Sermons

Thoughts on recent world events and what it means to followers of Christ.  Jumping off from John 18:33-37.

Over the course of the past couple of weeks, events in Paris—and, as many of us discovered afterward, also in Beirut—have grabbed ahold of our minds and hearts. This week we add to it Mali, a country I’d suspect most of us couldn’t place on a map unless we have visited West Africa. Additionally, we have the Syrian refugee crisis and our own hyper-politicized run-up to a presidential election next November adding to the frenzy.  Fear and bombastic rhetoric and calls from varying positions on how to respond have flooded the airwaves and the web.  The noise is overwhelming, and the issues are reduced to snappy soundbites.

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What’s a faithful Christian to do?  How do we follow Jesus and think about these complex issues in a way that reflects Christ’s kingdom?

Today we celebrate the Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday or simply The Reign of Christ.  We’ve reached the very end of our Church year and next Sunday we’ll be flipping the calendar to begin again with the First Sunday of Advent.  On this Sunday we focus on the future hope that we have when Jesus reigns forever, and how we can embody that kingdom in the here and now.  We’ll be reminded in the weeks ahead about what Jesus’ first coming looked like as we welcome him again.

Continue reading Terror, Fear and Jesus’ Kingdom

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Each Autumn we invite parishioners to make financial commitments for the following year, pledging to give a portion of their income back to God. Some treat this merely as fundraising and see it as a necessary evil. I disagree. Money has a significant pull in our lives, and often that pull is to keep it or spend it on ourselves.  But God invites us to do something radical, to see it as a gift and offer it back.

While the specifics are for St. Mark’s Church, I think yo may be able to relate to it as well.

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Consecration Sunday Sermon — Based on 1 Samuel 1:4-20

Imagine something you’ve always wanted. Perhaps a cabin up in the woods of New Hampshire, or a cottage out on the Cape. Maybe it’s the job that brings together all your talents and gifts.  Or finding peace in your home, or having a relationship restored.  It could be that elusive degree or the book you’ve always wanted to write but never had the courage to pursue.

Now imagine being bullied for not realizing your dreams. Family members sitting down over the Thanksgiving table reminding you about the ways you have failed. Each day bringing an unwanted reminder of how your wish hasn’t been fulfilled. Continue reading The Greatness of Sacrificial Living

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Many of us are surrounded by people. Family, co-workers, those folks we see at the soccer field or stand with at the checkout line at Target. Yet often many of us feel alone, disconnected, uncertain.  It’s like we’re fish out of water.  Or maybe fish in the school who wonder about our place there.

At my parish, we’ve been talking about out passions—those things that bring us life and joy.  Those conversations, and this great story from the book of Ruth, gelled for me.

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Ruth is a stranger in a strange land.  Early on in the book named after her we learn that she’s a Moabite woman, and not from the land of Israel.  She does, however, marry an Israelite man who had come to Moab with his mother, father and brother to avoid the ravages of a drought.  During a span of ten years, Ruth’s husband dies, as does her father-in-law and her brother-in-law too.  Her mother-in-law Naomi—having lost all of her family— is stricken with immense grief, and decides to return to Israel. She says her goodbyes to her two daughters-in-law, and begins the journey home.

But Ruth follows Naomi.  “Your land will be my land, and your God my God,” she tells her.  Naomi politely refuses her, encouraging Ruth to stay in Moab and start a new life, but she refuses. These two widows, one a little younger and one a little older, set out together.  And Ruth becomes a stranger in a strange land; a Moabite woman living in the land of Israel.

But when they get there, they are destitute; they have no way to make a living.  Ruth is industrious, and she gleans behind the reapers in the fields of a man named Boaz, who just happens to be a 2nd cousin once removed—or is it a third cousin twice removed?—of Naomi and her family.  Regardless of his official connection, Boaz is kin.  He looks kindly on Ruth instructing the fieldworkers to leave something extra to be gleaned—to not harvest all of the grain in the field—so Ruth and Naomi have a little extra to eat.

Additionally, Naomi wants some security for Ruth, so she begins concocting a plan.  She tells Ruth to wash and anoint herself, to put on her best clothes—that is to leave the time of mourning for her first husband, Naomi’s son, behind—and then to go to the threshing floor late one evening and pay attention to where Boaz lies down.  She’s then to go and uncover his feet and lie next to him.  She does all this, and then, at about midnight, Boaz awakens, very surprised to find a woman lying at his feet.  He wraps her in his blanket, and asks her to stay the night with him.  She does and then quietly slips out in the morning before it gets too light out for the others to see her.  He tells her that he will act as her kinsman-redeemer, the one who is able to bring her security and marry her, if he can.  There’s another relative—someone a step closer than he is—who has the option first of marrying her and receiving the land of the family (remember women couldn’t own land in that day).  As it happens that relative would like to purchase the field but doesn’t want to marry a foreigner, so he declines.

But Boaz loves Ruth and marries her.  Ruth conceives and gives birth to a son. All the pain is redeemed; there is laughter and joy where there once had been tears and despair.  Oh, by the way, this son is the grandfather of the most well-known king in Israelite history.  Of course Ruth and Boaz also happen to take their place in the genealogy of another king to be born many years later, whose name just happens to be Jesus.

One of the things I’ve learned through the course of my ministry is that there are a number of lonely people out there.  We are busy and overwhelmed as we juggle families and careers and volunteer opportunities and medical issues and all the rest, but even in the midst of all that busyness, people feel tremendously alone.  They believe that the issues and loss and demons and hurts that they are dealing with are theirs alone to bear.  They think this either because they feel unable to tell the truth about their lives, or they believe that they are the only ones experiencing difficulty and the rest out there have it all together.  So we become isolated and insecure and pull back from the community we so desperately want and need.

Almost every evening at the dinner table we do a form of the daily examen.  This practice, established by St. Ignatius, looks back and reflects on the day.  So we’ll ask What is something good that happened today? or What brought you joy today?  The question’s corollary is also asked: What didn’t feed you today, or what took joy away?  I’m amazed again and again that our answers around the joy often includes relationships—time we spent together throughout the day, or maybe a meal with a friend.  We talk about the games we played or kicking the soccer ball together.  And, also just as telling, the times that took joy away often include the times when a relationship broke down, a disagreement with a friend, or when one of us acted inappropriately toward someone else.  Times when the connections were lost.

A few of weeks ago we wrote down our passions, those things that brought us joy and life and made us feel most ourselves.  Those gifts, given to us by God, that brought out a deep sense of authenticity in our identity, that this is who we are.  Family and reading and walking and the outdoors and singing and helping others and hiking and gardening and crafting and a whole host of other themes emerged.  Two weeks ago, upon seeing those passions in a word cloud, we broke up into small groups to reflect how we might connect with one another.  You all talked and talked and talked. What emerged included book studies and walking clubs and maybe a talent show or a cooking class.  Some suggested doing a community dinner for anyone in our town or hiking trips or engaging in mission work.  Some suggested we support families by bringing in outside speakers or opening our beautiful church building up to local concerts.  The list generated spoke of great possibilities centered on the ways we could connect.

Last week our new presiding bishop, Michael Curry, was installed at a glorious service at the National Cathedral.  Bishop Curry has spoke of his deep love for Jesus and his desire that we engage in the work of the Jesus Movement.  In a video introducing himself and his passions he says, “God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the Way.  He came to show us the Way to life, the Way to love.  He came to show us the Way beyond what often can be the nightmares of our own devisings and into the dream of God’s intending.  That’s why, when Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words ‘Follow me.’ ‘Follow me,’ he said, ‘and I will make you fish for people.’ Follow me and love will show you how to become more than you ever dreamed you could be.  Follow me and I will help you change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.”  (See the video and transcript here.) Bishop Curry then invited us to go out into the world, because the time has passed when the world just shows up in our churches, we must go out into the world to share this good news of God’s deep love.

Because the nightmare for many is loneliness.  It is not experiencing love.  It is feeling as if there is nothing truly worth living for, and giving in to despair and hopelessness.  What if our God-given passions, our love of writing and cooking and singing and sports and our families and all the rest, what if these things and the way we connect with them are an opportunity for us to bring love to the world?  What if the opportunities to share our lives with one another over a meal or in discussing a book or in taking a walk through the St. Mark’s woods, what if they are meant to bring about redemption in someone’s life?

Because that’s why we gather each week and hear these amazing stories of God’s redemptive work and are fed at this table: so we can bring God’s love to the world.  We don’t come just for our own needs or healing or restoration—although those things do often happen—we also come to find bread so we can share that bread with others.  We come to experience love and connectedness so that we can offer those to the ones who continue to live in the nightmares of this world.  The lonely and forgotten and hurting ones who live in our midst every day.  They need Jesus.  They need to know that God loves them. 

God is in the redemption business.  God takes a desolate desperate foreign born woman and makes her the great-grandmother to the most beloved king of Israel.  God can take our hopeless situations and create more life in them that we could ever imagine.  And God wants us to share in that work.  God wants us to realize that the things that bring us the most joy in this world is deepening our relationships with one another.  It’s in looking beyond our own wants to the needs of others.  It’s in sharing ourselves with someone who is hurting.  We are called you and I, as the parish of St. Mark’s to change the world through the sharing of Jesus’ love.  Can we do it?  Will we do it?  Will we open ourselves up to that love to experience our own redemption and then share that love with others? 

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All Saints’ Day, November 1, is a Holy Mashup. It’s got some elements from Easter—the white vestments, the paschal candle and baptism—and it’s got some from the burial office — we remember by name many who’ve gone before, and at my parish have a memorial walk with stops at local cemeteries.  It’s a little of both, or maybe they’re all three harbingers of the resurrection.  Keep reading for my sermon for this All Saints’ Day.

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Based on John 11:32-44 (and a nod to all the readings).

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

It’s a little odd, isn’t it, hearing the refrain we use during Easter?  We don’t say it outside those Great Fifty Days, and yet this day sure does look and sound like an Easter service.  We have white vestments, and the paschal candle is out and lit.  We’re renewing our baptismal covenant, which when said outside the rite of baptism is found in the liturgy for the Easter Vigil.  While the hymns today don’t have as many Alleluias as you might find on Easter morning, there are still plenty to be heard.

If you’ve ever looked at the Burial Office in our Book of Common Prayer, you may know that most of the readings we heard this morning are suggested as options for that service too. And, in case your wondering why I’m bringing up the funeral liturgy, let me read this note found on Page 507.  “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy.  It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.”  Which is why when we gather together for a burial the white hangings are out and the paschal candle is lit (even if it’s Lent).  During the Commendation, the priest will declare “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Easter, All Saints and the Burial Office all focus on the resurrection. They all focus on the hope we have as Christians. Continue reading A Holy Mashup: All Saints’ Day, Easter and the Burial Office

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Joy and Hope

Joy and Hope. Photo taken at our apartment at Saint Luke’s.

Nine years ago this week I preached this sermon at Saint Luke’s Parish in Darien. That congregation loved me through the unexpected death of my mom and the joy of new birth with the arrival of our second child a few months later. Whenever I read the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark’s gospel—like I am this week in preparation for Sunday—I think about all of this again.

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Mark’s Gospel doesn’t give us much in terms of background on the story of blind Bartimaeus. We don’t know how often he would gather himself together to go and sit beside that road outside Jericho. We don’t know how long he had been blind, or what caused his blindness. At some point in his life, his eyesight was lost, and he had to learn how to stumble around in the darkness making his way through life. And so he was there that day sitting in the dust trying to scrape together a few coins so he could buy some bread.

Then he hears a crowd coming up the road, and then someone says the name Jesus, and he wonders if this is the same Jesus he’s heard about.   He asks those walking by him as the crowd gets nearer, and finally he learns that it is this same Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. And so blind Bartimaeus stands up and begins shouting loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” He’s shushed by those around him to be quiet, but he gets even louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Sometimes in life we are blindsided by something that leaves us numb. Things come at us so quickly we can’t quite distinguish where we’ve been or where we’re going. We drift. We stumble around in the dark. We hold out a hope that maybe things can change. We long for wholeness. And so we offer up a prayer, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

 

Sitting in the living room next to a hospital bed that has been delivered to my parents’ house by hospice care. I hold my mother’s hand; it’s colder now than what I used to remember. It’s only been five months since her diagnosis with cancer. The news came fast and in varying waves of good and bad: first a small lump, and then the possibility of more. And then nodules in the lung, but then two non-related stage 1 cancers, a very rare but positive diagnosis. Surgery followed, but recovery was slow. And then the call that brought me home.

The oxygen machine whirs nearby, helping her breathe. I whisper my love into her ear. I recount stories from my childhood. She smiles, and coughs out a laugh. She tells me how much she loves me but the surgery has proven to be too much.

My dad, brothers and sisters and I take turns by her side. We sit near her and pray. We squint back tears. We walk outside, and run to the pharmacy and try to plan meals. We play games with my nieces and nephews out on the back patio. Early on during those last two weeks, she sat in a wheelchair under an umbrella to be with us. Later, she is confined to the bed, and later still she is unable to talk. And then one morning her heart begins to beat more slowly, and we gather around, joining hands, praying. I anoint her with oil and give last rites. I kiss her one last time, and stroke her hair.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

 

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks Bartimaeus. It’s an unreal sort of question; he must have been stunned. What went through his mind? Was he thinking how this could be happening to him, how his luck had changed?

I imagine he couldn’t truly fathom that Jesus was standing before him asking him what he wanted. He probably couldn’t take it all in. One minute he was begging beside the road wondering where his dinner is coming from, and the next minute he is being asked what this miracle worker can do for him. The words come rushing out of his mouth, “Teacher, let me see again.”

Bartimaeus wants the same thing all of us want. He wants to be healed. He wants the numbness to be taken away and replaced with something else, something he can’t quite put his finger on. He knows for certain that he doesn’t want to remain as he is. He wants to see again. He wants to be made whole.

And Jesus looks at him and says, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he can see again. He sees Jesus and the crowd of people, he notices the way the sun’s rays dance on the dirt road. He turns and looks at the city gates and the people coming and going from Jericho. The world is opened before him in new and unexpected ways.

 

It’s two months later, and I am sitting next to another hospital bed, Labor and Delivery at Greenwich Hospital. I hold Melissa’s hand as we await this new little one who is about to join us. Even though we don’t know the gender of this baby, we are convinced it’s another boy. We share stories and laugh between contractions and try to catch some rest. And then in those last painful moments of pushing, a new little one begins to cry, drawing in those first breaths of air and the doctor says, “It’s a girl!”

We are stunned. And then immediately, a wave of unexpected healing and joy and emotion wash over us both. We look at the face of this new little daughter, and try names on for size. We remember one of the last conversations Mom had with us about the baby, and how much she loved one particular name. We look at this dark-haired little bundle of crying humanity, and we know what we should call her.

I go out into the waiting room and make phone calls. I call my sister. “It’s a girl!” I shout. “What’s her name?” she asks. “Olivia,” I say. “Olivia Hope.” “Mom would have loved it,” and I know she’s right. I go back into the room and hold Olivia, and the world is opened up before me.

 

At the end of our story Bartimaeus makes an unexpected turn. He’s been made whole, and Jesus tells him he can go back home, but he knows his life will never be the same. He gathers his things and begins following Jesus. Every time I read this story, I am struck by that last line, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”

What stuns me most of all is the very next sentence, the one we didn’t read, which details where Jesus is headed. You see, as soon as Jesus heals Bartimaeus, Jesus turns his sights toward Jerusalem and the triumphal entry. The very next scene details what the way of Jesus really is, it is none other than the way of the cross. Even though Bartimaeus is given wholeness, Jesus himself walks toward brokenness. It is this way that Bartimaeus walks in too; it is this road that he chooses to follow Christ along.

 

When we brought Olivia home, our 22 month-old Noah couldn’t quite get out her name. After giving it some deep thought, he shortened it. I point to his sister and say, “Who’s that?” “Hope,” he says. I am struck, befuddled. He hears her fussing in the other room and says, “Hope crying.” He gives her a kiss and says, “O Hope.” Over and over as I look at my squirmy, smiling daughter I hear him declare that promise of new life, that promise of hope.

And that really is the way that we join Bartimaeus on when we choose to follow Christ. We walk the way of the cross—it’s true—but it is none other than the way of life. When we are made whole, we see that there is no other way in our lives. It’s only in our brokenness and our blindness that we can fully understand the gift of life given to us by Jesus. It is only when we are healed that we can truly comprehend the significance of the cross. And so we walk in this way of his, knowing that it is only Jesus who can truly have mercy on us. Jesus is the only who can bring healing to our lives. He is the only one who can lead us into the way of hope. Amen.

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Passions3

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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