Sermons

The world we live in as Americans is, to use a local phrase, wicked busy.  We are constantly on the move, running a hundred-fifty miles an hour.  We like the one-up-manship that happens when we compare schedules.

This crazy pace is costing us something. Like time to reflect on our lives. We are encourage to do some self-reflection during these 40 days of Lent, and here’s my take on why.

Lent 1B—Feb. 26, 2012

Every year on Ash Wednesday as a priest I say these words, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  They are some of the most descriptive words in our prayer book about how we are to engage in the preparatory season of Lent.  These six things that we are to undertake during our Lenten journey get this fly-by mention on the first day of Lent, but then are not brought up ever really again.

I also receive questions from folks about how to do Lent.  How to think about fasting and what it means.  Or if there is a rite of confession in the Episcopal Church.  Some have no idea where to begin when it comes to prayer, or even meditating on God’s Word.

So I am embarking on a new thing myself this year: I plan to systematically work through these calls to holy living with you, to give you my take on them, how they have impacted my life, what they mean to me.  My desire is that by spending time speaking about them you may be able to have a more meaningful Lent, and even more so, be prepared to experience a more meaningful Easter in six weeks.

It is not a mistake that the very first things we are invited to do in Lent are self-examination and repentance.  We cannot begin to even understand the practices of Lent if we have no idea where we are.  It is much easier to remain on the sidelines during Lent if we don’t feel we need or would benefit from Lenten disciplines.  So we are to take a long, hard look at our lives and see them for what they truly are.  And that can be downright scary.

But we must begin with honesty.  The reality is that many of us live our lives at such a frenetic pace that we never have a chance to take do self-reflection.  We are so caught up in the day-to-day, running errands and getting kids off to school, or cleaning the house, squeezing in the workout, planning meals, catching up with family or friends, walking the dog, yard work, responding to email, catching up on Facebook, watching the evening news, reading a book, never mind when a crisis—both big (a family medical event) or small (needing a new dryer) comes in to play.  We are bombarded by noise as well, our own personal soundtracks on our i-Devices or talk radio in the car or the tv as background noise.  There is no time for quiet and no time for reflection.  And perchance we keep up the pace and the noise and the rest of it so we don’t have to do the internal inventory.  If we keep it up, we can ignore whatever is happening on a deeper level.

So the first thing I would encourage you to do is to make time for self reflection, possibly even an hour of dedicated time to do this work.  If you have a spouse, ask them to manage the kids or the pets.  If you have a cell phone, turn it off.  If you can, get away from everything that may distract you so that you can pause and ask some basic questions.

Like this: What brings me joy in my life?  What takes me away from joy?  Or what am I doing right now that brings me life?  What am I doing that is draining me of life?  How do I spend my time?  How do I spend my money?  Am I aware of where my money goes, and does that align with things that are important to me?  Does it align with what is important to God?

How am I doing in my relationships?  Am I taking enough time to be with those I love?  Do I have an issues outstanding in my relationships, any people I need to make amends with?

Am I cultivating a strong spiritual life?  Do I do a good job caring for all that God has given me?  Do I use my gifts, resources and time  in pursuit of God’s kingdom?

I think you get the idea.  What I’m encouraging us to do is to take a personal inventory, do a spiritual check-up, to hold up a mirror to our inner lives and make an honest and thorough assessment.

And then comes the next question: what do we do with that information?  Do we allow it to overwhelm us, or do we take it as an opportunity to draw closer to Christ, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation where it is needed?  Do we, in other words, recognize sin in our lives for what it is?

The word “sin” has taken a bashing in our society over the past many years.   It is reserved for a few seemingly major offenses, and other seemingly smaller things are “problems” or difficult areas or whatnot.  Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and professor, contends that we have almost entirely lost the language of sin.[1]  Yet, she argues, that abandoning the language of sin won’t make it go away, it will only leave us unable to talk about its effect on our lives and push us more toward denial.  What has taken the place of the language of sin, Taylor suggests, are the languages of medicine and law[2]; sin explained as either sickness or crime.

She writes this, “Contrary to the medical model, we are not entirely at the mercy of our maladies.”  And “contrary to the legal model, sin is not simply a set of behaviors to be avoided.”  She continues, Much more fundamentally, [sin] is a way of life to be exposed and changed, and no one is innocent.  But that fact need not paralyze anyone with fear, since the proper response to sin is not punishment but penance. … [T]he essence of sin is not the violation of laws but the violation of relationships. Punishment is not paramount.  Restoration of relationship is paramount, which means that the focus is not on paying debts, but recovering fullness of life.”[3]

Jesus made it clear in John’s gospel that he came to bring life and to bring it more abundantly.  And in the verse immediately after John 3:16, we hear that God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world, or us, but that we might be saved.  Saved from sin, from the path we walk toward destruction.  The path that takes us further from the light of God and onward toward the darkness of all that is not God.

We get a sense of all this in our reading this morning, when the evil one comes and tempts Jesus.  The temptations—notice Mark doesn’t even give them specifically—were those things if acted upon that would lead Jesus away from God.  They do the same for us when we follow them, whatever they are.

And that’s a big point, by the way.  Sin is anything that leads us further from life in God.  Anything.  Sin isn’t just confined to a handful of wretched items—usually being done by others—but anything that moves us further from life and God’s presence.

Finally, I’d like to say this: sometimes the thing pulling us further and further from God is our own self-negation.  Some among us—and particularly those who are caretakers of various kinds—spend much of their time elevating others, yet refuse to see their own gifts or talents as anything worth cultivating.  We denigrate the very image of God in our lives when we do this, and that is something from which we must turn.

And remember, that is what repentance means: to turn around.  To recognize that God wants to be in relationship with us, and our fessing up that we’ve blown it and returning back to God.  That is in the end, what this is all about.  Restoration of relationships and community that is so strongly desired it leads to repentance and amendment of life.  St. Mark’s can be a place where this work can happen, where we encourage transformed and new lives, and where we both hold ourselves accountable and help restore us to the path of God.  May it be so.  Amen.


[1] See Barbara Brown Taylor Speaking of Sin. Cowley, 2000.

[2] Taylor, 53.

[3] Taylor, 58-9.

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We began the holy season of Lent yesterday, and I think God’s character is front and center.  Is God an angry judge, bent on destruction?  Or is God always looking to offer another chance?

Many people make a distinction between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God.” They see this as angry God verses loving God.  I think it’s because they don’t know scripture very well or because they proof text looking for passages that highlight God’s anger.

I firmly believe that Jesus was the embodiment of God completely, that God’s character was shown best in the life of Christ.  And so when you get the type of passage we heard from the prophet Joel yesterday, I still see God showing God’s true colors.

Without further adieu, my sermon from Ash Wednesday.

(Based on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 )

“Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on my holy mountain!  For the day of the Lord is coming,” the prophet Joel declares to us today.  He details how, because of the unfaithfulness of God’s chosen people, certain destruction is coming.  The verses left out in our reading give the fine details of this coming annihilation.  Fire, utter chaos, the darkening of the sun and moon, the stars losing their brightness, desolation of the city, and torment on the people.  And not just any people, God’s people, those God has chosen.  The ones who have utterly forsaken the covenant they had established with God.

“Yet” the prophet continues, giving pause to his prophecy.  “Yet,” God says, “even now, return to me.”  Joel gives this litany of what is about to happen because of the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel, and then he gives this glimmer of hope.  “Yet, even now return to me with all your heart.”  “Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”  Compassion, love, faithfulness, mercy.

As we begin this season of Lent, God’s character is at the forefront.  God is not characterized by anger, injustice or swift retribution, rather God gives second chances, fifteenth chances, even 87th chances, so the Israelites can mend their ways, and return to God even though they constantly fail him.  God’s desire for the Israelites is to have them live abundant lives, even though they often forget this.

We, like the Israelites, have taken God’s desire for our lives too casually; we have not lived fully as God’s people.  We have grown complacent—we have forgotten the poor, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, we have allowed our own selfish desires for our lives to influence our actions.  We have not seen the reality of our lives for what they are because we have been lulled into false assurances in our selves and in our world.  Just like the people of Israel, we have “forgotten God’s utter fidelity”[1] to us as his people.

And, when this happens, all that is around us begins to crumble.  We know this, both individually and corporately.  We have experienced the brokenness that sin produces in our own lives and in the life of our community. Walter Brueggermann writes, “When God’s fidelity is jettisoned, human relations become unfaithful and society disintegrates.  The purpose of religious discipline is to remember who God really is, what is promised by God, and what is required for God.”[2]  Sin, as Frederick Buechner describes it, is centrifugal, pushing others and God out toward the periphery of our lives.[3]  When we forget God’s unequivocal faithfulness to us, our relationships—with others, with our world, with ourselves and especially with God—break down.

Yet, God remains faithful.  In spite of our failings, our self-destructive behavior, our rejection of God, God stays true.  God is gracious and merciful.  God is slow to anger and is steadfast in love.

So, with this recognition of God’s faithfulness, we come to this day, to this solemn and holy season.  We hear the call from the prophet Joel to awaken from our slumber and to return to the Lord our God.  God calls us to return through fasting and recognition of how we have not lived faithfully so that we can turn around.  True repentance requires us to turn our lives in the opposite direction, to realize the way we are headed is away from God and that we can, with God’s help, return to the path towards life.

That is why we will gather at this altar rail in a few moments to receive the imposition of ashes.  With this mark we will remember what we are made of, to be sure, but we will also recognize God’s deep love for us and our need for God.  This smudged cross placed on our foreheads will show to God our desire to try once again, with God’s help, to live the lives we are called to live.  Lives of faithfulness and fidelity to the one, holy and true God.  Our observance of this holy season of Lent is a sign of our sincere desire to return faithfully to the Lord.

May this season be for us a time for renewal.  May we take a long look at our lives—what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we handle our relationships—and seek God’s help and guidance.  May we remember that we are dust, and more than that, may we remember that we are members of God’s people upon whom God is full of compassion and mercy, and that God is slow to anger and full of steadfast love.  Amen.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, et al.  Texts for Preaching: Year A.  Pg. 175.

[2] Brueggemann, 175.

[3] Frederich Buechner. Wishful Thinking, pgs. 108-109.

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There are a lot of healing stories in the Bible.  A lot.  Some people believe that you can simply name and claim the healing, as if we can mentally make God do something for us if we just have enough faith or belief.  I disagree.

But I do think sometimes God offers us the path toward healing and we think it is too difficult.  That’s the focus for this sermon.

Epiphany 6 — 2 Kings 5:1-17

“Do you want to be healed?”

I remember my spiritual director asking me that question during a very dark time of my life.  The difficulties of both my personal and professional life compounded by recent loss at that time had taken their toll on me emotionally and spiritually.   I was not at a place of shalom—peace in body, mind and spirit.  I longed for something better, for that deep sense of centeredness in my life and relationships.  I wanted to be at the place God desired for me.

“Of course!” I said to her.

She waited, patiently.  I had been in ministry long enough to know what she was asking.  Not just the quick question with the obvious answer but the one behind it as well.  “Do you really want to be healed, no matter what the cost?”  That question was a little more disquieting.  Even when we are tossed around by the storms of life, those storms become horrifyingly familiar.  They become the norm and so seeking healing means letting go of that familiarity and heading out into uncharted territory; it means pushing out into deep water.   That can be scary even when the result is something we long for.

I took some time to ponder her question again.  Did I want to be healed?

We aren’t told much about the beginning of his disease, only that Naaman was a powerful commander from a foreign land and that he had leprosy.  We can only guess that this illness not only ate away at his flesh but also slowly gnawed at him on the inside.  Leprosy causes lesions on the skin, and these infected spots rob the skin of any sensitivity to pain, heat or touch.  A cut or burn doesn’t register any response and can go unchecked for a long time.  The extremities need constant monitoring and can— due to repeated injury and infection—sometimes be lost to infection.  The disease was one of the most feared at the time, and often lepers were cast out of society.  Naaman was the exception.  His countrymen were obviously able to look past his disease while he was a great leader.  After that point, who knows.

You have to wonder what the conversation was behind closed doors at Naaman’s house.  Even though it’s not mentioned explicitly, surely he wants to be rid of this dreaded disease; why else would the slave girl from Israel speak up?  She quietly goes to Naaman’s wife and tells her about the prophet of God in her home country.  Naaman’s wife in turn tells him, and he heads off to the king requesting to be healed.

Naaman certainly held prestige in Aram because the king sends him off to the king of Israel bearing a great deal of wealth in order to buy his healing.  On his arrival the king of Israel figures it’s a set up and rips his clothes for dramatic effect.  But it isn’t a sham, Naaman wants to be healed.

Word gets to Elisha, and he messages the king and tells him to send over the foreign commander.  Naaman and his entourage and all the stuff he brought to pay for his healing arrive at Elisha’s doorstep.  Elisha remains behind closed doors and sends out his servant.  This irks Naaman.  He’s used to dealing with people of power, so to get the lowest man on the totem pole to greet him is bothersome.  “Go wash in the Jordan River seven times and you’ll be clean.”

It seems easy enough, but Naaman wants nothing to do with it.  Maybe it was his pride at having the servant boy come out to him, or maybe it was because it wasn’t fantastical enough.  “I was expecting the prophet to come out and wave his hand over me and for the leprosy to be gone,” he says.  And then he bemoans the fact that it’s in the Jordan that he’s to wash and his national pride kicks in.  Surely the rivers near his home are better than the Jordan.  But one of his hired men snaps him to his senses.  “Master, this isn’t difficult.  If it had been difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?  How much more then when all he said was wash and be clean?”

So Namaan, awakening again to the reality that he longs to be healed goes to the Jordan.  He steps in to the river and baths.  He repeats this.  And again.  And again and again until finally he’s done it seven times.  And then as he comes out, his skin is as new as when he was born and the illness is gone.

Every clergyperson is asked the perennial question of why bad things happen to good people.  Why do we suffer?  Why do some among us get terminal illnesses, or have life altering difficulties with family members, or have their marriages dissolve?  Theologians give this question a fancy name—theodicy—to try and reconcile what we know about God and how justice from God is meted out, especially in relation to evil and suffering.

My stock answer is a glorified “I don’t know.”  It rains on the just and the unjust, we’re told in Scripture.  The nature of a fallen world means that most of us—all of us?—will experience pain in our own lives.  Jesus himself experienced great loss at the death of Lazarus and died himself by execution.  I don’t for one second believe that God wants to inflict harm on us or that God takes delight in our misfortunes, rather I think it breaks God’s heart.  It tears God apart as much as it tears us apart.

I don’t know why bad things happen to good people.  But I know at least in my own life that I have a choice in how I respond.

The dark time in my own life that I mentioned led me to the wrong response.  I closed myself off.  The pain was too much to bear so I clenched my fists, pushed others away and try to muster through it as best I could.  Did I want to be healed, yes.  I longed for it more than anything else.  But to get there I needed to do one essential thing.  I needed to open up.  And that terrified me.

That may sound too therapeutic to you, or too easy or too weird.  I can only say this: often we know what step we should take to put us on the path of healing.  We need to start loving our spouses again instead of seeing the negative.  We need to listen to our children with open hearts and truly hear them.  We can recognize that healing comes in many forms—that maybe what will ultimately bring us shalom is less physical restoration and more emotional and spiritual.  We know we should say our prayers, or make that phone call or write that letter, but we hesitate.  God longs to bring us peace, healing and restoration, and the first step is there.  Go, wash and you will be clean.  God desires that for us.

Madeleine L’Engle’s poem “Epiphany” gets at exactly what I am talking about.

Unclench your fists

                        Hold out your hands.

                        Take mine.

                        Let us hold each other.

                        Thus is his Glory

                        Manifest.

 

            Do you want to be healed?  Do you want to have your relationship restored?  Your difficult time heading toward resolution?  Then unclench your fists.  Hold out your hands.  Love.  Let God’s glory be manifest in your life.  Experience the epiphany that the answer is really as easy at it seems.  Walk toward the Jordan, step in.  Let the water wash over you.  Remember your own baptism and the glory of God coming down on you.

While you may want instant results, I’ve found in life that these are rare indeed.  I wish it weren’t so.  I wish that the prophet could come out and wave his hand and the pain taken away.  But life isn’t normally like that.  We need to go down to the river.  And wash.  And wash.  And wash and wash and wash.  It takes tremendous effort sometimes, and through the process God slowly changes us and heals and restores and brings peace.

Will you do it?  Will I?  Do you really want to be healed, no matter what the cost?  Do you want God’s glory to be manifest in your life?

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My sermon from Annual Meeting Sunday at St. Mark’s.  I hope it sparks conversation about where we are headed and the work God calls us to.

______________________________

Mark 1:21-28

The church in America as we have known it is dying.  There is no polite way to say this.  The church as a destination, as a place to which people are attracted in order to get religious goods and services, no longer holds sway in our culture.  And let’s also be honest about that while we’re at it, the very reason many churches have existed throughout the 20th century was to provide goods and services.  We are known as consumers, aren’t we?  Churches have long marketed themselves as a place to find personal fulfillment in a spiritual life and to provide programs to meet that need.  But people are not wanting that sort of spiritual product any more, if we dare call it that.  Their lives are too busy, too overwhelmed, too crazy for yet another item on their to do list, and so church takes a back seat.  Many people find a spiritual connection elsewhere; they are spiritual but not religious, and many will never darken our doors on a regular basis.

 

Annual meeting Sunday is often a time to look back over the past year, discuss the highlights and then roll out some new programs and ideas for next year.  It’s State of the Union: Church Edition.  It’s a time to get you rallied behind me and the leadership of the parish and to have you be excited about the days ahead and make you want to give of your financial resources and time and maybe invite a friend or two to come to church.  It’s all about the church, this institution, and the stake we have in its long term success.

 

But I don’t think that this vision is ultimately what the church is about.  It’s not about us and the three Bs of church life—budget, bodies and buildings—it’s about the work of God being done in this community.  We are to focus on how Jesus Christ is on the move in this very neighborhood, and taking our place alongside Christ in that work.

 

I love the church a great deal—I am a company man, you know—but I believe that if we spend time making programs and events hoping it will attract people onto our campus, then we are missing the mark.  Church shouldn’t be about enticing people into our great buildings in the hopes that they will become members; it should be a place that pushes us out into our neighborhoods in order to share the love of Jesus Christ with everyone we can.  And I want to state as emphatically as I can, sharing the love of Christ isn’t done in order to get new members for St. Mark’s.  Rather, we are encouraged to be a blessing to the world, and we desire to do that without any hidden agendas.  We all know what’s it like when someone approaches us with a clipboard and a smile; we know that they probably want to get data in order to sell something to us.  And the church has done that as well in the past, so people do not trust our intentions.  Their guard immediately goes up if we meet them on the street or at the Harvest Fair and say we’re representing a church.  They think we want to convert them or get their money, or at least mine them for information so we know how to reach other people like them.

 

And the jig is up.  And that is really good news.

 

I’ve always felt deep down inside that what God wanted was more than to bring me personal happiness or the supposed “good life.”  I’ve come to realize that God wants to bring healing to all of creation.  The church is to be, as theologians have put it, “the sign, witness and foretaste of God’s reign.”[1]  We are called to live in to the reality of God’s kingdom here and now.

 

And you get an idea of what this looks like when Jesus heads into Capernaum.  He’s there, among the people, and then on the Sabbath, goes to the synagogue and begins to teach with amazing insight and authority.  While he’s teaching, a man comes in and begins disrupting all that is taking place.  Jesus can see the man is possessed, and rather than turning him away or telling him that he can’t be there or that he is too distracting, Jesus had compassion.  He rebuked the evil spirit and brought healing to that man.  He responded in a kingdom way.  Notice that Jesus doen’t first look at the man and say, “Now, would you like to become a part of this worshipping community?  Because if you do, I may be able to heal you, but only if you sign up first.”  He saw a need and took action.  The kingdom was realized because Jesus focused on people and reached out.

 

Last week I told you about 3 characteristics of discipleship, that we are called to connect, grow and serve.  I asked you to think about those things in light of our annual meeting.  I hope you did this—and if not, quick, you have 40 minutes to think of something fast!—in relation to what God is calling us to do at St. Mark’s.  We’ll talk about that over our brunch, but I also want to direct the question away from just how does St. Mark’s connect, grow and serve the St. Mark’s community, but what does this look like in our neighborhoods?  Churches spend a great deal of time looking in at themselves, in grand navel-gazing, but God wants to bring reconciliation to the world.  Christ came not to build buildings, but to be among people, changing lives, bringing healing, making a difference, to be missional.

 

The vestry and I have been wrestling with this idea of becoming more missional this past year.  Being missional doesn’t just mean doing more outreach or creating new programs or doing evangelism.  It isn’t about creating a better “destination” so more people are attracted to St. Mark’s for our great events.  Being missional essentially means engaging in God’s kingdom work in our local neighborhoods—work that God has already begun and invites us to be a part of.  It is living into “an alternative imagination for being the church.”[2]  Church not as destination or attraction, but as a community that sends all of us out so we can live out the kingdom of God in the world, precisely because that’s where God is, among the people.

 

What if this year we decided to get to know our neighbors?  What if we sat down with them, listened to their stories and engaged with them?  What if we did this, not because we wanted them to join us at St. Mark’s, but simply because Jesus tells us to do it?  Recently one of our vestry members called the Southborough Senior Center to see what their needs are.  You may have seen the news article recently that the center had to raise prices on the meals they provide due to the loss of some funding and grants.  The person she spoke with was grateful for the call, gave a full report of what has happened with their funding, and encouraged her to call back if more questions came up.  A few days later, another friend of hers saw her and reported that her name was brought up at a Senior Center meeting simply because she had shown interest with a phone call.

 

People are hurting in our world and wanting others to notice.  Marriages are facing tough times and are in need of help.  People are convinced that no one really cares about them for who they are.  They are people here today who are lonely, hurting and broken and there are many more out in our local community.  People long for the kingdom life that God offers.  We can share the transformational love of Jesus with people without trying to make them Episcopalians.

 

I need your help to do this work.  I can’t be one of a few here who engages in missional work.  God calls each of us to model the kingdom and live the good news, and God will equip us in that.  We can all make a difference here in Southborough or whatever town you live in.  God wants to engage in our neighborhoods, and we are Christ’s body, his hands and feet in this world.  Second, this year will be difficult for me and my family: my father was diagnosed this past week with non-small cell lung cancer.  I will occasionally need time to be with him and my extended family in Michigan—I’ll be traveling there the end of this week to be with him for his birthday.  As I get more information about his diagnosis, I’ll communicate that to you.  I certainly appreciate your prayers during this time, and I also know that there are others out there who are hurting as well.  How might we connect, grow and serve them and one another?  The church as we know it is changing, and a new church is emerging.  A church centered on the work of Jesus Christ.  St. Mark’s is on it’s way to being that kind of church, and I am very excited about all that God will call us to in the days ahead.  Amen.


[1] Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren. Introducing the Missional Church. 40.

[2] Roxburgh, 45.

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Here’s my sermon from 2 Sundays ago….  Getting caught up!

Mark 1:14-20

“Now when John was arrested,” comma, “Jesus came….”  So Mark begins the telling of Jesus’ ministry in the world, and then he dives right into it.  These beginning words are often overlooked for the seemingly better ones to follow, the ones about Jesus telling about God’s kingdom coming, about Simon Peter and Andrew being told how their fishing will change.  But Mark is always intentional in his writing.  He doesn’t include any word, any detail, that doesn’t play an important part in his narrative.  His is the shortest of the gospels, the one whose story feels like a sprint.  And so this phrase, this mention of John the Baptizer commands our attention for a moment.

Here is John, Jesus’ cousin, the forerunner to the Messiah, the one who proclaimed that the ways needed to be made straight, and he has been tossed in the slammer.  We know why from other gospels—he told Herod he was wrong for having an affair with and then marrying his brother’s wife—but Mark just tells us that John was arrested.  There is a sense of foreboding of course for the hearers of this gospel, because they know the details of some of what is to come—as do we—we all know it won’t be long before John is beheaded because of his prophetic voice.  And even for those participating in the unfolding of this story, there must be a permeating sense of fear.  John says God’s kingdom is coming, and then he is thrown in prison.  Surely some of his followers were wondering about their own skin, if they too were in danger.

 

And it is at this moment, in this time of fear, that hope emerges.  Jesus comes to Galilee and declares that the time has come and God’s kingdom is now here.  He proclaims to those who have gathered to hear him that they should repent and change their lives and believe the good news, the “euangellion” as it is in the Greek, from which our word evangelism comes.  Jesus holds out this beacon of hope.

 

Fear pervades many of our lives right now.  The economy continues to be rough.  People are losing jobs and making difficult choices.  Some are dealing with difficult health issues either in their own lives or those of loved ones.  Various members wait for the resolution of situations and conflicts over which they have little control.  And in the face of such things, fear reigns down.

 

“Now when John was arrested,” Mark writes, but he could just have easily written, “Now when the economy went belly-up,” or “Now when conflict and strife had their claws deep within,” or “Now when the doctor diagnosed it cancer” comma, “Jesus came…”   Hope came.  And the spark of light that he brought with him began melting fear’s icy grasp on our lives.

 

“God’s kingdom is here,” Jesus announces.  “Repent and believe the good news.”  Or as Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation puts it, “Change your life and believe the Message.”  This language of God’s kingdom has been difficult to decipher for many of us, and we end up thinking of it as some far off place in heaven, where our souls will find eternal rest.  And yet that is certainly not what Jesus is proclaiming.  Bishop N.T. Wright describes it this way. “Faced with his beautiful and powerful creation in rebellion, God longed to set it right, to rescue it from continuing corruption and impending chaos and to bring it back into order and fruitfulness.  God longed, in other words, to reestablish his wise sovereignty over the whole creation which would mean a great act of healing and rescue.  He did not want to rescue human beings from creation… he wanted… to rescue humans in order that humans may be his rescuing stewards over creation.[1]

 

If we are to be a part of God’s kingdom, then we need to be about the business of rescuing creation, we need to participate in God’s redeeming love and forgiveness.  We need to live as disciples.

 

And Mark tells us exactly how to do this.  Jesus makes his annunciation of God’s kingdom, then he finds Simon and Andrew and says, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.”  (Message Bible Mark 1:17).  In other words, the good news is about people, it’s about changing lives, it’s about evangelism and rescuing this world.  It’s about discipleship.

 

Jeffrey Jones describes the three necessary elements in the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ: deepening, equipping, and ministering—or simply put Connect, Grow and Serve. [2]  Connecting in our relationships with, first and foremost, Jesus Christ, and also with one another and with ourselves.  Growing in our understanding of faith and in the recognition of the gifts given to us by God.  Serving by “becoming more like Jesus by becoming more fully engaged in God’s work in creation.”[3]  We are to be active participants with God in the rescuing of the world.

 

Let me put it clearly: God needs you to share your gifts for the redemption of creation.  God’s kingdom is here, and you are to be an instrument bringing God’s reconciling peace and hope to this world.  You may not think that you are equipped, but that is the evil one whispering words of doubt and fear into your ear.  God calls each of us just as we are, and Jesus tells us we will fish for people.  We will do his kingdom work.

 

As we move into our 150th year, your vestry has made a bold step, spurring us toward more engaged kingdom work.  Beginning today and continuing throughout each month, we will be giving away our loose plate offerings—that is, the non-designated cash or checks that come in the plate each Sunday.  Those who pledge will continue to see their pledge contributions come to St. Mark’s, and we would also strongly encourage those who pledge to make additional gifts to outreach programs that speak to their hearts as well, and you can easily label that in the memo line if you’d like.

 

Each month or so, the outreach team will designate a charitable organization that is doing kingdom work to give this money too.  In addition, either someone from our parish involved in that ministry or some one from the organization will come and speak to us about the work being done.  Finally, there will be an invitation for you to join in that activity yourself, so that our connection to outreach is more than just financial, but hands-on as well.  For the rest of January and February that charity is Our Father’s Table, and we’ll hear about them at the announcement time.

 

Some people here may not want to give of themselves for God’s work, either because they feel they do not have the time or because they feel under-equipped.  Even my saying that aloud will cause anxiety and fear to grow in some, and others of you may well be feeling a tad self-righteous because you feel that you give enough to God.  My response to both is simply this: Jesus says the same thing to all of us, “Follow me.”  And he says that he will give us what we need in order to fish for women and men and to be about his work of redemption in the world.

 

As we prepare for our annual meeting next week, I’d like you to think about those three words of discipleship: Connect, grow and serve.  How might St. Mark’s do that work this year and into the future?  How might we live more expectantly into Jesus’ call on each of us to fish for people, to spread the joy of his kingdom?  In what ways are you being called to connect, grow and serve?  I hope you will ponder those things, and seek to be engaged in conversation next week.

 

I am hopeful for the work Jesus will do in and through St. Mark’s in the coming months.  I am expectant, knowing that the road toward God’s kingdom is filled with promise and opportunity.   And, while fear lurks even on this path, in the end God’s kingdom will fully come.  Ultimately, the redeeming work of Jesus Christ will be fully realized and we, his followers, will be honored to have been a small part in creation’s healing and rescue, and in the restoration of God’s peace and love.  Amen.


[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 202.

[2] Jeffrey D. Jones, Traveling Together, 50.  The ideas following come from this book as well.

[3] Jones, 59.

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I’ve been slow at posting the last month or so.  My apologies indeed to those who regularly read my blog.

Below is my sermon for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, on Mark 1.

And a question for you all: what sorts of posts are helpful? Would you like more on books and films?  Or more short posts on faith?

Thanks!

_____________________________________

            What does it really mean to be a Christian?

As we begin our 150th year worshipping as a community in this location in Southborough, that is the question I want to focus on with you.  What does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ, a disciple, someone who is—if we use the literal meaning of Christian—a little Christ?

For many it means showing up for worship on Sunday, and making some sort of financial contribution to the church.  This isn’t their fault (or your fault, if you hold this view), by the way.  The official designation of a communicant in good standing of the Episcopal church is one who shows up three Sundays a year and works, prays and gives for the spread of the kingdom.  Since that second clause is a little hard to define, I’ve heard it unofficially reduced to “known by the treasurer,” whatever that means.

Which is all well and good, I guess.  But that isn’t a very fulfilling answer to my question, is it?  Surely there is something more to being a follower of Jesus than that.

In my cover letter sent to the search committee here at St. Mark’s I wrote this:  “As a priest, I am greatly concerned with what happens on Sunday morning—the liturgy, the music, the sermon and the rest—since it may be the only chance many take to connect with God (and since worship done poorly can be downright painful).  Yet I am even more concerned with what happens after parishioners leave the church building, what takes place the rest of the week.  If Sunday morning isn’t anything more than an hour of sitting and standing and singing and whatnot—if it doesn’t do something or stir up something deep within us—then why bother?  Sunday worship and the ministries of the church should lead us to so much more.  It should invite us to be active in Jesus’ transformative work in our world.”

The problem with the Church and Christianity in general is that people either don’t feel prepared or aren’t really encouraged to do any type of transformative work.  If I’m blatantly honest, it’s because we clergy don’t think you can handle that sort of message, or that you aren’t interested, or we suppose that it requires too much from you.  And if I think the best way for you to continue paying my salary is for me to tell you something you want to hear, then I better make the way forward easy and comforting and not challenging to the status quo.  We set the bar very low for membership —you’re in good standing if you attend Christmas and Easter and one other service and drop a check into the plate once throughout the year–so expectations are nil.  And when we do this we become, as I’ve mentioned to you before, the bland leading the bland.

Some years ago, theologian Ronald Sider wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, subtitled, “Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?”  His book, largely influenced by polling from Barna, Gallup and others, reports that many Christians—from more conservative folks to those of us in the mainline—are not different from those who choose not to follow the Christian faith.

For example, he reports that Christians are just as likely as non-Christians to object to an African-American family moving into their neighborhood.  Physical abuse in marriages takes place as regularly in both Christian or non-Christian homes.  50% of Christian men who regularly attend church said they had viewed Internet pornography over the previous 12 months.  Divorce rates are nearly identical for followers of Jesus and those who don’t claim to be Christians.  If all the Christians in the US tithed, there would be almost twice the amount of money needed to provide basic health care and education for all the world’s poor, even after taking care of their own church budgets.[1]

Prof. Sider contends that instead of living in a counter-cultural way, many Christians live just as the culture does.  Sexual promiscuity, racism, materialism, divorce, neglect of the needy—all things Jesus himself preached against—are common among Christians.

So, I’ll ask it again, what does it really mean to be a Christian?

On this first Sunday after the Epiphany we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism by John.  John has been baptizing all those who came to him, calling people to repentance and saying that one more powerful would be coming.  Jesus soon comes in Mark’s retelling and comes down to John to be baptized, and as soon as he does, the heavens break open, a dove alights on Jesus’ head and the voice of God is heard declaring that Jesus was his beloved Son.

At his baptism, Jesus was told who he was.

And at our baptisms, we’re told who we are too.  But we have a tendency to forget.  And when we lose that sense of identity—when we forget that we follow Jesus Christ—we live like everyone else in our culture.  In short, it doesn’t matter that we are Christians.  We’re just people who go to church on Sunday.

And that, apparently, isn’t enough.

What if this year we started a pattern going forward that we became people who lived our faith in real ways in the day in and day out of our lives?  There are people hurting in our own neighborhoods who need a listening ear and a kind word, we as followers of Jesus should be doing that.  We have people in this and the surrounding communities who go without food; we can change that.  Some in our community are too sick to gather with us on a regular basis, we can visit them.  Our young people have questions about life and relationships and identity and meaning and purpose and faith and they think that most adults don’t care about them.  They could use a mentor.  Our neighbors may be unable to care for their yards or shovel their driveways, we can help them.  On any given night in Worcester County, there are over 4000 people who are on the street, in shelters or doubling up in apartments with friends or relatives because they are unable to afford or find a place of their own.  We can make a difference.

There are many in our world who have not known of the gift of forgiveness and salvation offered through Christ because they are turned off by the Church, have seen too many Christians living hypocritically or because no one has ever taken the time to share this good news with them.  We are called to be a blessing to the world.

Jesus lived incarnationally.  He was completely in the present, interacting with all those who came in contact with him.  He loved them and respected the dignity of everyone he met, loved without consideration, listened and wept and laughed and ate and drank and connected with people.  And we are called to do the same in his name.

As we begin this 150th year and as we reaffirm our baptismal promises today, may we intentionally choose to live more like Christ.  St. Mark’s can become a place where community is deepened.  We as the body of Christ can make a difference in our neighborhoods, taking time to be Christ’s hands and feet to those who live near us in Southborough and Framingham and Marlborough and Hopkinton and wherever else you may live.  We are called to remember that we are followers of Christ and that he came not to bring more and more people into churches, but to change people’s lives.  May he change our lives.  And may we carry his light into the world proclaiming his good news in both word and deed and living as a blessing to all people.  That’s just the beginning of what it really means to be a Christian.  Amen.


[1] Taken from Ronald J. Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.

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Talking about gift giving and Christmas is something I feel called to do as a priest, simply because it gets so frantic this time of year.  And especially since we hear about the so-called “war on Christmas” which foces on whether a store has the words “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” displayed.  I think the war is really about the excess in our spending which completely misses the mark around Christmas.

Anyway, what follows is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.  And here are convenient links to two organizations I mention: Advent Conspiracy and Living Water International.

Advent 3 — Isaiah 61:1-11 

            If these words from Isaiah that we heard this morning sound familiar to you, you’re right; they are.  These are the verses that Jesus reads when he is in the synagogue back in his hometown for the first time after his ministry begins.  This text for the prophet becomes Jesus’ mission statement.  It was the very reason he was born so many years ago in Bethlehem.

You would think that in order to honor Jesus’ birth we would focus on these sorts of things.  That Christmas would be a day proclaiming good news, or comforting the ones who mourn, or binding up the brokenhearted.  Instead, as you well know, Christmas is celebrated in America by a $465 billion shopping extravaganza[1].  We deal with weeks of traffic jams from people heading to the mall.  We rack our brains trying to think of the “perfect” gift for Dad (which trends down to a “palatable” gift by the time Advent 4 rolls around since we need to get this gift in the mail).  We fret over all this stuff and just hope to make it through Christmas intact.

It’s crazy really.  A billion dollar bills laid end to end at the equator would circle Earth 4 times.  465 billion dollar bills would circle it 1,860 times.  That’s a lot of money on sweaters or plastic toys or books or iPads or gift cards for PF Chang’s.  And we do it to honor Jesus’ birthday.

Do you think we should ask him if this is what he wants?

I saw a video this week put out by the people of the Advent Conspiracy—and I have a book they wrote a few years back as well.  They remind us about our excessive holiday spending and the reality that we could solve the world’s water crisis—that is, safe drinking water and clean sanitation for every human being—for $20 billion.  For 4% of what we Americans will spend on Christmas this year, we could help every single man, woman and child in the world have clean water.

Someone will say to me, “Yes, that’s nice, but my gifts are important.  I need to give Johnny that game for his PS3” or whatever it is that is on your must buy list.  And I’m not going to quibble with you about the actual gifts you are giving—or the ones that I am giving for that matter.  But I will say this, I think we’d all rather have memories and time with loved ones.  What we really want for Christmas is the relational aspect of this season, not a new toy or clothing article.  We want connectedness.  And I think this is true for our kids as well.  They want the time playing with someone else more than just a game they can play on their own.

I agree with Rick McKinley—one of the authors of The Advent Conspiracy—when he writes, “our world is increasingly fractured, yet we often mask the distance this causes with a kind of pseudo-community—we call, we email, we text, we Facebook, we Tweet, and the list goes on.  These can be important ways to keep in touch, but they can never replace the flesh-and-blood aspect of a relationship.  We need to be with each other.”[2]

That’s why Jesus came.  To restore relationships.  This list given by Isaiah and mentioned by Jesus in that first sermon highlight why the Messiah came into this world.  Jesus was born to bring life and hope to people who are hurting and broken.  The Messiah’s work is relational, fleshy, it’s in meeting the longings of people’s souls for connection with others.

Each category of person mentioned by Isaiah—the brokenhearted, the imprisoned, the captives—because of the circumstances of their lives, experienced disconnection from others.  What they wanted most was to be reconnected.  To not be cut off, pushed aside or forgotten.  They longed for community.  And that’s exactly what Jesus brought.

The Advent Conspiracy folks spend time talking about the idea of Jesus’ incarnation.  God was revealed to us through the coming of Jesus as a human being.  God wanted to interact with us, to live among us, to, as the Message Bible puts it, come into our neighborhood.  Jesus came to build relationships, and to deepen connections.  The Incarnation is “in practical terms, what it means to give ourselves to one another.”[3]  Jesus is to be called Emmanuel, God with us.  God with us!

Many of the gifts that will be opened on Christmas will be of the non-relational variety, gifts purchased under duress or with little thought about the person; gifts that are, for lack of a better way of putting, less than personal.  We’ve all gotten these in years past, and, lest we think we’re superior to others, we’ve also given these types of gifts as well.

So let’s get down to brass tacks.  What makes a gift relational?  Here are some ideas:  Give a gift card for Starbucks to a person who likes coffee, but with the following constraint, they can only use it with you, so that the two of you get to spend some time talking over that cup of joe.  Buy a puzzle or game for a young person, promising to spend time doing that activity together.  Give the gift of your presence, your company, in creative ways: making time to scrap book with someone or going for a hike when you give those new snow shoes or having someone over for dinner.

The authors of The Advent Conspiracy tell a story that I want to share.  “Relational giving means that we pay attention to the other person.  We think about who they are and what they care about,” they write.  Then they give this example.

“A father and his teenage daughter were enjoying their last Christmas at home before she headed off to college that summer.  For him, the days where beginning to blur into weeks and the little girl he was bouncing on his lap just yesterday was going to leave tomorrow.

“What did that father give his daughter for Christmas?  Two beautiful blank journals with these instructions: she was to fill one, he’d fill the other.  During the next year, which would include her final days of high school, an all-too-brief summer, and her first semester away from home, they both committed to writing: thoughts about leaving home, questions and fears, frustrations with overprotective parenting, what it meant to let go, and how it feels to watch your child become an adult.  The next Christmas, they’d exchange their journals….  No gift could have been more relational, more personal, and no other gift would stand a chance of being appreciated so warmly or remembered for so long.”[4]

It makes sense, of course, but it is also costly.  We have to invest part of ourselves in these types of gifts, and when we give of ourselves we take a risk.  Yet it is so worth the risk.  When we give relational gifts, we create memories that last much longer than the quick view and toss of the usual Christmas gift — I can’t help but think of Ralphie and Randy Parker of “A Christmas Story” fame, unwrapping socks with chagrin and simultaneously throwing them over their shoulders.

If we gave more relational gifts and spent less overall, we might also have the ability to give the gift of water to one of the billion of the world’s most needy who drink polluted water each day.  2.2 million people die each year simply because they don’t have access to clean water.  The organization Living Water International[5] can provide a person with clean water for an entire year with 98 cents.  If you made a contribution to them—perhaps in honor of someone else—you would really be working toward the mission that Jesus came to fulfill.

When we ponder the true meaning of Christmas as shown in the life of Jesus Christ, we cannot help but realize that what mattered most to Jesus was community, connections, relationships.  God with us focused on restoration and amendment of life.  He came bringing healing and wholeness, and he invites us to do likewise.  He encourages us to model our lives, and our Christmas giving, on the way he gave to others, sacrificially, wholeheartedly and without hesitation.  May we find it in ourselves this year to follow Christ’s example and give gifts that will last a lifetime and bring hope and peace to our lives and our world.  Amen.


[1] http://www.nrf.com/modules.php?name=News&op=viewlive&sp_id=1206 Accessed 12/7/11

[2] Advent Conspiracy, 71.

[3] Advent Conspiracy, 70.

[4] Advent Conspiracy, 74-75.

[5] http://www.water.cc/

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My sermon from Sunday.

Advent 2B—Mark 1:1-8 and Malachi 3

It was a classic the moment it hit the television airwaves.  “Here’s to the crazy ones.  The misfits.  The rebels.  The round pegs in the square holes.  The ones who see things differently.”  Grainy black and white video footage of famous people filled the TV screen, as the voiceover continued.  Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Jim Henson, Pablo Picaso and others.  “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

“Think different” read the tagline at the end of the ad for Apple.  Think different.

The equivalent in the Greek is metanoia, a word we heard translated this morning.  Metanoia literally means, “to think differently after” or “to change one’s mind.”  We heard it this morning in the English as the word “repentance.”  It was John the Baptist’s message.  He was sent as the messenger to prepare the way of the Lord, and he did so by saying “think different,” “repent,” “turn around.”

Mark the gospeler tells us that John was fulfilling the prophet Isaiah as the messenger sent to prepare the way.  If you’re good at sleuthing, you may have noticed that the reading from Isaiah we heard this morning that Mark is quoting doesn’t actually have the first line in it.  Mark begins his quotation, which he attributes, to Isaiah with a line from the prophet Malachi, the line which reads, “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way.”  Mark couldn’t Google the lines like we can today, and available scrolls to double check his work were few and far between, and most likely unavailable to him.  But this isn’t really a big deal in the scheme of things.  Mark depended almost entirely on his memory for these lines.  And this whole thing is fascinating to me, as one who likes to notice the details.

The line from Malachi comes from chapter 3 of that book: “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,” the prophet declares.  The entire prophecy is about how God’s people who were living in Israel after the time of the Babylonian exile had become unfaithful.  Malachi, the name literally means “My messenger, is coming to prepare the way.  So he begins calling out the ways in which the people have missed the mark.

Here are some of the things he mentions about them: they were breaking the covenant by bringing flawed animals to be sacrificed, animals they wouldn’t offer to anyone else.  Animals they couldn’t sell or use to pay their taxes.  So they brought these cast off animals to fulfill their sacrifice rather than bringing animals that were unblemished as God had requested.

They were being unfaithful in their marriages, unfaithful to the spouses of their youth and getting divorces in order to marry others.

They participated in injustice.  They defrauded laborers of wages, oppressed the widows and orphans, deprived justice for the aliens who lived among them.  They withheld the tithe from God, offering a smaller portion than what God had asked of them.  And they spoke arrogantly against God, asking why they should even bother serving God.

So when Mark mentions this line in relation to the message proclaimed by John the Baptist, I suspect he was thinking about these and other ways that we sin, or fall away from God.

Talking about sin is a sure fire way to limit your success as a preacher.  If I was hoping to be a famous tv preacher, I’d need to be saying things like, “You are just fine the way you are!  If you follow after God you will become wealthy and experience God’s tremendous blessings in your life.  There is no reason to really change anything, other than your negative thinking to more positive thinking.  And when you do, God will make you healthy, wealthy and wise,”  which, of course, isn’t something God said but something Ben Franklin said in Poor Richard’s Almanac.

John the Baptist was taking his side along both Malachi and Isaiah in preparing the way by preaching a message of repentance.  He proclaimed why sin pollutes us and is not the way of God.  Sin is anything that separates us from God.

Minister and author Frederick Buechner describes it in this way, “The power of sin is centrifugal.  When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery.”  He continues, “Other people and (if you happen to believe in him) God or (if you happen not to) the World, Society, Nature—whatever you call the greater whole of which you’re part—sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes them away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self.”[1]

Where are the gaps within your self?  As a priest once put it, the issue is often that we are “out-of-true,”[2] like a tire that won’t turn properly.  Are you off-centered, unable to be in balance, feeling like the life you are living is not the one God has called you to?  Our sin widens the gap between us and God, and us and our neighbor, and between the person we are now and the person Christ calls us to be.  When we sin, we become less and less the one God created us to be and more and more someone wanting to seek our own will over God’s will for us.

I had a good friend who went through a lot of change in his life a couple of years ago.  He faced some demons from his past.  He was honest about his drinking problem.  He fessed up to the ways he had hurt others.  He took on healthier habits.  He made strides in areas of his life that had long been neglected.  After a good 10 months in to this process he grabbed a coffee with me.  “If I had known what a difference this would have made in my life, I would have done this so much sooner,” he said to me at that Starbuck’s.  He uttered those words because he never saw himself as a person in need of change.  People around him would have said the same thing.  But deep down he felt God wanting him to go in a different direction.  So he followed that inner voice of God and sought reconciliation.  It made all the difference.

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  We seem to like our crooked paths, thank you very much.  We seem to not want to prepare the way of the Lord.

We do, however, want to prepare for Christmas.  We put up the decorations and the tree and the crèche and the wreaths so that we can get in the holiday spirit.  We play the music and get wrapped up in the busyness of this time of year.  We get it all done to get ready for Christmas in that way, but the internal work we leave for another time.  Or another year.   Possibly another decade.  Just not now.

But if we’re truly going to be ready for Christmas, if we are going to do the work of Advent, then we need to hear John the Baptizer’s message.  Repent.  Turnaround.  Make those paths straight.  If you want to hear the good news about Jesus, if you want to get ready for all that he will bring, then you need to get ready, you need to wake up, you need to turn around.

What will help you change your mind?  What will make you want to turn around?  What will make you recognize the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ?  It begins with metanoia.  It begins with thinking differently.

Because the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Are you crazy enough to believe that the world can be changed?  Are you crazy enough to believe that your world can be changed?  Imagine the way life could be.  Imagine what this Christmas would be like if you truly heard the Baptist’s call and repented for the places where you need to find forgiveness.  Turn around.  Repent.  Prepare the way of the Lord.  Amen.


[1] Frederich Buechner. Wishful Thinking, pgs. 108-109.

[2] Ian Cron Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me: A Memoir of Sorts. 2011, pg. 102.

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We had an amazing day here at St. Mark’s.  The entire community gathered for a single service to mark our desire to commit a portion of our treasure for next year.  In addition, we had a celebration lunch to mark the occassion.

It was a day of joy, of laughter and of thinking on how we can live a better story both individually and corporately.

Here’s the text of my sermon.  I hope you join us—whether a member here at St. Mark’s or not—in living a better story.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus paints quite a picture in the parable of the sheep and the goats that we read today.  The Son of Man has returned and is sitting on his throne, and the nations come before him.  He begins separating them, some on his left and some on his right.  He invites those on his right into the kingdom he has prepared since the beginning of time, because they fed him and gave him clothing and something to drink and visited him and welcomed him.

“When?” they ask.  “When were you naked or hungry or thirsty or lonely or a stranger or sick or in prison?”  And he tells them quite simply, “Whenever you did it to someone who was being overlooked or ignored—the least among you—you did it to me.”

He runs the same list with those on his left, the goats, except they never did these things.  They ask the same question, “When was it that you were shivering or thirsty or destitute and we didn’t do anything?”  “Whenever you didn’t do it for someone who was being overlooked or ignored—the least among you—you did not do it for me.”

In this image of the Last Day when we come before Christ the King, it comes down simply to what we did or didn’t do.

I read Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years a couple of years ago while I was laid up with a tibial plateau fracture, and it changed my life.  Don subtitles the book, “What I learned while editing my life,” and he talks about living a better story.  In one of the vignettes in his book, he talks about the frustration of writing fiction, because often the characters don’t do what he, as the writer, wants them to do.  As he would walk to his office in the morning after his coffee, he would dream up the plot of his novel.  But there was a problem.  “Stories,” he explains, “are only partly told by writers.  They are also told by the characters themselves.  Any writer will tell you characters do what they want.”[1]  Those of us with kids certainly know the irritation of not having them do what we might want them to do—especially when we know it’s for their own good—but characters in a book you’re writing?  How annoying would that be?

Don writes, “As I worked on the novel, as my character did what he wanted and ruined my story, it reminded me of life in certain ways.  I mean as I sat there in my office feeling like God making my worlds, and as my characters fought to have their way, their senseless, selfish way of nonstory, I could identify with them.  I fought with my [character] who wanted the boring life of self-indulgence, and yet I was also that character, fighting with God and I could see God sitting at his computer, staring blankly at his screen as I asked him to write in some money and some sex and some comfort.”[2]

As this idea percolates, Miller questions his desire to take over his own story, to not listen to God as the writer of his life.  He talks about wresting control, of hijacking the story for his own means.  But then he reconsiders.  “At first, even though I could feel God writing something different, I’d play the scene the way I wanted.  This never worked.  It would have always been better to obey the Writer, the one who knows the better story. … So I started obeying a little.  I’d feel God wanting me to hold my tongue, and I would.  It didn’t feel natural at first; it felt fake, like I was being a character somebody else wanted me to be and not who I was; but if I held my tongue, the scene would play better, and I always felt better when it was done.  I started feeling like a better character, and when you are a better character, your story gets better too.”[3]

And then he writes this, “At first the feeling was only about holding my tongue.  And when I learned to hold my tongue a bit, the Voice guided me from the defensive to the intentional.  God wanted me to do things, to help people, to volunteer or write a letter or talk to my neighbors.  Sometimes I’d do the thing God wanted, and the story always went well, of course; and sometimes I’d ignore it and watch television.  But by this time I really came to believe the Voice was God, and God was trying to write a better story.”[4]

“Be the master of your domain, the king of your castle,” we’re told by our society, but God wants to write a better story for us.  We want more for ourselves—whatever that more is—but God longs for us to have more joy and fullness of life.  God wants us to have deeper relationships with those we love.  God asks us to hold our tongues, and take a little time to talk to our neighbors.  God calls us to feed the hungry and hand out cups of water and visit the ones we know who are sick and in prison.

There have been times in my own life when I wanted create a story of my own choosing.  Times when I ignored those who are the least among us.  Times when I said something I shouldn’t have said.  Moments when I asked God to write in more of what I wanted into my story.  Things meant merely to bring entertainment, or personal gain, or to stroke my ego or to make me feel better about myself at the expense of others.

But if I keep doing that, if I keep pursuing that storyline, I may end up at the end saying to Jesus, “What a sec.  When were you hungry or sick or destitute or alone?  I don’t remember seeing you, Jesus, ’cause if I did, I would’ve stopped.  I would’ve done something.  I would have gotten you some warm clothes or tried to offer you some comfort.  Are you sure it was you, because I’m pretty sure I would have recognized you.”

The vestry, staff and I believe the purpose of St. Mark’s is to be a community that lives fully into Christ’s mission for our world.  To be those wanting to live a better story.  To be disciples who notice the least among us and who reach out to them and create a place for them to be with us.  We desire to teach our young people—and our adults too­—about the faith, and we want to have our buildings used to deepen community both among ourselves and our neighbors.  We know that there are many hurting people in this world—both in our parish and beyond our walls—and we want to be those who do something about that, who offer support and care and the chance for life-change through Jesus Christ.

And that’s why Melissa and I will be giving 10% of my salary to St. Mark’s.   Because we want to be a part of congregation that longs to make a difference in this world.   We’ve decided that there is a greater meaning to be found in life, and we want to help create a more just and humane world.  And we believe that we can fully participate in God’s dynamic mission at St. Mark’s by committing our financial resources and offering our time and talents for a common goal.

We’ve seen that when people hold out with open hands the finances and treasure that God has entrusted them with, God’s work gets done.  I know personally that when I give generously and joyfully, I live fully into the story that God is writing for me.  And I want to invite you to join with me in creating that story.  I encourage those who have found a church home here to strive toward giving 5-10% of your income to God’s work in this place.  If that is out of reach for you, or if you have never pledged before, I’d suggest that you make a commitment of 3% of your income this year—3 pennies on each dollar you make—with the hope of moving toward a larger percentage next year.  If we all made these types of commitment, we would have resources both to meet our financial obligations for the work we are already doing here, and we could expand our ministries at St. Mark’s to reach out to the ones often overlooked.

In 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the rector at Saint Luke’s Parish in Darien, CT, together with lay people there, decided to respond in a faithful way by working for those who were poor in their area and to help educate others about poverty and injustice.  They began a ministry called Person-to-Person, and began collecting food and clothing for the working poor who lived and worked among them.  P2P started in a cleared out closet in the church admin building to hold the donations they received.  This past year P2P, going strong over 40 years, helped more than 22,000 people, had 2,900 volunteers, sent 600 low income kids to summer camp, and has taken over the entire administration building on the church grounds, including the apartment Melissa and I and our kids lived in when we served there.  It was a small idea that grew into a significant blessing.

What would happen if we at St. Mark’s took action on some small ideas that we shared together?  Maybe expanding our connection with Straight Ahead ministries and providing start up capital and business advice for young men like we did for a man named Kon.  He’s turned his life around and began a small t-shirt business called “Creating Hope Apparel” in Lowell this year.  Or maybe we could offer annual mission trips for our youth and adults. We could strengthen connections we already have with Our Father’s Table or Cradles to Crayons or build on the success of our own Bargain Box.  The beauty of being a part of a faith community is that we can see a seed of an idea grow into a life-changing endeavor.  And I’d love for this sort of dialogue to be a part of our work together this next year as we prepare to celebrate our parish’s 150th anniversary.

I am so very hopeful for the future of St. Mark’s and I am so proud and humbled to serve as your rector.  As we enter into 2012, I know that we can make a significant impact in our world.  It begins with a strong commitment to Christ and to the call he has given us to serve him and see his presence in all of our sisters and brothers and especially those who are least among us.  As we make our commitments this morning for the work of this parish, may we do so trusting that God will use whatever we can give for the continued growth of Christ’s kingdom.  Amen.


[1] Miller, 85.

[2] Miller, 85-86.

[3] Miller, 88.

[4] Miller, 88.

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Jesus tells a pretty harsh parable about a wedding for a prince.  The king got it all ready and then the people invited decided not to show.  So the king gets really mad.

And Jesus thought this was a good way to talk about the kingdom.

This is yet another difficult text from this gospel, and this is how I dealt with it on Sunday.  I hope you enjoy!

Proper 23A—Matthew 22:1-14

Let’s just be honest.  The parable we just read is scary.  Especially when we start doing the one to one mapping that we like to do with Jesus’ parables to get the easy meaning.  We start by saying, God is the king and Jesus is the son getting married.  The Pharisees and other Jews are the ones who send back the rsvp card and then decide they are too busy to attend.  God gets angry, destroys the Pharisees and blows up their city, the wedding still goes on with others now on the invitation list (these would be the new Gentile Christians).  These new people come in and start enjoying themselves—or enjoying themselves as best they can, since the king is given to rage every so often, so they’re probably sitting on pins and needles.  And sure enough, the king finds one of these new attendees that isn’t wearing the right stuff, and he gets tossed out of the party to the place of utter darkness.

This image of God is pretty hard to deal with when we do this sort of one-to-one correlating.  It’s this view of God that can easily lead to a stance of anti-Semitism—which has often been done with this parable in the past—and that puts us on shaky ground.  A couple of notes about this: Matthew is writing to a primarily Jewish audience of Jesus’ disciples who have been persecuted because of their faith by the non-believing Jewish authorities.  These followers of Jesus are certainly a minority in that community, and so Matthew is a bit harsh on the Jewish leaders in his Gospel.  Also, Matthew is writing to them sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. If we were to map this parable, we could see that the destruction of the city mentioned here could allude to the destruction of Jerusalem.  If this is what God is like, this angry deity waiting to cast us into utter darkness, it can cause you to cringe or be afraid.  I don’t think that is really good news, which is what the word “gospel” actually means.  This interpretation of God is one that leads us primarily to a response of fear.

But the parable doesn’t start with “God almighty is like a king….”  Rather it starts, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…” and that makes all the difference to me.  We aren’t learning so much about who God is in this parable as we are learning what it takes to be a part of the kingdom.  That is the ultimate end for us and all of creation, the hope that we all have.  Jesus is telling us what it takes to be a part of the kingdom he is proclaiming, the one that began with his ministry, the one that continues on even now, and the one that will ultimately come at the last day.  Is there judgment?  Of course.  I cannot just wave away the judgment aspect of this parable, and if I were to do so, I would be doing a great disservice in proclaiming the gospel to you.

Yet there is certainly good news to be found in these words from Jesus.  The kingdom, Jesus says, is like a wedding banquet thrown by a king for his son.  It is a time of unbelievable joy.  The kingdom is like a huge party.  And so the king invited all sorts of friends and neighbors to the bash, and a good number of them said, “Yes! We can’t wait!  We got the save the date card, and have marked the party on our calendars.”

But when the day came, many of those initially invited changed their minds.  They didn’t want to be a part of the feast.  In other words, they decided that the kingdom wasn’t what they were really interested in after all.  They had other things to do that were much more important.  One was anxious to close on the property he was buying.  Another guffawed at the whole idea, thinking he never really liked the king or his son.  Still others decided there was too much to be done at the office, and hopped in their cars for the commute.  A few even went so far as to mistreat the messengers from the king because they were so filled with animosity and were hell-bent on deriding the king.

And so after the king responded to these ones who had rejected his invitation, he sent others servants out and called in any they could find on the streets.  These he invited to be a part of the kingdom, no matter where they came from or what they had done, they were invited to the party.  And so they came in droves, not wanting to miss this wonderful opportunity.  They came and had unbelievable hors d’oeuvres and listened to the most fantastic music, and finally were called in to the hall for dinner itself.

However, one of those who came, as he made his way to the table, was called out by the king.  He didn’t have the proper clothes on; he wasn’t ready for the party.  When asked about it, he was dumbfounded, having nothing to say at all.  And so the king had him taken out because he showed he didn’t really want to be a part of the kingdom either; he was like the ones who mocked the king.  Many are invited, but few respond in a way that reflects kingdom living.

To me, there is much good news to be found here.  Jesus assures us that entrance to the kingdom—to the huge wedding feast—is open to us all.  The ones who don’t think they have a chance of getting in because of their social standing, and the ones who may have it all together, the good and the bad.  The glorious grace of Jesus is free to all.  But to stay at the wedding feast, we must be dressed in the likeness of Christ; we must live in the clothes of his kingdom.  To be a part of the kingdom Jesus proclaims, we must try our best to live in that way even now.

In our parable, this sort of kingdom living is best demonstrated by the generous hospitality of the king.  God swings wide the doors and takes anyone who shows up.  We are often much more cautious in our own lives,  especially when we talk about opening up our home to guests.  We agonize over cleanliness and having the perfect place to entertain.  If it’s a dinner party, we worry about the chipped plate on the bottom of the stack in our cupboards.  We think hospitality is somehow only possible if we are perfect.

Yet that is so far from what hospitality means.  At its core, hospitality asks us to open up our lives to one another.  To share of ourselves.  To sit around a table, or go for a walk, or grab a pumpkin spice latte and share our lives and listen to someone else as she shares hers.  The kingdom is like a party, a place of enjoyment, of shared connection around a dinner table.

As a college student I experienced this sort of hospitality at a professor’s house.  On Friday nights, Jim and his wife would open up their home to as many as a dozen undergrads and other professors to share a meal.  The menu ranged from homemade pizza and salad to beef curry and homemade bread.  Even more important on that menu was grace filled conversation.  We discussed the words from our college-wide convocation gathering, or the movies we had seen or books we had read.  We laughed often and on countless occasions someone would run to grab a dictionary or a cookbook or atlas to make their point.  We spoke of our travels and experiences and so much more.

Those moments changed me in more ways than I could imagine.  I developed deep friendships.  My love of cooking grew as a result of those dinners.  I felt profoundly cared for and totally accepted for who I was.  It was a wonderful gift.  It was kingdom living.

It isn’t by accident that we gather each Sunday around this table to eat and drink.  In the early church, this was done in homes, and so the bread and wine and prayers were shared in concert with the eating and talking around the table.  There is sacredness in the meals we share both here and in other places, be it in the parish hall or at the Red Barn or in our homes.  Nora Gallagher writes, “The early Christians practiced some form of an early Communion ritual… [and] these early communities almost always had a meal together.  In other words, the ritual was linked to actual food, a real meal, a gathering of friends over dinner.”[1]  They opened their doors to whoever came and wanted to be a part of the community.  They exemplified kingdom living by showing generous hospitality.

What might that look like for us today?  I think we have a tendency to shun getting together in our homes because of desiring perfection—be it the perfect house, meal, family or whatever.  We tend to not reach out to those around us because of fear of the unknown.  Often we don’t serve at the soup kitchen because we aren’t sure who we will encounter there.   We don’t share who we are or what we are experiencing either because we don’t make the time or because of fear that we won’t measure up.

But Christ’s kingdom compels us to a life of generous hospitality.  Of sharing our lives.  Of telling our stories and listening.  Of serving.  Of welcoming others into our midst both here at St. Mark’s and in our homes.  And through all this, making our faith real and visible and relevant.

May we become those who exhibit the generosity of God to others.  May we be people who open up both our homes and our lives in order to cultivate deep friendships.  May we live as those both invited to life in the kingdom and those who make the kingdom manifest in our own lives.  And may we yearn for the hope of the kingdom yet to be, that day of true joy and feasting and communion together with Christ.  Amen.


[1] Nora Gallagher, Sacred Meal, pg 102.

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