Sermons

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Sunday I mentioned that I’d post some information about the Ancient Spiritual Practices which many Christians are rediscovering as a way to be grounded in the faith and to draw closer to God (See the Ancient Practices Series of books that have come out in the last couple of years, beginning with Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren).  One of these is the keeping of regular prayer.  For centuries this has been known as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Daily Office (as it’s known in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer).

The practice includes regular reading of scripture, psalms and prayers and is done at times throughout the day.  It grew out of the monastic tradition in Christianity, but probably goes back further to Jewish practice — Psalm 119:164  “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.”  Seven times set aside for prayer was the monastic practice, however our Book of Common Prayer includes four (Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayers, Evening Prayer and Compline).  If you’re interested in more of the history, go to the entry at wikipedia.

Keeping the Daily Office

Making time for regular prayer may seem daunting, and the form in our prayer book is tricky to maneuver.  Having said that, there are a number of resources that make the office much more understandable and, frankly, easier to do.  The biggest challenge to keeping the office (that comes from the Latin, by the way, officium or “duty”) is similar to doing any lifestyle change: it’s mental. Carving out time, be it once, twice or seven times a day, takes discipline.  But it’s well worth it and life-changing and life-shaping.

The best book out there on why you should pray the office is Robert Benson’s In Constant Prayer (and part of the Ancient Practices Series).  Here’s a taste of his great and down to earth writing. “I stumbled into the daily office when I was almost forty years old.  And I have never quite recovered….. The world of prayer and contemplation to which I was introduced still draws me deeply, and I am still fooling with all of this, still convinced that there are deep truths buried here if I can just be smart enough, or patient enough or devout enough to dig them out. I am not much holier than I was before I began, but I am still trying nonetheless.”

You might still be asking what the daily office is.  So here you are.

The flow of the office:  Introductory Sentences (Invitatory), Psalm, Scripture Reading, Canticle, [2nd Reading, Canticle], Creed, Prayers.  [Confession once a day or more if needed].  For the longer offices in the BCP (Book of Common Prayer), the scripture readings are longer and dictated by a lectionary that prescribes readings for the day found in the BCP (an Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel and 2 Psalm selections); for the shorter offices, they are just a couple of verses.

The Psalms are the star of the office.  They are read through in a six week cycle and show the range of emotion in humanity, from the highs of great joy to anger and being deeply troubled.

You can pray the office regularly by going to The Mission of St. Clare online.  It’s tremendously easy if you can read on the screen.  Just bookmark the page.

Books that are a single source for the Office (rather than flipping around in the BCP and a Bible):

The Divine Hours series by Phyllis Tickle. The best wholly contained daily office books, including the Pocket Edition which has the seven hours throughout the day.  Highly recommended.

Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro Great new single volume book which includes Morning Prayer for every day of the year, and a seven day rotation for Evening Prayer.  Also includes a few hymns at the book, as well as prayers for other occasions in it.

The Contemporary Office Book has the four offices and all the readings put together by date so you won’t need to flip around in a Bible (ie all the readings for the 2nd Wednesday in Lent are together).  This is a handsome leather bound edition that is quite pricey (you may find it cheaper elsewhere), but a wonderful edition.

This is a longish post, but I have one more thing for you.  If you’d like to tackle the office in the Book of Common Prayer, I’ve created a cheat sheet. You can find a pdf of it here.

Interested in praying the office together? If you are interested in saying Morning Prayer together during Lent 2011, please respond to this post.  Even if there are one or two, I’ll make space in my schedule to come over to the St. Mark’s Parish House at either 7 or 7:30 Monday-Friday during Lent to pray together (because the office is easier to keep with one or two others).

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We’re hearing some texts that we don’t normally hear due to the long season after Epiphany.  The passage today was a great one about how to live in the kingdom of God.  And especially the need to have love.  This call is challenging, to be sure, yet I know that it is only when we move toward the way of God by showing that love that we can truly grow in our faith.

Moving Towards Maturity—Matthew 5:38-48

Type A personality individuals are, according to our good friends at wikipedia, “ambitious, aggressive, business-like, controlling, highly competitive, impatient, preoccupied with their status, time-conscious and tightly wound.  People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving workaholics who multi-task push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.”[1] Dictionary.com adds to this by stating: pertaining to a pattern of behavior characterized by competitiveness, a sense of urgency, perfectionism and assertiveness, and possibly associated with an increased risk of heart disease.”[2]

For those of us for whom this sounds familiar—don’t worry I won’t ask for a show of hands simply because I don’t want to raise my own—we’re in luck.  If ever there was a saying of Jesus seemingly directed toward those of us more tightly-wound in life, it’s this one.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  We Type A’s relish in the desire to be perfect, heading toward that place when all will be handled and the inbox will be empty and the weight will be off and the house be utterly all we dreamed and the job, by God, the job will pay handsomely and be even more than what we imagined.

We’re off to Nirvana.  Or la-la land.  Or Oz.  Take your pick.

Wherever it is, it isn’t real, of course.  While we imagine the places of perfection in this life, we all know that they don’t exist.  Those images are retouched and enhanced and made on some set in Southern California where they work for hours at creating the ideal image.  If you don’t believe me, go to my blog and check out the ad created by Dove about showing the evolution a model goes through in a photo shoot.

Maybe Jesus’ words don’t make you relish them as much as say, “Holy Expectations, Batman, do I really need another thing to juggle?”  Be perfect as God is perfect?  You’re kidding, right?  Maybe this is just one of those texts that remind us how much we need God and that we will never live up to some ridiculous expectations so why even bother.

And when we look back over the teaching Jesus is giving, why wouldn’t we say something like this?  “Do not resist an evildoer.  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.  If anyone wants to sue you, give them more than they are asking for.  Give to every panhandler you pass, and love those people that annoy you.”  Is this even possible?  Should we even bother trying to live in this seemingly unrealistic way?

In his book, Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith, Robert Gelinas writes about this very idea.  “If I told you you were going with me tonight to hear someone who has practiced the trumpet for thirty years, what would you expect?  Your hopes would be high, and you would anticipate hearing someone whose skills were highly developed.  Perfection wouldn’t be the standard, but surely it would be reasonable to look forward to an enjoyable performance.  What if I told you that I have practiced Christianity for thirty years?  What should you expect of me?”

He continues, “In a [jazz] ensemble community it is assumed that you know your instrument, have memorized the basic songs (called standards) and have practiced.  Can you imagine how these three assumptions could change what you expected of others and what was expected of you at church?  Wouldn’t it be nice if you could assume that fellow Christians were proficient and experienced when it comes to the essentials of the faith?  Wouldn’t it be nice if other believers could assume that we know not only basic doctrine but live it as well?  Shouldn’t other Christians be able to assume I love my enemies and turn the other cheek?  Mastery is not necessarily expected, nor is flawlessness, but a basic understanding of the essential grooves and riffs is not only needed but expected.”  “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to assume of any Christian that they are ‘practicing’—that they have a basic understanding of the essential groove of God and that, while perfection isn’t expected, you can at least jam together?”[3]

I think what Jesus is teaching us in this reading is that essential groove of God.  God is at the very core love.  And Jesus is inviting us to live the same way.  We’re not going to reach perfection, but we can go in the direction that God is laying out in front of us, we can, with practice, enter the song and feel the rhythm and get in the groove.

What Jesus tells us to do in these verses is the complete opposite of what we might do on our own out in the world.  If someone slaps us, we want to strike back.  But Jesus says to do the opposite, much to the surprise of both his disciples and those who get this type of response (like the British who were met by Ghandi’s non-violent methods, and those who encountered Martin Luther King, Jr).  We know empirically that Jesus’ method might be better in the long run, but we know as well that when we are hurt the easiest response is to make the other person pay for it.  And it’s hard to believe when someone doesn’t want to do this.

But Jesus is giving us a clue to what life in the kingdom of God will look like.  This “community is filled with people who think of others first.  Every decision and action is carried out for the common good.  Each person is sister or brother to the other and acts out of love,” as one minister put it.[4] In this realm, if each person is our sister, our brother, going an extra mile wouldn’t be too difficult.  Which of us wouldn’t do this for someone we loved, especially if we knew that it would help them immensely or change their life for the better?  What Jesus does, essentially, is tells us that we need to recalibrate our instincts.  Yes, we love those who love us, but who doesn’t?  It’s much harder to love those who could care less about us.  If we’re willing to go the mile for a loved one, what about the kid down the street, or the woman the next town over?

We hear those stories, sometimes, don’t we, about someone giving up a kidney for another person.  Usually it’s because the donor knows someone who might need a transplant, so they offer to have the test done to see if they’re a match.  When they aren’t, sometimes they come up as a match for a complete stranger.  I know I stand in awe of the man who does this for an utter unknown.

Jesus tells us to love those who hate us so that we may be children of the Father in heaven.  So that we too may be perfect.

The Greek word translated “perfect” in this verse is telios, and it connotes reaching maturity or completion.  It is translated that way in the epistle written by James: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  That maturity is what we are striving for not the idea of perfection that implies no flaws.  Rather we want to draw so close to God—to practice so much in the ways of God—that we can jam with God.  That we can find our groove in God.

Maybe you’ve never considered what it might look like to practice in the ways of God.  Or maybe you’re thinking that you’ve been a Christian for a long time but might not be able to hold your own in a conversation on faith if someone asked you.  Perhaps you’re thinking there would no way that you would turn the other cheek or even consider loving those who might be your enemies.

I’m here to tell you that it is never too late.  Whether you’re a young person still in high school or someone nearing the final chapters of your life.  You may feel that you have squandered some of the opportunities, but God is full of grace and mercy, and the way of Jesus can always be followed.  In the days and weeks ahead I’ll be posting some ways online for you to take up some of the ancient spiritual practices, beginning with regular prayer, or the daily office.  These practices shouldn’t feel onerous or one more thing added to your check list, but rather should be an invitation in to a new type of life, a new way to understand the world.

May this life of yours be lived in seeking out the way of Christ, so that you may ultimately reach a time when God’s work in you is complete and you enter into the kingdom as a child of the living God, and you take part in that everlasting jam session.  Amen.


[1] From wikipedia.org/wiki?search=Type+a+personality  Accessed Feb 18, 2011.

[2] From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/type+a Accessed Feb 18, 2011.

[3] Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove: Compsing a Jazz-Shaped Faith. Zondervan, 2009. Pgs 103-5

[4] Barbara J. Essex, “Matthew 5:38-48: Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1. Eds David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK: 2010.  Pg 382.

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This Sunday’s lesson was from the Sermon on the Mount, with Jesus telling the disciples that they are salt and light. (See Matthew 5:13-20).

Great stuff to be sure, and great things to think about. And it gave me the chance to use those magic relighting candles while singing “This Little Light of Mine” for the family service. (There was a gasp the first time I blew it out during the line “Don’t let Satan [poof] it out” and the candle relit!)

Here it is, the sermon of the day.

Salt and Light — Matthew 5:13-20

One of the things I’ve discovered along the way, both as a Christian and as a priest, is that most of us as followers of Christ want to be seen as normal people. We don’t want to draw out too many distinctions with others who don’t follow Christ, and we go to great lengths to separate ourselves from those “other” Christians out there who are either too outspoken, too fanatical, too liberal, too conservative or whatnot for our tastes. “Oh, I’m not like those Christians over there,” we’ll say, “I’m just like you. I like the same things as you, and do the same things. There really is no difference between you and me except that on Sunday morning you drink your coffee and read the Globe, and I do the same and then head to church.”

To lay it all out there, we don’t want to be seen as weird.

The reasons we do this are varied: some don’t want to lose face in their work environments, others don’t want Christianity to come in between their friendships. Some don’t want to have people judge them based on their actions—be they seen as sanctimonious or hypocritical. More than anything, we don’t want to be perceived as judgmental of others. So we push our label as “Disciple of Jesus Christ” to the background and pull out a host of others. “Red Sox Fan” or “Dedicated Mom” or “Marketing Guru” or “Numbers Guy” or “(fill in the blank here).”

In church leadership circles, we imagine ways to make church more inviting to outsiders. We “talk about the need to create a safe, non-threatening, low threshold of belonging in order to draw people in.” We do this with good intentions, but you know the old saying about good intentions and their ultimate destination. Yet we don’t want to offend anyone, so we go at it this way regardless. We think it will grow the church, and for many it comes down to numbers, even in parishes. If I can get the average Sunday attendance up, then I must be “successful” as a priest. So we water the message down to some magical point where we think it will be palatable to the masses, while also being acceptable to the people we already have in the pews.

We’ve become, as I heard a priest put it once, the bland leading the bland.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to his disciples, “but if it’s lost its taste it’s not good for anything and should be tossed into the trash.” And there’s the rub.

If we are to be salt and light—and notice Jesus doesn’t say, “You will be” or “You should be” but “You are…”—then we need to be proactive about that calling. We need to be intentional in the way we live, and in what we do with our time.

Living as a Christian is tough in our society. Ask any teenager what happens when a situation arises where acting in accordance with their faith means serious consequences at school with their friends—if, for example, they felt sorry for the person being bullied during lunch, but recognized the cost if they did something about it. Or ask any business professional who has witnessed shady practices by their manager, but sees only immense difficulty in their work life if they speak up to the CEO. Or ask any priest sitting on a plane who is hoping they can make it to cruising altitude and turn oo their iPod and avoid the typical “So what do you do?” question because there is no certainty where the conversation will go.

If I had to hazard a guess as to why we are this way, I’d say that it is because we have lowered expectations to a miniscule level. What does it mean to be a good Christian, these days? For many it means coming to church every so often, and maybe throwing a couple of bucks into the plate. And this isn’t their fault, by the way, nor am I trying to disparage any who might think this way. The unofficial word from many leaders in our denomination is that a person is in good standing as a member if they show up 3 times a year and are known to the treasurer (I don’t even want to begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard this in serious conversations with other clergy). Our official Episcopal Church documents go further, stating that a member is in good standing if they’ve “been faithful in corporate worship…, and faithful in working, praying and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.” That’s a bit better, but it is still pretty non-committal about specifics.

A good friend of mine, a church consultant, writes, “I believe the low-commitment church is a primary reason why traditional religion has lost its influence and moral authority in America today. We might refer to [this] as the optional church; one that isn’t too inconvenient, doesn’t ask too much of us, doesn’t cost too much, and is certainly subservient to the consumer-driven society and the decidedly secular lives that people live today.”

Interesting thing about salt is that it doesn’t lose its saltiness through some chemical reaction or even over time. It loses its seasoning if it becomes too diluted.

We’ve become too used to a faith that asks relatively little of us, I’m sorry to admit. We aren’t light and salt in our dark and hurting world simply because we don’t know how to do this. It’s much easier to say someone else will do these things—other Christians, the government, NGOs, charities, good-natured people—and go on with our busy lives.

So what does this look like then? First, much to the consternation of many church leaders both lay and ordained, it is not to be found in inventing new programs. Creating new projects or new classes or whatnot will not help us in the long term to develop into salt and light. It’ll keep us busy, and maybe even tickle our fancies for a bit. But like everything else in this life of ours for which we are consumers, we’ll tire of it or burn out.

How we become salt and light is in recognizing that as Christians we are, as it has been put for centuries, “a new people, an alternative community with a new citizenship.” We are shaped as Christians through regular reading of Scripture and prayer, in allowing the Spirit to shape how we respond in the circumstances of our daily life, in building community with one another, in taking part in what have been termed the ancient spiritual practices . While we have a tendency to put spirituality in a neat little area of our lives that we can pull out as needed and is certainly separate from our “practical” lives, the early Christians and many since then recognized that through the life of Jesus we can see that God has come into every arena of life. Things can’t be labeled as spiritual and secular or public and private lives, rather everything is interconnected as shown in the life of Jesus, and this “not only changes everything, but should become the center” of how we live our lives.

To be salt and light means that we live into the reality that we are in fact different from our friends who don’t follow Christ. It means that we are to open ourselves up to being formed in the life of Christ, and recognizing that such formation doesn’t happen in a matter of hours or even a few days. We are salt and light when the center of our lives isn’t focused on us, but on God and others. What if St. Mark’s became a place that strongly encouraged its parishioners to enter in to this type of life? Those would be great expectations, to be sure, but isn’t that the life Jesus wants us to live into? What if this parish—what if we—became people who brought light into a dark world, including allowing the light of Christ into the dark places of our interior lives? What if we brought seasoning to every situation of our lives? If we did, I don’t think we’d recognize this place. We might not even recognize ourselves. But I can assure you that we’d change the world, and that would be worth it no matter the cost.

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My first Sunday at St. Mark’s was on Sunday, January 16.  It was a truly wonderful day!  Here is the text for my sermon on that day.

 

“Come and See” — John 1:29-42

Our reading this morning from the Gospel of John takes place sometime after Jesus has been baptized, and presumably after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  We’re simply told that John the Baptizer saw Jesus walking near the Jordan River one day.  John had previously encountered the religious authorities who wanted to know if he was the Messiah or not.  John tells them that he wasn’t even worthy to untie the Messiah’s sandals.  So when John spots Jesus nearby he proclaims: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  John tells any who would hear how the Messiah was coming into the world: not as the “All-Powerful… Deliverer” but as the “sacrificial… lamb.”[1] Jesus comes not in a display of might but with an unassuming nature to bring about transformation in all who would follow him.

We’re told that it takes another day for this to really sink in with those standing nearby, because John has to say it again.  When he does, two of his disciples really hear his words and decide to go and follow Jesus.

Jesus hears these two walking behind him, so he stops and turns to speak with them.  “What are you looking for?” he asks.  “Rabbi, where are you staying?” they say.   Teacher, where do you teach?  Where do you live?  The Gospel writer himself has already tipped us off to this answer in his prologue a couple of verses earlier. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” or as the Message Bible puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Jesus looks at these two men eager to follow him.  “Come and see,” he replies.  And they do.  They spend the rest of the afternoon with him.  They end up spending their lives with him.

Thirteen years ago this week Melissa and I were sitting almost exactly where you are sitting today, coming to see the new rector.  In our case, we had endured a long and difficult interim period with two different priests, both not-so-gifted preachers, if you catch my drift.  We were somewhat new to the Episcopal Church and had be hired as the part-time youth ministers for our parish during the interim, but we weren’t sure if we would continue.  We came that Sunday morning somewhat tentatively; we decided to take a wait and see approach with the new guy.  We wanted to be sure he could preach, if he was an authentic follower of Christ, if we could be guided by his leadership.  And if not, if he wasn’t, we’d finish our commitment with the youth through the school year and then leave.

In our case it turned out very well.  For you all, well, I for one have been praying that it will be likewise.

The invitation Christ makes is to come and see, yet how often in life—and especially how often in our spiritual lives—do we take a wait and see approach?  How often do we stand back unwilling to commit or engage because we’re uncertain of what lies ahead?  How many times do we waver because we need to think things through more fully or check things out or test our hypotheses about Lord knows what, instead of hearing the proclamation of the Baptizer and following Jesus?

How many times do we hesitate when faced with Jesus’ invitation to come and see?

Best selling author Donald Miller describes this dilemma in what has become one of my favorite books of the past year titled A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  Don wrote a deeply personal spiritual memoir a few years ago that did very well, and he begins this new book by recounting a phone call he received from a couple of guys wanting to make a film of his memoir.  He learns pretty quickly, though that while his pensive internal wrestling makes for good writing, it doesn’t make for a good movie, unless, as he states, you have James Earl Jones narrating your inner dialogue.  So he sets out on discovering what makes a good film, how to create a story people really care about.  He attends a three-day story-writing workshop in Los Angeles, and learns that “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”[2]

When he gets back home, Don sees his friend Jason, who has a thirteen-year old daughter.  Jason’s daughter has been dating a guy “who smelled like smoke and only answered questions with single words: “Yeah,” “No,” “Whatever,” and “Why?”[3] And to top it off, Jason and his wife recently found pot in their daughter’s room.  They aren’t sure what to do: grounding hasn’t worked, instead pushing her further away.  They were running out of answers, and it was getting worse.

Then Don said something that surprised even himself.  He told Jason that his daughter was living a terrible story. Jason asked what he meant, and Don went on to describe what he learned in LA.  He told Jason a good story involves a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it, although he wasn’t quite sure how this applied to Jason’s daughter.  So Don said, “I don’t know, exactly, but she’s just not living a very good story.  She’s caught up in a bad one.” Jason had a ton of questions, and Don, thinking maybe Jason was interested in movie-making, spent an hour talking about all that he had learned.[4]

A few months later Don saw Jason again, and he asked how things were going with his daughter.  “She’s better,” Jason said, and when Don asked why, he replied that his family was living a better story.[5] He went on to tell Don that as he reflected on what they had spoken about, he realized that he hadn’t invited his daughter in to a better story.  Instead she had latched on to the most exciting story she could find, the one with the rebel teen.  So Jason went online to do some research and found out that there was an organization building orphanages around the world.  He called the organization and found out it took $25,000 to build one of their building.  The family had just taken out a second mortgage and didn’t have that kind of money, but it had the makings of a good story.

So he called a family meeting.  Jason recounts it this way, “I didn’t tell my wife first, which turns out was a mistake.  But I told them about this village and about the orphanage and all these terrible things that could happen if these kids don’t get an orphanage.  Then I told them I agreed to build it.”

“You’re kidding me,” Don replied.[6]

He wasn’t.  And it didn’t take long for his wife to forgive him for not talking with her first and to say as well how proud she was of him.  It wasn’t much longer after that that his daughter, Annie, climbed into bed with them one morning—like she used to when she was a kid.  She told them that they all needed to travel to the village in Mexico to take photos of the kids to help them raise the money.  A few weeks later she dumped the monosyllabic boyfriend.  Jason summarized it this way, “No girl who plays the role of a hero dates a guy who uses her.  She knows who she is.  She just forgot for a little while.”[7]

“Teacher, where are you staying?” we ask.   “Come and see.”

Jesus is inviting us into a better story.  He wants us to follow him and live a life that is so much more than the ones we live by ourselves.  He encourages us to come and see now, not to stand on the sidelines waiting for some elusive future moment.   When we engage fully in the things of God, we not only live a better story, we also work with God as co-participants in transforming the world.

What kind of life is Christ inviting us into as a parish in the days ahead?  What role will you take?  There will be challenges to be sure—those first followers have no idea of either the great joys or great sorrows in store for them—but it takes those things to make a good story.

I am tremendously hopeful and confident about the future of St. Mark’s and the work and life we will engage in together as we seek to authentically serve Christ.  Jesus has come into this neighborhood too, and invites us to follow him.  The journey before us is about to begin, and I hope you will join with me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, as we come and see where he will lead us.  Amen.


[1] Greg Garrett, “John 1:29-42: Homiletical Perspective.”  Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. 263.

[2] Donald Miller.  A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  2009.  Pg. 48.

[3] Miller, 49.

[4] Miller, 50.

[5] Miller, 50.

[6] Miller, 52.

[7] Miller, 54.

 

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