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Photo Credit: Aaron Audio via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Aaron Audio via Compfight cc

As someone who has taught rhetoric and composition at the college level, I wonder if Mark had anyone read over his gospel narrative before shipping it out to the masses. This opening of his lacks panache. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s it? Nothing more? No birth narrative or background story or soaring prologues like the other gospelers? It’s as if he followed the advice to just start writing to get the words flowing, since you could always come back and edit later. But it appears as if he never came back.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent based on Mark 1:1-8

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Full stop. And then these words about Isaiah’s prophecy and John the Baptist crying out alongside the Jordan. If I had been editing Mark’s work I would have told him to slow down, to go a little deeper. What’s the beginning? Is it John the Baptist? Or Jesus’ birth? What is this good news? Might you start a little earlier in the story? Where did John or Jesus come from? Could you do a bit more with this?

“All beginnings are hard,” so writes Chaim Potok at the start of his breathtaking novel In the Beginning. The protagonist, a man named David who becomes a professor of the Hebrew Bible, states, “The man who guided me in my studies would welcome me warmly into his apartment and, when we had sat at his desk, say to me in his gentle voice, ‘Be patient, David. The midrash says, “All beginnings are hard.” You cannot swallow all the world at one time.’”[1] The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

So Mark begins with this prophetic voice proclaiming a message of repentance and forgiveness to prepare the way of the Lord. For the valleys would be raised up and the mountains brought low and the paths made straight to prepare the way. Repent. Seek forgiveness. Turn around from that which is separating you from God, one another and from being your deepest and truest self as you were created by God to be. Mine the depths of your soul and open yourself up to the love of God. Yearn for healing from God for the things that weigh you down. Strike out into new territory as one renewed no longer concerned primarily with your own wants and desires but looking outward and seeing the needs around you. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

The paths have certainly been a bit rough for us as a country lately. The past two weeks have exposed the reality that we’ve not come as far as we had hoped in terms of racial equality. While the outcome of the grand jury in Ferguson had been muddied by the disparate evidence and testimony in the case of Michael Brown—and if pushed I would personally say that given the disparity a day in court would have been a better outcome, the decision of the panel investigating the demise of Eric Garner in New York seemed much more clear cut. The grand jury had to determine only if there was enough evidence to move forward in the case against Daniel Pantaleo in applying too much force in Eric’s arrest. The incident had been caught entirely on camera. While Eric was a large man, the strength exerted to arrest him and bring him down wasn’t necessary. His cries of not being able to breathe should have been met with concern. Since this all made it on video, the surprising decision not indict Officer Pantaleo has been met with stinging rebuke from across the political spectrum, from both conservatives and progressives alike.

So why talk about this at church? Why discuss politics and the news of the day when a warm and fuzzy sermon getting us ready for Christmas would be much preferred? My answer is simply this: I cannot turn a blind eye to such blatant injustices in our country. I cannot stand before you and preach about the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ and the need for the mountains to be made low and the valleys to be filled up without seeing the mountains and valleys in our own world. As a white educated male living comfortably in suburbia, I’m on the mountain side of that equation. I have benefitted from white privilege whether knowingly or not. My brothers and sisters of ethnic and other minorities have clearly had a harder road. I say this not to lay on guilt, because I do not feel guilty personally about who I am and where I have come from, but to encourage us to participate in the spreading of the good news, to stand alongside our sisters and brothers declaring that Black lives matter to God. Yes, of course, all lives matter, but those of us who can check off every box indicating our part of the dominant culture often don’t have to worry about a risk in heading out from our homes. All people who have the sacredness of breath in them matter to God.

“’Comfort, o comfort my people,’ says our God.” “All beginnings are hard.” “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

What I really want to ask Mark our gospeler is what he meant in that opening. Is the story the beginning of the good news, or is it something else? The sentence niggles me; I cannot simply let it go. Maybe it’s not just a throw away line that needed to end up on the cutting room floor.

Interestingly, the ending of Mark’s gospel is just as stark. “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s it. No resurrection appearance, no words of comfort from Jesus. Simply that the women came to put spices on the body, found the stone rolled back and the body gone and then they fled and said nothing to anyone. If I had problems with the beginning, let me tell you that ending is wretched. But the women did say something to someone, didn’t they? They didn’t keep silent forever. The story of the resurrection got told and spread and the good news moved out. Mark’s gospel is just the beginning of the good news about Jesus, because it keeps going and going. Maybe it’s only the beginning because the story doesn’t end with the end of Mark’s narrative at the resurrection. It stretches forward to even us.

As we near the end of this year and the beginning of the next and as we ready ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child, we can invite the good news to freshly begin its work in us. We are invited to turn back from those things that weigh us done and repent and seek forgiveness not because God longs to lord our failings over us but rather because God longs to bring us freedom. We cannot move forward without beginning with those things that separate us from God and destroy our relationships.

Once we seek forgiveness, we can move forward in making straight paths and walking in the way of the Lord. This takes intentionality and living a better story. I’ve spoken many times about Donald Miller’s life changing book entitled A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I learned while editing my life. He begins with these words: “If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that story a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.

“But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to be meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make life meaning either. Here’s what I mean by that:”[2] which leads him to the first chapter. It takes work to live a great story, but I think we all desperately want this. To have our lives make a difference in our own lives and in someone else’s life too.

And so I am inviting all of you to join with me in reading this book together in the New Year. An all parish book study. We’ll figure out logistics in creating small groups and people who can host a group in their home. I sincerely believe that we live into the good news in community, and by meeting together and talking about a book that encourages us to live meaningful lives will greatly impact all of us.

All beginnings are hard. All stands we take to live more meaningfully, to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to make it known that all human beings are beloved by God and deserve to be treated with dignity, all these choices are difficult. But that’s the beauty of the gospel story, of good news, that although it might be difficult to begin, once we start we’ll experience transformation in our own lives and see it in the lives of others. Mountains will be made low and valleys lifted up, and the uneven ground shall become level. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” May it live on in us. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.

 

[1] Chaim Potok, In the Beginning. New York, Ballantine, 1997. Pg 3.

[2] Donald Miller. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2011. Pg. xiii.

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Photo Credit: Grevel via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Grevel via Compfight cc

An article appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette this weekend titled “Sleep can wait for Black Friday shoppers.”  “‘I’m half asleep’ said Tanya Carlson of Shirley as she wheeled an overflowing carriage to her car and four waiting friends. ‘I’ve been shopping all night.’” She stayed up after her Thanksgiving dinner traveling first to Nashua, New Hampshire for the stores that opened on Thursday evening and then heading back to Massachusetts to shop the ones that opened their doors at the stroke of midnight Friday. “Sarah Shell of Rutland said it made sense to go out all night to shop.”  When asked about it, “she has a simple answer.  ‘I tell them, ‘Do you know how much we save? … I can give up one night’s sleep.’”

A sermon for the people of St. Mark’s, Southborough on the First Sunday of Advent.  Based on Mark 13:24-37.

The season of sleep-deprivation has begun.  Long hours at work trying to get things done before the New Year, decorating the house for guests and parties.  We need to get out Christmas cards and hit the malls for gifts.  There are concerts at school for the kids, and wrapping presents and menu planing and chopping down the tree and baking cookies. The holiday season pulls back the curtain on the reality of our lives: many of us are usually overtired and this just adds to it.

It’s clear that many of us don’t get enough sleep, never mind the parents of young children in our midst who are only getting by on a cocktail of caffeine and love.

In fact, 20% of Americans report that they regularly get less than 6 hours of sleep.  In a 2005 Sleep in America survey,  “over one-quarter of working adults —28%—said they had missed work or made errors  because of sleep-related issues in the previous three months.” (WebMD)  Web MD tells us that a lack of sleep puts us at greater risk for heart attacks, heart disease, obesity and, most troubling, an early death.  Are we squeezing out every last minute of our days for the fullest life only to have it slowly taken away from us in the process?

So it’s a bit brazen for our patron saint, Mark the Evangelist, to share these words of Jesus, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”  Keep alert.  Stay awake.  Be careful or you’ll miss it.  Doesn’t Mark know that there’s a buzz in the air right now? We are over-caffeinated, hyped up, stringing along in order to make this season happen.  He can accuse of of many things, but being asleep isn’t one of them.

And yet, as Preacher Lillian Daniel puts it: “Let us be clear that while the world’s busyness may seem pointed toward Christmas, it is seldom pointed toward the coming Christ child.”  We may be amped up along with our culture, but the voltage leads to hyper-consumerism and a desire to achieve a sort of picture perfect holiday that we saw in a catalog.  We tend to forget that those pictures take place on location and have dozens on the team to make it just right, in addition to having the benefits of Photoshop to make it look stunningly unrealistic.  There’s no Photoshop app perfecting real life.

So in our desire to achieve the unrealistic, to get all the things done on the check list, to have the most amazing holiday season ever, we squeeze in only a few hours of sleep.  As Daniels writes, “We may not be physically asleep, quite the opposite. But in our wakefulness to worldly ways, we fall asleep to the spiritual season, and so we need a wake-up call from the Gospel.” (Daniel, pg 22)

Pay attention to the fig tree, Jesus says.  Notice it every day for the tender shoots that will emerge in the springtime. When you do, you’ll know that summer is coming soon.  And that’s what it will be like for you when I will return.  Pay attention.

While Jesus tells us to keep awake, are we just too tired to notice the subtle changes in our world signaling his return? Would we have enough awareness to notice the fig tree sending out shoots, if we had any idea what a fig tree looked like anyway?

In this season of Advent we await not only the coming of the Christ child in 25 days, but we also long for Christ’s return to this world.  We desire the peaceable kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, for that time when joy and peace and love will reign rather than fear and unrest and hatred.  Too often, too, too often we see the later in our world.  We need only to watch the drama playing out in Ferguson this week, or the one in the Middle East, or possibly the one that took place at our own Thanksgiving tables.  Oh, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to those things, to fill our vision instead with the glossy photos of impeccable holiday scenes, but that’s the kind of thing we need to be woken up from.  That’s where Jesus’ admonition hits home.

So this is the question before us this morning as we embark on this journey toward Bethlehem: Will we pay attention to the right things this year?  Will we continue in the frenzied harried pace of our culture, or will we slow down and get some rest so that we can be fully present in the moments of Christ’s return?

Any preacher will tell you that they preach first and foremost to themselves.  For me this is very much the scenario of the cookware dialing over to his friend and saying, “Hey, Kettle? This is Pot.  You’re black!” At a clergy wellness conference over a year ago, I spoke with a nurse about my physical health and she politely yet forcefully told me I wasn’t getting enough sleep.  I needed, she said, a bedtime routine that I adhered to religiously.

I politely nodded.  Bedtime routines are for kids, I scoffingly thought, but I know she’s right.  In looking back over the past year, when I have attempted her suggestion to get to bed earlier, to follow the plan of turning off the TV sooner (or never turning it on at all) and reading a book and then saying my prayers, I felt more refreshed and alert the next morning.  More awake.  More able to notice things.

And so that is my personal plan for this Season of Advent.  To get more rest so that I can keep alert to the important things.  I don’t want to get so physically drained that come Dec 25 I miss out not only in the joy with family and friends but the amazing beauty of Christ’s nativity.  I don’t want to be so tired that I do not notice the breath-taking changes in the natural world this season.  Like the arrival of Orion in the night sky.  Or the birds coming to the feeder more regularly.  Or the frosty chill in the air reminding us that all things must rest for a time in order to spring back to a fullness of life.

Additionally, I do not want to be so distracted by the trappings of this season that I do not notice the places in our world desperately needing the good news of Jesus.  Like the hundreds of homeless and those seeking rehab who have been displaced from Boston’s Long Island center due to an unsafe bridge that will take millions of dollars and a few years to repair.  Or the young men and women currently in the dozen lock-up units in Westborough.  Or those in our own congregation who feel alone or frightened.  Jesus’ coming as a child and his coming again in glory bring hope and new life.  He ushers in transformation.

So let’s not be so tired and dazed that we miss it this year.  Rather let’s get both the physical and spiritual rest and renewal we need so that we can keep alert, and notice the signs and joyfully open the door to the master of our hearts when he returns. Lord Jesus, come quickly.  Amen.

________________

(Lillian Daniel. “Mark 13:24-37: Pastoral Perspective.” Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 1, Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, eds. Pg 22.)

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Photo Credit: zilverbat. via Compfight cc

As a kid I learned a Bible verse from Matthew, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) It appears not too far after the verses we heard this morning as part of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.

Perfectionism runs deep in my bones, that desire to do the best I can, to be focused and determined and try to be flawless. In my early years I thought I could be perfect, and, given this language from Jesus, God desired this for me too. So I was fine until I couldn’t be perfect all the time and had moments of failure. Like the time I bombed the final exam in Trigonometry for no apparent reason whatsoever even though I carried all As in the class. Or when I didn’t tell the truth to my mom about a bike excursion into the fields behind our house because I didn’t want to get punished. Failure happened—more regularly than I’d care to admit—and I felt much less than perfect ideal and then I added some shame and guilt on top because I thought Jesus wanted me to be perfect just as the Father was perfect.

I’ve got a great book called Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts written by Sam Portaro, an Episcopal priest. Sam tackles the stories of each of the saints that appear in our Episcopal calendar and writes about their lives. He does it to tell of their achievements, but he’s also very honest about these saints as well. He writes of Basil the Great, “He was pushy, he was slick, and he was the consummate politician; in short, Basil was the kind of churchman few of us admire today.”[1] And this about John Donne, “It seems an odd irony that one should enter the priesthood and rise to prominence within it on the heels of public scandal. This is not a customary career trajectory, though we can be grateful for the exception of John Donne who, despite a secret marriage that ruined a political career, became a poet and preacher of great imagination.”[2] Portaro holds up real people, seemingly not quite so perfect, even though we recognize them as part of that great cloud of witnesses.

All Saints’ Day reminds us that we are all of us saints, not just the hallowed few we remember on specific days like Mary Magdalene and Basil and John Donne and Brigid and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We remember as well those we know and love who have gone before us, and we hold out this life of faith before our children and especially those who will be baptized today too. Saints. All of us.

But none of us is perfect. And, I finally learned along the way that Jesus doesn’t expect us to be either; he wants something else. The Message Bible gets at the heart of Jesus’ declaration. “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” The Greek word for perfect—teleios—connotes maturity, a moving towards completion. Or, putting in the vernacular, a call to grow up. To live generously and graciously toward others.

We should do this because we have received God’s extravagant and plentiful love in order to become God’s children, as John reminds us in his first epistle. Deep unbelievable love showered on us. Not because we’re perfect or because we’ve earned it. Just because. God loves us, and because of this we can be called God’s children. Now we must go love others too. Love so that the world might come to know who God is.

On All Saints’ Sunday, as we remember the loved ones who have gone before, I doubt any of us believe those people to be without fault. They were human and had their own issues and baggage and woundedness. I have been thinking of my parents these last few days. Their shadow sides were not hidden from me throughout my life and yet I can assure you that they are saints, beloved of God, who did the best they could to share in kingdom work, to live and love generously. They grew and matured and expressed their faith in countless ways to others.

We too have our own issues and baggage and woundedness, our own shadow sides. And we too are beloved of God. Blessed are the merciful and the hungry and the peacemakers and the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are you pure in heart, for you will see God. Blessed. Not perfect, but blessed. Not without fault, but growing deeper in the faith. Beloved of God. All of us. Saints. Each gathered in this place, recognizing our need of God’s gift of love and forgiveness and renewal. May we find it in the loving gaze of the Almighty. Amen.

 

[1] Sam Portaro. Brightest and Best: A Companion to Lesser Feasts & Fasts. Cambridge: Cowley. 2001. Pg 104.

[2] Portaro. Pg 69.

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A sermon based on Matthew 22:15-22.

If I were to ask you to name some things that you know you shouldn’t bring up in conversation with others so as to avoid conflict I would hazard a guess that money, politics and religion would make the cut.  With it being election season in the run-up to a mid-term election, politics blankets TV ad space and fills our voicemail with robo-calls.  The other two—while intertwined with politics from time to time—remain almost entirely off limits in polite conversation especially when we have no idea the proclivities or leanings the ones with whom we’re conversing.

Yet here they are front and center in Matthew’s gospel. The Pharisees and the Herodians got together to entrap Jesus while he’s in the Temple.  This is akin to the liberals and the conservatives getting together to fight a common foe—and in this case it’s Jesus.  The religious types, the Pharisees, just want to see him taken out of the picture, and the Herodians—those faithful to Roman occupation—well they want the same thing.  So a gentlemen’s agreement is made and they concoct this loaded question: “Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Continue reading 5 Ways to Bear God’s Image

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Photo Credit: roboppy via Compfight cc

My Sunday sermon based on Romans 13:8-14.

“Don’t get mad, get even.” This stock phrase occasionally comes out when one has been wronged, usually by a friend who is imagining possibilities of revenge. Unless, of course you’re Ivana Trump or follow her way of thinking, and then you say, “Don’t get mad, get everything.”  While we didn’t hear it explicitly this summer, surely this sentiment rang true in Ferguson, Missouri by some on both sides of that conflict.  Don’t like what has happened, then let’s loot a neighborhood store.  Don’t like what you see, use excessive force.  The snag comes however with the reality that these responses never even out; the conflict ratchets up with every response.  That’s how we ended up with photos on the front page of the Globe that looked like they came from the Middle East and not the MidWest.

It took Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson to calm things down there.  He came out his first night after taking over for the local police and marched with the people of Ferguson who felt like they weren’t being heard.  He gave out hugs and kisses and laughs.  Gas masks were put away.  Barricades removed.  And peace prevailed that night.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” Paul writes to the Roman church.  Before we turn this into a phrase all about money—the thing we hear when someone mentions the word “owe”—Paul himself has just addressed that in the preceding verse; he writes, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” We need to pay what we owe people; if we “have an obligation, [we should] honor it,” as one commentator put it.  He continues, “The main thing [we] owe everyone is ‘to love one another.’” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, pg 41)

And how hard that is.  Let’s be honest about that.  It’s much easier to hear the words being pounded into us daily by our culture that we are the most important, that we should do things for ourselves, that we must preserve our own best interests.  We do have laws to make sure that there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed: if a neighbor wrongs you, you cannot do bodily harm without consequences legally.  Or if you cheat another person, there is recompense available to them.

St. Paul tells us that if we truly want to keep the law we must love.  In this day and age, love has become only an emotion, a response to something or someone.  I love both a good curry and my wife, although I hope not in the same way (although both are a bit spicy).  Love, in the way that Paul uses it, moves beyond emotion into the realm of actions.  Someone can say they love their neighbor but if they don’t back it up with some deeds, with their behavior, then the words are rendered meaningless.  Love even when you don’t feel like it, Paul says.  Even when the emotion has gone, show your love to others.  Stay true to the call to embody sacrificial love to your neighbor.Paul then explains the seriousness of what is at stake to this church that is puttering along on autopilot.  “Wake up!” he shouts as loudly as he can in his letter—he would probably use all caps today.  “Salvation is nearer now than ever before; the kingdom is coming soon!”  Light is overcoming darkness.  The dawn of a new day is beginning to break into the night driving the darkness away.  Put on the armor of light and live honorably.  Don’t be consumed with drunkenness and self-serving physical intimacy.  Don’t be constantly quarreling or filled with jealousy.  Instead put on the Lord Jesus.” He gives quite a list. Unfortunately it’s a familiar one in our world, this actions he tells us to avoid.  It’s the inevitable result when we put ourselves first and follow after what will entertain us or bring us gratification.

I do not think as some theologians out there that at our core we are bad or doomed.  I do not believe that there is no good to be found in us.  Yes, when left to our own devices many of us—probably most of us—will choose the path that leads to what we deem is best for us, blindly missing the boat.  Yet even the most self-centered among us will often reach out in a crisis and care for someone else.  We are not so tone deaf to the needs of others.  When given the challenge to dump ice water on our heads and make a donation to help researchers find a cure for ALS, we do it and post a video online.  As of this week, over $109 million has poured in to the ALS Association.  When someone faces a time of grief, we send cards and make meals and check in.

So it’s not as if we don’t get it, we do.  It’s just that far too often we doze off and don’t remember.  We forget when our child comes up looking for love and there is too much else on our plates to pay attention to.  We fail to remember when we mumble just a few token words to a spouse and then move on to something else not hearing what they said to us.  We do not recall when we’re tired and in the checkout line and snap at the cashier because the scanner isn’t working fast enough.  We forget when we make it all about us and our needs and desires.  We make it about emotion, about feeling love, rather than making it about action especially when the feeling just isn’t there.

And that’s why we need to put on Jesus, to clothe ourselves in him.  Jesus embodies love.  When he met broken people, he gave them wholeness.  When faced with sinners, he didn’t heap on condemnation but presented a way out.  And he offers the same to us.  Wholeness, healing, new life.  There before us.  In a word, love.

But he does this not simply for us, but to bring about transformation in the world.  Imagine the Ukraine with both sides standing down and treating each other with respect.  Or those spreading fear in Syria and Iraq releasing prisoners and seeking a way forward with their enemies.  Or maybe think about the transformation needed in your own home, your own family, where cynicism and anger is replaced with joy and peace and the deep security of love.  Relationships healed.  Respect and justice given to all people.

It sound almost too good to be true, right?  Almost.  Until we remember Ferguson and Captain Johnson, or Martin Luther King and a segregated America, or Gandhi and an independent India.  They all provided glimpses into the kingdom.  I’ve seen homes transformed too, by Jesus’ power and love, relationships restored, anger replaced with goodwill. 

But to get there we need to wake up.  We must see that the time has come both in our own lives and in our world.  We can help usher in the light of Christ’s kingdom if we act with love to all our neighbors, both inside this parish and in our community, and further out into our country and, yes, even in the world.  It begins with you and me.  We need to clothe ourselves with Christ.  And then we must take action.

So on this Sunday morning, I must ask, is there someone you need to reconcile with?  Is there a ruptured relationship that needs healing? Regardless of who is “right” and who is “wrong,” without considering how you can get even, can you instead offer kindness and love?  You may be rebuffed, as was Captain Johnson, and Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Jesus by some, but that doesn’t negate the need to allow love to transform us and share that with others.  

Don’t fall back under the spell of sleep offered by the darkness in our world, or the call to self-centeredness.  Put on Jesus.  Show his love. Become messengers of Christ’s kingdom.  And when we do, our homes, our neighborhoods and our own lives will show signs of the transformation that only love can bring.  May it be so.  Amen.

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Photo Credit: Mathew Knott via Compfight cc

I’t’s been a long break this summer from writing. I’ve been preaching without a net for that time, but I’m now back to written texts for sermons. This one is based on Matthew 16:21-28.

You may remember the photo from the Boston Marathon bombing of victim James Costello.  He appears slightly hunched over, his jeans completely shredded exposing his legs and the damage they suffered. He pulled shrapnel from his stomach at the scene just moments before the picture was taken, and you can clearly see that he is reeling.  In the days that followed, James needed skin grafts on much of his right arm and leg due to the burns there, and endured multiple surgeries.

This past week, James got married to Krista D’Agostino, a traveling nurse who came to the Spaulding Rehab Hospital at about the time James arrived.  She spent six weeks there—overlapping with James— and they fell in love. James in an interview with the Today Show, said, “One thing that she hates that I always say is I’m actually glad I got blown up.  I wish everyone else didn’t have to, but I don’t think I would have ever met her if I didn’t.”  New photos of their wedding appeared online, a couple clearly in love, so filled with hope and joy.

If you Google James’ name, you can also find an interview he did about a month after the bombing.  He had gotten a lot of calls and inquiries from friends to see if it was really him in the photo they saw everywhere, one of the iconic images of the blast.  He wanted people to know he was all right and to remember the other people, the ones like his close friends who had been with him and lost a limb, and especially the ones who had perished.  During this earlier interview James is clearly down.  He speaks about learning to dribble a basketball again to improve his coordination, and how he looks forward to playing with his buddies who were with him at the finish line.  “Maybe we’ll eventually be able to play,” he said. “But it’s never going to be the same.”

Despair is apparent.  He’s at the bottom, and has seen much of the pain that life can throw his way.  He’s a number of months from saying how glad he is that he had been significantly injured.

No one I know wants hardship in their life.  If given the choice, we’d take the easier route, the more joyful experience and avoid the pain.  All of us.  100% of the time.  And yet we hear these words from Jesus, “If any want to be my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Jesus’ saying is counterintuitive.  Take the harder more painful path.  Pick up the cross beam and follow the way that leads to crucifixion, and know that you’ll be mocked and treated harshly.  Even though it’ll feel like life is slipping out of your hands, that’s not really life after all.  What you’ll experience on the other side is much deeper and richer.  You’ll see that the life of this world—riches and power and all that—is nothing in comparison to the life you’ll find deep in your soul.

This summer I’ve been rereading Richard Rohr’s fabulous book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  Rohr, a Franciscan author, retreat leader and spiritual guide, enumerates with great detail this concept of Jesus: that our lives can only be found if we lose them.  We cannot force the pain or the experience that causes us to hit bottom, but through the experience we can be shown and live into God’s tremendous grace.  He says of our passage this morning, “[These words of Jesus] are pretty strong, almost brutal, by contemporary standards; but they make very clear that there is a necessary suffering that cannot be avoided, which Jesus calls ‘losing our very life’ or losing what I and others call the ‘false self.’  Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real. “How much false self are you willing to shed to find your True Self?’ is the lasting question.[1]

What I cannot get away from in this biblical text is this simple truth: to obtain life we must travel through the way of the cross.  I wish it weren’t so.  I wish I could stand before you and promise something entirely different, but then I wouldn’t be a true minister of the gospel.  It’s only when we lose our lives that we find them.

In John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful come upon the River of Death in their journey, and they see that there is no bridge over it.  They must enter in, though Christian is afraid.  As he sets out into the water, he begins to sink.  Hopeful says to him, “Be of good cheer, my brother! I feel the bottom, and it is good.”[2]  He strikes bottom and it is good; it’s firm.  There’s only so far down he must go before he touches that which can hold him, and then he is able to ford across death to the other side.

Often when I hear about hardships from parishioners and friends I want to take the pain away from them.  I want to help them pass quickly through their troubles.  Louise Penny writes my favorite mystery series.  One of the characters in her books is a grumpy wizened crusty old poet named Ruth.  During the egg hunt one Easter in the series Ruth discovers two duck eggs that have been handled.  Ruth watches closely and finds that the mother duck leaves the eggs and so Ruth, seemingly beyond her rough exterior, takes the eggs home to hatch them.  One of the ducklings, Rosa, is able to hatch quite easily and is soon waddling around.  The other, a duck she names Flora, has difficulty breaking free, so Ruth helps her out.  Yet Ruth discovers that she shouldn’t have done this.  That in the struggle Flora’s strength would increase, her capacity to breath grow stronger.  Instead, since Ruth pulled back the shell and aided her, Flora eventually became too frail to survive.

My intentions as a priest are sometimes misguided, I suspect.  Not to say I should turn my back on people when they face times of crisis, but rather to stand near them as they seek to find their way.  To pray with them and for them, and then to allow them the chance to wrestle with their life, to lose what they hold so close and dear, and to remind them of Jesus’ own suffering.  He shares with us in the suffering; not even he was exempt from it.  But the death we experience in our lives—the breaking down of the finally crafted exterior—can only lead to resurrection, to new life toward a truer and deeper faith.

The only way to lasting life is through the cross.  If you want to really follow Jesus, you must lose your life.  Period.  Point finale.  There is no way around this deep truth.

Which is why Jesus is so very harsh with Peter.  Peter sees Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God–remember, he got the answer right just last week!—yet his understanding was probably that Jesus would come in and out gun the Romans.  That he would lead a revolution of power and set up a new kingdom and that maybe Peter himself might get one of the coveted spots of prestige.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, and face great suffering and die.

“No, Jesus!  It can’t be!  Never will this happen to you!”  Peter wanted to pull Jesus out from the egg.  He wanted to make it all better.  To not have Jesus experience distress.  “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus retorts.  “You don’t see yet, Peter.  It’s not about power or image or anything else.  It’s about sacrificial living, giving of yourself for others.  The only way to experience life is to lose everything.”

If we truly want to follow the Son of the Living God, then it’ll take some sacrifice.  It may mean giving more of our money away to others, or giving up the job title to work with a non-profit.  It will mean letting go of our carefully constructed identity to discover the truer identity given to us by God.  It will mean facing hardship and pain, I am sorry to say, but through those things we’ll discover a much richer life filled with Christ’s love.  My hope is that we recognize Jesus traveling with us during these dark times.  That we see a glimmer of hope.  And that we become truly renewed and saved through those times that take our lives from us, emerging from the ashes renewed and filled with Christ’s resurrection grace.  Amen.

[1] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. (San Francisco: Josey Bass, 2011). Pg. 85.

[2] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009) Pg. 148.

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Trust FallDuring the summer I tend to preach without a net; walking out in front of the congregation without notes of any kind.  (That doesn’t mean I don’t prepare!)  As such, I won’t have a text to post here.  But I will take some time Monday morning to write up my main points.  No guarantees that everything I said will get written or that I said everything I write, but you’ll get the gist of it. It may not be as polished, but there you are!

Here’s this week’s sermon on the Binding of Isaac (or the Akedah).  Based on Genesis 22:1-14.

In college I had to take a class called “Discovery” which centered on group dynamics and becoming part of team in addition to exploring my understanding of myself.  We did a lot of group building activities, including a ropes course.  One day as part of that work we participated in a trust fall. Continue reading Trust Falls, Sacrifice and the Akedah

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Photo Credit: Mattia Notari via Compfight cc

Trinity Sunday’s significance resides in the simple fact that no other Sunday highlights a dogma of faith. I’ve preached Trinity Sunday every year of my ministry, and rather than preaching it again, I’ve shifted my focus on Sunday to being a disciple—the other piece of Matthew’s Great Commission.

So here it is: A sermon for Trinity Sunday — Based on Matthew 28:16-20

Matthew ends his gospel not in Jerusalem like Mark and Luke, but back in Galilee.  Jesus had told the women he saw at the tomb that he would meet his disciples there.  So they do that; they head back north and, as we read, Jesus appears to them on this mountain.

When they see him, they worship him although some of them doubted.  We have no idea what caused their hesitation, with one foot immersed in the worship of Jesus and one in doubt.  But notice that it doesn’t stop Jesus from coming to them all.  “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he tells them, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  And that’s it. Continue reading 3 Marks of Discipleship and 1 Small Truth

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Photo Credit: ButterflySha via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ButterflySha via Compfight cc

“How can we use your gifts?” is a phrase often used in churches.  Before Melissa and I wandered into an Episcopal church shortly after we were married, we got bombarded by church communities that came off a bit too needy. To be fair, they didn’t often see a young married couple sans kids coming to worship, so we were a hot commodity.  But this week I was struck how the Holy Spirit used the disciples.  It wasn’t what they could do that was important, but…  well, just keep reading to see where I went with this sermon.

A Sermon for Pentecost — Based on Acts 2:1-21 and 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Anyone who has applied for a job or a degree program has been asked the question: tell me about your strengths.  If asked this one, we know its corollary is coming too.  So while speaking about our gifts and talents, we’re racking our brains to determine what to say about a weakness that, while appearing to be a growing edge, is really another strength.

The answers to these questions include things which also match what the company or business or school might need from us.  If the description includes “Multi-tasking,” we share experiences of how we’ve juggled many things successfully at once.  If the description talks about seeing a project through till the end, we mention times when we’ve been dedicated and singularly focused.  I wouldn’t say we intentionally deceive others in our answers, we’re just savvy enough to do a bit of audience analysis before we respond.

For a long time, I’ve understood this passage from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians to be a similar process.  Continue reading The Spirit Wants Your Weakness

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Photo Credit: *Kicki* via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: *Kicki* via Compfightcc

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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