I love the opening from Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It. He writes:
On Sunday mornings my brother, Paul, and I went to Sunday school and then to “morning services” to hear our father preach and in the evenings to Christian Endeavor and afterwards to “evening services” to hear our father preach again. In between on Sunday afternoons we had to study The Westminster Shorter Catechism for an hour and then recite before we could go to the hills with him while he unwound between services. But he never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the other forgot, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful answer should have, and besides he was anxious to be on the hills, where he could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing for the evening sermon. His chief way of restoring himself was to recite to us from from the sermon that was coming, enriched here and there with selections from his most successful passages of his morning sermon.
The chief end of course, in this case, was to be outdoors to be recharged. To hike the hills, to fish, to enjoy God’s creation.
And why not? God has given us this beautiful creation to enjoy. We heard it this past Sunday about how God made the world and everything in it was good, and that God asks us to both enjoy it and take care of it.
I think it’s in enjoying God’s creation that we also enjoy God. Getting out to the Cape, enjoying the beach, being out on the water, hiking, biking, paddling. It all brings us closer to God and restores our tanks.
Too many of us don’t take time to recharge. We try to squeeze in a vacation that is nearly as jam-packed as our every day lives. We rarely take time to be restored, to be filled again to overflowing, so we can be better for the work before us.
This idea drips with connection to Sabbath keeping. We don’t do this much in our culture. We stay busy to keep the balls in the air. We go 60 or 90 or 200 miles an hour most, if not all, of the time. And we don’t take any time to see the impact it has on us or our families until it’s nearly too late.
So, what is your chief end? How do you “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”? What recharges your batteries and gives you time to pause and know that you are doing what God desires for you?
For me that means hiking, cooking, being outdoors with my family, camping, biking, resting, reading, and a load of other things (I have lots of hobbies, all of which I do moderately well). But those things restore me and make me better able to do the work I am called to do.
I hope you take some time this summer to do what recharges you and that you see it as a gift from God. And maybe you will take a minute or two and comment on what you do to restore your soul.
I grew up in a pentecostal church, which meant that Pentecost was one of the few days on the liturgical calendar that we celebrated, although it often came out of nowhere and I wasn’t sure why we it was a big deal. My church experience has changed a lot since then, and that change began while attending a UCC church during my time in college. It was the minister there—Harold Bussell—who first preached about the idea of the Spirit controlling our tongues; that when the Spirit descended on Pentecost, the Spirit came in to our lives and began changing the way we speak.
That idea grabbed hold of me then and has never let go.
So this idea is not mine. But it is a very intriguing way to think about Pentecost and the idea of proclamation. With no further adieus….
I’ve heard of a marriage counselor that can predict in one session if a marriage will last or not. When he sits down to chat with the couple—whether they are already married or if they are engaged—he pays relatively little attention to what issues they are talking about–be it finances, in-laws, the kids, work, intimacy, whatever—and homes in on the way they are talking to one another. If there is any contempt in the exchange, he predicts that it will be an uphill battle at best for the relationship to last. Whether or not you agree with him, he’s on to something given his track record of prediction. How we talk to one another—how we make use of our tongues to communicate—is of vital importance to our relationships.
Tongues are funny things. They are, we’ve been told, one of the strongest muscles in the body. They control our speech, what we say, how we form our words. With the words our tongues form, we can do amazing things. And with other words formed by that same tongue we can destroy one another.
In his epistle, James writes about the tongue. He says, “A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! My friends, this can’t go on.” (From James 3, The Message Bible)
In the movie “How to Train Your Own Dragon,” the protagonist, a teen aged Viking named Hiccup, tries desperately hard to fit in with the other Vikings of his village. But he’s scrawny and weak, and while he tries his best to be a dragon hating person like them, he just can’t. Instead, he befriends a dragon that has been hurt and takes care of him like a pet. When his father, the chief of their village, learns that Hiccup’s been taking care of a dragon, he is overcome with rage. At the end of an angry diatribe, he looks at Hiccup before storming out and says, “You are not my son.”
He is crushed, of course, this teen-aged boy who longs for the acceptance of his father. As are any of us when someone spews angry words at us. No matter how many times we may repeat that rhyme from childhood, words hurt a lot, and often more than sticks or stones, because the damage can last a lifetime. I’m sure some of you can either recall words spoken to you, or words that you gave voice to, that you now wish you could remove from existence.
When the Spirit comes on Pentecost, isn’t it remarkable that after the rush of wind and the flames of fire alighting on the heads of all those there, the very next sign is that the disciples begin to speak in other languages as the Spirit prompted them. The Spirit controls their tongues. Immediately they begin to speak in other tongues, not unintelligible words, but they speak in the languages of each group gathered there, as the Spirit guided their tongues. They proclaim the message of God and God’s work of salvation in the world.
Proclamation. That’s what this day—this last day of the Great 50 Days of Easter —is about. Proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. And that good news can be summed up in one word: transformation.
But we cannot make these proclamations about how Jesus Christ transforms us if our tongues aren’t under control. We cannot be a messenger of Jesus’ good news if we are constantly spouting off at our mouths, saying why this person or group of people upsets us, or how ridiculous they are, or how that person is really just an idiot.
If we want to truly be a part of the kingdom, then we must allow the Spirit to control our tongues. And that means major transformation on the inside as well.
A friend of mine a couple of years ago underwent significant change in his life. He changed old habits and took on new ones. When I spoke with him about this, he wondered why it had taken him so long. “If I had known what a difference this would make in my life, I would have started so much earlier,” he said to me.
“Yes,” I replied. “But thank God that you began now.” What I was trying to say to him was this: Don’t shame and guilt yourself in the ways you have failed in the past. Deal with them, yes. Recognize why you did certain things. Learn from the past. But don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t have the courage to tackle them earlier, and didn’t ultimately trust then that God could bring about the change you so desperately needed. Rather, relish in the fact that God is working now. Take joy in the transformation that is going on now. Be joyful for the years ahead, now that you are changed and continue to be changed.
Transformation. That is the work of the Triune God. To break down the barriers of sin, to offer forgiveness, to shower us with mercy and grace. To help us become the people we are called to be, and to bring our tongues into alignment with that call as well. People that share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken world. People who are about the work of the kingdom of God.
And the question is this: Do you want the Spirit to bring transformation to every part of your being—to your tongue, your heart and your mind? Do you want to be about the work of the kingdom of God? Don’t worry about what you haven’t done up to this point, or how you might have been able to do more, or whatnot. What can you do now? How can you allow God to move in you? How can you more faithfully become a disciple of Jesus Christ?
We cannot become those who have visions or prophesy or dream dreams if we are always spouting off at the mouth. We cannot be the church unless we allow the Spirit to move in us and through us and to bring about change in us. And I would argue that our tongues—the very first thing the Spirit takes over in those disciples on that Pentecost Day so long ago—are where many of us need the Spirit’s leading, transformation and healing.
Perhaps you need to make amends with a family member or a friend over something you said to them that you now regret. Maybe you have hurt your spouse or children with words said out of spite. Perhaps you need Jesus to bring healing to a wound inflicted long ago when someone hurt you with their words. Possibly you’ve been feeling prompted by the Spirit to say something to a hurting co-worker or neighbor, but haven’t spoken to them because you are nervous about how they will respond. Or maybe you need to seek forgiveness from God because your words have been filled with contempt, especially toward those you live with and love.
If we are to be a vital part of Jesus’ kingdom work, then we must invite the Spirit to work in us and through us. To be counted among those of the kingdom, then we need to open ourselves up to the Spirit’s transformative power. When we do so, when we become willing to the Spirit’s leading, then we too can be like Peter, James and Mary and all the rest on that day who shared the message of Jesus with all those gather there, so that these others might also call on the name of the Lord, and be saved. That is the true gift of the Spirit. May we be empowered to proclaim the good news. Amen.
Melissa and I watched a wonderful and haunting film this week called “Like Dandelion Dust.” Two very different couples have their lives intersect over a shared love for a 6 year-old boy. One set gave him up for adoption, and the other became his new family.
Yet, the birth father didn’t know he had a son given the circumstances in his life and the troubled relationship he and his wife had at that time. And now he wants the boy back.
And that’s where the turmoil comes.
Obviously, anyone who is a parent will react strongly to this whole struggle. Who can blame a father for wanting his child back? Who can blame a mother for wanting to hold on to the child she has called her own from his earliest days? What would you do to keep your child?
While it’s definitely a tear-jerker, it’s not overly mellow-dramatic. The characters have a real depth and no easy answers are presented. Mira Sorvino and Barry Pepper—the birth parents—play amazing roles, as shown in the number of awards this film picked up along the way at various film festivals.
I won’t tell you how it ends, where the title comes from or if redemption is found in this one. I’ll just say that I bet it sticks with you like it’s done to me. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.
Definitely queue-worthy. Tell me what you think of this one.
I’m really in awe of the Apostle Paul in the story from Acts 17. He’s in Athens waiting for some friends, but then he sees all the idols and altars the Athenians have made. What he does is look at their culture finding the good qualities. He engages with the culture he sees and uses it as a jumping point to talk about Christ. Rather than saying, “Hey, you need to worship like me, you heathens!” he commends them for their deep spirituality.
So, I’ve been pondering what he might say to us. This sermon is something of an outgrowth of that.
Paul does something pretty amazing in the story we heard from Acts this morning. While he’s in Athens waiting for his friends Silas and Timothy to arrive, he goes wandering around the city. We’re told he’s distressed that there are so many idols. But notice he doesn’t unleash rhetoric on why they are so bad about this or how they are disobeying God’s commands. Rather, he looks for their good qualities—their longings—and seeks to tell them about Christ through what they are already longing for.
He tells them he’s seen this altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God.” He knows that there are deeply spiritual people, that there is a longing deep within them to connect with the spiritual realm. And so he tells them, I want to introduce you to the Unknown God, who is, in fact, the Creator of the Universe. Paul shares with them the message of creation, how God made us, not how we fashion gods of our own devices. He tells them that the Creator doesn’t live in temples or shrines or other buildings, that God doesn’t need us to wait hand and foot on him, as if God somehow needed us to do that.
But what God does, Paul tells them, is gives us plenty of time and space in order to truly seek after God; more than just groping around blindly in the dark trying to find God. God longs to be known by us in order to bring about a better life for us and in this created world. God desires repentance, true life-change, and God will one day have us give an account of our lives, with Jesus the resurrected one as our judge.
We in this day and age live our lives with great passions as well. While we don’t erect shrines for idols as such—although on the week when the latest American Idol was crowned, it’s a little hard to make this statement—we do build massive stadiums to follow our sports teams—and what a great week it has been for that as well as the Bruins get back to Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in over 20 years and the Red Sox have moved into first place after their ghastly start. We also honor education, and the arts, great food and spending time outdoors doing recreational activities. We do these things because of the longing for joy that we have. We think that if the home town team wins, or we hear a wonderful performance or hike a gorgeous trail or get the elusive degree, if any of those things happen then we will find what we have been searching for. Inner peace. Joy. Wholeness. When that inevitably doesn’t happen—when we didn’t find completeness after the Sox won not just one but two World Series—we go searching for something else. Maybe the answer would be found in weight loss or a new love interest or other pursuits.
But if Paul were here, I’d think he’d tell us that while our longings for some many things is noble—and in fact God-given—that what we don’t recognize is that we are truly longing for God. For God’s unconditional love for us. God’s deep desire to be known by us. God’s longing for us to not just grope around blindly but to truly seek after and find God and the life God always intended for us.
Whenever we talk about God, however, our defenses go up. We say things like, “Well, I’m spiritual but not religious.” Which is a code way of saying that we don’t like organized religion (or disorganized religion, for that matter). We don’t care for institutions, or the people who run them, because often such places are full of hypocrites or demand us to give them our money or make us live our lives in a certain way.
Yet, the reality is, that sentiment doesn’t actually make sense. You cannot be spiritual without being religious as well. You might try to have spirituality feed a longing in you, but soon you’ll tire of whatever you are trying and move on to something else. If you are truly spiritual, you’ll recognize that you cannot do that work alone, neither can you do it haphazardly. Being religious—that is, being dutiful in your commitments to the faith you desire—is best done (and I would argue, only done) in community. By connecting with others we can explore the deep longings we all have—seeing them as gifts from God, an innate curiosity to discover the goodness of God and to have fullness of life—and in doing so together, deepen our devotion to God.
In order to satiate our desires, we often pursue things that we think will make us feel fulfilled—we entertain ourselves, seek comforts, look for joy wherever we can find it—but in the end, many of us feel unfulfilled. And so we ask ourselves is this all there is? When we reach something we’ve been longing for and see that it doesn’t bring the serenity, we have deep questions.
I was a big fan of the TV series Lost, a drama that told the stories of the survivors of a plane crash who ended up on a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean. We learn along the way that the characters—like Jack, the gifted surgeon with significant issues around his father, and Kate, a fugitive on the run—cannot get away from their pasts even on this island where no one seems to know them. Many of the survivors had achieved something they were longing for in life—a big pay off, the end to problems, marriage, success—yet even when they had, they still longed for something more. They were left searching for something else.
And so they were both literally and figuratively lost. They were searching for meaning, for something else that was more elusive in their life.
So are we. All of the pursuits we have and enjoy, all the hobbies, and the work and the things that delight us and entertain us, and those things that distract us, the addictions, the vices, all of it grows out of deep yearning from within. A profound ache in our souls.
That for which we long is wholeness. To be fully known. To experience true joy.
And that is found in following Christ. The God of Creation—the One who made us—knows our longings and wants to bring us wholeness, reconciliation and healing. God does this when we seek for him, when we turn our full attention to God and God’s work of establishing his kingdom.
It’s important for me to say this, because this is the work that I feel called to do as your priest. In a few days, I will officially be installed as your rector, and I want the focus of my ministry to be on inviting all of us into a more meaningful relationship with Christ, in sharing the good news with our neighbors, and working together in service to the world. I personally know that it is when I do these things that I find myself experiencing great joy in my life. While things I may pursue for myself in the world are fleeting, the things of God are lasting.
So that is why I desire to focus on faith formation for all ages, in outreach, providing opportunities to connect with one another, and above all else to live authentically as disciples of Jesus. I want to point all of us to the one we’ve been longing for, whether we know it or not. The God of the Universe is for many in our society the Unknown God, but that doesn’t stop God from reaching out to us. God is so full of love for us—we heard it again this morning in John’s gospel—and God wants us to become the people God created us to be. Our longings can indeed be satisfied when we actively pursue God through Jesus Christ.
Will we? Will we seek and find the God of Creation? Or will continue to push God aside as we follow after all that is short-lived in our world hoping to find contentment and joy? God longs for us, and whether we know it or not, we long for God too. May we, as we continue our journey forward both find God and be found by God. Amen.
It was a great day yesterday at St. Mark’s. I was given the great blessing to baptize 8 young ones and welcome them on behalf of the church into the Christian faith. And whenever I baptize someone I am reminded to think seriously about my own baptismal promises, and the desire I have to follow Christ on the way. Our gospel was from John 14 when Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way. As I mention in the sermon, since I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way with the vestry right now, I couldn’t help but to draw form it and make connections.
So, here it is. A baptismal sermon on the importance of following Jesus on the way.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jesus’ words that we heard this morning, especially when he says that his disciples know the way to the place where he is going. Thomas—always seeming to speak aloud what many of us are thinking—says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To which Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” Jesus is the way.
And the way of Jesus is always a way of humility, of peace, of love. A way of sacrifice and of giving, a way of reaching out to those on the margins. It is a way of life. Your vestry has been reading Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way together this year, and in our reading so far we have looked at how the way of American culture—and even the way many churches operate in the US—is extremely different, if not downright destructive of, the way of Jesus. Peterson focuses on how our society and our churches have become places where consumerism is king. Our wants and desires need to be met and fulfilled, so we believe all that Madison Ave. has to tell us and go looking for salvation in a plethora of ways.
Peterson writes, “We Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting more, requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know we had. We are insatiable…. If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our congregations is to identify what they want and offer it to them, satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem solving, whatever. This is the language we Americans grew up on, the language we understand.”
The problem is that the American way for church is downright more exciting to our tastes than the Jesus way. Especially when you have a story like the one we heard this morning about Stephen being martyred for his faith in Jesus. If the Jesus way leads to death, are we sure we want to follow this way?
And let’s make no bones about it: Jesus’ way does lead to death. Death to self, to our desires, to that which says “me first” in our lives. Jesus’ way is the way of the cross. And talking about self-sacrifice is not easy nor always appreciated. But it is the way of Jesus.
We’ll hear language about death as we go to the baptismal font today. Whey we gather there, we’ll pray, “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” We die to sin and are led to eternal life.
And the life we’ll invite these eight children into this morning here at St. Mark’s is one that is challenging. We’ll welcome these young ones into a life of building relationships, of serving others. When we give our lives to the way of Jesus, while we aren’t promised riches or having all of our needs met, or even happiness at every turn, we are promised a deep and meaningful life. The way of the cross is, as our prayer book puts it, the way of life and truth.
To be fully alive means above all else that we live relational lives, that we live incarnationally. We can invest in the people who live with us and near us—our neighbors—and recognize that we can make a difference in this world right now. Just before Jesus told his disciples he was the way, he showed them what his way meant as he washed their feet at the last supper. Taking time to serve, to take someone else’s feet and gently wash them, to see that we all need support and care and that we can truly change each other’s lives.
That’s where the American way has fallen down. We have lost our connection with one another. We have grown further and further apart from one another, thinking instead that people are merely objects, they are the way to meet our desires. We tend to think that we are islands, as those who can live walled off from one another. We need to be reminded from time to time by the John Donne’s and the John bon Jovi’s of the world that none of us is an island.
So when these children take these vows, and when we all renew our baptismal covenant this morning, what we say is that we will follow the way of Jesus, no matter where it takes it, as best we can with God’s help. We will not put ourselves first. We will seek to share the good news of Christ. The news that the Christian life isn’t spent to be worrying about when judgment day is coming, nor how to get to heaven, but how to bring Jesus’ message of hope, love, and peace to a broken world, to our broken worlds.
And that is ultimately what the Jesus way is about. Life. Healing. Restoration. Renewal. When we die to ourselves, we find life in Christ. We find a life that is based in the here and now and not just some time in the future. May we find Jesus to be the way we follow. May we see that the way to God entails self-sacrifice and extravagant love. May we become aware of Jesus’ desire to bring reconciliation, and may we bring his reconciliation to others. And may we, on this day, remember that we have been marked as his followers, and may we have the courage to follow wherever he leads. Amen.
A bunch of us saw Rob Bell’s Nooma video called “Noise” at our adult forum on Sunday. (Want to see it, get it here at You Tube). It raised a lot of questions for me about how noisy our world is and what that is doing to us, especially spiritually. We have a lot of noise thrust on us and also thrust a lot of noise on ourselves.
And we were reminded in the video that when God came to Ezekiel, God wasn’t heard in the earthquake or fire or wind, but in the sheer silence (see 1 Kings 19:11-13).
Can you remember the last time you were in the presence of sheer silence?
Yeah, it’s hard for me too. I try to get away once a year on a silent retreat to do this, but it’s hard, especially for those of us with younger children. There is never a time of sheer silence.
But if God is to be heard in the sheer silence, how can we open ourselves up to the possibility of hearing God in those times? What would it be like to turn of the cell, get away from it all and experience some uninterrupted silence?
Scary for some, I’m sure. We keep it so busy so we don’t have to deal with some of the inner thoughts of our hearts. But what if God wants to bring healing to us, and the only way to receive it is for us to be still?
So, think about your life and try to find some time for quiet. Maybe a walk or shutting the doors, or just getting away somewhere to steal some time and experience the quiet. It might not be easy, but every time I do it, I know it is so worth it.
In my sermon yesterday I asked if the people of St. Mark’s (and others who want to) could covenant to prayer and the study of Scripture for 10 minutes, twice a day. I think it could make a tremendous impact in the life of our community if we were intentional in doing this.
So to help out, here are couple of tips.
1. If you keep a calendar, schedule the time.Make it repeating. Maybe it’s getting up a few minutes earlier. Maybe you can set aside the first ten minutes after the kids are out the door. Maybe you know that after you get your morning coffee, you can sit for that time in quiet reflection. Perhaps you can take a small break in the evening. As I said yesterday, if you leave it to chance, you probably won’t do it.
2. Find a short pattern of prayer to use. There’s the daily devotions for individuals and families in the Book of Common Prayer (I’ll reprint it at the bottom of this entry). Or Phyllis Tickle’s book The Divine Hours Pocket Edition. Others are out there (see my post about keeping the office). But if you have something to follow along, it may make it easier for you and you won’t be stuck by an uncertainty of how to pray.
3. Consider praying during regular activities. Melissa read a fabulous book last year called PrayerWalk: Becoming a Woman of Prayer, Strength and Discipline that really gave her an idea to combine exercise and prayer. I know some folks who pray on the train or while driving. When we first had Noah, a priest friend said we’d be saying a lot of our prayers over the changing table, and he was right. While it can be distracting at times (or filled with noise), I think it would be better to pray while doing something else than not praying at all.
I hope you’re able to take this on. Maybe you have questions or comments. Click below and let me know what you are thinking.
Daily Devotions from the Book of Common Prayer (pgs 127-130)
In the Morning
From Psalm 51
Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
A Reading Either this one or another reading may be used
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. I Peter 1:3
A period of silence may follow.
A hymn or canticle may be used; the Apostles’ Creed may be said.
Prayers may be offered for ourselves and others.
The Lord’s Prayer
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In the Early Evening
O gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed! Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing your praises O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of life, and to be glorified through all the worlds.
A Reading Either this one or another reading may be used
It is not ourselves that we proclaim; we proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants, for Jesus’ sake. For the same God who said, “Out of darkness let light shine,” has caused his light to shine within us, to give the light of revelation–the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:5-6
Prayers may be offered for ourselves and others.
The Lord’s Prayer
Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.
We’re on Day 22 of our Great 50 Days of Easter, and our lessons turn from Resurrection Appearances to how we are to follow Jesus. We got the great lesson from Acts 2 where we hear that tons of people began to follow the Way of Jesus and devoted themselves to this endeavor.
It’s enough to make any clergy person giddy.
So that’s what I talk about in my sermon. Here you go.
Easter 4A—Acts 2:42-47
If you talk to clergy about the reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, you will probably encounter some good old- fashioned envy. What we clergy know as well is that in the previous verse we hear the results of Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Luke, the author of Acts, writes, “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It’s a pastor’s utopia, with the people spending much time at the temple, with their generous hearts sharing their possessions with one another and the Lord adding to their number each day. A priest could sit and daydream about such a place for hours.
But then something in our heads pops up and says, “Wake up and smell the coffee. Such a place doesn’t exist, at least not today.” It’s easy to give in to this “nostalgia for those biblical days,” as one pastor put it. But, he warns, “from there it is a short step to nostalgia for our own church’s better days, when pews were full, programs were exciting and we had an impact on the large community.” We don’t live in those times anymore, for better or for worse. We live in the here and now, and longing for the past will leave us blind to the present. It will so shade our understanding of things that we will lose our focus and mission in the present day.
So I want to assure you that this is not a sermon in which I ask why you all can’t be more like those first converts a couple of millennia ago, which would lead to me pointing a stern finger and having you all feel guilty and also questioning your desire to ever come back here again. I want to live in the present day, and see it for the blessing and challenge that it is. “Holding all things in common,” and pooling all of our money won’t work today, and in fact, it wasn’t even something that happened in other churches throughout Acts.
Yet I don’t want to go on as if there is nothing to learn from this text either. This is a challenging piece of scripture if we allow ourselves to hear it. Rather than imagining clergy nirvana, what might these verses be saying to us in 2011—this post-modern, fragmented, overly-busy world that we live in?
Personally I am not really struck by the sharing of money here, but by the deep building of community that happened. We’re told that these new converts “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Those words may sound familiar, since it is the first of five questions asked of us when we renew our baptismal covenant or baptize someone for the first time. “Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?” we are asked. “I will with God’s help,” we respond whole heartedly.
They did this, these first followers of Christ. They devoted themselves to this. They spent much time, day by day, together. In worship, in sharing meals. In living their lives in community.
If I had to speculate about what keeps many of us from this kind of life—that is a life centered on our faith, building community, saying the prayers—I would say quite certainly that for many it is one thing. Time. We are so mind-numbingly busy in our day and age that we hardly have time to rest, let alone fully putting our faith into practice. We are overly scheduled. Both us and our kids. Even those who are retired will often say that they have never been busier in their lives. Often in social settings this topic comes up, and we talk about our over-loaded schedules almost with a sense of pride, each trying to outdo the other. We think it makes us important. Or we don’t know how to say no. Or we are scared to face the demons of our inner life so we keep ourselves busy so that we never have to.
I promised not to head down the road of nostalgia to a time when 24 hours was magically longer than it is today, nor would I stand up here and point a finger saying that you must add more things to your overly-extended calendars. So how do we do this? How do we devote ourselves to the life Jesus wants for us as his followers?
If there were easy answers, I could write the book and make a bundle. Many have tried, of course, and the results are all somewhat unsatisfying. There aren’t magic bullets in the spiritual life, no pill we can take that will somehow make everything better. It is, I think, as Eugene Peterson puts it, a long obedience in the same direction. I think it takes intentionality and perseverance. Without either of those two, our faith life will take a back seat to the other distractions in our lives. And for many of us—a great deal in fact—it’s because we don’t know how to live into this life. We haven’t been taught how, or given a reason to see its importance. And that, if I am honest, is because we who are clergy have failed you. We have for too long felt as if we needed to hold the information to ourselves and give it out in palatable doses, or we think that you aren’t mature enough or intelligent enough to handle such a life, or we think that you won’t listen to us anyway so why should we bother. Or, if I am even more honest, it’s because many of us haven’t been really taught how to live this type of life ourselves. And for that, on behalf of all the clergy you have known and let you down, I am truly sorry.
You see, I think Jesus invites us into a better life. The way life is meant to be. Peace in our homes, deep and lasting friendships, time set aside for prayer, caring for one another, enjoyment of God’s many blessings, compassion for those who face injustice, having generous hearts, finding fulfillment in the work we do in this world. But this life often gets lost in the busyness of our days.
I’ve recently discovered a blog written by Michael Hyatt, the chairman of the board for Thomas Nelson Publishing. He writes a great deal about productivity and the things that steal our time, and about intentionality. He says that many of us spend more time planning our vacations than we spend on planning our lives. We live from moment to moment, crisis to crisis, experience to experience. And so we may, like I have been doing this weekend, give hours of our time to watching the Red Sox and Yankees, while also feeling as if we have no time to devote to the life we desire. If you desire a certain type of life—and I hope you’re like me and desire the life that Jesus wants for us—you have to make a plan.
That sounds so much like a First World problem, but in my understanding of things, I cannot think of any other way to put it. If we start with the reality of our overly-busy lives (also a First World problem), then most of us cannot address our desire for a new life without intentionality. If we desire authenticity in faith and devotion to Jesus, we must begin somewhere. And we begin best of all by making a covenant to look at our lives honestly to see where we spend our time, and then finding a way—even if it’s small—to begin living the life Christ calls us to.
Imagine if each person at St. Mark’s covenanted to spend 10 minutes each morning and each evening in prayer and reading of scripture. 20 minutes a day. The average adult watches somewhere between 3.5 to 5 hours of television a day. You may not be the average adult, but I suspect you could find that pocket of time for prayer if you wanted to.
And I want to covenant with you that I will be a priest that provides you with the tools you need to live this life. I will spend my days by giving you ideas and tips for living this way, in deepening relationships with you, in providing opportunities for you to devote yourselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And I will invite you to walk alongside me, and share in this leadership. I cannot do this work alone–that is a damaging fallacy that has run its course much too long in our churches. All of the disciples, and apostles were lay people. They were folks like you who had families and day jobs and had to pay their taxes and all the rest. The Way Jesus invites us into is not only for those who are seminary trained. We are all called to walk in this way, to grow and deepen in our faith and to share that faith with others.
If as a community St. Mark’s lived in this fashion, I bet we would see the same sorts of things happening here that they saw in the Early Church. That we would worship together, sharing meals with one another with a spirit of generous hospitality, praising God for our many blessings and caring deeply about the goodwill of all people. This is the life Jesus holds out before us. I pray that we intentionally desire this life for us and for others in this community, and that we devote ourselves to authentically following Christ. Amen.
 Gary Neal Hansen, “Acts 2:42-47 Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year A Vol. 2, eds David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Pg 424.
I’m behind a bit in posting my sermons. This was the one from last week. And this week I preached without a net, as a friend puts it, more extemporaneously and not using a written text. I thought about recording it, but left my iPhone at home.
So, here’s a sermon to reflect on about Thomas. Check out the passage here: John 20:19-31.
Easter 2A—John 20:19-31
I think Thomas gets a bad rap. I mean our reading starts out with Jesus showing up, saying “Shalom” and the other disciples not knowing it was Jesus until he showed them his hands and his side. Once he does this, John tells us, then the rejoiced. It took the whole “hands and side” business to get them to believe it was really Jesus.
But Thomas wasn’t there, for whatever reason, so he missed out. When the others tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, he declares that he won’t believe unless he sees Jesus’ hands and side, too. In other words, if he sees what they have already seen, then he’ll believe. Thomas does have a flair for the dramatic with his desire to place his finger in the actual wounds, but in the end, he wants what they already got.
Rather than focusing on the doubting aspect of this, I can’t help but notice once again John using the words “see” and “seeing” in this context. “Seeing” is all over John’s narrative; he made a point of it right from his prologue about the incarnation “We have seen his glory” he writes at the beginning of the gospel. When he meets some of the disciples, he tells them to “Come and see.” And of course, we had the story about the man born blind and how the Pharisees couldn’t really see even though they thought they could.
Now, at the tail end of this gospel, we get Thomas. When Jesus does show up again on the next Sunday evening, Thomas is in the room. Jesus greets them all the same way, “Shalom” and then immediately addresses Thomas. “Put your fingers here in my hand. Reach out your hand and place it in my side. Don’t doubt but believe.” Thomas replies with the most direct statement of faith in John’s gospel, “My Lord and my God!” To which Jesus replies, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”
If we are honest, we can admit that there are many times in our lives when we are like Thomas. There are times when our faith in Jesus wanes because we do not see him as one who lives and works in our lives. Instead we hear the accounts of others, how Jesus has appeared in their lives, and we stand off in the distance alone. We have seen the cross, we know that Jesus died, and we think that resurrection and transformation might be a cruel joke. We don’t see. And unless we experience Jesus ourselves, unless we see real proof and not just hear the words of others, we won’t ever believe.
The children’s book The Polar Express tells the story of a young boy who is lying awake on Christmas night hoping to hear the sound of bells from Santa’s sleigh. As he lies awake waiting, he finally hears something, but it isn’t the ringing of bells, it is the hissing of steam and the squeaking of metal. He jumps out of bed to see a train waiting in front of his house. He sees a conductor get off the train, look at his pocket watch and wait. The boy tiptoes downstairs and runs to the train, as the conductor shouts, “All aboard.” “Where are you going?” the boy asks. “The North Pole,” he replies, “This is the Polar Express, are you coming?” Excitedly, the boy gets on the train.
It is filled with other children all still in their pajamas and robes, and they are served the best hot chocolate the boy has ever tasted. They join together singing Christmas carols as the train continues to travel. They look outside to see the trees of forests, and the lights of towns in the distance. After coming over high mountains, they began to travel across the Polar ice cap, and the boy can see the North Pole in the distance, the lights glimmering in the night. The children learn that the elves are gathering in the center of the city to see Santa give the first gift of Christmas. “Who gets the first gift?” the boy asks. “Santa will choose one of you,” the conductor replies.
Upon arriving at the stop, all the children climb out to see the most wonderful spectacle before them. Hundreds and hundreds of elves are gathered together, with Santa’s sleigh in the middle of a circle. The reindeer are impatiently moving around and their bells make a magical sound. Santa walks over to the group of children, and says, “Let’s have this one here,” pointing to the boy. The boy comes to Santa, they walk to his sleigh, and then Santa asks him, “What would you like for Christmas?” The boy knew he could ask for anything in the world, but what he really wanted was one of the bells from the sleigh. Santa smiled at him and asked one of the elves to cut off a bell. He then held it up, and exclaimed, “The first gift of Christmas!” and gave the silver bell to the boy, who put it into his pocket.
Almost immediately, the boy was helped down from the sleigh and Santa took off, as the children were led back to the train. When they had gotten back on, the other children clamored around the boy, asking to see the bell, and when he reached into his pocket he felt nothing but a hole. The bell had slipped out. Just as they were going to go out and look for it, the train lurched, and began to move. They were going home.
The boy was devastated. When he the train finally reached his house, he said good-bye, and walked sadly to his house. “Merry Christmas!” the conductor shouted, and the Polar Express let out a whistle blast, and the boy waved from his open door.
The next morning, the boy and his sister, Sarah, opened their gifts. When they had opened all that were there, Sarah found a small package by the back of the tree. It was addressed to the boy. “Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Get that hole fixed! Mr. C.” Inside was the silver bell. The boy was ecstatic, and he rang that bell so he could hear the magical sound again. “That’s a pity,” said his mother. “It seems to be broken. It’s not ringing at all.” The boy learned that when he shook the bell he could hear it, and so could Sarah, but his parents didn’t hear a thing.
He writes at the end of the book, “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all those who truly believe.”
And in the end that is what it comes down to for us. Jesus can offer us wholeness and peace, but only if we believe. Jesus can transform us into being Easter people, into people who live in and help bring about resurrection in our lives and in the lives of others through his power, but only if we believe. Jesus is here each week, and when we come we are given the chance to see him, we are given the chance to reach our hands out and touch him. We have the opportunity to see him standing here before us for what he is, our Lord and our God. But to see him, we must truly believe.
As we come to this table to receive his body and blood, we are able to hold him in our hands, and to receive him again. “Peace be unto you,” he says to us. “Shalom, completeness, wholeness be yours.” If we believe he can do his work in our lives, we can become the people he has called us to be. People of the resurrection. People who live transformed lives. And in this way, he can send us out to continue to do his work in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are told at the very end of our Gospel lesson that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which aren’t written down. And in the next chapter, John says the same sort of thing, claiming that if they were written down that the world itself wouldn’t be able to contain the books that could be written. I think one of those reasons is because Jesus is still working signs in the presence of his disciples. Jesus is still working in us and there continue to be signs of his work. We see it in our lives and in the lives of others. With Easter comes true peace and wholeness for those who believe and declare Jesus to be both Lord and God. May we always be blessed as those who truly believe because we have seen the very presence of Christ working among us, and may we always go from this place sharing the message of Christ’s peace with others. Amen.
I love movies. Given the phase of life we’re in right now with younger kids, however, we don’t make it to the theater as often as I’d like. So we use Netflix.
We recently watched “Henry Poole is Here.” It’s a comedy drama that got recommended to us along the way. I think it sat in our queue for some time, if I’m honest.
What makes this unforgettable is the question of how do we find resurrection or miracles in real life? Henry moves back to his old neighborhood because of the circumstances of his life (don’t want to spoil this), and even though he wants to be left alone, people keep interrupting his life.
And he doesn’t like it much.
But they’re persistant, and they see things Henry doesn’t. And they keep at it.
I won’t say anything else, but this: I wonder why it’s so easy to get into a funk and find that it’s easy to overlook all of life around us. Will Henry wake up? Will we?