Prayer is a funny thing because we pray for the darndest things.  Jim Carrey showed us this in “Bruce Almighty” when he says yes to all the prayers he received and 400,000 people hit the lottery.  For many of us, we pray, and expect God to do our bidding.

But that’s not how it works.  God isn’t just waiting around to do our every whim. So what does this mean about prayer then?  How do we become people who pray?

That was my jumping off point for my sermon yesterday.  And don’t miss Robert Benson’s fabulous book In Constant Prayer that I mention.

Lent 5B—People Who Pray

We’re on our penultimate Sunday in Lent, and I’ve been making my way through the disciplines encouraged to us by the Prayer Book for a meaningful and solemn Lenten journey.  Things like fasting and self-denial, reading and meditating on scripture, and self-examination and repentance.  The one on that list that I’ve not spoken about yet is prayer.  It’s been on my list for a while—I thought I would preach about it 3 weeks ago—but I’ve struggled in what to say.

I’ve got tons of books on prayer, and my own ideas to be sure.  But I find that often we think of prayer as a way to use God as some sort of cosmic vending machine—we need a healing from a bruised knee, or for a better paying job or, God help us, a great parking spot or a Red Sox win, so we say a quick petition and expect immediate results.  We get disappointed if it doesn’t turn out as we want, and then swear off praying at all.

I wonder about those kinds of prayers because we approach God so casually, as if asking for parking near the door at Staples or Bertucci’s is of God’s concern.  I think of that kind of prayer and the ones offered up by the people of this world who don’t have enough to eat, and I know that I don’t have any idea what is really important to God most of the time, or I’d be praying for something else more often.

It’s not to say that God doesn’t hear those prayers, because I think God does and sometimes God even responds.  I do this sometimes myself with Noah and Olivia when they ask for a quarter for the gumball machine.  But there is so much more to prayer than our petitions for the day in and day out of life, and I think God, while unbelievably patient with us, wants us to grow up sometimes.

When I think about prayer these days, I mean primarily keeping the Daily Office.  It’s the regular rhythm of prayer given to us by our Jewish sisters and brothers—the Psalmist writes, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances”­—and built upon by the early church and the rise of the monastic life in Christendom.  Faithful Christians would make time each day to stop what they were doing and say their prayers, early in the morning, at noontime, at the setting of the sun and before bed.  Marking the divine in the ordinary created a perspective for them; it showed them that they needed to praise God through every aspect of their lives.  They looked at the life of Jesus and how often the Gospels said that Jesus got up early or went off alone to pray, and they tried to emulate that.  Yet even suggesting that we should pray 2 or even 4 times a day is difficult for me because I know how busy life can be.

Robert Benson talks about this in his book, In Constant Prayer, and I’m going to quote him at length because I think he drills this one out of the park.  He penned, “W.H. Auden wrote, ‘An artist must develop a strict consciousness in regard to time.  For we must never forget that we are living in a state of siege.’ He was not just talk about poets; he was talking about any of us who are trying to live our lives with all the art and love and care we can muster.  There is more art in doctoring and schoolteaching and childrearing and all manner of works than most people realize.

“I hate saying this in public, but I am going to.  There are a lot of days when I just do not have the time to say the office.  You know how busy we men of letters are.

“In the morning I have to write in my journal and write my six hundred words in whatever new project I am working on.  If I do not write in my journal, I forget what has been happening to me.  Which is bad enough in and of itself, but it is especially difficult for a guy who makes a living telling stories.  If I don’t remember my stories, then I have nothing to write the six hundred words about.  Eventually I have nothing to write a book about either.

“Then I have to get in the car and pick up the day’s papers.  Then I have to work the crossword.  Then I have to do my other writer’s work for a while.  I have to edit some stuff in the book that I am trying to make something out of from the stuff I ended up with before.  I have telephone calls to make and errands to run and letters to write.  Sometimes I even have a meeting.”

Benson continues, “I do have time to take a swim so I can keep my schoolgirl figure.  I seem to be able to make tee times and play a round of golf.  I have to play golf every week.  Have to is a relative term, of course, but if you play golf, then you know that ‘have to play golf’ is the proper way to say it.  Even if you just live with a golfer, you know that have to is the proper term.  And the way I play golf, it can take some considerable amount of time to play. …

“I have to eat supper.  I have to help clean up the kitchen—okay, I do not have to, but the brownie points that accrue to husbands who cook and clean up, not to mention do the laundry and yard work, are just too good to pass up.

“And did I mention that little armchair in our front parlor, where I like to sit in the evenings?  Or that I have to go to bed pretty early, because I get up pretty early.  And I have to read for a while before I go to sleep, sometimes for a very long while.

“Most days, if it comes right down to it, I simply do not have the time to say the office.

“And I am fully aware that by most standards my life is not even busy. …  Why do I not say my prayers?  Well, it takes too much time.”

He concludes, “ ‘How we spend our days is how spend our lives,’ writes Annie Dillard. ‘What we are doing with this one and with that one is what we are doing.’

“Time is the real currency of our age, and we have to manage our time in relation to our spiritual life as much as we do in relation to any other part of our lives.

“Our hearts are where our treasure is, or so we have been told.  Our love is where our time goes too.  Including the time that some of us say we do not have enough of to spare some to participate in the ancient prayer of God’s faithful.’”[1]

We are seemingly too busy to pray without realizing that we are, as Bill Hybels put it, too busy not to pray.

And it all comes of intentionality.  Do we want to be people who pray, people who enter into the living God to give thanks for the gift of life itself, or do we consider it much too hard to even bother?  We easily put our mind to other tasks out there—for example, I want to climb all 48 of the 4000 foot peaks in the White Mountains in the next 4 years, and I have 44 to go, if you’re keeping score at home—and we could, if we desired to, be people who pray on a regular basis.  But we have to want to.

You may not know how to pray the Daily Office or where to start.  I’ve posted on my blog a cheat sheet and directions for you to do this.  If you can’t figure out how to get to my blog or have trouble, let me know and I’ll send you the information you would need or meet with you to guide you through this.

If we are going to be people who faithfully participate in the life of prayer God wants for us, then we need to make the time.  We need to make prayer one of the items—or 2 or 4 of the items—on our to-do list.  If we yearn to draw closer to God and spend our lives in connection with the true, holy and living One, then we must set our sights on the goal to say our prayers daily.  I hope that we will do this, both individually and corporately, and that we will be people who regularly structure our lives with a “continued awareness of God’s presence and reality.”[2]  I hope and trust that we can be known as people who pray and drink long from the well that God offers to us.  May it be so.  Amen.

[1] Excerpted from Robert Benson’s In Constant Prayer.  2008.  Pgs. 85-88.

[2] Benson, Backcover.

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Here’s the second sermon in my Lenten series.  This one is one fasting and self-denial.  Without further adieu…

Lent 2B — March 8, 2009

Mark 8:31-38

            One of my favorite prayers of the Book of Common Prayer is the one designated for Fridays for the morning office.  It includes the lines “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”  I appreciate the weekly reminder that we are walking in the way of the cross, and that it can be for us the way of life and peace.  But there are times, of course, when I wonder if I fully grasp the meaning of those lines as well; I wonder if I comprehend the call we all have to follow Christ.


This is certainly where this call begins.  It wasn’t too long ago in our readings that Jesus, following the temptation we read about last week, began calling his disciples.  He simply says to them, “Follow me,” and they do.  They do not stop and ask for logistics, or where he is headed or what it will cost them in terms of time or energy or whatnot.  He invites them to follow him, and they do.


Along they way, they learn more and more what it means to follow him.  They see him heal the sick, and cast out demons, and feed the hungry.  And finally, just before our reading today, he asks if they understand who he is, if they get it.   Peter’s the one who tells Jesus that he is the Messiah.  For many in that day, and for Peter too, the Messiah was someone who would overthrow the occupation of the Romans.  The Messiah was the one who would bring about the reestablishment of David’s kingdom.


Once Peter makes this declaration, Jesus begins to tell them explicitly that his is the way of suffering.  That if they were looking for an earthly king, they got it wrong, because he was going to be executed.  And Peter, having his hopes on the Messiah who would bring earthly freedom begins telling Jesus that somehow he had gotten it all wrong, and that he wasn’t meant to die at all, that what he was saying was impossible.


Jesus doesn’t stop there, of course.  He goes on to say to those gathered around them that not only would he die, but if they wanted to be his followers, they would also need to deny themselves and take up their crosses to follow him.   That if they were after saving their own skin, well they couldn’t be his disciples.  And if you really wanted to save your life, then you would certainly have to lose it.


This was the fine print missing early on when they were called to follow Jesus.  His way was the way of the cross.


Let’s be clear about one thing at this point: picking up our crosses doesn’t mean enduring the hardships common to humanity in general.  I often hear people say, “Well, this is the cross I have to bear” when they are talking about difficulty dealing with an annoying family member, or about an illness they’ve contracted.  Poverty and disease usually don’t care if you are a Christian or not.  The cross Jesus is talking about is the one that comes from following him, the one that is a result of being a disciple of Christ.


In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are invited to partake in fasting and self-denial during the 40 days of Lent.  These are some of the most misunderstood aspects of our Lenten journey.  We think that if we can somehow just forgo chocolate for these 6 weeks that we are making spiritual strides.  Yet giving up chocolate isn’t really what this is about, especially if we do it just to show that we somehow have some willpower.


This year I am joining with some others here at St. Mark’s and many around the country how are eating more simply this Lent in solidarity with the poor.  Many in our world don’t have access to clean water, let alone enough food to eat.  And yet we have an unbelievable choice of foods that we have access to each day.  Have you ever stopped and thought about the chip aisle at Stop and Shop?  We’ve got a whole row dedicated to snack foods, and we somehow think that this is not only normal, but our right as Americans.  By intentionally eating more simply, I recognize that many in our world don’t have these choices and that I can give away the money I might normally spend on foods of all kinds to worthy organizations seeking to alleviate those who face hunger and water issues every day.


Self-denial, and following Christ on his path to suffering is difficult, demanding and harrowing.  Especially in light of a culture that often tells us to take care of ourselves, to make sure that we are comfortable and getting what we want.  If difficulty strikes—when it rains on the just and the unjust—we look for comfort.  And when it is sunny out, we often do the same thing.  But Jesus tells us that following him will have a cost, and that cost is our lives.


I am utterly convinced that the prayer I mentioned earlier is true: the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.  There is an irony in this, to be sure, because as Jesus declares, if you want to save your life, you’ll lose it and if you lose your life for his sake and the sake of the gospel, then you’ll end up saving it.  If life and peace are to come from self-denial, how do we go about this?


Jesus himself asks the question this way, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”


A pastor tells the story of a parishioner who came to see him because he was troubled by what he saw in his workplace.  This man watched as the boss he worked for promoted some people and did not promote others based on the color of their skin.  His boss would often overlook people who were better qualified than the ones promoted.  He felt that he needed to say something about this.  This pastor advised him to carefully see if he could find some other employees to support him, and then to gingerly and gently approach his boss.  He finally did approach this man, and within one month’s time he was fired without cause.  This man was unable to get a job for over a year’s time due to his boss’ poor reference of him, and the job he finally got paid less than he had originally been making.  He picked up his cross.[1]


You may be saying, “Well, that’s all fine and good, but that was that guy’s decision to do that,” and you may be completing that sentence by thinking, “And I wouldn’t be that stupid.”  Yet notice that Jesus’ words are pretty direct.  “If you want to be my follower, you need to deny yourself and pick up your cross.”  In other words, the suffering and self-denial part is not optional.  Put even more concise, following Jesus leads to the death of self.


I think that is really what fasting and self-denial remind us: that we are not in control, God is.  God desires for there to be justice for all of us who live on this earth, be it in relation to food or in how people are treated or if they can get adequate housing or health care.  If God has blessed us (and I think God has quite a bit for many of us) how do we share that blessing with others?  How do we share in the way of life Jesus promoted through his ministry?


During this holy and solemn season of Lent, can we, with the help of Jesus Christ, more intentionally take up our cross to follow him?  Can we recognize that it is far better to lose our life and those things our culture tells us are so important, in order to gain our souls?  And can we trust that when we follow Jesus on the way of the cross we will find it none other than the way of life and peace?


[1] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol 37, No. 1, Year B, 44.

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

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

Lent 1B—Feb. 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Taylor, 53.

[3] Taylor, 58-9.

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

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

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

Without further adieu, my sermon from Ash Wednesday.

(Based on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Brueggemann, 175.

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

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

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

Epiphany 6 — 2 Kings 5:1-17

“Do you want to be healed?”

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

“Of course!” I said to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unclench your fists

                        Hold out your hands.

                        Take mine.

                        Let us hold each other.

                        Thus is his Glory



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

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

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

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


Mark 1:21-28

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

[2] Roxburgh, 45.

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

Mark 1:14-20

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

[3] Jones, 59.

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

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

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



            What does it really mean to be a Christian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At his baptism, Jesus was told who he was.

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

And that, apparently, isn’t enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve heard quite a few comments about my sermon and relational giving. I thought I’d post some ideas about relational gifts.  I also encourage you to add some too in the comments section below!

Many of these suggestions come from

Gift of Time

  • Popcorn, specialty soda and classic DVD for a movie night with a friend
  • Host a sporting event (football game, March Madness) and make homemade pizza
  • Wrap 2 copies of a great book (even used!) and read it with a friend
  • Bring hot cocoa and cookies and plan an evening walk to see holiday lights

Creative Coupons

  • Babysitting for a worn out mom you know
  • Car clean up
  • Yard work for an elderly/ill person
  • Road trip for an  adventure with your child
  • Help with a house project for someone (like a shed, or taking down a tree)
  • Coffee with conversation
  • A day in the city together
  • Weekend away with your spouse

Other ideas

  • A new bat and a trip to the batting cages
  • A day trip with cameras for your photographer friend
  • A DVD of your life for relatives who live away from you
  • Make a “newspaper” at home with your kids and have them illustrate it.
  • Make gifts to share — food, cookies, homemade frames, etc.

Support Charities in Someone’s Honor (especially about causes they care about)

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

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

Advent 3 — Isaiah 61:1-11 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Accessed 12/7/11

[2] Advent Conspiracy, 71.

[3] Advent Conspiracy, 70.

[4] Advent Conspiracy, 74-75.


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