Sermons

Mark’s gospel is my favorite.  I love how it’s so full of immediacy.  His characterization of the disciples is helpful for me: they aren’t the brightest tools in the shed, and it’s amazing they ever got it.

But his gospel ending is sometimes hard.  No resurrection appearances from Jesus at all.  Just the women fleeing in terror and amazement.

Yet there is Easter joy to be found there.  Here are my thoughts on the Last of the days of the Holy Triduum.

Blessed Easter!

Easter Day 2012—Mark 16:1-8

 

It’s meager, isn’t it?  The end of Mark’s gospel that we just heard, it’s pretty slim in terms of greatness about the resurrection of Jesus.  You did notice, didn’t you, that Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance?  You may want something tangible, but Mark leaves it just like that.

The women come to the tomb just after sunup on the first day of the week, and they worry about who will roll away the huge stone.  But they find that the work has already been done for them, and then they discover this young man in white inside the tomb.  He says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  And Mark ends his gospel with these words: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Unsettling to be sure.  And if you read it in the Greek, it ends even more abruptly.  A word for word literal translation would be: “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for . . . .”

If you read Mark’s last chapter in your own Bible, you will notice that there are some endings added on where Jesus appears.  However, these endings will be flagged by some brackets, and a footnote explaining that the earliest manuscripts don’t contain them.  It seems that some people along the way got just as concerned by Mark’s seemingly sagging ending and felt the need to prop it up.  That’s like the modern day equivalent of creating a Hollywood ending.

We want that too.  We want Jesus to appear nearby in the garden, comfort the women, and then they can exclaim resounding joy.  But instead we get these women full of terror and amazement running out of the cemetery unable to even speak a word.

If you read Mark as a complete narrative—the way it would have been read in the Early Church—you see that the disciples never get it.  They are dim-witted, messing things up, full of uncertainty and doubt about who Jesus is.  They miss all the signs.  After all of the miracles, the healings, all of the amazing things they saw, they just don’t get it.

In one telling sequence in particular, we watch as Jesus feeds four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  The disciples collect seven baskets of leftovers.  A day or two later, he climbs into a boat with them, but they forgot to pack a lunch—they only have a small loaf of bread to share.  He begins teaching them, but they can’t even listen.  Instead they keep pointing fingers at one another, accusing each other of forgetting to bring more than a single loaf for their journey.  Jesus can’t believe what he is hearing, and asks, “Why are you talking about not having any bread?  Don’t you see or understand?  Don’t you remember when I broke the seven loaves?  When I did, how many large baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?”  “Seven,” they say to him.  “Do you not yet understand?” he asks.

They don’t.  And at the very end, at his crucifixion, it is the Roman Centurion who gets it when he declares, “Truly this man was God’s son.”  The disciples?  They had fled the scene much earlier.

And yet, the ones hearing this story read aloud to them—the new believers gathered in a house probably in Rome under the cover of night for fear of their very lives—would have known the stories of what the disciples did after the resurrection.  They would have heard about Peter and John and all the rest, how they changed the world and were martyred for their faith.  They would have recognized the disciples by name early on in the reading of Mark’s gospel.  But these Roman believers would have wondered how the disciples who had lived lives full of faith and courage could have once been so full of doubt and uncertainty.  They were probably waiting for the end of the story, assuming that this ragamuffin band of disciples would be amazingly transformed into the super apostles they had heard about.  They were probably looking for that Hollywood ending.

Will Willimon, in his book titled, Remember Who You Are: Baptism as a Model for the Christian Life, claims that contrary to popular understanding, the work of baptism is a life long process, not merely a solitary event.  Bishop Willimon writes, “No matter how powerful one’s baptism or how soul-shaking one’s … conversion experience, only a lifetime of death and rebirth can work so radical a transformation as God intends for his ‘new creations.’”[1]  We have a tendency to think that somehow we can arrive in the claim to being a “good Christian,” and that the journey takes little, if any work.  We like to think that the Christian life “is a good way to make nice people even nicer.”[2]

But Willimon writes, “Baptism says that our problem is not that we have a few minor moral adjustments which need to be made in us so that we can be good.  Our problem is that we are so utterly enslaved [to sin and the powers of this world] that nothing less than full-scale, lifelong conversion will do.”[3]

That is good news for us.  Even though we, like the disciples, keep failing, God continues to work our salvation out in us.  God keeps calling out to us and bringing us to full-scale conversion, because above all else God wants us to have fullness of life.  God works in and through history in order to offer us salvation, so that our lives can be changed and transformed and so that we can be about the work of God’s kingdom.

At the end of Mark’s gospel, the very last words uttered by a character in this narrative are these: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  These words spoken to the women point to Jesus’ continued work among his disciples. They will see him in Galilee, and the women are told to share this message with the apostles.  They seemingly do this, since the message was not snuffed out but continued on, from Galilee through Rome and all the way to Southborough.

These last instructions of Mark’s gospel are for the disciples to return to Galilee, and it is there that they will see Jesus.  But who is a disciple?  James, and Peter and John and Mary to be sure, but also you and me and those folks sitting in that home church so many years ago.  Yes, Galilee is a physical place, but it is also found at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14).  To put it another way, the narrative isn’t finished.  Go back to the beginning, to Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and reread Mark’s gospel, this time with fresh eyes, with the eyes of a disciple who has experienced Jesus’ death and passion.  Go back and hear again of the miracles and healings, the parables and Jesus’ teaching.  Just like the disciples, you didn’t get it the first time around, but like them you will eventually understand since you have experienced what they did.  Now that you’ve heard it until the very end—to Jesus’ death and the visit to his empty grave—now you can experience it all again more attentively and be transformed.[4]

You see, in real life there is rarely a Hollywood ending.  The difficulties in life don’t end up on the cutting room floor.  Rather God takes our doubt, our fear, our inability to fully comprehend all that the Risen Christ can do in our lives, our community and our world — God takes all these and desires to bring about full-scale conversion in us.  The beauty and hope and joy of the resurrection is that Jesus Christ has conquered death.  Jesus has overcome fear.  He has vanquished all that paralyzes us and keeps us from being people who are about the work of his kingdom.  The story of his resurrection, the account of his miraculous power, and the narrative of his redemption of this world continues on to this day.  The deeds of Jesus Christ of Nazareth never end, and we are given the great joy and responsibility to take our place alongside all those disciples who have gone before us, joining with them in proclaiming the glorious power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!


[1] Will Willimon Remember Who You Are. Pg 90.

[2] Willimon, 102.

[3] Willimon, 102.

[4] I am indebted to Thomas G. Long’s article in The Christian Century (online at http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=1944 for this approach to the text.

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 There are days in life when the darkness seems almost too much to bear.  Tonight is one of those in our faith.  As we take our place at the cross, we remember that even though the darkness can overwhelm, it is only in our brokenness that the Spirit can enter into us.

Good Friday — 2012

            I try to get out and hike as often as I can, which isn’t nearly as often as I’d like.  I came to hiking later in life—I think it was a result of going into the ministry.  It was always something I thought about doing, mind you, but I never made the time to do it.  When I got to Colorado I began to realize that I needed to hike, to ramble and walk to clear my head.  When I didn’t, when I went for stretches of time without stretching my legs and my brain in the crisp air, things suffered—from my relationships with Melissa and my kids to my overall disposition.

I suspect part of this love came from the idea of pilgrimage, the ancient practice of taking a physical journey to a place of spiritual significance in order to find a deeper connection with God.  Like walking the Way of St. James across France and Spain some 500 miles to Santiago de Compestella.  Or traveling to Canterbury in England, if you remember The Canterbury Tales from college.  The pilgrimage became a metaphor for life.  It’s certainly become one for my life.

Parker Palmer writes, “In the tradition of pilgrimage, … hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself.  Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost—challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge.  If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks.  Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now.  In every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts.  But before we come to that center, full of light, we must travel in the dark.  Darkness is not the whole of the story—every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy—but it is the part of the story most often left untold.  When we finally escape the darkness and stumble into the light, it is tempting to tell others that our hope never flagged, to deny those long nights we spent cowering in fear.”[1]

We gather on this night to remember the darkest moment of our faith.  We watch as Christ struggles just to breathe on the cross.  We take our place near Mary and the beloved disciple, and try with difficulty to imagine what it would be like to be a parent watching a child die an excruciating death.  Church attendance is much lower on Good Friday in comparison to Easter, perhaps because we don’t want to watch the suffering or to push aside the long nights when fear overwhelms us.  Yet we all suffer.  There are times in each of our lives when we see hardship and pain, and I would agree with Parker Palmer that they are integral to our lives, to our stories.  They are fundamental in forming who we are in our world.  And who we will be in the story of our lives.

Jesus said that unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed.  But if it dies, it sprouts and grows and reproduces itself many times over.  Then he tells us that if we want to hold onto our lives, we’ll lose them.  But if we lose our life for his sake, if we delve deep into his love and life at the cost of our own, then we’ll have life forever.

In his book Drops Like Stars, Rob Bell contemplates the connection between suffering and creativity.  He writes these words: “The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr points out that the Native Americans have a tradition of leaving a blemish in one corner of the rug they are weaving because that’s where they believe the Spirit enters.  I can relate to the rugs.  I want desperately for things to go ‘how they’re supposed to.’ Which is another way of saying ‘how I want them to,’ which is another way of saying ‘according to my plan.’”

“And that, as we all know, isn’t how it works.  But it’s in that disappointment, in that confusion, in that pain—the pain that comes from things not going how I wanted them to—that I find the same thing happening again and again.  I come to the end of myself, to the end of my power, the end of my strength, the end of my understanding, only to find in that place of powerlessness a strength and peace that weren’t there before.  I keep discovering that it’s in the blemish that the Spirit enters.

“The cross, it turns out, is about the mysterious work of God.  Which begins not with big plans and carefully laid out timetables.  But in pain and anguish and death.

“It’s there, in the agony of those moments, that we get the first glimpses of just what it looks like for God to take all of our trauma and hurt and disappointment, all those fragments lying there on the ground, and turn them into something else, something new, something we never would have been able to create on our own.

“It’s in that place where we’re reminded that true life comes when we’re willing to admit that we’ve reached the end of ourselves, we’ve given up, we’ve let go, we’re willing to die to all of our desires to figure it out and be in control.

“We lose our live, only to find it.  It turns out that Navajo rug and a Roman cross have a lot in common.”[2]

We remember that Jesus suffered for us so long ago.  And he suffers with us even now as we deal with our own hurts and struggles and pain.  We like to pretend that the hardship doesn’t exist, that we have been lucky enough to have missed the suffering that is ever present in our world. And with the pretending we hide behind carefully constructed masks hoping never to let our guard down so those around us won’t know of our hurt.  But when we do this, the Spirit cannot come in.

I don’t think we remember enough that the marks Jesus received on that cross stayed with him.  The marks in his hands, his feet and his side didn’t magically disappear when he was raised.  That’s how the disciples knew it was him the first time they saw him after Easter: he showed them the nail holes in his hands.

The sign of the suffering he endured stayed with him.  And stays to this day.  If our Lord still bears his marks of pain, why can’t we?  Why do we think that somehow we have to be perfect and not impacted by all that comes our way?  When will we realize that in the journey of life—in both our earthly and spiritual pilgrimages—we will experience darkness?  And even more that the suffering we encounter will shape us?

We have in Jesus a Lord who is not unaware of the pain in this world.  Tonight we stand by his cross and gaze upon it, knowing he too will be with us when we are overwhelmed by the crosses of our life.  When we fall down on our journeys and feel that all is out of our control, Jesus will be there.  Walking beside us.  Helping us up again.  Aware of our deep pain.  It is only in the darkness, in the fragments, in the blemishes of life that the Spirit can enter in to us.  Will we allow the Spirit in?  I think it’s the only possibility we have to experience resurrection.  Amen.


[1] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak.  Pg 18.

[2] Rob Bell, Drops Like Stars. 115-117.

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Last night we gathered to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.  During that evening he gave them a new commandment and an object lesson.  Love one another he said.  And he got down and washed their feet.

As we reflect on these three holy days of the Christian year, I hope we can hear his new command.  And I hope even more we can put it into practice.

My sermon for last night…..

Maundy Thursday 2012

            I have strong memories of being in the bath when I was a child, of people helping me get cleaned up.  I especially remember my sister Lisa washing my face and neck and then claiming to find potato sprouts in my ears because they were so dirty.  One evening like magic she pulled a tuber out of my ear.  I loved it when my mom said I could have a bubble bath, and I would play for what seemed like a long time in that tub by myself.

Nowadays I am half tempted to run down to the pantry to rummage through our root vegetables when I am helping Noah or Olivia with their baths, and I often try to give them the option of bubbles.  We attend to the ritual of bath time in our house with religious devotion most nights, it’s part of the well trod bedtime routine that we’ve followed with our kids since their infancy, although now I am only called in to wash their hair.  I suspect they both will have bath memories of their own in 35 years.

These days bathing is a quick endeavor for me, and given my hair situation, I can be out of the shower in just a few minutes.  Anything foreign that accumulates on my body is my own to get rid of.  I’m not fussy about working in dirt or anything on my off days, but I like to have clean hands being as I’m a priest and all.  My feet rarely get exposed to the outside air unless I’m on vacation and wearing my favorite sandals.  Those days while enjoying the outdoors late into the evening, I often find my way to the side of the tub to rinse off the grime of the day, watching it swirl around the drain before going away forever.

Jesus and his disciples were perpetual sandal wearers.  Living in an arid land only compounded the amount of dust they would kick up.  Dust that clung to sweaty feet.  Dirt that would not be welcome in a house.  So when Jesus and his disciples would find their way to someone’s home for a meal or to stay, the host would at the very least provide a basin for them to rinse their grungy feet, and often would have a servant wash their feet for them.  Hospitality played an important role in their culture, and this small gesture literally dripped with care.

You may remember the story when Jesus came to Simon the Pharisee’s house, and a sinful woman came in weeping over Jesus, using her hair to wipe his feet that had been wetted with her tears, and anointing his feet with fine perfume.  Jesus calls Simon out on this a little later after he and others at his table were shocked that Jesus would let such a woman even touch him.  He said, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”  Hospitality, care, regard for one another—that’s what Jesus expected.

But it wasn’t just that Jesus expected others to do it for him since he was their rabbi, their teacher.  On the night before he died, while eating the evening meal with his disciples, he got up from the table and stripped off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist and began washing their feet.  I’m sure they were shocked that he would even think of doing this.  Their master getting down on his knees before them washing off the day’s accumulated gunk, that was a servant’s work.  “No, Jesus!” Peter shouted when Jesus got to him.  “No, you won’t wash my feet!” Jesus looked at him gently and told him that if he didn’t then Peter would have no part with him; he couldn’t be his disciple.  I get Peter’s objection.  I don’t want anyone cleaning my feet except me.

You may remember the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, a sports writer I remember from my growing up in Detroit when he wrote columns for the Free Press.  In a moment of coincidence, Mitch saw a Nightline introduction with Ted Koppel saying a few things about life and death, and then saying “Who is Morrie Schwartz?  Stay tuned to find out.”  Morrie was Mitch’s advisor and favorite professor from college.  They hadn’t seen each other in 16 years.  And Morrie was dying of Lou Gherig’s disease, ALS.  He stayed tuned to be sure.

During that interview, “the two men spoke about the afterlife. They spoke about Morrie’s increasing dependency on other people. He already needed help eating and sitting and moving from place to place. What, Koppel asked, did Morrie dread the most about his slow, insidious decay?”  He asked Ted if he can say a word on TV [that I won’t say in church], and Koppel said go ahead.  Morrie looked Ted straight in the eyes and said, “Well, Ted, one day soon, someone’s gonna have to wipe my [butt].”[1]

Mitch reaches out to reconnect with Morrie, and they begin a weekly ritual of meeting in Newton, Mass, where Morrie lives.  After a few months of visits, Mitch writes, “Occasionally, he had to stop to use the bathroom, a process that took some time.   Connie [his aid] would wheel him to the toilet, then lift him from the chair and support him as he urinated into the beaker.   Each time he came back, he looked tired. ‘Do you remember when I told Ted Koppel that pretty soon someone was gonna have to wipe my [butt]?’ he said.  I laughed, You don’t forget a moment like that.  ‘Well, I think that day is coming. That one bothers me.’ Why? ‘Because it’s the ultimate sign of dependency. Someone wiping your bottom. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to enjoy the process.’ Enjoy it?  ‘Yes. After all, I get to be a baby one more time.’ That’s a unique way of looking at it. ‘Well, I have to look at life uniquely now. Let’s face it. I can’t go shopping, I can’t take care of the bank accounts. I can’t take out the garbage. But I can sit here with my dwindling days and look at what I think is important in life. I have both the time— and the reason — to do that.’”[2]

I can’t imagine trying to enjoy what Morrie wants to enjoy.  I’m with Peter on saying no to Jesus on my feet; the ultimate sign of dependency, no way.  And yet.

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  That’s the new commandment, the mandatum novum, that we are to take part in.  We are called to both show love by caring for each other, and, infinitely more difficult, receive love offered to us.

That’s what we do on this night when we untie our shoes and slip off our socks and pad down that aisle.  By both grabbing a towel and washing someone else’s feet and then placing our own feet in the basin, we mark our allegiance to Christ.  We acknowledge our utter dependence on God and one another.  By this will the world know that we are Jesus’ followers, if we love another.

Tonight it’s just the symbol: foot washing.  But I hope that even more we are able to take off the outer layers of the masks we live behind most of the time, and expose our very selves to the outside air and one another.  We cannot love or be loved if we do not become vulnerable.  We cannot be part of Jesus if we do not open ourselves up and share both the difficult and joyous parts of our lives in community.  If we do not love one another.  Can we take our side along the disciples?  Or will we stay back, afraid of acknowledging our need and dependence of one another and of Jesus?


[1] Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie. 22.

[2] Albom, 49-50.

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It’s one of those jokes I throw out there every Lent: yes, you can sign up for the exciting role of Servant Girl 2 in our yearly Passion Reading.  Some people prefer those small roles; it means reading only one or two lines in a poorly lit nave like ours.  But sometimes those one or two lines can define something pretty significant.  There are people that play bit roles in our lives, and so without further adieu…

Palm Sunday 2012—Mark’s Passion

I am struck by the bit-parts that take center stage in our Passion reading each year.  The one or two lines spoken by the seemingly insignificant players that we have a tendency to overlook.  And yet I know in my own life sometimes it’s the one or two lines from a person I met only briefly that stick with me for a long time.  Sometimes these bit-players take a major role.

We heard it this morning.  Peter had followed Jesus under the cover of darkness on that cool night to the place where the council had assembled.  He stood in the courtyard, warming himself, when one of the servant-girls came by.  She took one look at him and recognized him.  “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” she says to him.  Peter looks at her stunned, recognizing that he might be the next one hauled in to a fake trial.  His declarations a few hours before promising that he would never desert Jesus crumble immediately.  “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.

But he stays there warming his hands over the fire pit, and the servant girl a little later said once more that Peter was one of the Galileans and was with Jesus.  He again denies it.  One of the bystanders, hearing the words of the servant-girl begins looking suspiciously at Peter, and either because of the twang of his accent or because of his appearance, says, “Certainly you are one of them, you are from Galilee.”  Peter began cursing, and swore an oath that he wasn’t, the he had no idea what they were talking about, that he didn’t even know this Jesus of Galilee.

And the rooster crowed.  And Peter remembered what Jesus had told him and he ran off.

This is Simon Peter, remember; Peter being the name Jesus himself gave to him.  It meant Rocky, and Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel that he would build his church on that rock.  But the rock couldn’t even stand up to a bit player, to a servant-girl and a bystander.  Never mind if he had the fortitude to stand up to the high priest, he couldn’t even handle questions from someone with no authority, and so he threw Jesus under the bus.  “I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said, this Rock that would serve as the foundation of the church.

In 2000, Melissa had an opportunity to travel to Morocco for three weeks through a fellowship from Boston University.  I was able to join her for 10 days on that trip.  Through the contacts of a friend, Melissa and I were able to stay with a Moroccan national and his family.  Abdellah loved showing us the sights and engaging us in conversation—he taught English in a local high school—and we were delighted to have him and his teen-aged son as our guides.  Our trip took place in August, and I can say that the Sahara desert in the summer was hot, easily a 115 degrees most days, and some went well above 120.

We often used public transportation to explore the country.  In the mornings before we left, Abdellah would pack each of us large one liter water bottles, and he always brought an extra one.  Riding next to him on the bus he explained it to us like this: As a Muslim, he said,  I am commanded to give a cup of water to anyone who asks for it.  Your Holy Book says the same thing.  So whenever I travel, I always bring an extra bottle.”  Not too long after this, someone got on the bus, visibly thirsty.  He saw us drinking water, and asked for a drink.  Abdellah handed him the extra bottle.

Later during our time we spoke more about this, and Abdellah, not confrontational but certainly provocative, said, “If America is a Christian nation, how come there are so many homeless people there?  I don’t understand how so many Christians ignore the words of your Scripture”  He had visited America on a Fullbright exchange, and had seen the homeless in Boston, New York and Washington DC.  I remember talking about how many people aren’t really practicing Christians, and that they don’t all take the call of Christ seriously.  But then I thought about my own life and the fact that I would never have thought about carrying an extra bottle of water, never mind my inclination to pretend as if the poor and homeless I meet don’t even exist.

I was deserting Jesus by my actions.  I might not have said out loud that I wasn’t associated with him, but my actions told a different story.

I’m not sure who the Abdellah or servant girl or passerby is in your life, but I bet you’ve had an encounter with one of those seeming bit-players and will again.  They may ask a challenging question, or make a statement that stops you in your tracks:  “Do you really believe that stuff about Jesus?  I thought you were more intelligent than that.”  And then you hem and haw, and stammer out something that makes you appear as to not really care about the way Jesus lived and continues to live in our midst.  Or maybe, like me, sometimes you just live your life in a way that exhibits that while you may talk a good game, your actions clearly deny Jesus and his invitation to follow him.

We gather on this day to remember that we all take our part in crucifying our Lord.  And even though we desert and deny and disgrace him at times, he still loves us and offers us forgiveness.  That is the power of what happened on that cross.  That Jesus, even in the midst of horrible suffering, never stopped loving us, no matter what we have done to him.  He stretched out those arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that we each might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  May we, like Peter, find our way to those outstretched arms.  Amen.

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Prayer is a funny thing because we pray for the darndest things.  Jim Carrey showed us this in “Bruce Almighty” when he says yes to all the prayers he received and 400,000 people hit the lottery.  For many of us, we pray, and expect God to do our bidding.

But that’s not how it works.  God isn’t just waiting around to do our every whim. So what does this mean about prayer then?  How do we become people who pray?

That was my jumping off point for my sermon yesterday.  And don’t miss Robert Benson’s fabulous book In Constant Prayer that I mention.

Lent 5B—People Who Pray

We’re on our penultimate Sunday in Lent, and I’ve been making my way through the disciplines encouraged to us by the Prayer Book for a meaningful and solemn Lenten journey.  Things like fasting and self-denial, reading and meditating on scripture, and self-examination and repentance.  The one on that list that I’ve not spoken about yet is prayer.  It’s been on my list for a while—I thought I would preach about it 3 weeks ago—but I’ve struggled in what to say.

I’ve got tons of books on prayer, and my own ideas to be sure.  But I find that often we think of prayer as a way to use God as some sort of cosmic vending machine—we need a healing from a bruised knee, or for a better paying job or, God help us, a great parking spot or a Red Sox win, so we say a quick petition and expect immediate results.  We get disappointed if it doesn’t turn out as we want, and then swear off praying at all.

I wonder about those kinds of prayers because we approach God so casually, as if asking for parking near the door at Staples or Bertucci’s is of God’s concern.  I think of that kind of prayer and the ones offered up by the people of this world who don’t have enough to eat, and I know that I don’t have any idea what is really important to God most of the time, or I’d be praying for something else more often.

It’s not to say that God doesn’t hear those prayers, because I think God does and sometimes God even responds.  I do this sometimes myself with Noah and Olivia when they ask for a quarter for the gumball machine.  But there is so much more to prayer than our petitions for the day in and day out of life, and I think God, while unbelievably patient with us, wants us to grow up sometimes.

When I think about prayer these days, I mean primarily keeping the Daily Office.  It’s the regular rhythm of prayer given to us by our Jewish sisters and brothers—the Psalmist writes, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances”­—and built upon by the early church and the rise of the monastic life in Christendom.  Faithful Christians would make time each day to stop what they were doing and say their prayers, early in the morning, at noontime, at the setting of the sun and before bed.  Marking the divine in the ordinary created a perspective for them; it showed them that they needed to praise God through every aspect of their lives.  They looked at the life of Jesus and how often the Gospels said that Jesus got up early or went off alone to pray, and they tried to emulate that.  Yet even suggesting that we should pray 2 or even 4 times a day is difficult for me because I know how busy life can be.

Robert Benson talks about this in his book, In Constant Prayer, and I’m going to quote him at length because I think he drills this one out of the park.  He penned, “W.H. Auden wrote, ‘An artist must develop a strict consciousness in regard to time.  For we must never forget that we are living in a state of siege.’ He was not just talk about poets; he was talking about any of us who are trying to live our lives with all the art and love and care we can muster.  There is more art in doctoring and schoolteaching and childrearing and all manner of works than most people realize.

“I hate saying this in public, but I am going to.  There are a lot of days when I just do not have the time to say the office.  You know how busy we men of letters are.

“In the morning I have to write in my journal and write my six hundred words in whatever new project I am working on.  If I do not write in my journal, I forget what has been happening to me.  Which is bad enough in and of itself, but it is especially difficult for a guy who makes a living telling stories.  If I don’t remember my stories, then I have nothing to write the six hundred words about.  Eventually I have nothing to write a book about either.

“Then I have to get in the car and pick up the day’s papers.  Then I have to work the crossword.  Then I have to do my other writer’s work for a while.  I have to edit some stuff in the book that I am trying to make something out of from the stuff I ended up with before.  I have telephone calls to make and errands to run and letters to write.  Sometimes I even have a meeting.”

Benson continues, “I do have time to take a swim so I can keep my schoolgirl figure.  I seem to be able to make tee times and play a round of golf.  I have to play golf every week.  Have to is a relative term, of course, but if you play golf, then you know that ‘have to play golf’ is the proper way to say it.  Even if you just live with a golfer, you know that have to is the proper term.  And the way I play golf, it can take some considerable amount of time to play. …

“I have to eat supper.  I have to help clean up the kitchen—okay, I do not have to, but the brownie points that accrue to husbands who cook and clean up, not to mention do the laundry and yard work, are just too good to pass up.

“And did I mention that little armchair in our front parlor, where I like to sit in the evenings?  Or that I have to go to bed pretty early, because I get up pretty early.  And I have to read for a while before I go to sleep, sometimes for a very long while.

“Most days, if it comes right down to it, I simply do not have the time to say the office.

“And I am fully aware that by most standards my life is not even busy. …  Why do I not say my prayers?  Well, it takes too much time.”

He concludes, “ ‘How we spend our days is how spend our lives,’ writes Annie Dillard. ‘What we are doing with this one and with that one is what we are doing.’

“Time is the real currency of our age, and we have to manage our time in relation to our spiritual life as much as we do in relation to any other part of our lives.

“Our hearts are where our treasure is, or so we have been told.  Our love is where our time goes too.  Including the time that some of us say we do not have enough of to spare some to participate in the ancient prayer of God’s faithful.’”[1]

We are seemingly too busy to pray without realizing that we are, as Bill Hybels put it, too busy not to pray.

And it all comes of intentionality.  Do we want to be people who pray, people who enter into the living God to give thanks for the gift of life itself, or do we consider it much too hard to even bother?  We easily put our mind to other tasks out there—for example, I want to climb all 48 of the 4000 foot peaks in the White Mountains in the next 4 years, and I have 44 to go, if you’re keeping score at home—and we could, if we desired to, be people who pray on a regular basis.  But we have to want to.

You may not know how to pray the Daily Office or where to start.  I’ve posted on my blog a cheat sheet and directions for you to do this.  If you can’t figure out how to get to my blog or have trouble, let me know and I’ll send you the information you would need or meet with you to guide you through this.

If we are going to be people who faithfully participate in the life of prayer God wants for us, then we need to make the time.  We need to make prayer one of the items—or 2 or 4 of the items—on our to-do list.  If we yearn to draw closer to God and spend our lives in connection with the true, holy and living One, then we must set our sights on the goal to say our prayers daily.  I hope that we will do this, both individually and corporately, and that we will be people who regularly structure our lives with a “continued awareness of God’s presence and reality.”[2]  I hope and trust that we can be known as people who pray and drink long from the well that God offers to us.  May it be so.  Amen.


[1] Excerpted from Robert Benson’s In Constant Prayer.  2008.  Pgs. 85-88.

[2] Benson, Backcover.

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You can find quite a few shelves at your local Barnes and Noble devoted to Bibles.  It’s normally cited as the most printed book of all time (records are hard to verify, though, due to sales figures of all the different types, never mind the Gideon freebies).  Yet we don’t read the Bible.

So we own Bibles, lots of them — as a priest I’ve got easily a dozen around my study and home—and don’t crack them open.  Or we do crack them open and point to a passage thinking it will answer life’s hardest questions.  That’s Bible as Magic 8 Ball.

But I would argue that we should bother reading the Bible on a regular basis not so we can argue if it is literally true, rather so we can hear and see and inwardly digest how God moves in our world.  That was the basis for my sermon on Sunday using John 3:14-21 as a jumping point.

________________________________________

            I have always loved words, and especially the way that words could open up stories for me.  I could travel to far off places, or meet characters that took risks.  I loved learning about new things in adventures or mysteries, and especially stories that gripped me with detail.  Stories get into our lives—I know that I can have my mood impacted by a novel I am reading—and they can shape how we think about the world.

Words are important.  And so when we are encouraged to read on meditate on God’s Holy Word during this season of Lent, I find it all very comforting.  We are being encouraged to read and hear the stories of our faith again in a new way and to think about the plots and characters and words given to us in Scripture.

It is no secret of course that many of us do not read scripture with any regularity.  And this is true even though the Bible likely has over a billion copies in print—more than any other book—with many of those copies in seemingly perfect condition.  As George Gallup Jr. put it, “Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, they don’t read it.”[1]  A Barna study goes further, “American Christians are biblically illiterate. Although most of them contend that the Bible contains truth and is worth knowing, and most of them argue that they know all of the relevant truths and principles, our research shows otherwise. And the trend line is frightening: the younger a person is, the less they understand about the Christian faith.”[2]  We do not know the stories of our faith either because we think the don’t add much if any value to our lives or because we think we know it all already.

I’m not one to pile on a bunch of guilt to make you do something I think we all should be doing, in this case reading scripture.  I’ve been around long enough as a priest to recognize that guilt leads to issues down the road, so this morning I’m taking a page out of Jesus’ playbook.  You did catch it, didn’t you?  Jesus, in the passage from John we read today, says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Jesus came to offer us light and love, not condemnation or conviction.  I think Jesus didn’t want us to be bogged down by shame and guilt, but he wanted to instead point the way toward the best life that he wants all of us to have.

And I think the basis of that life can be found in scripture.  The Bible gets a bad rap these days because some try to use it as a club to get others into agreement about one issue or another.  Verses are pulled out willy-nilly—and often out of context—to make a point (this is called proof-texting, by the way).  Instead, I think that scripture is one big narrative to show us how God has interacted with human history in the past and how God wants to interact with us.  The point of this story is quite simple: God began the world with the intention that we have abundant life.  We messed this up, and God has been working to restore us and all humanity to the place where it will be just like God had always intended it to be.  Abundant life.

So that’s why we should read God’s word, to hear the stories, to think about what they mean, to see if they can relate to our world today.  To recognize above all else that God loves us, and that in the end, love wins.  But we don’t read because we think we know it already.  Most people don’t realize, however, that there are two different creation accounts in Genesis (seriously, read Genesis 1 and then Genesis 2, they are very different, including the order in which things get made).  Many don’t notice that Jesus’ birth in Luke with the shepherds and stable and singing angels is nothing like Matthew with the Magi and the home that Jesus lived in with his parents.  But because we “know” these stories like the back of our hands, we don’t bother to pick up the Bible.

One of my favorite biblical accounts is that of Joseph, the son of Jacob.  He was the one that got the special coat from his father and was quite a dreamer, all of which really annoyed his 10 older brothers.  They were jealous of him because he was dad’s favorite, and so they sold him to some traders heading down to Egypt telling dad he was killed by a fierce wild beast.  What I like about Joseph is that he didn’t stop being who he was even though he was sold into slavery.  He maintained his integrity through thick and thin.  He became a powerful man in his master’s house, lost it all due to the scheming of another person, and even though he was thrown into prison, never stopped living his life with integrity.  After a number of years in prison where he had became a leader among the inmates and well respected by the guards, Joseph became the second most powerful person in Egypt behind only the Pharaoh.

He ends up confronting his brothers while offering redemption to them when they come to Egypt looking for food during a seven year drought.  Joseph stayed true to his faith and his family throughout his entire life.

Maybe it’s not Joseph so much for you, as the conversion and life of St. Paul.  Early in his life he attacked Christians, putting them to death.  On a single day he had a massive conversion experience, changing his ways forever, and then after some time he became the apostle who shared the message of Jesus with the Gentile world.  Or maybe it’s Peter you resonate with, the disciple who was always taking 3 steps forward and then 2 steps back.  He says Jesus is the Christ, then he tells him that he didn’t need to die which got him a stern rebuke from Jesus.  Peter just bumbles along in his faith it seems, often speaking without thinking.

I mention these three—and there are hundreds more, like Ruth or Esther, Joshua or David—to show you that the Bible is full of these stories of people with virtues and vices just like us (we know about Noah’s ark, we don’t know about his love for wine which was not a good thing).  But we won’t know these stories if we don’t read them.  God worked in and among ordinary human beings and we’ve been handed all the details of these interactions with the one overarching theme: God wants to bring redemption to the world.

And God wants to bring redemption to us.  One of the ways God does that is through our reading and meditating on Scripture.

Eugene Peterson writes about the importance of reading Scripture in his publication titled Eat this Book.  He says this, “What I mean to insist upon is that spiritual writing… requires spiritual reading, a reading that honors words as holy, words as a basic means of forming an intricate web of relationships between God and the human, between all things visible and invisible.  There is only one way of reading that is congruent with our Holy Scriptures, writing that trusts in the power of words to penetrate our lives and create truth and beauty and goodness, writing that requires a reader who … ‘does not always remain bent over his pages; he often leans back and closes his eyes over a line he has been reading again, and it’s meaning spreads through his blood.’”[3]  God’s word getting into you and changing you.

That’s the point, by the way.  That eventually God’s story becomes your story.  That you get to a point where your reading the Bible turns into the Bible reading you.

If you’ve never picked up the Bible to read it on a regular—even daily—basis, I’d suggest you begin with the Gospel of Mark.  If you don’t know where to find it, look in the table of contents under the New Testament.  Let the stories of Jesus interaction in the world around him wash over you.  If you’ve read Mark and want something else, try either the letter of First John near the end of the Bible or Philippians (an epistle written by Paul).  Give yourself ample time to lean back and close your eyes and really think about what is said, allowing the power of God’s word to enter into you.

When you make time to do this, I know that God will move in your life.  You will become more and more people who choose light over darkness, who begin to see how God wants to bring redemption to you and your story.  God can do this if we open ourselves up to the fullness of God’s love.  “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world may be saved by him.”  May we experience God’s salvation in our lives this Lent, and may we draw ever closer to the one who longs to become our story.  Amen.


[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/25.38.html Accessed 3/14/2012

[2] http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/166-barna-reviews-top-religious-trends-of-2005  Accessed 3/15/2012

[3] Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book. 2006.  Pg. 5

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Here’s the second sermon in my Lenten series.  This one is one fasting and self-denial.  Without further adieu…

Lent 2B — March 8, 2009

Mark 8:31-38

            One of my favorite prayers of the Book of Common Prayer is the one designated for Fridays for the morning office.  It includes the lines “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”  I appreciate the weekly reminder that we are walking in the way of the cross, and that it can be for us the way of life and peace.  But there are times, of course, when I wonder if I fully grasp the meaning of those lines as well; I wonder if I comprehend the call we all have to follow Christ.

 

This is certainly where this call begins.  It wasn’t too long ago in our readings that Jesus, following the temptation we read about last week, began calling his disciples.  He simply says to them, “Follow me,” and they do.  They do not stop and ask for logistics, or where he is headed or what it will cost them in terms of time or energy or whatnot.  He invites them to follow him, and they do.

 

Along they way, they learn more and more what it means to follow him.  They see him heal the sick, and cast out demons, and feed the hungry.  And finally, just before our reading today, he asks if they understand who he is, if they get it.   Peter’s the one who tells Jesus that he is the Messiah.  For many in that day, and for Peter too, the Messiah was someone who would overthrow the occupation of the Romans.  The Messiah was the one who would bring about the reestablishment of David’s kingdom.

 

Once Peter makes this declaration, Jesus begins to tell them explicitly that his is the way of suffering.  That if they were looking for an earthly king, they got it wrong, because he was going to be executed.  And Peter, having his hopes on the Messiah who would bring earthly freedom begins telling Jesus that somehow he had gotten it all wrong, and that he wasn’t meant to die at all, that what he was saying was impossible.

 

Jesus doesn’t stop there, of course.  He goes on to say to those gathered around them that not only would he die, but if they wanted to be his followers, they would also need to deny themselves and take up their crosses to follow him.   That if they were after saving their own skin, well they couldn’t be his disciples.  And if you really wanted to save your life, then you would certainly have to lose it.

 

This was the fine print missing early on when they were called to follow Jesus.  His way was the way of the cross.

 

Let’s be clear about one thing at this point: picking up our crosses doesn’t mean enduring the hardships common to humanity in general.  I often hear people say, “Well, this is the cross I have to bear” when they are talking about difficulty dealing with an annoying family member, or about an illness they’ve contracted.  Poverty and disease usually don’t care if you are a Christian or not.  The cross Jesus is talking about is the one that comes from following him, the one that is a result of being a disciple of Christ.

 

In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are invited to partake in fasting and self-denial during the 40 days of Lent.  These are some of the most misunderstood aspects of our Lenten journey.  We think that if we can somehow just forgo chocolate for these 6 weeks that we are making spiritual strides.  Yet giving up chocolate isn’t really what this is about, especially if we do it just to show that we somehow have some willpower.

 

This year I am joining with some others here at St. Mark’s and many around the country how are eating more simply this Lent in solidarity with the poor.  Many in our world don’t have access to clean water, let alone enough food to eat.  And yet we have an unbelievable choice of foods that we have access to each day.  Have you ever stopped and thought about the chip aisle at Stop and Shop?  We’ve got a whole row dedicated to snack foods, and we somehow think that this is not only normal, but our right as Americans.  By intentionally eating more simply, I recognize that many in our world don’t have these choices and that I can give away the money I might normally spend on foods of all kinds to worthy organizations seeking to alleviate those who face hunger and water issues every day.

 

Self-denial, and following Christ on his path to suffering is difficult, demanding and harrowing.  Especially in light of a culture that often tells us to take care of ourselves, to make sure that we are comfortable and getting what we want.  If difficulty strikes—when it rains on the just and the unjust—we look for comfort.  And when it is sunny out, we often do the same thing.  But Jesus tells us that following him will have a cost, and that cost is our lives.

 

I am utterly convinced that the prayer I mentioned earlier is true: the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.  There is an irony in this, to be sure, because as Jesus declares, if you want to save your life, you’ll lose it and if you lose your life for his sake and the sake of the gospel, then you’ll end up saving it.  If life and peace are to come from self-denial, how do we go about this?

 

Jesus himself asks the question this way, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

 

A pastor tells the story of a parishioner who came to see him because he was troubled by what he saw in his workplace.  This man watched as the boss he worked for promoted some people and did not promote others based on the color of their skin.  His boss would often overlook people who were better qualified than the ones promoted.  He felt that he needed to say something about this.  This pastor advised him to carefully see if he could find some other employees to support him, and then to gingerly and gently approach his boss.  He finally did approach this man, and within one month’s time he was fired without cause.  This man was unable to get a job for over a year’s time due to his boss’ poor reference of him, and the job he finally got paid less than he had originally been making.  He picked up his cross.[1]

 

You may be saying, “Well, that’s all fine and good, but that was that guy’s decision to do that,” and you may be completing that sentence by thinking, “And I wouldn’t be that stupid.”  Yet notice that Jesus’ words are pretty direct.  “If you want to be my follower, you need to deny yourself and pick up your cross.”  In other words, the suffering and self-denial part is not optional.  Put even more concise, following Jesus leads to the death of self.

 

I think that is really what fasting and self-denial remind us: that we are not in control, God is.  God desires for there to be justice for all of us who live on this earth, be it in relation to food or in how people are treated or if they can get adequate housing or health care.  If God has blessed us (and I think God has quite a bit for many of us) how do we share that blessing with others?  How do we share in the way of life Jesus promoted through his ministry?

 

During this holy and solemn season of Lent, can we, with the help of Jesus Christ, more intentionally take up our cross to follow him?  Can we recognize that it is far better to lose our life and those things our culture tells us are so important, in order to gain our souls?  And can we trust that when we follow Jesus on the way of the cross we will find it none other than the way of life and peace?

 


[1] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol 37, No. 1, Year B, 44.

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The world we live in as Americans is, to use a local phrase, wicked busy.  We are constantly on the move, running a hundred-fifty miles an hour.  We like the one-up-manship that happens when we compare schedules.

This crazy pace is costing us something. Like time to reflect on our lives. We are encourage to do some self-reflection during these 40 days of Lent, and here’s my take on why.

Lent 1B—Feb. 26, 2012

Every year on Ash Wednesday as a priest I say these words, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  They are some of the most descriptive words in our prayer book about how we are to engage in the preparatory season of Lent.  These six things that we are to undertake during our Lenten journey get this fly-by mention on the first day of Lent, but then are not brought up ever really again.

I also receive questions from folks about how to do Lent.  How to think about fasting and what it means.  Or if there is a rite of confession in the Episcopal Church.  Some have no idea where to begin when it comes to prayer, or even meditating on God’s Word.

So I am embarking on a new thing myself this year: I plan to systematically work through these calls to holy living with you, to give you my take on them, how they have impacted my life, what they mean to me.  My desire is that by spending time speaking about them you may be able to have a more meaningful Lent, and even more so, be prepared to experience a more meaningful Easter in six weeks.

It is not a mistake that the very first things we are invited to do in Lent are self-examination and repentance.  We cannot begin to even understand the practices of Lent if we have no idea where we are.  It is much easier to remain on the sidelines during Lent if we don’t feel we need or would benefit from Lenten disciplines.  So we are to take a long, hard look at our lives and see them for what they truly are.  And that can be downright scary.

But we must begin with honesty.  The reality is that many of us live our lives at such a frenetic pace that we never have a chance to take do self-reflection.  We are so caught up in the day-to-day, running errands and getting kids off to school, or cleaning the house, squeezing in the workout, planning meals, catching up with family or friends, walking the dog, yard work, responding to email, catching up on Facebook, watching the evening news, reading a book, never mind when a crisis—both big (a family medical event) or small (needing a new dryer) comes in to play.  We are bombarded by noise as well, our own personal soundtracks on our i-Devices or talk radio in the car or the tv as background noise.  There is no time for quiet and no time for reflection.  And perchance we keep up the pace and the noise and the rest of it so we don’t have to do the internal inventory.  If we keep it up, we can ignore whatever is happening on a deeper level.

So the first thing I would encourage you to do is to make time for self reflection, possibly even an hour of dedicated time to do this work.  If you have a spouse, ask them to manage the kids or the pets.  If you have a cell phone, turn it off.  If you can, get away from everything that may distract you so that you can pause and ask some basic questions.

Like this: What brings me joy in my life?  What takes me away from joy?  Or what am I doing right now that brings me life?  What am I doing that is draining me of life?  How do I spend my time?  How do I spend my money?  Am I aware of where my money goes, and does that align with things that are important to me?  Does it align with what is important to God?

How am I doing in my relationships?  Am I taking enough time to be with those I love?  Do I have an issues outstanding in my relationships, any people I need to make amends with?

Am I cultivating a strong spiritual life?  Do I do a good job caring for all that God has given me?  Do I use my gifts, resources and time  in pursuit of God’s kingdom?

I think you get the idea.  What I’m encouraging us to do is to take a personal inventory, do a spiritual check-up, to hold up a mirror to our inner lives and make an honest and thorough assessment.

And then comes the next question: what do we do with that information?  Do we allow it to overwhelm us, or do we take it as an opportunity to draw closer to Christ, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation where it is needed?  Do we, in other words, recognize sin in our lives for what it is?

The word “sin” has taken a bashing in our society over the past many years.   It is reserved for a few seemingly major offenses, and other seemingly smaller things are “problems” or difficult areas or whatnot.  Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and professor, contends that we have almost entirely lost the language of sin.[1]  Yet, she argues, that abandoning the language of sin won’t make it go away, it will only leave us unable to talk about its effect on our lives and push us more toward denial.  What has taken the place of the language of sin, Taylor suggests, are the languages of medicine and law[2]; sin explained as either sickness or crime.

She writes this, “Contrary to the medical model, we are not entirely at the mercy of our maladies.”  And “contrary to the legal model, sin is not simply a set of behaviors to be avoided.”  She continues, Much more fundamentally, [sin] is a way of life to be exposed and changed, and no one is innocent.  But that fact need not paralyze anyone with fear, since the proper response to sin is not punishment but penance. … [T]he essence of sin is not the violation of laws but the violation of relationships. Punishment is not paramount.  Restoration of relationship is paramount, which means that the focus is not on paying debts, but recovering fullness of life.”[3]

Jesus made it clear in John’s gospel that he came to bring life and to bring it more abundantly.  And in the verse immediately after John 3:16, we hear that God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world, or us, but that we might be saved.  Saved from sin, from the path we walk toward destruction.  The path that takes us further from the light of God and onward toward the darkness of all that is not God.

We get a sense of all this in our reading this morning, when the evil one comes and tempts Jesus.  The temptations—notice Mark doesn’t even give them specifically—were those things if acted upon that would lead Jesus away from God.  They do the same for us when we follow them, whatever they are.

And that’s a big point, by the way.  Sin is anything that leads us further from life in God.  Anything.  Sin isn’t just confined to a handful of wretched items—usually being done by others—but anything that moves us further from life and God’s presence.

Finally, I’d like to say this: sometimes the thing pulling us further and further from God is our own self-negation.  Some among us—and particularly those who are caretakers of various kinds—spend much of their time elevating others, yet refuse to see their own gifts or talents as anything worth cultivating.  We denigrate the very image of God in our lives when we do this, and that is something from which we must turn.

And remember, that is what repentance means: to turn around.  To recognize that God wants to be in relationship with us, and our fessing up that we’ve blown it and returning back to God.  That is in the end, what this is all about.  Restoration of relationships and community that is so strongly desired it leads to repentance and amendment of life.  St. Mark’s can be a place where this work can happen, where we encourage transformed and new lives, and where we both hold ourselves accountable and help restore us to the path of God.  May it be so.  Amen.


[1] See Barbara Brown Taylor Speaking of Sin. Cowley, 2000.

[2] Taylor, 53.

[3] Taylor, 58-9.

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We began the holy season of Lent yesterday, and I think God’s character is front and center.  Is God an angry judge, bent on destruction?  Or is God always looking to offer another chance?

Many people make a distinction between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God.” They see this as angry God verses loving God.  I think it’s because they don’t know scripture very well or because they proof text looking for passages that highlight God’s anger.

I firmly believe that Jesus was the embodiment of God completely, that God’s character was shown best in the life of Christ.  And so when you get the type of passage we heard from the prophet Joel yesterday, I still see God showing God’s true colors.

Without further adieu, my sermon from Ash Wednesday.

(Based on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 )

“Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on my holy mountain!  For the day of the Lord is coming,” the prophet Joel declares to us today.  He details how, because of the unfaithfulness of God’s chosen people, certain destruction is coming.  The verses left out in our reading give the fine details of this coming annihilation.  Fire, utter chaos, the darkening of the sun and moon, the stars losing their brightness, desolation of the city, and torment on the people.  And not just any people, God’s people, those God has chosen.  The ones who have utterly forsaken the covenant they had established with God.

“Yet” the prophet continues, giving pause to his prophecy.  “Yet,” God says, “even now, return to me.”  Joel gives this litany of what is about to happen because of the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel, and then he gives this glimmer of hope.  “Yet, even now return to me with all your heart.”  “Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”  Compassion, love, faithfulness, mercy.

As we begin this season of Lent, God’s character is at the forefront.  God is not characterized by anger, injustice or swift retribution, rather God gives second chances, fifteenth chances, even 87th chances, so the Israelites can mend their ways, and return to God even though they constantly fail him.  God’s desire for the Israelites is to have them live abundant lives, even though they often forget this.

We, like the Israelites, have taken God’s desire for our lives too casually; we have not lived fully as God’s people.  We have grown complacent—we have forgotten the poor, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, we have allowed our own selfish desires for our lives to influence our actions.  We have not seen the reality of our lives for what they are because we have been lulled into false assurances in our selves and in our world.  Just like the people of Israel, we have “forgotten God’s utter fidelity”[1] to us as his people.

And, when this happens, all that is around us begins to crumble.  We know this, both individually and corporately.  We have experienced the brokenness that sin produces in our own lives and in the life of our community. Walter Brueggermann writes, “When God’s fidelity is jettisoned, human relations become unfaithful and society disintegrates.  The purpose of religious discipline is to remember who God really is, what is promised by God, and what is required for God.”[2]  Sin, as Frederick Buechner describes it, is centrifugal, pushing others and God out toward the periphery of our lives.[3]  When we forget God’s unequivocal faithfulness to us, our relationships—with others, with our world, with ourselves and especially with God—break down.

Yet, God remains faithful.  In spite of our failings, our self-destructive behavior, our rejection of God, God stays true.  God is gracious and merciful.  God is slow to anger and is steadfast in love.

So, with this recognition of God’s faithfulness, we come to this day, to this solemn and holy season.  We hear the call from the prophet Joel to awaken from our slumber and to return to the Lord our God.  God calls us to return through fasting and recognition of how we have not lived faithfully so that we can turn around.  True repentance requires us to turn our lives in the opposite direction, to realize the way we are headed is away from God and that we can, with God’s help, return to the path towards life.

That is why we will gather at this altar rail in a few moments to receive the imposition of ashes.  With this mark we will remember what we are made of, to be sure, but we will also recognize God’s deep love for us and our need for God.  This smudged cross placed on our foreheads will show to God our desire to try once again, with God’s help, to live the lives we are called to live.  Lives of faithfulness and fidelity to the one, holy and true God.  Our observance of this holy season of Lent is a sign of our sincere desire to return faithfully to the Lord.

May this season be for us a time for renewal.  May we take a long look at our lives—what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we handle our relationships—and seek God’s help and guidance.  May we remember that we are dust, and more than that, may we remember that we are members of God’s people upon whom God is full of compassion and mercy, and that God is slow to anger and full of steadfast love.  Amen.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, et al.  Texts for Preaching: Year A.  Pg. 175.

[2] Brueggemann, 175.

[3] Frederich Buechner. Wishful Thinking, pgs. 108-109.

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This is my sermon from last Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday.  I wonder about power and the way we measure power, and how it’s completely different in God’s topsy turvy kingdom.

Last Epiphany — Year B

In this election year we are bombarded with ads, stories and sound bites telling us why each of the candidates would make a strong leader.  Their experience in their previous work life.  Or the way they take control in difficult situations.  The way they handle money and economic situations.  Their ability to stand firm in tough situations.  It’s about power, and strength and being better able than the other person to provide sound leadership.

And it’s obvious why: they’re running to become one of the most powerful people in the world.  So they project an image of strength and power.

But in the Biblical narrative strength and power aren’t validated in the same way.

This morning we heard the story of how Jesus was transfigured before the disciples showing God’s awesome power—he became dazzlingly bright, his clothes turned white, and he was transformed.  Yet notice that he doesn’t head right off from there to kick Herod out of Jerusalem.  In fact he tells his disciples not to mention anything about what they saw until after his death and resurrection.

It’s not about power for Jesus—although he had it in spades.  And I think that is why he is so clear on telling the disciples to not say anything until later.  He orders them, in fact, not to tell anyone about this display of God’s strength.  He knows that Peter and James and John might get the idea that if he could be transformed and speak with both Elijah and Moses, then surely he could overthrow the Romans and be done with their oppressive rule forever.  Jesus is very specific: don’t tell anyone about this until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.  I bet the disciples don’t get this at the time, but Jesus is being clear.  His strength isn’t to be used just to establish another earthly kingdom; Jesus came to be a different type of leader.  A leader that would be made perfect in suffering.  Strength shown somehow in weakness.

You see, strength for us isn’t to be found in flexing our muscles or showing our superior knowledge, it’s to be centered in our utter reliance on God.  What this means of course is that we won’t understand this until we hit moments of extreme vulnerability and call out to God.

Elijah is best known for his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Horeb.  He challenges these so-called prophets to a test: they will present a sacrifice to their deity and Elijah will do the same. Whichever god responds with fire will be declared the Almighty.  The prophets of Baal (dozens of them) dance and gyrate and call on Baal to come and light this fire.  He doesn’t.  After hours go by with no response, Elijah sets up his simple altar with his offering and pours gallons and gallons of water onto it and into a trench around the stones.  He calls on God, and an instant later fire comes down from heaven engulfing the entire altar and burning up the offering, the water and even the stones.  The people watching proceed to destroy the false prophets of Baal under Elijah’s order.

Elijah goes on the lam because Jezebel—the king’s wife—is a follower of Baal, and she’s upset that her priests have all been killed.  He flees into the wilderness, and after some days without food or water, Elijah falls under a tree praying for his death.  He’s at his weakest point and is utterly dependent on God. When he wakes up, Elijah finds a jug of water and a loaf of bread that have miraculously appeared.  God provides for him, has mercy on him and gives him strength for the journey.

He becomes an even greater prophet: he is both merciful to the needy and delivers God’s word truthfully and without fear.  Ultimately, as we heard this morning, he is caught up by a fiery chariot and taken directly into the Lord’s presence.

It seems that St. Paul was right when he said to the Corinthians, “When I am weak, then am I strong,” and “power is made perfect in weakness.”

It’s a paradox in following of God.  To think that power and strength are to be found in our weakness, in our utter dependence on God.  Often we see troubles, hardship—or our “growing edges” as some are wont to call them—only as liabilities, as hurdles to be gotten over as quickly as we can.  God sees them and says “I can use that for my greater good.”

Curtis Almquist, a brother with the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, describes this unlikely relationship between weakness and power.  A “metaphor for this transformation of weakness is a pearl, something about which Jesus was familiar.  Remember his telling the parable about ‘a merchant in search of fine pearls.’  A pearl comes from the lowliest of creatures, from a mollusk lost in darkness on the bottom of the sea.  Quite tragically, a grain of sand or a small pebble will typically wound the inner membrane of the mollusk.  The mollusk’s attempt to cauterize, and encapsulate, and heal this inner wound is what produces the pearl. Pearls come from wounds, and so will your greatest gifts.”[1]

The novel The Shipping News follows the life of a man plagued with insecurity.  Quoyle almost drowned early in his life as his father attempted to teach him to swim by tossing him in a lake.  He fears the water throughout his life, and dreams that he is drowning whenever life gets overwhelming.  His father never believed in him and constantly belittled him.  He eventually lands a job at a newspaper as an ink-setter.  He falls in love with a woman who is only looking for a quick fling, and ends up having a baby with her.  He cares for that girl with deep devotion while the mother runs off with another man.  This pattern continues until the girl turns 6, and then his estranged wife ends up dying in a car accident.  Quoyle ends up meeting his long lost relative—a great aunt—and decides to travel with her to his homeland, Newfoundland, for a new beginning.

The three of them live together in the dilapidated family home out on the edge of the ocean, and Quolye lands a job as a bit journalist for the small town newspaper covering the shipping news—the boats coming in and out of the harbor.  He’s terrified of the water, of course, “I’m not a water person,” he says.  But his editor replies that all of his relatives are water people, and just expects him to get over it now that he is living in Newfoundland.  Since it is his only prospect, he takes the job.

And slowly he begins to find healing.  He meets a woman in that small town that he finds new love with.  He becomes more sure of himself, and he becomes the man that he always could be, no longer beset by doubt and insecurity.  This broken man is healed by the water, the very thing he feared most of all.

As we look today on the transfigured Christ, I want to encourage you to see that it is not about strength or control.  While Jesus is transformed in front of the disciples’ eyes, the kingdom he ushers in is about the weak being lifted up, and those in need finding mercy.  It’s about the restoration of all things so that we all might experience God’s profound care and love for us all.

It is hard to fathom this given the world we live in and the way we understand leadership.  Yet I believe deep down that when we rely on our own strengths, gifts, and abilities we hinder the work of God in our life.  We somehow think that we are doing it on our own without God’s involvement.

But God is able to look at us as we truly are in our full humanness and brokenness and God says, “I can do something with this.  I can make this one a beautiful part of my kingdom.”  May we not lose faith in God in our weakness.  May we not think that somehow when we are fully exposed before God that God will reject us.  May we know that God desires to transform all of us, and to call each one of us as his beloved children.  Amen.


[1] Curtis Almquist, http://www.ssw.edu/sites/default/files/blandy_lecture_1_-_shadow_grace_of_disappointment_and_failure_0.pdf.  Accessed Feb 13, 2012.

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