The prophet Joel implores us today with these words from the Lord. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

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This holy and sacred season of Lent is an invitation from the Church for all of us to return to the Lord.  To seek out spiritual practices; engage in personal reflection; share our resources with others; read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the words of Scripture; seek forgiveness through repentance; and make our way back home to God.

[callout]A sermon based on Joel 2[/callout]

Because it’s easy to get distracted and get off track. It’s easy to get sucked in by what Frederick Buechner terms “the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us.”  It drowns out that still small voice of God that Elijah heard in the utter silence.  It distracts us, turning our attention away from God and the things that draw us closer to God.  And so we need to make time in our lives to intentionally return, to re-center, refocus, and re-establish our connection with God.  To realistically face ourselves and where we have been and where we are.  To see those patterns that pull us away from God, and make amends. Continue reading Return to the Lord

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It pays to pay attention to words. 

Good writers make sure that the words they use illuminate the story or the idea they intend to communicate.  Placement matters.  Words and phrases are carefully chosen and given their order for a reason.

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Saint Matthew is a good writer.  We can visualize the scene he’s describing for us; Jesus, Peter, James and John head up a mountain by themselves, slowly hiking up the trail.  Once they reach the top, Jesus changes before them. His clothes become dazzling white.  His face shines brightly.  And then two others instantly appear and begin speaking with him.  Matthew tells us it’s Moses and Elijah—they represent the Law and the Prophets, the foundation of Holy Scripture. 

[callout]A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany based on Matthew 17:1-9.[/callout]

Peter gets all gushy and proclaims that it would be spectacular if he and the Zebedee boys could build a few shelters for Jesus and his friends.  And while he’s still exuberantly speaking, the fog rolls in.  However, rather than dimming things down, it shines brightly too.  Suddenly a voice from the cloud declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

Continue reading Listen to Jesus—Don’t Be Afraid

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During my senior year of college I ran across a passage from Mark Twain from his autobiography about how he always preached in his humor, and that because of this humor would live forever, that is to say, about thirty years.  He was comparing himself to other humorists who had gone before whom the world had forgotten because they didn’t do this.  And then he concluded: “I am saying these vain things in this frank way because I am dead person speaking from the grave.  Even I would be too modest to say them in life.  I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead— and not then until we have been dead years and years.  People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier.”  It was that last paragraph that stunned me.  About people ought-ing to start dead.  About how we aren’t our entire and honest selves in this life, in the present time.

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And so on this Sunday I stand before you not as the me in the here and now, but the me in the future.  Nine years from now, to be exact, on February 8, 2026.  When these same lessons will be read once more in these walls, and I will climb the steps to this pulpit to proclaim the good news to the congregation assembled on that day. 

Continue reading Taking the Long View

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January has become a time for me to look back and take stock.  Not because of the New Year—frankly I rarely do New Year’s Resolutions, and certainly not ones involving diet as the 12 Days of Christmas aren’t over yet, and Melissa’s birthday is January 5th.  (Let me assure you, celebrating your beloved’s birthday by skipping the cake is not a good idea.)  Rather, January includes a ministry trifecta for me including my priestly ordination, my arrival here at St. Mark’s and our annual meeting.  So I tend to reread my ordination vows and the sermon my friend Rich preached on that day a dozen years ago; I dust off my very first sermon preached from this pulpit 6 years ago; and I look at the previous year on iCal, or rather, “Calendar” as the folks at Apple are now calling it.

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On that snowy Sunday 12 years ago when I became a priest my colleague and mentor Rich Simpson said this to me: “First: you are called to preach the gospel. There are many in the Church today—on all sides of the theological debates we are engaged in—who are so desperate and so scared that we are in danger of suffering from a kind of spiritual amnesia about what that true calling is all about. As preachers we are not called to defend an ideology (either on the right or on the left) but to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.

“Do so with courage and conviction, trusting that it really is the path toward abundant life. Too many preachers are afraid to trust the gospel because it will upset the status quo. Fear is the greatest enemy of the gospel: fear of lost pledges, fear of empty pews, fear of disappointing the bishop. Don’t be afraid to trust the good news, and know that the true measure of your ‘success’ will not be found by how full or empty the pews are or how well the annual pledge drive goes or what your colleagues say about you.”

Living the gospel of Jesus does indeed lead us to fullness of life.  And it is not easy.  It challenges us to choose compassion over indifference, the welfare of others over ourselves, love over fear.  It is far, far too easy to imagine that this business of being a Christian is about us.  About punching our ticket to get to heaven and then skipping along merrily on our way.  Or that it’s there to use as a designation when convenient but without much allegiance.  Or to imagine God as a cosmic vending machine only to get what we want.  But the call of the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, does not focus on us.  The focus centers on Jesus himself, on the Living God, and his light which draws all people to him and his gift of forgiveness, redemption, grace, and abundant life.  As disciples of Jesus, we have the privilege to share in that call.

My priestly ministry has been shaped by Rich’s call to preach the gospel bravely.  Six years ago this month I stood before you with joy and apprehension wondering what the days—and years—ahead might entail.  My first sermon to you ended with these words: “Jesus is inviting us into a better story.  He wants us to follow him and live a life that is so much more than the ones we live by ourselves.  He encourages us to come and see now, not to stand on the sidelines waiting for some elusive future moment.   When we engage fully in the things of God, we not only live a better story, we also work with God as co-participants in transforming the world.

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

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

That’s been the work we’ve been about the past 6 years.  How to live as disciples.  How to live into Jesus’ call to follow him.  Throughout that time we’ve focused on ways we could Connect, Grow and Serve—those marks of discipleship.  How we could deepen our relationships with God and each other welcoming others into our midst; how we could strengthen our understanding of faith and the way of Jesus; and how we could serve alongside our neighbors living out the Good News. 

Work that we continued this past year.  We rectors like to use our annual meeting sermon as a sort-of “State of the Parish” address, ticking off accomplishments from the year gone by and then mentioning those that we hope to accomplish in the year ahead.  But that smacks a little bit of the “success” Rich warned me about focusing on.  I’m going to let you do that work yourself by reading through our Annual Report if you haven’t already, and focus on just two things from this past year. 

First our Youth Group.  We’ve watched our youth program grow significantly in recent years and flourish under the steady leadership of Melissa LaBelle with significant help from Kristin Romine and many others. We had 23 teens and adults travel to Harrisburg this past July to clean and sort and love and talk and feed the people of that community sharing Christ’s love.  This Fall we had a huge influx of 6th grade students, including many from outside our church who have been invited by friends to join.  These teens feel accepted and find a safe place to be themselves, have fun and learn about the way of Jesus.  And it has grown beyond the abilities to manage on a volunteer basis.  We have begun a search for a Youth Director and are committed to invest in this group of important and beloved members of our community.  Children and youth are not the church of tomorrow, they are the church of today.  Their gifts and ideas about the faith make a significant difference in our life together, and we will continue to love them and value their contributions to our parish, inviting them into all aspects of ministry.

Second, our Neighbors for Peace initiative.  A year ago we began a journey toward getting to know our Muslim neighbors.  We’ve had meals together, gotten to know one another through conversations and worshipped together this past Thanksgiving.  My life has been enlarged by these interactions.  These connections need to be solidified in the year ahead, especially in light of the recent direction of our political administration.  Let me be clear, refusing refugees, marking people out based on their faith, and vilifying the other based on ethnicity is antithetical to the way of Jesus.  We are called to live into Jesus’ call, life and teachings, and it is my intent that we continue to do so. This work has become much more important than ever before, and we will continue it with vigor in the days ahead.

Which is the center point of our reading from the prophet Micah today.  After asking if God wants the sacrifice of animals, the offering of rivers of oil poured out before the Almighty, or even the giving our our firstborn, we get this response:  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with our God.  As followers of the Living Word, we must accomplish the work of his justice in the world by lifting up and caring for the lowly.  As those who journey in the Way, we are called to delight in mercy and kindness to all people including those who are very different from us.  As disciples of Jesus, we need to spend our days walking with humility in devotion to our God whose desires for us are summed up in two simple commands: Love God and love your neighbor.  And in case we missed the point, Jesus shows us in the parable of the Good Samaritan that everyone is our neighbor.  No one is excluded.

As followers of Jesus, we are people of the Word and of the Table.  What we hear and do leads us back to the altar—to the Eucharist—to be fed and reminded of the self-giving love of Jesus.  As his body in the world, we are called to do the same.  Rob Bell writes, “Our destiny, our future, and our joy are in the Eucharist, using whatever blessing we’ve received, whatever resources, talents, skills and passions God has given us, to make the world a better place.”  (Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 162)  The Gospel compels us to share the message of hope that Jesus has given to us.  To be a blessing to the world.  To work for justice, to respect the dignity of every human being and to love God faithfully.  Friends, we have been doing that work these past years together and before us lies much more work to do. 

And so we press on.  We move ever forward into the way of Jesus.  We work for the kingdom of God which Jesus ushered into our world and which will finally be realized on the day of his return.  Until that day we will not lose hope, trusting in Jesus Christ and the unsurpassable love of God for our world and continuing our journey forward as his disciples.  May it be so.  Amen.

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What does it mean for us to follow Jesus?  That’s the question before us today as we watch Jesus come alongside these fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Peter and Andrew were casting a net into the water, Matthew tells us, when Jesus walks by and says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and they do.  Just up the road another pair of brothers also fish, and he presumably says something similar to them.  They also follow him, leaving behind both the boat and their father without even a second thought.

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From that place, we’re told, “Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and and every sickness among the people.”  And these four, Andrew, James, John and Peter travel with him. Continue reading Getting Lost by Following Jesus

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The year 2016 will be one we remember for quite some time.  I’ve noticed that some years of my life fade into oblivion, to some far corner of my memory with nothing of substance with which to catalog them.  I can recall a memory or two from those years to be sure, but then I will rack my brain trying to decipher if the incident I am remembering happened when I was 8 or 12, if it was 1978 or 1982, or if Olivia was 3 or 5 when something happened.  These past 12 months however will not be like that.  A contentious election, the horror of Aleppo, the rise of hate-filled violence against religious and ethnic minorities around the globe, the abundance of fear.

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And yet in spite of the year we have had, in spite of all that we have seen and the unimaginable images that have become reality, life still goes on.  We gather to celebrate again the coming of the Lord, the birth of this babe.  We come to the manger and stand among the animals and shepherds and angels and witness this amazing gift yet again.  This one named Jesus was made flesh, and he dwells among us.

John’s gospel focuses less on the story of it all and more on the theology.  Continue reading Shine in the Darkness

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The Muppets created one of my favorite adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I think perhaps it’s due to Waldorf and Statler—those crotchety critics of The Muppet Show who hung out in the balcony making wisecracks—who both show up as the ghost of Marley, two brothers this time, Jacob and Robert.  Upon their arrival at Scrooge’s house that fateful Christmas Eve they sing in grand Muppet fashion, “We’re Marley and Marley, avarice and greed, took advantage of the poor and just ignored the needy.” They go on to detail their awful past including the year they tossed an entire orphanage out into the cold because they couldn’t pay the rent.  “I remember all the little tykes standing in the snow bank,” crows Statler, “With their little frost-bitten teddy bears,” replies Waldorf, the two of them cackling like they always did and then groaning due to the shackles they now wear because of their lack of care for the poor.

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They continue by telling Scrooge, “You’re doomed for all time, Your future is a horror story, Written by your crime, Your chains are forged, By what you say and do, So, have your fun, When life is done, A nightmare waits for you.”  Scrooge of course sees this encounter as the nightmare already, and wants to slip back into a sleep pretending it didn’t really happen. We all know he’s in for a long night as he faces his past, his present and his likely future.

“For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all,” St. Paul writes to Titus, his brother in the faith, echoing the message that angel brought to the shepherds on a midwinter night some 50 years prior.  Continue reading To Be Good Again

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It’s the 4th Sunday of Advent and even we members of the Advent police who try to hold out on humming Christmas carols until the night of December 24 have been loosening our grip some.  Advent focuses on preparing, of course, so you can’t just sit on your hands and wish those cookies to bake themselves; we don’t have wands to help us do that. If we want the holidays to be special—to be perfect—then, by  God, we’ve got to get ready.  It’s only 7 days away, so the time is now.

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And our Gospel lesson shows the shift too. If you were paying close attention to the gospel reading, you’ll see it slipped in Matthew’s full birth story.  It’s contained in a single verse.  Joseph takes Mary as his wife, she bears a son and Joseph names him Jesus.  That’s it in it’s entirety.  Not much, I know, which is why we like Luke’s better with the donkey and the manger and angels and shepherds, the one we’ll hear next weekend.  We’ll get there, I promise, but first we have to talk about Joseph and the lead up to Jesus’ birth.

[callout]A sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 [/callout]

Continue reading Letting Go of the Perfect Christmas

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Here he is again.

Every year it’s the same, John the Baptist showing up on the banks of the River Jordan on this Second Sunday of Advent.  He’s shouting that message of repentance because God’s kingdom is on its way.  And next week when we light our pink candle—the one some call the “Mary” candle, although it’s really about “rejoicing” —he keeps hogging the stage.  Two weeks, my friends, two full weeks of this wild prophetic man on the banks of the river baptizing people and munching on crickets. That’s half of Advent.  Half!  So someone out there thinks his call to repent deserves our listening ears as we get ready for the Incarnation. Perhaps we should.

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The voice of one crying out in the wilderness proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Continue reading Repenting to Uncover the Peaceable Kingdom

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Since September I’ve been preaching on the Marks of a 21st Century Disciple, and I’ll be continuing the series until May.  The importance of this lies simply in the reality that many of us feel unsure about discipleship, about how to incorporate it into everyday life.  To live in the way of Jesus and follow the path he showed us in his life and teachings. 

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So up to this point those marks include:

  1. Recognizing that we’re lost.
  2. Seeking the wisdom found in vulnerability.
  3. Living with gratitude.
  4. Praying even when you think all hope is lost.

[callout]A sermon based on Luke 18:9-14.[/callout]

Continue reading On the Path Towards Humility

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