Sermons

Book CoverI’m behind a bit in posting my sermons.  This was the one from last week.  And this week I preached without a net, as a friend puts it, more extemporaneously and not using a written text.  I thought about recording it, but left my iPhone at home.

So, here’s a sermon to reflect on about Thomas.  Check out the passage here: John 20:19-31.

Easter 2A—John 20:19-31

            I think Thomas gets a bad rap.  I mean our reading starts out with Jesus showing up, saying “Shalom” and the other disciples not knowing it was Jesus until he showed them his hands and his side.  Once he does this, John tells us, then the rejoiced.  It took the whole “hands and side” business to get them to believe it was really Jesus.

But Thomas wasn’t there, for whatever reason, so he missed out.  When the others tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, he declares that he won’t believe unless he sees Jesus’ hands and side, too.  In other words, if he sees what they have already seen, then he’ll believe.  Thomas does have a flair for the dramatic with his desire to place his finger in the actual wounds, but in the end, he wants what they already got.

Rather than focusing on the doubting aspect of this, I can’t help but notice once again John using the words “see” and “seeing” in this context.   “Seeing” is all over John’s narrative; he made a point of it right from his prologue about the incarnation “We have seen his glory” he writes at the beginning of the gospel.  When he meets some of the disciples, he tells them to “Come and see.”  And of course, we had the story about the man born blind and how the Pharisees couldn’t really see even though they thought they could.

Now, at the tail end of this gospel, we get Thomas.  When Jesus does show up again on the next Sunday evening, Thomas is in the room.  Jesus greets them all the same way, “Shalom” and then immediately addresses Thomas.  “Put your fingers here in my hand.  Reach out your hand and place it in my side.  Don’t doubt but believe.”  Thomas replies with the most direct statement of faith in John’s gospel, “My Lord and my God!”  To which Jesus replies, “Do you believe because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”

If we are honest, we can admit that there are many times in our lives when we are like Thomas.  There are times when our faith in Jesus wanes because we do not see him as one who lives and works in our lives.  Instead we hear the accounts of others, how Jesus has appeared in their lives, and we stand off in the distance alone.  We have seen the cross, we know that Jesus died, and we think that resurrection and transformation might be a cruel joke.  We don’t see.  And unless we experience Jesus ourselves, unless we see real proof and not just hear the words of others, we won’t ever believe.

The children’s book The Polar Express tells the story of a young boy who is lying awake on Christmas night hoping to hear the sound of bells from Santa’s sleigh.  As he lies awake waiting, he finally hears something, but it isn’t the ringing of bells, it is the hissing of steam and the squeaking of metal.  He jumps out of bed to see a train waiting in front of his house.  He sees a conductor get off the train, look at his pocket watch and wait.  The boy tiptoes downstairs and runs to the train, as the conductor shouts, “All aboard.”  “Where are you going?” the boy asks.  “The North Pole,” he replies, “This is the Polar Express, are you coming?”  Excitedly, the boy gets on the train.

It is filled with other children all still in their pajamas and robes, and they are served the best hot chocolate the boy has ever tasted.  They join together singing Christmas carols as the train continues to travel.  They look outside to see the trees of forests, and the lights of towns in the distance.  After coming over high mountains, they began to travel across the Polar ice cap, and the boy can see the North Pole in the distance, the lights glimmering in the night.  The children learn that the elves are gathering in the center of the city to see Santa give the first gift of Christmas.  “Who gets the first gift?” the boy asks.  “Santa will choose one of you,” the conductor replies.

Upon arriving at the stop, all the children climb out to see the most wonderful spectacle before them.  Hundreds and hundreds of elves are gathered together, with Santa’s sleigh in the middle of a circle.  The reindeer are impatiently moving around and their bells make a magical sound.  Santa walks over to the group of children, and says, “Let’s have this one here,” pointing to the boy.  The boy comes to Santa, they walk to his sleigh, and then Santa asks him, “What would you like for Christmas?”  The boy knew he could ask for anything in the world, but what he really wanted was one of the bells from the sleigh.  Santa smiled at him and asked one of the elves to cut off a bell.  He then held it up, and exclaimed, “The first gift of Christmas!” and gave the silver bell to the boy, who put it into his pocket.

Almost immediately, the boy was helped down from the sleigh and Santa took off, as the children were led back to the train.  When they had gotten back on, the other children clamored around the boy, asking to see the bell, and when he reached into his pocket he felt nothing but a hole.  The bell had slipped out.  Just as they were going to go out and look for it, the train lurched, and began to move.  They were going home.

The boy was devastated.  When he the train finally reached his house, he said good-bye, and walked sadly to his house.  “Merry Christmas!” the conductor shouted, and the Polar Express let out a whistle blast, and the boy waved from his open door.

The next morning, the boy and his sister, Sarah, opened their gifts.  When they had opened all that were there, Sarah found a small package by the back of the tree.  It was addressed to the boy.  “Found this on the seat of my sleigh.  Get that hole fixed!  Mr. C.” Inside was the silver bell.  The boy was ecstatic, and he rang that bell so he could hear the magical sound again.  “That’s a pity,” said his mother.  “It seems to be broken.  It’s not ringing at all.”  The boy learned that when he shook the bell he could hear it, and so could Sarah, but his parents didn’t hear a thing.

He writes at the end of the book, “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them.  Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.  Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all those who truly believe.”

And in the end that is what it comes down to for us.  Jesus can offer us wholeness and peace, but only if we believe.  Jesus can transform us into being Easter people, into people who live in and help bring about resurrection in our lives and in the lives of others through his power, but only if we believe.  Jesus is here each week, and when we come we are given the chance to see him, we are given the chance to reach our hands out and touch him.  We have the opportunity to see him standing here before us for what he is, our Lord and our God.  But to see him, we must truly believe.

As we come to this table to receive his body and blood, we are able to hold him in our hands, and to receive him again.  “Peace be unto you,” he says to us.  “Shalom, completeness, wholeness be yours.”  If we believe he can do his work in our lives, we can become the people he has called us to be.  People of the resurrection.  People who live transformed lives.  And in this way, he can send us out to continue to do his work in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are told at the very end of our Gospel lesson that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which aren’t written down.  And in the next chapter, John says the same sort of thing, claiming that if they were written down that the world itself wouldn’t be able to contain the books that could be written.  I think one of those reasons is because Jesus is still working signs in the presence of his disciples.  Jesus is still working in us and there continue to be signs of his work.  We see it in our lives and in the lives of others. With Easter comes true peace and wholeness for those who believe and declare Jesus to be both Lord and God.  May we always be blessed as those who truly believe because we have seen the very presence of Christ working among us, and may we always go from this place sharing the message of Christ’s peace with others.  Amen.

Read more

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

We celebrate the resurrection of Christ anew this day, and it was wonderful to share this first Easter with the good people of St. Mark’s.  Great day with wonderful weather this morning, an amazing egg hunt outside, and great joy!  He is risen, indeed!

Easter Day 2011 — John 20:1-18

It’s early on Sunday when Mary goes to the tomb where they buried Jesus only a couple of days before.  They had already wrapped his body with linen cloths and spices, so there was no reason for her to come to the site, except of course because she was mourning the loss of this one she loved so much.  She did what many of us have done after a death, she went to the grave, to touch the place where his body lies, thinking about all the things that had filled her life before, wishing she could have it all back.

When she gets there, things aren’t as they were.  The large stone has been pushed back, and immediately she thinks the worst, that grave robbers have done their evil work.  In a rush of fear and uncertainty, she turns around and runs to the place where the disciples are staying, and tells them that someone has taken Jesus’ body.

Immediately, Peter and John—that disciple whom Jesus loved—spring up and run to the garden where Jesus was buried.  They sprint, probably hoping to catch the perpetrators of this crime, or because they don’t believe Mary’s words.  Maybe she got it wrong, went to the wrong place, or just imagined this due to her grief.  They get to the garden, and find the stone rolled back.  John hesitates a moment or two outside the cave, but Peter runs right into the tomb.  He sees the linen cloths lying there, but nothing else.  John then comes in to, and sees the head cloth rolled up, the wrappings just lying there, empty.  Our gospel writer says he believed, but we don’t know what he believes.  Is it Mary’s story?  Is it something else?  We don’t know.  We just know that after they saw this, the two disciples turn around and leave the tomb and go home.

But Mary stays behind, standing near the tomb, weeping.  The rush of emotion she is feeling would have been incomprehensible. She watched as this teacher she followed was put to an excruciating death, and she probably took part in preparing his body for burial.  There is denial and anguish in just losing him, but then to come and find that his body has been stolen, that was just too much to bear.  She is overcome by it all and breaks down.

In the midst of all this, she bends down to see for herself.  She looks into the empty tomb, and surprisingly sees these two men in white.  “Why are you weeping?” they ask.  “They’ve taken away my Lord,” she stammers, “and I don’t know where they have taken him.”  Then turning around she notices this man, probably the gardener coming to do his morning work.  He asks her the same question, “Why are you weeping?”  She thinks he may be the one who did something, and says, “Sir, if you’ve carried him off, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

He looks down with compassion on her and utters a single word: her name.  Immediately the recognition of this word washes over her.  He knows her name; she can’t believe but it’s true, the one she’s been looking for is standing before her.  He is very much alive.  He is risen.  “Teacher!” she exclaims, and she rushes to give him a huge hug, so glad to have him back.

But Jesus won’t let her touch him, “Do not hold on to me,” he tells her.  He has yet to ascend to his Father. Surely she’s confused about this since she just wants to grab his hand and run back with him to the disciples to show them that he is alive.

Instead, Jesus instructs Mary to deliver a message to the disciples, and say that he is on his way to the Father.  We aren’t told if anything else is said, or if Jesus just disappears or walks away.  We only know that Mary makes her way back to disciples and ecstatically proclaims that she has seen the Lord.

It is at that moment that Jesus’ resurrection truly happens.  The mysterious event that took place in the tomb happened without any earthly witnesses.  Peter and John and Mary all came to the tomb after the fact.  If all they had seen was the emptiness, they cloths just lying there and nothing else, they would have assumed that Mary was right, that someone had come and stolen the body.  The shell of what was left behind didn’t explain anything.  It only left unanswered questions.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, ‘Mary!’ and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening — not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.”[1]  If we came here this morning looking for the resurrection by peering into an empty tomb, we will miss it all together.

The resurrection plays out in ten thousand places, when we encounter the risen Lord.[2]  It’s in the daily living, in sharing a cup of coffee with a friend, or biking a trail, or reading a book that impacts your life, or writing a letter to a child you sponsor in Africa.  It’s in the time of quiet reflection and prayer, in helping out at the homeless shelter, or putting an extra box of Cheerios in your cart for the food bank.  The resurrection happens when you help an elderly neighbor with her yard work, or you seek to be reconciled with someone you love.  Resurrection takes place in all the big and small ways we share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken and hurting world.  It happens when we come to this place and listen to God’s word, and break the bread and drink from the cup.  It happens when we live as his disciples and are about the work of his kingdom, living lives of repentance and joy.

Some come to Easter morning expecting just the opposite of Mary.  Some come expecting the empty tomb and the stone rolled back and the body gone. But that isn’t where the resurrection is.   Sometimes we hold on to the notions in our minds about the way things are to be with Jesus and us, the way our interactions with Christ have been before, primarily on our terms, and think that that is the resurrection in our lives.  We may like the way things have been and want to keep everything the same.  But when we encounter the risen Christ—when we encounter the resurrection—things change.  “Don’t hold on to me,” he says to Mary and to us.  “You can’t keep me the way I was before.  Things are changed, and you are changed as well.”

You see when one story ends, another story always begins.  We cannot hold onto the earthly Jesus anymore than Mary could.  Nor can we hold on to the earthly memories about the way things were before in our lives, whatever we use to mark that time before.  Before my wedding, or the start of my new job.  Before the accident or the day I graduated, or before my world fell apart, or before my children were born.  No matter what happened before, we cannot hold on to it, nor onto the way we encountered Christ at that time.  Rather we must look ahead.   We need to see that the resurrection is not a return to the past, but a movement to the future.

What will resurrection look like in your life now?  Will this season of Easter be the time when you recognize the risen Lord in a new way?  He comes to us today offering us life—forgiveness and joy and hope and love.

The miracle of Easter that began in the garden continues on.  It happens to us when we hear the gardener say our name—Mark! Laura! Rebecca!  Tom!   We experience the mystery of this day when we turn to Jesus, recognizing him as our Lord, and joyfully exclaim, “Teacher!”  We experience the resurrection when we let go of the way things should be and run to those who share our lives with us, and ecstatically proclaim that we have seen the Lord.  That is the beauty of this day.  That is why we gather on this morning to celebrate.  That is why we are here at this table, so that we too might experience the risen Christ.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Escape from the Tomb” Christian Century. April 1, 1998, Pg 339.  Online at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=640

[2] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.

Read more

My take on the perennial question via my sermon for Good Friday.

Good Friday— John 18:1-19:42 

            It’s a question that gets asked every year, I suspect.  Usually the younger ones are able to verbalize it, but I know that many of the adults are thinking the same thing.  It was my 7 year-old niece Lily who asked it this year to my sister.  “Mom,” she said, “why do we call it ‘Good Friday’?  It doesn’t really seem ‘good’ at all.”

Quick answers won’t do.  They leave too much unsaid.  A story is better.

A long time ago the Hebrew people came to live in Egypt because there was a drought in the land where they had been staying.  The man in charge of preparing for this famine was named Joseph, a Hebrew himself, brought to Egypt ahead of his family through very difficult circumstances yet by the will of God.  Many, many years later a Pharaoh came into power who didn’t remember Joseph.  That Pharaoh hated the Hebrew people, and he put them in bondage.  He made them his slaves, and he wanted all the baby boys that were born to the Hebrew women to be killed.

Except one of those boys wasn’t murdered.  His name was Moses, and when he grew up, God asked him to come before Pharaoh and ask that Pharaoh release the captive Hebrew people.  But Pharaoh refused.  God showed God’s power by sending plagues upon the people of Egypt, and each time, Pharaoh refused to release the Hebrews.

Until one night when God told Moses to get the people ready.  They were to take a lamb and after killing it, they would take some of the blood from that lamb, put it on a branch of hyssop and mark the doorposts of their homes with that blood.  Then they were to roast and eat that lamb along with unleavened bread that night, being sure to stay indoors.  During the night, an angel of death passed through killing the firstborn of every family in the area that didn’t have the blood of the lamb on the doorposts.  Death passed over the homes of the Hebrews who had done what Moses said.

And on that night—the night of the Passover—God delivered the Hebrews.  They were never again under the bondage of Pharaoh.  And they left Egypt forever.

Many, many years later, Jesus came into the world.  And when John the Baptizer first saw him, he said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  And when John said this, those gathered around him couldn’t help but think about the Passover lamb, and the deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  And they got excited, these descendants of the Hebrews, because while they weren’t in bondage to Egypt anymore, they were under the oppression of the Romans.  Some of them thought that Jesus would be the one to free them from the tyranny of the Romans; some began to wonder if Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus taught about a new kingdom and he did miracles, and he showed people God’s love.  He forgave people their sins and healed them, and this made people in authority—both the Hebrew leaders and the Roman leaders—get anxious.  And they decided that Jesus was better off dead than alive.  So they conspired together to kill him.

They waited for a time to do this, and they worked with one of his disciples, Judas, who had become disillusioned because he thought Jesus would overthrow the government, but Jesus didn’t do that.  So Judas betrayed Jesus.

And it was at the time of the Passover.

The Gospel writer named John wanted to show the connection between the Passover lamb and Jesus as closely as he could.  He reminded his readers about the Baptizer calling Jesus the lamb of God when Jesus was first introduced.  He writes that the day Jesus was crucified was the day of Preparation for the Passover, the very day the lambs were slaughtered in preparation for the festival.  And he told them as well that when Jesus was offered a drink of water from a sponge while he hung on the cross, bleeding and so very thirsty, the stick used by the guards to give him that drink was hyssop, just like the stick used at the first Passover.

And as soon as he had taken a drink from that sponge—when his bloodied lips had touched the sponge on the hyssop—he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and died.

“It is finished,” Jesus said.  His last words before he died.  And I think what he meant was that his work on this earth was finished, that he had done what he was supposed to do.  More so, I think he also meant that in his becoming the Passover lamb he would free his people forever from bondage.  Not in the sense that some thought about freedom from earthly powers—like the Romans—but freedom from those things that bind us and put in slavery.  Evil, and death, Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, and those sinful desires that draw us away from the love of God.  Jesus finished that work through his death.  In giving himself on our behalf, he was victorious.  And he gave to us freedom forever.

We gather on this holy night to remember the things Jesus did for us through his life and death.  He came, as another Gospeler penned it, “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  The ransom of his life opened up for us a way of freedom from slavery, oppression and bondage.  While we are indeed sorrowful to see our Lord, broken, beaten, despised, alone, we cannot also overlook the freedom and release offered to us.  He gave his life a ransom that we might live.  We gather on this holy night, this good night, to remember, and to seek God’s love and God’s desire for our lives.  So that we may no longer live as those in slavery, but as those who have been freed forever.  May we remember, and may we seek repentance and life, and always see how deep God’s love is for us.  Amen.

Read more

I often get asked where the “Maundy” of Maundy Thursday comes from.  It’s taken from the Latin “Mandatum novum” or New Commandment.  We get our word mandate from that origin.  It’s the night Jesus instituted Holy Communion and on that day he got down and washed his disciples feet.

Foot washing is a really important part of this service, and so last night I (re-)introduced it to the St. Mark’s community with great success.  It was a wonderful and solemn service that led to the stripping of the altar.

My homily on John 13.

Nine months after the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I traveled with a group of adults from the church I was then serving to the Gulf Coast in Mississippi that had been ravaged by the storm.  Before we left, we received a list of things we would absolutely need.  Heavy gloves, bug spray, sleeping bags and pillows, ear plugs since we would be sleeping in a large gym area and, most important of all, sturdy work boots.  The good people at Camp Coast Care—the organization we’d be working with—reinforced this last one.  “Tennis shoes and flip flops will not work.”  Too many hazards were lying on the ground.  Too many things that could cut your feet.

So I went out and bought a new pair of work boots.  And I was glad that I did.  On the second or third day I was there working among the wreckage at a house, I stepped on a nail.  Thankfully, because of the boots, I could barely feel the prick of it.  So I took a moment, grabbed a pair of pliers and pulled out that nail, thankful I hadn’t worn sneakers and had avoided a trip to the doctors.

One of the houses we worked on that week was owned by a man named Gerard.  He and his wife had spent the past nine months living in a motor home in their backyard.  They lived a few miles in from the Gulf, yet much of their home had been filled with over 3 feet of water.  Gerard was in limbo; he hadn’t done much to his house as he waited for insurance monies to come in.  A group of us came that day to begin the demolition of much of the interior in order to get it down to the base structure.  But before we began, we needed to clean out their belongings.

So we did that, our group of volunteers from Camp Coast Care.  We carried out photo albums, and towels.  We took out books, and clothes.  We dug through everything in their house, exposing Gerard and his wife’s entire life and placed it on the front lawn.  Their life’s belongings were there for anyone to take a peek at.  Their lives were completely exposed.

Tonight we’re asked to do the same; we are asked to show our vulnerability.

I know that foot washing hasn’t been done much here in the past.  But Jesus gives us an example and then asks us as his disciples to do likewise.  We like walking around in our heavy boots, keeping our feet well covered and insolated from the world.  But Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Unless we become vulnerable, and take off our heavy shoes, we cannot be his disciples.

Jesus shows what he means in his giving of himself.  What he does is take the role of the servant; he makes himself vulnerable, and lays down his life.  When we take off our shoes, we lay down the notion of our perfected image.  We look somewhat foolish.  We show our weaknesses.

And we acknowledge our imperfections and need of grace.  God’s grace comes to us in the way Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, in the way we wash each other’s feet.  He shows his love in giving of himself.  Trust is needed.  He shows how we are to serve one another, to let down our own guard and be the people he calls us to be.

The question is will we do this?  Will we acknowledge our own vulnerabilities or will we keep our heavy boots on?  Will we open ourselves up to the example that Christ gives us to show our love to one another?  “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.”  Amen.

Read more

Palm Sunday is a hard one liturgically.  You get 7 minutes or so on the triumphal entry and then get whisked all the way to Good Friday with the reading of the Passion.  The general consensus is that most people who show up on Palm Sunday won’t make the return trip for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, so if you want to preach about the crucifixion, you’d better do it on Palm Sunday.

In spite of this collective wisdom, I did more with the triumphal entry this year.  I’ve always been struck by Matthew’s rendering of it, so it caught my fancy.

And I hope you’ll be attending church this week for Holy Week.  This is an amazing journey for us, and one that is not to be missed.

Palm Sunday—Matthew 21:1-11

I’ve always been fascinated by Matthew’s retelling of the Triumphal Entry, simply because of the great detail he goes into regarding the donkey and the colt those two disciples are to find.  Matthew, unlike the other  Gospel writers, informs his readers that there is both a donkey and a colt that the disciples are to find for Jesus.  Mark, Luke and John all say that it is a solitary animal.  And I can’t help but be amused at the seemingly odd description when Matthew tells us that once the donkey and the colt arrived, some of the bystanders threw their cloaks on those animals, and Jesus sat on both of them.  It’s almost comical, and I’ve always chalked it up to the way Matthew plays with numbers and numerology throughout his gospel when compared to the other writers; he seems to say, if one is good, two is better.

I clung to the amusement, that is, until I read a comment about that verse this past week.  John Dominic Crossan writes that Matthew “wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides ‘them’ in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.”[1]  Military leaders would often ride into their cities in a display of power—which is hinted at in the reference to the prophet Zechariah that Matthew records.  The entire context from the prophet is this: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech 9:9-10)  Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, would come not in a display of power, but in humility.  He would come to bring peace to the nations while the Romans would continue to ride in on their chariots with their military might blazing, bringing anything but peace.

And we know what happens when people come in humbly promoting non-violent peace.  We have a tendency to kill those people.  We heard it this morning in the Passion, and we’ve seen it in stories we know like the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Archbishop Romero.  But it’s also in the lesser known stories, like Brother Roger of the Taize community killed during a service at that ecumenical community in France, or Rachel Corrie who was killed by a bulldozer while simply standing in front of a home trying to stop the bulldozer from destroying that house in a refugee camp in Ramalah.  Jesus came exemplifying peace, he rode in on a mother donkey that had yet to wean her foal with that little one trailing alongside, and he was ultimately crucified.

He was crucified because when he came preaching about love, about transformation, about peace, about new life and the forgiveness of sins, people got anxious and did away with him.  We joined with the crowd this morning on both ends: we yelled out “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!” and we also cried out “Crucify him!”  What they didn’t notice then, and which we often don’t see even today, is that the two shouts are inescapably linked.  Jesus saves us through his crucifixion and the resurrection that is to come.  He brings about salvation and peace and offers it to us and to any who are willing to accept it.

But we, along with the rest of the world, often do away with those who bring peace.  You might be hesitant to accept this as true for yourself, but I certainly know it in my own life.  I see the struggle that sometimes takes place when, although I am drowning in the circumstances of my life—be they the chances and challenges of the world or sins of my own devices—I often refuse to grab hold of the life preserver offered to me either by those who love me or in the life offered by Christ.  I’ve seen it in others who are dealing with addictions and can’t take it upon themselves to follow through and get support.  I’ve watched it unfold in married couples who are heading down the road toward divorce and can’t bring themselves to seek out help.  I’ve seen teens get further and further disconnected from those they love rather than take the hand that is held out to them.  I’ve noticed it in those who are widowed and cannot imagine a new life so they shrink away into lives of quiet disappointment.

And I want to say to us all that Jesus comes wanting to bring peace to the tumult and chaos of our lives.  He entered into Jerusalem that day in humility, and a few days later was ultimately killed, so that he could bring us life.  While we are inclined to reject him, to push him away, to even kill his presence in our lives, he is triumphant and victorious, as the prophet, Zechariah declares it.  He was betrayed, and beaten and killed for us, so that when he completed his work in the world and on the cross, he might bring us peace and hope.

As we wait this week for that work to be completed, as we walk these last days with Christ and place him gently in that tomb, I hope that we will ultimately see that he is the Prince of Peace and he so desperately wants to share that peace with each one of us in order that we may experience transformation.  Hosanna, dear Christ.  Save us.


[1] Qtd in http://www.patheos.com/community/carlgregg/2011/04/08/lectionary-commentary-%E2%80%9Cjesus-a-donkey-and-jon-stewart%E2%80%99s-rally-for-sanity%E2%80%9D-for-palm-sunday-april-17-2011/  Accessed 4/12/11

Read more

We had another long lesson from John’s Gospel this Sunday (Chapter 11 this time on Lazarus).  Here’s my sermon….

_________

Lent 5A — John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These words of greeting from Martha to Jesus always sound somewhat judgmental and accusatory to my ears. “Lord, if you hadn’t taken too long, if you had come when we asked you to, if you had made us your priority, my brother would still be here among us, still be eating meals with us. If you had acted, Jesus, things would have turned out differently.”

It’s a lament. A feeling that those of us who have experienced great loss or trauma know only too well. “Jesus, if you had acted, things would have been so different for me in my life.” But you didn’t act, Jesus. You didn’t come. You didn’t answer my call, my prayer. And now look what has happened.

Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again, and she’s thinking at the end of the age.

And then Mary comes out to meet Jesus, and says the same exact thing. Jesus is so overcome with grief for his friend, he begins to weep. Others also join in on questioning Jesus. “If he could open the eyes of the blind man, surely he could have healed Lazarus and avoided this turmoil.

As he comes to the tomb, Jesus sees that there is a stone covering the cave. “Take away the stone,” he tells them. And Martha says, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, since he’s been dead four days already.” Lord, he’s dead and gone, why do you want to roll back the stone?

He simply responds, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory?” and they roll away the stone, and Jesus prays and then says with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

And then the formerly dead man comes out, still bound up in the cloths they had covered his body with a few days before. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus tells them. They do. And Lazarus is rejoined with his sisters and his friends and I can’t even begin to imagine the celebration they have that night with all the casseroles and comfort food that people had brought over to Mary and Martha’s house.

What I cannot help but wonder is how many times we say this to Jesus ourselves. “Lord, if you had been present, this wouldn’t have happened.” If you had acted the way I wanted you to, I wouldn’t have experienced the pain, Lord. Jesus, when I called for you, you lingered and stayed away, but I needed you. If you had come, my daughter might not have suffered like she did, my father might not have died, I might not have been traumatized by that abuse. Jesus, if you had acted, I wouldn’t have lost my job, or watched my marriage crumble, or born the hardship of that miscarriage. Jesus, if you had come when I asked I might not have become addicted, or had that affair. Jesus, you just didn’t come.

And Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and we go the same route as Martha, thinking Jesus is talking about the great hereafter and not about the here and now. And Jesus makes his way to the place where that pain is buried, where the hurt lies deep inside us, still covered, still walled off by that stone we put there long ago. “Take away the stone,” he says.

“Lord, you don’t understand; it’s been years since this happened, and the stench is overwhelming. That part of my life has been long since buried and hidden, it has long since died. It’s too far gone. There’s no use. The stink is putrid. Don’t, Lord, don’t open up that place.”

“If you believe,” he says, “you will see the glory of God.”

And there it is. I’ve only been here a few months, and I’ve heard a few stories about the places deep within a few of you that are causing immense pain. I know without a doubt there are more stories out there. Those of you in this place who were abused as a child. Those who have faced or are facing immense pain in your marriages. Those who have had a loved one taken much too soon. Those who have suffered unimaginable harm in ways known to you alone. And those experiences, that hurt, that piece of you that died on that day, has been carefully wrapped up and placed in that tomb. The rock has been rolled in front of it, and you figured it was gone forever.

“Take away the stone,” Jesus says to us this morning.

He says this because he wants to bring healing. Jesus wants to bring life. Resurrection. Restoration. Renewal. Jesus wants to take the hurt away.

You see, for whatever reason, Jesus didn’t seem present on that day when we thought we needed him. But he’s here now. He’s present. And he wants us to move the stone so he can act.

Moving that stone means becoming vulnerable. It means opening ourselves up to the power of Christ. It means talking about something that was buried long ago so that we can experience the transformative power of Jesus.

Lazuarus, come out!

“Come out!” he says to us. Come experience the healing and life I have for you. Come and be healed. Come out, and live.

Will we remove the stone and open ourselves up to his healing? Will we trust that while the stench may be overpowering, that he can bring about new life? Will we hear his call when he tells us to come out of the grave that we’ve been in for so long? Will we allow ourselves to struggle out of the tomb, making our way as best we can with the cloths so tightly wound around us?

He desires this for us. And he longs to say, “Unbind them, and let them go.” Amen.

Read more

Great story this week from John’s Gospel on the Woman at the Well (John 4).  It’s such a great passage and offers up so many angles as to how to approach it.  And the irony of John is getting thicker (reaching a high point next week when we hear about the man born blind).  So here it is, my sermon from yesterday.

__________________________________

Lent 3A—John 4:5-42

There’s a cartoon of two people dragging themselves across the sands of a desert.  It’s a man and a women, their clothes in tatters.  You can see that they have been at this for days, they’re dying of thirst and there is no end in sight.  As they slither like snakes, the woman looks at the man and says something to him.  The caption deadpans, “Then again, if it did rain, my hair would get all frizzy.”

We didn’t hear the beginning of this story from John’s Gospel this morning, so let me give you the context.  We’re told that word had gotten to the Pharisees about Jesus and his ministry, and so he decides to head back north to Galilee from Jerusalem.  And, John writes, he had to go through Samaria.  Except what we’re not told is that most times Jews would head the other way; rather than going west and traveling through Samaria, they’d head east to avoid the area all together.  They did this even though it meant traveling for a longer period of time; going through Samaria was more direct.  But Jews hated Samaritans, and the feeling was mutual.

But something is up.  Jesus had to go through Samaria, John writes.  And as he journeys north, one day it gets hot, and it’s about lunch time.  So the disciples head into town to rustle up some food, and Jesus takes a seat by the well which sits outside the town.  As he catches his breath, a Samaritan woman comes up to draw some water.  He’s thirsty, so he asks her for a drink.

We aren’t told much about this woman by John.  We aren’t given her name.  We suspect that she’s an outcast; women normally come in the morning and evening to get water, avoiding the hot part of the day.  There had to be a reason she came at noon when the sun was blistering.  She’s a Samaritan, a half Jew.  She is, for all intents and purposes, a nobody.

But she gets it, this nameless woman.  “Why is it that you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”  In her head she must be also asking, why is he talking to me?  Doesn’t he know that I’m an outcast?

But Jesus doesn’t care.  He’s thirsty.  He asks her for a drink.  Which is pretty remarkable when you think about it.  Jesus is asking for a drink.  I cannot help but think of his words in Matthew’s gospel about the sheep and the goats.  He tells the sheep that they can enter into the Kingdom because of the things they did for him.  “When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink,” he says.  They ask him when they did this, and he replies, “Whenever you did it it to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”  So here is Jesus, sitting by this well, asking for a drink.  He’s giving her a chance to see the one ignored—in this case a nameless Jewish man—and offer a cup of cold water.  Before he teaches her about living water, he creates an opportunity for her to do kingdom work.

Instead, she starts putting up road blocks.  She starts with that whole, “I’m a Samaritan, you’re a Jew, you know we can’t get along” speech.  Jesus tells her that if she knew who he was, she’d be dying to ask him for a drink.  She can’t believe it, since Jesus doesn’t have a bucket and the water was a long way down.  “You’re not greater than Jacob, are you?” she asks, expecting Jesus to say no, and pulling out the family heritage.

Instead of talking genealogies, Jesus talks about spiritual water, and how the water that he offers would gush in them offering eternal life and they would never be thirsty again.  She doesn’t understand that he’s not talking about the same kind of water she is, and says she wants this water so she doesn’t have to come back day after day with her bucket.

He then tells her to go get her husband and then come back to him.  She answers, “I’m not married.”  Jesus tells her that she’s right, but that she’s been married five other times, and that the guy she’s with now isn’t technically her husband.  And with that, the cat is out of the bag.  I suspect she feels dejected, and thinking that the whole reason she came to the well at mid-day was to avoid these kinds of conversations.

“Sir, I can see that you’re a prophet,” she says to Jesus.  And then she puts up another wall, bringing up the topic of religion and where the proper place to worship is, either on the mountain where they were at or back in Jerusalem.  She thinks she knows where this conversation is going, with Jesus—as a Jewish man—telling her that she needed to worship in Jerusalem.  But he surprises her.  “The time will come—and now is—when it doesn’t matter where you worship.  It’s how you worship, the way you live.”  She doesn’t get it, so she says one more thing; one more intended dialogue to block Jesus’ offer of water.  “I’m not sure about that, but when the Messiah comes, he’ll tell us what we need to know.”  “I am he,” Jesus tells her.  I’m the one, the Messiah.

And then the light goes on.  She gets it.

The disciples come bumbling back at this point, asking all the same questions from before—why is Jesus talking to this woman and all that.  The woman is overwhelmed by it all, and leaves her still empty bucket and runs back to town.  “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did,” she tells them.  What she doesn’t add, but must be thinking is this, “and he still cared about me as a human being.”  “Is this the Messiah?” she asks.

They come out in droves.  Granted, they knew all about the things she did, but they stopped talking to her.  They gave her those looks.  They made it so uncomfortable that she had to get water at noon by herself.  But they go out to see what all the fuss was about.  And many of them come to believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

But this story raises one vital question for me.  Why do we—even if we are dying of thirst—avoid taking a drink?  This woman is given a number of opportunities to drink the water Jesus offers, and she keeps changing the subject.  In her own way she seems to be saying, “Then again, if it did rain, my hair would get frizzy.”  Thank you very much for the offer, but even though I’m dying of thirst, I’ll keep things the same, if you please.

We do too, sometimes.  We live in fear of taking a drink of the living water that Jesus offers.  Either we don’t believe him, or we’re afraid of the unintended consequences—we worry about frizzy hair too.  We are prone to self-sabotaging our spiritual lives: not making time for prayer, or finding excuses why we can’t help out at local charities.  We leave the Bible on the shelf or the bedside table saying we’ll get to it tomorrow.  We avoid the conversation with a friend about our spiritual lives even though it feels like the discussion is going in that direction.  We refuse to take the first step in reconciliation.  We put up so many walls that we can’t see the water Jesus offers us even though we are in desperate need for a drink.

He’s here.  The one who knows all the intimate details of our lives and loves us anyway.  He doesn’t see all the labels others cast on us, or the ones we place on ourselves.  He always sees somebodies and never nobodies.  And he offers us a drink.  Will we take it?  Will we approach this altar and say to the Messiah, the Christ, please, give me the living water?  He’s holding out that cup for us and waiting.  Will today be the day we take that long drink?  Will this be the day that eternal water gushes in us so that we will never be thirsty again?  He tells us that we are all welcome, that even when we think we don’t deserve the living water, he offers us a cup so we can have our thirst quenched.  He’s holding out that cup.  The rest is up to us.

Read more

My sermon from yesterday, which was based on Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus in John 3.

Lent 2A—March 20, 2011

Every so often you see him on TV.  The man with the prime seat, a number of rows up from the sideline, strategically placed so he can hold up his sign when one of the team’s goes for a field goal or the extra point.  It’s there, dead center between the goal posts as you watch the ball float up toward its destination.  A large placard with “John 3:16” on it.  It’s really free advertisement for Jesus.

We heard that verse this morning.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  We get some further descriptions about “the world” throughout John’s gospel: like how the world didn’t know the light because the people loved darkness more.  And that the world hated God.  And that Jesus was not of this world.  And yet God really, really, really, really loved the God-hating world.  Enough to send his Son.  God loved so much that God sent Jesus, who was not of this world, to save the world.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning of this story.  Where Nicodemus, this leader and Pharisee, seeks out Jesus.  Covertly.  In the darkness.  Because people love darkness more than light.  He comes to Jesus when he can hide, when people won’t notice, so in case he is seen, someone might ask if it was just a shadow, if it was someone how looked liked Nicodemus, but, nah, it couldn’t be him.  Why would he be following this teacher?  It must have been someone very like Nick, but not him.  He’s a member of the ruling council.  It wouldn’t be him.

“Rabbi,” he begins, “we know you are sent from God because of the signs you are doing.”  The first of which, we’re told by John, was turning the water into wine at that wedding in Cana.  And then a number of other signs that Jesus performed during the Passover, which led to many believing in him, presumably sparking this secret mission of Nicodemus to learn more.

Jesus almost seems to interrupt him.  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Or born anew, the Greek is ambiguous with both meanings, but Nicodemus gets only the “again” part and so he asks how anyone can be born once more when they are old, thinking of the absurdity of the situation.

In other words, he doesn’t get it.  He’s in the dark.  He comes to Jesus, the light of the world, because he’s either seen some of Jesus’ signs or heard about them, and he knows that Jesus must be sent by God, but he can’t wrap his mind around who Jesus really is or what is his mission in the world.  John writes in his prologue, that the light “was in the world and though the world was made by him, the world didn’t recognize him.”

Jesus tries to unwrap it more, explaining that being born of the Spirit is like the wind.  You can hear it but you can’t see where it’s coming from or where it’s going.  But you know it’s there.  And it’s a mystery.  In the Greek there is ambiguity again, since spirit and wind are the same word “nooma,” and so while Jesus tries to open it up, Nicodemus is stumped.

“How can these things be?” he asks.

He’s incredulous and in the shadows and can’t see, although he’s trying.  He wants to see, to understand, but it’s all getting lost in translation.

 

I’m not sure who first recommended that I go in and visit with Steve, it may have been one of the nurses at the nursing station or maybe it was just by chance that I walked in to see him as I did rounds on the floor at the hospital I worked at one summer during seminary in Charlotte, NC.  Whatever the reason, I went in to his room one afternoon, introduced myself, and asked him if he wanted to talk for a little bit.  He was lying in his bed, watching a rerun of some sit-com with the volume turned down low.  There was a hi-tech wheel chair in the room off to one side, and a few pictures of a baby girl on the shelf by the TV.  He looked at me with a smile and invited me in.

I reached out my hand for his, and immediately I saw that Steve didn’t have the full range of use in his arms, although he grabbed my hand as well as he could.  Steve was a couple of years older than me, and I had seen in his chart that he had been in the hospital for a couple of weeks already.  Steve turned off the TV, and looked intently at me, and we started the beginning of what turned out to be a month-long conversation.  I learned that Steve was paralyzed from the waist down due to a diving accident when he was a teenager—he and some buddies had been out drinking one summer night, and he didn’t pull up fast enough when he dove into a lake from a steep incline.  He told me he didn’t get mad at anyone—how could he, he reasoned—since he was the one who had been drinking and he was the one who dove in.  He talked about how supportive his friends and family were during that time in his life.

We didn’t spend all our time that day talking about his accident.  He told me how much he liked baseball, and how he moved to Charlotte from the Mid-West.  We talked about his family, and especially about his new daughter, whom, along with his wife, he missed very much.  He told me about his job, and he asked me about my studies at seminary.  After an hour of talking, I prayed for him and promised I would come to visit again.

During the month Steve was in the hospital waiting for an infection in his leg to heal, we saw each other often and had many conversations.  In the course of those conversations, I learned that Steve attended a Roman Catholic church with his wife, and that what he wanted more than anything else was to be baptized there at that church so he could take communion.  He hated telling the ushers he didn’t want to receive communion when they asked him if the priest should come down from the chancel to offer him the sacrament.  He wanted to receive it, but he felt that he should be baptized first at that church, and so he waited.   And then he became sick and ended up at the hospital, waiting some more.

Shortly after that conversation—and after we had been meeting regularly for a few weeks—he asked me if there was anything in particular that he needed to say when he prayed to God, if there were any specific words that he should say.  I told him how praying was just talking to God like you would talk to anyone else, and that, while there was no specific formula to use, that some people like to read prayers already written to express what they were feeling.  Steve thanked me, and told me he wish he had a book like that to help him pray.    The next time I saw him, I brought a paperback collection of prayers that I had found in the hospital gift shop, hidden between the romance novels and the crossword puzzles.  He flipped through it as best he could and told me that it was exactly what he was looking for.

Steve’s illness was going away, and he was transferred to a rehab center shortly after that time. I wished him well one sunny afternoon with high hopes for his full recovery.  Unfortunately, however, after three weeks, the infection got worse and spread to his bone, and so he came back to the hospital for an amputation near the end of my time there.  The last time I saw Steve—two days after his surgery—he was pretty restless.  It seemed like he was really distracted and almost uncomfortable having me there.  We still talked for a while, and I told him that I would be leaving my job as a chaplain soon.  When I took his hand to pray that last time, Steve just wasn’t himself.  He kept moving around, and it seemed as if he didn’t want me to be praying.  Feeling discouraged, I finished my prayer and gave his hand a squeeze.

And then Steve started to pray.  He prayed that God would continue to guide my life.  He thanked God for the friendship I had provided to him over the summer.  This man who didn’t know even how to pray a month before, was praying to God for me.  He was showing me the way life could be.

I think I am as blind as the next person in seeing wholeness here in this life, but I was sure of it that day.   I think the shimmering images and visions we get of a transformed life are gifts given to us by God to remind us of the way things could be.  They remind us of our need for new life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, what he says to all of us who lurk in the shadows, is that there is so much more to life.  We have our expectations about the way things work, about the way life is to be lived, but there is so much more.  Jesus invites us to have our lives transformed—to be born anew, born from above—so that we can experience life in a new way.  So we can move out of the darkness into the light.

While that guy at the football stadium might seem like a nut job, in a sense who can blame him for forking over the cash for that seat and making that giant poster?  He’s seen what many in this God-hating world never do.  Transformation.  And he wants that to get as much air-time as possible.  Because God loves.  And God wants us to experience that love and the gift of salvation.  God wants us to see, and to step out of the darkness and into the light.  Oh, may it be so for us.  And may it be for this world of ours that is so deeply loved by the Holy One.  Amen.

 

Read more

It was the Last Sunday after the Epiphany yesterday, in nearly the longest season after the Epiphany as possible.  And it was Annual Meeting Sunday.  The lectionary text on the Last Sunday is always the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top—it’s known as T-Fig to the cool kids in seminary.  It’s always the big high experience before we descend back down the mountain and into the valley of Lent and Ash Wednesday.

So when combined with my 1st Annual Meeting at St. Mark’s it gave me an opportunity to speak about mission and the year ahead.  I won’t repreach my sermon here—you can read it below—but it was a new take on the T-Fig for me.  And it was a great meeting to boot, because we spent time discussing the questions at the end of my sermon.  I hope those conversations continue, and invite you to keep them going on this blog post.

And, FYI, I’m getting closer to finding a sermon-recording solution.  Stay tuned!

 

Last Epiphany — Matthew 17:1-9

It’s six days after some pretty heady stuff in our gospel lesson this morning.  Jesus was with his disciples after Peter had just declared Jesus as the Christ, and he began telling them that he was headed to Jerusalem, which would lead to his execution and then he would be raised on the third day.   Peter took Jesus aside and told him that this wouldn’t be so.   What follows is that well-known rebuke from Jesus to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” and then a moment of teaching.  Jesus tells that motley group this: “If any want to become my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

It’s six days after that, Matthew tells us.  And Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain by themselves.  I suspect at least Peter, if not the two brothers, are still mulling over this need to deny themselves.  They want to be Jesus’ followers, but all this talk about losing their life and whatnot has to be troubling.

And then suddenly Jesus is transformed right in front of them, and light is radiating from his face, and his clothes turned dazzling white.  Those disciples have no idea what is happening, and then they see two prophets—Moses and Elijah—speaking with Jesus.  Peter wants to say something, so he pipes up with, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here; let me make three dwellings for the three of you.”  And while he is saying this, the cloud comes down from heaven, and God speaks.  “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased—listen to him!”

The disciples then fall to the ground in fear.  Jesus comes to them, tells them not to be afraid, and the entire episode ends.  They come back to their senses and back down the mountain and Jesus tells them not to speak about this until after he’s been raised.

Peter’s desire to stay up there on the mountain—Lord, it’s good for us to be here—is so typical.  Whenever things are good, or things are deeply spiritual, we want to stay in those places, many times calling them “mountain-top experiences.”  When we have a connection with God, we don’t want it to end.  We babble like Peter, “You know, it’d be really great to stay here and never go back to the real world!”  We want to set up monuments just like Peter as well to remember the time.  We want to dwell there in those moments.

Yet isn’t it fascinating that the voice of God says, “This is my beloved Son—listen to him!”  Listen to him.  Follow his teaching.  Teachings like the one he gave just six days prior, “If you want to become my followers, take up your cross and follow me.”  Those teaching are tough because we want to build permanent memorials and see if God can do that whole transfiguration thing over again.

I hate to say it, but it’s nearly universally true: most churches want to live in the past.  They desire to go back to the time when they were in the groove, when everything was firing on all cylinders.  When there were more people at services, and Sunday School classes were overflowing and the choir stalls were packed with excellent voices and events were well attended and there was that magical buzz.  They want to find their way back to the mountaintop experiences of their collective church life, whenever they happened.

In other words, they want to get back to the mountain even if Jesus is headed to the cross.

And the reality is that most clergy try to accommodate this notion.  We create more and more programs, we do new things, we try to get the buzz going—and many times it happens for a season—and then the numbers stagnate and the energy goes down and the parish begins to wonder if they’ll ever get back to the way things used to be.

The good news is that I haven’t heard a great deal of that language from St. Mark’s through the search process and since my arrival.  And I also want to say that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with offering programs or trying new things.  The problem lies in when we want to set up camp in a particular place or time, when we want to stay on the mountain top of the golden era.  It’s a problem because God asks us to listen to Jesus, to follow Jesus, and Jesus always comes back down the mountain.

To me that means this: Jesus comes back down to the people.  By following Jesus we recognize that Jesus lives in and among the people, not off in some far distant place, removed from it all.  Jesus is here, in the day to day experiences of our lives and not just reserved for momentous spiritual highs.

And that is good news.

When I began the process with you all I said in my cover letter that while I am concerned about what happens with Sunday morning worship gatherings, I am even more concerned with what happens after parishioners leave the church building, what takes place the rest of the week.  If Sunday morning isn’t anything more than an hour of sitting and standing and singing and whatnot—if it doesn’t do something or stir up something deep within us—then why bother?  Sunday worship and the ministries of the church should lead us to so much more.  It should invite us to be active in Jesus’ transformative work in our world.

It should invite us to be Jesus’ followers.  To be his disciples.

And that’s the work I feel called to do during my tenure as your rector.  I want to be about discipleship, and inviting you to join with me in that journey as we follow Christ, not for some spiritual high or exciting moment—although I hope and trust they will happen from time to time—but so we can transform the world and help establish the kingdom of God here and now.

What would it look like for St. Mark’s to become more and more a community of authentic followers of Jesus?  What would that mean about our regular worship and faith exploration?  How would we engage in sacrificial living, or deepening this community or in service to the world?  I think all of this begins with an invitation into a deeper spiritual life.  We can only expect to be light to the world if we ourselves are regularly connecting with the source of that light.

If we as a community become singularly focused on the mission of God in the world—rather than be solely concerned about what we supposedly want from a church—we would change the world.  I say this quite certainly because when we focus on what we want, we aren’t concerned with following Jesus as much as being focused on our hope to experience something we experienced before, or we hope to be able to continue on in our lives without having things complicated by the call of God on us.

“If you want to be my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”

In my prayers and longings, I see St. Mark’s becoming a parish known for its deep spiritual connection to the Triune God.  I envision us as the church who gives generously to our local community, to places in our nation, and to those around the world.   We do this because we believe we are both called to do it and because we recognize that working alongside our neighbors changes us through the gifts we receive from them.  I trust that we will engage in faith formation, knowing that none of us has learned all we can about this life in Christ, and that as we learn from one another and explore our faith we all will be transformed.  Finally, it is my sincerest desire that we become a welcoming place, where we genuinely care for one another and invite others to share in the life of our community.

What about you?  What do you sense God calling us to in the year ahead as a parish?  And what about you as an individual?  What longings do you feel deep within you about your spiritual life as a disciple of Christ?

My hope is that we share these dreams with one another.  That we listen to one another and see where there is connection and confluence, since that will ultimately be the direction the Spirit is leading us as a parish.  I am truly excited for this year ahead, and I know that if we follow Christ both up the mountain and back down among the people, and if we listen to his teachings, we too will be beloved of God.  Amen.

 

Read more

My sermon from this 8th Sunday after the Epiphany.  You can read this selection from the Sermon on the Mount here:  Matthew 6:24-35.  It was a snowy day here in Southborough with light attendance at St. Mark’s due to the weather.  And it is a sad day for dear friends in Colorado.  A pillar of the church I served there is being taken off medical supports today, and he will be tremendously missed.  I cannot help but think of George in the context of this sermon as well.  May light perpetual shine upon him and all the saints.

______________________________________________________

I’ve heard a lot of awful sermons in my life—an occupational hazard I guess since I spend a lot of time in worship services—but there’s nothing worse than a well-delivered sermon that utterly misuses scripture.  More often than not, these sermons are based on a single verse from the Bible that can be molded almost into anything that the preacher wants to say.  One of the verses we heard just a moment ago is a favorite for this style of preaching.

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

These preachers will then say without batting an eye that if we seek God, then we will be prosperous—Jesus mentions material things in this context, after all—and if we have enough faith nothing difficult will happen in our lives.  God wants what is best for us and the means health and financial success and sun shiny days.  And we can get all this if we seek God first.

The conclusion of these sermons is usually something like this:  If you are in financial difficulty or your battling a terminal illness or your child is rebelling, it’s because you aren’t seeking after God enough—it’s because you don’t have enough faith.  If you did have that faith and were genuinely seeking God, God would be blessing you.

I have a simple response: Bull-pucky.

These preachers forget to mention that many of the original listeners to the Sermon on the Mount would soon be persecuted for their faith, that they would endure beatings and imprisonments and some would ultimately be martyred.  It also slips their mind, of course, that Jesus himself was homeless[1], would be abandoned by all of his followers, be wrongly accused and feel utterly deserted by God as he died a shameful death.

Jesus tell us not to worry about our lives—whether we’ll have enough food or clothing to wear or a place to stay—because God cares for us.  We’re worth more to God than the blue jay or the sunflowers, and since God takes care of them, God will take care of us even more.  God will be with us.

I can’t naively believe in a so-called prosperity or “health and wealth” gospel because I’ve seen faithful followers of Christ who have experienced dark situations in their lives—never mind the darkness I’ve encountered in my own life.  Should we assume that we aren’t truly seeking God, that they don’t have enough faith?  Or is there something else going on?

Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner recounts a dark time in his life in his writings.  His daughter was suffering from anorexia and his entire life was slipping away from him.  He writes, “My anorexic daughter was in danger of starving to death, and, without knowing it, so was I.  I wasn’t living my own life anymore because I was so caught up in hers. … [S]he knew what she was doing to herself, I knew nothing at all about what I was doing to myself.  She had given up food.  I had virtually given up doing anything in the way of feeding myself humanly….  Of on one particular day she took it in her head to have a slice of toast with her diatetic supper, I was in seventh heaven.  If on some other day she decided to have no supper at all, I was in hell.  I choose the term hell with some care.  Hell is where there is no light but only darkness, and I was so caught up in my fear for her life, which had become in a way my life too, that none of the usually sources of light worked anymore and light was what I was starving for.”[2]

It was at one of the darkest moments during this time that Buechner sat in his car on the side of the road overcome by depression.  Soon a car passed him with the single word in the English language that he needed to see most.  The license plate read “TRUST.”[3] Trust God, trust life, he thought.  Some time much later, there was a knock at the door, and his daughter answered and an unknown man handed her the license plate.  He was a trust officer at a bank and had heard about Buechner’s story.  Rusted and battered, the plate become a holy relic for him.[4]

Five years ago my mother was in the beginning throes of what turned out to be a short battle with cancer.  Melissa and I had recently learned we were expecting our second child, and we prayed that Mom would be able to meet this new little one.  We affectionately called this one “Baby Sunshine” since the due date was in August and since we didn’t learn the baby’s gender, though we felt nearly certain we would have another boy.  In late May mom began hospice and two weeks later I stood by her bed, holding her hand and administering last rites.  She would never meet our little Sunshine.

In early August, I stood by another hospital bed holding Melissa’s hand.  After the tough final pushes, we heard the first few cries and the doctor saying, “It’s a girl!”  In that moment we were washed over with a tremendous sense of healing and were certain of God’s presence. Mom told us before she died how much she loved the name Olivia, so we named her that.   And we gave her a middle name to express exactly what we were feeling at that moment: Hope.

I cannot promise you that you won’t experience pain or that there won’t be times in your life when the darkness almost engulfs you.  I’d be a fraud if I did.  But I can promise you that even in the darkest days God is with you.  In fact, Matthew wants you to know this without a shadow of a doubt.  In the opening scene of his gospel, we are told that Jesus would be called Emmanuel, God with us.  And Jesus’ very last words in Matthew are these: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

“Don’t worry about your life,” Jesus says.  “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?  Strive first for God’s kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”  God will be with you.

There will be times in this life when the darkness will be unbearable and you will doubt that God cares for you. God may not miraculously “fix” your problems—like letting you win the lottery during times of financial distress—but God will be present.  My prayer is that during those times you will see a license plate or hear a baby’s cry or experience something else that will remind you that Jesus is present and fill you with trust and hope.  In those moments—in those epiphanies—may the light of Christ break in to your life and take you back to the realization that no matter how dark it seems, Jesus is with you.  Always.  And that God cares immensely for you, more than you will ever know. Amen.


[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets.  Harper Collins, 1991.  Pg 25.

[3] Buechner, 49-50.

Read more