St. Mark’s parishioners’ passions.

This Sunday began a series of sermons at St. Mark’s as we look at who we are, who is our neighbor and what God is calling us to do. The starting point are lessons from Job and Mark (you can read those texts here).

Job has been speaking for a long while, answering his friends who have posed tough theological questions and asking where God has been.  In our reading this morning, God shows up.  And when God appears, a whirlwind comes in tow.  These words from God are jarring; imagine being Job with God speaking forth from the vortex showing God’s immense power.

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God asks.  “I will question you,” and then this whole litany of questions from God.  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me if you have understanding! Who determined its measurements—Surely you know! On what were its bases sunk or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” 

Job stands there speechless.  Last week he thought God had abandoned him; this week he got way more than he bargained for.

Scientists at NASA tried something with the Hubble telescope in 2004 by having it take pictures of a very small, very dark area in space.  In this spot, 5-6 very faint small stars in our own galaxy are present, but nothing else could be seen; it was one of the darkest spots in the night sky.  As Hubble snapped photos in this area over the course of some days and then compiled them, something dramatic emerged.  Distant sources of light were snatched up by the Hubble’s powerful lens, and all told some 10,000 galaxies appeared on film.  Recently, Hubble’s scientists looked deeper into a smaller section of that field with better technology than before, and another 5000 galaxies came into view.  These galaxies could never be seen with the human eye or even with the most powerful telescopes here on earth.  15,000 galaxies in a small, completely dark area of our night sky.  It’s estimated that we have over 100 billion stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, so imagine how many stars that would be in this very dark area, which is just a tiny spot in the universe.

“Tell me who laid the earth’s cornerstones when the morning stars sang together?”

What God so delicately reminds Job is this: only God is God.  Only God knows about the vast workings of our universe and all that happens even on our own planet.  One commentator wrote, “In light of such amazing and overwhelming realities, it is possible for us to feel very small. ‘Who are we… that God would take notice of us,’ given the near infinite scope of creation? [Yet] in that context, the voice of the Lord thundering from the whirlwind came addressed to one of us! The Lord speaks about the rest of creation, but to Job.  For all our seeming inconsequence, we are the ones to whom God has spoken, the ones to whom God holds out the promise of conversation about the design of creation.” [ref]JS Randolph Harris, “Job 38:1-7 (34-41) Homiletic Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 4. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Pg 175.[/ref]

God who created some 100 billion galaxies, talks with one of us. God is God, yes, but God created us and engages with us.  And God wants us to stop trying to be God and instead be our most authentic selves. To be the people God has created us to be, each with unique gifts and passions in order.  God longs for us and share them to bring joy and grace to the world.

I am always amused by James and John and their asking Jesus for special status.  I imagine it dawning on them that if Jesus does become a king, then the seats next to him would be up for grabs.  So they sidle up to Jesus when they were out on the road when no one else is looking and quietly ask him for the spots before anyone else does.  Jesus uses it as a sermon illustration, explaining to all the disciples that if you want to be great, you need to become a servant, for he came not to be served but to serve.

For me these things are inextricably joined, our gifts and talents and Christ’s call to serve.  God who created the universe created us and placed inside each of us unique gifts that would bring us immense joy.  We know them when we find them, right?  Those times in our lives when we are truly present in the moment, and we feel most ourselves.  Perhaps you have that sense when you’re playing an instrument or taking photographs. Maybe when you get going in the kitchen whipping up a new recipe. It could be the joy you get knitting a blanket or in giving support to a life-changing charity overseas. Perhaps you’re a gifted teacher or maybe a numbers person who loves finding order or a computer programmer who gets lost solving problems with code. 

Each of us has them, those passions in our lives, some of them appeared in our childhoods and some of them were uncovered only recently (and dare I say it, some may be yet untapped).  In my own life my love of hiking has only emerged in the past 6 years or so following surgery for a tibial plateau fracture.  I spent three months none weight bearing and had to preach and celebrate from a wheelchair.  After a couple of months doing PT, I decided that I needed to really start using that leg doing something.  I climbed the highest peak in the Colorado Rockies with some friends 8 months after my surgery and I found I have a love of the mountains.  I’ve taken others hiking, and found it a place of refreshment and renewal in my life and ministry, a time to explore the beauty of creation.

What about you? What gift or talent or activity makes you feel more present in your own skin? What do you do that makes you “you”?  What is that passion in your life, given to you by God, that brings you joy?  That’s not to say that it won’t also bring challenges—that hike down for me was awful but I knew I had found something that resonated deep within me. 

Discovering, naming and using those passions can lead us to the joy God is inviting us to share. I truly believe that our gifts and passions were given to us by God to bring about redemption, to make this world a better place, to create more delight.  God created that vast expanse of interstellar space, and God created the scientists who dreamed up a huge telescope that could take awe-inspiring photos. No, we are not God, but we’ve been given the gift of our lives to create and dream and to spread the love God has for each and every person on this planet.

What are your passions?  What feeds your soul? What gifts has God given you that bring joy?

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Photo Credit: Thad Ligon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Thad Ligon via Compfight cc

I’ve learned that all of us face dark times. I wish that weren’t the case; why wish anyone to have to experience difficulties in life? In my role as a priest, I hear the stories and sometimes have the honor of walking with people through their dark nights. These words are for them and for the others who fear they have been abandoned by God.

A sermon based on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”  These words of Job tear at our souls.  Here he is desolate and alone, fearing he has been forgotten by God.  We hear these words echoed in the cry from the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Both are in what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.”  And neither of them wants to be there in that seemingly God-forsaken place.  Afraid and alone and overwhelmed.

Continue reading Hope in the Dark Night

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Photo Credit: °]° via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: °]° via Compfight cc

A sermon on Proverbs 31.

It’s obvious that whoever wrote Proverbs 31 was a man.  “A capable wife, who can find,” the writer asks, and then gives us a litany of what the perfect woman looks like which sounds an awful lot like an Old Testament Martha Stewart.  She collects wool and flax and spins them.  She gets up while it is still dark to get food for the household.  She goes out and buys a field in order to plant a vineyard herself, and her garden produces a magnificent bounty.  She’s strong, getting in her daily workout, and also is a businesswoman with a savvy knack for buying goods.  She stays up later than the rest of her household keeping busy with her many tasks.  She’s generous.  She’s a planner, having winter coats prepared before it gets cold.  She’s an expert seamstress, creating luxurious clothes for her family, and her husband is a mover and a shaker himself, known at the city gates.  She’s got enough time to make extra fashions and sell them at the marketplace. She has an air of dignity, when needed, and erupts in joyous laughter too.  She’s wise and kind and is never idle.  Her children praise her as does her husband, telling her she’s the best among all the women. 

I’m exhausted just reciting that list.  And I wonder who could do all that and be sane?  Had to be written by a man.  No woman in her right mind would ever pen those words.

But they’re the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.  And there must be good news in there somewhere.  So let’s unpack these verses a bit and see what we can uncover.

First, the obvious one.  No single woman can — or should — exhibit all these traits.  After the writer of Proverbs asks this question, he gives us a picture of the ideal.  And, interestingly enough, it sound an awful lot like Lady Wisdom who appears again and again in the book of Proverbs.  We heard from her last week calling out to the simple, and in Chapter 8 we learn that she was created by God at the very beginning before anything else came to be.  She declares, “Whoever finds me, finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but those who miss me injure themselves.” (Prov 8:35-6).  Proverbs takes its shape as advice from a father to a son, and so after warnings against being seduced on many different levels, it makes sense at the end of the book to describe the woman this boy should marry in the form of a poem—in the Hebrew the first stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet, the second with the second and so on.  Find a woman who embodies the traits of Lady Wisdom, Dad says.  Don’t be enticed by those who wouldn’t live a life shaped and molded by Wisdom.  Wait for a wife who will enhance your life, rather than take it away; wait, my son, for the one who is like Wisdom.

Second, notice that the ideal is a woman who is not dependent on her husband.  She has her own life and excels at all she does.  Now this might not be a big thing today—more on that in a moment—but this is being written during a very patriarchal time.  Daughters were often viewed as property, and a groom had to pay a bride price in order to marry.  Solomon had some 700 wives which came to him primarily as alliances were formed—if the king marries my daughter, he’s less likely to invade me.  And yet, the advice Solomon (the presumed writer of Proverbs) gives to his son is to make a wise choice in marrying a woman who exhibits strength across a number of areas in life, who has herself listened to Wisdom.

Why this is so exceptional is that we still deal with issues around the status of women in our culture.  We know about the pay gap here in America, where women are paid 79% of what men make in equal jobs—and this is unfortunately true even for those of us who are clergy.  Women are more often than not the ones who take time away from work when children come, or deal with the guilt that comes when a maternity leave is up feeling they are somehow “failing” as mothers when they drop the kids at daycare.  Many women still choose to be “given away” at marriage ceremonies—when asked by me about their preference most brides select “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” even though I (and the Prayer Book) offer alternatives.  Of the G7 countries, only three have ever had elected female leaders: the UK, Canada and Germany.  Notably they each have had a female leader only once, and Germany is the only country of the G7 currently with a woman leading them (although currently there are a record 22 women heads of state in the world out of 196 countries). 

The fact that Proverbs extols the beauty of a strong woman should be lauded.  This ideal wife isn’t sitting in the corner waiting to be spoken to.  She has fortitude, resources, strength, courage, and is clearly portrayed as a partner.  Many of the things she does wouldn’t be seen as merely “women’s work.” She’s a change agent in her community, and she and her husband are presented as equal in this text.  The strengths they have are used for the building up of both their family and their community.

Probably most significant of all is what is missing from this text.  In a culture saturated with images of women that have been airbrushed and presented as the real thing, in a society where a woman’s worth is linked to her looks, where— according to one study—80% of 10-year old girls fear being overweight, there is not one comment made on how a woman is to physically look.  The only mention is the 2nd to last verse: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”  The singular reference to appearance by this dad to his son is that he should pay no attention to it.  True beauty is found elsewhere.

We cannot say or hear this enough.  Most of us have likely seen the videos of what a professional can do to the picture of a model with Photoshop.  (And let’s be clear: kids, every picture you see in a magazine is not an accurate photo.  It has been significantly touched up.  Every. Single. One.) Last year we Americans spent more than $12 billion on elective cosmetic surgeries, and of the 10 and half million procedures done, women accounted for 90% of them.  But physical appearance does not determine your true worth.  Let me say that again: Physical appearance does not determine your true worth.  No matter how many times our culture says otherwise.  True beauty can only be found in the depths of your soul.  And that comes from the wisest person who has ever lived.

To the girls in our congregation, I say this: don’t be bullied into believing the lies that come at you all the time from our culture. Jesus loves you for who you are.  There is nothing you have to do, no way that you have to look in order to “earn” Christ’s love.  You are beloved.  Look to the strong women in your life—your mom and grandma and coaches and teachers and a whole host of others—who embody the ideals of  Lady Wisdom and let them guide and mentor you. Be strong and not afraid. You are beloved and cherished by the Almighty, and you have so much to offer this world.

To the women of this congregation, the ones who have been swimming in our culture for a long long time, enduring the self-doubt, the questions about how good you are, the pressure to measure up: come to this table and find healing.  You are beloved. No one can live up to the crazy wonder woman ideal our society puts forward or the one some people misread into our passage from Proverbs.  Rather, hold onto the truth that God created you just as you are and that your beauty radiates when you share your gifts of strength with the world, whatever those gifts may be.  Be strong and courageous.  Model the truth of this to our girls and young women who so desperately need role models like you.

To the boys of this congregation, hear this: do not believe the lie that all that matters about girls are their looks.  Our culture will tell you that again and again and again.  Our culture is wrong. Treat girls with respect and as equals, because they most certainly are.  Search for the beauty to be found beneath the surface in those you seek to date, you will be delighted and amazed.  And know this: You are beloved.  You are much more than what society tells you.  Look for Wisdom.

To the men of this congregation: cherish the women in your life and love them.  Encourage them to be all that you know they can be even when they have listened too often to the voices telling them they can’t.  Repent when you’ve followed the lead of our culture and objectified women, needing to delete the history on your browser. Share in the responsibilities of your common life with your spouse.  Love without fail.  And know that you are beloved by God.

To all of you I say this: search for Lady Wisdom even though at times it seems that she is elusive. Fear the Lord.  Live with a desire to find God in all areas of your life.  And trust above all else that you are beloved by the Almighty and nothing can ever separate you from God’s love.  Amen.

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Photo Credit: jf01350 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jf01350 via Compfight cc

We swim in a sea of words most days. Talk radio, news stories, tweets and posts, they’re almost never-ending. And yet in spite of the deluge, do the words we hear or the words we speak actually bring about change? Do they matter?

A sermon based on Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-2 and Mark 8:27-38 (all of which can be found here.)

Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we come to know your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen

I begin speaking today at my own risk. James makes it clear that those of us who feel the call to stand in front of others in order to elucidate Scripture better be careful. I am reminded of the words of Annie Dillard who penned, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … [C]hurches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” (from Teaching a Stone to Talk).  She recognizes that it’s not just hazardous for me, but for you as well when we come together to worship the living God.  So caveat orator et auditor; let the speaker and hearer beware.

Because we get it, don’t we? We know the power of the tongue.  While we are inundated with words in our culture—care to hear anymore about “deflategate” or Kim Davis, that clerk in Kentucky?—we still know they mean a great deal.  And it doesn’t take much, as James reminds us.  A little bit in the horse’s mouth can control it entirely.  A tiny word can spark great devastation.  Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Speaking of the harm small things can do, there is nothing quite so devastating as a carefully placed interrogative.  Here is how it works: after someone has praised another person in your presence, telling you how much that person’s example of faith has meant, you cock an eyebrow and say, “Oh?” That is all it takes to introduce doubt. That is all it takes to lay a match to the dried twigs at the base of a redwood tree.” Caveat orator.  Speaker beware. 

The problem of course arises in thinking we know more than we actually do.  We might see ourselves as experts on everything and anything—and by God we only need to pull out our iPhones to prove we’re right, because as Abe Lincoln said, If it’s on the internet, it must be true.  Proverbs however reminds us that we’re not quite all that. “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice… How long will you love being simple?”  How long will we ignore the call of wisdom and follow after the other voices in the marketplace?

One of those voices shouts that we are singularly more important than everyone else.  We have that je ne sais quoi that makes us better than the guy down the street who clearly does not have it.  We have the great car and wonderful home, and that picture perfect family and we’ve arrived in our careers.  These things all make us better—because when it comes down to it it really is a competition, right? That’s why those reality shows thrive.  Why just watch a cooking show when you can see a panel of judges nitpick an entree that could be served in a 5 star restaurant?   Or watching people sing or dance, it’s so much more enjoyable when there’s a clear loser, right? And that carries over into almost everything we do, because we need to know how important we are. We need to know we’re the best

The other voices are like that: we can achieve power and happiness and success if we only work hard enough.  Individualism and pursuing whatever makes us happy and finding success, those are the voices that come at us in our 24/7 world saturated with words.  But that is not the voice of wisdom; that is not the voice of God.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

Denial of self and humility, those are hallmarks of true wisdom.  And when it comes on the scene we immediately recognize it and even laud it.  Take Pope Francis who this week called for all Catholic parishes in Europe to take in a refugee family from Syria.  Some 4 million Syrians have fled the civil war in their homeland, and those reaching Europe number well into the 100s of thousands.  The Pontiff said, “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe host a family, starting from my diocese of Rome.  The two parishes in the Vatican will welcome two families of refugees.”  This comes from a man who continues to live in the guesthouse on the Vatican grounds where he’s stayed since he arrived for the conclave that elected him forgoing the papal apartment.  He regularly engages with the homeless and the poor in and around the Vatican.  His call grows out of his living the gospel, of listening to the voice of wisdom.

But it isn’t just ecclesiastical types who show this humility.  Last year Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma Thunder was named the MVP of the NBA.  When he gave his acceptance speech, it was, as one reporter put it, “one for the ages.”  (See this article by Jeff Caplan) Speaking from his heart without notes, Kevin thanked each of his fellow teammates giving an anecdote about each one telling how they make him a better player.  He showed appreciation for the staff that work with him every day.  He gave thanks, of course to his coaches and the owner.  Then he said this, “And last, my mom. I don’t think you know what you did. You had my brother when you were 18 years old. Three years later, I came out. The odds were stacked against us. Single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old. Everybody told us we weren’t supposed to be here. We went from apartment to apartment by ourselves. One of the best memories I had was when we moved into our first apartment, no bed, no furniture and we just sat in the living room and just hugged each other. We thought we made it.

“When something good happens to you, I don’t know about you …, but I tend to look back to what brought me here. You woke me up in the middle of the night in the summer times, making me run up a hill, making me do pushups, screaming at me from the sidelines of my games at 8 or 9 years old. We weren’t supposed to be here. You made us believe. You kept us off the street. You put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.” (Read his speech.)

There’s someone who has learned how to tame the tongue.  That’s someone who has learned to hear the voice of wisdom and will live at ease and without dread.  You might think that you can’t do things like this, that you don’t have the stage of either the Pope or Kevin so it wouldn’t matter anyway. But I can tell you with certainty that both of these men were like this long before they got to the places they are today.  Jorge Bergoglio made his own food in his tiny apartment back when he was a cardinal and rode public transportation to work everyday.  Kevin never thought he’d make the NBA or even play in college; instead he aspired to be a rec league coach.

It does matter greatly how you live, because it won’t do you any good to gain the whole world and lose your soul.  It won’t matter how much you possess if you lose the essence of who you are.  And if the essence of who you are doesn’t lead you to joyfully make this world a better place for others, then you haven’t truly found out who you are or what you’re called to do.

If that’s the case, spend some more time listening to wisdom.  Pull out a crash helmet and open up your Bible. Pray.  Ask God to help you tame your tongue and mold you into someone who embodies Christ’s image.  Deny yourself and put others first.  Care more for them than you do for yourself.  And when you do that, little by little your calling will emerge, your tongue will be tamed and you’ll uncover the wisdom that comes from the Almighty.  Amen

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Nine years ago today we said goodbye to my mom, Betty LaBelle.  Here’s the eulogy I gave on the day of her funeral.betty


One morning during Mom’s last week, we gathered together around her watching the nurse, Nancy, take her vitals. After she was done, Nancy pulled the stethoscope out of her ears and turned to my two and half year old niece Lily and asked if she wanted to listen to her Nena’s heart. Lily was thrilled and jumped at the chance. Nancy helped her put the stethoscope in her ears and then placed the other end on Mom’s chest.

After a moment, Nancy looked at Lily and said, “What do you hear?” Lily’s eyes were big, her mouth wide. “A lion!” she exclaimed. And she was right. She heard the heart of a lion.

That strong heart kept her with us much longer than we had expected during those last few weeks. I lost count of the predictions the hospice nurse had given us based on Mom’s health and vitals; she possessed a deep desire to be with her family. Instead, we surrounded her and held her hand and whispered our love into her ear and snatched another kiss. We did for her what she most certainly would have done for any of us.


What can a son say in a matter of minutes to sum up the life of a mother who meant so much? How can I attempt to distill the life of Betty LaBelle into a brief eulogy? And yet—and yet.   “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us,” author Norman Maclean writes at the end of one of his stories. It is those we love, the ones we share the most moments with, the ones we think we know, who somehow turn out to be the ones who become shadowy to us. But we still try to understand them, we still reach out to them.


Mom lost her own mother very early in life, while she was just a teenager. Not long after that, she was asked to be a live-in nanny for another family. Those two events merged together in her mind; that early death and her departure from her family home while still in high school became fused because of the difficulty both presented to her. Losing a parent at a young age raises enough questions of uncertainty, let alone an early departure from your childhood home. Yet she jumped into her new role with a gentleness and caring that would become her trademark. She would often tell stories about Walter and Theo and their children with fondness. In spite of the tragedy of her mother’s death, she found something positive to hold onto.


She and Dad met at a St. Patrick’s Day party in 1958. He was completely enamored with her right from the start, and claims it was her great legs that caught his eye. The way she told the story, he asked her to marry him on their third date, and she told him to wait six months. He proposed again in six weeks. They were married eight months after they first met, and spent forty-seven years sharing their lives and love with one another.


My own early memories of Mom are fuzzy, uncertain, tentative, and that’s exactly what you’d expect from the sixth child of any woman. I can’t imagine the hours of work she had, the diapers and potty training and meals and homework and running this one here and that one there, and the laundry, good Lord, the laundry. I do remember sitting in my spot at the kitchen table for dinner, something we did together every night as a family.   I sat in the curve on the bench at the corner, which I must assume was the least desirable spot since I got it. And I do remember kneeling beside her each night with my sister Rhonda before we went to bed so she could hear our bedtime prayers.


Her faith in Christ gave a deep foundation to her life. That faith took on various expressions throughout her years, yet she never took it lightly. And I suspect that it was her faith that instilled in her a desire to help others, even sometimes at the expense of her own wellbeing. She had what can almost be described as an urgency to help others who were in need, just not in the ways you’d expect. She didn’t visit a nursing home, or give her time at local charities, rather she opened herself up to people both young and old who were hurting. She found ways to help those who somehow fell through the cracks. Our home became a haven for folks all throughout her life: from relatives who were in between places, to someone wanting a listening ear, to a friend needing a home for a few months. Ultimately she and Dad expressed this deep sense of compassion in opening their hearts and home to my sisters Laura and Berniece when Mom and Dad were just two years away from an empty nest. Instead of thinking of themselves and the gift of being finished with raising children, they began again with girls in kindergarten. They wanted to give these daughters a life of hope and promise that would otherwise escape them.


Mom desired for all of us as her children to fully experience and cherish a sense of togetherness. Sometimes she could be downright forceful about this. I remember a time when the entire family went to Cedar Point: children, grandchildren, Mom and Dad. Mom had made it a rule that we gather together and check in every couple of hours. So just as you were making it through the line of the Gemini or the log flume, it was time to check in again, and you had to skip your ride altogether. I ended up missing more attractions than I rode that day, but I can say that I saw my family with great frequency. I learned how to take one for the team that day.


This sense of connectedness that Mom desired for us spilled over one day as a group of neighborhood kids played kickball in our yard. A brother and sister from down the street got into a shouting match—they were on opposing teams. Mom heard them fighting through an open window. She came out, stopped the game and made them apologize to one another. Then in the coup de grâce, she made them end their apologies by giving each other a hug. That was the last time we played kick ball at our house.


Mom wanted us to have the joy in our lives that elusively evaded hers after her mother died. She would attend my brothers’ baseball and basketball games religiously. With most of us in musical ensembles, she and Dad sat through endless performances on uncomfortable chairs in the school gymnasium, all the while feeling pride. She always had high hopes for the gifts she gave, and was let down if there wasn’t an immediate response of gratitude—which meant that you had to be good at faking it if she gave you something you already had or saw that it was the wrong size. When trouble arose from time to time in our family—as it does in every family I know—she became disheartened. Although she had an ideal about how life should be, she also had a strong pessimistic streak, and that made some of the inevitable disappointments in life larger in her mind. In spite of this pessimism, she always held on to the belief that life in general, and our lives in particular, could be so much more.


Mom’s sense of humor around the table was infectious. I have fond memories of sitting in the kitchen playing cards all throughout my life. Mom could hold in tension both a seriousness for the game—she was a fierce competitor—and also the wisdom to have a good laugh when something tickled her fancy. She held on to that sense of humor until the very end. On one of my last visits with her earlier this year, Dad and I stopped at Wendy’s to grab some lunch for all of us. As I handed her her burger, I said, “We got it just the way you like it, with extra pickles,” knowing full well she hated pickles. She looked at me with that infamous look of hers and without missing a beat said, “So what you’re telling me is that you want to get to your grave quicker than I’m getting to mine?”


The thing that brought her the most joy, however, was her grandchildren. When Angela, the first grandchild, began talking, she couldn’t get out “Grandma” and instead said “Nena.” Mom latched onto that name—it made her sound less old, more fun-loving—and it became the name all of her grandchildren used for her. Those kids loved their Nena and she doted on them as every grandparent should. She went to all sorts of events, competitions, baseball games, and concerts for them. She traveled to see the ones who were out of town. She spent weeks finding the perfect Christmas gifts—she made Christmas into an unbelievable extravaganza of presents and joy. She babysat and gave hugs and always had a multitude of snacks in her pantry. Nena worked her magic and made each of her grandchildren feel special. When Dad retired, they decided to relocate to Charlotte to be closer to my sisters and their younger children, so they could see them frequently and shower them with love.

Since I’ve only become a parent recently, I didn’t have long to experience this firsthand, but I was amazed at the love and generosity she bestowed on my son Noah. Even when her health was beginning to fail, she still wanted to see him playing on the playground near her house. So one bright afternoon, Melissa and I drove Mom down to the park, and she watched from the bench with a huge smile on her face as Noah squealed with delight from the infant swing.

In the end, I know Mom took a great deal of pride in her children and grandchildren. She told me a number of times during those last two weeks of how proud she was of me, how proud she was of all us. She and Dad taught us well: to be generous toward others, to approach life in gentleness and gratitude, to be faithful to our Christian beliefs. That’s what she was proud of. That’s what she embraced in her life.

There are many things about Mom’s life that I will never understand, and there were conversations we never had for various reasons. Even though we all lived together for such a long time and loved each other and should have known each other, she still eluded us. She still eluded me. But I will continue to reach out to her. And I will always know the brilliant legacy she left: she had a deep and abiding faith, an unfathomable love and generosity for others, and, above all, she had the heart of a lion. More than anything else, I want that heart.


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A sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter. Based on 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

On June 23, 1940, the day after France surrendered to Nazi Germany, a humble protestant minister in the small village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the South-Central mountain region stood before his congregation of French Huguenots. Pastor André Trocmé stood before them and said, “The responsibility of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit. We shall resist when our adversaries will demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel.  We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hatred.”[1] Given the circumstances of the previous day, the seeds sown by the minister’s words took hold in the hearts of his congregation. They had endured a history of religious persecution–being protestants in Catholic France had caused them to undergo oppression—and so when the first Jews began arriving into their sleepy village and knocked on their doors, they did the most unassuming thing: they let them in.

It isn’t clear if what continued to happen—some 5000 Jews finding refuge and hiding among the 5000 Christians over the next four years—was due to that sermon or their own experiences of discrimination, but compassion permeated that simple village. One of those who found an open door, Oskar Rosowsky said, “Not only were we accepted despite our differences, which is just about all a Jew asks for and can ask for from the community in which he lives, but here, there was a feeling of affection.”[2] Not one of those French Protestants sought to convert their Jewish refugees, they just simply opened their homes, hearts and lives to them for as long as they needed a place to stay. Their story is told in the amazing documentary “Weapons of the Spirit,” researched and directed by a Jewish man born there in 1944, and it is simply amazing.

In his first Epistle, John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” We heard Jesus say in John’s Gospel these words, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

What does it look like to be connected to Jesus? If he is the vine and we are the branches, if we as his followers are offshoots from his life and ministry emboding his nature, what does that look like in our day and age?

In late March, Indiana governor Mike Pence signed that state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. There are a number of states with similar laws, and the intent is to ensure that people would not be discriminated against due to their beliefs when it came to other laws passed by the local or federal government. It created, as you know, a firestorm. I honestly didn’t understand the law much as it seemed to reinforce rights included in our Constitution, but it seemed important to some there (and in other places too). What can be deduced from the coverage is that it came down to cakes and who to make them for and who to not make them for. It was seen by many—whether rightly or wrongly—as a means to discriminate.

In a blog post written in response, Jessica Kantrowitz a Boston area Christian, suggests a different course for disicples. She explained how in Jesus’ time a Roman soldier had the backing of the law to require anyone to stop everything they were doing and carry the soldier’s supplies for up to one mile. Jessica writes, “In the Sermon on the Mount, with his followers gathered around him, Jesus referenced that law and told his followers what they should do in that case: ‘If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.’ (Matthew 5:41) Go with them two miles. That was not the advice that most of the people in the crowd that day had been hoping for. That was not the conclusion that they would have come to on their own, following this man that they hoped would lead them to victory over the Romans. That was certainly not respecting their religious beliefs — go with them two! What if their neighbors saw! What if seeing them carrying the Roman’s equipment caused other Jews to think the Roman oppression was okay? What if there was other work that needed to be done — good work, charity work even, but they spent all that time carrying equipment for the evil oppressor?”[3] Jesus’ advice was to show love and compassion even to a perceived enemy. Carry those heavy belongings not one mile, but two.

And that is Jessica’s advice for Christians as well. Don’t bake just one cake for those you disagree with, bake two. Bake the best cakes you can and shower them with love.

Just a few weeks ago, another story appeared about Religious Freedom, but this time in San Antonio, Texas. This is how it was reported: “As she’d done every Tuesday for years, [Joan] Cheever was giving out free meals from her food truck in a public park … when police rolled up and started writing a ticket. Right away, she told the officers they were burdening her free exercise of religion …. And Cheever pointed to the federal and state Religious Freedom Restoration.” According to Cheever, “One of the police officers said, ‘Ma’am if you want to pray, go to church…. And I said, ‘This is how I pray, when I cook this food and deliver it to the people who are less fortunate.'” The issue was a lack of permits to be a mobile food vendor. They didn’t want her to share food with the homeless.

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

What does it look like to love as God loves? How do we fully abide in Jesus to show forth the fruit he bore in his life?

Yesterday I went with a group of parishioners of all ages to a local nursing home. We worked with some residents there to plant some flowers in little pots that kids from our Sunday School painted last week. We then shared those bright pots with others, giving smiles and well wishes along the way. We didn’t ask anyone about their religious or political beliefs. We didn’t inquire into their histories or who they had been married to or anything else. We just shared small pots of flowers on a glorious Spring day.

When I’m asked about my vision or where I see St. Mark’s headed, I say that I want us to be disciples of Jesus. I want us to be a church that looks out and longs to share God’s love with our world. I want us to be so connected to Jesus that embodying deep and profound compassion becomes truly unremarkable; it’s just something that we do. It’s who we are, like the people of Le Chambon opening their doors without regarding the danger to their own lives.

And I want us to respond with compassion to all. When we see more news from places of racial unrest in our own country, I hope we long to respect every human being regardless of the color of their skin or their financial status or the uniform they where, and seek to encourage change where it is desperately needed. If we abide in Christ and he abides in us, that love will flow out from us to the world. May we seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors without thought to who they are or what they look like or where they live. May we embody Christ’s compassion working alongside all those who are downtrodden for whatever reason. And may we be known as the place that loves deeply, that works hard to show that compassion to others and will give our all to follow Christ in our day.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


[2] Ibid.


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A sermon for Easter Day 2015 based on Mark 16:1-8.

Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lodgepole pines by ecstaticist via Compfight cc.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

My son Noah and I have been reading through the Harry Potter series together for the past couple of years. We read a chapter or so aloud a couple of times a week before bed, and we’re relishing the time together with these delightful stories.  Throughout our reading, I’ve been taken with Fawkes, Professor Dumbledore’s phoenix. Fawkes has a gorgeous red and gold plumage, and he perches in an area near Dumbledore’s desk at Hogwarts. Harry meets Fawkes when he comes to speak with Dumbledore, and it just so happens it is a “burning day” when Fawkes is engulfed in flames. Harry is quite taken aback, of course, only to find the bird reemerging from the ashes as a fledgling. Dumbledore tells him, “Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry. Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.”[1]

It was St. Clement who introduced the phoenix into the collection of symbols for Christ at the time of the Early Church.[2] The mythology of the bird lined up with the resurrection story of Jesus and his triumph over death. The phoenix with a nimbus—or halo—appears in mosaics and other forms of iconography from the Middle Ages reminding us both of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of our own. Just when it seems that all is lost—Harry apologizes profusely to Dumbledore thinking he had done something to Fawkes—a newborn bird pokes its head out from the destruction.

Mark’s story of the resurrection is the strangest by far, but I have to tell you, I really like it. This ending of his gospel as we read it, with the women running out of the tomb in terror and amazement, evokes a gritty reality to all that has happened. Unlike the Hallmark cards of springtime with bunnies, lambs and chicks, the women respond as many of us would: amazed and terrified and overcome with a wide range emotions. Just a couple of days before, they had seen Christ die and his body laid in this very tomb—a point Mark goes out of his way to point out: the Marys had indeed seen the place where he was laid and watched as a stone was rolled in front of the tomb. So when they see the stone rolled back and the body no longer there and hear the message from this young man, they flee in terror. This abrupt end to the gospel created enough consternation that a monk or two somewhere along the line slipped in a couple of different endings to Mark’s gospel with Jesus actually showing up. But not Mark; he ends with the women being afraid and running away.

As you might expect, I hear a lot of stories from people over the course of a year. It’s a privilege and an honor to walk with so many through the varied facets of their lives, to give thanks during the times of joy and to pray with you as you weather difficult days. Some have had to deal with a difficult diagnosis either for themselves or loved ones. A few have faced infidelity in their relationships with a spouse. We’ve prayed together, you and I, at the death of a loved one. Some have endured the heartache of a teen making choices they shouldn’t, or have had addictions exposed. Add to this the ones who’ve lost of a job or financial security, a winter for the record books, hard workplace demands, and some bearing the brunt of false accusations. You could easily say that any of these had been a day when they went up in flames. So we talk together and search for signs of redemption poking through the ruin.

When our family traveled to Yellowstone National Park a number of years ago we learned from the park rangers about the Lodgepole Pine which is indigenous there. Lodgepoles—pinus contorta—grow thin and have a narrow crown at the top of the tree. What makes them fairly unique, however, is their pine cones. The three-inch cones have sharp tips on them and are serotinous, meaning they release seeds only in response to an environmental trigger. The lodgepole cones are sealed shut by resin and only open when exposed to intense heat, like the massive forest fires of 1988 that devastated Yellowstone. As Yellowstone naturalist and guide Kevin Sanders explains it, “This adaptation ensures that the seeds of lodgepole pine will not disperse until wildfire creates conditions that favor the establishment of seedlings—diminished litter on the forest floor and plenty of sunlight.”[3] Within the year, new lodgepoles had sprung up throughout much of the park, literally emerging from the ashes of the devastation.

Three years ago this week I got the call about my dad. It was Good Friday. He had been given 24-48 hours, and, as a solo parish priest, I couldn’t drop everything to be with him in Detroit as we entered the holiest days of the Christian calendar. I spoke with him after the liturgy that night, telling him how much I wanted to be there with him but that we couldn’t come out until Sunday after the services. He told me not to worry about it, that he was proud of me and my calling. We prayed together and I told him how much I loved him, and said my goodbyes. That Easter morning is a blur; we were on the road by noon hoping to make it. However, my brother called me as we hit the outskirts of Buffalo late that evening. No matter the date, I cannot help but think of my father on Easter—resurrection day—the day of his passing from this life to the next. His memory pushes me on to be a great dad too, to fill my kids with hope and love and a desire to find their life’s calling.

Fear and amazement seem altogether plausible to me. The women had gone that Sunday morn to finish caring for Jesus’ body, to say one last goodbye. Is it any wonder that when they found that young man dressed in white there in the tomb he told them not to be alarmed? They had just been through the excruciating pain of Friday, a day that could easily be described as being engulfed with flames no matter how you parse it out. They had spent the Sabbath weeping over their loss, their dashed hopes, waiting as patiently as they could to go and attend to these last rituals for him. And then as soon as they sun had come up, they made their way to the tomb. Even though the man in white told them to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus would be going ahead of them, Mark tells us that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Good Fridays happen in the midst of life. Calling them “burning days” is a fitting metaphor. Whether we want to or not, we face into the despair, and it’s easy to be overcome by it all. But out of the ashes, out of the tomb, life emerges. Yes, those women were afraid and they said nothing to anyone, but that’s obviously not where it ended. While amazement and terror seized them, they eventually told someone. The seedlings of hope appeared among the charred earth. They might not have understood it—that deep mystery of the faith—but soon they would say “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Death does not get the last word. They told the story that he had risen just as he promised.

Which is tremendously good news on this Easter Day, on this day of Resurrection. Jesus was crucified, but he has been raised. He is no longer in the tomb. Jesus experienced the worst of life and overcame it through his love. And, because of this, he offers redemption to us. There is hope, and love and redemption. Do not be afraid.

Maybe you have experienced a devastating loss in your life just this week. Do not be afraid, Jesus has faced the cross and is with you.

Maybe you’re still experiencing the impact of a raging fire that happened in your life years ago. Do not be afraid, open your heart to God’s grace and healing and look for signs of life.

Maybe you are just noticing seedlings of resurrection in your life. Do not be afraid, Jesus goes ahead of you wanting you to follow him.

Maybe you’ve been enjoying the beauty of resurrection for a long time. Do not be afraid, go higher up and deeper in to the love of God, there is much yet to be discovered.

Wherever you are in life, do not be afraid. Christ has indeed been raised, overcoming death and the grave, bringing life and grace and hope to us all. Put your trust in him and his deep and abiding love, that may he bring you the joy of his salvation this Easter and in the 50 days ahead.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


[1] J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Sercrets. Scholastic Books, 1999. Page 207.

[2] Patricia S. Klein. Worship without Words. Paraclete Press, 2000. Page 56.

[3] Accessed April 1, 2015.

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Photo Credit: archangel 12 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: archangel 12 via Compfight cc

Good Friday 2015

I have been struck by Mary the Mother of Jesus this Lent. I’m sure it began by walking the new Stations of the Cross these past many Fridays with her presence at the Fourth Station, when Jesus meets her, and at the Thirteen, when the body of Jesus is placed into her arms. But then just last week we celebrated the Annunciation, reminding us of Mary’s willingness to say yes to God even though she didn’t fully know what such a response entailed. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she sang, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” And now, some 30 years later, she weeps at the foot of the cross as her son slowly loses his life, and it feels nothing like the Lord’s favor.


I cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing a child. This past week we experienced our first broken bone in over ten years of parenthood—Olivia fell and has a small fracture in her hip, which should be completely healed in a few weeks—and that is hard enough. Her tears over intense discomfort and a need to sit for hours on end when she’d rather be doing gymnastics cause my heart to ache. Seeing our kids in pain, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, is incapacitating; we want nothing more than to take away their hurt. But watching a child carry a means of torture to their own execution is not fathomable. There are not words.


And Mary herself says nothing in our narrative from John—nor in the other gospels. In the Way of the Cross, the writers of that devotion have her borrow language from the Hebrew Scriptures to give her voice: “My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people. ‘Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’”


This sentiment is also felt by others in our own day. The ones who experience a miscarriage and the loss of hope for the joy that new life can bring. Those whose children are diagnosed with a serious illness or have significant special needs. Those whose teens have wandered far from home or the values we hold dear. The ones who’ve buried a child, whatever the reason. All these rip out our hearts as parents.


“Woman, behold your son,” Jesus says from the cross as he struggles for breath. His thought is to care for his mother, to provide for her. He acknowledges in his words that this isn’t how it is supposed to be; parents are not meant to hold the death of their children. So he does for her what he can in those last hours. He ensures that she is both cared for by this beloved disciple and has someone to care for as well.


The documentary film “A Long Night’s Journey into Day” follows four of the stories from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, looked to uncover the truth behind the atrocities carried out under Apartheid. If guilty parties came forward and spoke truthfully taking responsibility for the violence they had committed, they would be granted amnesty, but they needed to do so in public and before a tribunal. If the council felt they were being forthright, then they could go free and receive forgiveness. If not, or if they didn’t come forward at all but it was discovered that they had in fact been involved, they would face consequences. Both black South Africans and Afrikaners came forward to account for their past.


In one of the stories, we learn about a black South African named Thapelo Mbelo who directed an undercover operation for the government police, and with two others earned the trust of a group of angry black youths. Ultimately, these young men are set up by Mbelo in March of 1986, encouraged by him to raid the local police headquarters. They were killed before the raid took place while a school bus full of children look on. After their deaths, they became known as the Gugulethu 7.


The mothers of these young men endured ten years of misinformation and denial about the events leading up to their sons’ deaths. The film shows their immense anguish as they learn the truth. They hear how Mbelo oversaw the operation and provided their boys with weapons and the plan. We hear them retell how they learned of their sons’ deaths—on the evening news with their sons being called terrorists by the news reporters and that they were justly killed.


One of the mothers, after hearing Mbelo’s lengthy testimony, asks him in Xhosa—their shared language—how he could have done this. How could he have entrapped their sons? He looks down and unshed tears fill his eyes. He tells them that he is sorry. The he did do wrong. One of the mothers yells at him, saying that his apology will never bring back her son. And then, almost miraculously, there is a turn. “ Just a minute, my son,” another mother says to him. “Doesn’t the name Thapelo mean “prayer”? I see what your name means, and I don’t know whether you follow it or not. Speaking as Christopher’s mother, I forgive you, my child. Because you and Christopher are the same age. I forgive you my child, and the reason I say I forgive you is that my child will never wake up again. And it’s pointless for me to hold this wound against you. God will be the judge. We must forgive those who sin against us, even as we wish to be forgiven. So I forgive you, Thapelo. I want you to go home knowing the mothers are forgiving the evil you have done, and we feel compassion for you. … So for my part, I forgive you, my child. Yes, I forgive you. Go well my child.”


“Woman, behold your son.” “Behold your mother.” Immense pain encountered and endured on that first Good Friday so many years ago. Good Fridays are very much a part of our lives as much as I wish it weren’t so. I know many of you, like me, have experienced something—perhaps not involving your children but some painful event—that has you echoing Mary, “Don’t call me pleasant, call me bitter, for the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.” You look on as death enters in and you feel that there is nothing you can do. Emotions wash over you, and you are numb.


Jesus understands. He looks down from that cross wanting to take away the pain. And while hope and resurrection and new life will emerge, we are not there yet. At this point he can do nothing more than to make sure his mother is cared for now and into the future. He cannot take away her grief; he can only ensure that there is one to grieve with her.


And now he offers the same to us. To see one another in the midst of grief and to offer comfort. To recognize his deep love and care for each of us. To know that the overwhelming pain Mary endured ultimately provided healing and resurrection for us all. So we pray that we might see and know things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, even Christ our Lord. Amen.

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johnplacardFor many people, Christians are seen as judgmental and against things more often than they are seen as for something. (See this Barna Group report from 2007.) And, by extension, many of us (including many Christians) think God just wants to wag a finger at us for all the times we’ve messed up. The sentiment can be summed up thusly: “Why would I want to go to church, I feel bad enough about what I’ve already done and don’t want to feel worse.”

This makes me sad as Jesus himself says quite the opposite. And church is a place that can invite people to find peace, hope and love in the arms of the Almighty. My sermon for this Fourth Sunday in Lent based on John 3:14-21.


Our Gospel lesson this morning includes one of the most famous of Bible verses, the one held up on placards at sporting events. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” I cannot recall the first time I memorized that verse, but I can say it was a long time ago. The problem is that when we hear such familiar verses, we think we already know what they are about and we stop listening. So I want you to hear them again in a fresh translation.

This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.

This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.” (The Message Bible)

Continue reading Not Accusations but Love

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A sermon for Ash Wednesday 2015. 

For some the season of Lent offers not consolation but guilt. We come face to face with ourselves and God looks over our shoulder finding us wanting. We’d rather not spend time coming to terms with who we are and where we are in our journeys because, perhaps, we wish we were somehow further along.

Frederick Buechner offers this as his definition of the word “judgment.” “We are all of us judged every day. We are judged by the face that looks back at us from the bathroom mirror. We are judged by the faces of the people we love and by the faces and lives of our children and by our dreams. Each day finds us at the junction of many roads, and we are judged as much by the roads we have not taken as by the roads we have.”[1]

I can feel the guilt piling on in those words. This face of mine that stares back each morning knows the missteps and the failings all too well. The places I have not traveled and should have, the steps taken which I should have avoided. I’ve done things I should not have done, and I have not done things I ought to have done. More so, I echo the words of John Donne in asking the Almighty, “Wilt Thou forgive that sin, where I begun, Which is my sin, though it were done before? Wilt Thou forgive those sins through which I run, And do run still, though still I do deplore?” It sometimes seems too great, that God will not want to forgive. That I will not deserve it.

Yet Buechner continues his definition. He writes, “The New Testament proclaims that at some unforeseeable time in the future God will ring down the final curtain on history, and there will come a Day on which all our days and all the judgments upon us and all our judgments upon each other will themselves be judged. The judge will be Christ. In other words, the one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully. Romantic love is blind to everything except what is lovable and lovely, but Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy. The worst sentence Love can pass is that we behold the suffering which Love has endured for our sake, and that is also our acquittal. The justice and mercy of the judge are ultimately one.”[2]

Did you catch that? “Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy.” That’s what Lent is really about. It’s a time to be ruthless against everything that diminishes our joy. While it may feel easy to pile on guilt on this day and in this season, to heap on more reasons why you might consider yourself worthless, hear these words again from the prophet Joel: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

What we do on this day is to help us put things in perspective, to recognize the ways we have done things that diminish our joy in life. When we make life more about us and our own desires, or we don’t pay attention to those we love for various reasons. Maybe we do not treat others as we would like to be treated, or we allow our anger to burn inside. Perhaps we have become lazy and ignore the gifts given to us by God, or we forget our dependency on God. All these things—and other sins—diminish our joy. They take us away from the people Jesus wants us to be—his disciples who worship him as savior and lord and who seek to share his love with the world.

As we begin this Holy Season of Lent, I want to ask what you must do with the the strength of God’s love in order to experience more joy? Certainly some areas in your life are drawing you away from God—none of us is perfect—so how can you ask for God’s help? Christ sees us fully as we are in our most vulnerable of states—he isn’t duped by the images we promote or the way we hide truths from others and ourselves—and he continues to love us just the same. He loves fully, without question, no matter what we have done in the past. He only longs for us to be made whole and to experience true and abiding joy.

When we come to have ashes placed on our foreheads, we remind ourselves that this life will one day come to an end. As we remember that we are but dust, we remember as well that life is short. I hope even more so that we remember there is joy to be found in this life if we can uncover and know Christ’s deep love. When we remember that—when we know it fully—we can with God’s help open ourselves up to God’s penetrating yet loving gaze, knowing without a doubt that before a gracious, holy and loving God we stand totally in the clear. Beloved, we are dust and we are God’s. May this holy season draw us closer to God and bring us eventually to the joy that is ours through Christ’s resurrection. Amen.

[1] Frederick Buechner. Wishful Thinking. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993). Pg. 58.

[2] Buechner, Pg. 58.

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