Photo Credit: Gord McKenna via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Gord McKenna via Compfight cc

A sermon in the season after Epiphany based on Mark 1:21-28.

A couple of weeks ago I read a line from a commentator on the creation account. The theologian stated that rather than creating ex nihilo as we often espouse (and there is reason to back this idea up elsewhere in scripture which we won’t explore today), rather than out of nothing God created out of something that already existed. The world at that point had only water and darkness and chaos, and then God stepped in and God breathes life into the world. God’s first act upon the face of the earth brought redemption.

A respected biblical professor of mine once said after hearing a new idea that he would need to, and I quote, “ put that in my theological pipe and smoke it for a while.” I’ve been doing that with this concept about God and creation and redemption being God’s first act on the earth. This notion calls out to me because I think that God desires redemption for all of us too. That the reason for Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, miracles, passion, resurrection, and ascension is so that we might experience redemption. God offers us restoration, conversion. God takes the mess of situations in our lives and breathes new life into them. God doesn’t destroy the mess, mind you, God did not destroy the deep and the darkness at creation, but God sees all of it as precious and shines light and hovers over the deep and with a word life abounds.

This strikes me because Jesus’ first act in his ministry as recorded in Mark’s gospel offers life. He makes his way to the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath. He teaches the assembled congregation there, and, Mark tells us, he astounds them. Just then as they lean over to one another making comments about his teaching, a man with an unclean spirit enters in and has a confrontation with Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Then Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and it came out of the man.

Laying aside for the moment all this talk of evil spirits, I want to focus on what Jesus does. He doesn’t throw the man out or say that he is worthless. He doesn’t ignore him either. He has compassion on him. He brings this hurting man who has dealt with the demons for long enough restoration and wholeness. Jesus takes this man held captive and gives him freedom. He brings him redemption.

We can only speculate how long this man dealt with the demons of his life. While in our age post-enlightenment we rarely hold to a belief in evil spirits. Yet we do know when people are not themselves, when they have been overcome by addiction or fear or depression or greed. We do speak of the demons like that which torment others; we pray that they would not be overcome by them. We long for them to be returned to their right minds, to their former selves.

My work as a priest compels me to look for signposts of redemption. To see with the eyes of the heart the way God’s Spirit moves. To notice the shooting buds in the spring announcing the arrival of new life—and after the snow this week and more predicted to come, we’re hoping that that holds true—as well as the new life emerging from the desolate winters we experience in our interior lives. I notice it in books or movies, and I hear them when I have conversations with you. These signposts are all over if we just take the time to look for them.

Two weeks ago a new series aired on Masterpiece Mystery called “Grantchester.” Based on novels by James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, the show focuses on a 30-something single Anglican priest, Sydney Chambers, serving a parish just outside Cambridge in the UK during the 1950s. Sydney served as a soldier in the Second World War, and he has a good childhood friend—and possible love interest—Amanda Kendall who lives in London. Besides being dashingly good looking, he also has an interest in mysteries as people trust him and allow him to probe deeper into, as one person put it, matters of the heart.

Through the course of the first episode, we learn that Sydney is carrying the burden of “shell shock,” what today would be classified as PTSD. And in his sleauthing with the local Dectective Inspector, we watch as he uncovers the truth and helps people deal with the past and the demons. In his sermon at the end of the first episode, he tells his parish congregation, “We cannot erase our pasts, however hard we try. Instead we must carry them with us into the future, we must carry them with us and look forward with hope. We must look forward because to look back is to waste precious time. Someone recently said to me, ‘We must live as we have never lived.’ We must, all of us, do that: Live our lives as we have never lived.”

It is a sermon made for TV, so the message of hope doesn’t get declared as specifically as it could in 30 seconds, but he’s talking about the work of Christ, of course. He’s talking about redemption. Something he needs and is experiencing in different measures and something he shares in his ministry with others.

At our Annual Meeting last Sunday, I mentioned that I want to have 60 one-on-ones this spring in an effort to deepen my connections with all of you. Calling it “Grab Coffee with Fr. Phil,” I’m inviting you to an informal meeting. Whether we grab coffee, a meal or just a seat in the parish office, I want to hear your stories. I will be looking for those signs of redemption as we talk as well. A chance to see with you and explore the way Jesus has brought about transformation.

Because those signposts are there to be found. I’ve witnessed the redemption that has taken place in the past. The ones who have overcome the demon of addiction through the power of God and hard work and perseverance. I’ve seen marriages pulled back from the brink, and I’ve seen others who have emerged stronger from those which could not be saved. Redemption has come to children who had felt unloved by a parent, and in teens who have felt the weight of the world pressing in on them.

And there are signposts yet to be discovered. I believe very much that God brings transformation and redemption into our lives, and I believe very much that God’s work isn’t complete in us in this life. Putting it another way, perfection is not to be found in this life. We will continue the journey, there will be times of difficulty and things to overcome with God’s work in us, and we will continue to receive redemption. Some of you may be in a darker spot right now, dealing with grief either known or unknown, or experiences that suffocate you. There is hope to be found. Jesus’ powerful work continues on.

I may not know the demons you carry on this day—the things that burden you and crush your spirit—but Jesus does. And he longs to offer you hope. To release you from those things, so that we can live as we have never lived before. God’s work of redemption began at the very beginning, and it will continue on throughout our lives. Jesus meets us every week at this table, offering us a chance to experience deep love and healing. Through him we can be transformed and live lives full of his gracious abundance. Amen.

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Photo Credit: HumanityAshore via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: HumanityAshore via Compfight cc

My sermon from our Annual Meeting at St. Mark’s a few weeks ago (the snow has really taken a toll on a lot of areas in my life).  It’s based on Mark 1:14-20 and I make reference to a hymn “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee” — the text can be found here.

I’ve always loved this story and the hymn we just heard. This seemingly quaint idyllic version of the call of those first disciples who dropped everything and immediately followed Jesus. But if you were paying attention to the words we sang, you’ll have noticed the references to Peter and John’s martyrdom. The peace of God brimming in their hearts; it broke those hearts in two. The peace of God, it is no peace; yet we are to pray for just one thing, the marvelous peace of God.

The president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, David Lose suggests we preachers as our congregations this question: “Can [you] imagine picking up and leaving everything to follow Jesus?” Can you envision leaving career and family dependent on you and your close friends and your home to follow an itinerant preacher? While my initial response to that question is “of course” or “I have already,” I say so with my home and family rooted to the place of my ministry, a warm bed to lay my head on each night, and a good idea of what work I’ll be doing tomorrow. If I ran home to the rectory grabbing my backpack and filling it with a few things, telling Melissa and the kids and the wardens that I was heading off to follow Jesus more closely, well, I can imagine that many would be in shock or downright flabbergasted. And yet that’s what happened with these fishermen, except they didn’t even run home to pack a small bag. They just followed Jesus.

Thankfully, I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants from us at all, nor would St. Mark the gospeler expect us to do so. Jesus had walked the face of the planet already, had died a painful death, and rose and ascended gloriously. So, we might ask, how are we to follow Jesus now? And, possibly more to the point, will it cost us as much as it cost them? Will we too experience this peace of God that is no peace? Could we be brave enough to pray for its presence in our own lives?

There have been a number of books written recently about the rise of contextual ministry for a church. A parish connected to its local community, its neighborhood. For too long in Christendom churches became isolated, ignoring the people around them. However, in overlooking those right in our own backyard, we also overlooked the kingdom. In their fantastic new book titled The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community, Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen describe that this old model of church often created us-them mentalities. When churches are destinations and disconnected from both their neighbors and other local worshipping communities, it becomes far too easy to focus about our own livelihood. Yet, they suggest, there is a better model for church. “Follow Jesus,” they write, “into your neighborhood with fellow followers of Jesus. Allow the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ to form your imagination for faithful presence.”[1] Be within the midst of the community; engage in mission work in your neighborhoods.

This leads us to a life lived in community for ourselves too. Getting to know one another deeply, both the good and the not-so-good. Sparks and his co-authors write, “It is in the everyday stuff of life that love moves from the realm of spiritual ideas and becomes a costly gift, giving back more than it takes. It’s in the quotidian that forgiveness and repentance cease being merely theological categories and instead become the currency of rooted relationships. The same is true of mercy, hospitality, kindness [and] service… Your Christlike transformation is linked to the people in the place where you are.”[2]

What I want to say to you church on this annual meeting Sunday is that we’ve made progress on that journey. We have in recent years moved more and more into a place rooted here and seeking to share the message of Christ’s hope to those near us. Our commitment to Straight Ahead Ministries and the boys held in lock-up has been a concern for us for many years and is continuing to expand. We eagerly take our part with Our Father’s Table in Marlborough to feed the hungry in this town to our north. A Parish Care Team with shared leadership of many and especially Rosemary Nelson and Andrea Wyatt is gaining traction in a desire to reach out to those in our own community who are experiencing the unsettling waters of life transitions. Our Bargain Box ministry continues in a strong tradition of over 60 years offering quality pre-worn clothes to many of those who really need them. Youth ministry is flourishing under the leadership of Melissa LaBelle and Kristin Romine with much assistance coming from other parents of teens like the Pearls, Kinslows, Barnes and more. Children’s ministries have been strengthened the past few years with a level of dedication from parents and kids in being present for our Sunday school, and adult faith formation has grown in the past year as well.

We’ve done great work. We have followed Jesus faithfully.

And there is still more we can do. The kingdom is not yet here. People, even here in our parish, feel alone at times and are hurting. We need to both offer and experience forgiveness. I am reminded of a good friend who spent a long time looking for a parish to join. A recently divorced man, he attended churches alone. Far too often he got passed by during the peace, ignored at coffee hour even though he faithfully tried to engage. “You don’t know the stories of those who come through your doors,” he reminded me. Treat them with welcome, love and care.

I hold on tightly to his words. People come to St. Mark’s whose stories we do not know. They come to find God’s peace and solace and community. This is true for those who have just walked through our doors for the first time this morning and those who have been here for years on end. We need to live more fully into that community to help everyone here feel welcome and a part of our live together.

And I am more and more utterly convinced that the church is not here for us but for the world. We come together to worship God and find healing and be fed at Christ’s table, but we do so not just so we can feel better or experience peace, but so that we can take that peace and love and share it with others. It starts in our own community, but it has to spread out to our own neighbors and family and friends. That’s how we become those who fish, not seeking to ensnare others, but by extending a hand or expressing gratitude or sharing a random act of kindness to others inviting them to be followers of Jesus too.

And I must be honest: this work is costly. It does bring God’s peace, most certainly, but that peace can cause divisions in our world. Love does that. We hold on to much fear in our world and so when love gets expressed, especially the unconditional love Jesus embodied, sometimes others strike back. Look at Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fight for equality that still continues on. Or the perception held by some that the poor are merely failures of lives they’ve created. Sometimes we enact laws to get rid of the problem of the homeless, like Fort Lauderdale, Florida which passed a law this fall that banned outdoor feeding programs unless you had a permit, and a slew of portable toilets. That didn’t stop 90-year old Arnold Abbot who had started a feeding program years ago in memory of his late wife who gave so much to the poor. He was arrested. He said, “One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon…It’s man’s inhumanity to man is all it is.”[3]

With the terrorism in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, we get suspicious of any who look like they’re of Arab descent. Words such as “deportable” get thrown around by our politicians to describe other human beings. That’s the way of fear. It is not the way of Jesus.

If we are to live in the way of Jesus and become those who fish for people, it will cost us. I suspect it won’t be our physical lives like John and Peter, but it will be our ideal lives, the lives we dream about. It might mean that we live on a bit less to share God’s abundance with others. It may be that we give up an evening or a weekend to visit with someone or to help build an affordable house for someone else. It will mean moving the focus from ourselves and opening the eyes of our hearts to others. And I know that in the end that really is the ideal life we dream of even as it comes in a way we don’t expect.


Friends, we continue to move in that way here at St. Mark’s, the way of Jesus. It is a journey, and a costly one at that. Our hearts too can brim with the wonderful peace of God. And it is my prayer that this peace which brings healing, while so very costly, would move in each of our lives on this day and in the year ahead, and that we would share that marvelous peace with others both here in our community, in our neighborhoods and in our world. Amen.


[1]Sparks, Soren, Friesen. The New Parish (Intervarsity, 2014) Pg. 46.

[2] Ibid, Pg. 48.


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Photo Credit: X2N via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: X2N via Compfight cc

1st Sunday after the Epiphany, The Baptism of Jesus — Based on Genesis 1:1-5

The beauty of space captivates me.  Anytime a news story about the vast expanse of interstellar space appears online, I’m hooked.  Like the one this week about the double star Eta Carinae which is hidden behind a dust nebula that the pair created.  What’s fascinating for scientists is that bright flares have been sent out by these stars which may signal a change in their stellar winds and ultimately lead to a supernova.  This double star is 7,500 light years away, so we’re safe on earth but it will be a tremendous light show if it happens in our lifetime.

Equally as fascinating to me is this simple truth: we know more about space than we do about the ocean depths.  NOAA—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—claims that as of right now we’ve only explored 5% of the waters in the world’s oceans.  Much of the deep waters of the sea are deep enough to stack the Washington Monument on itself 20 times over—some 13,000+ in depth.  The deepest part of the Pacific Ocean is measured to be 36,200 feet below the surface of the water.  That’s over a mile higher than Mt. Everest if it were turned upside down.  The amount of pressure on your body there would equal what you’d feel if you were holding up 5 jumbo jets by yourself.

And so when the beginning of Genesis declares that the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, it is not hard to imagine the chaos churning underneath when a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  In the beginning when God created something of the earth existed, but complete and utter turmoil ruled.  So God’s first acts within our world bring redemption.  God’s ordering of the tumult ushers in new life as the Spirit of God broods over the deep.

This work of God’s Spirit is remembered in the Methodist prayer used when consecrating the waters of baptism: “Eternal Father: When nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the dark waters and brought forth light.  In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.  When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt, you led them to freedom through the sea.  Their children you brought through the Jordan to the land which you promised.  In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb. He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit. He called his disciples to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection and to make disciples of all nations.”  The water of baptism brings redemption to us, God brings order to the chaos churning from the work of sin in our lives in the deepest parts of our souls.  God’s Spirit, through the water of baptism, sweeps over us bringing order.

I am not surprised that John’s baptism included a confession of sins.  As most of us know, confession, while difficult, is good for the soul.  When we do something that is destructive to us or our relationships, guilt can pile on—like the force of 5 jumbo jets pressing down on us—making us miserable.  Pandemonium can reign, one bad decision leading to another.  Through all of this, as Frederick Buechner puts it, the force of sin pushes others away centrifugally, we become more and more isolated in the mess of despair.

Two days after Christmas a bicyclist in Baltimore riding in his designated lane, Thomas Palermo, got hit from behind by a driver, who then panicked and fled the scene.  Thomas, a 41 year old father of two, flipped off his bike crashing into the windshield.  He sustained life threatening injuries and succumbed to them after being transported to the hospital.  The driver of the vehicle, according to reports, came back to the scene twice, 20 minutes later which led her to flee again, and then 45 minutes later when she stayed to accept responsibility.  The only reason I know anything about this story is because the driver happened to be the recently consecrated Suffragan, or Assisting, Bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.  Bishop Heather Cook told officials she was in shock and therefore left the scene; her vehicle sustained such significant damage that it wasn’t as if she didn’t know she had been involved in an accident.

In the days immediately following, reports came out about an incident in 2010 where then as a priest Cook had received a DUI.  While much speculation took place about this in conjunction with this recent tragedy, it wasn’t until Friday of this week that we learned that Bishop Cook had indeed been driving drunk when she hit Thomas—registering nearly 3 times the legal limit on tests—and had been texting as well.  We’ll never know if Heather had stopped and contacted authorities whether Thomas might have survived.  We only know that she didn’t, and her actions did not reflect the expectations many of us have on our clergy to be the presence of Christ in times of crisis.  Bishop Cook was immediately put on administrative leave, and presentment charges leading to her dismissal as a cleric have been filed with the Presiding Bishop’s office.  Today she’s in a jail cell awaiting the process of justice in the courts. 

While there is much I could say about this, I only want to say two things regarding this, echoing our own bishop here in Massachusetts who responded to a question about this earlier this week.  First, the Diocese of Maryland put out a statement early on regarding Cook’s previous DUI.  In it they told us that the bishop’s search committee had learned about this earlier DUI, but felt certain that Cook was fit to serve.  They wrote: “One of the core values of the Christian faith is forgiveness. We cannot preach forgiveness without practicing forgiveness and offering people opportunity for redemption.”  While I agree wholeheartedly—I couldn’t serve as a priest if this weren’t true—this statement released a few days after the incident didn’t help given that a man lost his life, and it appeared as if there was already a call to offer forgiveness to Bishop Cook again.  While forgiveness and second chances do happen, the reality of accountability and significant repercussions do not instantly melt away.

Secondly, as someone who is descended from a line of alcoholics—three out of four grandparents, and both of my parents for parts of their lives—I can only say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  While never drunk—my family’s history is too much of a painful thing for me to give in to the siren call of excessive alcohol consumption—I’ve certainly been distracted while driving by electronics or fiddling with the radio.  I will not cast stones at Bishop Cook, but I will call for accountability and for the improvement of the  process we use in selecting clergy and bishops.

But even in the midst of that, most importantly I am struck by the tragic loss of Thomas Palermo, a man just a couple of years younger than me who had many joys in his life yet to experience, especially with his wife of seven years, Rachel, and their children Sadie who is 6 and Sam who is 4.  I am struck by the ever present real consequences of sin and the damage it inflicts on so many.  I hope you will join me in remembering with your prayers all those whose lives are in ruins due to this situation.

And while I certainly pray that none of us experience such things, I know all too well the way sin brings tragedies in other ways.  I’ve seen how anger clouds the vision of people who are unable to see the image of Christ in another person and they seek to destroy them.  I’ve watched as a wandering eye has led to the destruction of the sacred trust in a marriage.  I’ve helped others pick up too many pieces of shattered bits from their lives due either to their own indiscretions or those of loved ones.  Sin leaves chaos in its wake, and it is no respecter of persons.

But just as the Spirit of God hovered over the deep at the beginning of time, so God’s Spirit longs to sweep across the deep within us bringing order to our chaos.  We are, all of us, deeply loved by God no matter the depth of the disease within us.  God wants nothing more than to lead us on the journey to fullness of life, longing for us to come to our senses and recognize the need we each have for God’s ordering of our lives.  There may very well be consequences to our past actions that we must face and seek to make ammends, but new life can only begin in this way.

Today as we reaffirm our baptismal covenant, may we each recognize how stunning it is to be loved by this God who created both space and the ocean depths, who brought about life in our primordial history, and who longs for all of us to be freed from sin’s snare.  May we remember Thomas and his family and Heather and her’s too, along with those whose lives have been damaged by the sin in our hearts.  And may we find renewal as God’s Spirit moves in us.  Amen.

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Christmas 2 based on Matthew 2:1-12

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; Amen.

I’d like to start this morning with a bit of biblical background.  For those at my adult forum talk a couple weeks ago about Mary this will be old news, but given the reaction there by some I want to be sure we’re all on equal footing when it comes to the Christmas story.  In Matthew’s gospel the focus of the birth narrative is on Joseph.  Primarily this is because Matthew wrote to a largely Jewish community and they would have wanted to know about the patriarchal line and the connection of the Messiah to David.  God had promised to David that one of his heirs would reign forever.  So Matthew begins by telling us that Jesus was the Messiah, a son of both David and Abraham and then spelling out the entire genealogy.

And then Matthew describes how Joseph learns that his fiancee Mary is pregnant, and he’s told by an angel in a dream to take her as his wife because it isn’t how it looks: Mary’s child was conceived through the work of God’s Spirit.  And then Matthew writes this, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus” and then the bit we just heard about Jesus being born in Bethlehem and the wise men following that star.  We don’t hear about the registration that drove Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem or the shepherds and angels or the manger and swaddling clothes on that first silent night.  Mary and Joseph seem to be living in Bethlehem already.  She gives birth and there is no fanfare at all so they begin their life together as a family.

Matthew wants us to notice this key detail in the narrative: Herod asks about the timing of the star’s appearance in the night sky.  We didn’t read it, but we find out a few verses later that it had been about two years since that star had risen in the east, and, presumably, Jesus’ birth.  So Jesus is a toddler by the time the Magi arrive, and they come to the house in Bethlehem where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are living, not the stable (again there’s no mention of this at all in Matthew’s gospel).   So that’s where we begin today, nearly two years after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem where the Holy Family has been living for some time (and presumably longer than from the time of Jesus’ birth—Mary and Joseph are from Bethlehem in this gospel and they’ll eventually get to Galilee by the end of this chapter but it’s a new location for them).  While we like to squeeze the birth narratives from Luke and Matthew together in our imagination and for our Christmas pageant, they are clearly distinct and very different from one another agreeing on only a few details: Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary and her fiancee Joseph in Bethlehem.

I say all of this not to crush the idealistic image of Christmas in your mind, but to say it’s important to pay attention to scripture.  This, of course, is exactly what the wise men did.  They read plenty of scrolls and paid attention enough to know that when the sign came—a star rising in the east—that they needed to follow it to pay homage to this new king born among the Jews.  They were not Jews themselves, but wise men from the East.  We too should faithfully and diligently read scripture to notice the ways God moves in our world.

So they came, these wise men (and notice we don’t get a number, so it may have been three and it may have been ten, we just don’t know for certain).  They inquire at the likeliest of places for the birth of a king, the royal palace of Jerusalem.  This new king isn’t to be found here, so the scholars are called in to determine the exact local. They come up with Bethlehem and pass that information on.  Notice that even though they also knew the scriptures, they didn’t act on it.  These scribes had all sorts of knowledge, but it did not cause them to act.

The wise men then notice the star moves and soon they arrive at the house of Mary and Joseph, common folk and not royalty, in this small town of Bethlehem.   Joy rains down on them.  The exchange at the door must have been a bit awkward—like when anyone comes to your door and you presume they must peddling something—but these wise men soon get invited in and are made to feel at home.  Certainly they explained about the star and their pilgrimage these past many months and about Jesus being a king.  They then pulled out these gifts from their chests—gold and frankincense and myrrh—and presented them to him.  We aren’t told much else, if Mary and Joseph shared tea—a Middle Eastern staple—or possibly a simple meal together.  We only learn that the wise men are warned in a dream not to travel back the same way nor are they to give any more information to Herod.  So, Matthew writes, they head home by another way.

The tradition of gift giving during the Christmas season—we are on Day 11, by the way, and have another two days of Christmas—this gift giving comes from these wise men.  We open up our treasure chests and give gifts to those we love.  Of course, the birth of Jesus is a part of God’s gift to us: the love of God incarnate given to the world.

My seminary professor, Miroslav Volf, writes about how God is essentially a giver in his masterful book Free of Charge.  He writes, “God doesn’t have to give to the world at all…. God is free to create or not.  But once God has created the world, God will always be a giver who seeks the good of the recipient.  Why?  Because God isn’t a giver the way I am a biker.  I bike when I need exercise, when I’m not torpid and the weather isn’t bad.  God gives continually and unfailing, because God is essentially a giver just as God is love…. That’s the character of God’s being not just some of God’s actions.  So God is a giver more the way ducks are quackers than in the way I am a biker.”  He then explains how we as humans can experience the divine gift exchange of the Trinity—the character of God as giver playing out among the Godhead.  He explains that “a good Christmas celebration” has the potential to point us to the divine nature.  He writes, “Most of us can imagine Christmas gift giving at its best. Shopping is over, thoughtfully chosen its are strewn under the Christmas tree, and the long-awaited ritual begins.  Each person gives, and each receives.  No one gives first so that others feel obliged to reciprocate; all give and receive at the same time, or rather, each receives in turn so that all can rejoice with one another.  Each is grateful, each generous, and all are rejoicing in each other’s joy.  Gifts themselves are no longer just things that people need, like, or desire.  They are sacraments of love, both divine and human.  By giving gifts, givers offer their very selves.  And by offering themselves, they sacrifice nothing, because in giving, they receive more than they grant.  The whole ritual is a feast of delight—delight in things given, delight in acts of giving and receiving, delight in persons giving and receiving, and delight in the community constituted and enacted by the whole process.  When we have engaged in such giving, we have tasted the advent of God’s new world in which love reigns.” (72)

That’s what those wise men showed for us as they gave gifts to God and received joy back.  We caught a glimpse of God’s new world of love.

And that is why they head home by another way.  Herod was deeply afraid of their news.  Matthew describes in detail what Herod will do because of that fear in the verses that follow.  Fear does that to us.  Fear of the unknown, of what could happen.  And, I would bet, for many of us that’s why we don’t truly experience God’s transforming  gift of love, because we are afraid we don’t deserve it.  That something about us, something we’ve done, or some untruth we believe about ourselves, makes us unlovable.  For too many of us fear and insecurity rule inside so we cannot just accept that God’s nature is to shower us with love.

However, I firmly believe that God’s sacramental gift of love transformed those wise men, and that’s why the headed home by a different road.  They had an experience—an epiphany—that changed them forever.  Because that is truly the beauty of God’s gift of love.  When it enters in to us we are changed, and we want to share that gift with others.  God’s love is generative—it continues to grow as it is given away. 

We see how fear plays out in our world today—ISIS and racial tensions and CIA reports—and we can also see how love works too.  The stories like a police officer in Portland asking an African-American boy holding up a sign proclaiming “Free Hugs” if he can get one too, and their embrace goes viral.  Or the story about a local family who suffered a break-in and how their Christmas was nearly ruined, only to see that they experienced an outpouring of goodwill from neighbors and friends. 

As we begin this New Year and close this Christmas season, a choice lies before us.  Will we allow God’s gift of love freely given to enter in and change us or will we allow fear’s grip to keep us on the more familiar, yet destructive, path?  Will we open ourselves up to pure love or will we let it pass us by too afraid or hardened or unworthy to believe it could be given to us?  The moment has come.  The sacramental love offered to us by God has appeared again.  The star has brought us to this place.  Can we believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves us just as we are?  Will we head back to Herod or will we start our journey home by another way? 

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Christmas Day based on John 1:1-14

We have a creche that has been in my family for as long as I can remember.  My godparents—my mom’s brother Jim and his wife Linda—made it for my parents in the early 70s.  Uncle Jim created the rustic manger out of some reclaimed roughhewn wood and Aunt Linda painted the delicate figurines.  After my father died, I chose this set amongst all of my parents’ treasures to remind me of them and my godparents.  We give it a special place of prominence on the buffet cabinet in our dining room.

There’s a small light in the upper eaves of the manger that has remained unlighted until this year.  The rectory was built a 70 plus years ago and the number of outlets isn’t quite on par with a house built today.  While there’s not a plug on that wall, I decided to run a small extension cord into the family room.

I love turning on the lights of Christmastide.  That creche and the small lighted tree we bought the year we moved from Colorado since we couldn’t handle a large real one amongst the boxes.  The small candles we put in a few of our windows.  We have a tradition in our house of waiting until the afternoon Christmas Eve to light our big tree announcing Christ’s arrival.  Throughout Christmastide I enjoy getting up early and sitting near the tree with only its small lights illuminating the room.

Just this week, as I turned on the small light in the wonderful creche, I noticed something quite remarkable.  There on the wall behind it, a bit of light shone, and it looked just like a comet descending onto the manger scene.  The light came through one of the cracks in a perfect serendipitous way.  And now I can’t stop looking at that light, that star, shining brightly above the holy family and the barnyard animals and shepherds nearby. 

Light, of course, plays an important roll in the imagery for Christmas.  We heard it this morning from St. John in his description of Christ’s coming to earth.  He writes, “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And then, after explaining that John the baptizer was not the light but the one to proclaim the light’s arrival, we read, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

And so that’s what has happened.  We have been given the true gift of Christmas, the light of Christ revealed in the midst of darkness.  The darkness almost always seems plentiful, overwhelming.  Both on a global level in the midst of disheartening events taking place where injustice and fear rein, and on a personal level with the difficulties that play out in families or a diagnosis that overshadows us.  Financial realities often set in this time of year, or the loneliness we feel when those we used to spend the holidays with are no longer present with us.

Yet notice how John the Evangelist gives that phrase of reassurance to us: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  Light entered the world on this day and nothing will ever take snuff out that light. On this Christmas Day light can enter our lives too, driving the darkness far from us.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson writes about this in his poem “Ring Out, Wild Bells.”  In the beginning of the poem, he expresses his desire that as we celebrate this season near the year’s end that the bells would with their ringing send out the old and bring in the new.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

On a dark night some two thousand years ago, light broke into this world and has not stopped shining yet.  Too often the darkness we see and experience in life makes us hardened to the light.  It’s only natural for us to become guarded in opening ourselves up given the way the dark can wreak havoc on us.  But the gloom of fear and cynicism in its ability to desensitize us only drives us farther from the light.  I’ve learned that our calloused hearts need to broken open, that cracks need to emerge, in order for the light to get in.

I close with a stanza from the superb carol “People Look East.”

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim

One more light the bowl shall brim,

Shining beyond the frosty weather,

Bright as sun and moon together.

People, look east and sing today:

Love, the star, is on the way.

May the love of Christ shine into our hearts this day bringing his marvelous light and dispelling the darkness from within us.  And may we always know that his light shines on and is never, ever overcome.   Merry Christmas!

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Christmas Eve sermon based on Titus 2:11-14.

Word made flesh, life of the world, in your incarnation you embraced our poverty: by your Spirit may we share in your riches. Amen.

This past weekend Melissa, the kids and I treated my in-laws to the Old Sturbridge Village Christmas by Candlelight event.  The highlight for Noah and Olivia was a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss’ classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  No, a copy of it wouldn’t have been around in the 1830s, the time period that is recreated there, but they get a free pass for holidays.  Besides, Dr. Seuss was born in Springfield, Mass and that’s good enough it seems.

So we assembled to listen to a young woman appropriately costumed in her dress and bonnet recite this fabulous work.  We laughed along with the others as the Grinch slinked and slithered his way around Whoville.  And we waited with great expectation for that moment when the Grinch stands atop Mount Crumpet longing to hear boo-hoos when the Whos discover that their Christmas has been ruined.  Instead, as you know, he hears singing.  And then he’s flabbergasted beyond belief. 

Our host continued, “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”  Transformation comes to that old Grinchy Claus, his heart growing exponentially.  With this change of heart, comes a change of mind, and a change in his actions too.  So he sleds back down to Whoville, and he, as you know, is the one who carves the roast beast.

The trouble with Christmas Eve is that we know the story cold.  The cast is set, the parts memorized.  We long to sing familiar hymns and see this gorgeous church lighted by candles.  The familiarity certainly has intrinsic sentimental value and warms the heart, but we can lose sight of this night’s deeper truth.  While the Grinch expected to hear distraught cries once the children of Whoville realized their gifts had disappeared, we expect to hear about the familiar tale written by St. Luke. 

So I want to mix things up a bit tongiht, and turn to one of our other texts.  St. Paul in his letter to Titus distills the moment of Christ’s birth down to this: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  We don’t get the flourish of angels and shepherds who are sore afraid.  Rather, Paul offers a simple line, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

In his recently released book called Vanishing Grace, spiritual writer Philip Yancey asks simply what has happened to the proclamation of Good News.  In our overly charged political culture, many Christians have increasingly treated nonbelievers as those who are wrong rather than “someone who is on the way but lost.”  He writes about spiritual dryness, a longing deep within all humans, including himself.  “What are the symptoms [of a spiritual thirst]?” he asks. “A restless search for pleasure, fear of death, boredom, addiction—any of these can betray a longing that is at the root spiritual, the cries and whispers of someone who has lost the way.”  This image of losing one’s way isn’t used by Yancey to express a superiority; he shares his own proclivity of taking unintentional detours while out hiking in his native Colorado and the many things he learns in those experiences once he knows he’s safe.  Instead, this feeling of a spiritual thirst, of being lost but still traveling the spiritual path point to our need of grace.

And here’s the catch: grace is pure gift.  There is nothing we can do to earn it.  Often people will comment to me that they want to try to straighten out their lives first before opening themselves up to God.  Sometimes we try to give a little more time to a local charity or drop a bit more in the offering plate or be a bit nicer the neighbor’s dog in the hopes of earning God’s grace.  But that’s not how it works.  It’s simply a gift from God.

While many of us might, if it had been us in that story, grabbed that good for nothing Grinch and called in the authorities and pressed charges, the Whos  do the most amazing thing of all.  They welcome him in.  The recognized that he had just lost his way for a time.  His living in isolation with Max didn’t mean they no longer took interest in his journey.  They wanted him to change.  And when he did, they gave him the place of honor at the banquet table.

Which is exactly what God does with us.  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

It does none of us any good to simply come tonight to hear a familiar story and sing Christmas carols while dressed in our finery if we head out the same  way we came in.  We don’t get bonus points from the “Big Guy upstairs” simply by showing up because in truth there are no bonus points to be had.  Yet in showing up we get another chance to recognize the pure gift of Jesus’ birth.  We get the opportunity to realize that in the birth of this tender baby to broke parents in a tiny backwater village a couple thousand years ago our lives can be transformed today.  As one theologian put it, “In the birth of the Christ child, we see grace in human form.”  And “Grace is something we can never get but only be given.”

God is giving it to you again tonight.  Might you hear this wonderful news in a new way?  Might you truly believe that God wants nothing more than to offer your thirsty soul a long drink of refreshing water?  Could you extend your hands to receive this gift from God and allow transformation to take place in you this Christmas season?

Because that’s what this joyous time of year is truly about.  While our culture will quickly turn the page on Christmas with half off sales and shelves being lined with Valentine chocolates, we are truly just embarking on the Twelve Days given to celebrate this life-changing birth.  God’s gift of grace is meant to be received and then shared with the world.  Breaking down our own deep cynicism and fear.  Taking time to be in relationship with others.  Working against the injustices in our nation, and seeking ways to promote peace.  Sharing our attention and time with the lonely and the sick and the imprisoned and the downtrodden.  That’s what can happen when we receive the gift.  We get our bearings on this path that we’re on—God pull out the map and shows us again both where we are headed and how to get there.  And then we want to help others find their way again too.  We want everyone to experience the joy and peace that can be found by peering into a familiar manger scene with fresh eyes.

Jesus, the grace of God, has appeared again this night.  And he brings salvation to all.  To you and to me and to all the world.  May this be the gift we cherish most this year, and may we, like the Grinch, be surprised when our hearts grow bigger and we experience deep joy and delight in finding our way to God.  Merry Christmas.

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Photo Credit: Aaron Audio via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Aaron Audio via Compfight cc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Photo Credit: Grevel via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Grevel via Compfight cc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Photo Credit: zilverbat. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: zilverbat. via Compfight cc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Portaro. Pg 69.

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