Sermons

It’s 9 months till Christmas. I’m not telling you this because I want to induce you into a frenzy of pre-Christmas shopping, but because we remember the Annunciation on this date March 25.  This is the day, tradition holds, that “the angel Gabriel from heaven came, With wings as drifted snow, with eyes as flame,” as the familiar hymn puts it.

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This confluence of the Annunciation and Good Friday is rarer than you might imagine.  While this is the fifth time since 1900, it won’t happen again for another 141 years, in 2157.  Realizing I won’t ever have a chance to reflect on this connection again, I want to do so with you tonight.

One of the privileges I have as a priest is to learn pretty early on about the expected birth of a child.  Couples come to me to share the joy of the pregnancy—especially if they’ve had trouble before and have asked for my prayers—and want to know a bit about the protocol for baptism. Joy and wonder and excitement come in to play as these couples contemplate what it will mean to be parents. Trepidation finds its way to the foreground as well as they wonder if they’ll make good on their desires to be loving parents for this new baby. Such wondrous expectation is set in motion.

Which, while not having the usual circumstances, had to be true for Mary as well.  She had that unbelievable visit from Gabriel.  He told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” She gives her  simple assent when told of God’s plan. Surely she wondered about what it meant, how this little one growing in her would reign.  And what did the angel mean by “forever”? Would this child live forever?

But now on this same day some thirty years later, Mary sees her son strung up on a cross.  Surely she remembered the angel’s words then too, and pictured Jesus as the babe she wrapped in those swaddling clothes. 

How could this be part of God’s plan?  He was to be the Son of the Most High God, and yet he’s been put to death like any common criminal.  As she stood there at the foot of that cross being comforted by John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, her heart was ripped out of her chest.

John Donne, metaphysical poet and priest in the Church of England, wrote a poem in 1608 titled “Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day.” Here are a few stanzas:

At once a Son is promised her, and gone;

Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;

Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,

At once receiver and the legacy;

All this, and all between, this day hath shown,

The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one

(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)

Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.[ref]http://fullhomelydivinity.org/articles/john%20donne%20poem.htm, accessed 3/20/16[/ref]

This day abridges Christ’s story down to “Hail, Mary” and “It is finished.”  The favor of God rested on her, and the work God gave to the Son came to an end as he breathed his last. “At once a Son is promised her and gone.”

On this day a fast and a feast collide.  We rejoice with Mary at the promise of this child, and we weep with her at his cross. Perhaps this collision helps us understand more readily the true depth of Jesus’ work.  Far too often we wish to skip over this day with its denial, its flogging and death.  We want to avoid the pain and the sorrow in order to arrive at the new life. We want for the Annunciation to coincide with Easter, for there to be only joy.

But that is not how it is for us or for Mary.  When I listen to your stories about the times of great pain and disappointment and then of the subsequent renewal and healing, I know the end is sweeter after having gone through the difficulty first. I do not wish the pain on you, or anyone else for that matter, but the tears make the rapture so much more fulfilling. And the tears cannot be avoided.

When we gather and read the Passion on this day, I secretly want for there to be a different ending.  For the ones who gather here at the foot of the cross to see Jesus respond to the mocking and come down off that tree showing everyone he is in fact God’s Son.  I want for there to be joy and laughter and a great feast to be shared. I want it to be only a feast.

Instead we will continue as we always have and always will—even when the Annunciation and Good Friday once again happen on the same day—we will watch as he breathes his last and his body is taken down and is laid carefully in that tomb.  We’ll remember that this day was intended to be part of the work that God sent him to earth to accomplish.  That in order for there to be redemption and salvation, Jesus needed to experience the utter worst this world could hurl at him. 

And while Mary stands there remembering Gabriel’s visit and Jesus’ first steps and his tween years and his turning that water into wine and his healing touch and his forgiving love, we will sing that plaintive song that causes us to tremble, tremble, tremble.  More than anything else we will remember that he was named Emmanuel, God with us.  For just as we stand with Mary and all those huddled around the foot of his cross today, so he stands with us as we experience the Good Fridays of our lives.  And we can only be grateful that Mary opened herself up to the tremendous joy and heart-wrenching pain of being the God-Bearer.  Amen.

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A sermon for the beginning of the Paschal Triduum on Maundy Thursday based on John’s Gospel.

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The story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and his washing of their feet cannot be told without the backdrop of the Passover.  The event of the Exodus—the liberation of the children of Israel from the oppression of the Egyptians—is the defining moment in the history of Judaism.  Jews from the time of Moses to this present day gather to remember the meal eaten hastily with their bags filled and waiting by the door.  They remember the plagues and the passing over of the angel of death due to the blood on the door posts.  They remember the joy of finally finally being made free and throwing off the shackles of injustice.  And so they gather in the spring of every year to share in the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of the Passover, to remember the beginning of their new life as God’s chosen people.

Jesus and his disciples have the story of Israel’s deliverance in mind as they gather for that Last Meal.  They remember.

We gather on this night to remember as well. We remember how Jesus gave that new commandment—the mandautum novum—that his disciples needed to show self-giving love to one another.  They needed to serve as he served them.  The new life he called them to had at its foundation a deep and abiding affection for each other and for the world that needs to be expressed through their actions.

In a sense, we gather to remember those words and deeds from long ago as they gathered to remember words and deeds from even longer ago.  Our collective remembrance through the work of this liturgy must include recalling the message of the Passover too.  For Jews, the Passover ushered in deliverance and new start, and as Professor Claudia Highbuagh puts it, “For Christians, Holy Thursday is the beginning of new life in faith.”  This evening we recall the change of direction that Jesus brought about when he took a basin and pitcher and began washing his disciples’ feet, and when he shared bread and wine.  These symbols and actions propel us to remember the point.

But let’s be clear on what the point actually is.  Minister Suzanne Woolston-Rossert writes, “The Passover framework reminds us that what is at stake at Easter is not just a beautiful liturgy or a time of joy, but the very crux of life and death itself.  Liberation is the point.  Christ wants to roll away the stone upon our chests. What is suffocating and killing us?”  She asks this question to rattle us awake from our all-too-familiar spiritual slumber; the very thing that Jesus sets in motion this evening is our utter and complete liberation from everything that keeps us from experiencing God’s love.

The two biggest of those being either our pride—thinking we’re fine on our own, thank you very much—or our shame—thinking that we will never be good enough for God’s love.  It’s what keeps people in their seats when it comes to foot washing: “I don’t need to experience this, I know what it means enough already without engaging in the practice,” or “My feet are too ugly or dirty or weird that I cannot let another person wash them.”  In both cases we remove ourselves from the power of remembering God’s love for us, of Jesus’ call to love one another.

So let me ask that question again, “What is suffocating and killing us?” What is keeping us from truly engaging in the life that God has for us?  What do we need to be delivered from?

For the Israelites it was easy to determine this: the oppression stemmed from Pharaoh.  But even in the simple naming of it, they couldn’t become free on their own.  They needed divine intervention.

As do we.  Tonight we remember the last meal shared by Jesus and his followers.  Tomorrow we’ll watch as his life is taken from him.  God’s plan for deliverance costs a great deal, but it finds its meaning in a deep and profound love.  Pastor Woolston-Bossert asks, “What would it mean for us to finally understand that God’s longing for us is so great that God will do anything … to wrest us away from the suffocation of our slavery?” 

What is keeping you captive? What occupies your heart and mind pushing you away from God’s grace and deliverance?  What will it take to recognize Jesus’ love for you?  Is it in taking off your shoes and padding down this aisle to both wash and be washed by another?  Is it in receiving bread and wine—Christ’s body and blood—while recognizing the great cost God experienced in order to set us free?  Whatever it takes, I hope we all will remember what this day is truly about, because there is life, grace and forgiveness to be found. Amen.

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Holy Week has begun, and this is the first of my four sermons that I’ll preach this week. Palm Sunday has us reading not only about the Triumphal Entry but also the Passion from Luke, which became the basis for this sermon.

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In his retelling of the Passion, Luke makes certain that we understand one very important thing: Jesus is innocent.  Pilate declares three times that there is no basis for charges against Jesus, let alone for crucifixion.  Herod doesn’t see any guilt in Jesus either.  One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus says it outright, “This man has done nothing wrong.”  And when Jesus finally breathes his last from that bloodied cross, the centurion unexpectedly exclaims, “Certainly this man was innocent.”   

As commentator William Carter put it, Luke wants to declare “The truth that Rome and Jerusalem would otherwise ignore, Jesus is innocent.” He continues, “Jesus has done nothing wrong.  He has not led people down the wrong path.  He has not rejected the Scriptures.  He has not trained terrorists to resist the empire.  He has not spoken against God.  There is nothing violent about Jesus.” [ref]Barbara Brown Taylor, David Bartlett, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2.  “Pastoral Perspective,” pg 178.[/ref] But it is this very part of him that causes people to strike out. 

It wasn’t too long ago that Luke reminded us that Jesus’ own hometown wanted to throw him over a cliff (Luke 4:29).  He’d also been warned by the Pharisees that Herod wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31).  And yet Luke tells us emphatically during this trial and crucifixion that Jesus is innocent.  He’s done nothing to deserve the horrible things happening to him. 

Nothing, that is, except faithfully follow God’s desire for his life.  Jesus is above all else faithful; he shows who he is both in word and deed.  He lives out the life his Father has called him to with integrity. 

And it’s that embodiment of God’s desire that gets him killed.  By showing the world who God truly is through the way he lived his life.  He brought healing and wholeness, advocated justice for the downtrodden, faithfully followed the law, preached forgiveness and gave second chances—Jesus handed out hope to many who were in need.  And he also sparked fear in those whose lives would be disrupted by these actions.  Why else would the religious leaders demand that he die?  Why else would we demand that he die when we played our part in the Passion narrative?  Our commentator puts it this way: “We resist the love, mercy and truth of Jesus Christ.  We silence the honest voice.  We condemn the innocent agitator.  We pursue our own agendas for the sake of expediency.”

And we do this because, at our core, we are unsure of following the way of Jesus Christ. While we speak with our lips about following his way, about being Jesus’ followers, our actions speak otherwise.  We look out for our own interests.  Or at least I do.  I want to make sure my needs and wants are taken care of, and at times I do this without regard to others.  Why else do I not give more of my time to organizations and ministries in need of help?  Why do I sometimes give less than my full self in my relationships?  Why don’t I always stand up for those being disrespected in our world, or even for principles I hold to be true?  Why do I resist Jesus’ love and mercy and truth, silencing his voice?  I know that I fail Christ miserably when I pursue my own agenda simply because it is convenient. Christ’s call is never convenient; it is costly, it is demanding.  And so when we are faced with his love, his mercy, his life, we tend to falter. 

“If we would follow him,” William Carter writes,  “we must honestly appraise the situations before us.  We have the choice to push ourselves away from every form of cruelty.  Authentic faith takes root when we decide, ‘I am no longer going to participate in something that is vindictive, punitive or evil.’  This stand takes great courage.  [And] it will certainly provoke its own controversy and opposition.”

The way of Jesus is the way of love.  Of respecting the dignity of every human being and not being drawn in to the easy way of demeaning and belittling others to make ourselves look good.  Jesus refused to play that game—he was innocent—and because of that he had to be silenced.

But even then he remained true, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  How often do we, when faced with cruelty, respond with forgiveness? How much more often would we rather want to make those who’ve slighted us get their due?

On this day we see more clearly than usual that violence is the way of the world and the powers that be. But the way of Jesus is love.  We can only watch as he is put to death by this blood-thirsty crowd and is left destitute by those who knew him best.  He’s innocent, and it’s only in him that we can find forgiveness when we act in the violent way of our world and don’t comprehend what we are doing. May his way, the way of discipleship and love—the way of the cross—usher peace into our own lives and into this world of ours that so desperately needs it.

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The very familiar story of the prodigal son creates potential hazards for a preacher. People know the parable and have already come to some conclusions about it. But it’s a powerful story and not one that can be easily ignored when it’s read in its entirety to those gathered. So as a preacher I just can’t ignore it either. I read a great sermon myself on this passage in my preparations, and that made all the difference.  And in case you don’t know it or’d like to read it again, here’s the parable from Luke’s gospel.

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How many of you have ever heard the story of the Prodigal Son? And how many have ever heard a sermon about the Prodigal Son?  I heard a sermon once on this passage during a job interview weekend—it was during Lent in 2004 a few months before I graduated from seminary.  The priest I might work for began talking about the father of this parable and his three sons. Melissa and I quizzically looked at each other, but he kept right on going mentioning these three sons a couple of times. Needless to say, I didn’t take that job.

It’s hard to hear something new in this text—unless, of course, we start adding in extra characters. But this week I read a fabulous sermon online by Pastor Peter Haynes, and I’m indebted to him on the thoughts that follow, including the use of this first image.

Janitors generally get perceived as not the brightest ones in our world, but in this case it turns out he was a genius. He gets discovered after solving an exceptionally difficult math problem left on the board at MIT, and, if you’ve seen the movie, you know about “Good Will Hunting.” It turns out he’s a prodigy, a guy smarter than many others, who never really had anyone supporting and believing in him. Will is a prodigious young man hunting for himself and his place in life, because while he’s a prodigy, he’s also a prodigal drifting through life.  During an intense scene with psychologist Sean McGuire, played exquisitely by Robin Williams, Will breaks down and falls into the arms of this father figure he never really had.  He’s finding his way home.

Pastor Haynes writes, “In my Webster’s Dictionary, the words ‘prodigal, prodigious, and prodigy’ follow one after the other. They all begin the same way, with a ‘prod,’ a drive, a push, a poke. However, where one is stirred in an extraordinary, exceptional direction, another is driven away from what’s good, toward wasting potential. A prodigal is someone who has squandered an inheritance, who has allowed wealth (be it money or talent) to just slip through the fingers. While the difference between a prodigy and a prodigal is like day and night, the distance between the two is minimal.” [ref]Peter Haynes. http://rockhay.tripod.com/sermons/2001/01-03-25.htm.[/ref]

More often than not a prodigy and a prodigal are not the same person, good Will being the exception. There are those people who have frittered away the gifts given to them, and those who’ve embraced their gifts and run with them.  The crowd Jesus spins this tale for sounds like they’re a group of prodigies and prodigals.  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable:” Scribes and Pharisees on one side of the room, with their degrees from exceptional universities and their prestigious jobs, and tax collectors and sinners whose lives didn’t quite measure up to the hopes and dreams they had for themselves, let alone the dreams of their parents.  Prodigies and prodigals alike get told this story about a guy and his two—yes there are only two—sons.

I don’t need to retell it again, you know it quite well.  But those Pharisees and scribes and those tax collectors and sinners, each could find themselves in the story, right?  Because one of the sons is a prodigy—working hard, finding his way in life, putting money aside in his 401(k)—and the other is the namesake for this whole parable. By the end of the story, those tax collectors and sinners can hardly believe their ears; could they really find forgiveness and acceptance even though they squandered every thing, every chance they’ve ever been given? Would God really want to throw a huge party for them?  And those Pharisees and scribes likely had furrowed brows and confused looks because they lived up to all their early potential and became outstanding and upright citizens.  They did everything they were supposed to do, so why on earth would God want to waste time and more resources by giving a party for the ones who threw their lives away?

Let’s be clear about one thing, we live in a prodigy sort of town.  We’ve got degrees and careers and retirement accounts that show we’ve worked hard and met all those expectations people had on us back when we were kids.  We’ve had our ups and downs of course, and perhaps a few of us have taken a detour on the way, but we’re clearly on the prodigy side of the room.  Which is why this parable annoys us most of the time.  Because we’ve been the older brother, the older sister, putting in our time over the years, and we’ve come across those siblings—either real brothers or sisters or other friends or relatives—who’ve gone off and wasted everything ever given to them.  And you’re darn straight that the last thing we want to do when the prodigal comes home is to spend money and celebrate.  What we really want to do is kick them to the curb.

And it’s then—when we’re honest about ourselves—that this parable begins to do what Jesus always intended.  To make us think long and hard about grace and mercy and God and how much we all need it.  He pushes us to stop thinking of ourselves as prodigies or prodigals and to recognize that we are all children of God.  That the prodigals have the persistent voice inside their heads reminding them that they blew it—and while there are a few exceptions, most prodigals feel that they won’t ever measure up to the prodigies they know, and won’t ever secure God’s mercy.  What Jesus wants us to get, to realize deep down in our hearts, is that we are all beloved by God, we are all entitled to the party and the joy of the kingdom.

But notice how our parable ends: the father has come out to meet the older brother—the prodigy—who refuses to go in to the party, and he pleads with him to join in.  Nothing doing.  The older son stays out there and is steaming.  “Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”  That’s it.  Dad’s still outside with the prodigy and we’re left to decide.  Will he go in and join the party or will he stay outside?

That’s the conundrum that has been facing us prodigies for a long, long time, some two thousand years or so in various fashions.  Will we allow our anger and bitterness at the prodigals take away any joy that we might have, or will we open our hearts up to see this all from God’s perspective? Will we stay outside upset, or go in and grab a plate of food?

I cannot tell you how to respond.  I do know that anger—and especially righteous anger—has a way of twisting and damaging us in ways we could never imagine.  And I know this: God is patient and merciful and will stand outside waiting with us for as long as that dad spent watching the horizon for the prodigal to come home.  The answer to how long God will wait depends entirely on us.

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Metaphors of wilderness and deserts abound during Lent as we spend 40 days traveling in the wilderness with Jesus. So it’s not surprising when themes of being thirsty emerge too. My text from the prophet Isaiah begins by calling the thirsty to get a drink, and jumps off from there about all kinds of thirst.

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Last September on a glorious sunny Friday, I hiked up Edmands Path in the White Mountains to the top of Mt. Eisenhower.  Ike is the easiest of the Presidentials to climb, and I made great time hiking the 3 mile course.  The weather even at the top of the mountain was spectacular, with temps in the high 50s to low 60s and tremendously blue skies.  The other peaks over to Mt. Washington —Mts. Franklin and Monroe—looked like they were 300 yards off.  I pulled out my map, saw that Monroe was only 1.2 miles away, and with plenty of daylight, I changed my initial plans and headed over. 

Unfortunately, I had forgotten the three rules of mountaineering. “It’s always farther than it looks.  It’s always higher than it looks.  And it’s always harder than it looks.”  Crawford Path, which leads to Monroe, runs along the ridge line, and I hiked along, up and over Franklin on toward my goal.  As I neared Mt. Monroe, I was a secondary trail veer left with a sign to Mt. Monroe, however I could clearly see the mountain still in front of me to my right.  This side trail head straight up an a boulder filled summit and certainly wasn’t Monroe.  Trusting the sign, I took this path up.  But as I continued to climb up, I couldn’t see a tail to Mt. Monroe except the one I had just left and this felt wrong and a bit exhausting so I headed back down to the trail juncture and resumed Crawford Path.  After walking 10 minutes or so, I ran into some other hikers.  I asked for clarification.  “You need to take the path up and over ‘mini-Monroe,’” they told me, pointing to the high mound of boulders I had left, “and then when you come down the far side you’ll see the path up to Monroe.”  It was getting warm.

I thanked them then headed back once more, making it up and over  and then on to Monroe.  Like it’s mini-me, it also has a large boulder field to work through as you ascend.  I made it, and began retracing my steps on this now 9 mile hike. 

I didn’t notice that I was running very low on water until I got back to Edmands Path with about 3 miles to go.  I tried to get a drink from my camelback tube and got very little water. I immediately took my pack off to check; sure enough the reservoir was nearly empty.   I can tell you that those three miles felt much much longer than they actually were as I tried desperately hard not to think about water which was nearly impossible to do; I’m not sure I’ve ever felt thirstier in my life. 

Metaphors of water in the desert occur often in our Lenten readings in part because of the physical landscape of the Holy Lands.  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” the Lord declares.  Come get water!  Come to me, listen and live.  The movement from actual refreshing water to the kind of water we need to sustain our lives happens swiftly.  Isaiah knows the people of Judah understand being thirsty physically, the question becomes do they get it spiritually.

One of the hopes of a Lenten fast is that through it God will expose those areas in your life where you need God to act.  By depriving ourselves physically, we expose a spiritual need.  We get an honest glimpse of who we truly are, and we see how much we need God.  How often sin quietly but devastatingly creeps into our lives.  When things are going well and our physical needs are met, it’s hard to recognize this.  But when we strip things away by fasting the truth becomes more apparent.  We see how thirsty we really are.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thought; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”  It’s here that Isaiah gets to the heart of the matter, when he uncovers what it is we thirst for most of all: mercy.

This week I came across a book that is a transcript of an interview with Pope Francis titled The Name of God is Mercy.  When asked to explain what mercy is, Francis responds, “Etymologically, ‘mercy’ derives from misericords, which means opening one’s heart to wretchedness.  And immediately we go to the Lord: mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’a giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive.  Jesus said he came not for those who were good but for the sinners. He did not come for the healthy, who do not need the doctor, but for the sick.  For this reason, we can say that mercy is God’s identity card.”  I was struck by the beginning, his idea that mercy begins with opening our hearts to its wretchedness.  We often don’t think of it in those terms, we don’t often see ourselves truthfully.  Oh we’ll compare ourselves to others, noticing how we aren’t as bad as someone else.  But that’s like saying we’re not really that thirsty as we cross the desert.  It’s not being honest.

But interestingly, the Pope isn’t saying this in order to gain the upper hand, religiously speaking.  This isn’t an attempt to present himself as far superior or of our need to make amends by giving money to the church.  Rather it’s when we open our hearts up to an honest look that we can then be embraced by God.  As soon as we look deeply and honestly at our condition, God comes offering to remove that wretchedness.  God comes to us not concerned with what we uncover, but with such deep mercy that we immediately know deeply how much God loves us.

But the problem is that we don’t believe this.  We do not accept for truth that God truly grants us mercy and forgiveness when we see the truth of who we are, our own sins and the many times we’ve failed.  But God sees those things for they are: a great hinderance in our own lives weighing us down and keeping us from the life God so desperately wants for us.  We cannot begin to fathom that God doesn’t want to rub our noses in our failings, to make us feel guilty for a long time.  The opening of our hearts, the acknowledging and seeing ourselves as we truly are, that’s enough in God’s mind, because it shows that we cannot do it on our own.  That we need God’s help.

The parable Jesus tells his disciples is an interesting one about this man and his barren fig tree.  He makes the case that it’s just taking up space, that it’s not doing what it was created to do; it’s useless.  But the gardener sees promise.  “Let it be for one more year,” he says.  “Let me aerate the soil and give it some fertilizer and see that it is given every opportunity to succeed.  And if after a year of all that care it still can’t produce, so be it.”  And how could that fig tree not flourish when given that much attention and care?  If given water and fertilizer and better soil and attention from the gardener, of course it’ll bear fruit.  It’ll thrive.

Just like us.  Jesus wants to do the same for us.  To give us care and mercy.  To loosen up the soil in the garden of our lives, and pull out those things that choke life away from us.  To give us water to quench our thirsts.  To give us an opportunity to thrive and bear fruit for the kingdom.

But you may be stuck by that last line and thinking that your life would resemble the tree that’s dead, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes clear to God too.  You may have gotten hooked there and slid back into a familiar place of despair.  And I want to tell you that God loves you, just as you are.  God knows who you are and what you’ve done.  God created you and is privy to your innermost thoughts.  God isn’t worried about all of that stuff, you are.  God just wants you to know of that deep love and mercy God has for you.  God doesn’t want us coming to church to be so filled with guilt that we leave this place worse than when we came in; God wants to offer you water, refreshing, life-giving water. 

God knows that by holding on to that sin, that wretchedness, is like walking another mile without water in your bottle.  And God knows that when you look at that wretchedness in your heart honestly, opening your heart up to the truth and being disgusted by what you see, that God is already there offering you that mercy.  God is raining down water to sustain you and bring life to those parched places.  God has mercy and abundantly pardons, and you are never, ever outside the reach of God’s loving and merciful embrace.  Open your heart up to the wonderful mercy of God.

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My sermons always come from the texts assigned for a given day by the Revised Common Lectionary. This week’s texts include Genesis 15, my launchpad for what follows.

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In Genesis 12 we read about the Eternal One’s first interaction with Abram in the land of Haran. “Now the Lord God say to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the ones who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”  Just prior to this interaction, we read some important words, it came in the genealogy of Terah, Abram’s father, those parts of scripture we often jump right over assuming a list of names that will gloss our eyes over is better left alone.  But at the very end of Genesis 11 we read this: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, was barren; she had no child.

And there’s the rub: God declares: “I will make of you a great nation.”  “Sarai had no child.”  But Abram doesn’t question that at all; he simply sets out as God directs.  Some adventures take place between then and our reading today: a drought leads the couple to Egypt where Abram acquires a great deal of livestock, wealth and servants; he and his nephew Lot (who had traveled with them since the beginning) part ways; Lot gets taken by a handful of rogue kings, and Abram and his men rescue him; and finally Abram receives a blessing from the priestly king Melichizedek to whom Abram gives a tenth of his wealth, establishing the tithe. 

Which brings us to our text this morning. “After these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”  It’s a been a couple of years since God made those promises to Abram about making him a great nation.  And Abram has a couple of questions.  First, that elephant in the room.  He and Sarai don’t have a child.  “Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless and the heir of my house is a slave who is of no relation to me.” 

He questions God.  It’s been a couple of years since those promises were made.  Perhaps God has forgotten.  Or maybe Abram misunderstood, and what God really meant was that a member of Abram’s household, a servant he had acquired on his travels would be a blessing to the world. 

God’s answer comes swiftly and directly. “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  “Abram, someday you’ll be a daddy!”  And to drive that point home God tells him to look up at the stars in the night sky.  Count those stars, Abram, if you can.  Now he wasn’t looking up at the stars from mid-town Manhattan or even the eastern seaboard.  Light pollution didn’t exist.  Nowadays to get that sort of glimpse we’re talking about you need to head over to a declared Dark Sky Park; there’s only a handful in the US.  But I can attest that even being out in the summer at Sand Beach in Acadia National Park will give you an idea of the immensity, of the unbelievable number of descendants God has in mind.  It’s too many to count.  Scientist’s now estimate that there are a 100 billion stars or so in a single galaxy.  In other words, Abe, if you got all your descendants together for a family reunion picnic, you’d never remember all their names,  and you can forget trying to send all of them a birthday card.

He believed the Lord, we’re told, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.  He took God at God’s word, and Abe was seen as upright. 

We get one more scene, God telling Abram that he would possess the land he had settled in—the land of Canaan—and he asks how; he needs a sign.  What happens next is a rite—a religious type of service—to show the seriousness of the covenant with Abram taking animals and laying them out.  He falls into a deep sleep and God walks through the divided animals.  The other place this happens in the Bible—in Jeremiah—the participants walk through the animals and called upon God to bring about their demise if they failed to uphold the covenant made on that day.  This then is a cross- my-heart-hope-to-die ritual to the nth degree.  God swears to it;  Abram’s descendants will inherit the land.

We’re just finishing our first full week of Lent, 10 days in if you’re counting at home, and already the stores are filled with Easter paraphernalia—the peeps and the holiday M&Ms in their bright colors and the egg shaped Resees peanut butter cups.  I’ve received my Easter cooking magazines so I can get on top of my game.  But I know I’ve got a bit more to learn from God as I wander with Jesus in the wilderness.  About dependence and trust and knowing that God will take care of my needs.

We want to rush things at times.  We want to put in a quarter of the time and then ask when God’s going to fulfill the promises or the dreams given to us.  We want the pay-off quickly.  Because who wouldn’t want to jump the gun and head to the store and pick up some Easter treats and start celebrating right now?

Poor Abraham—that is who we are talking about, by the way—has been at it a few years already and he’s beginning to wonder if this child of his will ever arrive, if Sarah will ever get pregnant.  He’s doubting the promise given to him by the Almighty for some pretty good reasons, at least from our perspective.  It’s been a few years, God.  He’s trusted and been faithful and followed your lead.  How long must it continue before you fulfill this anticipated promise?

“Be patient,” the Almighty responds.  “Look at the stars.  You can’t even begin to count the ones I’ve poured out into the Milky Way.  You’ll have more descendants than that.”  And then God swears to that promise and the one about the land in as powerful a dream as you can imagine.

Imagine Abram then.  He’s ecstatic! God has double-downed on this promise of a child!  And now that God’s said it twice, it must be just around the corner.

Yet God has a way of being God.  Of not being concerned with the timing we have.  Of making sure that we come to rely solely on God’s providence in our lives with trust and faith, recognizing that it’s not something we can do through our own will power and muster and lives. 

Now the rest of the story: God finally delivers on the promise of an heir for Abraham, but it takes another 13 years or so.  When Abram has his doubts, he’s two years in to a 15 year waiting period.  Sarah does indeed conceive but she’s way beyond child-bearing years.  God makes certain that everyone knows this is God’s doing.  That God remains faithful.

When we’re faced with the people of Scripture, we often wonder what we ourselves would do.  Two years seems long enough in my book to show faithfulness and trust, but that’s because two years sometimes feels like an eternity when you’re waiting for some good thing to happen.  To finish writing that book or launching that idea or completing a degree or getting married or adopting a child.  Two years seems long enough to become the people we sense God calling us to be deep in our souls, the life that we imagine that makes us leap for joy, the call that we share only with a couple of friends if that.  I believe those yearnings come from God to show us the dream that God gives to us so that we might also be a blessing to this world.

But that dream takes time.  It takes going through dry months in the Egypts of our lives.  It means having doubts and wanting signs and thinking of throwing in the towel.  We begin to question if this is really God’s way at all because we’re 10 days in to a 40 day journey and it feels long enough already.  And God takes us outside and shows us the stars and tells us to dream some more because God is going to do more than we could ever ask or imagine so that we can be a blessing to the world.  But God will not be rushed.  This will be on God’s time.  So we, like Abram, must continue the journey, not sitting down and giving up until God delivers, but moving forward toward the point God has shown us.  Patiently trusting and believing in God’s promise, and living as if that promise has already come true.

So be patient during this season in the wilderness.  Trust in God’s goodness for your life.  Keep the faith and put one foot in front of the other, working toward the dream God has shown you.  God will give you strength and encouragement.  And God will not break the promises made, for you too are a descendent of Abraham, and you are called to be a blessing to the world.  Amen.

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A Lenten Sermon based on Isaiah 58:1-12.

The Almighty One in the book of the Prophet Isaiah asks: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”    These are hard words on a day when we gather together to have ashes placed on our foreheads in an act of our own humility.  We gather midweek at church to begin a holy Lent, with maybe some hope of getting a little extra credit, and already God is begging the question, “Why are you here?”

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The Lord continues: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  What God says to us, the ones assembled on this holy day, is that we shouldn’t worry about extra credit or appearing to be holier than the ones not here with us.  That if we truly want to understand the desires of God, we should fast from those things in us that cast down the lowly and harm the poor.  We should look more closely at our own lives and the sin that makes us turn a blind eye to the ones in need.  We should question those in power who create systems of injustice that perpetuate the status of the poor and the ones living in poverty.

And in one fell swoop the Word of the Lord shifts Ash Wednesday from being about us to being about others.  Humility isn’t really humility if we do things we hope will show others how humble we are.  “Beware of practicing your piety before other in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

According to measures put together by the USDA some 767,000 people in Massachusetts faced what is known as “food insecurity” during 2013, including more than 87,000 right here in Worcester County. “Food insecurity refers to a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.  Food insecure households are not necessarily food insecure all the time. Food insecurity may reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.”  Nationwide there are more than 48 million people living in food insecure households, with 15.3 million of those being children.

We have a collection of prayers that we use at meal times in our house that we purchased from Forward Movement.  The prayers can be propped up so they can be said by all.  One of my favorites is this: “Lord, feed the hungry.  And for those of us who have plenty, may we hunger for you.  Amen.”  I love its brevity and clarity to be sure, but I’m also taken by its clarion call to do something more.  I know that I am the Lord’s hands and feet, and that the answer to my prayer—the feeding of the hungry—can happen through me if I truly hunger for God.  It can happen if I recognize the plenty I already have.  If I choose the right kind of fast.

Four years ago some of us read together Chris Seay’s book A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor.  It’s a daily devotion for Lent that reflects on how for many of us our lives are shaped by food, what we’re in the mood for, whether we need to cut back on carbs, or how we turn to food for comfort.  Most of the poor in our world do not have this luxury.  Chris invites us to make food choices reflecting the poor during the 40 days of Lent.  Perhaps eating food similar to the family of a child we sponsor through a relief organization, or making do on the amount families get through SNAP and other programs.  He encourages his readers both fast and, one day a week, to feast with joy in order to recognize the abundance of God’s kingdom, and allowing for the rhythm of Lent with Sundays always marked as a feast day as we remember Jesus’ resurrection.

With all this in mind, I’ve personally decided to forgo lunch and any snacks from breakfast until dinner during Lent, and intentionally making those meals generally simpler—oatmeal and fruit in the morning, and soups and bread in the evening.  I’m doing this to remember the food insecure among us—the parents who choose not to eat so they can give more of the little food they have to their children—and to live into that prayer that I may hunger for God.  This sort of thing is not easy for me—many of you know I love to cook and eat food in general—and I’m not telling you this to make myself look good or somehow holier because I don’t think that at all really.  I just want to hunger for God; to take on the fast that God desires.  To share bread and shelter and clothes with those who might need it.  To give away the money I won’t be spending on lunches to an organization feeding the ones truly in need.  To not only pray for change to happen but to become more involved and work toward that change myself, all the while relying on God for sustenance.    

And my prayer for you is that whatever you may be feeling called to give up or take on this Lent, that you do it for no other reason than wanting to draw closer to God.  That your devotion or fasting or alms-giving would show your desire to hunger after God and to walk more closely with Jesus in the days ahead.  When we do these things, Isaiah tells us, “Then the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in the parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”  May it be so for each of us these 40 days.  May we have all our needs satisfied by the Almighty.  Amen.

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Our Gospel lesson picks up where last week’s left off right in the middle of what’s happening, so I wanted to read you the entire episode.

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When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Jesus has just returned from his 40 days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness, ending with his temptation by Satan.  He is filled with the Spirit and comes back to Galilee, teaching in the synagogues.  And on this particular Saturday, he’s in his hometown.  He’s the one who reads from the scroll at their worship service, and he chooses this passage from Isaiah highlighting the marvelous activity that would take place with the arrival of the messiah—release of captives, proclamation of good news, recovery of sight.  “Today,” Jesus tells them, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your presence.”  He would be the one to usher in the year of the Lord’s favor when God’s love and grace would reign supreme. 

And they are amazed because they know this guy.  He’s Joseph’s son. They remember him when he used to run the bases at the ball field, and how he’d help his dad out at the wood shop.  Then they realize that they’re the hometown crowd, that they’ve got an in, a leg up on everyone else.  It’s as if they just hit the lottery, and they’re going to enjoy a new status in life because the one who will bring about the work of God is one of them. 

But Jesus knows what they’re thinking, and he addresses it head on.  “Surely you want the inside track,” he says.  “You’ll say, ‘Do for us what you did in Capernaum.’” “Of course!” they’re thinking.  “We want that and then some.  We’re you’re bros, Jesus.”  Before they can even utter the words, Jesus calls them on it.  “A prophet isn’t accepted at his own hometown,” he replies, giving two examples from the history of Israel when foreigners—non-Jews—benefited from God’s miraculous power, that widow in Sidon and Namaan the Syrian, while Jews weren’t helped.  And that’s when the hometown fans started booing their at all-star.  They became so enraged that they rushed with him out of the synagogue to the very edge of town and intended to toss Jesus into the ravine. He’s able to walk through the midst of this angry mob and continue on his way of love and grace and peace.  But he couldn’t do anything for them.

They’re scandalized by God’s love and grace because it’s not limited just to the hometown crowd.  It’s for those foreigners too—the Gentiles from Sidon and those Syrians.  And they become so enraged that they’re blind to God’s love and unable to receive it themselves.

A hundred and fifty-four years ago, Joseph Burnett deeded the parcel of land we’re on to St. Mark’s Church with a single stipulation: the church was to be free to all regardless of race, wealth, color or station.  Nearly all churches at that time had a fee structure with reserved pews for the wealthy and powerful.  Not so, said good ol’ Joe, God’s love is not to be limited.  The good news of grace must be proclaimed and made available to everyone.  God doesn’t play favorites.

But that’s hard to grasp at times.  We want God to play favorites from the frivolous—surely God’s a Red Sox fan—to the more serious—God’s the enemy of those Muslims.  Often in these cases we confuse our image of God with who God actually is, that image primarily being a projection of ourselves.  So God hates the people we hate; God wants to obliterate our enemies and the ones who don’t share our religious or political beliefs.  That god is really just an idol, a sham, a god made in our own image.  That god gets confused with national pride and a strong desire to be right and hold on to our perceived understanding of the truth.  And if we’re honest, we all do this.  We want to create a god who rallies around our hometown and does special things just for us.  And that “us” takes different forms.  Us Episcopalians or us MetroWesters.  Perhaps it’s us Republicans or us Democrats.  Or us white people or us Americans. 

The problem is, as one commentator put it, God’s love and grace are more radically inclusive than any group, denomination or church.  But even worse, that unlimited grace so scandalizes us that we are unable to receive it ourselves.  Let me say that again: We are so appalled by the unlimited love and grace of God that we end up missing out on it ourselves.

Let’s at least be honest, this isn’t easy to do.  It would be loads more fun to worship a god who wanted to smite my enemies.  But that’s not the God revealed in Scripture—some of you may immediately push back on that and remind me of the Exodus.  In fact the Talmud, a collection of Jewish commentary on the Torah, declares that God quieted the angels from singing on the day the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea.  “The creations of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you are singing a song?!” The Israelites’ enemy was a creation of God’s hand, and their loss was significant to God.

So where does that lead us on this Annual Meeting Sunday?  What can this word of the Lord say to us?

Obviously, God’s love isn’t limited just to us.  God’s grace moves far beyond the boundaries we place on it.  There’s a story about some soldiers in France during World War II that came to a local priest in order to bury two of their fallen brothers.  “Are they Catholic?” the priest asked the soldiers, and they replied no.  “You can bury them just outside the fence then, and I promise that their graves will be attended to.”  The men did as they were instructed, and some time later they came back to pay their respects, however they couldn’t find the graves even though they had noted where they were buried.  They found the same priest and asked him what had happened to their friends’ bodies, where had they been moved and why.  The priest recounted that on the night after they had buried their friends he couldn’t sleep at all, troubled by what he had said.  “The bodies are exactly where you buried them,” he said. “The next day I asked the caretaker to move the fence.  Your friends are now inside the walls.”

Three weeks ago we had the privilege of hearing about Islam from one of our neighbors, Dr. Safdar Medina.  It was the most well attended adult forum I’ve seen during my time at St. Mark’s.  What emerged from that is a desire to learn more about Islam through a visit to the Islamic Center in Wayland—we’re working on a date for that excursion in the coming weeks—and to explore creating a Southborough Interfaith Collaborative bringing together neighbors of all faiths in order to seek common ground and work toward our shared goals of peace.  That’s a great start.

Secondly, we must continue building on our strong foundation of spreading the good news of God’s grace in tangible ways.  Our outreach work with the homeless at St. Francis House, those imprisoned through Straight Ahead Ministries, the disenfranchised through Hoops and Homework, Project Just Because and Boston Warm, the gift of clean and safe drinking water through Living Water International and affordable housing with Habitat must continue on.  Jesus’ message of grace extends far beyond the masonry of our glorious building, and we must continue in that work together.  We can become known as the parish that gives generously because we believe God’s grace and love extends to every human being.  In fact, we’re gaining a reputation for this already through our open plate offering: another parish in our diocese took up the practice this year after hearing about our experiences, and a few months ago a few people exclaimed when meeting St. Mark’s parishioners, “Oh, you’re the church giving away your plate money!”  This simple gift continues to change lives.

Additionally I believe we are called to be agents of God’s love within our own community.  During our stewardship season, you all indicated what your passions were, what activities and things bring you joy and sustain your life.  This year we’d like to bring  you together with people of all ages sharing those same interests.  We’re beginning today.  During our annual meeting you’ll be encouraged to find a table designated with your passions.  Regardless of your age, we invite you to spread out.  Don’t just sit with your usual friends, or your spouse.  Move around.  Meet people of similar passions.

As you likely remember, in November we designated our open plate to families in our own community who could use assistance over the holidays.  It became one of the largest monthly donations last year, and the people we helped were overwhelmed at the generosity.  In this year ahead I want to explore ways to keep doing that.  I’ve had times in the past when a person didn’t have the means to fly home for the funeral of a beloved grandmother and I was able to buy that person a ticket with discretionary money.  Others may face unexpected car issues and needing a little help.  Some may face unemployment and could use assistance with a bill.  I can’t imagine this community not wanting to help others here who are in need.  I’ll be exploring ideas to make both sides of this—giving to the discretionary fund and seeking confidential assistance—easier and would welcome suggestions from you on ways to do that.

Finally, we must continue to grow humbly in the faith.  When we do not explore our faith or stay regular in our prayers and the reading of scripture, we begin to create a god of our own devising.  As I heard during the many coffees I had last year, you all are hungry to explore the Living God in more depth.  However, gathering in person is often hard to schedule due to the demands of life.  I’m going to explore two things: creating short booklets on spiritual practices that will be available to all and hosting online classes or book groups that would not be time or location dependent.  These things will be a trial to see if they can help us grow together and deepen our faith.  Stay tuned for more information on those.

In closing I believe we must ask ourselves this question posed by a commentator on our text: “How much more might God be able to do with us if we were ready to transcend the boundaries of community and limits of love that we have ourselves erected?” 

How much more could God do through us here at St. Mark’s if we fully lived into the dream of being a community of love?  Jesus love is for the entire world and not just a select group, and he asks us to share that love with the world we live in both far and near.  May we do so this next year and embody Christ’s love together.  Amen.

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Kick-the-can ruled many summers in our neighborhood. The yard of my childhood home provided excellent cover for hiding spots. I don’t remember the last time I played, but I can remember the thrill of the chase and trying to outsmart the one who was “It.”

I’ve been thinking about that and other hiding games as I prepared for the past Sunday’s sermon on Isaiah 43:1-7.

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I used to love playing hide-n-seek and kick-the-can when I was a kid growing up in suburban Detroit.  My parents owned three lots right next to each other on our road, with our house in the middle lot.  The one to the west had a huge line of pine bushes dividing the entire lot and providing excellent cover when you hid.  Besides the fields behind the street, our property provided the biggest playing area for the neighborhood, and kids often came over during the summer.  At times, some 15 or more kids hid around the various spots of our yard hoping to win the game.

Robert Fulgham reminisces about his childhood hiding games in his bestselling book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  He describes how there used to be that one in kid who hid unbelievably well and could never be found.  That kid could hide for what felt like hours until everyone else got annoyed and just wanted to quit and find something else more entertaining to do.  He’s reminiscing because that kid was hiding in his yard.

He writes, ‘There is a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window. He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him over at the base. I considered going out to the base and telling them where he is hiding. And I thought about setting the leaves on fire to drive him out. Finally, I just yelled, ‘GET FOUND, KID!’ out the window. And scared him so bad he probably wet his pants and started crying and ran home to tell his mother. It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.”  [ref]Robert Fulgham.All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten Ballentine, 2004. Pg 25-6. [/ref] Get found, kid.

The Prophet Isaiah begins his words from the Lord we heard this morning in this way: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.”  God created and formed them, just like God created and formed humankind and the entirety of the universe.  In fact these are the same two words used in Genesis 1 & 2: bara and yatsar.  The first connotes sculpting, creating.  The second conjures up the image of a potter working with clay.  Just as God had once formed the heavens and the earth and all of humankind, so also God creates and forms the people of Israel to whom Isaiah proclaims these words of the Lord.  And it’s not too far of a stretch to say the same for us too.  God creates and forms us, God sculpts and gets muddy hands in the clay to make us.

And so when the Word of the Lord comes to these ones descended from Jacob, we can listen in too.  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. … you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…. Do not fear, for I am with you.”  Precious, honored and loved by the one who formed and created the totality of the cosmos.  We should not be afraid for God is with us.  God calls us by name.  We are God’s.

But the question we need to ask is this: When God calls us by name, do we listen?  When God reminds us that we should not be afraid because God has redeemed us, do we believe it?

I think there are times when we just don’t want to take God at face value; we do not truly trust God’s words.  Either because we somehow feel we are beyond the range of God’s call or because we refuse to believe God’s words come to us.  Or maybe we just like hiding and want to stay there, unwilling to come out from under the pile of leaves.

Robert Fulgham continues his essay with these words, “A man I know found out last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And knew about dying, and he didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.  He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. ‘I don’t want anyone to know.’ ‘What will people think?’ ‘I don’t want to bother anyone.’”[ref]Robert Fulgham.All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten Ballentine, 2004. Pg 26. [/ref]

Too often we adults expect we need to go it alone, that we need to face the challenges ahead of us as best we can with the strength we can muster because that’s just how it is.  At times the fear we try hard to mask shows through, and we long to hear those words from the one who formed us, “Don’t be afraid, I have redeemed you; I’ve called you by name, you are mine.”

Our identity comes from God, of course, and not from our accomplishments or the lack thereof.  We are beloved children, formed and sculpted and created by the Almighty who calls us each by name.  We are God’s.  Our culture tells us emphatically that our value comes from our jobs, our looks, our resources, our address, our education.  And that message is one fraught with anxiety and fear: We are not good enough, we do not measure up, we will be overwhelmed.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. … you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…. Do not fear, for I am with you.”

This identity of ours lies fully in our baptism when we were sealed and marked by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever.  We are God’s beloved children.  We are loved.  God is with us.

But we need reminders of this; we need to remember who we are.  That’s why the font is open on this day as we rehear the story of Christ’s baptism, so that we can physically remember by feeling the water once more on heads and in our hands.  At some point during the service I invite you to dip your fingers into the waters of baptism and then make the sign of the cross.  Hear and remember the words that you were formed and created by God, that you are precious in God’s sight and beloved.  You have nothing to be afraid of because God goes with you.  God will shelter you amidst the churning waters of life.  Do not be afraid.

There’s a wonderful line in one form of our Prayers of the People.  Our litanist says, “I ask your prayers for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him. Pray that they may find and be found by him.” (BCP pg 386)  That is my prayer for all of us as we continue to seek God and a deeper knowledge of God’s ways; that we would both find and be found by God.  That we would not be so intent on remaining hidden in the piles of leaves in our lives, but that we’d have the sense to either come out when the game is ended or leave some part of ourselves slightly visible for God to find us.

We are created, formed and loved by God.  Let us enter fully into God’s loving arms, knowing that God will always care for and walk with us no matter where life takes us.  And may we know that regardless of how long the game goes on, God never tires of searching for us and will never give up until we are found.  Get found, kid; get found. 

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Based on Luke 2:41-52.

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

[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]Photo Credit: snappybex via Compfight cc[/featured-image]

In August while on a Cub Scout overnight that I was leading, Noah and one of his friends ran ahead on our hike.  We had come to Bear Island, accessible only by boat, in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee.  We had trekked over to see the Island post office and were heading back.  The two boys wanted to see who could beat the other in a footrace and off they went.  “Stop at the first trail crossing,” we shouted after them and sent one of the other boys to make sure they got the message.  He came back and said he tried.  The bigger group hit that intersection, but the boys weren’t there.  So we broke in two to go down the different paths, each leading to the Narrows where the trails merge again because the Island becomes so thin, expecting that one of us would run into them.  We didn’t.  I then realized that I was holding Noah’s GPS unit because the boys had talked about swimming off the dock at the Post Office.  He had dutifully marked the cabin on it.

Some of us circled back on another trail to see if they had gotten completely turned around and headed back to the Post Office, and the rest forged on toward the chapel on the Island.  An hour had passed by that time, and I began to get a bit more panicked.  Luckily the island wasn’t that big, but there was a youth camp on the end opposite the post office and there were loads of poorly marked trails.  I got a message from the group that went to the chapel; the boys weren’t there.  However, some residents outside throwing horseshoes had seen the boys run by.  Those of us in the smaller group turned around again now certain they hadn’t come that way.  By the time we made it back to the chapel, the others had made it back to the cottage, and the boys weren’t there either.

It had been nearly 2 hours or so at that point, and while plenty of sunlight remained, there just weren’t a lot of landmarks for the boys to find.  We ran into other hikers and asked them to call if they came across the boys, showing them a photo we took earlier in the day.  We began shouting their names more frequently, and blowing the whistles on our backpacks.  The dad whose cabin we stayed at left the bigger group and headed back out on the trails into the woods.  He was the one who found them, off the marked trail, walking together.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved in my life.

Jesus is twelve now in our story, navigating the transition from boy to man. He’s traveled with Mary and Joseph up to Jerusalem for the week long Passover.  After worshipping together in the temple and feasting with friends and loved ones, they begin the trek home.  The group is fairly large so they don’t worry when he’s not right beside them.  But when they arrive at their campsite that evening, and he’s no where to be found, they panic.  They retrace their steps, calling his name, looking hard for him. 

I do not want to imagine the thoughts that went through their heads over those three days.  I’m sure they checked every nook and cranny thoroughly both on the road and back in Jerusalem.  I know they were worried sick.  And then they found him in the now empty temple; with the festival over plenty of seats could be found.  Jesus sat amongst the teachers, the ones who loved the Torah and longed to know it better so they could learn more about God.  Even though he was just 12, he asked deep questions and answered some too.

When his parents came running in, I’m certain they wanted both to hug that boy and smack him upside the head.  “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Mary asks incredulously.  “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!” Jesus is nonplussed.  “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  But they don’t understand what he’s talking about, according to Luke.  Jesus then picks up his things, says goodbye to the rabbis and heads back home with his parents and, Luke adds for good measure, was obedient to them. 

What can this story teach us about the incarnation?  It’s only a couple of days since we read about the singing angels coming to the shepherds and of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.  What does this incident of the missing Jesus show us?

Well, for one, it shows the deep humanity of God.  I suspect this little tidbit didn’t make it into Mary and Joseph’s yearly holiday letter.  “Well we had quite a scare in the Spring when Jesus went missing for three days.”  Every parent has those times when they feel like they fail at parenting, and losing track of a child ranks high on that list.  Additionally Jesus himself shows a bit of that tween edge, “Really, mom and dad?  Didn’t you know I’d be at the temple?  C’mon, think!” 

The images we have of the holy family approach domestic perfection.  Jesus the model boy always doing the right thing.  Mary and Joseph always smiling on.  Yet this episode, when unpacked, looks an awful lot like every family I know.  Deep love and care, and occasional bouts of anxiety and frustration with the hard but natural boundary pushing as children test the waters of adulthood and parents half-wanting to keep them young forever.  It’s not perfect at all.  And if this happened once, you can bet it happened in other ways too.  Jesus wasn’t devious, of course, but he was coming into his own vocation, his calling by God to spread the good news.  His parents don’t completely understand it, but they can’t stop time’s marching on and Jesus growing in wisdom and divine and human favor.  Mary’s baby is growing up.

As theologian, William Danaher, puts it, “That the incarnation took shape in the life of the holy family gives hope for families of all kinds and conditions on this day.  The model of living that the holy family offers is not … that of a family perfectly ordered and without division and differences.  Rather it is of a family that lives into the messy moments with the confidence that God in Christ Jesus has entered and redeems them from within.”  And that is wonderfully good news this Christmastide.  We do not need to be perfect—we cannot be perfect.  God brings about redemption in all the moments of our lives, both the joy-filled ones and the anxiety producing episodes.  In each of them Jesus breaks in sharing his love and reminding us that this is the very reason he came in the flesh in the first place: to bring about the glorious beauty of his kingdom in every aspect of our lives.  May it be so in your lives this Christmas.  Amen.

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