clarity in the turmoil, and I accidentally wrote this sermon. I didn’t mean to. I was writing a list of recent events to help clarify for myself what’s been going on. After writing the list and reading it over again, this sermon started pouring out. The list was a distillation of recent tactics employed to centralize governmental authority in a small cadre of like-minded men.*  As I reviewed what I had written, I found the feeling that has been creeping around inside me since the end of election season suddenly no longer creeping, but strutting. That feeling is fear. Continue reading “I Can Be Love”

The Spiritual Desert

Sermon for Sunday, December 11, 2016 || Advent 1C || Isaiah 35:1-10

To his people in exile, the prophet Isaiah says these words of hope, promise, and comfort:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing. […]

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water…

I must confess that I needed to hear these beautiful words this morning. I must confess that I have been feeling spiritually dry lately. I must confess that an arid desert of burning sands has grown up within me in recent months when I wasn’t paying attention. There have been a few moments of oasis – notably splashing my hands in the waters of baptism two weeks ago – but overall my spirit has shriveled recently. I’m, quite simply, parched. Continue reading “The Spiritual Desert”

The Words on Jesus’ Lips

Sermon for Sunday, November 20, 2016 || Christ the King C || Luke 23:33-46

I was at the Annual Convention for the Episcopal Church in CT this Sunday, so a pair of dedicated parishioners delivered these words for me. Thanks, John and Craig.

Today, on this final Sunday of the church’s year, we celebrate the “kingship” of Christ or (put another way) the “reign of Christ.” The eternal “reign of Christ” stretches out from Christ the King and supplants the lesser things that attempt to reign in this world and in our lives. When we turn our attention away from these lesser (yet louder) things – power, money, fame, and the like – we can see and participate in the greater (yet quieter) reality of Christ’s reign.

The territory over which Christ reigns encompasses the whole of Creation, and yet we tend to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule because it seems like the normal and acceptable thing to do. But there’s the rub: Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing, so, of course, his reign subverts the expectations of the world. Continue reading “The Words on Jesus’ Lips”

Name the Stars

Sermon for Sunday, June 28, 2015 || Proper 8B || Mark 5:21-43

namethestarsImagine with me the thoughts of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, in the aftermath of his encounter with Jesus.

I have been afraid my whole life. When I was little, a scorpion stung my friend, and he died drooling and thrashing in his crib. So I feared scorpions. When I was thirteen, my father had a run in at the local garrison and came home a week later all black and blue. So I feared the Romans. When I met my wife, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide for her. When I became leader of the synagogue, I feared I would have no wisdom to share. And when my little girl was born, I feared for her safety every minute of every day. I have been afraid my whole life.

And so when my daughter showed me the tiny puncture on her forearm, and when she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain, my world ended. I found the culprit and stomped its hard, scaly body into the dirt, and then I collapsed to the ground. My wife came around the corner and saw me rocking back and forth, the dead scorpion in pieces next to me. She dropped the washing and began checking me for signs of a sting. I could only find two words to say: “Not me.” She launched herself into the house to find our daughter.

Twelve years old, my little girl. On the verge of womanhood. My wife cataloging potential suitors. Me practicing my menacing glare for those same suitors. Twelve years old, and not so little anymore. She and I used to climb the hill at night, lie down in the scrub grass so that the tops of our heads touched, and name the stars. She always named them after the heroes of the great stories: David and Gideon and Deborah and Esther. “And that one’s you, Daddy.” She always named the brightest one after me. But at the

indefinable moment when she began her adolescence, she stopped wanting to climb the hill. I asked her why. “That’s kid stuff, Daddy.”

The night the scorpion stung her, I climbed the hill alone and screamed names at the sky – not the names of heroes, but blasphemous names I never thought I could utter. The darkness swallowed my rage, and I don’t know if my obscenities reached their intended target.

I stalked back home. The candle threw swaying shadows on the wall as I entered the room. All my fears were confirmed when I looked at my little girl. She was drenched in sweat, her neck twitched, and her eyes darted from corner to corner. I wrapped my arms around her and put my head on her chest. I could barely distinguish one heartbeat from the next. My wife wrapped her arms around me. Thus I spent the remainder of the night – embraced by and embracing the ones I love, but feeling only the heavy grasp of fear.

I awoke with a curse on my lips for having fallen asleep. I bent my ear to my daughter’s mouth, but the sounds of a commotion outside drowned out the low rasping of her breath. “Vultures,” I spat, and my wife woke up. I stabbed a finger at the window: “Here, no doubt, to console us with their wailing performance.”

I looked down at my little girl. I couldn’t just sit there and watch her die. I had to do something. I decided first to run the vultures off. I had enough grief of my own. I didn’t need to pay someone else to manufacture it. I squeezed my wife’s hand and kissed my daughter on the forehead. So clammy. I banged open the front door ready to unload on the would-be grievers. But the commotion was something else entirely. People were running up the street toward the shore. “Jesus of Nazareth is sighted off the beach. He’s coming here.”

Without thinking, I joined the throng. People recognized me as the leader of the synagogue and let me through. I reached the shore in time to see a fishing boat bump into the shallows. The crowd swelled around the vessel. Jesus’ disciples muscled a hole in the multitude and the man himself stepped off the boat. “Jesus, Jesus,” I cried. But mine was only one voice in a thousand. I feared there was no way he heard me.

But he turned and looked right at me. His disciples opened a path for him. I fell at his feet. “My little daughter, my little one is at the point of death.” I swung my arm back in the direction of my house. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” I didn’t know where the words came from. My fear was grasping at the words in my chest, but something stronger than fear ripped them out of me.

We walked back towards my house, but the great crowd slowed our progress. I wanted to run, to sprint home with Jesus keeping up beside me. But then, he stopped. “Who touched my clothes?” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to scream: “There’s a thousand people trying to touch you right now. My daughter is about to die.”

A woman fell down at his feet and started speaking. She probably spoke for less than a minute, but it was a lifetime to me. As Jesus responded to her, my eyes found my brother pushing his way through the crowd. “No. No. No.” I backed away, but he caught me in a tight embrace. “I’m afraid your daughter is dead.” I thrashed about in my brother’s arms. He let go but kept a grip on my hand. “Why trouble the teacher any further?”

I turned back to the woman who delayed me, who kept the teacher from coming to my house on time, and curses curled on the edge of my lips. But Jesus stepped in between us and grabbed my shirt in both hands. “Do not fear,” he said. “Do not fear, only believe.” The stronger something that earlier had ripped words from my chest reflected in his eyes. “Trust me,” he said. The curses died on my tongue, and I let myself be dragged home to face my own death in the still body of my little girl.

The vultures had come while I was out, but I had no ears for their wailing. Jesus looked around at everyone. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” he said. “The child is not dead but sleeping.” A laugh erupted from my chest, but it felt utterly foreign in this house of death. Jesus echoed my laugh, and his sounded perfectly at home. I laughed again. It was not a laugh of disbelief, but of recognition. Did he really speak the truth?

Jesus took my daughter by the hand, brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. She walked up to my wife and me and we picked her up and the three of us held each other and turned in circles, laughing and crying at the same time. I looked at Jesus and realized what had ripped the words from me at the beach. Trust. Something about this man radiated trust. No. Not something about him. He, himself, radiated trust. Jesus stared back at me, and in his dark eyes I saw myself on the hill the night before. And I saw him standing there next to me. And I knew that hurling blasphemies at God meant that somewhere deep down I still believed. I knew that trust is something entirely stronger than fear. I knew that trust and belief are the antidotes for fear.

“She’s had a rough day,” said Jesus. “Give her something to eat.” He smiled at my daughter, who reflected it back at him, then at my wife, and then her smile rested on me. I dropped to one knee and pulled her tight. Twelve years old and still my little girl. “Daddy,” she said, “Can we go up the hill tonight and name the stars?”

“Of course,” I said, and I gathered her into my arms again. I had been afraid my whole life. But not anymore.

Image: detail from NASA’s astronomy image of the day, June 2, 2015: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap150602.html

Four Faiths

Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2015 || Proper 7B || Mark 4:35-41

fourfaithsTwelve years ago today, I preached my very first sermon. Delivering a sermon was a requirement of my internship at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas, Texas. So when the other four interns and I received the readings we’d all be preaching on, we dove right in, determined to preach the best sermons the great state of Texas had ever heard. That didn’t happen. But we each managed to say something coherent about Jesus calming the storm, and none of us fainted in the pulpit, so I call that a win. I have a muffled recording of the sermon I preached. I made the mistake of listening to it earlier this week. Wow, it’s really bad. There was something about complacency and faith and God shaking us up and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, but I didn’t real say anything to take home with you.

The thing is, at the time, I thought it was a pretty good attempt at preaching. I felt pretty good when I sat down. So why do I shake my head when I listen to it now? Well, my understanding of faith has changed quite a lot in the last twelve years, so what I hear in the sermon rings a bit hollow. But I expect my understanding of faith to change quite a lot in the next twelve years, too.

The question is this: if I’m no longer where I was faith-wise twelve years ago, does that make my earlier faith false? The answer to this question must be a resounding, “No!” Surely God is able to work through the most tentative faith or the most hardened faith or even the most erroneous faith. God makes use of any raw materials we bring to the table, however clumsy they happen to be.

I’d hazard to guess that your understanding of faith has changed quite a lot over the course of your lifetimes, as well. This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, if your faith has changed over time, you’ve probably been wrestling with it, questioning it, wondering how it impacts your life. A faith that does not undergo some kind of change over time is more than likely an unexamined faith or just a cosmetic one.

I’d like to share with you four understandings of faith that I have gone through since I preached that sermon twelve years ago. I don’t claim that any of these are wrong; rather, where I am now in faith happens to be the most helpful understanding for the current stage of my following Jesus. As you listen to these four descriptions, see if you can locate how you experience faith. Is another description beckoning you? Or is there a completely different understanding of faith that I know nothing about? This exercise is important because an unexamined faith often becomes a stagnant one.

First up: my understanding of faith during that sermon in Dallas. At that time, faith was a quantity. It was something I could measure. This makes sense: after all, in today’s Gospel reading, after Jesus calms the storm, he says to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” If they have zero faith, then presumably they could also have a little faith or some faith or much faith.

The challenge to this understanding comes when something happens to tip the scales: a tragedy that takes a loved one’s life, an unexpected diagnosis, a relationship in tatters. You might beat yourself up, saying, “If only I had a little more faith, I could get through this.” When tragedy strikes, we forget the blessing that comes with this understanding of faith as a quantity. Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed (that is, the smallest amount possible) is enough to weather the storm.*

When I was in seminary, my understanding of “faith as a quantity” morphed into something else. For a long time, I swapped “faith” with a word that’s almost a synonym. That word was “trust.” For some reason, I couldn’t find the active component of faith that seemed to be missing from the “quantity” definition, so I replaced it with something I felt I could do. I could trust God. When Jesus calms the storm, he might as well have said, “Why are you afraid? Don’t you trust me?”

The most common expression of this understanding is the proverbial “leap of faith.” The shadowy unknown spreads out in front of you, and yet you walk on, trusting that God will guide you. Your faith is like the headlights on your car, which only illuminate the patch of road in front of you but still somehow manage to get you home.**

Over the first few years of ordained ministry, this view of “faith as trust” broadened. The act of trusting was not big enough to contain all that faith was. This is when “faith” became a verb for me. Faith was the active component of my relationship with God, the thing that spurred me to love God and serve God’s people. While Jesus might say the disciples have no faith, they still woke him up, thinking he could do something about the storm. As I said in a sermon for you all last year, this understanding of faith “borrows the best parts of trust, confidence, humility, and zeal and molds them into our response to God’s presence in our lives.”

The word “presence” carries over from this understanding of faith to the one that is alive for me today. And that is faith as direction or orientation. Faith is the mysterious something inside us that always and forever points to God’s presence, like a compass needle pointing due north. But we are not always facing the right way, and so the compass of faith prompts us to turn around. The technical word for this turning is “repenting,” which can lead to a renewal of our relationships with God.

Sometimes we have blinders on our eyes that make us look straight ahead through a narrow field of vision.*** God might be calling us to unimagined possibilities dancing just out of sight. Our faith invites us to widen those blinders until we can once again see what’s pointing to God. When we are overwhelmed by tragedy or grief or doubt, the blinders can snap tight again. But faith beckons us to open wide so we can find our true orientation towards God’s presence. Do you think Jesus halting the storm with a word was even close to a possibility on the disciples’ minds when they woke him? No. And yet what little faith they had still pointed to him as their refuge.

This is where my understanding of faith currently stands. I learned it from my father and from talking with many of you as you’ve sat on the couch in my office and spoken of your secret hopes and deepest fears and gnawing doubts and strangling griefs. I don’t know what my understanding of faith will be twelve years from now, but for today, this is it. Faith is the internal compass needle pointing to God’s presence. And since God’s presence happens to be everywhere, the blinders on my eyes serve no purpose at all.

I hope you will take some time this week to take stock of how your faith expresses itself. If faith is a quantity, how much do you need for it to guide your life? If faith is trust, into what unknown is God calling you to leap? If faith is a verb, the active component of your relationship with God, what are you and God doing together this afternoon, this week, this year? And if faith is your orientation towards to God’s presence, where and to whom is it pointing? What possibilities are dancing just out of sight?

*Actually, it’s enough to uproot the mulberry tree and have it throw itself in the sea, but I’m working with the storm metaphor here.
 **I first heard this metaphor during a seminary class, but I have no idea where it originated.
***Thanks to my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, for this image.