Tag Archives: discipleship

Drive Fast and Take Chances: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7A)

Below is the sermon I preached yesterday (25 June 2017) at The Church of the Redeemer.  It was a powerful day at the Redeemer as we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the laying and blessing of the corner stone, and it was also my last Sunday at the Redeemer.  The lessons can be found here, we used track 2.  You can listen to the recording over on the parish website, or click on the link below.  

DRIVE FAST AND TAKE CHANCES

drive-fast-and-take-chances-2One of my favorite memories of my late Aunt Kim was the way she used to send us forth from her house after a visit. Now, some people might be inclined to say “Be safe,” “drive carefully,” or “call me when you get home,” but not Kim. As we descended the steps from their front porch, she would stand with my uncle and cousins waving goodbye. And just as we were about to enter the car she would yell, “drive fast and take chances.”

I have always found great joy an amusement in this saying. But over the last two months, I have begun to think a bit differently about it. It seems to me this is more than just a quirky dismissal from my godmother, but rather a charge for discipleship.

Drive fast is not about recklessness, it is about urgency. It is about knowing that you have to get to your destination with a sense of intense determination. It is a call to move with haste and not delay from the journey that has been set before you.

 Take chances, then, is not about getting ourselves into foolish situations, it is about letting go of fear so that you can make bold proclamations in word and deed. It is about standing up for truth and justice. It is a willingness to be counter-cultural for the sake of what is meet and right.

As I look at our lessons today – at Jeremiah, Romans, and Matthew

As I think about the historic occasion we celebrate in our parish life – the 100th anniversary of the laying and blessing of the corner stone.

As I think about my final Sunday here with all of you.

I cannot help but think that at the center of it all is that phrase:
Drive fast and take chances.

 In the book of Jeremiah, we encounter a prophet in the midst of turmoil: a prophet who is lamenting his prophetic mission. God has placed upon Jeremiah the task of proclaiming to the people of Jerusalem that their city will be destroyed. Jeremiah expresses deep grief and anger for this call, and that is exactly what we hear this morning.

Now these words from Jeremiah are not the words of some mental breakdown, or existential crisis.   These are words of his tradition. They are an expression that finds its place rooted in the psalms. Jeremiah has been influenced by the tradition, he has been immersed in it, and therefore cries out in that familiar language.  So he offers his lament.

You can almost feel Jeremiah’s anguish at the beginning of today’s lesson:

O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.

Lord you have lured me in, it is as if Jeremiah is saying.  There is something almost seductive in the way the Lord calls Jeremiah.

And because of that call, Jeremiah has become the laughing stock of his community.  Proclaiming that message, proclaiming that the great city of Jerusalem will be destroyed is certainly not winning Jeremiah any popularity contests.  But Jeremiah has no choice. He does not take on the mantle of prophet because it seems like a glamorous way of life. He does it because he cannot not prophesy.

If Jeremiah refuses to speak then a burning fire is kindled inside of him – a fire so hot that he cannot hold it – a fire so hot that it will incinerate all his bones.

And because of this in the midst of his anger and grief, in the midst of his pain and anguish, he cannot help but trust in God. Jeremiah trusts that God will indeed protect him, protect him like a dread warrior, and therefore has no choice but to worship God and go on prophesying. For Jeremiah there is great urgency and intensity in his prophetic witness.

What if we allowed ourselves to channel that same prophetic intensity?

What if we allowed ourselves to be so overcome by the word God has placed on our hearts, by the vocations that God has laid before us that if we did not act upon them, if we do not proclaim them, then an intense fire would be kindled in each of us – a fire so intense that we could not bear to keep it in?

What would Hope Street look like if we lived with that same prophetic intensity as Jeremiah?

If despite any anger or grief, any pain or anguish we went on glorifying God?
Singing to the Lord
Praising the Lord
Proclaiming the words that have been revealed to us.
Living fully into our identity. 

But what is this word . . . what is this identity that God has laid upon us.

The Word is Jesus.

The identity is:
Disciple
Christian
The Baptized

Paul in his letter to the Romans is unequivocal about what that identity means:

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Being the Baptized means living in a completely new way. Baptism is not just some rite of passage, or familial obligation. When we are baptized our very being changes – we are united with Christ in a particular and intimate way.  When we are lifted out of the waters of baptism we share in the death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are empowered with a new identity and if we fully embrace that identity it will have implications for every aspect of our lives.

As baptized people we are called to share in the life and ministry of Jesus. That means it is our responsibility to teach, to preach, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked. It is our responsibility to build relationships in our community through such ventures as the East Side Community Alliance. It is our responsibility to support the work of Camp Street Ministry. It is our responsibility to continue working to break down the systematic oppression of racism that plagues our neighborhood.

Being the baptized is a great responsibility. But through the gift of the Holy Spirit we have been empowered to take risks: to make bold proclamations in word and deed. For Jesus is clear, that we will do greater things if we truly believe.

Baptism places before us a road of discipleship that ultimately leads to the cross.   But through the grace, mercy, and loving-kindness of God we can trust that God will protect and care for us. We can trust that this life is not a burden, but a journey to the most glorious way of living imaginable.

So be not afraid.
Let go of the anger and grief, the pain and anguish for we are alive in Christ.

But let’s be real. There is plenty to fear on the Christian journey.

Once again this week we hear some pretty startling words from Jesus:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother . . . and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Despite what we might think at first glance, Jesus is not against family. But Jesus is making a profoundly clear statement as to where our loyalty should lie.

We are to love God above all else.
We are to serve God about all else.
We are to follow God above all else
.
And sometimes that is going to lead to conflict. Sometimes that is going to mean we will have to reject expectations from our families and friends.  It is not an uncommon story to hear family ties and ties of friendship being strained and broken because one person answered the call to follow Jesus.

In the midst of this warning, Jesus also offers words of comfort.  Jesus knows exactly what he is asking us to do.  Those who sacrifice for the sake of Christ will ultimately be rewarded – those who lose their life will find it. Those who give everything up to answer the call of Jesus will find the path to glorious and abundant life.

By virtue of our relationship with God we are the beloved of God and thus will be cared for by God: So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Knowing the risks. Knowing the cost. Jesus still asks us to follow. Jesus still invites us to claim our identity as disciples, as Christians, as the Baptized.

It is that invitation that allows us to proclaim with boldness, to shout from the housetops that which was whispered to us, to declare in the light that which was spoken in the dark.

It is that invitation that allows us to drive fast and take chances.

And that my friends, is exactly what the Church of the Redeemer has been doing for the last 100 years.cornerstone

100 years ago, the people of the Redeemer understood the urgency of the being followers of Jesus. They listened to the call from their Bishop. They prayed together. And they decided to get up and go. To leave the place they had known and come to a new neighborhood. 100 years ago the people of the Redeemer proclaimed with boldness that they were not afraid to take risks for the sake of spreading the Gospel.  And ever sense then, this community has been striving to fulfill that call – to live fully into the identity as disciples of Jesus.

It was with a sense of determination that this place – was set apart to be a temple of the Most High God. To be a place that would continually offer prayers and praise to the Most Holy Name of God. From the very beginning of the Church of the Redeemer at 655 Hope Street that life of prayer has been carried out with integrity and dedication to our Anglican tradition and heritage.

This is a place that has been profoundly blessed by the grace of God. This place has been filled with the Holy Spirit in ways that surpass almost every other that I have experienced. But most importantly this is a place – this is a community – that is unabashed in sharing that grace with those whom we have been called to serve.

This place has been a refuge for the broken and hurting. This place has been a haven for those society places at the margins. In this place there is truly a place at the table for each and every person who dares to enter the doors. That is the legacy that was built upon the cornerstone 100 years ago.

Today as we mark this important anniversary we have the responsibility to continue to build upon the foundation, which previous generations have laid. We must continue this legacy for the next 100 years, and we do that by laying new foundations. Foundations that further embed this community within the fabric of our wider neighborhood.
Foundations laid at Camp Street.
Foundations laid at the East Side Community Alliance.
Foundations laid with the emerging choir program.
Foundations that will serve as a tangible witness to the reconciling love of God that has inspired this community for the last century.

As members of the Baptized gathered here on Hope Street a great trust and responsibility has been laid upon us. So act with urgency to proclaim with boldness the love of God in your words and deeds. Let go of fear so that you might be able to take risks to spread the Gospel and follow Jesus on the road of discipleship.

Dear friends of the Church of the Redeemer. It has been my joy and privilege to be among you for these last few years. You have enriched and blessed my life in ways you will never know. So today I say to you that quirky dismissal my godmother said to me: drive fast and take chance.

AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sermon: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Below is my sermon from the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at St Mark’s Warwick.  The lessons can be found here.  A recording of the sermon along with the manuscript can be found below.  As always, comments and feedback welcome. 

 

temple

20th century Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple is often quoted for saying, “the Church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.”

In this sentence, Temple has articulated a deep and profound reality of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. From the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry to this moment in 2017 this is the abiding truth of the Church. As the catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

Now I’ll admit, these two phrases sound a bit like lofty ideals put forward by academics, bishops, and church councils, which is exactly what they are, but at the heart of these words are the very words of Jesus.

Today we hear from Matthew’s Gospel. We continue along this five-week journey through that most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount. The journey began last week as we heard those familiar words of the Beatitudes, and continues this week as we hear Jesus announce our identity – we hear Jesus tell us what it means to follow him – we hear Jesus say, “You are the salt of the earth . . .You are the light of the world.”

These words are familiar. They have inspired the hearts and minds of artist, poets, and musicians for centuries. They have seeped into the cultural imagination of our world, and friends they can even be found on bumper stickers.

I wonder if I am the only one who started singing to myself, “hide it under a bushel NO, I’m gonna let it shine” as the words, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” were proclaimed from the Gospel.

We know these words, and that is where the danger lies.

The danger lies in the complacency of the familiar. The danger lies in becoming numb to just how powerful these words are. We must wake up and see the fullness of what Jesus is really calling us to this day.

So what does it mean to be salt?

The phrase, “the salt of the earth” has been normalized into our cultural vocabulary to mean really good, down to earth people. Because this phrase is so familiar we miss out on recognizing just how bizarre this would have sounded to those present with Jesus. Imagine instead if Jesus said, “You are the red hot chili peppers of the earth.”

You add zest. You add spice. You enliven. You shake up and unsettle the world.

This is what the disciples are called to do.

The way they are to engage the world should have profound consequences for the behavior of humanity. But in order to do this they must stay vigilant. That is why Jesus warns about salt that has lost its saltiness.   The danger for the disciples is that they might lose that capacity, by forgetting that they are to disorder the status quo by valuing those who are dispossessed, by caring for those who suffer loss, by seeking to do justice, showing mercy, having integrity, being peacemakers, and courageously standing for what they believe. Jesus is clear; disciples who do not engage in such practices that humanize life and restore the dignity of humanity are bland, and fall into the trap of following the ways of this early kingdom instead of the ways of God.

Today we are called to be red hot chili peppers. Today we are called to be salt.

The second metaphor used to instruct the disciples in their newfound identity as followers of Jesus is light.

It is important to note here that the disciples themselves are not the light.

There is only one light. The light that shines in the darkness. The light that enlightens the nations. The light of the world is Jesus.

So when Jesus says to the disciples, “You are the light of the world,” Jesus is saying to them that you are to be windows through which the light of God passes through and shines on the world. The gathered community of the disciples are to be so transformed by the light of God which passes through them, that they become beacons that burst forth the image and reality of God’s justice, God’s mercy, and God’s love.

Today we are called to be windows. Today we are called to be light.

After Jesus finished his metaphors of salt and light, he interjects with a clarification about the connection between this new thing that he is doing and the tradition that has been handed down to them.

Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Jesus is being explicit here, that the law and the prophets stand until they have been accomplished – until the prophecies have been fulfilled. So these words from Jesus force us to connect what it means to be salt and light with the prophetic message we hear from Isaiah.

Today’s passage from Isaiah draws our attention to the true meaning of worship. Throughout the beginning of the passage, the prophet is calling out the people of Israel for making their worship about themselves. They say to God, “why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” After pointing out the problems with the Israelites behavior the prophet goes on to say:

Is this not 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?

Worship, when it is only about us, is not true worship. True worship is that which brings us closer to God and inspires us to go out into the world and live into the fullness of that relationship.

I want to be clear. There is nothing wrong with worship and ritual as long as we are not participating in those things for their own sake or out of some sort of obligation. Worship is not the end, but a vehicle to something more.

Worship should push us, it should make us uncomfortable, it should trouble the complacency in our hearts for worship is the primary way we build a deeper and more honest relationship with God. From this place of discomfort we should be moved to go out and act – to go out and make real the fast the Lord has chosen.

So, when Jesus says not one letter of the law or prophets will be erased until they have been fulfilled, Jesus is saying the work of my disciples – the work of salt and light – is to loose the bonds of injustice; to let the oppressed go free; to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to not cast anyone aside; to welcome all people into the community that is the followers of Jesus; and to not rest until the realms of justice, peace, freedom and love prevail.

Over the years as I have come to know this community; as I have heard stories from some of you, from Deacon Joyce, and from Mother Susan I have come to see just how many windows there are here at St. Mark’s. I have come to know just how well you allow the light of Christ to shine through you. Every month over one hundred people come to your doors to be fed, to share in fellowship, and to take food home with them from your Community Lunch. You knit prayer shawls. You’ve established a relationship with the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center. You do all this and so much more. Here at St. Mark’s you are working hard, as a gathered community of disciples of Jesus, to build the kingdom of God, which is already and not yet.

Today as we once again here the invitation of Jesus to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world we are invited to discern how we can live into this identity more fully. We have the opportunity to imagine how we can better live into the sentiments of Archbishop Temple that, “the Church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” In this historical moment it is our responsibility as disciples of Jesus to seek out the lost, the left behind, the broken, the stranger, the scared and welcome them to be among us. To care for them. To love as Jesus loves us.

In a world of increasing anxiety and fear it can be hard to have the courage to keep doing these things.

It can be hard to continue in the righteousness of Jesus.

It can be hard to not be overwhelmed by it all.

In those moments we can turn to the words of the psalmist, who reminds us that the righteous have no reason to fear.

In those moments we can turn to our worshipping communities and pray together.

In those moments, we take all that holds us back and place that into the arms of the loving, life-giving, and liberating God.

Once we are set free from that burden, we can continue on with our work of being salt and light – we can continue on with our work of being the Church.

AMEN.

 

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Sermon: Pentecost Year C

My sponsoring rector has been abundantly generous in inviting me to preach at our parish, The Church of the Redeemer.  He has made sure I have had great lessons to work with and am preaching days I have not preached before.  Continuing this trend, he invited me to preach on Pentecost (May 15, 2016). 

Below is a copy of my manuscript, and you can find the lessons here (we used Acts and Romans).  You can listen to a recording for the 10am Liturgy through the media player below or over on The Redeemer’s website.  

 

 

One of the greatest challenges, and ultimately the great gift of seminary, are the moments when what you are learning confronts and conflicts with what you have always believed to be true. It is the encounters where the old and new can no longer coexist together. Over the last two years I have watched countless friends and classmates enter into these struggles – these crises of faith – and emerge on the other side; the old being cast down and replaced by a new and deeper understanding of God. In the last week, I 20120513144615!Icon-Pentecosthave realized that today, this great feast of Pentecost, is one of my crossroad moments. In struggling to craft this sermon, I have come to know that what I thought I knew about Pentecost can no longer stand with what I understand to be true about the Christian life.

Growing up, Pentecost was one of my favorite days in the life of the Church. This excitement had nothing to do with the fact that everyone wore red or any liturgical pageantry, but had everything to do with coffee hour. You see the parish I grew up in celebrated this principal feast day as the birthday of the church – so coffee hour was one big birthday party. There were balloons, we sang “Happy Birthday,” and blew out candles on not one but twelve birthday cakes. My foundational experiences of Pentecost were happy, joyous, sugar fueled, parties.

This foundation was further built upon when I had the opportunity to travel to Taizé, France at the end of my freshman year of college. As I journeyed to Taizé I was convinced that I would finally understand what the Pentecost moment was all about. Over the course of my weeklong pilgrimage, I gathered with hundreds even thousands of other people to worship in the Church of Reconciliation. Each day our number grew larger and the cacophony of voices increased. There we were, worshipping in the Spirit, each in our own native tongue. You could feel the Spirit at work in that place. It was a warm, embracing, joy-filled Spirit. Young people from around the world – separated by boundaries of geography and language – praising God with one voice. To add to this, the week I was there was mostly windy and rainy. I thought I had it all. I had experienced Pentecost – the wind, the multitude of voices, the Spirit descending on the people of God. So I entered seminary, believing Pentecost to be a fun, exciting, party of love and worship.

But as I read today’s lessons, as I listen to John’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, those are not the words that come to mind. Instead, I think of intense intimacy, unsettling peace, terrifying transformation, subversive behavior, and unceasing fire.

What we just heard from John’s Gospel is a testimony to the profound intimacy of God. Just as we heard last Sunday, we hear again today that Jesus and the Father are one. That God the Father sent Jesus – who is God the Son – into the world, that all people might come to believe and know God. With the incarnation came a promise that God would dwell with God’s people forever. Today we hear again of that promise, when Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” This Advocate is God the Holy Spirit. So when God the Son is no longer physically present among us, God the Holy Spirit comes to be present to us and to dwell in each and every one of us. It is this same abiding Spirit that is going to reveal to us everything that we need to know, because the Spirit of truth brings Jesus to mind, the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. Or succinctly as Gregory of Nazianzus profoundly wrote, “we receive the Son’s light from the Father’s light in the light of the Spirit.”

The concluding sentences of today’s Gospel reading jump ahead a few verses in John’s narrative, and, according to the lectionary, are completely optional. We hear these concluding words from Jesus, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The peace proclaimed in this Gospel, is not the type of peace that the world proclaims: a peace championed by celebrities and imagined as children singing in harmony and unity. The peace of God, to quote Hymn 661, “it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” It is the peace that changes everything we think we know. It is not some comforting imagine, but unsettles all that has become stagnant and transforms it to the way God intended in creation. It is this transformation, this marvelous peace of God that we are called to pray for. This transformation is at the heart of the Acts of the Apostles.

In Acts we hear of the flashy, intense, and action packed descent of the Holy Spirit on God’s people. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” These closest followers of Jesus were hiding, trying to stay safe. After witnessing what happened to Jesus, they were understandably terrified that the same would happen to them. And all of a sudden, there came the sound like the rush of a violent wind. How completely terrifying – that in this place they thought was safe, they would be overwhelmed by a deafening and violent sounds that seems to come out of nowhere. God the Holy Spirit did not descend upon them like some cute little bird, but rather came crashing in shattering the World as they knew it. All of a sudden they began speaking in every language imaginable – languages they never spoke before.

This transformation, this descent of God, was not something to be confined to those in the house, but quickly spread throughout Jerusalem. We hear that a bewildered, amazed, and astonished crowd came and gather to figure out what was going on. And as each person heard the mighty acts of God proclaimed in their native tongue those feelings only intensified. Some tried to figure out what had happened, while others mocked and scoffed – writing off this transformation as if the apostles were a bunch of drunken fools.

Then Peter steps up and begins to preach as a way to explain all that is happening. “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you supposed, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel” When I stop laughing at Peter’s insistence that the twelve could not be drunk because it is nine in the morning – because no one has ever been drunk at that hour – I can not help but wonder more seriously, “what would it take for the world to be so surprised, bewildered, astonished, and amazed by our actions that the only logical conclusion would be that we have had a little too much to drink a little too early in the day?

What would it look like, if we stepped outside our perceived houses of safety and proclaimed the righteousness of God in the world around us? What would it look like if we – as exemplified in Paul and Silas last week – praised and worshipped God in such a way that walls came crashing down? What would it look like if we actually believed that “a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down,” even more to the point, what if we believed that it could happen again?

This is why the Holy Spirit descends on that Pentecost day, and this Pentecost day, in such a terrifying and startling way. Because the Spirit of truth dwells in us so richly that if we truly believe we will do greater things than Jesus himself.

The world in which we live is torn apart by useless division and senseless violence. If the Pentecost event teaches us anything, it is that these divisions can and will be cast down. If one hundred people turned the known world upside down that Pentecost day – why can’t 50 turn Providence upside down this Pentecost day? If the prayer and praise of Paul and Silas casts down the prison wall, why can’t our prayer and praise break down the wall between the East Side and Camp Street? If God has created us to be at unity with God’s self, why can’t we get out of God’s way and be open to receiving the Spirit of God?

On that great and glorious Pentecost day divided tongues as of fire appeared among them. By the preaching of all, hearts were set a blaze. As long as fire gets the fuel it needs, it can continue to burn without end, but without fuel the fire starves and quickly extinguishes itself. Today, that fire has arrived at our door. The Holy Spirit has descended upon us and transformed us into fuel to keep that fire burning.

The life of discipleship is hard and it requires much. In fact it requires everything. This day we celebrate is not a glorified liturgical birthday party. It is God fulfilling God’s promise – that the Holy Spirit will be our advocate and guide here on earth as we strive to build the kingdom of God. On this day God equips us to do the impossible – to follow the God who took on our mortality so that we might take on God’s immortality.

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Renewal of Baptismal Vows. Photo by Dan Harvey

In a few moments we will recommit ourselves to this work as we renew our Baptismal Vows. With that renewal and with being nourished by Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Eucharist we will go forth from this place as a living Pentecost moment: to share in the intense intimacy of God who is three in one and one in three, to be unsettled by the peace of God and shaken from our complacency, to stand unafraid of the awesome transformational power of God, to act in a way that is so subversive to the ways of this world people think we are drunken fools, and to share the light of Christ that burns so brightly in our hearts that it sets this world on fire.

 

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” It is time for us to prophecy, it is time for us to dream, it is time for us to get to work and do the impossible.

AMEN.

 

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Sermon Easter 7C : Last Sunday at Trinity Hartford

Below is the copy of my sermon from my final Sunday at my internship parish Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford CT.  The lessons can be found here.  Here’s the audio so you can give it a listen.  .  

What a day this is.

giotto-the-ascension

Giotto, The Ascension 

Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as the Sunday after the Ascension. Just a few days ago, on Thursday, the Church celebrated one of the seven principal feasts – one of the seven most important and special days of the year – the feast of the Ascension. Given this is the Sunday after the Ascension, it seems to me that to truly understand all that we have just heard we need to take a step back, and think together about what exactly happened on that great and glorious Ascension day.

 

There’s an old story told by one of the desert fathers. No one really knows where the story comes from, but some say that St. Anthony told it to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nyssa told it to St. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus as they sat around the campfire. I do not know the facts behind this story, but it is certainly true. Following in their footsteps, I want to tell you an Ascension campfire-story:

As Jesus began to rise, John just could not bear it. He reached up into the cloud and grabbed a hold of Jesus’ right leg, refusing to let go! To make matters worse, when Mary saw John’s plan, she too, jumped up, and grabbed hold of Jesus’ other leg. His glorious exit ruined, Jesus looked up into heaven and called out, “Okay, Father . . . now what?”

A voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance. “Ascend!” the voice said.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, dangling John and Mary behind him. Of course, the other disciples could not bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board, and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in mid-air. Then, before anyone really knew what to do next, all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere – friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who had heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people whom he had fed. They, too, refused to be left behind, so they made a grab for the last pair of ankles they could see and hung on for dear life. Above all of this scuffling and scrambling the voice of God kept calling out, “Ascend!”

But then suddenly, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.

“Wait!” he shrilled, “I’ve lost my dog! Wait for me.” But Jesus couldn’t wait. The little boy wasn’t going to be left behind, and he was determined that his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might. For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air, but Jesus could not stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling Jesus back up to heaven.

It looked as if the tree would uproot itself, but then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. The soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on. As Jesus ascended into heaven, he pulled all of creation – everything that ever was, everything that is, everything that will ever be – Jesus pulled it into heaven with him.

This story expresses in beautiful imagery the words of my favorite early church theologian, Athanasius, who says more profoundly than I could ever muster: the divine becomes human so that the human can become divine. This is what Ascension Day is all about. In fact, this is what the incarnation is all about. That one day thousands of years ago, God took on the frailty of our human flesh – God became human – so that we might ascend with God back to heaven and be transformed into the fullness of our own creation. In the Ascension the incarnation cycle is completed, but it is not finished.

This morning we hear from the Gospel of John, just how serious God is about being in relationship with us. We hear Jesus pray, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus passionately and earnestly prays to God that we might be at unity with each other and with Jesus so that we might also be at unity with God the Father. Jesus prays for all of this so we might be able to see, know, experience, and share in his glory. But Jesus’ glory, particularly in John’s Gospel is a complicated and difficult thing.

As we look at John’s Gospel, and the placement of this passage in John’s large narrative, we see these are Jesus’ final words before the account of Jesus’ betrayal. We are reminded that Christ’s glory is inseparable from Christ’s suffering. We come to know again that Jesus’ glory can only be seen from the cross. As we step back and look at this narrative it is clear that this deep and abiding intimacy with God is rooted in the cross and endures through suffering. This is the life we are called to as followers of Jesus. Luckily, we are not the only ones who have been called.

In today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Paul and Silas, out proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman Colony. This passage contains two very different encounters that reveal something to us of the nature of our unity with Christ and the journey to which that unity calls us.

First, Paul and Silas encounter a salve girl who makes a lot of money for her owners by telling fortunes. Acts tells us of their encounter with the girl, but the important part of this story has nothing to do with the girl: it has to do with her owners and their response to Paul and Silas.

When the slave girl’s owners find out what Paul has done they are furious, have Paul and Silas seized and bring them to court where they are charged with disturbing the peace of the city. They are charged with being subversive to the public order. So they are flogged, they are beaten, and thrown in jail.

The charge brought against Paul and Silas is strikingly similar to the change brought against Jesus. They are changed for disrupting the status quo. They are charge for breaking down a system of oppression and setting the captive free. For that liberating and life giving work they are punished – and punished harshly. There is a reality for us in this experience of Paul and Silas. When we do the work of Christ there is a cost. Indeed unity with Christ – that very unity Jesus begs the Father to give us – has throughout history often meant suffering at the hands of unjust powers, for the sake of love – for the sake of integrity. Being in unity with God through the person of Jesus means we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the Gospel: we must be willing to face unknown hardships and sufferings for the sake of the cross. But, suffering never has the last word.

As Paul and Silas are in jail they have another important encounter. As they sit in jail, as they sit broken and bruised, they prayed and sang hymns – they worshiped God all night long. Their worship was so powerful that it caused the earth to quake and all in the prison were set free. Yet, they did not leave – instead they save the jailers life.

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” the jailer says to Paul. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And without delay the jailer and his whole household we baptized. Because of the worship and witness of Paul and Silas this jailer’s life was save and transformed. This is our chief responsibility to gather in prayer and song and worship God in such a way that lives are saved.

There are many problems in this world: release needs to be brought to the captives, justice to the oppressed, and peace to those ravaged by conflict. As important as these actions are, they are only a part of a higher, more important action, the saving action of a sovereign God who enters our humanity to take it up and redeem it to its final destiny.

This time of prayer and worship is a time to clarify our values and motives, and to see all we do and all that we are in light of the gospel message. As we gather at this holy table to time stands still. Everything that was, everything that is, everything that will ever be comes together in this moment as simple gifts of bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. Past, present, and future unite to sing the praises of God. As we receive this most blessed sacrament we, in the words of Augustine, becoming what we receive. We are receiving the physical manifestation of our unity with God – we are receiving the redeeming and life giving, sustaining, and nourishing meal of God.

Though this sacrament of praise and thanksgiving we stand with Paul and Silas, who in the face of suffering never stop their worship of God. Their praise shakes the foundations of the prison – doors are opened and chains are unfastened. When we gather at this table this is the same worship we are called to. We are called to stand in the midst of our suffering, our doubt, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty and worship in such a way that shakes the foundations of the world so that all those held captive, all those in chains, are set free.

Do you feel that? The spirit is at work in this place. Wherever the Spirit moves, the work of worship and witness by faithful people brings freedom to all who believe. Trinity Hartford this is your call. To praise God in such a way that walls of division come down, that chains break open, and all people are set free in the name of Jesus.

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with The Rev’d Don Hamer (rector, Trinity Hartford), April Alford-Harkey (Postulant for Diaconate) and her ministry dog Sandy.  Photo taken by George Chien

From the bottom of my heart I want to thank each and every one of you for an amazing year. I have learned so much, tried on new things, and come a little closer to understanding what it means to be a priest. I want to offer my particular thanks to Don who has so graciously and generously taken me under his wing and walked with me as I continue my journey to ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church.

 

As Jesus, in Luke’s account of the Ascension, departs from his disciples he blesses them, they worship him, return to Jerusalem with great joy, and continually bless God in the temple. If I may be so bold as to speak on behalf of April, as we depart from you this day you are blessing us. You have and will continue to be a blessing in our lives, and we can only hope that you feel the same way about us. But, it is time for us to take the paths that have been set before us: to go forth from this place continually praising God. While we may be in different places we are all united by that same song of thankfulness and praise that makes eternity stand still. That God loves us so much, that God became what we are so might become what God is.

Beloved children of God; keep the faith, stay strong, and do not give up. Most importantly never stop worshiping because when you do; that is when they earth stops shaking, that is when transformation ceases, that is when lives are no longer saved.

AMEN.

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Sermon Advent 2C

The following sermon was preached on December 6, 2015 at Trinity Church, Hartford CT.  The lessons can be found here.  The text of the sermon is copied below and you can listen to a recording over on SoundCloud.  

This sermon marks something pretty cool for me: It is the first time I’ve experienced preaching a Sunday for the second time.  While I have preached Good Friday the last three years in a row, preaching the same Sunday three years apart is a different kind of ballgame.  Three years ago I preached Advent 2C at St. Peter’s, Narragansett.  It was one of the first times I preached in that community, and had only been sharing ministry there for a couple of months at that point.  Having looked back on that sermon – I’m thankful that it isn’t on this blog and there isn’t a recording of it.  But, it was exciting to see the growth in my preaching over the last three years and left me hopeful to see where my preaching will be the next time I preach Advent 2C.  

 

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;he has come to his people and set them free.”

In the last week, the media has made us aware of one particular haunting and sobering fact: In 2015 the United States has averaged more than one mass shooting a day. We have witnessed the deaths of far too many innocent people due to this senseless – seemingly unceasing – gun violence. This reality has become so pervasive that most shootings go unreported by the media and any hope of change seems lost and impossible. Yet in the midst of all this we hear:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
Makes his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
And every mountain and hill shall be made low,
And the crooked shall be made straight,
And the rough ways made smooth;
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

In the midst of fear, darkness, anxiety, and confusion we hear of the radical conversion and transformation of the world. We hear that God will remember.

These powerful and prophetic words first appear in the biblical narrative in the 40th chapter of Isaiah. In this context they offer a word of promise to the people of Israel who have been exiled to Babylon. They brought comfort and hope that their time of oppression would end with God’s rescue – that in the midst of their despair God had not forgotten them. Even though they were living in darkness, the obstacles would one day be removed so they could journey peacefully with and to God.

As these words reappear this morning in the Gospel of Luke they serve a dual role. They are a word of promise to us that, amidst the hatred, violence, anger and darkness of our day God is still present with us. In the midst of tragedy, war, and hunger God has not forgotten us. God remembers God’s promises to us and the day is coming where the rough will be made smooth, the valleys will be filled, the mountains and hills will be leveled, the hungry will be fed, and the broken will be healed. The day is coming when the light will break through – the light will shatter the darkness – and the Kingdom of God will be fulfilled in our midst. The day is coming when the Lord will appear and set us free.

These words also let us know that the bridge between the prophets of the Old Testament and the prophets of the New Testament has been secured in the person of John the Baptist. The one who cries out from the wilderness that the Lord is coming – the one who cries out that Jesus is coming.

What we hear today is the very beginning of the public ministry of John in Luke’s narrative. At first glance it might seem like Luke is just including some particular historical facts to give more credibility to his narrative, or just being really picky about setting the stage for John’s entrance. However, there is nothing that can be left out of this passage. Each and every piece tells us something important about the role of John, his prophetic message, and the Lord whose coming he heralds.

Luke is very careful to give specific details about who is in power in the society in which John’s ministry takes place. We hear:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee . . .

What Luke is getting at with this list is that the salvific work of God – the saving work of God – is situated within the general history of the world. God’s salvation is not brought about in isolation it is done in the midst of human history with all its twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies. Not only is the salvation of all people heralded in the midst of human history; it emerges not from those in power, but from the wilderness.

“The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” The word did not come to the emperor, it did not come to the governor, it did not come to the ruler of Galilee. The word of God came to an ordinary man in a very ordinary place. This is one of the hallmarks of Luke’s Gospel. Each and every time there is a revelation from God it happens where you would least expect it.

The word of God comes to John in the wilderness. The angel of the Lord appears to a young girl and tells her that she is going to birth God into the world. Shepherds – those on the fringes of society – are first to hear the news that the Savior has been born.

So when I reflect on where the word of God is revealed in scripture, I cannot help but think of where the word of God is revealed today: Is it revealed to us by children? By those who have been cast aside because of whom they love, the color of their skin, or how much money is in their bank account? Is the word of God being revealed to us in the places torn apart by violence and hatred? Is the word of God breaking forth in this very place, in our little corner of Hartford?

If Luke teaches us anything, it is that God breaks into our midst in the places we think God would dare not go to the people we think God would not dare to encounter.

Finally, this morning’s Gospel reveals something to us about our own relationships with God. When the voice in the wilderness cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord” this is not a message solely for societal systems and the created world order – it is for us as well.

John, as will be revealed in subsequent verses of Luke’s Gospel, calls each and every one of us to a baptism of repentance. The baptism that John brings is the work that we need to do individually and corporately to make room for the birth of Jesus. The call is to repent and return to the Lord. To recognize the ways we have fallen short and separated ourselves from God, to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness, and to return to the path of love and faithfulness. Just as the world will be restore – valleys will be filled and rough places made smooth – so too will our rough places be made smooth, so will we be healed, made whole, and returned to right relationship with God.

When we do this work, when we reorder and reorient our lives towards God then we have made way for the Lord. Then we are ready for both the first and the final – eschatological – Advent of God.

This is not an easy message and it seems to me that is the gift that Advent has to offer us collectively and individually. If we are taking Advent seriously it should make us uncomfortable. I want to be clear that I am not calling for some sort of Advent fundamentalism. Do your Christmas shopping, attend parties, swap cookies, put up trees – do whatever is important for your family in celebrating this Advent and coming Christmas season. And as you sit in front of your tree spend time thinking not only about what is – or will be – underneath it but what is in your heart. Think about the broken relationships in your lives, the people who have hurt you and the people you have hurt. Think about the ways you have shut out God, and what your life would look like if you were vulnerable enough to let God break you open and fill you with the light of Christ.

This is uncomfortable and makes us uneasy – I don’t know about you but I would much rather eat too many chocolate peppermint cookies while watching a Charlie Brown Christmas than examine my own life. I do not want to think about the classmates I have harmed, I do not want to think about the person begging on the street that I ignore as I walk into Starbucks to get an afternoon coffee, I do not want think about let alone acknowledge the dark places in my life that I refuse to let God in. But, I’ve learned that if I take the call of John the Baptist seriously. If I truly and earnest prepare myself for the coming of Christ in the world – then my Christmas celebration will be more joyous and profound than I can ever begin to imagine.

In what we heard proclaimed this morning: John confronts us, commands our attention, and demands our responses.

We have the gift, challenge, and opportunity to prepare for and respond to the incarnation. We do not need to wait for December 25th to come around to become and continue being people of the incarnation. God has already come into the world we know what is going to happen. We do not need to pretend that we are avoiding some sort of Christmas spoiler alert.

Rowan Williams, the more recent Archbishop of Canterbury, has written rather profoundly about the power of the incarnation. He writes:

I believe that the doctrine of the Incarnation is recovered and revitalized [only] so often as we recover our authority as a Christian community to challenge and resist what holds back human community.

This is the work John the Baptist is calling us to do this Advent season. We are being called to reclaim the power of the incarnation to stand against the powers of sin and darkness that plague our souls and 12087836_10153728384494367_5064745458354703939_oour world. We need to stand up in the face of violence and oppression – in the face of more than one mass shooting a day – and say enough is enough. We need to claim our authority as people of light, love, and peace that violence and hatred are never the answer – that there is another way.

We need to make clear with our lives and ministries that the Kingdom of God is breaking forth in our midst. That God remembers the promises God has made to us, that by the grace of God, our prayers and actions: the paths will be made straight; every valley will be filled; every mountain and hill will be made low; the crooked will be made straight; the rough will be made smooth; the hungry will be fed; the broken will be made whole; the scared will be given hope; the lonely will be cared for; and all flesh – all people no matter who they are, who they love, what they look like – will see the salvation of God.

My friends, Advent is upon us. The Lord is in our midst. God has come to set us free.

AMEN.

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Blind Bartimaeus – Proper 25B

The following sermon was preached as part of my section for my preaching class at Yale Divinity School. This is one of two full length sermons I will have to give in class this semester.  The text is the Gospel from Proper 25: B (Mark 10:46-52).  You can listen to the sermon over on SoundCloud.

 

While this may be surprising for a Gospel passage read at the end of October, this morning’s text is about two things: discipleship and the cross. Forget the outrage that stores are carrying Christmas stuff before Halloween – today’s Gospel jumps right over the incarnation season and heads directly for Lent and Good Friday.

This morning’s text is the concluding story of Mark’s discipleship catechism – Mark’s teaching on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Over the last several weeks, we have heard stories of the importance of amputating everything that separates us from the love of God. We have heard of a rich man and a camel going through the eye of a needle. We have heard James and John asking Jesus for the best seats in the Kingdom of God. After hearing story after story of what not to do, we finally have an example of what true discipleship looks like.  We have arrived at the story of Bartimaeus.

BartimaeusFrom the very beginning of this passage, the Gospel writer gives the reader a clue that something big is going on here. Unlike the other thirty-something healing stories in the four Gospel narratives this is the only story – with the exception of Lazarus – where the person who is healed is named. Typically, the closest we ever get to learning the identity of someone is through relational contexts, such as Jairus’ daughter. By doing something so different, Mark is telling the reader: PAY ATTENTION. THIS IS IMPORTANT. THIS WILL BE ON THE FINAL EXAM. But what is so important about another blind person receiving their sight?

As soon as Bartimaeus hears Jesus along the road he starts shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He does not ask for the mysteries of eternity, he does not ask for the top place in the new world order: Bartimaeus asks for mercy. You see in the time of Jesus, if you were to have some sort of physical illness, if something in your body did not function properly, it was believed to be because you did something to anger God. It was because you were a sinner. It is with an impassioned desperation to be made whole, to be allowed back into society, to be made visible that Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” He knows what is wrong with him so when he finally is called by Jesus and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” He has an answer, “My teacher, let me see again.” Let me see.

From this point the Gospel moves very quickly:

“Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”

Unlike the other healing stories, Jesus does not spit in the dirt and make mud, nor does he even touch this blind man. Jesus heals Bartimaeus with a word. It is through his faith, through his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, through his recognition of his own need for mercy, compassion, and healing, that Jesus heals him. While Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go it is not the same declaration he makes to others who have been healed. Bartimaeus is not told to go home and keep this miraculous occasion a secret – no Batimaeus is allowed to follow Jesus on the way.

The striking characteristics of this pericope do not end with this brief dialogue and sending. Bartimaeus’ actions speak volumes to the actions required of a disciple – of a follower of Jesus.

After crying out to Jesus and being discouraged by the crowds, Jesus calls out to Bartimaeus, but Bartimaeus does not know – he does not hear Jesus:

“And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”

Now I don’t know about you, but springing up is not something I do. Rolling out of bed, shuffling to class – yes. But springing up, who does that?

In springing up, Bartimaeus demonstrates the excitement, enthusiasm, and eagerness to approach Jesus that all disciples, all followers, are called to have. In the midst of the overwhelming and oppressive heat and humidity of Jericho, Bartimaeus uses all the energy he has to encounter the incarnate nature of God.

In his haste to meet Jesus, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. His cloak is presumably his most treasured possession and certainly contains any money he has made or food he has brought along for his day. Yet he throws all of that aside – he casts off everything that he has to run to Jesus. Unlike the rich man who cannot image selling off the vast amount of land and stuff that he owns, unlike James and John who want to own the best seats in the proverbial house, Bartimaeus gives it all up to follow Jesus.

Bartimaeus – without even knowing it – shows us the true meaning of discipleship. He shows that to be a follower of Jesus we must cast aside everything for the gift of seeing Jesus and we must do so with all energy, excitement, and eagerness.

Stepping beyond this miraculous event in Bartimaeus’ life, this text – these concluding verses of Chapter 10 – serve as the bridge between Jesus’ Galilean ministry and his fate in Jerusalem.

Throughout the proceeding chapters of the Gospel narrative, Jesus has been hinting at what his coming ahead of him. As soon as the encounter with Bartimaeus has concluded, we begin the next chapter with Jesus entering Jerusalem.

This bridge from discipleship to entering Jerusalem teaches us something vital about what it means to be part of the Jesus movement. It seems to me that Jesus’ call to discipleship seeks not our cognitive assent, nor our churchly habits, nor our liturgical proclivities, nor theological sophistication, nor doctrinal correctness, nor any other poor substitute we have created throughout history. Discipleship comes down to one simple question: do we want to see?

Do we like Bartimaeus cry out to Jesus “Have mercy on me?” Do we beg, “Let me see?” Or do we keep our heads down and not make a scene to keep appearances up that everything is wonderful? Do we wish to keep our blinders on so we only see that which makes us feel good? Do we shield our eyes from that which makes us uncomfortable?

When our lives and ministries are characterized by encounters with the blind who want to see, the lame who want to walk, the deaf who want to hear, the hungry who want to be fed, the naked who want to be clothed, the captive who want to be set free – When our lives are characterized by encounters with Bartimaeus then, and only then, do we get to see a glimpse of what is means to encounter the holy and living God. Then do we get the gift of sight to see Jesus revealed in our very midst.

While Bartimaeus may have asked Jesus for his physical sight, the whole of these chapters of Mark – the whole of Mark’s discipleship catechism is about healing spiritual blindness. It is about taking off the blinders of this world and putting on the glasses of the kingdom of God. It is about taking off the lenses that force us to see what the world wants us to see and looking out from the view of the cross.

Bartimaeus refuses to be defined by his circumstances or by the expectations of those who are able to see, who appear to be close to Jesus, and who assume the right to speak on his behalf. He ensures that his cry will be heard by Jesus. This is the dedication we are called to embody – this is the life that Jesus begs us to live. We who have been blessed with sight, we who have been blessed with physical health, with food, shelter, and the comforts of this world are called to reach out and make sure that no stumbling block is put in the way of those who want to call out to Jesus. We are called to join their shouts of justice – to join their cries to Jesus, “Have Mercy on me, for we are sinners in your sight!”

At this point in the gospel, Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem and now with the seeing Bartimaeus by his side he has entered that fateful city.

I wonder what our lives and ministries would look like if we had our eyes opened, if our spiritual blindness was healed so that we could see Jesus’ fate in Jerusalem? I wonder what would happen if we recognized that all our lives are pointed to the cross. For in his death on the cross Christ reveals the blindness of his followers – he reveals the blindness of each and every one of us. But, in his resurrection – in his triumph over death and the grave – Jesus gives his followers eyes to see the good news of God’s ongoing reign.

As followers of Jesus – and members of the Jesus movement – our sight has been restored. So the question remains: do we want to see the world around you? Do we dare to see the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the marginalized? Or do we wish to put our blinders back on?

If we choose to accept the sight Jesus offers – the sight of a man healing, comforting, showing mercy; the sight of a man accepting the very worst that humanity has to offer on the cross – then we can no longer live as if we have blinders on. We must accept the reality that Bartimaeus experienced: encountering Jesus has life-altering consequences. Once we encounter Jesus, there is no turning back. We must work together, we must live into the promises of our Baptism, we must continue in the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers, we must persevere in resisting evil, we must repent and return to the Lord, we must proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, we must seek and serve Christ in all persons, and we must respect the dignity of every human being.

When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” We must be bold enough to reply, “My teacher, let me see.”

AMEN.

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Sermon for Proper 21B

The following sermon was preached on Sunday September 27, 2015 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford CT (my seminarian internship site for the year).  The Gospel text for the sermon is Mark 9:38-50, and can be found here.  You can also listen to the sermon as preached at the 10am liturgy over on SoundCloud.  

When I sat down to begin preparing this sermon, I cracked open my Bible and read the gospel appointed for today. When I finished reading the text I sat back, took a deep breath, and thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” Last week the rector got “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” and this week I get, “if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” What sort of new seminarian hazing is this!? But the more I think about it, the more thankful I am to be preaching on such a difficult passage. This text, just like life, is hard, difficult, and messy. It seems to me that it offers and reveals a few very important lessons for those of us attempting to walk this hard, difficult, and messy road we call the Christian journey – that we call the Jesus movement.

Held together with last week’s Gospel these two passages offer to us what is effectively Mark’s discipleship catechism – Mark’s teachings on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The part we hear today, in the concluding verses of chapter nine, is a sort of mash up on discipleship. It consists of a series of originally independent sayings that are linked together with various catchwords, phrases, and roughly speaking, are linking together by subject matter. For those of you interested in theories of biblical interpretation this is what scholars refer to as redaction criticism. All this is to say that what we have before us are two clusters of teachings concluded with a trio of salty sayings.

sheep 1“John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” If you look between the lines you can almost see Jesus shaking his head and thinking, “these guys really don’t get it.” What the disciples are mad about isn’t that someone is casting out demons in the name of Jesus – they are upset because this person isn’t one of them. They are upset because, as they see it, this person doesn’t have the right qualifications. He hangs out with the wrong group of people; he doesn’t think the right way; he went to that other seminary. But, Jesus is clear. Those things that divide the 12 and this other man – the things that divide us and them – do not matter. What matters is that the power of Jesus’ name is spreading, casting out demons, rooting out sin and evil, and making people whole again. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever proclaims the name of Jesus in order to heal this broken and hurting world is for us.

The next cluster, the next teaching, directs our attention from worrying about what others are doing to worrying and paying attention to what we are doing. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”

The language Jesus uses here is figurative and hyperbolic, intense and harsh. Now let’s be clear, the “cut it off” command is not to be taken literally, but it is to be taken seriously. These words are an incredibly vivid way of saying that entering into the Kingdom of God is worth any sacrifice necessary to attain it.

In saying, “if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” Jesus is drawing attention to the way our actions impact others. This alludes to how, at times, our actions and social structures can hold others captive resulting in harmful consequences; be it marginalization, dehumanization, or worse. When Jesus speaks of “these little one,” he is not just talking about children. He is talking about anyone, and everyone, who is vulnerable in society. He is talking about women, children, the orphaned, the widowed, those who live on the margin, even those who are new believers. He is talking about people of color, people who are differently abled, members of the LGBT community. He is talking about people who are under educated, under housed, and under employed. We hear these words of Jesus echoed elsewhere in Scripture when Paul says, it is better not to do something than to do it and cause your brother or sister to fall.

Jesus’ moral barometer is always, the welfare of the vulnerable – the welfare of the “least” of these. This barometer is incredibly clear in the part of Mark’s Gospel we currently find ourselves in. We are not to do anything that will cause someone else to sin, or prevent them from growing closer in the knowledge and love of God.

Next Jesus turns to our actions, “if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” The amputation of a limb or the excision of a part of the body by surgical means is sometimes the only way to preserve the life of the whole body. In the spiritual life, the same kind of thing can happen.

Ched Myers, author and theologian, uses the image of addiction in reflecting on this passage:

A recovering addict knows in her flesh the searing truth that kicking a habit is very much like cutting off a part of oneself, and such “amputation” is life-saving surgery on the cancer of our illusions and appetites. . . Recovery is a life-or-death discipline, and Jesus’ metaphor captures that urgency.

I wonder, if Jesus were giving this teaching today what might he say?

If your drive to get ahead causes you to ignore those who hunger, cut it out. If your need for the newest, shiniest, and fastest stuff causes you to forget those who go without, cut it out. If your focus on your favorite sports team causes you to neglect your own prayer life, cut it out.

Jesus is calling on all of us to do the hard work of stripping away every disillusioned idea we have about what matters in life that does not conform to the Gospel of Jesus. For it is better to be deformed than to conform to what oppresses the most vulnerable members of our community and the society at large.

Finally, the Gospel passage ends with three sayings about salt. The phrase, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” hints at the nature of salt as flavor and as a preservative. In cooking salt adds flavors to food, more importantly it enhances the natural flavors already present in the dish. When salt has lost its saltiness it looses the ability to spice things up and highlight the natural deliciousness of what we eat. Elsewhere in Scripture we are called to be the salt of the earth. So disciples whose lives are not characterized by lowly service, nor by openness to Christians who are different, nor by care for those who are young in the faith, nor by rigorous self-discipline are like flavorless salt. They have lost the sharpness, which sets them apart from their environment and which constitutes their usefulness.

In addition to a flavor enhancer, salt is also the earliest of all preservatives. The Greeks used to say that salt acted like a soul in a dead body. Dead meat left to itself went bad, but, pickled in salt, it retained its freshness. The salt seemed to put a kind of life into it. Salt defended against corruption.

The world in which the disciples lived was so corrupt that Rome itself was compared to a filthy sewer. Purity was gone and chastity was unknown. It is into this world that the disciples practiced their ministry. Here Jesus is saying to the disciples, “The world needs the flavor and the purity that only my followers can bring. And if they themselves have lost the thrill and the purity of Christian life, where will the world get what it needs?”

Just as Jesus calls on us to strip away everything that gets in our way of inheriting the Kingdom of God, so too is he calling us to remember the purity and faithfulness of our call as Christians.

This morning we hear the urgent reminder to live this Christian journey faithfully, making every sacrifice necessary, because it is not only our lives that are at stake, the lives of the whole world are at hand. This is a daunting and overwhelming challenge, but it is not impossible.

Week by week we gather together in this space, like Christians around the world have been gathering for centuries. We listen to the word of God revealed to us in Holy Scripture. We share the ministry of prayer for our own needs and the needs of others. Most importantly we participate in the most holy meal at this altar. We receive the body and blood of Jesus, and invite the very incarnate nature of God into the depths of our beings. We are being fed, pardoned, strengthened, and healed so that we might go out and be the salt of the earth. This sacrament of bread and wine allows us to focus on what truly matters and sacrifice the rest – to discard all the extra stuff we’ve picked up along the way. This meal gives us the nourishment to be salt.

In a few moments as we gathered at this rail let us pray together that Christ strengthens us to cut off all that binds us to sin and gives us the strength, grace, and courage to stand that we may go forth from this place and change the world.

AMEN.

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Twitter for the Win #Jesus

imageThis afternoon the House of Deputies considered resolution B009: Conducting an Online Digital Evangelism Test.  You can read the current version of the resolution here.  I was the last person to testify to the resolution, and this is what I had to say:

Madame President – I rise in support of this resolution.

The work of evangelism must happen where people are gathering. The largest place where people are gathering is in the digital world. As a way of demonstrating the power of digital evangelism, I want to read a few thoughts from the twitterverse in response to B009

@FrJody: Folks, most newcomers @stjoeshville have connected via social media & web. I’m asking deputies to vote #yesB009 & watch what happens #gc78

@EpiscoDad: Social media has been key in following #GC78 & it can be used for so much more. Msg. of Jesus doesn’t have to stop at church door. #yesB009

@Fr_Pat: thousands of ppl saw an invitation on Facebook & Twitter to my parish’s Christmas services, our ASA is under 100 and growing #yesB009 #gc78

@davidsibley: KEEPING BEING EXTRAVAGANT ON EVANGELISM, CONVENTION! #gc78 #JesusAtGC #JesusEverywhere

@sarahrandallssm: Indeed, if the message of Jesus stops at the church door, it’s pretty pointless!

@neilwillard: “Go ye into all the world, including Twitter, and preach the gospel to every creature, even those on Facebook.” (Mark 16:15) #gc78 #yesb009

@fr_christopher: I’m good with 4th C theology and 16th C liturgy but communications and evangelism have to be 2015. #yesB009 #gc78

You can watch the twitter testimony here, it begins at 3:18:11. Couldn’t figure out how to embed from Live Stream or have it start at a particular place, let me know if anyone know how to do this.

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Easter 4B : St. Matthew’s Wilton

I had the pleasure of preaching this morning (26 April 2015) at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, CT.  The lessons can be found here

Today is affectionately known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This title given to the fourth Sunday after Easter because of the Gospel passage we just heard – the one where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” As such, it is easy to focus on soft and sweet images of the good shepherd, to think of cuddly animals roaming along grassy hills all the while following their beloved leader on a quiet, sunny afternoon. Without any effort, I can recall my time in the Irish and Scottish countryside where I saw nothing but sheep for miles. For many, this is the image that Good Shepherd Sunday calls to mind. As long as we follow Jesus, we can enjoy a lovely afternoon, eat our fill, and not worry about any of the cares or occupations of this life.

I’m sorry to say this lovely image is not what today is all about. The lections for today give us a call to action, a reminder of the life we are called to live as Christians, and a warning as to what is ahead.

I do not know much about Wilton, but I did not notice any large pastures of sheep as I was driving down from New Haven this morning. I certainly have not found any sheep filled pastures in New Haven. If you are anything like me, your experience of sheep might look something like petting zoos and experiences abroad like I just described. For many of us if not most or even all of us the concept of being a sheepherder is a foreign one.

The life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky, menial, marginashepherdl, outcast work. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd,” would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim had an edge to it. It would be like Jesus saying today, “I am the good migrant worker.” John’s audience understands this – they know exactly what a shepherd is. They recognize this dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast work.

Stepping back and looking at the larger image of Jesus’ ministry it is easy to see that this is exactly how we should characterize His earthly life. Jesus hung out on the margins, associated with people that could do nothing for him, befriended those ignored by society at large, all the while breaking the rules and customs of his day to do it. His ministry was a dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kind of ministry.

Now if Jesus had embodied this type of ministry, and we are supposed to emulate Jesus’ life and ministry, then, it follows that we are supposed to embody dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kinds of ministry. Jesus seeks out the lost, those in need of being rescued, those who are forgotten, those whom are in need of restoration. I wonder in what ways do you seek out the lost, those in need of being rescued, those whom are forgotten and in need of restoration?

Beyond the images of sheep and shepherd, we are offered a glimpse of the larger message of John’s Gospel.

Our Epistle this morning comes from the First Letter of John. It is likely that this letter was written some time after the Gospel of John for a community that knew and loved that Gospel. In many ways the epistle reads like an interpretation and elaboration of the Gospel for believers who want to understand the book’s significance for new times and circumstances. This commentary like approach is clearly seen in the pericope we have today. Hear the words of First John 3:23, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commended us.” This is a stunningly succinct summary of the two great themes of the Gospel of John: first, we should believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and second we should love one another as he has loved us. The second of these is the focus this morning.

This morning’s Epistle and Gospel make it abundantly clear that the foundation for the commandment to love rests in Jesus’ own decision to love the believers even unto death.

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This is the life we, as Christians, are called to. The dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast ministries we are to embody should be characterized by this radical notion of love: love so strong that he laid down his life for us – and that we lay down our lives for one another.

While being willing to sacrifice one’s life to the point of death is still a present and powerful reality today that is not the call that many of us have. Laying down our lives also means something more common for us here in Connecticut in 2015. It means something that we cannot ignore because we are not called to give our lives to the point of death.

When we risk our own personal images and privileges to stand beside those who are victims of hate, violence, injustice and oppression we lay down our lives. When we put others first, we lay down our lives. When we live for the good of others, we lay down our lives. When we lay down the completely normal human desire to live for ourselves, and when instead we allow the love of God to reorient us toward the needs of others, we are laying down our lives. Each and everyday, by our actions we have the opportunity to lay down our lives for those we are called to serve. All of this we do out of love. This is our call.

So far, this sermon has been rather shepherd-centric. We have been focusing our attention on the Good Shepherd and what it means to model our lives and ministries from His. But what happens if we shift our focus to the sheep?

Sheep do not have the most stellar of reputations. Many think of them as rather dumb animals. It is rarely a compliment to be compared to or referred to as sheep. Sheep are, in reality, not dumb animals. Apparently, it was actually the cattle ranchers who started that rumor, because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that does not work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else—their trusted shepherd—does not go first.

The question for us becomes, whom are we following? What shepherd have we gotten behind? Are we following the shepherd of power, greed, and consumerism? Or are we following the shepherd of love, compassion, and service. Do we follow the ways of this world, or do we follow the shepherd who models for us a dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kind of ministry? The sheep know the voice of their shepherd, so whose voice are we following?

For those of us called to be preachers, pastors, priests, or any type of leadership in communities of faith, it is easy to think of ourselves as the shepherd, but might I suggest that it is particularly helpful to think of ourselves as sheep. No matter what our role is in our community of faith, no matter how educated, no matter what fancy clothes we wear, we are all in need of new life and community offered because of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. What would it mean for us— clergy, seminarians, laity—to surrender ourselves to the care of God’s Good Shepherd?

It seems that it does not matter if we put ourselves in the place of the sheep or the shepherd – both images lead us to the same place. We are called by the Good Shepherd to go where he goes, to follow where he leads. We are to listen for his voice calling out to us when we are lost and confused, when we find ourselves getting mixed up in some other flock. We are to strive to be like the Good Shepherd caring for all and embodying a dangerous, risky, menial, marginal, outcast kind of ministry.

Today’s lections shift us from postresurrection appearances to the nature of God’s work in the world. By using the story of the Good Shepherd, the Gospel makes clear to us what this work, this mission of God, is to be. This is a powerful image for us who hunger for connection and community in a society that often looks out for number one. In our moments of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness, the Good Shepherd responds to our deepest yearnings for community by offering an alternative to our fears, separation, and insecurities. In the world’s moments of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness we can model the life of the Good Shepherd to respond to the deepest yearning for community by offering an alternative to the world’s fears, separation, and insecurities.

We have the opportunity to open our hearts and our communities to the unbelievably powerful love and grace of God. In turn we have the responsibility to offer that love and grace to a broken and hurting world.

As Episcopalians, as Anglicans, as Christians let us join together as sheep and as shepherds. Let us draw all people into to the fold and fellowship of God. Let us follow the one who heals us and makes us whole.

Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

AMEN.

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The Most Amazing Relationship

Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday (June 15, 2014) at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Narragansett RI.  You can listen to the sermon here.  

Today is one of my favorite feast days in the life of the Church.  As such, I find it baffling that all week long my Facebook feed has been filling up with clergy lamenting on having to preach today.  The Trinity is one of the most – maybe even the most – complicated doctrine the Church holds.  A poor metaphoric choice can easily lead the preacher down the path of heresy.  The Trinity is like water that can be found as a solid, liquid, or gas.  Nice try, but that’s modalism and it’s heresy.  The Trinity is like the Sun, which is star, heat, and light.  That understanding is arianism and it is a heresy.  How about the three-leaf clover metaphor?  That’s partialism, and you guessed it that is a heresy too.  Like I said, the Trinity is a very complicated thing to understand.

So if the Trinity is so hard to understand – if it is in fact beyond human comprehension why do we bother preaching on it?  Why bother having a Sunday dedicated to this doctrine?  If you ask me, it would be completely foolish not to.

TrinityIn a recent interview, I was asked what my image of God is when I pray.  My image of God is one of relationship.  Not only is God in relationship with God’s self – three in one and one in three – but God also desires nothing more than to be in a deep and abiding relationship with each and every one of us.  All that we are and all that we believe as Christians is based on this – God loves us so much that God will do absolutely anything to build and maintain this relationship with us.  We know the extent of this love; we know what happens on Good Friday.  This relationship, this desire to love us completely, even when we do not love ourselves in the same way or return that love to God, is what this day, this Trinity Sunday, is all about.  Understanding the Trinity is how we understand our relationship with our Triune God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to baptize people in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  But, what if we had been given a different formula?  What is there was no Trinity?

“I baptize you in the name of the Father.”  To only recognize the Father, leaves out the person and work of Christ and the ongoing activity of the Spirit.  This would mean being baptized into a God full of mystery and power, but it would also mean being baptized into the fullness of a God who is detached.

“I baptize you in the name of Jesus.” In this we miss the Maker of heaven and earth, we miss that which is larger than what we can see, understand, or even image.  Only baptizing people in the name of Jesus also leaves out the continual presence of God with us today.

“I baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit.”  Here we miss the awesomeness and creativity of God the Father.  We also miss the work of Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh.  Without this work, we miss the redemptive work of God – the God who rose from the dead for our salvation.  If we are to leave that out, we might as well go home now because we are clearly wasting our time.

This is the relationship we are drawn into – we are immersed into by virtue of our Baptism.  We are in relationship with the creative, mysterious, and awesome God the Father.  We are in relationship with the God in human flesh that brings our salvation, God the Son.  We are in relationship with the presence of God that is the ongoing workings of God the Holy Spirit.  When we are in relationship with this God we are not powerless in the world, but we are powerful.  We are connected to God’s creative work, we are redeemed, and we are filled with the spirit that works wonders in, among, and through us.  This is what we celebrate this day.  We celebrate the most amazing relationship we could ever be invited into.

By virtue of our Baptism we have been invited into this relationship, but relationships are not one-way streets.  We must accept the gift of this relationship, and participate in its growth and development.  We do that by living into the very act that gave us this invitation in the first place – our Baptism.

Last Sunday as Tucker and Charlotte were baptized, we reaffirmed that which was promised for us at our own baptisms – that which many of us have affirmed for ourselves in confirmation.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?  Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

First and foremost, we build our relationship by being present with God and learning about God and how God works in our lives.  We participate in our continued lifelong formation as disciples of Jesus.  We pray.  We celebrate that which is the heart of our life of faith – the Holy Eucharist.  We come week by week to be strengthened, healed, and renewed:  to come closer to the Holy and participate in the foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

We know we will fall short, that we are human.  When that happens we cannot beat ourselves up.  We cannot tell ourselves that we are not good enough, that it is always our fault when things go wrong.  We cannot blame ourselves for things beyond our control.  So when we fail to get things right, we must remember where our center is and go there.  We must turn to God to be healed and strengthened, and go out and try again.

We must live our lives so that all people know we are disciples of Jesus.  We must in our words and actions proclaim this Good News of Great Joy that has been embedded deep within us.  We must not be ashamed of this most glorious relationship we have entered into with God; and what does any person do when they are in an amazing, powerful, and love filled relationship? – they tell the whole world.

We must share in our Gospel mandated work to seek Christ in the people and places we think are most unlikely.  Will you love your neighbor?  I am not just talking about the person who lives across the street, but the person across the world, the person who is other than you are, the person who supports the other political candidate, the person who has participated in hurting you.

We must use our prophetic voices to call out the injustices of the world.  The places where people are being systematically oppression, the places torn apart by endless war and violence, the places where the created order is being used and abused to the point of no return.  We cannot rest until every person is treated with the love, dignity, and respect they deserve by virtue of their being beloved children of God.  Take a moment and imagine what the world would look like, if in fact, we treated everyone like the beloved child of God that they are.

GoMakeDisciplesJesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus is calling us and all nations – the entire world – into this life.  It is scary, it is hard, it is down right impossible to achieve on our own.  But thanks be to God we are not left comfortless, we are not left alone, we have this beautiful, awesome, love filled, and holy relationship right in front of us.

When God the Father created the world and calls everything good and invites us to share in the power of creation; when Jesus ascends into heaven and bestows upon us the power and responsibility preach, teach, heal the sick and raise the dead; when the Holy Spirit descends upon us like tounges of fire to enliven our souls on that great day of Pentecost we have two choices.  To say no and turn our backs on the greatest gift we have ever been offered or to say yes and share in this most holy relationship.

If you ask me, Trinity Sunday ought to be a bigger deal.  We cannot continue to let it silently sit there on our liturgical calendar.  We cannot as a Church find ways to skirt around it, because we do not understand.  Today is a day to celebrate.  To celebrate the precious invitation offered to us in Baptism to be in relationship with the Triune God.  To celebrate our place in this life as disciples of Jesus.  To celebrate the fact that we cannot even begin to comprehend the nature of God, but that we do not have to understand to change the word in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  And that is why I love Trinity Sunday.

 

AMEN.

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