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Sermons for Year A in 2016-2017

    Nov 26, 2017

    Preacher: Rob Donehue

    Series: Sermons for Year A (2016-2017)

    Keywords: year a

    Summary:

    Sermons for Lectionary Year A (2016-2017) preached by Fr. Rob Donehue at St. Anne's Episcopal Church.

    Detail:

    Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
    Nov. 26th, 2017- the Baptism of John Warner Battle
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24       Ephesians 1:15-23        Matthew 25:31-46

    Buen Camino. 

    The sermon this morning is going to be a little different than normal. I’m only going to be talking to one person. Y’all can listen in, of course, but I’m really only going to talk to one person (even if he is asleep). John Warner, even though I know you won’t now understand what I say, I want for us to have a talk about what is happening to you today. I want to tell you why this day is such an amazing and important part of your life. I want to explain why us pouring a little water over you and then using some oil to make the sign of the cross on your head may be something you will one day think about as the single most transforming thing that ever happened to you. Because today is the beginning of your journey of faith. We do not know where it will take you. We do not know what twists and turns your road will have in store. But the one thing that we can say is that we’re all here to make sure that your journey begins well.  

    And I’d like to tell you a story about a road in Spain that I think is a perfect example of what I hope you’ll eventually understand about today. It’s the story of the pilgrimage road of Santiago de Compostela. Christian pilgrims have been walking the Compostela road, popularly known as “the camino,” for centuries. Some begin the journey hundreds of miles away, and it takes them months of walking to finally reach their destination. The oldest route winds through the pleasant valleys and foothills of southern France before going up over a mountain range that is challenging even for the most experienced of hikers. The road then heads west, across some of the hottest and driest parts of Spain, and there is little shelter from the sun for much of the westward journey. Many describe this part of the journey as the most grueling and arduous. Finally, the road goes through the region of Galicia, which is a semi-mountainous area, lushly forested and breathtakingly beautiful, before the final descent into the city of Compostela, with its magnificent cathedral. Pilgrims who walk the road discover many things along the way - about the beauty of their surroundings, about the cultures of Spain, about the importance of having a good pair of hiking boots, and much else besides. But the most important discoveries that pilgrims make are about themselves - about their strengths, their limitations, and their connection with the other pilgrims on the road. 

    There is a greeting that pilgrims on the Compostela road say to one another all along the way. When pilgrims pass one another or meet each other at a resting point, they will say, “Buen camino.” Literally, it translates to, “good road,” but there’s a wealth of meaning behind those two little words. When one says, “Buen camino,” it means, “I know you are also a pilgrim on this road, just like me. I know that you have seen amazing and beautiful things and are likely to see more. I know that you have faced difficulties and will likely face more. No matter if you’re just starting out or if you’ve been on the road for a long time, I know that you are on this road because you hope to travel well and reach your destination. Our paths have crossed for this short time, but even though our meeting may be brief, know that I am here to help you if you need help; that I support you and offer you this word of encouragement as you continue on your journey.” I know that sounds like an awful lot of meaning crammed into two small words, but I can assure you that “Buen camino” does mean all of those things and probably much more besides. 

    And today is our first chance to wish you, John Warner, a “buen camino.” Our job is to make sure that you are well-equipped for the journey ahead, and we promise to guide you along the first steps of your walk with Christ. Even more: we promise to be with you to help you discover the wonders and joys of life as you make your way through the pleasant valleys and foothills of childhood. We promise to be with you as you face the sometimes mountainous challenges of growing up into adulthood. We promise to be with you over the long journey which sometimes may leave you longing for relief from the dryness and weariness of life. We promise to be with you as you near your journey’s end, to share your joy as you discover the full beauty and reward of being on this road. Finally, we promise to be with you when you reach the end of your earthly pilgrimage. And all along the way, we will keep wishing you a “buen camino.” All along the way, we will keep saying, “We are here to help you if you need help. We support you and offer you encouragement as you continue on your journey.” And we hope that as you make your way, you will learn what this greeting means so that you, too, can wish others a “buen camino” and help them along their way. That’s what is going on here today as you set out on your journey.  

    There’s one more thing about the Compostela road that I hope you might find helpful in understanding what we’re doing here this morning. Whenever pilgrims set out on the Compostela road, they take with them a shell, sometimes with a cross painted on it. Normally the pilgrims tie it to their travel bag or attach it to their walking sticks. It’s sort of like a badge of pilgrimage, and when you see someone on the road with that shell, you know immediately that they are pilgrims. And that’s kind of like what we’re doing here this morning. In just a few minutes, you will be baptized. I will be pouring some water on you, and then I will make the sign of the cross on your forehead and say, “You are marked as Christ’s own, forever.” And that means that you will be marked as a pilgrim. For as long as you live, you will bear the mark of the pilgrim, and we, your fellow pilgrims, will know that that mark means that you are a beloved child of God, and we will do everything in our power to honor you as a child of God and help you along your way. 

    And now, I’d like to say a few words to the folks here who have gathered to welcome you into your larger family. 

    John Warner is about to begin his pilgrimage. He is about to set out on the long journey of life, and it is a truly joyful thing for us to be here to support him. Each of us here has a role to play, no matter how small it may seem, in teaching John Warner what it means to be a pilgrim. So I encourage you all to pay special attention to the promises that you are making as you renew your baptismal vows. Know that you are making a specific commitment to support John Warner in his life in Christ. Know also that he will be supporting you in your life in Christ. With that in mind I invite you all to ponder the sacred mystery of what we are about to do, and then join me in wishing John Warner a “buen camino.”  

     

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    Sermon for the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28, Year A
    Nov. 19th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Judges 4:1-7          1 Thessalonians 5:1-11          Matthew 25:14-30

     

    Every once in a while, I get involved in conversations with folks who grew up Christian but have since stopped believing. About a week or so ago, I found myself in a situation where a young man noticed I was wearing a collar and decided to strike up a conversation about how he had drifted away from the church. He told me that he had grown up in a certain protestant tradition but that when he got to college, he reacted against what he perceived as the strictness and narrowness of the faith that he had learned. I asked him about how he thought his upbringing had affected his understanding of God, and, to make a long story short, he told me that he could not believe in the God he learned about growing up. To his surprise, I told him that I couldn’t believe in that God either. From there, we talked about the things that he found joyful in life, and by the end of the conversation, he was at least willing to entertain the idea that God may be hiding somewhere in the joy. 

    That conversation was a reminder for me of how our images and understanding of God begin to be formed at a very young age and how we usually accept those images rather uncritically until we get to a point when we inevitably begin to ask questions about why it is that we believe what we believe. It’s at that point that we either step away from faith or begin to engage faith in a more direct way. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference, but in either case, the image we have of God has an impact on how we understand our place in the world and what role, if any, God will have in our lives. Hence the importance of giving careful attention to what we teach our children about God. Because the language that we use to talk about God does have an effect. We can talk about God as loving, generous, and caring. Or we can talk about God as harsh, exacting, and ready to punish. And usually we’ll act according to our understanding of God. So it goes for our children.   

    The parable we heard from this morning’s Gospel - the so-called “parable of the talents” - provides a good example of what I’m getting at. On the one hand, you have two servants who are given varying sums of wealth. They view this gift as a demonstration of generosity and a vote of confidence in their ability to achieve even greater things based on the skill they have. And they immediately respond by going out and making use of what they have been given. We are not told exactly what they did with what they were given but it’s easy to imagine that it was bold and perhaps risky - how else would you have a 100% rate of return? It’s also easy to imagine that what they did was a joy-filled response to their master’s generosity; even if they may have been afraid that they might fail. As a parable of the kingdom, we’re meant to see that believing in God’s generosity and God’s confidence in our ability to achieve great things impacts our willingness to step out in boldness - and to take risks. And as a result of our responding to God’s generosity with joy-filled boldness, the kingdom grows, and we enter more fully into God’s joy.

    On the other hand, there is the servant who receives the one talent. He goes and hides it because he believes that his master is a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed. The servant even comes right out and says it: he hid the talent because he was afraid. And as a parable of the kingdom, we’re meant to see that believing in a God who is unfair, exacting, and terrifying impacts our willingness to respond to God’s generosity with joy. And as a result of responding only out of fear, we’re not able to enter fully into God’s joy.      

    In both cases, I think it fair to say that, in the parable, the master wants the servants to enter his joy. That’s why he entrusts the servants with the talents in the first place. Just so, God wants us to respond to his generosity with joy. And if you notice, there is no mention in the parable of anyone receiving a talent, going out and trading with it, and then completely failing. In that sense, I think the lesson of the parable is that if our understanding of God is grounded in the idea that God is generous, then our responding to God’s generosity with boldness and joy can never result in failure. But if our understanding of God is couched solely in terms of fear, it’s not likely that we’ll do anything but hide our talent in the ground.    

    So the question for us is, when we understand that God HAS given us gifts and we understand that God WANTS us to respond, how are we going to respond? And the question of how we respond is immensely important. Because there is a lot riding on it.     

    The parable of the talents is told in terms of a final reckoning. Christian tradition speaks of this final reckoning as “the second coming,” and really what that means is that we will all some day have to render an account to God for either the joy or the fear with which we have responded to God’s generosity. Some Christians take this belief to mean that the second coming will be terrifying for some and rewarding for others, or that when the kingdom comes, some will be in it and some will not. And some Christians revel in the idea that others will be cast out of the kingdom. I think this way of thinking actually misses the whole point of Jesus’ teaching, so in no way can it be considered gospel. I don’t think it’s possible to derive any joy from the idea that someone else will be rejected by God. Nor do I think it is possible to derive any joy from the idea that someone else might finally reject God. There’s no joy to be found in either of those scenarios. 

    St. Paul says, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I take St. Paul’s words to mean that the faith we profess should always be focused on the joy God wants for us. If we buy into the idea that we can spread the joy of the gospel by telling others that they’d better “get right with God or else,” then I think we’re still responding to God’s generosity from a place of fear - fear of a harsh God who stands always ready to condemn, fear of a God who reaps what he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed. If that’s our notion of God, then we’re stuck in the outer darkness. 

    But if we know that God’s generosity calls for a truly joyful response, and we respond accordingly, we may find that God is hiding - in plain sight - in the joy. God wants us to live in joy and to be bold in making the claim that God wants that joy to multiply. And if that’s our understanding of God, then we’re laying a strong foundation for ourselves…and for our children.  

     

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    Sermon for the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27 , Year A
    Nov. 12th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25        1 Thessalonians 4:13-18         Matthew 25:1-13

     

    As some of you may know, Pete Hearn, Barry Dennis, Rebecca Lovelace, and I recently returned from the diocesan convention in Hilton Head. We bring with us the greetings and support from our brothers and sisters from across the diocese of the Episcopal Church in SC. It was a good convention, and I was particularly pleased to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in a while and share some stories of how ministry is being carried out in our different churches. The theme of this year’s convention was “The Wisdom of the Body,” and even though it was good to be together with the gathered body of representatives from churches across the diocese, I think it fair to say that I am glad to be back in Conway with THIS body of believers so that we can continue to discover wisdom from and with one another. I’ll add here that it has been two weeks since I was last in the pulpit, so I hope that I haven’t forgotten how to preach - and if I have, I’ll rely on your wisdom to get me back on track!

    In any case, the convention’s theme of wisdom gets right to the heart of the Gospel reading for this morning. And the lesson of the Gospel is that the wise are always prepared. The parable of the ten bridesmaids is a great illustration of how a little preparation can save us from a lot of unnecessary trouble. It’s also a great illustration of how foolishness tends to lead to more foolishness. If you recall, five of the bridesmaids don’t take any extra oil with them. When the bridegroom arrives at midnight, the five bridesmaids find themselves in a pinch. But instead of just meekly tagging along with the others (and maybe suffering the minor embarrassment of having unlit lamps at the wedding), they decide to go out - at midnight, with lamps low on oil - in the foolish hope that they’ll be able to find an open oil shop. The idea that they’d be able to find someone to sell them oil at such a late hour of the night is further proof that they lack common sense; let alone wisdom. And I think the parable intends for us to laugh a little at the absurdity of the bridesmaids’ late-night search for oil. We’re meant to see the silliness of trying to find a solution to a problem that only makes the problem worse. Because in the end, the foolish bridesmaids not only miss the wedding; they wind up being stuck outside in the dark. Oops.        

    So the lesson is pretty simple: be wise, be prepared. But what does being prepared look like for us? Effectively, I think it means that we need to do our spiritual work well. We need to attend to things like praying and reading scripture and being generous and kind to others. It means we need to take our lives as Christians seriously so that when we’re faced with circumstances that challenge our faith in God, we won’t find ourselves in total darkness. And I don’t think that you need me to point out to you that the world is full of darkness; it certainly seems to be getting more and more dark of late. 

    Just last Sunday, there was another mass shooting; this time in Texas, in a church full of worshipers. And then on Monday, there was a terrorist attack in NY. And I think that for many of us, these acts of violence were just more evidence that the world is sunk in darkness. And it’s tempting to think that there’s no way out of it. It’s tempting to think that there’s nothing we can do. It’s tempting to think that our prayers are meaningless and that all we can look forward to is despair over the next news cycle that tells us the cult of death and destruction is winning.  

    But the wisdom of the gospel is that there is always hope. The wisdom of the gospel is meant to prepare us to face the madness of the world and the pain of our own lives. The good news of Jesus Christ gives us the ability to meet all of the world’s troubles, no matter how dire, and still to cling to the message of hope that God wants more for us and for the whole world. But the only way we can cling to the message of hope is if we prepare ourselves daily by doing the things that the gospel calls us to do. And it really is simple: say your prayers, read the scriptures, and be kind to one another. Not very heroic stuff. But it’s doing those simple things that prepares us to be a light shining in the darkness.  

    There’s a video I saw recently that has been making the rounds on the internet. It’s the commencement speech delivered by Rear Admiral William H. McRaven at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. In the speech, Admiral McRaven gives this advice: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task. And another, and another. And by the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right. And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made. And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

    These are words of profound wisdom. And they speak to what it means for us as Christians to be prepared. You don’t have to spend hours each day trying to reach the heights of mystical contemplative prayer. Just spend a few minutes saying “hello” to God and ask for guidance and grace. You don’t have to read a dozen chapters of the Bible every day. Just pick a verse or two and try to let the words really sink in. You don’t have to go out of your way looking to show kindness to as many people as you can. Just be kind in your daily interactions with the people you happen to meet. Because by doing those simple things, you’re actually preparing yourself to cling to hope when things happen that might make you think there’s no cause for hope. You’re also preparing yourself to be a beacon of hope for those around you. 

    In another place in the Gospels, Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a little is also faithful in much.” That is the challenge that we, as Christians, face each day: to be faithful in the small things so that when the circumstances of life demand acts of great courage and faith, we won’t be left searching around in the darkness.

    The gospel also tells us that there is wisdom in practicing our faithfulness together. And it makes sense: if we’re all in this business of faith together, then we can encourage and support one another. Besides, five lamps in the darkness shine much brighter than just one (even if the candles are battery operated!). I truly believe that we here, as a church, are striving to be a place where everyone’s light can shine, and my prayer for us is that this church will go on being a place where, together, we can learn wisdom. 

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    Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A
    October 22nd, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 33:12-23         1 Thessalonians 1:1-10        Matthew 22:15-22

     

    Every time this morning’s Gospel lesson comes around, I am fairly certain that the automatic assumption of those familiar with the church is that the sermon to follow will be about giving. And this assumption is usually warranted because this reading occurs around the time when most churches are in the midst of their pledge drives. You’ve probably noticed that we are, too, but I’d like to draw our attention to the fact that giving is only a secondary concern in the reading from the Gospel. Taken on its own, the Gospel lesson is about Jesus pointing out the hypocrisy of those who are trying to entrap him in what he says. And the way that Jesus handles the situation is important because it undermines the radically dualistic outlook that is so tempting to adopt when it comes to living a genuine spiritual life in the midst of worldly concerns.  

    As we heard, the Pharisees come to test Jesus, and they bring with them some Herodians. So the first clue we get into what’s going on is that religious leaders who were supposed to be zealous for the Law have banded together with political representatives who were in collaboration with the Roman government in Judea. Their mission was to find a way to make Jesus look either like a political subversive or a Mosaic-Law-breaking collaborator. And the question they asked was designed to discredit Jesus, no matter how he answered it. But Jesus’ answer thwarts their attempts to catch him out. It’s worth noting that we are meant to understand from an earlier part of Matthew’s Gospel that the exchange took place within the Temple precincts. It’s also worth noting that the reason that Jesus’ answer shut them down has to do with the Pharisees having a coin on hand. 

    If you’re a student of Roman history, then you’ll know that emperors were often thought of as gods. Which means that a coin bearing the image and title of Caesar could easily be considered an idol. So the detail about the Pharisees having a coin on hand means that they were in possession of an idol within the Temple precincts. Jesus’ comment about giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, then, points out that the religious leaders themselves are in violation of the Mosaic Law. So they are faced with the reality that their dualistic, black and white, yes-or-no question about the spiritual consequence of paying taxes falls flat.

    I take two lessons away from this exchange. One is that the church is not a place where we can come to ignore the concerns of the world in favor of “pure spirituality.” The church is not a place where we should expect dualistic answers, as if it were always a simple matter of defining who or what is absolutely pure and holy and who or what is absolutely evil and unrighteous. The church is a place for discernment. The church is a place where we bring the totality of our lives and ask that God be at the center of everything we do. Yes, at times we have to make a distinction about what “belongs to Caesar” and what “belongs to God,” but the process of discerning which is which is something that being the church can help us do.  That does not mean that the church ought to be a place where our daily, private concerns or even wider political concerns are at the forefront, but neither does it mean that we can afford to avoid talking with each other about worldly matters. We do have to engage them. But we can engage worldly concerns in such a way that we’re not left thinking that discussing things - like stewardship! - are just unpleasant distractions that have nothing to do with our primary concern of placing God at the center of our lives. 

    The other lesson I take away from the Gospel reading is that the church is a place where your voice does matter. In the exchange that Jesus has with the Pharisees, the Pharisees were looking for a way to entrap Jesus in what he said. They wanted to entrap him in order to silence him. If you spend any time on social media, then you’ve probably noticed that there’s an awful lot of this kind of exchange going on: people taking other people’s words and pointing out why what they have said makes them hypocrites or fools or other unpleasant names. And the underlying desire is to get the other person to shut up. I can’t claim to be innocent of getting involved in these kinds of exchange, but I know that’s not what the church should be. The church should be a place where everyone’s voice is heard. Of course, there are some things that are beyond the pale - I’m of the opinion that any talk of God hating someone or some group of people is simply out of place in a Christian community. But we should strive to be a church where every single person is made to feel welcome even if we don’t agree with them about everything. We should strive to be a church where even dissonant voices can be brought together in harmony in the name of Jesus. 

    Being this kind of church does mean avoiding a radically dualistic worldview when it comes to how we treat both people and things. There is no one in this congregation, no matter how much I may disagree with them, who is not first and foremost a child of God. So even if we disagree about something, I cannot say, “I’m beloved - and you’re not!” At the end of the day, if we have any claim to be followers of Jesus, we all have to show a love and respect for each other. 

    Much the same can be said about things. In Chapter 31 of the Rule of St. Benedict, there are some specific directions about what kind of person the cellarer of the monastery should be. “Cellarer” is basically a fancy word for the person in charge of the monastery’s goods and property. Kind of like a senior and junior warden! In that chapter, it says of the cellarer, “Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. Let him not think that he may neglect anything. He should be neither a miser nor a prodigal and squanderer of the monastery's substance, but should do all things with measure.” In the Rule, there is nothing so profane that it can be treated with irreverence, whether it be a broom, a pitcher, or a washcloth. 

    And I think that’s a good way to approach all of the things in our lives. If we treat them with reverence, it will give us a deeper appreciation for the centrality of God in our lives. If we’re willing to ask, “How am I making use of what I have in order to glorify God?” then we’ll be less inclined to think of anything as unworthy of being put to use for the spreading of the kingdom of God. 

    All of this is a challenge to us because, as I said, I think it’s tempting for us to adopt a dualistic perspective that draws a clear line between the worldly and the spiritual, and to think that the two are mutually exclusive. I think the reality of life is much more messy, but I also think it makes life much more interesting. My hope is that we are all striving towards living more fully in the interesting mess of life together because that is where I think we will all find God.                 

     

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    Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, Year A
    October 15th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 32:1-14         Philippians 4:1-9         Matthew 22:1-14

     

    The reading from Matthew’s Gospel that we just heard is a tough lesson. It’s one of those readings that can be pretty jarring. Because the picture it seems to paint is one of harsh judgment. If you’re familiar with this parable, then the shock value of it might not be so pronounced, but just imagine that you’re hearing it for the first time. If you ARE hearing it for the first time, then I don’t doubt that you might be somewhat puzzled by our calling this reading, “gospel” - or “good news.” But this lesson actually does contain a tremendous amount of good news for all of us. And the good news is this: We take joy seriously. Being a part of the kingdom of God is not something that should be taken lightly. God expects something from us.     

    I would be willing to bet that most everyone here has been invited to a wedding. Probably not many have been invited to a wedding at the last minute, but even so, I imagine that if you have, you didn’t decide to show up in gym shorts and a ratty t-shirt - unless the invitation made it clear that such attire was suitable. No, I’d guess that most everyone here works on the assumption that if you get invited to a wedding, then the expectation is that you’ll be wearing something suitable for the occasion. I know we live near the beach, where informal weddings are a regular part of our lives, but I’ve noticed that even informal weddings tend to have their own kind of dress code that people adhere to. The reason that this is so is that weddings, although joyful occasions of celebration, are serious business. There’s an awful lot of time and effort that goes into planning weddings - even informal ones - and the reason we gather to celebrate weddings is because two people, having spent time in serious discernment about their relationship, have decided publicly to declare their commitment to one another for ever. And because we want to honor that, we dress in a special or different way to show respect for the couple and for the occasion.     

    Much the same could be said of funerals. I don’t think that many of us would think it appropriate to show up to a funeral wearing swim trunks and a tank top. Unless it was a very particular kind of funeral, most people would think it disrespectful to show up in such casual attire. So I think it fair to say that we ARE comfortable with the idea that when we receive an invitation to a wedding or are asked to attend a funeral, there is something at stake when we make a decision about what to wear. And what’s at stake is our desire to show respect for the occasion. I think we ARE comfortable with the idea that when we are asked to take part in a serious celebration, the assumption is that we’ll make an effort to take it seriously. 

    I don’t want to take the analogy too far, or get caught up in the idea that showing honor and respect is simply a matter of wearing the right clothes. If that were the case, then you might walk away thinking that I’m advocating for a church full of suits and ties and Sunday dresses. I like bow ties as much as anyone, but that’s not the point. The point of the gospel lesson as it applies to church has nothing to do with our literal choice of clothing. When it comes to church, the point of the gospel lesson is that we are all invited to live in joy and celebration, but that invitation assumes that we’ll take the joy and celebration seriously. The open invitation asks whether or not we are willing to respond with a deliberate effort to be a part of God’s beloved community.

    And the truth of the matter is that joy and celebration actually require hard work. Here’s where I’m going to brag a bit about St. Anne’s as a place of hard work and genuine joy. Some of you have heard me tell this story, but when I first visited this congregation, I was incognito. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2015. Only a handful of people knew that I was looking at this church as a potential place to serve, and they didn’t tell folks that Davis and I would be there that Sunday. We showed up a little early, and what we saw was a group of Christians hard away at work to make the worship of God as beautiful as it could be. And it WAS beautiful. It was a celebration full of genuine joy that the people here worked hard to make happen. And that’s what really drew me here.    

    If you’ve found any joy in this church, then I want you to know that none of what happens here happens without a LOT of hard work on the part of a LOT of people. Even though we’re pretty laid back and easy-going, I want you to know that we don’t just throw things together haphazardly at the last minute. The altar guild, acolytes, readers, choir members, church musicians, ushers and greeters, readers, those who provide the refreshments after the service, the pastoral care team, the eucharistic visitors, the volunteers - a whole host of people put in a great deal of time and energy to make church happen. You might not guess it, but even a fair amount of work goes into the preparation of sermons! Building the bulletins, lining up the service participants, arranging the use of Lackey Chapel, putting out the flags, delivering the food we collect to CAP, meeting in committees to discuss church business, planning various occasions - all of these jobs are done by the members of this congregation with an appreciation for the fact that it’s only because of hard work that any of what we do here is possible. 

    But here’s the twist. As much as we want to make the work of being the church easier for everyone; as much as we don’t want to expect too much from anyone, the truth is that we DO want every member of the church to do hard things. We want everyone to appreciate that being a Christian is not something that should be viewed as a side hobby. We want this church to be a place where everyone can know that the joy we may experience Sunday by Sunday is, in part, the byproduct of the joyful and deliberate response we give to God’s invitation to come to the banquet. 

    As I said before, we take joy seriously. That’s why we hope that, as a community of believers, everyone here has both the opportunity and the invitation to participate fully in the life of the church. And we hope that everyone here will get involved in the hard work of the church; with an appreciation for the fact that what’s at stake is our ability to respond to joy with joy. Getting involved in the life of the church does require hard work, but it is a holy and joy filled work that I truly believe is preparing us for the celebration of the heavenly banquet in God’

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    Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Year A
    October 8th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20          Philippians 3:4b-14        Matthew 21:33-46

     

    As a fore warning, I’m going to be talking today about the violence that happened a week ago in Las Vegas. I know this might make everyone uncomfortable, so I’ll go ahead and say that I’m not going to be using the pulpit to wade into the political debate about gun control. For one, I’m not an expert on either politics or firearms. But I’m also of the opinion that most of us have already seen more than enough political grandstanding on the issue and might have come here this morning because we want to hear a bit of good news…if there is any to be found. What I want to talk about, however, does have to do with how the church can, and I think should, respond to an issue that bears directly on the well being of this nation. 

    What I want to say begins with the words from the hymn we just sang. If you’d like to look again at the words, the hymn number is 617. The hymn is entitled ‘Eternal ruler of the ceaseless round,’ and the words to it were written by the Rev. John W. Chadwick in 1864. As I’m sure you all know, in 1864, the Civil War was still being fought. Chadwick knew the evils of the war, which is why he spoke of God guiding the nations from the “night profound into the glory of the perfect day.” The “night profound” was the violence and death that had gripped the country in a conflict whose end, when the hymn was written, was not yet in sight. The words of the hymn, then, can be seen as a prayer for deliverance from the horrors of violence and war and an expression of hope that God can bring us out of deepest darkness and “into the glory of the perfect day.”

    And the prayer rests on a number of assumptions. The assumptions are spelled out in the second verse of the hymn, and it’s these assumptions that I want us to dwell on for a moment because I think they speak to why the message of the gospel can offer us some solace - some good news - even in the face of violence and death. The words of the second verse are as follows:   

    “We would be one in hatred of all wrong, 

    one in the love of all things sweet and fair, 

    one with the joy that breaketh into song, 

    one with the grief that trembleth into prayer; 

    one in the power that makes thy children free 

    to follow truth, and thus to follow thee.”

    The assumption that the hymn makes is that we would be one, and if you stop to think about it, it’s a bold claim, especially to have made during a time of civil war. I hasten to add that it’s a bold claim even now, when the divisions in this nation are so readily apparent. But the words speak to the hope that the church might be a place of unity, and that its message - and its example - of unity might provide a ray of light in world sunk in darkness.

    Here’s where I want to draw attention to the fact that not everyone in this church is in 100% agreement with everyone else about everything. You all probably already know that, but it’s an important thing to remember. Because it can be tempting to think that the church is only a place of refuge from differences instead of a place where even our disagreements can find common ground and, by God’s grace, be reconciled. I’ll grant you that I’m making my own assumption here, but I truly believe that if you are here today, then by virtue of the fact that you walked through the doors of this chapel, you were willing to set aside your differences in favor of recognizing the truth that we are all one in the eyes of God and that we all would be “one in the love of all things sweet and fair.” The alternative is to think that the church is just another political action committee and that in order to belong to a church you have to be on board with the current political views of everyone else in the congregation. And that is tantamount to saying that we don’t actually want the world to be reconciled under the banner of the Prince of Peace; that we’d rather the church be a place where we come to hear more of the same partisan jargon that we get so much of during the week. But, to use the imagery of Jesus’ parable, I think that such an approach to church would be like trying to cast out the true owner and claim the inheritance of the vineyard for ourselves. 

    So far, I’ve been speaking in general terms about what the church should be, but I’d now like to make a specific suggestion in light of what happened in Las Vegas - a suggestion that I know will probably make some of us uncomfortable. 

    I want to challenge us all to at least TRY to have a conversation about what happened in Las Vegas…with a fellow believer who does not share our political views. For those who want to see stricter gun control legislation, try to find someone who disagrees with you, have a face to face conversation with them, and hear what they have to say - really hear what they have to say - without thinking that they don’t care about the victims of gun violence. Instead, begin from the assumption that you both feel the “grief that trembleth unto prayer” and that they are just as disgusted and grieved by what happened in Las Vegas as you are. You may still disagree at the end of the conversation, but if you can both agree that violence of any kind is not God’s will, then at least you will have touched on the idea that, through the grace of God, reconciliation and unity are possible. 

    Or, if you think that no degree of legislation is going to solve the problem of violence, then find someone who disagrees with you, have a face to face conversation with them, and hear what they have to say - really hear what they have to say - without thinking that they all they want to do is impose tyrannical laws on everyone. Instead, begin from the assumption that you both “would be one in hatred of all wrong,” and that they want the same peace and security that you do. And even if you disagree at the end, if you can both agree that tyranny and violence are not God’s will, then you will have touched on the idea that, through the grace of God, reconciliation and unity are possible.

    I know that this might sound like risky business, and I’ll grant you that it is. But I’m not arbitrarily seeking to cause a stir among members. It’s just that I believe that if we, as followers of Jesus, cannot have these kinds of conversations with each other, peacefully and with some hope of reconciliation and unity, then there’s little chance that we’ll be able to have them with others. And I’m of the opinion that the solution to the problem of gun violence in this country - whether it be Las Vegas, or Orlando, or Newtown, or Columbine - starts right here. It starts with us. It starts with our own ability to be at peace with one another without thinking that a brother or sister needs to be condemned for their views. It starts with communities of people who are committed to the idea that true unity is possible, that true peace is possible, that truth is possible. Is that going to prevent all violence and all evil? No. Is it going to solve the issues of the day? In the short term, probably not. But in the face of continuing violence, we can either close ranks and say that anyone who doesn’t agree with us is just part of the problem, or commit more fully to our Lord’s desire for our unity and actively seek out ways to make that unity a reality in our lives. My hope is that this church can continue to be a place where we can all strive for that kind of unity and be that ray of light in a world so full of darkness. 

    God save us. 

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    Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year A
    October 1st, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 17: 1-7           Philippians 2: 1-13         Matthew 21: 23-32

     

    Rabbit Pellets and providence  

      So I feel it important to explain why I started out this morning talking about rabbit pellets. On Thursday, we had a Bible study, and after we took a look at the reading from Exodus, where God provides the children of Israel with water in the desert, the conversation quickly turned towards the subject of providence. We noted that the story from Exodus follows a sort of theme that we have seen before and we we still see more of as we hear the story of the Israelites in the desert. The theme is that the Israelites give voice to the human condition of only seeing what’s immediately in front of them and not believing it can be any better. As we have heard over the past few weeks, the Israelites didn’t think that God’s plan of freeing them from slavery in Egypt was such a great idea. Then, when they were at the Red Sea, they thought that God was either going to let them drown in the Red Sea or be cut down by the Egyptians. Then, when they were hungry, they figured that God had only brought them out of Egypt to let them starve. And from the reading this morning, we hear that when they were thirsty, they thought that God had only brought them out of Egypt so that they would die of thirst in the desert. But in each case, God provides for them and allows them to continue their journey. 

    As I said, in the Bible study, we quickly identified this theme, and we were talking about how it’s so easy to look at the struggles of our lives and to think that there’s no way God will provide for us and make things any better; how it’s easy to get stuck in thinking that we’ve been dealt a bad hand and that’s just how things are going to be so why bother. Then we shared a couple of stories about how this way of thinking is often upset by the way that God’s providence works in our lives the same way that it worked for the Israelites in the desert; how it often happens that when all we can see is doom and gloom around us, God finds a way in that we never expected and things somehow wind up being ok. And then someone told us about an item that she keeps on her dresser.  

    She said that a number of years ago, a friend of hers had given her a small container of rabbit pellets that had been painted gold. The point of this rather strange gift was to remind her that sometimes even what seems to be horrible in our lives can end up showing us how God’s providence works. Because most of the time, we’re tempted to look immediately at the bad things that happen to us as God giving us as rabbit pellets; and I doubt if anyone here would immediately say that they find any value in a “gift” of rabbit pellets. But God’s providence has a way of working in our lives that can turn even rabbit pellets into gold. Think of it as a kind of divine alchemy - that’s how providence works. But it works! 

    And I’d be willing to bet that everyone here has a story about how what we thought was rabbit pellets ended up being a rather precious gift from God. I can think of a few, but I’d like to share one in particular. 

    In the summer of 2015, a good friend of mine from seminary went before the standing committee of his diocese in Long Island and had what can best be described as a disastrous interview. The result of the interview was that the standing committee recommended that his ordination be put on hold. Had things gone well, my friend was thinking that he would have begun interviewing with churches in Long Island and that he would be placed at one of those churches when he graduated. There was even an outside chance that he might have wound up teaching at a seminary in Tanzania. But the immediate result of his unfortunate interview with his standing committee threw all of those plans out the window. I remember getting a call from him soon after the interview, and he was almost at a loss for words. I was too, because I knew what a capable person he was and that he would make an excellent priest. Neither one of us could understand what had happened or why things had worked out the way they had. I even remember us both saying that what had happened was rabbit pellets - or something of a bovine nature akin to it.    

    BUT, as God’s providence would have it, that unfortunate interview ended up working out to my friend’s benefit. Just a couple of months before the interview, he had started seeing someone, and about halfway through our last year in seminary, he decided that he wanted to ask her to marry him. The only snag was that she lived in Memphis, had a good job, and had no real desire to move to Long Island. But because all of his original plans had been disrupted, when things with his standing committee were eventually set aright, he was given permission to interview with churches in Memphis. And all of this happened around the time that he was thinking about proposing. He wound up finding a great position at a church in Memphis, and he and his wife are quite happy with how everything turned out. I talk to him on a regular basis, and we are still amazed at how what seemed like an immediate disaster at the time ended up giving him the freedom to marry the woman he loved and find an excellent job in a part of the US that he had never even considered a possibility.      

    But that’s how providence works, isn’t it? When we think that God has given us rabbit pellets, over time we can come to appreciate them as the most valuable things that ever happened to us. I think that there’s something of this rabbit pellet providence going on in the parable that Jesus tells in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  

    In the parable, both sons are told, “Go work.” In the same way, God wants us to go and work to build up the kingdom. But it’s tempting to say, “Aww, man! I hate work. This is rabbit pellets!” And we don’t immediately see the value of the work. Only the catch is, when we actually do the work of building up the kingdom, we usually find it is rewarding in its own right. We may find that doing what God wants us to do is much better. And the reverse is true too. It’s tempting to say, “I want to do God’s will! That sounds like pure gold!” But when we get down to it, doing the work of God can be kind of boring and can seem as commonplace as rabbit pellets. Feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, visiting the sick - that’s all really commonplace and boring stuff! So instead, we think, “I’m going to do what I want.” Only the catch is that when we only do what we want, we realize what we want is the real, ungilded rabbit pellets. 

    There’s a line from the traditional confession of sin that asks God to forgive us because “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,” and that essentially means that when all we do is chase after our own selfish desires, we find that we have strayed from God. Usually, following “the devices and desires of our own hearts” involves only seeing what’s immediately in front of us and not trusting that God will provide for what we truly need. 

    And, to be clear, this lack of immediate trust is something that ALL of us struggle with. It is something that ALL of us fail to do on a regular basis. And it’s good to recognize that we’re not perfect and stand in need of forgiveness and a reorienting of our minds towards an appreciation of God’s providence. The Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, which was observed yesterday, is essentially about this need for repentance and reorientation. And we would do well to take a lesson from it. Because all of us could use a reminder that when we are only concerned with our own immediate needs, we can lose sight of the fact that God’s providence is ALWAYS at work. But if we’re willing to trust; if we’re willing to entertain the notion that God’s providence can and does enter our lives in ways that we do not expect, then even when all we can see in front of us is rabbit pellets, we’ll know that they can be turned into gold.       

     

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    Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A
    September 24th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 16:2-15           Philippians 1:21-30        Matthew 20:1-16

     

    The reading from the Gospel that we have from this morning is all about grace. The parable the Jesus tells is one of those parables that most preachers find it difficult to preach on because there’s not much left to explain. God’s grace does not work along the lines of “fairness” that we often think it should. And usually when we think we’ve got it figured out, something happens to show us that we don’t really know as much as we thought we did. Grace is a funny thing. When it is playing out, we often don’t see grace for what it is. But when we experience it, it is as unmistakable as it is powerful. But instead of trying to explain the parable or talk about the concept of grace, I’d like to share with you a story that I think is a good illustration of what Jesus means when he says, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”  

    In summer of 2014, I spent several months in Nashville, working as a chaplain in a hospice facility. The program was part of a curriculum for all seminarians, and we were trained in pastoral care practices that were designed to help us be effective in any situation. We weren’t expected to be experts, but we were all made aware that by identifying ourselves as chaplains, the people with whom we interacted would probably assume that we knew quite a bit about spiritual matters. That was, after all, the line of work we were training for!

    It was a good summer all around, but I found that working in a hospice facility really took me out of my comfort zone. Many of the patients who came into the facility were only with us for a few days before they died, but there were a handful who held on for weeks. The head chaplain at the hospice facility told us that when a patient was there for a longer period of time, we would likely develop a sense of affection for them. Visiting with such patients and their families on a regular basis meant that it was almost impossible to avoid feeling a keen sense of loss when the end finally came. The head chaplain also told us that we would have days when we would find it hard to pray with patients, especially if we had just said goodbye to someone who had been with us for a while. 

    Towards the middle of the summer, I had a stretch of the days that they had warned us about. There were three patients who had been with us for a fairly long time, and they all died within a day of one another. I had been there to meet each one of them and their families when they arrived at the facility; I had visited with them at least once a day for as long as they were there; and wen the patient died, it was my job to see them out and say a final prayer with the family. I had just finished meeting with a family as they were getting ready to leave the facility when I got a call to go see a new patient who had arrived that morning. But I was spent. And I will admit that I was not at my best when I knocked on the door to visit the new arrival. 

    I remember thinking that all I wanted to do was go in, say a brief hello, say a short prayer so that I could say that she received the services of a chaplain, and get out as quickly as possible. The patient was an older woman who seemed not all that interested in seeing anyone - a normal reaction for many who just arrive at a hospice facility. We made our introductions, and after a few minutes, I learned that while she identified herself as a Christian - and “kind of spiritual” - she was not all that interested in church of any kind, having stayed away from church for most of her adult life. I offered to say a prayer, and she accepted. The prayer I said was from memory, and she expressed her thanks for it. Pretty much a standard visit where the chaplain provides a service to someone who is in need - at least, that’s how it would have looked in the official charting record. 

    But as I was getting ready to leave, she looked directly at me and said something I’ll never forget. She said, “Can I say a prayer for you?” I was taken aback for a moment, but I said yes, and she proceeded to say a heartfelt and beautiful prayer for me that spoke to the trouble I was having that day. I hadn’t said anything to her about how I was feeling, but she somehow knew that I needed a word of encouragement.  And her prayer essentially made me realize that in that moment, she was being a chaplain to me.

    Before I walked through the door, I was thinking that I was the “religious professional” who was there to do a job that I had been training for for years. And when she told me about her own faith background, I’m sure that it only reinforced my assumption she would view me as the one whose job was to pray - not to be prayed for. And, to put it even more bluntly, if I had compared myself to her based solely on our respective experience of spending time in the church, by rights I should have been the pastor. I grew up in the church, have attended church all my life, know the lingo, know the basic dynamics of pastoral care, and can tell you about all kinds of arcane churchy things. And she was vaguely Christian, nearing the end of her life, with only a peripheral interest in matters of faith. So you might think that I would have been the one that day who would be rewarded with the gift of a genuine pastoral presence. After all, I had put in more time, right?! But grace is a funny thing. It says, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” And her prayer that day proved to me that for all my background in faith, when the grace of God makes an appearance, the only thing that matters is grace.  

    Of course, we can’t plan for those moments when grace interrupts our normal way of thinking. Most of the time, we do go through life thinking that if we work hard and do good things then we will be rewarded accordingly. And I think that most of the time, we figure that we’ll get out of our relationship with God what we put into it. I’ll add that there’s nothing inherently wrong about thinking this way, but there are some pitfalls if it’s carried too far. One danger is that it can lead us to believe that we can somehow earn God’s love. Another danger is that it can lead us to believe that if others don’t act or believe in the ways we want, then God won’t love them. Both of those ways of thinking put a condition of God’s love that makes God’s love depend on what we do. But that’s not how grace works. When grace happens, it tends to upend our notions of fairness, and it shows us just how powerful God’s love can be, especially when we think it’s undeserved. In those moments (which, again, can’t be planned for), the best we can do is receive grace with gratitude and try to respond to it by living our lives as if they were full of grace. That, I think is our work as followers of Jesus, and if we are able to make that work our aim in our day-to-day interactions with others, we won’t mind who is first or who is last because we will rejoice to discover that grace is at work in all of us.        

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    Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A
    September 17th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 14:19-31            Romans 14:1-12        Matthew 18:21-35

     

    So we come to the subject of forgiveness. There are a number of things worth paying attention to from this morning’s Gospel reading, but I want to start by pointing out some of the details that make Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness so dramatic. I’d be willing to bet that not many of us know exactly what a talent or a denarius is worth. From the context clues of the reading, I’m sure we can guess that a talent is a larger amount than a denarius, but the picture Jesus paints in the parable by using the amounts that he uses is striking. A talent, by the standard of the time, was the equivalent of fifteen years’ worth of wages for a manual laborer. To put that in a modern figure, think something close to $400,000. And Jesus says that this poor guy owes ten thousand talents. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of four trillion - with a T - dollars. Never mind the fact that such an amount of debt would have been clearly impossible for one person to rack up; Jesus uses the exaggerated amount to drive home the extremity of the situation and to highlight the mercy that is shown. And it’s important to note that it’s the mercy that is highlighted first. 

    When it comes to the amount of denarii owed, a denarius was worth about a day’s wages, so essentially the one slave owes the other about a third of his annual income. This would not have been a small amount, but it still would have been reasonable to think that someone could rack up that kind of debt and be able to repay it. So on the one hand, we have an unrealistic amount of debt owed but forgiven, and on the other, we have a large but still realistic amount owed but not forgiven. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the parable so dramatic because it highlights how unjust it is to receive mercy beyond reckoning at the outset but then turn around and demand that justice - even reasonable justice - be served without mercy. 

    When it comes to the final lesson of the parable, I know that we can get stuck on the idea that God plays the role of the master who levels a harsh judgment on the unmerciful servant. Associating God with torture might be troubling for us to hear, but the lesson Jesus is trying to drive home is that the mercy we can expect from God is directly linked to the mercy we are willing to show others. If you think about it, when we say the Lord’s prayer, the part where we say “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” what we’re asking is that God forgive us to the same degree that we forgive others. And the implication there is that if we are not willing to show mercy to someone, even if they owe us A LOT or have really hurt us, then we shouldn’t expect to receive mercy from God, who knows our every thought. If we are swift to condemn another - even justly - then we should be willing to accept the same kind of judgment from God. 

    So the parable contains both a message of hope and a stern warning - and not about just eternal consequences but consequences for our lives in the here and now. Because both the hope and the warning have to do with our understanding of God in the here and now. In the church, we say that God’s mercy is boundless, and God is always ready to forgive us for even things we might think are unforgivable. You’ll notice that’s the starting point of the parable. 

    If you have known God’s mercy in your own life - if you have ever felt that if strict justice were meted out then you’d wind up in trouble; but have instead found grace and forgiveness, then you know and have experienced the kind of mercy that Jesus is talking about in the first part of the parable. You know that such mercy can make a difference in your life, and you know that it can affect your understanding of God.    

    I remember once when I was up in Michigan, we had a visitor  - let’s call him Jeff - stay with us who went on a wild adventure one night. Jeff took another guest’s car keys, stole the car, and wound up going on a joy ride. When we discovered that the car was missing, we called the police and asked them to be on the lookout. Jeff must have felt some sense of guilt - and done a good job of staying off the main roads - because, at about 2am, he pulled back into the parking lot. We were there waiting for him. Instead of calling the police to come and take him away, however, the guest whose car was stolen said that he only wanted Jeff to learn from the mistake. To be fair, Jeff was asked to leave, but everyone parted on good terms. Jeff is now the custodian at a church in Indiana. He manages their soup kitchen, and he has had a clean record ever since. And in a letter I had from him about a year ago, he told me that that experience shaped his faith and his desire to live a better life in ways that he never would have anticipated. He said that he thought he would be going to jail when he pulled back into the parking lot, but instead, he saw what mercy can look like and decided that he wanted to live a life of faith in response to it.  

    You see, it’s how we respond to mercy that matters the most. If you have known God’s mercy in the face of your own weakness and sinfulness, but aren’t willing to extend that kind of mercy to others, then essentially what you’re saying is that your understanding of God in the here and now is going to be governed by notions of strict discipline and punishment. And that kind of thinking is going to have consequences for how you live out your faith. I think that’s the warning of the parable. It’s a warning that says, “If you want God to be a God of retributive justice, then you’ll probably end up thinking that your role is to be God’s instrument in condemning sin and proclaiming the message of God’s retribution. And playing that role means that all you’ll know about God is anger and judgment. And that’s a sorry way to live. One might even say it’s torture.” 

    That’s why Jesus uses such dramatic language when talking about the importance of forgiveness and mercy. Because the consequences for how we understand God are so severe. If we’ve known God’s mercy in the face of our own sinfulness, and from there we are willing to live our lives in joyful response to that mercy, it’s going to make us more like God. And others may see us and wind up thinking that they, too, want draw near to God so that they can know such mercy for themselves. But if we’ve known God’s mercy in the face of our own sinfulness and from there are only concerned with pointing out the sinfulness of others and pontificating about how sinners deserve God’s judgment, it’s going to make us less like God. And others may see us and decide that they want nothing to do with a God who only wants to condemn.  

    And this process of becoming more - or less - like God is an ongoing process. Jesus’ response to Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive someone who sins against us should not be taken as a limited extension of a fixed number. If that were the case, then “seventy, seven times” only winds up being 490. And in the grand scheme of things, 490 isn’t all that much. I’ve probably far exceeded that number - if Davis has been keeping count, I’m sure she’d agree! But no, the lesson we take from the parable is that we should always be willing to forgive. As hard as forgiveness is and as painful as the process of forgiveness can be, we should always at least keep in mind that the ideal of our life of faith is to be merciful. Because being merciful is how we build up the kingdom. Being merciful is how we make room for everyone at the table. Being merciful is how we become more like God. 

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    Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A
    September 3rd, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 3:1-15            Romans 12:9-21        Matthew 16:21-28

     

    Fugitives, Fools, and Failures,

     

    I love the church! I love being IN the church. I love the church for what it stands for - proclaiming the message of God’s love for each and every one of us. I love the church for what it does when we are at its best: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, caring for the sick and dying, embracing the outcast, and seeking out the lost. I love the church when it is a quiet place of refuge, and I love the church when it shakes us out of our places of comfort. I love the church when we come together in harmony, and I even love the church when we disagree with one another. I love the church because it is the home of the saints. But most of all, I love the church because it is the home of fugitives, fools, and failures.  

    Moses is a perfect example. In the reading from Exodus that we have for this morning, we find Moses tending the flock of his father in law, Jethro, in Midian, when he comes across the burning bush. Most of us know the story of God speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, but if you recall the first part of the story, the reason he got to Midian in the first place was because he was a fugitive. As the scripture tells us, he was born and raised in Egypt in the pharaoh’s household, and one day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. He intervened and killed the Egyptian, and when his crime was found out, he ran away and ended up settling in Midian. In other words, Moses was on the run from the law. So when God spoke to him out of the burning bush and told him that he, Moses, would be the one to lead God’s people out of Egypt, we’re left with the conclusion that God chose a criminal to bring about God’s purposes. Great prophet that he was, Moses was nonetheless guilty of murder!  

    Some of you may remember that we participated in a production of “God’s Trombones” back in March. That performance, which is essentially a re-telling of our sacred story, was produced by Donald Gaillard. And Donald Gaillard was once on death row. And Donald will openly talk about being on death row and how he was converted by hearing the story of God’s people. When he was released from prison, he made it his goal to share the same story that transformed his life, working with churches to help share that story. And because of his work, many other lives have been transformed. Once again, God’s purpose was carried out by a criminal. 

    Or how about St. Paul? St. Paul, that great champion of the early church. The man who gives us the advice to “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor,” is the same man who once made it his purpose to root out and destroy the early followers of Jesus. We’re told in the book of Acts that St. Paul approved of the killing of Stephen, the church’s first martyr, and that he was on his way to Damascus to arrest Jesus’ followers when he was converted. You might think that only a fool would go from being hostile to the gospel to being one of its greatest advocates. And sure enough, Paul admits that he is a “fool for Christ.” Yet because of this fool, the gospel message spread and the church grew. 

    I love the church! I love the church because it is a place where imperfect and even deeply flawed people can encounter the living God and be transformed into more than they thought they could ever be. It is a place where even the darkness and ugliness and sin of our lives meets the grace of God and is redeemed. It’s a place where we can hear both, “You are beloved,” and “You are mistaken,” and know that the two need not be contradictory. 

    Look at St. Peter. He confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and Jesus tells him that he is blessed for realizing it. And then in the next breath, after Peter says that Jesus should not be rejected and killed, Jesus turns around and calls him “Satan.” In just a few seconds, Peter goes from being a hero to a total failure. And things only get worse for poor Peter. You all know how the story goes: when Jesus is brought before the chief priests, Peter denies three times that he even knows Jesus. And when the cock crows, Peter realizes that, once again, he has failed. 

    Yet that failure was the rock upon which Jesus would build the church. And as I’ve said before, Jesus knew what he was doing. He knew what he was doing because he knew the church would be full of such failures. He knew the church would be full of fugitives and fools, too. But he also knew the power of God and the way in which God’s grace overshadows even the worst of our failings. He knew this because he himself embraced the ultimate failure of human life. 

    When he told his disciples that the true mission of the Messiah was to suffer and die, they could only hear him say that his mission was destined for failure. And by worldly standards, Jesus’ death meant that he had failed. But it was through that failure that God was able to show that our normal standards of judgment have no meaning.    

    And Jesus’ message to his followers is to go and fail likewise. Giving up everything to follow Jesus is, by the worldly standards of acquisition and gaining power, to fail. And that’s why following Jesus is so hard for us: because nobody wants to fail. Nobody wants to be a fool. Nobody wants to be a fugitive. But the reality is that, at some point in our lives, we are going to know failure. We are going to look like fools. We are going to feel like fugitives. And God says that’s ok. There is nothing beyond redemption. There is nothing we can do which can separate us from the love of God.

    And that’s why I love the church.    

    Yes, the church can be a frustrating place to be. Yes, the church can be full of difficult people who can’t seem to agree on anything. Yes, the church can be a place where human failure seems to be more apparent than human goodness. But I’ll share with you a story I once heard about Reginald Weller, the Bishop of Fond du Lac. On top of the normal trials of being a bishop, Weller was bishop during the time when the Episcopal Church was crafting the 1928 Prayer Book. It may come as a surprise to you, but the 1928 Prayer Book was considered by many at the time to be a radical revision, and a lot of people thought that the Episcopal Church would fall apart because of the arguments the church had over it. Weller had to deal with many in his diocese who were enraged at the thought of prayer book revision. Several of his priests left the church. And even after the adoption of the 1928 Prayer Book, there were some in the diocese who refused to use it. On his deathbed in 1935, Weller had not been able to communicate for several days. When his chaplain came in to administer last rites, he leaned over the bishop and asked if Weller had any last words before he went to be with Jesus. Weller opened his eyes, and said, “The Episcopal Church would have been a terrible thing to have missed.” 

    Don’t you just love the church? 

    _______

     

    Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A
    August 27th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 1:8-2:10             Romans 12:1-8        Matthew 16:13-20

     

    Since this morning’s Gospel reading talks about St. Peter getting the keys to heaven, I just could not pass up the opportunity: 

       A cab driver reaches the Pearly Gates and announces his presence to St.  Peter, who looks him up in his book. Upon reading the entry for the cab driver, St. Peter invites him to grab a silk robe and a golden staff and tells him to make his way to a glittering mansion at the center of heaven.  
       A preacher is next in line behind the cab driver and has been watching these proceedings with interest.  He introduces himself to St. Peter.  Upon scanning the preacher's entry in the book, St. Peter furrows his brow and says, "Okay, we'll let you in, but take a threadbare robe and a wooden staff. You’ll be living in a one room shack on the outskirts of heaven.”  The preacher is astonished and replies, "But I am a man of the cloth. You gave that cab driver a gold staff and a silk robe. Surely I must rate higher than a cab driver!”  
       St. Peter responded matter-of-factly:  "Here we are interested in results. When you preached, people slept.  When people rode in the cab driver’s taxi, they prayed." 

    The Gospel lesson about Simon’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and then Jesus giving him both a nickname and the keys to heaven is one of the more well-known bits of scripture. And it brings up all kinds of questions about what Jesus intended when he chose St. Peter to be the rock upon which he would build the church. That’s a subject for a different day - and for anyone interested in a discussion about ecumenical relationships, I’m always available for a chat! - but what I think should arrest our attention this morning is what Jesus says about structures; gates, to be specific. If you recall, when Jesus commends Simon, he says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” 

    I know some folks are troubled by militaristic imagery when it comes to church, but if we can just allow that imagery to be as it is, I think it can tell us something important about what it means when Jesus says “the gates of hades will not prevail” against the church. Some Christians go through their lives thinking that they are always engaged in spiritual warfare. And, using this kind of militaristic imagery, some Christians claim that they are always fighting a defensive battle against dark spiritual forces. God - they say - is their rock, their fortress, and their stronghold, and they adopt a sort of siege mentality to their faith. I have nothing against people who think this way, but if you take what Jesus says about the gates hades at face value, then it kind of changes the position of who is “on the attack” and who is being besieged. Because gates are normally something you hide behind. So if the “gates of hades” will not prevail against the church, that means the forces of darkness are on the defensive and the mission of the church will not ever be defeated. 

    To step back a bit from such stridently militaristic language, though, I think the mission of the church is to proclaim peace in a world that is constantly encouraging us to be at war. I don’t need to make a list of how much conflict surrounds us - not just in terms of current events, but also in terms of how most products are advertised with the language of competition and conflict. We even use such language when we say we are “bombarded” with news and advertisements. So the message of strife is all around us. 

    The church’s mission is to say “NO.” We are not engaged in a struggle of all against all. Our job is to help everyone recognize their worth as children of God. Our duty is to make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to know that they are a part of the beloved community and that no matter what message we may hear to the contrary, ALL have a voice and ALL have a place at the table. 

    And the peace the church proclaims is not passive. It’s not a matter of seeing the conflict of the world and retreating from it so that we can create our own little enclave of safety where we can live in artificial peace, protected by our own gates. Such an attitude can lead to indifference in the face of genuine suffering and an avoidance of the responsibilities we took upon ourselves at baptism.    

    Instead, the peace that the church proclaims is the kind of peace that actively seeks out the places and structures of the world that are harmful in order to say that God wants more for the world. 

    Now, it’s true: all too often the church has failed in its mission, whether by arrogantly claiming power for itself in God’s name or by identifying some group as an enemy that needs to be silenced or destroyed. The church’s track record is full of such failures. But the results are not always so abysmal.   

    Take, for instance, the story of All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna, TN. Some of you may have already seen the movie based on the true story of how this small church was on the verge of being closed when it opened its doors to welcome a group of refugees from Myanmar. Some of you may know that that church is now thriving. And all because a rather unremarkable group of Christians in an unremarkable corner of Tennessee decided to take the kind of risk that the gospel calls for. I doubt any of the people at All Saints would say their actions were heroic, but I like to think of what they did as a small example of how the gates of hades cannot stand when followers of Jesus take action. 

    We here also have the opportunity to take such a stand for the gospel. And it doesn't have to be heroic. Even today, we’re going to be engaged in the rather mundane task of loading up a truck with food for CAP so that those in our community who are living in poverty will at least get a little help with putting food on the table. That may seem a small action, but it’s because of just such actions that the gates of hades don't stand a chance. And there are countless other opportunities for each one of us to play our part in proclaiming the peace of God’s kingdom. If you’re curious about what that might look like, talk to me or to one of our mission committee members after the service - we’ll be able to point you in the right direction!   

    I know it might sound kind of silly to say that our church is founded on a rock when most of the region we live in is swamp land. But we ARE founded on solid ground! Jesus knew what he was doing when he gave Simon a new name. Simon was willing to say that Jesus was more than just a messenger. Simon was willing to say that Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s message for the world. That kind of bold confession is the rock on which the church is built. That kind of confession is what will help us proclaim the gospel of peace effectively. And that kind of confession is what will allow us to break down the gates of hades.     

     

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    Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year A
    August 20th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Genesis 45:1-15             Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32        Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

     

    “Lord, help me.” This morning’s Gospel reading is one of the more difficult Gospel readings that we have. It’s difficult because in the reading, what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman sounds really harsh, if not downright insulting. When he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he’s basically calling the Canaanite woman a dog. And that’s not a nice thing to say at all. So you might be left thinking that Jesus was kind of being a jerk to this woman, regardless of the outcome of the story. And if that’s the case, it’s hard to preach on, so I’m going to steal a line from the Canaanite woman: “Lord, help me!”     

     

    Since I don’t think we’re meant to walk away from the lesson thinking that Jesus is mean, there are a few things I’d invite us to consider about this story (And I do hope you’ll bear with me because there’s an awful lot to unpack!). The first has to do with who the Canaanites were and how they were viewed in first century Palestine. If we look through the Old Testament, we quickly discover that Canaanites were the people who lived in the land that God promised to give to Israel. And, to put it mildly, the Canaanites are not presented in a favorable light in the Old Testament. They were supposed to be driven out of the land, totally dispossessed, and the Israelites were not supposed to show any favor to them at all. The fact that there were still Canaanites living in the land at the time of Jesus is testimony enough to the fact that the ancient Israelites never fully succeeded in driving out the Canaanites, but the stigma of being a Canaanite remained.

    It’s kind of hard to draw a modern parallel, but I think there might be some similarity between how most white folks viewed African Americans during the Jim Crow era and how a normal first century Jew would have viewed a Canaanite woman. The Canaanite’s “undesirable” status was  part of a widespread set of cultural assumptions. And given that Jesus was born into a world where these assumptions were almost part of the air he breathed, it’s not all that surprising that his initial attitude towards the Canaanite woman was dismissive. Jesus did not have immunity from the norms and prejudices of his culture - just like none of us is totally free from being shaped by the cultural norms of the 21st century.

    The difference, though, is that he was willing to challenge those norms. And the way he did so, I think, was actually kind of clever. Look again at the exchange between Jesus and the woman.

    He speaks to her using a parable, and this is how Jesus teaches his followers. So already, when Jesus speaks to her, what we’ve got is a situation in which Jesus is treating the Canaanite woman as someone who can understand his way of teaching. Even though it may seem like a harsh lesson, he’s not dismissing her out of hand as someone who cannot be taught. Rather, I think he is tacitly inviting her to help him challenge the assumption that he should not help her, and he’s doing so by using his favorite teaching tool: the parable. Normally, when Jesus speaks in parables, his followers don’t always make the connections, and he has to explain it to them. But the Canaanite woman gets the impact of the parable right away, and her reply comes in the form of a parable. 

    This might not immediately strike us as important, but what the Canaanite woman does here is reverse the teacher-student role. In effect, by taking Jesus’ own parable and creating a new parable from it, she is teaching Jesus a lesson. And he’s pleased by it. In one short exchange, then, the Canaanite woman turns a system of cultural norms on its head, and Jesus’ response shows US that what she has done is worthy of a reward.    

    There’s an apocryphal story about a teacher who had a student who was on course to fail her math class. The student was a hard worker, but was a poor test taker. Just before the final exam, the student approached her and asked, “Can you tell me what grade I would need to get on the exam to pass the course?” The teacher gave him the bad news. “The exam is worth 100 points. You would need 113 points to earn a D.” “OK,” he said. “And how many points would I need to get a C?” And, somehow, the student managed to pass. 

    The good news from the Gospel lesson is that no matter where we might come from, we are all in some sense outsiders who have no right to assume that God should show any favor to us - and yet, God does. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that we’re all depraved sinners who deserve God’s wrath. I don’t think that kind of approach is particularly helpful. But I do believe that all of us are dependent on God’s grace at every turn, and thankfully God is not stingy with grace. 

     

    The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is very much a story about this kind of grace. And it’s a story about how we relate to God. No matter who might tell us we’re not worthy, and even no matter how much we might think we’re not worthy, if we put ourselves at Jesus’ feet and say, “Lord, help me,” I believe that none of us will be turned away. 

    To take things a step further, even if we’re convinced that the external circumstances of our lives are just so messed up that God seems absent, I believe that God can and does find a way into that mess and gives us the power to set things right. And God does this not just on a personal level but even within communities and the larger world. 

    How this happens is a mystery, but I’m convinced that in some small way, it begins with what we’re doing right here and right now. We’ve come together in this place to hear a word of hope and to share a meal together. Simple enough, but that’s the basis of our lives together as followers of Jesus. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on in your life or what’s going on in the world, my hope is that being here will encourage you to trust in God’s grace and be ever more willing to say, “Lord, help me.”  

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    Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year A
    August 13th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    In response to Charlottesville 

     

    Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28             Romans 10:5-15        Matthew 14:22-33

     

    I’m not going to talk about the pilgrimage this morning. Those conversations will happen in due course, and I certainly will be looking forward to sharing some of our stories with you. But there’s something else that I think is far more important for us to talk about this morning. It has to do with power. False notions of power. False uses of power. 

    And what I’d like to say about power begins at a small motel in Memphis. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, to be specific. Some of you might know that the Lorraine Motel was where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Some of you might also know that that motel has become part of the National Civil Rights Museum. What might not be so well known is the words written on the plaque that stands on the sight. The words are taken from Genesis chapter 37, verses 19-20, and we just heard them because they are from the reading assigned for this morning. The words are those spoken by Joseph’s brothers: “They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him…and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” What will become of his dreams.

    In the lesson from Genesis, what’s going on is that Joseph’s brothers resent Joseph for telling them about a dream he had in which he, their younger brother, seems to have power over them. And they come to dislike him so much that they decide that they are going to kill him to prove that they are the ones who really have power. This story about Joseph gets to the heart of the human condition. It was the condition that prevailed thousands of years ago when that story was written, and it still applies today. 

    And it all boils down to power. The basic thought process that I think we all go through at some point or other sounds like this: We are afraid of death. We want the power to control our own lives. But we don’t have the power we think we should have. We are not in control. So whose fault is it? Who can we blame? The Jews! The Liberals! The Conservatives! The government! The media! The police! Brown People! White people! Gay people! Refugees! Southerners! Yankees! Name your group. Then demonize your group. Get enough people to agree with you, and you can try to overpower the other and claim power for yourself. And usually this struggle for power means someone or some group has to die. Only it doesn’t work. It never has worked. There is no final solution. The fear of death and the desire to control our own lives is always there to goad us into finding a new “other” to blame for the fact that we aren’t really in control. And we see how this plays out time and time again.    

    What is taking place in Charlottesville is yet another tragic chapter in humanity’s distorted pursuit of power. 

    I don't think you all need me stand up here and say that what nazis and fascists and white supremacists and anarchists stand for is evil. Even though that is true, I think it is tempting to stop there, and ultimately that does nothing more than rouse up the kinds of emotions that nazis and fascists and white supremacists and anarchists rely on to spread their message of fear and struggle for power. What we need is something more. What we need is to realize that our fear of death and the pursuit of power over death has only ever led to more fear, more blaming of the other, and more death. Whether it be Auschwitz, or Memphis, or Charlottesville. What we need is to realize that the fear of death and even death itself do not have power over us. And that may help us get out of the tangled mess we are currently in. 

    Which brings us back to the dreamers. The dream that Joseph had was not really about him stealing power from his brothers or lording power over them in the threatening way that they so feared. The dream that Joseph had was about the power he would one day have to lift his brothers up when they found themselves powerless. In essence, his dream was about the ability he would have to share power. In much the same way, MLK’s dream was not a dream about one group displacing another or lording power over another. It was a dream in which the power structures of this world that depend upon fear and death are thrown down so that room can be made for a new world in which all of God’s children use their power to build each other up.

    Sadly, from what is so easy to see in the world around us, these dreams are still only dreams. They have not become the day to day reality in which we live. We are still beset by the frenzied struggle for power and the desperate fear of death. And those who dare to dream of a different world are often seen as a threat by those who are afraid of losing their imagined power. And the sarcastic words of Joseph’s brothers are repeated time and time again: Come, let us kill…then we shall see what becomes of these dreams.

    But I think it worth pointing out that the dream never really goes away. It’s curious, isn't it, that no matter how many times humanity has done its best to prove that the struggle for power is all that there is, that dream still persists? The reason I think the dream persists is that it is grounded in the very desire God has to save us from ourselves; from our fear of death and from our twisted desire for power. 

    And in the person of Jesus, we Christians believe that the power of death has been destroyed. In Jesus, we believe that the distinctions we make about who should be blamed for our own lack of power are rendered meaningless. St. Paul is right. There is neither Jew nor Greek. For all have the power to be dreamers. And no matter how many times we try to kill the dreamers, we believe that the resurrected Jesus holds them in life. The dream will never die. 

    If you recall from the Gospel lesson, Jesus walked on water and was willing to share that power with Peter. Lingering fear may have caused Peter to sink, but that so often is the case with those who are given power but don’t know how to use it. The point is that Jesus was not afraid of sharing his power with the powerless. Much of Jesus’ ministry can be understood in this same way. He was willing to share the power of God with a human race sunk in fear and the futile struggle for control over life.  

    And that, for us, is the great challenge of following him. If we have power - and I do believe we here all have it - we should not be afraid to share it with those who have none. We should not be afraid to use the power we have to help those who have none. I don’t know if that will solve all of the world’s problems or prevent the kind of ugliness on display in Charlottesville. But I do know that by letting go of our fear and putting our trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, we are liberated from the vicious cycle of blame and violence that characterize much of the world’s interactions. And as followers of Jesus, we have the power to help others find a way out of that nightmarish cycle of blame and violence and instead, show them that we all can be dreamers.  

     

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    Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year A
    July 23rd, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Genesis 28:10-19a              Romans 8:12-25        Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

     

    How many of you all have a garden? How many of you have ever spent time in a garden pulling weeds? Have you ever had it happen that you pulled up what you thought was a weed but actually was a flower or a tomato plant? I remember when I was living in Michigan, we had a young man visit who wanted to help out in the garden but who failed to tell us that he had no experience with gardening whatsoever. We put him to work in the garden one day and told him to pull up the weeds near the row of beans, and when he was finished, the row was completely clear - of all vegetable life, beans and all! He was a special case, but I think that most of us know the difference between a weed and a plant that has been deliberately planted. I know a dandelion when I see one, and if you remember from last week, I’m well acquainted with crab grass. And if you’re a gardener, my guess is that you don’t want to have weeds growing in your garden. 

    That rather simple observation from everyday life is the basis of the parable that Jesus tells about he wheat and the weeds. Only it’s not just any old weed that Jesus is talking about. Y’all know my love of language - so I hope you’ll forgive me once again for making a point about the meaning of certain words. What is translated for us in the Gospel as “weeds” is actually a very specific kind of weed. In Greek, the word is "zizanion" (ζιζάνιον), and it’s a kind of darnel or ryegrass that looks a lot like wheat until its ripens. So in the parable, what we have is a field of wheat, and mixed into the wheat is a weed that looks an awful lot like wheat. And it’s hard to tell the difference between the two until the weed is fully ripe.  

    I don’t know if that helps us to understand the parable any better, but I think it provides us with some more insight into why the owner of the field does not want his workers to pull up the weeds. I don’t think it’s just because the root structures are so bound up with one another that pulling up the weeds would result in the wheat being uprooted as well. I think it’s because the workers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between what was a weed and what was wheat, so in their eagerness to pluck up the weeds, they’d pull up everything.      

    And this is an excellent parable for the church. It’s an excellent parable about the church. Because the church has always struggled to maintain a middle ground between two extremes. On the one hand, there’s the mentality that the church should be pure, completely free of weeds and a perfect place where perfect people can give thanks to God that they are perfect. That kind of pure church is one end of the spectrum, and it’s where the term “Puritan” comes from. (Do y’all know the line about Puritanism being the overriding fear that someone somewhere is having a good time?) Anyway, at the other end of the spectrum is a mentality that the church shouldn’t expect its members to live up to the promises they make when they say they want to follow Jesus. It’s a mentality that says accountability and responsibility shouldn’t be a part of belonging to the kingdom of God. It’s a mentality that says that God doesn’t care about the difference between weeds and wheat. Ultimately, it’s a mentality that says we shouldn't care about our own growth. 

    Those are the two extreme ends, and neither has proved particularly effective when it comes to spreading the good news because the puritanical end demands such a high standard of righteousness that few, if any, can sustain it for very long. And the “anything goes” end winds up not really standing for much of anything. So the challenge of spreading the gospel and being the church is to find the middle ground between the extremes. 

    I think that when the church is at its best, it resists the “anything goes” mentality by saying that the church is a place where we are expected to grow and be disciplined in our approach to knowing and loving God. And it resists puritanism by exercising what some may deride as indiscriminate inclusivity; by opening its doors wide enough to invite everyone in and providing a space where everyone is welcomed just as they are. 

    In our neck of the woods, I happen to think that puritanism is the more tempting of the two extremes. So to bring the words of the parable back into focus, there’s something I’d like us to consider about who the characters are and what role they play. If you remember the explanation, Jesus points out that the sower is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom, and so on. Only there’s one set of characters who don’t get a parallel assignment. It’s the workers who tell the sower that weeds have been sown in the field. It’s the ones who want to pluck up the weeds and cast them out. They don’t appear again in the explanation of the parable. You might have expected them to be the eventual reapers, but in the parable, the reapers are separate characters. 

    What that means for us is that when it comes to deciding what is wheat and what is a weed, that’s not our job. When it comes to deciding who belongs to the kingdom and who does not, that’s not our job. And the reason it’s not our job is because we’re not really in a position to know the immediate difference between weeds and wheat. Our job is to grow as children of God. Our job is to be wheat - and I’ll add here that if you’re worried about whether you’re wheat or a weed, the mere fact that you’re worried about it means you’re wheat. Essentially, our job is to be patient. 

    So, even though it may be bad advice for those of you who are literal gardeners, when we leave this place and go back into the field, I encourage you not to go looking for weeds to pluck up. Instead, look for ways to grow more fully into the child of God that you are. Look for ways to help others grow more fully into the children of God that they are. In the end, God will bring in the harvest. And if my guess is correct, we may wind up discovering that God has transformed even what we thought were weeds into wheat.   

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    Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A
    July 16th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Genesis 25:19-34               Romans 8:1-11        Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

     

    I can’t grow grass. I’ve had success with all manner of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, but not grass. 

    Some of y’all have heard me tell this story. Our yard is a mess. But we’ve tried. A quick description of the yard is that it’s about half weeds and crabgrass and half just barren soil. The half of the yard that is closest to the street is the half that has all the weeds and crabgrass, and if you know crabgrass, you know how fast it grows and how unkempt a yard can look in a very short time if you leave crabgrass to thrive. So that’s one half of the yard. The other half of the yard is pretty much just empty sandy soil that looks like a moonscape and which I’m convinced is just inhospitable to life. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying to get grass to grow.    

    The first thing we did - around September of last year - was simply plant grass. It sprouted up in a few patches and then died. The crabgrass grew just fine, though. 

    So we did a bit of reading about the best way to go about growing grass. 

    We fertilized. Let the ground sit for about a week with constant watering. Then we tilled up the ground and scattered the grass seed. And grass sprouted up. In a few patches about yay big. But we were out of town for a weekend, missed two days of watering, and the grass died. But the crabgrass kept growing fine. 

    So we tried again. We read up a bit more on how to grow grass at the beach. This time we picked a small area to concentrate on, figuring it would be easier to start small and work our way up. We tilled up the ground really well, removed big stones, and even added some topsoil to help give the grass seed a better environment. When we spread the grass seed this time around, we really thought we’d see some results! And the grass sprouted up. In patches about yay big. We managed to keep those patches going for a couple of weeks, but then they died too. All the while, the crabgrass was doing fine.  

    We decided to try one last time. We chose a different part of the yard and used all of the techniques I’ve just described. And we really did go in full-tilt, scattering more seed and watering twice as long as normal at set times of the day. And sure enough, grass sprouted. In patches about Yay big. And it looked like we were off to a better start. Then we went up to Sewanee for three weeks, and all that grass died. So the half of the yard that looks like a moonscape still looks like a moonscape. But, as we discovered when we got home, the crabgrass was about a foot high and thriving. And the yard looked…well, let’s just say it didn’t look well cared for. So when we got back from out time away, we wanted to cut the crabgrass to get the yard looking at least halfway decent. But when we got out the lawnmower and tried to crank it, it wouldn’t start.     

    We have a neighbor - an older gentleman who spends a good deal of time working his yard, and over the months he has seen our efforts at getting our yard looking better. And he has been a good friend to us. He noticed that we had been away, and he also noticed that we had been back for a few days without being able to cut the grass. And he knew that we were having trouble with our lawnmower. So one day, when Davis and I were both out of the house, he hired a yard crew to cut the crabgrass. It was an incredibly kind gesture. 

    When we went over to thank him and to offer to pay him back, he declined. He said, “It was a love gift.” And then he went on to say something that I think is a brilliant commentary on today’s Gospel lesson. He said, “I go upstairs in the evening to my study, and I read in that book (the Bible) how to love your neighbor as yourself. And I tell you, I have more joy in here (tapping his heart) because of that word than any money could ever buy.” 

    All too often, I think that when we hear the parable of the sower, we get too caught up in thinking about what kind of seed we are. Have we fallen on the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, or in good soil…But that kind of thinking sort of misses the point of the parable. Because Jesus does not call it “the parable of the seeds.” He calls it the “parable of the sower.” And the lesson we can draw from the parable is that the sower’s job is to scatter seed and not to worry too much about where the seed falls. Some of the seed will grow, and some of it won’t. But that’s not the concern of the sower. The sower’s job is to sow seed.

    When we tried to get grass to grow in our yard, my hope was that we’d have a full yard of grass. I didn’t think too much about how the crabgrass was doing - I just wanted OUR grass to grow. So I sowed seed time and time again on rocky soil. But the rocky soil was just not a hospitable environment for grass. So it was tempting to think that our efforts were in vain. One lesson I draw from that experience is that sometimes, no matter what our efforts might be, the message of the gospel just isn’t going to take root. And that’s ok. It shouldn’t stop us from trying. 

    But I take another lesson away from that experience, as well. And the lesson has to do with how we define success and failure. Sometimes we might be surprised at how and where the gospel message bears fruit, regardless of our own efforts. In our yard, it certainly seemed annoying that the crabgrass - the grass we weren’t even trying to cultivate! - was thriving without any problems, while our own scattering of seed proved seemingly fruitless. Yet it was the crabgrass that gave our neighbor the opportunity to show us what true charity means. 

    It sort of reminds me of what St. Paul says about spreading the gospel. He planted, another watered, but it is God who makes things grow. We scattered seed and watered the yard in an attempt to make the yard look nicer. But the “growth” that God gave came not in the form of a lush green yard but in the loving gift of a neighbor who saw us struggling and wanted to lend a hand. 

    I take all this as a pretty good object lesson in how we can approach evangelism. We all have the ability to spread the gospel in our own way. You don’t have to be well versed in theology; you don’t have to be an expert in marketing strategies and community organization; and you don’t have to know the scriptures by heart. All you need is the belief that God wants something better for the world - for each and every person we encounter - and then to act in love out of that belief. 

    In some instances, we won’t see any discernible results, at least in terms of how we’d like to define results. But even if we think we’re not getting anywhere, God can sometimes surprise us and show us that our efforts ARE bearing fruit in ways we never would have expected. 

    So my hope is that we’ll all embrace our role as sowers of the gospel; that we will go out into the world and scatter seed, exercising patience and kindness, helping the weak, strengthening the fainthearted, showing love and respect to all. And let those seeds fall where they may - whether it be in good soil, in thorns, on rocky ground, or on the path. For I am convinced that no matter where our seeds fall, God is able to give growth.   

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    Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year A
    July 9, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67         Romans 7:15-25a             Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

     

    We all want to be liked, right? I think that’s a fair thing to say. I think that, for most of us, our biggest concern when it comes to social interaction is whether or not other people will like us. And most of us spend a great deal of time and energy trying to make sure that we come across in the best way possible so that others will like us. And there’s nothing too odd about this. I’d be willing to say that if no one really gave a hoot about what anyone else thought about them, then human society itself would be impossible. No one would ever be interested in anyone else’s ideas. No one would entertain the notion that we can achieve more by working together than we can by working alone. And no one would really care if their actions ended up hurting others. So being liked and wanting to be liked is not necessarily a bad thing.

        The point where we run into trouble is when our desire to be liked comes from a place of fear. Fear of being alone, fear of not fitting in, fear of missing out - all of these might be reasons why we want to be liked. But perhaps the most pernicious fear that drives the need to be liked is a fear that, sadly, I think many of us are familiar with. The logic of such fear goes like this: “I know how rotten I really am. And if other people knew the real me, they wouldn't want me to be a part of their group. But if I can get enough people to like me, then maybe no one will believe it when they find out just how rotten I am. And maybe I’ll be able to convince myself that I’m not really all that bad…even though I am.” I call this the fear of being found out. Or maybe the fear of the fraud. And as fears go, it can be quite horrible.

        It’s horrible for one because it eats away at the idea that we might, after all, actually be likable. Even worse, it can lead to all kinds of self-destructive behavior. And even worse, it can cause us to embrace insincerity for the sake of being liked or convince us that it’s ok to manipulate others into liking us just so that we can have some degree of control. And once we start down that road, there’s no telling what kinds of falsehoods and destructive behaviors we’ll be willing to entertain so long as no one finds out the truth. And so much the better if everyone is in the same boat and willing to play along because that way, no one has to admit that the lies we believe about ourselves are just that: lies. 

        I think there’s something of this scenario going on in what Jesus has to say about his generation being like children in the marketplace calling out, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ Both calls are tantamount to saying, “Why don’t you like us? Why don’t you like us enough to be like us?”  John the Baptist’s message is that people need to repent and believe that God actually wants something better for the world, but the generation’s response is to say, “No! Everything is ok! Why are you being so severe? Just be more like us and stop saying things are not as they should be. Join the dance - you’ll see it’s not so bad!” Jesus’ message is much the same as John’s, but the generation’s response is to say, “No! You’re going about this the wrong way! You’re being far too inclusive. You’re too willing to tell bad people that they can be redeemed. Just be more like us and be sad that God isn’t more quick to condemn unrighteousness!” I think that beneath both of those generational responses is fear: fear that the gospel exposes the truth that the norms of the world that we have constructed are based on the lie that God doesn't really like us. Because if you have come to believe that you’re truly wretched, then in some sense you’re not going to be comfortable with the idea that God likes you.

        St. Paul's exploration of why we do what we don’t want to do is a perfect example of the kind of conundrum we are left with if we buy into the belief that God doesn’t really like us. And I think Paul was actually trying to draw attention to how this kind of warped thinking can leave us feeling stuck. But as Paul points out, there is a solution: we are saved from the thought that God doesn't like us because the good news of Jesus is that God actually DOES like us.

        I use the word “like” here quite deliberately because I know that we’ve all heard that God loves us. And in some sense, the word “love” has lost its impact. Because I’m sure we’ve all heard someone say, “You don’t have to like someone to love them.” And from our own experience, we may have a family member that we don’t particularly like but still we are willing to say we love. Liking someone (in the healthy sense of liking) means you want to spend time with them; that you actually enjoy their company; that you want what is best for them. And in this sense, I think we can say that God doesn’t just love us. God actually LIKES us. 

        And what’s more, God likes us regardless of how entrenched we may be in the belief that we’re not worth being liked. Further still, God likes everyone regardless of how entrenched some may be in the belief that others aren't worth being liked. That’s good news.   

        But think about how much time and energy we spend trying to avoid the consequences of this good news! Think about how many ideologies and systems we have constructed to shore up the idea that God can’t like a certain type of person or a certain group of people! Think about the burdens we have tied up on our own backs to keep not just others but even ourselves from believing that God actually enjoys being with us! Think about how weighed down - even paralyzed - we can become because of our own fear that we’re not really likable.

        When Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” I think he’s talking about just these kinds of burdens. And he’s inviting us all to let go of our fear of not being liked and instead to yoke ourselves to the truth that God likes us. Because that really is a much easier burden to bear!

        The church believes that the proof we have that God likes us is Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. And here, in this church, we gather around a table, we give thanks, and we ask God to be with us in a tangible way. And when we receive the bread and wine of the eucharist, we believe that Jesus is truly present and readily available to us. And it’s not that the eucharist is some kind of magical summoning on our part. God wants to be with us, and in the eucharist, that’s exactly what God does. So in a few moments when you come forward to receive the bread and the wine, I invite you to think of what you’re doing not as just a pious religious exercise. Think of it as greeting a friend. And eat and drink in the knowledge that you are loved, accepted…and liked. 

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    Sermon for the Day of Pentecost
    June 4th, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

    Acts 2:1-21        1 Corinthians 12:3b-13        John 20:19-23

     

    What happens when the Spirit comes? 

    Y’all know what today is, right? It’s the Day of Pentecost. It’s the day we remember the crowning event of the Easter story. It’s the day we remember when the promised gift of the Holy Spirit was given to Jesus’ first followers. It’s the day we remember when the good news began to spread, beginning from Jerusalem. Some call it the “birthday” of the church. 

    From the readings we have for this morning, we have two different accounts of the event. The first one is the most well known - it’s from the book of Acts; the disciples are all gathered together, when they hear a sound like the rushing of a violent wind, and the Holy Spirit alights on them like tongues of fire. Then they begin to speak in different languages as they go out in the streets to proclaim the good news. And it’s a very public affair. The other account is from John’s Gospel, and in that account, Jesus appears to the disciples and gives the Holy Spirit to them by breathing on them. No rushing wind;  no tongues of flame; no speaking in different languages. Just a quiet gathering with a word of peace and a little breath.   

    And these two descriptions of what happened when the Holy Spirit came pretty much sum up how the church has developed even down to today.

    Some of you may have had an experience of God that was so overwhelming that the only way you can describe it is to use dramatic imagery like rushing wind and tongues of fire. And the experience may have happened so fast and may have been so overwhelming that all you could do was go with it and just let the Spirit take you. That’s the Acts version of things. And some Christian traditions embrace this approach whole-heartedly and focus their attention on the way the Holy Spirit can grab hold of us to the point where we don’t act in “normal" ways. We call those types of churches “Pentecostal,” and if you’ve ever been to a Pentecostal church, then you know that the worship can be very excited, with people speaking in tongues and being overcome with emotion, or being “slain in the Spirit,” jumping and dancing around and falling in the aisles, and there’s just a lot of commotion and melodrama. And that kind of exuberant excitement is how those traditions give expression to being filled with the Holy Spirit. Again, that’s the Acts version of what happens when the Holy Spirit comes - taken to extremes, perhaps, but it’s still the Acts version of things.    

    But some of you may have had an experience of God that wasn't all that dramatic. It may have come as a moment of feeling quiet assurance that God was present. It may have come as a deep sense of peace and joy. Or it may have come as a series of small events that only later you were able to look back on and appreciate how God was indeed at work in your life. That’s the John version of things. And there are some churches that concentrate on the way that the Holy Spirit can move silently yet powerfully, like a deep ocean current. Think of the Society of Friends - or the Quakers - whose gatherings are normally quite tranquil. They sit together in silence until someone is moved by the Holy Spirit to speak; not in tongues, but in words that everyone can understand, and usually the speaker does not raise their voice or get very animated. And they do this because that’s how their tradition gives expression to being filled with the Holy Spirit.  

    Thus far, I’ve described the sort of extreme ends of how churches understand what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And it occurs to me that some of you may be thinking, “So what? We don’t do the speaking in tongues thing here, and we don’t sit around in silence waiting for someone in the group to speak. What happens here when the Spirit comes?”

    In reply, there are a number of things that could be said. First, I’d say that if you’d like to add a bit more of a Pentecostal flavor to what we do, I hope you feel free to shout an “Amen!” if you feel so moved (can I get an “Amen?”). Or, if you like the Quaker approach, I invite you to step more deeply into those moments of silence that are observed during our worship, and hear what the Holy Spirit speaks to you during those quiet moments. 

    I’d also say that in terms of what “normally” happens here when the Spirit comes, the answer can be as varied as the people in the congregation. You may have been moved to silent tears by the music. You may have heard the words of scripture and felt a sort of tingle because they really struck home that day. You may have felt a sense of joy-filled awe as you came forward to receive the Eucharist. All of those - and more besides - are what I would describe as ways in which the Holy Spirit moves in this church. 

     

    But there’s an even simpler answer to the question, “What happens here when the Spirit comes?” Because we do what is common to both the Acts account and the John account.  As servants of God {who are filled with the Holy Spirit}, we receive the power to spread the good news that we have heard. And that’s something that both accounts agree on. In Acts, the disciples’ response to being filled with the Holy Spirit is to speak about God’s deeds of power. And in John, when Jesus gives the Holy Spirit, he commissions his disciples to spread the good news with the words, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In both cases, the gift of the Holy Spirit involves going out and proclaiming the good news. And that’s what the Holy Spirit is doing in this church. 

    When the Spirit comes upon this church, she gives us the power to hear the good news, and then to go out from this place and share that good news with the world. As in John, the Spirit gives us the ability to speak about forgiveness to a world which has largely chosen to reject the idea that redemption is even possible. And we proclaim forgiveness not because we don’t care about sin - rather it’s because we know the destructive power of sin and choose to combat it with the Spirit-given power of reconciliation.

    And as in Acts, some of us are given the ability to speak to others in a way that they can understand - not by miraculously learning to speak Portuguese or Mandarin but by being able to speak about churchy things like grace, transcendence, prayer, and holiness in an approachable way to those who did not grow up learning that kind of language.      

     

    That’s what happens when the Holy Spirit comes. And sure, some of us may feel moved to shout and dance when the Spirit comes (can I get an “Amen!”); some of us may be moved to sit in silence. When it comes to mode of expression, the Spirit does indeed move in mysterious ways. But it’s not a matter of being “slain in the spirit” or being brought to contemplative quietude that matters the most.  It’s being sent. It’s spreading good news. It’s letting the power of God’s presence spill over into our day-to-day interactions so that when others see what we’re filled with, they will want to be filled with it too. That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that’s the power we have within us as we leave this place. 

    At the end of this worship service, the deacon will give the dismissal and bid us all go out into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. When Monty says that and we all go our separate ways, keep in mind that you are filled with the Holy Spirit and have the power to speak forgiveness and to share a word of peace with every single person you meet, no matter who they are or where they come from; no matter what they may have done or what their beliefs may be. The Holy Spirit that dwells within you gives you the power to share the gospel with them. So, do it. Can I get an Amen?  

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    Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
    May 28th, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

    Acts 1:6-14         1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11         John 17:1-11

     

    An older friend of mine likes to tell the story of a teacher he once had in high school. My friend attended a school in New England where daily chapel services were the norm, and every morning before chapel, his history teacher would stand outside, smoking a pipe, looking up at the sky. My friend took note of this but for a long time thought nothing of it, as he just figured history professors were an odd sort. Then one day, my friend decided to ask his teacher about this morning routine. “Young man,” the teacher said, “I think all Christians should spend some time each day actively looking for the return of Jesus.”

    If you follow the calendar of the church year, then you’ll know that since Thursday, we have been celebrating the Feast of the Ascension; the church’s commemoration of Jesus’ return to God the Father, forty days after the resurrection. To put it mildly, the Ascension is one of the most important feasts of the church year, and that is why, in addition to this past Thursday, we get today to celebrate it as well - the folks who set out the church calendar wanted to make sure we all get a chance to celebrate the Ascension. 

    And the readings for today provide what I take to be one of the more humorous stories in scripture. If you recall, in the lesson from Acts, we are told that Jesus says some final words to his disciples, and then he is lifted up, and a cloud took him away from their sight. Then two men in white robes - usually understood to be angels - appear and ask why the disciples are gazing up at the sky. And I find the angels’ role in the story somewhat funny. Because they are kind of party poopers. What they have to say about the amazing thing that the disciples have just seen is that it’s not all that important.  When they say, “Why do you stand here looking up toward heaven?” it’s almost as if the angels think Jesus heading skyward should not be a big deal for the disciples; as if they are saying “Ok, move along folks - nothing to see here.”

    But, funny though the telling of the story might be, the description of Jesus’ ascension raises a key issue for us. And the issue has to do with where we think Jesus is. 

    I’d be willing to bet that pretty much everyone here has had an experience of praying while looking up into the sky. Whether it be out walking on the beach and gazing up in awe at the stars or saying a quick prayer while glancing upward, many of us feel that if we want to direct our attention towards God, then looking up is the posture we should take. Much of our language around prayer and worship is couched in such directional imagery, as well. For instance, later on in the service, I’ll say “Lift up your hearts,” and you all will respond with, “We lift them up to the Lord.” Many of the psalms talk about lifting our eyes to the Lord. And from this morning’s Gospel lesson, we hear that Jesus looked up to heaven when he prayed.

    My hope is that, at lest intellectually, we all know that God is not located literally above us. God does not live on a cloud in the skies, and there’s not some distant planet to which we direct our prayers. But even if we know this, I’d still guess that we look up when we pray or when we think about God because there’s something about the physical act of looking up that puts us in mind of the great mystery of that which is beyond us. In some sense then, looking up is a fitting symbol of how we relate to God. And remember, a symbol both points the way to a deeper reality and participates in the reality to which it points.   

    And that’s why the description of Jesus’ ascension is important to understand for its symbolic significance. If all we understand from the story of Jesus’ ascension is that Jesus was lifted up into the skies, then we might end up thinking that Jesus rose into the stratosphere and then on into outer space and that he’s currently flitting around somewhere in the Milky Way, maybe hiding out behind a comet. 

    If we understand the ascension as sign and symbol, though, what we can take away from the story is that the humanity which Jesus shares with us has been taken “up” into heaven. The human condition which he came to redeem has been carried with him to the very heart of God. Now think about what that human condition involves: the desperation of a mother who has just been evicted; the loneliness of a man who has just lost his spouse; the confusion, fear, anger, and frustration of a community of Coptic Christians whose brothers and sisters have just been martyred. All of the tragedy and sorrow of the human condition have been taken “up” into heaven. But also our joys. Camaraderie, loyalty, creativity, service, pride in accomplishment…and even the quiet appreciation for a simple life of mundane goodness - in Jesus, all of these, too, have a place in the eternal reality of God’s love for us.

    That’s why the angels direct the disciples’ attention away from looking up at one particular cloud. Jesus’ ascension was significant not for just one place and time but for all places and for all time. And that’s why I believe that if we’re looking for Jesus, it’s not that we shouldn’t spend time each day looking up at the sky in expectation. But we shouldn't stop there. We can find the mystery of God’s love in every corner of creation and in every human condition. Whether it be serving food at the Shepherd’s Table, or sharing a joyful meal with friends; stocking shelves at CAP, or putting away groceries with your family at home; sitting quietly with someone who is grieving or laughing together with coworkers. We can find the mystery of God’s love for us in all of these circumstances because Jesus took the human condition and gave it a place in heaven. 

    The poet, John Donne, expresses this belief succinctly in his poem, “Ascension”:      

    Salute the last, and everlasting day,

    Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,

    Ye whose true tears, or tribulation

    Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.

    Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,

    Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;

    Nor doth he by ascending show alone,

    But first He, and He first enters the way.

    See, I told you that the Feast of the Ascension was a big deal! And there’s something that we can do that might help us to remember its importance. The next time you are praying or thinking about God, if you find yourself looking upward, stop for a minute and ask yourself why you’re looking up. If there’s any hint that you're looking up because you think that God is far removed from you or that maybe you don’t belong where God is, just remember that the lesson of the Ascension is that even if heaven seems remote, Jesus took our humanity there with him. So you are always at home with God, and God is closer to you than you realize. 

    And if you’re looking up out of a sense of awe and wonder,  the same thing applies. All of the wonder, joy, beauty, and mystery of creation has been embraced by God. It’s not some distant thing that can’t be approached by us “lowly” humans. Heaven is very near to us, and as Jesus’ ascension shows, it is where we belong.    

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    Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
    May 21st, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

    Acts 17:22-31         1 Peter 3:13-22          John 14:15-21

    I’d like to tell you a story about one of my favorite professors at Sewanee. His name is Dr. Jim Dunkly, and he’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. Even some of the other professors liked to joke that Dr. Dunkly has forgotten more than any of us will ever learn. He was fluent in six languages, taught Greek and New Testament Studies, was the seminary librarian, in which capacity it seemed he had read every book and article in the library, was an accomplished musician, and he could rattle off baseball statistics like no one else’s business. I had the pleasure of learning Greek from him, and I’ll never forget something he told our class while we were reading through John’s Gospel and came across the passage we just heard. When we got to this passage, he gave a sort of sigh of impatience. And then he said, “For as much as southerners are maligned for using the word, ‘y’all,’ southerners have at least retained the linguistic distinction between the plural and singular ‘you.’ His point was that, taken at face value in English translation, the passage from John’s Gospel could easily be misinterpreted as being about an individual, private relationship with God. Then he went on to read the passage in “southernese” to give us a better sense of what it says: 

    "Jesus said, ”If y’all love me, y’all will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give y’all another Advocate, to be with y’all forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. Y’all know him, because he abides with y’all, and he will be in y’all."

    Now I know that might sound a bit strange, but Dr. Dunkly’s use of “y’all” helped us to appreciate that Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit being given to the community of the faithful as a community and not just to individuals. 

    As I’ve mentioned before, the prevailing approach to the Christian faith in this part of the world is that each person needs to have a personal relationship with Jesus. And while that’s not necessarily wrong, the strong emphasis on individual relationship can neglect the importance of being a part of a community of believers. And the reality is that we’re all in this together. 

    As some of you know, I recently attended a clergy conference in Santee. At this conference were gathered the bishop, the priests, and the deacons of the diocese. We came from all walks of life, and we all had a chance to share stories and tell each other about our various ministries. Some of the stories were triumphant and joyful (such as the new inclusion of Bishop William Alexander Guerry of SC in the Book of Martyrs at Canterbury Cathedral). Some of the stories were tinged with sadness and disappointment (such as the struggles of some of the tiny worshiping communities in the more rural parts of the diocese). But one of the things that everyone agreed on at the end of the conference was that there was an almost palpable sense of the Holy Spirit when we gathered to celebrate the Eucharist on the final day of the conference. And that sense of the Spirit’s presence was not the result of one or the other person’s individual experience. That sense of the Spirit’s presence was there, I believe, because we were gathered in love as a community. 

    My hope is that we, here, have a sense of the Spirit’s presence each week as we gather for worship. If over the course of each week we have individual experiences that make it easier to see God at work in our lives, that’s well and good. And I hope we are able to share those stories with each other. But it’s important to recognize that for some, individual experiences have made it hard to believe, and they are struggling to understand why God seems absent to them personally. 

    It’s not the case that some of us are always strong in faith while others are always weak. Nor is it the case that God happens to allow some of us to progress while leaving others to play catch-up. No. We’re all in this together. When we gather, the Spirit is among us not because of our individual experiences or in spite of them. The Spirit is present because we are gathered in love as a community.

    There’s a story from the Sayings of the Desert Monastics in which some monks approach their abbot and ask for a word of wisdom. The abbot thought for a while and said, “If you see a monk climbing up to heaven on his own, catch him by the foot and pull him down to earth.” This story has been shared in Christian communities for centuries because it drives home the point that salvation is not simply a private matter. Instead, salvation is a communal affair.

    Now, since we’re still in the Easter season, I know that some of you may be wondering what the Easter message of resurrection is from the Gospel reading. The Gospel passage from this morning is part of what is known as the “farewell discourses,” a series of Jesus’ sayings in which he is preparing his disciples for his departure. And it addresses the question of how we are to know the resurrected Jesus even if we are not able to see him. The part where Jesus says, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you,” is not simply about some private, mystical union made available to each individual believer. Rather, the promises Jesus makes are to the community of believers and how it’s by gathering in love as a community that we will be able to know the truth of the resurrection. 

    So, as we have come together in love to proclaim our faith in the risen Jesus, I hope that we all have a sense that the Spirit is present among us. Even if our experiences during the past week have made it difficult to believe, I hope that our being here together will give us all a renewed sense of being a community in which God is truly present. Because it’s only with each other that we can grow in our knowledge of God. And it’s only with each other that we will be brought to life everlasting.   

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    Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter

    May 7th, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

     

    Acts 2:42-47         1 Peter 2:19-25         John 10:1-10

     

    **A city policeman was once out on patrol, and he pulled over a man in a car who was driving with a sheep in the front seat. "What are you doing with that sheep?” said the officer. “Oh,” said the driver, “I’m taking it to the zoo.” Thinking this made sense, the officer let the man go without giving him a ticket. The following week, the same policeman saw the same man with the sheep again in the front seat, and this time both of them were wearing sunglasses. The policeman pulls him over and says, “Hey buddy, I thought you were going to take that sheep to the zoo!" The man replied, "I did. We had such a good time we are going to the beach this weekend!"** 

    As some of you may be aware, today is what is known popularly as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And based on the Gospel reading for the day, I think you can guess why. What may not be so readily apparent, though, is why in the midst of the Easter season, we are turning our attention away from stories of Jesus’ resurrection and are instead focusing on one of the images that our Lord uses to describe himself. 

      I say the reason for the change of focus might not be readily apparent because, if I’m correct in my assumption, we’ve been conditioned to hear the “good shepherd” Gospel reading as a statement about the exclusive importance of believing in Jesus. We live in the south, and the south is heavily influenced by a form of protestant Christianity which says that unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, then you’re going to hell. If you’ve ever been out for a drive, you’ve probably passed by a church with a sign in the yard that says, “Only one way to heaven: Jesus.” And the implicit message there is that unless you believe in Jesus, you’re out of luck. 

    Now, let me be clear: while I do believe that Jesus, specifically, is the way the truth and the life, I don’t think the “believe in Jesus or else” approach is either helpful or ultimately faithful to Jesus’ claim of exclusivity. So I think we need to step back from the way we’ve been conditioned to hear the “good shepherd” Gospel reading and try to understand how this Gospel reading fits into the Easter theme of resurrection and joy. And here’s where the reading from the First Letter of Peter comes to our aid. In that letter, we read, 

    “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” This Jesus, who did not abuse or threaten but instead put his trust in God, is the “good shepherd” whose example we are called to follow.  

    Sheep are funny animals (and I’m not just talking about Bartholomew). If you’ve ever had the opportunity to observe sheep, then you’ve probably noticed that they can behave in strange ways. I had the good fortune to spend some time in England, and I used to do a good bit of walking in the countryside where there were lots of sheep. And for months, I was convinced that sheep were about the most wayward creatures imaginable. Sometimes wandering off by themselves, sometimes all running together for no apparent reason and then breaking off into small groups to graze. But then one day I was walking by a farm when the shepherd was out in the field. And I was amazed to see that when he started to call his sheep, they all came running to him. Some were pretty far off, so it took them a while to hear his voice, but when they did, they too came running. And pretty soon, the shepherd had almost the whole flock gathered around him. And as he began to walk, they all followed him. It really brought home the image that Jesus uses! 

    Now, I don’t know how sheep communicate, but my guess is that sheep don’t go around saying to one another, “If you don’t listen to the shepherd’s voice, you’re nothing but wolf fodder.” No. They come running to their shepherd because they know their shepherd and they trust that their shepherd won’t lead them astray. 

    I bring all this up because I don’t think the point of the Gospel is to concern ourselves with who’s going to heaven. Because all too often that means we end up thinking that we need to convince others to follow US and that WE will lead others to Jesus. The point of the Gospel is that we should follow the example of Jesus, who trusted in God even to the point of death; and whose resurrection tells us that by following him, we too, will find life in abundance. 

    Sure, if others see us joyfully following him, they might want to come along as well; but it’s not because WE have convinced them or frightened them into it. Rather, it’s because they will know Jesus and be drawn to him because of who he is.    

    But if we’re still convinced that there is an unpleasant message of exclusivity from this morning’s Gospel reading, and that the theme of judgment is behind what Jesus is saying, then it may be worth pondering who we might want to judge the world. If there’s anyone who knows the full range of human sorrow, who knows what it is to suffer unjustly, and yet who returns to life with a message of forgiveness, peace, and joy in the service of God, that’s the person I’d want not just as my judge but as the judge of everyone. That’s the person I think it would be best to follow and pattern my life after. That’s the person who really is the Good Shepherd.    

     

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    Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter
    April 30th, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

    Acts 2:14a,36-41        1 Peter 1:17-23        Luke 24:13-35

     

    Every week, when we’re putting the bulletins together, I like to find a piece of artwork that fits the theme of the readings from scripture for the day and put that artwork on the cover of the bulletins. I figure it’s a good thing for folks to have just in case they get bored during the sermon but still want something that reminds them of the reading! Sometimes it’s not easy to find an image that fits. But this week’s Gospel lesson about the disciples on the road to Emmaus yielded a treasure trove of ancient icons and woodcuts. Since I was so spoiled for choice, I looked at a lot of equally good images before I settled on one. And in most of the artistic representations of the road to Emmaus, Jesus is readily identifiable. 

    In standard iconography, Jesus either dressed in white or has a halo with a cross on it. And in the more modern images, Jesus either has a sort of ethereal glow about him, or he’s standing apart from the two disciples - and is usually the tallest of the three figures. But as I was looking through the images, I noticed something peculiar about one of them. It’s not the picture that appeared on this week’s bulletin because using it would have violated copyright laws, but what struck me about this one image in particular is that you can’t tell which figure is Jesus. The image is of three travelers walking closely together with no discernible difference between them. 

    The first thing that came to mind when I saw this picture was, “Which one is Jesus?!” But I think that the artist meant to leave that question unanswered. And I think that in leaving that question unanswered, the image is both an excellent representation of the road to Emmaus story and a perfect challenge for those of us here who struggle to understand what Jesus’ resurrection means for us today. 

    If you remember from the story, the disciples on the road did not recognize Jesus when he started walking along with them. To their minds, Jesus was just another traveler like them, who happened to be walking in the same direction that they were. So if the disciples could have taken a snapshot of that journey with a stranger, they probably would not have depicted him in any special light. 

    In the same way, I think, most of us don’t go around expecting that we will encounter the risen Christ - or if we do, we think Jesus will appear in an unmistakable and dazzling form. Most of the time, we make our way through life thinking that our interactions with others will be pretty mundane and unspectacular. So, when we encounter others, we don’t normally find ourselves asking, “Which one is Jesus?!”  But as the Gospel story points out, we may well be in the presence of Jesus unawares. 

     

    There’s a story I heard once about a monastery that had fallen on hard times. Fewer and fewer monks were coming to test their vocation, and there was a general feeling of defeat and melancholy amongst the brethren. Then one afternoon, near twilight, one of the monks was looking out on the woods surrounding the monastery, and he saw an old Jewish rabbi walking along. For the next several days, whenever the monk looked out on the woods near twilight, he saw the rabbi walking. He told some of his brothers about it, and in a few weeks, many of the monks began to say to one another at twilight, “The rabbi walks in the woods.” Months went by in this way, to the point that the saying, “The rabbi walks in the woods” became as regular as the monks’ prayers. Eventually, the abbot became so curious about the rabbi who walks in the woods that he ventured out from the monastery to meet him. The rabbi greeted the abbot warmly, and the two of them struck up a conversation. The abbot told him about the troubles in the monastery and how life had become rather bleak. The one thing that the monks looked forward to, the abbot said, was seeing the rabbi walking in the woods each evening. Finally, the abbot asked, “Why do you walk in the woods near the monastery every day?” The rabbi smiled and said, “It’s funny you should ask. I walk by your monastery every evening because God told me a secret: the messiah dwells among you. I thought you knew.” Astounded, the abbot went back to the monastery and told the monks, “The rabbi says that one of us is the messiah.” Very soon, the monks began to say to one another, “Which one of us is the messiah? Is it Brother Joseph? Is it Brother Mark? Could it even be me?” And each brother began to treat the others as if one of them was the messiah. Over time, the feeling of sadness disappeared, and the monastery began to thrive. The monks lived with one another as seekers who had finally found something. They prayed the scriptures together as men who were always looking for something.  Visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks, and people began to visit from far and wide to be nourished by their life of prayer. One day, the abbot went back to the woods to speak with the rabbi. The abbot happily told the rabbi about how things in the monastery had improved, but then he said, “But we still don't know which one of us is the messiah. Do you know which one of us it is?” The rabbi replied, “I do not know which one of you is the messiah, but I am even more convinced now: the messiah dwells among you.”

    My friends, you may think that what we do here is nothing spectacular, and you may be convinced that the people gathered together here in this place are just run-of-the-mill folks whom we happen to be walking along the road with out of happenstance. But just think how our life together can change if we dare to imagine that the person next to us is the messiah. Just think of how we might impact the world if we dare to imagine that everyone who walks through the doors of this chapel, even though seemingly plain and nondescript, might be the living embodiment of the Jesus whom we strive to serve.    

      As the Gospel story says, the disciples recognized the Lord in the breaking of bread. Before that, they were not able to note any discernible difference. We’ve gathered here today to break bread. Maybe we don’t see anything particularly special about the people around us. But the Gospel invites us to answer a question:

    When we’ve broken bread together, will we see, in one another, that Jesus has been with us all along?     

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    Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
    April 23rd, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

    Acts 2:14a,22-32        1 Peter 1: 3-9        John 20: 19-31 

     

    Before I get into the substance of my sermon this morning, I want to address something from the Gospel reading that might have made us all cringe a little. It’s the part right at the beginning of the reading where it says that the disciples were gathered in a room that was locked “for fear of the Jews.” I say it might make us cringe a little because that opening line can leave us thinking that “all Jews” were (and maybe still are) enemies of Jesus’ followers. And we know where that kind of thinking can lead and has led. 

    So here’s where a bit of knowledge about context can be really helpful as we read through John’s Gospel. Most scholars now agree that the Gospel of John was written around the turn of the first century of what is called “the Common Era.” If you remember, in the early days of Christianity, most Christians were Jews, and most of the preaching and teaching about Jesus took place within the context of Jewish gatherings - or synagogues. But near the turn of the first century, Jewish Christians were being actively expelled from synagogues for claiming that Jesus is the messiah. 

    Nothing out of sorts here: just imagine how we’d react if someone were to stand up in front of us all and say something like, “My neighbor Jeff is the true messiah of God.” We might tolerate it for a bit, but after a while, we’d probably ask such a person to leave. And I think it fair to say that such a person would not think too kindly of us afterward. And any story he might write about the Church of Jeff would not paint us in a positive light, especially if we went around saying that disciples of Jeff were sadly misguided. 

    Such, scholars think, was the situation when the Gospel of John was composed. The Christian Church was becoming increasingly distinct from Judaism, and there were some pretty raw feelings amongst Christians who had been expelled from Jewish synagogues. And in the Gospel of John, we are able to see how those raw feelings made their way into the story. I bring all this up because I think it’s important for us to acknowledge the biases at play in scripture instead of just rushing past them because they might strike us as embarrassing. Yes, Holy Scripture is the Word of God, but that does not mean it is totally free from the biases of its human authors. Recognizing those biases can, I think, even give us a better understanding of what God is saying to us today through Holy Scripture. Because I don’t think God always wants us to accept such negative first century biases as if they should still be the norm.   

    Not that it needs pointing out, but we don’t live in the first century. We here today are not the ones who are discriminated against because of what we believe. If anything, we are in a position of power, and it’s our Jewish brothers and sisters who are more likely to be discriminated against for not believing like we do.

      So that gets us through the first sentence of this morning’s Gospel reading! But not to depart totally from the theme of maintaining old biases, I’d like to talk - briefly - about the “star” of this morning’s Gospel reading: Thomas. Or “doubting Thomas” as he is sometimes known. Over the past thirty years or so, it has become something of a trend for preachers to try to exonerate Thomas by pointing out that there must always be room for doubt in a life of faith. And Thomas, preachers say, gets a bad rap for harboring the doubt that, if we’re honest, we all have. There’s nothing wrong about emphasizing the reality that we all have doubt, but the bias in preaching about Thomas has gotten to the point where “doubting” Thomas is sort of exalted as THE exemplar for us all; as if we should all seek to cultivate and embrace doubt. And I think we need to step back a bit from this conclusion. Because the clear message of the Gospel is “have faith.” 

    Sure, it’s a great lesson for us that Thomas was still a part of the community even though at first he refused to believe. And it’s worth pointing out that when Thomas sees the risen Christ, he makes the hugely important statement, “My Lord and my God!” But Jesus’ response to Thomas is “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” And John’s Gospel tells us pointedly that the stories about Jesus’ resurrection are written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  

      If we’re all trying to cultivate doubt and are ok with not believing unless we see, then the danger is that we might all end up tacitly thinking that as long as someone else in the church believes, it’s ok if I don’t. But the problem is that if NO ONE in the church has faith in the resurrection, then the question might one day be asked openly: “why are we all gathering together to worship the Jesus in whom no one believes?” And if everyone ends up saying, “I will not believe it until  see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side,” then the church would probably cease to exist in short order. 

    So I think we may be due for a chastened approach to “doubting Thomas.” Thomas is not a bad guy for having doubt, and we should never be biased against those who do not believe as we do. But neither is Thomas a hero because he had doubt, and we should not be biased towards disbelief. I think instead, we might try to occupy a middle ground, saying something like, “Yes, I have my doubts, and I want to see the mark of the nails in his hands, but I can still believe even if I don’t see them.” Or, more simply, “I want to believe,” or even, “I want to want to believe.”   

    In a few moments, we will all stand up to recite the Nicene Creed, which begins with the words, “We believe…” It may seem obvious, but the fact that we say, “We believe…” every week is really important. I know that not everyone here always agrees with each statement in the Creed, but the fact that we can say the Creed together tells me that we’re all trying the best we can to embrace faith instead of doubt. We’re all trying to make sense of the news that Mary Magdalene shared with the disciples almost two thousand years ago - that Jesus is alive. If we can say the Creed, then I think it fair to say that we’ve moved beyond the point of saying, “I will not believe unless…” And we’re in the realm of entertaining belief in the risen Jesus. Even if we have our doubts, we’re still saying that having faith is where we want to be. 

    That may mean we’re biased towards faith, but of all biases, I think that’s the one it’s ok to have.      

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    Sermon for Easter Sunday 

    April 16th, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

     

    Jeremiah 31: 1-6        Colossians 3: 1-4        Matthew 28: 1-10

     

    Come, see the place where he lay.

     

    Alleluia! Christ is risen! Since I know that it’s a tradition for families to gather for a big meal after Easter services, I thought I would begin today with a little story about an Easter meal.

     

    Young Ernie and his family were invited to have Easter Sunday lunch at his grandmother's house. Everyone was seated around the table as the food was being served.  When Ernie received his plate he started eating straight away.

    ‘Ernie,’ said his father, sternly, ‘Wait until we say grace.’

    'I don't have to,' the five year old replied.

    'Of course you do, Ernie,' his mother insisted rather forcefully. 'We always say a prayer before eating at our house.'

    'That's at our house,' Ernie explained, 'but this is Grandma's house, and she knows how to cook.’

    We’ve come once again to Easter; the pinnacle of celebration and joy for those who put their faith in Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s the joy of Easter that I want to focus on with you all this morning. If you’re feeling a little light-hearted - maybe even a little giddy - then I hope you’ll let that feeling linger for a bit and not be afraid to let it bubble over. Because today, of all days, is an occasion when we should revel in the joy of the Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! 

    Over the years, I’ve noticed something that you might think sounds a little odd. Easter almost always catches me off-guard. Even though Lent and Holy Week are supposed to be a time of preparation for Easter, when Easter Day arrives, I never feel adequately prepared. I always feel like I’ve missed out on some spiritual discipline that might have bolstered my appreciation for Jesus’ resurrection. I always feel like there’s something more I could have done to get ready for what we’re celebrating today. And it’s a pretty powerful feeling - and one that usually makes me think I’m going to miss out on the deep joy of Easter. But every year, I am proved wrong. Easter day comes, and regardless of the feeling that I might not have “done enough" during Lent and Holy Week, the joy of Easter just finds a way in and the proclamation that Christ is risen hits me like a giant wave, and all I can do is let it take me.

    But that’s how joy works, isn’t it? The gospel lesson is a perfect illustration. The women who went to Jesus’ tomb that morning could not have prepared themselves for what they saw. If anything, the only thing they were prepared to see was a tomb in which they knew Jesus had been buried. And I imagine that for them, that tomb was filled with sadness, regret, and a series of “if only’s” - “If only we had convinced him to stay away from Jerusalem. If only he had been more friendly towards the people in power. If only we had known what Judas was planning to do. If only we had been able to convince Pontius Pilate to release him. If only God could have saved him.” But instead, they found an empty tomb.  

    And note what the angel says to them: “Come, see the place where he lay.” “Come and see that the place you thought would be filled with despair and bitterness and heartache is empty. Come and see that the only thing buried in this tomb is “if only.” There’s no way they could have prepared to hear that message. But when it came, the joy struck with the force of an earthquake. 

    So here we are, celebrating once again the joy of that first Easter morning. And I dare say that none of us came here fully prepared for it. No matter how holy (or not) our Lent was or how deep (or shallow) our Holy Week devotion, my guess is that we all brought our own “if only’s” with us this morning, not fully expecting to be rid of them. Perhaps some of us have come here thinking that the “joy” of Easter is just that we get to sing familiar songs with our friends and be slightly moved by the idea that Jesus shared in our sorrows and yet overcame them. True though that might be, the joy we celebrate today runs far deeper and reaches those places in each of our lives where we genuinely think God lies dead. Or where we might think we lie dead to God. And where we don’t expect to find any joy. 

    But the angel’s invitation we hear from the Gospel was not just for the women who visited Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. It’s for each one of us who have known death and despair and who think that death and despair have the final word. Come, see the place where he lay. See the place where you thought there was no redemption or hope. See the place where all you can think is “if only.” And see that God’s power has raised not just Jesus from the dead but raises you as well. That’s the unexpected joy of Easter - that we can come here to celebrate an event we can’t fully understand and can never fully prepare for and still be overwhelmed by a joy that we never thought we’d find.

    It’s why Christians down through the centuries have gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, fearfully in tiny upper rooms, and boldly in grand cathedrals; peacefully in village chapels, and defiantly in bombed out churches; in fields, in tents, on ships, in hospitals - no matter what the circumstance or place, Christians have gathered because we believe that the joy of the resurrection finds a way in. Even where we least expect it.  

    So if you’re feeling a little giddy this morning, if you’re feeling stirred by unexpected joy, let it come. Let it wash over you like a mighty wave. Let it wash away all your “if only’s” and leave your regrets as empty as Jesus’ tomb. Let that joy well up inside of you and be the force that fills your breath as we say once again: Alleluia! Christ is risen!   

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    Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent
    April 2nd, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

     

    Ezekiel 37: 1-14        Romans 8: 6-11        John 11: 1-45

     

    This morning’s Gospel lesson draws our attention to something that is easy to lose sight of during the season of Lent. It’s a rather simple spiritual reality, but it’s something that we tend to overlook or undervalue; especially for those of us who have been involved with the church for a long time. I’m talking about how God can and does call us to new life - even when it seems to be the case that new life is not possible. I know that’s a pretty broad and vague statement, so I’d like to tell you a couple of stories about my experiences of Lent that I hope will more fully illustrate the point. 

    As some of you know, I was a monk for five years. I’ve shared some stories about my time in the monastery with a few of you, and a question that gets asked regularly is, “Why did you leave?” The short answer to that question is that I began to realize that my more extraverted personality didn’t fit well in the contemplative and introverted atmosphere of the monastery. The decision to leave was not easy, however, and when it finally came time to discover a new path, it was a struggle. When I left the monastery, I took a job as a youth minister at my home parish of Grace Church in Charleston. And to be perfectly honest, I took that position more out of convenience than anything else - at least that’s what I thought at the time. After a few months, people began to ask me if I had done any discernment around ordained ministry. My initial answer to that question was, “No, not really,” mostly because I didn’t want to think about it. At the time, I viewed leaving the monastery as something of a moral defeat; that I had tried my hand at a vocation in the church and wound up discovering that I didn’t have one after all. And, I thought, why go to the trouble of discerning a call to the priesthood after I had failed in my vocation as a monk. Such was my thought process for many months - and I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks around how that affected my spiritual life and my prayer life. To put it mildly, my sense of vocation - of a direct calling from God - was dead. 

    Then, at some point shortly before Lent of 2011, Bishop John Buchanan asked me to have breakfast with him. We met up, and he brought up the subject of discernment. I avoided the question for a bit, but finally came straight out and told him how I was feeling. He listened patiently and then told me something I’ll never forget. “Sometimes,” he said, “God’s call to us comes through other people seeing what we can’t see and recognizing gifts we didn’t think we had.” And then he suggested an exercise for me for the season of Lent. Now, even though I was struggling with my relationship with the church, I’m pretty hard wired when it comes to bishops, so when he made his suggestion, I more or less knew I had to do it! 

    He suggested that I tell God each day why I WASN’T called to ordained ministry. Easy enough, I thought! And for the first couple of weeks of Lent that year, I was able to voice my reasons. But then I started to notice that my reasons sounded somewhat canned. And by the time Easter came around, I found it easier to listen to people who suggested that I might indeed have a calling. And then my prayer began to shift. And, to make a long story short, here I am. Even though I thought my sense of vocation was dead and gone, God’s call prevailed. 

    The other story I’d like to relate comes from just a couple of weeks ago. As some of you know, we’ve been doing a series of “house Eucharists” over the course of Lent. We’ve had five such gatherings so far, and there’s still one left to go. And these gatherings took me a little by surprise. For one, I’d never led a “house eucharist” before, so I was a little nervous about how they would be received. And, being somewhat new to this priest gig, I put in a good bit of time and energy around making sure that all the mechanics would be right. As many priests can tell you, once you begin presiding at the Eucharist, it’s very easy to get lost in the details and to lose sight of the miracle that happens every time we share the bread and cup. It’s easy to miss out on the awe and wonder.  

    Now, I’m not going to name names, but we had a service where there were a number of young children in attendance. And when we were sharing communion, one of the children came up to receive the bread. I gave it to him and said, “The body of Christ.” He took the bread from my hand and instead of eating it right then and there, he immediately ran off. I thought, “Well, it’s not the normal church setting, and he’s really excited so no big deal.” But then I noticed that he ran off and gave that piece of bread to another child. And I have to tell you that that simple action brought me back to a place of awe and wonder. What that child did was a powerful reminder to me about the importance of what we do here each week. We gather to receive the awesome presence of Christ in our midst. And that awesome presence of Christ is something we should be EAGER to share with others. Leave it to God to allow a small child to show just how powerful a simple act of sharing can be!  

    I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: where we think God is least likely to be is precisely where God tends to show up. A valley of dry bones. The tomb of a man who had been dead for several days. A soul convinced that God had stopped calling. A child sharing bread with a friend. God can surprise us at every turn. So if you’re convinced that there’s a place in your life where God is absent, keep looking! It’s probably right there that you’ll find him!   

    So, I will leave you this week with a question: What in your life do you think is dead and gone? Where do you feel that God might have left you out in the cold? I’m convinced we all have such experiences and we all go through such times of spiritual struggle. But in the end, it may be that the places of our deepest struggles and doubts are the very places that God is calling us to new life. 

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    Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Lent
    March 26th, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

     

    1 Samuel 16: 1-13         Ephesians 5: 8-14         John 9: 1-41 

     

    Today is one of those rare occasions when I’m going to start off with some pretty heady and academic stuff. The reason is that I think it may help us to better understand the Gospel lesson we just heard and give us a deeper appreciation for what the Gospel can mean for us here and now. So, if you’d like to keep your bulletins open to the Gospel reading, it may help with what I’m about to say. Now…on with the thinking caps! 

    As some of you know, I am fascinated by translation issues when it comes to holy scripture. And this morning’s Gospel lesson presents an excellent case about how translation can affect our understanding of the message in scripture. The particular passage I want to focus on is the bit in the Gospel where the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”   

    The first thing to note is that in the oldest Greek manuscripts of the Gospels, there is no punctuation. Most of the time what we get are pages that look like a jumble of letters with no discernible end or beginning of sentences. Grammar rules and context clues help translators figure out how to punctuate sentences so that average readers can make sense of what’s being said, but on occasion, even the best translators simply have to guess. 

    And here’s where I’m going to have to get a little technical. From this morning’s Gospel, the translators tell us that Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned (semicolon); he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him (full stop). We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day (semicolon); night is coming when no one can work (full stop). 

    The sense of what Jesus is saying seems pretty straightforward here: Jesus is dismissing the notion that the man’s blindness is the result of sin. Instead, it sounds like Jesus is saying that the man was born blind IN ORDER for God to display God’s power. Now, on the one hand, Jesus’ response is good in that he challenges the ancient assumption that disease and illness are the direct result of sinfulness. And, lest we think that we’ve grown out of such thinking, I think it important to note that this ancient assumption has not really gone away - if you think back to the AIDS crisis in the US in the 1980’s, then you’ll likely remember that it was a widely held belief that AIDS was the result of immorality; some even went so far as to say that AIDS was a kind of divine punishment. Some still think that way. So Jesus’ rejection of the idea that illness is always the result of someone having sinned is indeed a good thing. And if that is all you take away from this morning’s lesson, that’s a good lesson to have learned! 

    But the notion that God would cause someone to be blind in order to reveal God’s works might leave us feeling uncomfortable. Because it might make us think that God deliberately afflicts some people with disease and illness. And even if people are cured, their disease was part of a divine scheme to prove that God has the power to heal them. And that thought might not strike us all as easy to accept. Because it leaves open the question: if there is no healing, why didn’t God provide the healing? 

    There is, however, an alternative way to translate Jesus’ words. Remember what I said about the lack of grammar in ancient manuscripts? Well, here’s another way to punctuate Jesus’ words that is perfectly acceptable grammatically but might change the entire meaning of the passage: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned (full stop). He was born blind (full stop). So that God’s works might be revealed in him (comma), we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day (semicolon); night is coming when no one can work (full stop).” See the difference? 

    In this scheme of punctuation, Jesus dismisses the notion that illness is the result of sin. He states that the man was born blind. No blame or credit is assigned - Jesus merely acknowledges the reality of the man’s condition. And then he goes on to say that he must do the work of God in order that God’s works might be revealed in the blind man. 

    I bring this up because over the past couple of weeks, we here have had plenty of occasion to wonder about where God is in the face of illness and death. Some of us have had to deal with devastating news about the sudden loss of a loved one or the discovery of a life-threatening disease. And the question of “Why her?” or “Why him?” or “Why me?” may have very pointedly entered our prayers. 

    I cannot pretend to have an answer to those questions, but I DO think that Jesus’ words provide some measure of hope for us. Because at the very least, Jesus is telling us that God’s works can be revealed even in the face of the stark reality illness and death. 

    When dealing with tragedy and grief, I think one of the greatest struggles we go through is thinking God is not present or that God does not care. Or that if only we or our loved ones had lived better then things would be different. But no. Ultimately, as we work through our grief, we must reach a point where we’re able simply to acknowledge things as they are. And we’re able to accept it and say, “My friend has cancer,” or, “My daughter will never walk again,” or, “My best friend died.” And it’s from that point that hope can grow and we can discover where God is in the midst of tragedy. 

    As I said, over the past few weeks, we here have had our fair share of bad news. But in the same breath, I can say that I have seen some amazing things taking place in the lives of those who are dealing with illness and death. Acts of kindness and compassion; displays of courage and bravery that I would classify as the work of God. And I’m not talking about monumental deeds or miracles - I’m talking about things as simple as saying a few prayers with someone, making a phone call, walking a couple of miles, or baking bread to share. And all of it born out of the hope that God is present even in suffering. 

    We here are called to do the work of God with a full appreciation for the reality of the world as it is. Even when that reality involves sickness and death, our job is to shine a light in those places where things seem darkest. And, wouldn’t you know it, when we do the work of God, we often find that God is revealed in the person whom we thought was most surrounded by darkness; whether it be a neighbor, a family member - or maybe even us.

    We’re more than half way through Lent now, and some of us are busy planning for Easter, but this morning’s lesson is a good reminder for us as we approach Good Friday and the remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death. Jesus continued to do the work of God even as it led him to the cross. In the same way, we can continue to do the work of God even if we are convinced that it is only leading us to the cross. Because the hope we have as followers of Jesus is that the light of God’s work is revealed through the  darkness of the cross. 

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    Sermon for Third Sunday of Lent
    March 19th, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University
    (Healing Service)

    Exodus 17: 1-7        Romans 5: 1-11        John 4: 5-42

     

    Let’s do some wondering. The lesson we just heard from the Gospel of John is one of the most fascinating stories in scripture. The story itself is straightforward enough. Even with all of the asides about why Jesus was alone at the well and how Jews and Samaritans don’t share things in common, it’s a story about how Jesus interacts with people and how people come to believe in him. But, as with most stories from scripture, there’s space left to wonder about what was going on. And that space is created by what the Gospel writer doesn't explicitly tell us. So I’d like to invite you to do a bit of wondering with me as we engage this story. 

    First up, Jesus is alone at the well. John’s Gospel tells us that the disciples had gone into the city of Sychar to buy food, but I have to wonder why, at this particular moment, Jesus decided to sit by himself at the well. Being tired is one thing, but I wonder if there was something more that caused him to linger by the well. John’s Gospel tells us that the well had historic significance for the people of Israel. It was Jacob’s well - the Jacob who wrestled with God and was given the name “Israel.” So I wonder if Jesus wanted to sit there to feel a connection with the story of his people; much in the way that people today like to visit the grave sites of their ancestors to remind themselves that they came from somewhere. Or sit alone in a church to remind themselves that others have shared the same faith. Was Jesus taking some time for himself to think about the story of his people and the place that he himself had in that story? I wonder…  

    I wonder also about the woman who came up to the well to get water. When she saw Jesus, I wonder if her initial thought was, “Oh boy, I hope this Jewish man won’t try to talk to me.” Or if she was initially concerned about her safety. For a woman to come alone to a well and to encounter a strange man sitting there, I imagine that there was at least some thought on the woman’s part that the situation was not ideal. Which I think explains her defensiveness when Jesus asks her for water. Better to stand up to this stranger from the get-go than to let him think that she was going to be a push-over. I also think it explains her clever use of sarcasm when Jesus tells her that he has access to living water. “You can get living water? Right - where’s your bucket?!” The woman’s response seems perfectly normal to me. And it makes me wonder if her initial response is how we usually approach encounters with Jesus. We don’t usually expect to encounter Jesus in the face of the stranger, so when a stranger asks us for help, our first response is to use sarcasm to create distance. Oddly enough, the woman’s answer leaves just enough room for Jesus to continue the conversation. And I think that may be how God ultimately gets through to us. Is there room for skepticism when we encounter God? Can God use our reluctant and even snarky reactions to his presence to continue the conversation? I wonder…   

    I wonder also about the woman’s willingness to be forthcoming with a complete stranger. Sure, by the time Jesus had told her to go get her husband, there is some indication that she was warming to the conversation, but her display of honesty is remarkable. I am often amazed at how airplanes can be mini-confessionals for some folks. I’m sure that if you’ve been on a flight, you’ve witnessed or had the experience of a complete stranger opening up to the person sitting right next to them. People can talk about some very intimate details of their lives on short flights! I know I’ve been involved in conversations on airplane flights that I wouldn’t have except with my closest friends. I imagine the thought is that you’ll never see this person again, so why not be totally honest, but still. It takes tremendous courage to open up to someone you’ve just met. Yet the woman at the well decides to be candid, and it allows her to recognize that she is indeed encountering God’s grace. I’m not saying we all need to spill the beans the next time we get on a plane, but the story of the woman at the well begs a question: Is vulnerability and honesty the shortest route to an encounter with God? I wonder…

    In a few minutes, we’re going to be doing the service of healing, and I want to draw attention to the power of what we’ll be doing. Now, I’m not going to be asking for everyone for a list of details about what ails them or their loved ones, but by naming our intentions - even silently - and praying intentionally for them with each other as we are about to do, we are displaying honesty and vulnerability. And when I anoint your heads with oil, it’s a tangible way of showing that God’s love and care reaches us even in our weakness and even in those places where we feel the MOST vulnerable. 

    It’s a far cry from meeting Jesus at a well, but I wonder if we might keep that story in mind as we approach the service of healing. You may be tired and worn out and need a little space to feel at home. You may think that getting a little oil smeared on your head won’t make much of a difference, or your inner cynic may be asking, “What kind of oil is it? Is it olive oil or canola oil? It’s a healing service, so maybe it’s castor oil.” (It’s olive oil, by the way). But if you’re willing to entertain the notion that God can and does meet us even here in this place and with these people, then you may well discover that God’s healing power is not some far-off thing to look forward to some day in the future. It’s present to you now. 

    So that begs a final question about what we’re doing here today; what we do here every week, really, and what goes on in our everyday lives: Is God’s inviting me to experience his power to heal? I wonder…

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    Sermon for Second Sunday of Lent
    March 12th, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

    Genesis 12: 1-4a        Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17         John 3:1-17

     

    As some of you may know, I am a fan of science fiction. I grew up watching the Star Wars movies, and I was an avid follower of Star Trek the Next Generation. And for those who may wonder which I prefer, I take the Anglican approach by saying, “Both!” 

    One of my favorite science fiction movies is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In that film, there’s a scene where Captain Kirk is having a rather strained conversation with a Klingon ambassador about the possibility of creating a lasting peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. There’s a LOT of distrust on both sides, but the hope is that the mutual desire for peace will prevail. After a rather tense meeting, the Klingon ambassador is getting ready to leave, and he turns to Captain Kirk and says, “If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.”   

    I trust that by now, we’ve all gotten used to the idea of being in the season of Lent. I hope that in the remaining weeks, I’ll have a chance to talk with some of you about how you're experiencing the season. And I hope that in those conversations we’ll be able to share some stories about how our Lenten disciplines have proven to be at least a little…inconvenient. Because this season is meant to take us out of our normal routines and challenge us to embrace the idea that we are on pilgrimage. 

    The lesson from Genesis gives us, in a nutshell, the foundation story of Judaism - how God chose Abram and called him to leave his homeland. It’s a theme that will repeat itself time and time again in the story of the Hebrew people; with Jacob leaving his parents and going to live with his uncle in a distant land, with Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt, with the Israelites coming to Egypt to escape famine, with Moses running away from Egypt to Midian and then going back to Egypt to tell old pharaoh “let my people go,”  and with the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness. Later on, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are conquered and the people are sent into exile, and when they eventually do return, foreign powers keep them from being able to lay full claim to their homeland. Basically, the story of the Jews is the story of a people in a near perpetual state of pilgrimage.  

    And the Gospel lesson picks up on this theme. Jesus is visiting the Pharisee, Nicodemus, and he makes the point that we need to be born from above (or “born again,” depending on how you translate it). And I think that Jesus is making the point that the story of the Jews is the story of a people constantly being called by God to be born again - both spiritually and socially. Which explains why, when Nicodemus asks how one can be born again, Jesus replies by saying, “You’re a Hebrew! You’re supposed to teach this stuff to others! How do you not understand it?” 

    The image Jesus uses is striking. Because being born is the ultimate symbol of leaving one’s homeland for new and uncomfortable surroundings. If we’re at ease with the way things are, then the idea of being “born…again” conjures up the idea that we’re going to be forced to endure the distress of having to start from scratch. But, as we know, the only way to grow is to embrace change, even if it means we’ll be inconvenienced. If we are to be at home in a brave new world, at the outset, we will have a hard time living in it. 

    Two years ago, some good friends of mine and I decided that one of our Lenten practices would be to go on a camping trip during Holy Week. We termed it our Lenten “camino,” and the idea was to hike about five miles to the campsite and spend some time praying with each other and reflecting on the past year; how we had grown in faith or hadn’t lived up to our self expectations, how we could refocus our attentions on what was most important, and how we could make the most of what remained of our time in seminary. We loaded up our gear and set out, and I have to tell you that for a flatlander like me, hiking through the mountains of Tennessee, loaded down with camping supplies, proved to be rather challenging. Five miles of mountain topography felt more like ten! And spending the night on the floor in the woods in the cold of the early Tennessee spring was far from luxurious. But that experience was so powerful that we decided to recreate it again the next year. And part of what made it powerful was the inconvenience of removing ourselves from our normal routines and surroundings.

      Now don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying that we can only experience God by making ourselves uncomfortable. That kind of thinking can lead to all kinds of problems. But I will say that a truly transformative experience of God is likely to make us uncomfortable. Which is why our spiritual disciplines are so important. They help make us ready. As any marathon runner can tell you: you don’t just get up one day and run 26 miles. It takes time and training. You start small and work your way up in the hope that when the day of the race comes, you’ll be ready to run the distance. 

    In the same way, our spiritual disciplines make us ready for those moments when God will call us - and I believe God does call each of us in a variety of ways in different times in our lives - to be born again; to experience God’s grace as if for the very first time; to be inconvenienced by the need to change and grow. 

    If we get this basic message about being born again, then the message of the cross should be for us extremely good news. Because the message of the cross is that God’s Son was willing to endure suffering and death. That’s more than a minor inconvenience! And he was willing to endure suffering and death in order to give life to the world. Jesus’ pilgrimage, so to speak, was to share our life even to the point where we go down to the dust; in order to show us that nothing is beyond the reach of God’s love. 

    So yes, I hope that we’re finding ourselves a little out of place this Lenten season. I hope that our chosen disciplines are giving us a bit of discomfort. Not because God demands that we do hard things for the sake of doing hard things, but rather because God’s love calls us to be pilgrims on a journey towards an undiscovered country. 

     

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    Sermon for First Sunday of Lent
    March 5th, 2017
    Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University

    Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7        Romans 5:12-19        Matthew 4:1-11

    You may have noticed by now that there’s something different about what we’re doing this morning. You probably picked up on it from the beginning of the service. And I’m not talking about using the confession of sin at the outset instead of after the prayers of the people where we normally have it. I’m talking about the absence of music. 

    When Suade and I were talking a few weeks ago about this Sunday, he pointed out that he would be out of town and asked whether we should look for a replacement. After giving it some thought, I decided no, we should not go with a substitute on this particular Sunday. I know that this decision might strike some as NOT good, but on this occasion, my hope is that the lack of music will drive home an important lesson about the nature of Lent.

    For those of you who are trained in music, then you know the role that silence plays in music. There’s actually a musical notation that calls for silence - the rest. As singers know, rests give space to catch one’s breath, but the rest also serves as a kind of punctuation mark in a musical score. Rests mark the beginnings and endings of sections, so in terms of composing music, rests rank right up there in importance with quarter notes. And if you want to get really philosophical, hearing music depends on silence. Silence is the space between notes that allows us to distinguish between one note and another, one instrument and another, one sound and another. It’s the deliberate combination of silence and sound, progressing in order and by degrees, that is the essence of music. If it weren’t for silence, music would be little more than disorganized noise.   

    I mention this because I think that Lent can act like the rest in music. It can be a chance to catch our breath and an opportunity to step back and appreciate the posture of celebration that prevails throughout the rest of the church year. 

    Usually, we look at silence as kind of an uncomfortable thing. We speak of “awkward silences,” and when those occur, we quickly find a way to fill the space by talking about the weather or some other bit of conversational filler. When most people think about monks and nuns, the first thing that comes to mind is the distasteful notion that they take “a vow of silence.” As an aside, I think it worth pointing out that there is no order of Christian monks or nuns which takes a “vow of silence.” There are large chunks of time dedicated to maintaining silence, but there are no orders that have a full-on ban on talking. But that popular image comes from the idea that monks and nuns embrace a life of harsh discipline - and nothing could be harder than NOT talking! So we don’t always have a very positive view of silence. 

    But here’s where I think our circumstances this morning provide an excellent window onto our Lenten journey. We are without music. Many parts of the service are punctuated with silence instead. We are doing things slightly differently - you’ll notice it even more when we get to our celebration of the Eucharist. And the aim is to shake us up a bit. My hope is that what we’re doing this morning isn’t making anyone dreadfully uncomfortable, but even so, there IS a reason for it. Because when we’re taken out of our comfort zone, out of our routines, out of our sense of “normal,” that is when we are made most aware of our own longing. 

    In the Gospel lesson from this morning, we are told that Jesus went out into the desert where he fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. Or to put it a different way, he was filled with longing for food. 

    Now, I don’t want to draw too much of a parallel between being desperately hungry and missing our normal musical offering, but if what we’re doing this morning has made you more aware of how important our Sunday music is in our worship, and has filled you with a longing to sing out your praises to God, then I think you’ll walk away having gained a valuable insight. And the insight is that your deepest desire is to draw close to God using all the means you have at your disposal - your heart, your mind, and your voice - and when one of the vehicles of that praise is absent, you feel a certain kind of hunger.  

    And that hunger, I hope, is not just to go back to normal because we have good music and it’s nice to have good music because having good music is good. 

    To put it in the terms of the Gospel lesson, bread is not simply for sustenance; that is what the devil was tempting Jesus to think. We eat bread to give strength to our bodies so that we can glorify God; not just satisfy our own desires. In the same way, music in church is a good thing, but its purpose is to strengthen us in our worship of God. That’s why I think not having music this morning may help us to appreciate that the true value of our music is that it helps us to draw nearer to God. 

    Don’t worry, though. Our fast from music is a one-off thing that happened to coincide with the first Sunday of Lent, and I figured why not use the occasion to make a point about how music can affect our worship of God! We’ll be back to singing our praises next week, so I hope that this Sunday will serve to whet everyone’s appetite! But I also hope that the lesson of this Sunday will color our perceptions of this penitential season. 

    If Lent is a time of longing, a time of learning to live with the absence of something, then what we’re longing for is the joy of Easter. Yes, we must go down into the silence and at least for a time experience the feeling of longing for something that is missing. But Lent is not just about negation negation negation. There’s an end-game around our focus on penitence and discipline, and it’s JOY. Serious joy that is born from deep yearning. So we make our way into the desert with Jesus, to rest a while with him and to allow the silence to speak to us about what are the truest longings of our heart. All so that we may return and once again join our voices in a chorus of beautiful music. 

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    Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
    Feb. 19th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 24: 12-18         2 Peter 1: 16-21          Matthew: 17: 1-9

    It is good for us to be here!

    Alleluia! We have reached the end of another season in the church year.  The season of Epiphany is almost over, and on Tuesday, we will be celebrating the end of what the church calls “ordinary time” as we get ready to enter the season of Lent. And y’all know what that means, right? It means that we won’t be saying alleluia for a while. That’s why we’re getting in as many as we can today! But before we get into Lent, we hear the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. 

    For the past several weeks, we have been hearing lessons from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount - hard lessons, if you recall!  And today, we are told, Jesus goes up another mountain - only this time, there’s no sermon. Instead, Jesus is transfigured, and his disciples, Peter, James, and John, see his appearance changed. 

    Now, there are a lot of questions that this story raises, but for me, it’s Jesus’ choice of who accompanies him that makes me wonder the most. We’ve got Peter, who, after confessing that Jesus is the Christ, is told, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter, who, of all the disciples, is regularly depicted as the one who least understands Jesus’ teachings. Peter, who brashly tries to walk on water. Peter, who will go on to deny Jesus three times. And then there’s James and John - whom, we are told in another Gospel, earn the title “Boanerges” or “Sons of Thunder” because they want to rain down thunder on anyone who doesn’t accept the good news. It’s James and John who ask Jesus to give them special seats at his right and his left in the kingdom of heaven - a rather brazen request that ends up angering the other disciples. So we have three impetuous and rather simple-minded followers, and they are the ones Jesus chooses to follow him up the mountain. Hardly the candidates you’d expect to be chosen as witnesses to a vision of God’s glory! 

      But Peter, true to form, says something important when he sees Jesus transfigured: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” The three disciples were granted a vision that only later they would be able to talk about; probably because they wouldn't fully understand the significance of it until after Jesus’ resurrection. But it WAS good for them to be there because it allowed them to think differently about who Jesus was and what his death and resurrection meant. Even though they might not have understood it at the time and were terrified by the experience, being there made Peter a more solid rock upon which Christ could build his church. Being there gave James the forbearance and courage to lead the early church in Jerusalem. Being there allowed John to think not about who would sit where in the kingdom of heaven but instead about how we all should love one another. Being there, in other words, transformed these followers of Jesus.   

    I wonder how many folks come to church not really knowing why they have come. The purpose of coming to church is to have an encounter with Jesus that leads to transformation and ultimately to transfiguration. And as this morning’s Gospel lesson points out, you can have a dramatic encounter with Jesus…even if you don’t know exactly why you’re following him. And I think that’s often where we find ourselves. We can be as block-headed as Peter, and as rash as James and John. We are hardly the candidates you’d expect to be chosen as witnesses to God’s glory. But we come here in the hope that we will be changed because we are witnessing that glory.  

    The notion of change raises another question about the Transfiguration story. When the disciples saw the transfigured Jesus, was it Jesus who was changed OR was there a change in how the disciples perceived him? That may sound like a really academic question, but I’ll tell you a story that may help illustrate the point. 

    There once was a preacher who had a good friend who was deaf. They would often have conversations in sign language, but the preacher always felt a little sorry for his friend. One day, they began talking about what heaven will be like, and the preacher confidently pointed out that his friend should look forward to heaven because, in heaven, everyone will be able to hear. He was taken by surprise when his friend shook his head and signed no. Confused, the preacher asked why his friend disagreed. Wouldn't it be good if everyone could hear? His friend signed, “In heaven, everyone will be able to sign.”  

    I think that we in the church can sometimes go too far with the idea that our human limitations prevent us from being able to have genuine, transforming encounters with God. The thinking goes like this: “I feel distanced from God. But if I pray harder, fast more, go to church regularly, give more, do more work with the homeless, and am more kind to others, then I’ll be closer to God.” Now don’t get me wrong - I encourage everyone to do more of all the above! But the reasoning is backwards. 

    God is never far away from us, and God speaks to us in the language of our own lives. But too often we treat God as if he were deaf. Too often we think that the only way we can experience God is if God overpowers us with a display of dazzling glory. How much better it would be if we saw God not as separated from us because of our own perceived limitations but close to us through those limitations. Such a transformation in our perception of God might lead us to the realization that the world is indeed “charged with the grandeur of God.” 

    We come together week by week to be transformed by an encounter with Jesus. To some, what we do here may seem rather humdrum and unspectacular. But if you have felt the power of God’s love in something so commonplace as a little bread, a little wine, and fellowship with others, then you know that you have been transformed. That transformation is what we, as the church, are always striving for. And that’s why, indeed, it is good for us to be here.    

     

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    Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
    Feb. 19th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18        1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23        Matthew: 5: 38-48

    Man! Jesus doesn’t let up, does he? We’ve had several weeks’ worth of hard teaching, and just in case you thought we were going to be let off the hook this week, the Gospel lesson we just heard is another one that just leaves us scratching our heads and thinking, “Jesus can’t possibly mean what he says!” I think that for most of us, it’s pretty easy to point out the pitfalls of obeying the first part of Jesus’ teaching here. As Tom Long, one of the best preachers alive today, has put it, 

    “It boggles the mind to think about living out this example literally in contemporary society. Imagine a Christian in New York City who got up one morning and decided to do what Jesus says here: to turn the other cheek, to give to every beggar, and to respond to every lawsuit by settling out of court for double the amount. This person would be broke, homeless, and in the emergency room of Bellevue Hospital before noon!”

    Or, if you followed the news this past week, how are we supposed to hold the line of “don’t resist an evildoer” in light of what might have happened at Temple Emanu-el in Myrtle Beach? I know that I, for one, am glad that we’re not here lamenting yet another mass shooting, and the only reason we’re not is that an evildoer was resisted.

    So it’s worth saying up front that this is a tough lesson from scripture; and one that I think we all struggle with every time it’s read. Very few believers over the ages have put Jesus’ teaching into real practice, and even when certain groups have, the argument has been made that were it not for the protections provided by the police and military, such groups would easily be wiped out. And that’s a fair point.  

    So what are we to do with the Gospel lesson this morning? We can gloss over it and say that Jesus’ directions have to be mitigated to account for the day-to-day reality of living in the world. We can say that Jesus’ teaching represents an impossible ideal but that we should at least strive for it. We can say that Jesus was pointing out that merely following the Law is not what makes us righteous; that we need God’s grace to make us truly perfect. None of these approaches are bad, mind you, but before any attempt is made to “explain away” Jesus’ teaching, it’s worth at least thinking about the system of violence and scapegoating that Jesus was speaking against. 

    Some of you may have heard me talk about the French social philosopher, Renee Girard. In the 1970’s he wrote two books setting out his theories on the idea of “mimetic rivalry” and “sacred violence,” and his thought, in a nutshell is this: we are all born with an innate ability to mime others; in fact, in evolutionary terms, it’s a survival mechanism. How do babies learn what’s safe to eat? By watching their parents and “mimicking” their actions. So engrained is this mimetic process in us that you can see it at work if you are at a dinner party with a group of friends and someone takes a sip of their drink. Almost predictably, those who see it will follow suit. 

    Normally, this mimetic mechanism is positive in that it helps us choose what’s good and leads to cooperation in social settings. But it can also get us into trouble because rivalry usually enters the equation. A perfect example of such “mimetic rivalry” at work is if you have two children and you give one a toy. The other child wants that toy, and even if a duplicate is presented for the other child to play with, they will still want that first toy. As mature adults, most of us have learned acceptable social behavior - often by way of mimicking others. BUT we know that there is always the specter of someone else wanting what we have, and this causes anxiety. What makes the anxiety worse is that it’s usually our closest friends who pose the greatest threat. 

    On a social level, then, there’s all this anxiety floating around, and eventually it reaches a boiling point where violence breaks out in different places. Violence has to be minimized for a society to function, however, so you get rules like “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Essentially these are rules of “fair play” meant to prevent violence escalating out of control. But on a larger social scale, the anxiety still exists.  

    Enter the scapegoat - a person or group that we can blame for all of our pent up anxiety and social ill. According to Girard, once the scapegoat is identified, they are alienated from the rest of the community. They are seen as “the other” or “the enemy.” Often they are killed. In religious terms, they are sacrificed - hence Girard’s term “sacred violence.” And once the “sacred violence” has been carried out on the scapegoat, there is this sort of collective sigh of relief, and everyone is able to come together in a kind of social “group hug” to celebrate the destruction of the identified evil (recall the news about Osama Bin Laden’s death). But the problem is that the anxiety is still actually there. And the cycle begins again. Rivalry begets anxiety, anxiety begets blame, and blame begets violence. Again and again and again.  

    According to Girard’s later understanding of the gospel, Jesus death and resurrection exposes the underlying lie of this cycle. Jesus was scapegoated and sentenced to death. But the world was not able to breathe a sigh of relief because Jesus rose from the dead, exposing the lie that violence can solve the problem of anxiety. And what’s more, Jesus does not rise from the dead desiring to take revenge. In fact, often what Jesus says after his resurrection begins with the proclamation, “Peace be with you.”

    Now, I know that this is a long digression, but I bring it up because if you find any truth in Girard’s theory, then Jesus’ words amount to an exposure of the lie that blame and violence can cure the world’s anxiety. If all we’re concerned about is what is a justifiable response to violence, then we’re caught up in the lie that somehow violence will help end the cycle of violence. If all we’re concerned about is identifying who is “a friend” and who is “an enemy,” then we’re caught up in the lie that we can blame some “other” for all of our problems. The only way out of the cycle is to show love and generosity…to everyone. 

      What this means for us in the 21st century is a discussion that I hope we are all having with one another - with our friends AND with those we might call “enemies.” If there are ways that we, as a church, can address the problem of violence that do not simply ensure that the cycle continues, then my hope is that we will be courageous enough to put them into practice. If there are ways that we, as a church, can break down barriers of separation that cause us to think in terms of “us” and “them,” then I hope that we will not be afraid to pursue them. If there are ways that we, as a church, can more effectively proclaim the good news that the cycle of death and destruction has been - and can be - overcome by love, then I hope that we all will be eager to learn them. The old ways of violence, separation, and despair still have deep roots in the world. God grant us the grace to break the cycle and walk in his ways.    

     

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    Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
    Feb. 12th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Deuteronomy 30: 15-20        1 Corinthians 3: 1-9        Matthew: 5: 21-37

     

    God is not a hammer - and we are not nails.

    To lighten the mood a bit, I’d like to begin this morning with a story about the importance of knowing the rules. A Once there was a monk who visited the central house of his order. The monk had proven himself an accomplished translator, and he had been sent to translate some ancient documents. During his work, the head abbot of the order mentioned to him that they had the original copy of the order’s rule. The monk asked if he could have a look at it, and the abbot agreed to let him see it. As the monk read the original copy, a look of confusion and concern came over his face. For the several days, the monk could be seen in a corner of the library, feverishly looking over text after text. Then one morning, the abbot came in and heard a terrible racket coming from the library. He approached the table and saw that there the monk had thrown all his work on the ground and was banging his head against the table. Grabbing the monk by the shoulders, the abbot asked what was the matter. The monk replied. Celebrate. The word is celebrate. 

    The Gospel reading we just heard is a pretty hard message to hear. It’s one of those passages from scripture that many people like to gloss over. It’s a passage that many preachers look at and then say, “Hmm…that’s interesting…now, let’s see…I think I’ll preach on the Old Testament passage today!” But since I’m rather young and foolish, I figure why not give it a shot! 

    The main issue that I think most people have with this morning’s Gospel lesson is that it can seem like Jesus is merely doubling down on the demands of the Law and setting the bar impossibly high for holiness and righteousness. And the idea that Jesus came to give us harder rules doesn't sit well with the idea of a loving God who gives grace freely and abundantly. 

    The problem with this way of thinking is that it assumes a split between Law and Grace and might leave us thinking that the Law is merely a bunch of prohibitions intended to bridle our worst instincts. And thinking about the Law in this way can lead us to believe that God is a hammer - and we are nails; that God is a harsh judge who will punish us if we don’t follow the rules. If we take this line of thinking to its logical conclusion - and a good many Christians have done so! - then we might end up thinking that Jesus came to do away with the Law because the Law was just an arbitrary set of demands which never did anyone any good. And that thinking, in turn, can lead us to believe that our Jewish brothers and sisters are woefully ignorant of God’s grace and that they are struggling under an oppressive system of legal demands.

    But God is not a hammer - and we are not nails. 

    In the book of Psalms, there are many verses which talk about what a grace-filled gift God’s law is. From this morning, we hear, “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord…I will thank you with an unfeigned heart when I have learned your decrees.” Those verses are from Psalm 119, which is an extended meditation on how good God’s law is and how it is a wonderful thing to be able to obey God’s law. And there are many other psalms that speak in glowing terms of God’s law as a grace-filled gift. So, it’s worth remembering that our tradition bears witness to the belief that the Law is there to give life. It’s what our Jewish brothers and sisters have believed for millennia, and it’s the backbone of our Christian tradition.  

    The point of the Law is to allow God’s people be their most authentic selves; both individually and as a people. To be sure, the Law was misunderstood and misused - and part of what got Jesus in trouble was that he pointed out all kinds of instances where the religious authorities of the day were not applying the Law as it was intended to be applied. But Jesus, we are told, came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Which means that what Jesus says about the Law should not be taken as a hard-line stance of dos and donts but rather as a fuller explanation of the responsibilities of freedom.   

    For anyone who has served in the military or in law enforcement, you know that there are a lot of rules and disciplines that you have to abide by. And you know that there are a lot of responsibilities associated with you doing your job well. If you didn't much like being a soldier or police officer, then the rules probably seemed burdensome. But if you loved it, then you probably got to a point where you appreciated both the discipline and the responsibility because they allowed you to be a better soldier or police officer. The rules weren’t there to make your job more difficult - they were there to enable you to live into the spirit of your profession. 

    In the same way, Jesus’ comments on the Law should be taken as a deeper look into the spirit of the Law and a challenge for his hearers to listen to the spirit of the Law. It’s like Jesus was saying, “Allow the heart of the Law to be in your heart, and you may well find that it is, in fact, life-giving.”

    The point of the Law is life. And life is serious business. Living fully requires discipline. Genuine freedom involves responsibility. Being truly at peace with your neighbor isn’t just about not killing your neighbor - it’s about harboring goodwill and hospitality in your own heart. Being faithful to your spouse isn't just about not committing adultery - it’s about harboring faithfulness and affection in your own heart. Being a saint isn't just about good deeds and pious speech. To borrow from Thomas Merton, 

    “To be a saint means to pass through the world gathering fruits for heaven from every tree and reaping God’s glory in every field. The saint is one who is in contact with God in every possible way, in every possible direction. The saint is united to God by the depths of her own being. The saint sees and touches God in everything and everyone around him. Everywhere the saint goes, the world rings and resounds (though silently) with the deep harmonies of God’s glory.” 

    And we are called to be saints. We are called to freedom and responsibility. We can’t be saints without discipline, and we can’t be saints without God’s grace. Fortunately for us, the grace - and the discipline - IS available to us. Not as a hammer to beat us over the head with, or a ruler by which we can gauge our progress. Instead, it’s there as a gift and an invitation to become more fully ourselves; to become more fully who God wants us to be. 

     

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    Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
    Jan. 29th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Micah  6: 1-8        1 Corinthians 1: 18-31        Matthew: 5: 1-12

     

    Do you hear the distant thunder?

    The words of this morning’s gospel lesson should be familiar to most everyone here. In church-speak, they are known as “the Beatitudes,” and they are perhaps the most well-known words from Jesus’ sermon on the mount. If I had to guess, I’d say that most Christians could easily rattle off at least a few of these sayings without too much trouble. To prove my point, even though you just heard them, I’d like you to fill in the blanks. If I say, “Blessed are the meek,” you could probably fill in the rest: “for they will inherit the earth.” Blessed are the merciful…for they will receive mercy.” “Blessed are those who mourn…for they will be comforted.” “Blessed are the pure in heart…for they will see God.” You take my point - these sayings are pretty well known.  

    And while I think it’s a good thing that many of us are familiar with these sayings, there is a down side to being overly familiar with them. The down side is that they can be taken as popular, pithy sayings that sound more like quaint, self-help bullet points than the deep calls for spiritual discipline that they are. The down side of being too familiar with them is that they can become tame, and we can be tempted to think that they don’t really apply to our lives in the 21st century. The down side to being too familiar with them is that we can hear them in the way that we hear distant thunder - we know there’s some power out there somewhere, but it’s too far away to matter much in my life here and now. 

    But though these sayings of Jesus may be removed from us by years of familiarity, I want to challenge you all to hear these “Beatitudes” with fresh ears and to approach them as if you have only just heard them for the first time. Because if you ARE hearing them for the first time, then these sayings might sound more than a little out of keeping with modern sensibilities. Because from what I can see and hear, especially from a lot of self-proclaimed “Christians,” being “blessed” nowadays mainly means having abundant financial resources. Being “blessed” nowadays mainly means having power and influence. Being “blessed” nowadays mainly means that you feel happy and secure.  

    As for the poor in spirit, well, they are just too lazy to go after what they want. As for those who mourn, well, they just need to shake it off and start believing that God just wants them to be happy. As for the merciful, well, they are just asking to get stabbed in the back. As for the pure in heart, well, we don’t really believe that anyone operates from purely selfless motives. We’re all trying to get a leg up on each other! 

    The world’s prevailing attitude says, “It’s not the meek who will inherit the earth. It’s the powerful. It’s the crafty. It’s those who have the means to take what they want, when they want it, no matter how many people might be trying to stand in their way. And all this talk about “blessed are those who thirst for righteousness” - well, that’s just religious lingo of a bygone age! It’s distant thunder that may sound strangely pleasant, but it doesn't have any real impact.” 

    And Jesus’ words about who is blessed? Well, those can be dismissed as “alternative facts.” So says the post-modern world in which we live.

    But if you’re troubled by this post-modern attitude, then it’s time to revisit the “Beatitudes” and hear them without a sense of distant familiarity. It’s time to hear them like an overhead thunder-clap that rattles the walls of this church and makes us all aware that we are, in fact, in the middle of a storm. Because if we feel the impact of Jesus’ words about who is “blessed,” then we will find ourselves at odds with who the world says is “blessed.” And the question we should ask ourselves is: who will we stand with in the storm?

    If there are people who have fled their homes with nothing; who come to us poor in spirit and begging for mercy, Jesus says they are the ones who are blessed. Will we stand with them in the storm? If there are people who are mourning because their cities have been destroyed and their friends and family members have been killed, Jesus says they are the ones who are blessed. Will we stand with them in the storm? If there are people who have gone into exile, hungering and thirsting for a chance to live in peace, Jesus says they are the ones who are blessed. Will we stand with them in the storm?

    Some who claim to follow Jesus might say such people are sadly out of luck - they are just unfortunate collateral damage in the world’s ever-increasing violence - and it’s too bad for them, but we have our own problems here and we need to secure our own “blessings.” For those who might speak like that, I’m just not sure what kind of blessings they hope to receive. Because it seems pretty clear to me that if we’re not at least willing in theory to welcome and stand with the meek, the poor, the mourners, the seekers-after-peace, and the persecuted, then our claim to be “blessed” is nothing more than wishful thinking. 

    The words of Jesus that we hear this morning are a clarion call to action; even if our taking action means laying aside the things and attitudes by which the world says we are blessed. The words of Jesus that we hear this morning should shake us as we take stock of what’s going on in the world. Even if we have heard them hundreds of times, the “Beatitudes” still sound with the force of thunder. For God’s part, God stands ready to rain down blessings upon us. The question for us is whether we welcome the sound of thunder or wish it only to remain in the distance.  

     

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    Sermon for Epiphany 2017, Year A
    Jan. 8th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

     

    Isaiah  60: 1-6        Ephesians 3: 1-12        Matthew: 2: 1-12

     

    Arise, shine; for your light has come!

    For those who are keeping track, today … is not actually the Feast of the Epiphany. If you are a stickler for dates, then you know that Epiphany always falls on January 6th, so our celebration today might seem to be coming two days late. BUT, since Epiphany is one of the major feasts of the Church year, I figured we could shift it up to today so that we get to observe it properly and take some time to reflect on what what the meaning of the Epiphany is. 

    The rather pat and canned answer about the meaning of Epiphany is that the Epiphany is our celebration of God revealing God’s self to the world in the person of Jesus. Which is why it makes sense that Epiphany follows closely on the heels of our celebration of Jesus’ birth. Nowadays, we mostly associate Epiphany with the visit of the Three Wise Men from the east; the ones who bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But for all you history buffs out there, Epiphany has also traditionally been associated with Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan and Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee - both of which are occasions where God’s glory is more fully revealed in the life of Jesus. So the Epiphany season ends up being this multi-faceted approach to our appreciation for how God reveals God’s self to us in Jesus. But all that might sound a little too dry and “theological.”

    So I’d like to share a story with you that I hope might help us to appreciate the importance of what we’re celebrating today. When I was in grade school, one of my favorite subjects was English. I enjoyed reading comprehension tests and creative writing exercises. I liked learning about the structure of our language, and I will even admit that I kind of enjoyed diagramming sentences. But perhaps my favorite subject was vocabulary. Every year, we got a workbook entitled “Wordly Wise,” and the workbook was full of exercises designed to help students learn how to spell and use new words. Each week, we were responsible for learning about fifteen new words, and each week we were tested on what we had learned. For some, those weekly tests were a nightmare, but I really got into the ongoing process of discovering new words and gaining the ability to use them. At some point early on - I think it was in 5th grade - one of the words we learned was “chaos.” I had heard the word before and, at least on the surface, I knew what it meant, but up until that lesson, I never had learned how to spell it. The only time I had ever come across it before was when a friend of mine, in passing, showed me a comic book where one of the villain characters was named, I thought, “Dr. Cha-os.” And I remember thinking, what an odd name… So you can imagine the sort of “AHA!” moment I had when I learned how chaos was spelled. All of a sudden, the villain “Dr. Cha-os” made SO MUCH more sense as the villain Dr. Chaos! And I was so amazed at this discovery that, during recess, I excitedly told my friend that I finally understood the connection. He was a bit nonplussed and must have thought I was rather dim. But that did not diminish my excitement! It was, for me, something of an epiphany. It was an epiphany because I had both learned a new word and learned that I had learned a new word.   

    The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Herschel once wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

    And that’s what the Feast of Epiphany is about. It’s not simply a matter of saying that God’s glory has been revealed in Jesus of Nazareth - that’s just information. Epiphany is about transformation. A true Epiphany should leave us feeling amazed, excited, and in awe - in other words, changed because of what we’ve discovered. We can accumulate all kinds of knowledge about stories of wise men and Jesus doing this or saying that. But until it sinks into our bones and leaves us feeling amazed and wanting to DO something about it, then it really just remains surface knowledge. What we’re hoping for in our lives as Christians is that our knowledge of Jesus will so amaze and excite us that our lives will be transformed.

    In the passage from Isaiah, we hear, “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” and if you look closely at that sentence, you’ll notice that there are two sources of light. First is the light that has come from God. And because of that light we are told to arise and shine. That first light empowers us to become light ourselves, to become active participants in the light that God shines in the darkness.

    What this means is that if we have heard the good news and have felt the power of God in our own lives, then the knock-on effect is that each of us can become agents of that good news and that power in the world. The question is whether we will. Will we receive that good news merely as information, or will we allow it to transform us? If you’re sitting inside with a group of people on a rainy day, and you notice that the sun has come out, it’s all well and good to say, “The sun has come out! We can go outside and play!” But if you stay inside, it doesn’t really matter that the sun has come out. 

    In the same way, hearing that God has revealed God’s self to us in the person of Jesus is really only an Epiphany when it amazes us to the point that we can’t help but to participate in that revelation. So, on this Feast of the Epiphany, I invite you all to be amazed. I invite you all to look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. I invite you all to arise, shine; for your light has come!  

     

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    Sermon for First Sunday after Christmas, Year A
    Jan. 1st, 2016
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Numbers 6: 22-27        Galatians 4: 4-7        Luke 2: 15-21

     

    Happy New Year! And - since still tis the season - Merry Christmas! For those keeping track, we’re now on the 8th day of Christmas. And quite apart from maids a-milking and partridges in pear trees, this eighth day of Christmas has a special significance all its own. If you were in church on Christmas Eve, then this morning’s Gospel lesson will have sounded quite familiar to you. In fact MOST of the Gospel lesson we just heard was read on Christmas Eve. The only difference is that we hear one more verse. And that one verse is the verse that tells us that it was eight days after his birth that Mary’s baby was circumcised and officially named Jesus. 

    Now, I know that for some folks, being told that Mary and Joseph named their baby “Jesus” eight days after he was born might not seem like much of an addition to the Christmas story, but I think there’s something worth pondering about the naming of the child who was born to be the savior of the world. 

    For one, naming, in and of itself, has enormous significance in the Biblical narrative. If you start at the beginning, with the first creation story, you’ll find that God does two things each day. God creates, and then God names. In Genesis 1, we read, “God called the light DAY and the darkness he called NIGHT.” and “God called the firmament Heaven.” and “God called the dry land EARTH.” And so on. 

    And in the second creation story, when God creates a human being out of the dust (or “adamah,” hence the name “Adam”), the human being is given the task of naming all the creatures that God has made. From both creation stories, then, we are given a clue about the importance of a name: part of God’s power over creation - and humankind’s responsibility within creation - is in naming things. 

    That’s why it’s such a big deal in the book of Exodus when God reveals God’s name to Moses. In essence, when God tells Moses that God’s name is “I am” or, in Hebrew, “Yahweh,” God is entrusting Moses with the power of God’s very identity. Such responsibility is not to be taken lightly - hence the commandment not to take God’s name in vain. For those with friends who are observant Jews, you know that there is still to this day a tradition that not only will they not write Yahweh, but they will not even write out G O D. Out of reverence, they will spell G - D.  

     

    The importance of names can also be seen in that most of the names you find in the Old Testament have a significant meaning, and when God gives someone a new name, it’s always a big deal. Abram - the exalted father - becomes Abraham - the father of a multitude. Sarai - the princess - becomes Sarah - the grace-filled princess. Jacob - he takes by the heel - becomes Israel: he who strives with God.

     

    I won’t belabor the point here, but the heart of the matter is that when we look at how names are treated in scripture, we very quickly are able to reach the conclusion that there is power in a person’s name. Nor do I think we’ve really lost touch with this ancient idea.  

    The first thing we normally do upon meeting someone new is to introduce ourselves to each other. A new relationship is empowered first by learning someone’s name. And if you’ve ever met someone several times and can’t recall their name, then you probably know how strong the feeling of embarrassment can be. 

    More to the point of today’s Gospel, though, if you are a parent or have ever had the opportunity to help choose the name of a child, then you know what a big decision it can be. It’s not like you just pull a name out of thin air - there is some thought that goes into it, and for a good many parents, there’s the weight of family history to consider. So the naming of a child is one of the first true responsibilities that a parent has. 

    Of course, for Mary and Joseph, there was no guesswork because an angel told them that they were to name the child Jesus - but that the child’s name was announced by an angel should key us in to how important the name is. 

    You’ve probably heard this explained before, but the meaning of Jesus’ name “Yah-shua” is “God saves.” And this naming is important for a number of reasons. First, because God provided the name. As we know, when God gives someone a name, it empowers that person’s identity and defines that person’s destiny. And from the very beginning of his life on earth, Jesus’ very name spoke to who he was and who he was mean to be. Yah-shua. God saves. His name was his mission. 

    But the naming is also important because of what it means for God to entrust a name to someone. With Moses and the burning bush, humanity was entrusted with God’s name, and we were given the power either to malign or to bless God’s name. With the birth of Jesus, humanity was entrusted with “God’s salvation.” And we were given power to malign it. It’s an odd thought, I’ll grant you, that God’s salvation could be as weak and defenseless as a newborn baby, but that’s the message of the Incarnation. I know there are all sorts of theological pitfalls if you follow that static line of thinking to its full conclusion. But just for today, I’d like us to entertain the notion that God’s salvation does depend on how you relate to Mary and Joseph’s infant son; that how we receive the message of God’s salvation is closely linked with how we receive the child in the manger.

    If Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s salvation, then what we think of Jesus is what we think of God’s salvation. 

    Now here’s a challenge for you all in the coming week. Keep a note of how many times the name of Jesus passes your lips, and keep note also of the reason. If you find yourself dropping Jesus’ name pretty casually or for not the best of reasons, try replacing it with “God saves me” and see if that makes any difference in your thinking. If you find that you’re not saying Jesus name at all, ask yourself whether there might be situations where you could. I recommend this practice to you because I do not think we should be afraid to say the name of Jesus; to say that God saves. Indeed, I think it should be a part of our daily routine! As Christians, we claim the message that God’s salvation has come very near to us - and I hope we do so proudly! So in the same way, we should proudly claim the name of the one who gives us our name. 

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    Sermon for Christmas Eve, Year A
    Dec. 24th, 2016
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

     

    Isaiah 9:2-7        Titus 2:11-14        Luke 2:1-20

     

    My sermon for this evening is for the children. Now, that’s all of the children here - no matter how old - so if you’d like to tap in to your inner child for a few moments, here’s your opportunity! Because tonight, of all nights, is the perfect night to embrace the feeling of child-like wonder.

    And I’d like us all to use that child-like wonder to think about what role we play in the Christmas story. And what better way to engage our imaginations than to use a familiar Christmas image - the manger scene! I want to invite you all to think about where you see yourself in the manger scene…and we’ll work our way through the cast of characters…  

     

    Innkeeper - Are you the innkeeper? Perhaps you have been busy busy busy getting things ready. You’ve gotten all of the preparations made to celebrate Christmas, and here we are at Christmas Eve, and you find yourself feeling just full. There’s no room left for anything else. And maybe tonight you considered staying home because you were just too full for anything more to do with this season! But then you were asked if you could make just a little more room. And even though you were full, you did! If you are here tonight as the innkeeper, then know that your openness and willingness to make room is at the heart of the Christmas story.  

    Mary - Are you Mary? Has your life been forever changed by the arrival of this child? Are you just now beginning to discover the joys of having this child in your life? After a long period of waiting, are you now finally at the point where your child is here and you are able simply to rejoice that he is here? If you’re here tonight as Mary, then you know that one of the joys of Jesus’ birth is that you are able to rest in this moment and ponder these things in your heart. 

    Joseph - Are you Joseph? Do you feel the burden of responsibility in your life? Joseph was there because he knew the burden of responsibility. And he carried that burden even though he knew the child in the manger was born because of God’s will and not because of his will.  Maybe you just feel like you were brought along for the ride because your spouse asked you to come and you said yes. But still, you came and you’re providing the support that we all need if Christ is to find a safe place in our hearts. So if you’re here tonight as Joseph, know that because of your sense of duty, you play a key role in the story of Jesus coming into the world. 

    Angels - Are you an angel? Do you have a special role to play in announcing the good news of Jesus’ birth? Are you someone who will share the good news that God is with us and proclaim a message of peace and goodwill on earth? If you’re here tonight as an angel, then you know the importance of telling others about the birth of the child whom the world will find lying in a manger.  

    Shepherds - Are you a shepherd? Perhaps you have been working hard without much rest this season. Perhaps you think that your hard work does not get you much in the way of either comfort or joy. And perhaps you think your waiting and watching isn’t getting you much in the way of a reward. But because of your hard work - because of your waiting and watching - you were attentive to the message about this newborn child, and you’ve come to rejoice in the good news. If you are here tonight as a shepherd, then know that your hard work has paid off, and now you can rejoice in the presence of God incarnate.  

    Wise men - Are you a wise man? Perhaps you are a pillar of the community. Perhaps you’re one of the “elites” whose education and status makes you special. But you heard the news about this Jesus, and you are willing to lay aside your status and importance to come and pay homage to a baby lying in a manger. You are willing to embrace the mystery of God becoming human and you are humble enough to know that God is present even in the most unexpected of places. If you are here tonight as one of the wise men, then your humility shows that Jesus’ birth is good news for both the small and the great.   

    Farm animals - Are you one of the farm animals? Perhaps you don’t really know why you're here tonight. Maybe you just wandered in because it looked like a happening place to be and you thought you might get fed. Perhaps you’ve been asked to come by a friend and you really don’t know why you’re here. But you are here. And the warmth of your presence is important. If you are here as one of the farm animals, know that your presence here makes the celebration more meaningful because you’re here to share in it.   

    Let’s see, have we left anyone out? Oh YES - Jesus! Last but not least, there’s Jesus. Can you see yourself as Jesus? Perhaps you are feeling vulnerable, powerless, and dependent on everyone else for your place in this story. Perhaps you are feeling out of place in this strange world of humanity. If the Christ child has been born in you, then you may well  know that the world can be as smelly and uncomfortable as a manger and you can sometimes feel too weak to do anything about it. But, then again, if the Christ child has been born in you, then you know that even your weakness is an instrument of God’s grace.

    See? We all have a place in the Christmas story - no matter who we are or where we’ve come from. And that’s what we celebrate this holy night: that we all can approach the manger with child-like wonder and rejoice in the good news that God has become one of us.  

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    Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
    Dec. 18th, 2016
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Isaiah 7: 10-16        Romans 1: 1-7        Matthew 1: 18-25

     

    I want to talk with you all this morning about impossible dreams. The reading we just heard from Matthew’s Gospel draws our attention to the power of dreams and the various ways in which God can communicate to us and work through us. The dream we just heard about in Matthew’s Gospel is just one of the occasions in scripture when we are told that dreams herald the beginning of a new and unexpected turn of events in the history of God’s involvement with the world. And it should come as no surprise to us that the key player in this dream story was named Jospeh.  

    If you remember the story of a different Joseph, in the book of Genesis, then you’ll remember that that Joseph got himself in a bit of hot water with his brothers because of what he dreamt. That Joseph also got himself out of a bad situation in an Egyptian prison because of his interpretation of Pharoah’s dreams. That Jospeh’s dreams, we are told, were instrumental in the preservation of God’s chosen people. So when we’re introduced to Jesus’ foster-father and are told that his name was Joseph, we should not be surprised to be told that he, too, was a dreamer whose dreams would play an important role in the story of God’s purposes being fulfilled.   

    And Joseph dreamed an impossible dream. 

    Consider Joseph’s situation: He’s engaged to a young woman who at some point tells him that she is pregnant. We are told that Joseph is a righteous man, which is essentially code for “he knew and obeyed the Law.” And the Law was fairly clear about what his options were when faced with a pregnant young woman to whom he was engaged. For those who might be interested in looking up what the Mosaic Law has to say, check out chapter 22 in the book of Deuteronomy. In one scenario, he could have called Mary out and she would have been sentenced to die, and her death would have been considered an “honor killing” - at the least she would have been “cut off” from the people and considered a harlot and an outcast. In another scenario, Joseph could have quietly dismissed Mary and she would have been on her own to defend herself against the charge of immorality; again, the best likely outcome would have been that she would be “cut off” from her community. And, according to the Law, those were Joseph’s options. As a result of his dream, however, Joseph chooses a third option that otherwise he might have considered impossible.   

    And it’s that third option, that impossible dream, which lies at the heart of God’s plan of salvation. Now, I know that we all have dreams. And I know that we tend to speak of dreams in a fairly positive way. We say things like, “I dream of traveling the world,” or “I dream of being a hero,” or “I dream of world peace,” and while I do not want to dismiss those kinds of dreams, I do want to note the difference between impossible dreams and mere wishful thinking. Mere wishful thinking is not usually based in reality, and it often amounts to a vague desire for things to be not as they are. As in, “Oh, I dream of winning the lottery some day and retiring to a private island and living in a mansion where all my friends and I get along perfectly, without a care in the world.” While that may be a nice wish, all sorts of problems would crop up if one actually tried to make that dream a reality. Quite apart from the odds of winning the lottery, there has not yet existed any community where everyone gets along perfectly without a care in the world!  

    The impossible dream, on the other hand, considers things as they are, appreciates the difficulties and obstacles of life, and offers a new perspective or suggests an alternative course of action that, at first glance, does not seem to be within the realm of current possibility. And then, even in the face of adversity, it forces us to act. 

    As some of you may remember, in 1963, African Americans were considered second-class citizens in most parts of this country. Institutional racism, civic and economic oppression, and in many places outright violence towards African Americans was the unwritten law of the land. And for many people - even some well meaning people - the thought of full equality for the African American did not seem within the realm of possibility. Often those who wanted to speak about justice found that they were ignored. Justice, they were told, would have to wait. Equality, they were told, would have to wait. Freedom, they were told, would have to wait. Be content, they were told, with the way things are and keep your voice down.  

    Then one man’s voice rose above the silence and roused the conscience of a nation with four little words: “I have a dream!” That dream was then, and in many ways still is, an impossible dream. But if you’ve ever been moved by Dr. King’s words and felt that your own attitudes and assumptions need to change because of them, then you know the power of the impossible dream. You know the power of that third option which opens the possibility of living into God’s desire for the human race. 

    We are one week away from celebrating the birth of Jesus; just one week away from celebrating the impossible dream that God cares enough about us to become one of us. The challenge that faces us as we draw near to that day is to look towards it not merely with wishful thinking about peace on earth but with the firm resolve that we can do something, no matter how small, to make God’s peace on earth a reality. 

    Joseph dreamed a dream that gave him the courage to play a role in the plan of God’s salvation. Today, we are invited to share in this story. So the question for us this day and as we draw ever closer to the day of Jesus’ birth is, “What dream will I dream? What impossible dream will make room in my heart for Christ to enter in?”   

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    Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
    Dec. 11th, 2016
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

     

    Isaiah 35: 1-10        James 5: 7-10        Matthew 11: 2-11

     

    There is a famous 16th century altarpiece painting of the crucifixion by the German artist Matthias Grunewald. It’s known as the Isenheim Altarpiece, and it was commissioned for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. The monastery specialized in hospital work and was known for its care for victims of the plague. The wretched condition of many patients inspired Grunewald’s depiction of Christ, and if you are familiar with this particular work of art, then you know it to be one of the most graphically shocking representations of the crucifixion perhaps ever made. In the painting, the Christ suffering on the cross looks very much like what a 16th century plague victim would have looked like: discolored, covered in sores, and features twisted in agony. Grunewald’s reason for portraying Christ in this way was to emphasize the sympathy that Christ has with all who suffer, the hope being that plague victims would have looked upon the altar piece and felt at least some comfort that Christ knew and shared their pain. 

    It is not the image of Christ from the Isenheim altarpiece that I want to dwell on, however, but rather the way in which John the Baptist is depicted in Grunewald’s painting. John is standing next to the crucified Jesus. He is dressed rather humbly, as one might expect, but he does not share the same mangled appearance as Christ. In fact, of all the characters in the scene, John looks the most healthy and normal.  Written just above him in Latin is the phrase, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” In his left hand is an open book - the Holy Scriptures - and with his right hand he points toward Jesus. 

     

    This image of John strikes me for a number of reasons, but there is one point that I think worth pondering as we make our way through this season of Advent. John is shown pointing at the crucified Christ with what I take to be an expression of somber certainty. He is pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God who came to fulfill scripture, and John’s expression suggests no hint of wavering. But as we heard from this morning’s Gospel lesson, on at least one occasion, John had his doubts. 

    While he was in prison, John heard reports about what Jesus was doing, but was left in sufficient doubt to send word to ask what was going on. His question is direct: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

    If you remember, John the Baptist is the same man who baptized Jesus and, at least according to some accounts, saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove and heard a voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my Son.” Pretty strong supporting evidence, I would think! Yet it seems that as things progressed, Jesus wasn’t exactly what John was expecting, and what Jesus was doing was not sufficient proof for John that Jesus was indeed the promised messiah. So he sends word to ask whether to expect someone else who might do the job of messiah more convincingly. 

    Quite far from the image of John pointing towards Jesus with somber certainty, from what we hear in the Gospel, I think we may safely imagine John scratching his head with a look of apprehension and hesitancy.

    What I hope the Gospel lesson dispels us of this morning is the notion that Advent is about waiting for Jesus with a definite set of expectations around what will or should happen when Jesus comes. What I hope the Gospel lesson dispels us of this morning is the notion that faith must be perfect in order for it to bear fruit. Sure, we ought to strive for faith that does not waver or hesitate, but as we just heard, even John the Baptist seems to have had his doubts. And John the Baptist, we are told, was more than a prophet.  

     That’s why I think it’s important to remember that if you’re having a hard go of it this Advent; and your heart is not yet warmed by the “spirit” of the season; and you aren’t fully convinced that Jesus’ birth makes much of a difference, then not only do I think you’re not alone; I think you are in really good company. In the season of Advent, we do not wait just with perfect faith and confidence. There is room in our waiting even for doubt. 

    So…If you are finding yourself in doubt this season and, like John, you are asking about Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” then the best thing to do is to find those who claim to have faith in Jesus’ coming and ask about what they are doing because of that faith. Are they helping the blind to see? Are they helping the deaf to hear? Are they helping the lame to walk? Are they caring for the sick? Are they sharing good news with the poor? Because of their faith in Jesus, are they making a difference in the lives of others? If the answer is NO, then I think you can safely say that your doubt is justified and that it would be best to wait for another. But if the answer is YES, then, even if you still have your doubts, it may be worth hanging around with such people because what they are doing is allowing Christ to be born in them. And if you then take the time to help others in the same ways, you may discover, even in the midst of doubt, that there is more than enough room for Christ to be born in you, as well. 

    The miracle that we are waiting for during the season of Advent is not just the birth of Jesus in a remote corner of Palestine 2000 years ago. We are waiting for the birth of Jesus in our own lives right here and right now. There are things we can do to make that second birth of Jesus in us a reality, and they can be as easy as sharing a kind word with someone in need. Acts of charity and kindness can point us toward Jesus, and if we give ourselves to doing them with somber certainty, then we may find that we will not just find Jesus lying in a manger on Christmas Day. We will also find him in ourselves. 

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    Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
    Dec. 4th, 2016
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Isaiah 11: 1-10        Romans 15: 4-13        Matthew 3: 1-12

     

    This morning we are introduced to John the Baptist. I would add that we are introduced to John the Baptist rather abruptly because in Matthew’s Gospel, we aren’t told anything about John the Baptist’s parents, the circumstances of his birth, his relationship with Jesus, or where he came from. All those bits of information are only found in Luke’s Gospel, so really what we get this morning is the unanticipated appearance of a preacher in the wilderness of Judea, whose main message is “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!” John the Baptist’s arrival in Matthew’s version of the story, then, is as unexpected as it is odd.   

    To put it another way, if you were to pick up Matthew’s Gospel and start reading it for the first time with no prior knowledge about Christian tradition, the appearance of John the Baptist might strike you as having come out of nowhere. Because there is nothing in the story up to this point that might have prepared you for the appearance of John the Baptist. All of a sudden, he’s just there. 

    And I hope that this abrupt appearance of John the Baptist gives us pause - because I think it’s meant to. Yes, we are in the season of Advent, and Advent is all about getting ready for the coming of Jesus. And, yes, John the Baptist’s mission was all about preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry by exhorting people to repentance. But, much like John the Baptist’s appearance, nothing can really prepare us for the message that we need to be prepared. Nothing can really prepare us to hear the call to repentance. 

    We joke a lot in the Episcopal Church about how we like to do things by committee, and sometimes those jokes are, sadly, well-founded in reality. I remember once sitting in on a church meeting - not here - where we were discussing what course of action to take. We had referred the matter to a committee. But instead of recommending a course of action, the committee recommended that we should appoint another committee to examine further considerations about what taking or not taking certain courses of action might or might not mean. True story! They were trying to prepare us to be prepared for the preparation! But when it comes to repentance, we aren’t afforded the luxury of such deliberation.  

      Often the call to repentance and preparation comes to us without prior notice, and we are caught off guard by it. And that, in part, is why when we really hear the call to repentance, it can strike us so forcefully and can be such a catalyst for change in our lives. It’s because the call to repentance finds that place where our hearts are undefended, and the full force of the call to repentance is able to sink in.

    In some circles, what we might say is a call to repentance is known as a “moment of clarity,” or an unsought-for understanding/realization that one seriously needs to change. These moments of clarity - or calls to repentance - cannot be planned or anticipated. They can be as abrupt as John the Baptist’s appearance in the Gospel story, and they can be incredibly important new beginnings in a person’s life. And these moments of clarity can also prepare us for a new way of life.   

      All of this happens, I think, because of our inability to prepare for what a call to repentance can do in our hearts; for what that sense of “conviction” can do in us to make us change our lives for the better. But that’s just where things begin! 

    Because if you’ve clearly understood John the Baptist’s call to repentance, then you know that repentance is just the starting point for what’s to come. And life after repentance is as different as fire is to water.   

    I think, in essence, John the Baptist’s message is a call to live with an undefended heart. If you take a second to think about how a “moment of clarity” or call to repentance reached you in your own life, then I think you’ll agree that it cut through all your attempts at rationalization and excuse making, and it forced you to face the reality that you needed something more. And if you paid attention to that call to repentance, then you had to step into uncharted territory; into a world where everything that made sense to you before now seems inadequate. If you pay attention to a call to repentance, you have to be open to new possibilities, new ways of thinking, new ways of understanding. You have to live with an undefended heart. 

    To put it in the words of the prophet Isaiah, you have to be open to a world in which “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” It’s true - none of that makes sense from normal experience, but what we’re meant to understand from John the Baptist’s call to repentance is that we need to be open to the possibility of a world in which our normal experience is not the final word.  Because that’s the only world in which  our repentance is going to bear fruit.

      As we make our way through Advent and towards Chrsitmas, I invite all of you to ponder the one, simple question: “What would my life look like if I were to live with an undefended heart?” I know that might seem a tall order, what with office parties and out of town guests coming to visit, but I think that question gets to the very center of how we respond to the presence of Christ in our midst. It challenges us to recognize our own pride and cynicism, it helps us to remember those moments of clarity that brought us to our knees, and it prepares us for the possibility that Christ can be born in us. I invite you to ponder that question, for how else can we make room in our hearts for the God who comes to us as a defenseless child?
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    Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, Year A
    Nov. 27th, 2016
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Isaiah 2: 1-5        Romans 13: 11- 14         Matthew 24: 36-44

     

    What are we waiting for?

    Happy new year! We’ve arrived again at the season of Advent, which for the church marks the beginning of the year. And we begin our year in waiting. Advent is primarily a season of looking forward and making preparations, and for (us in the church) a lot of folks it has the feel of a season of waiting. And rightly so - we’re waiting for Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. That’s the most obvious thing that we’re waiting for in Advent, but as this morning’s readings remind us, the season if Advent is also about anticipating Jesus’ return. So Advent really is THE season of waiting.  

    And it’s the feeling of expectation I want to draw attention to this morning because it can be so easy to focus on what we’re waiting for that we lose sight of the importance of the waiting itself. To give a quick example of the feeling of waiting, I want you to pay attention to your reaction when I talk about what it feels like to be filled with antici…pation…

      See, if I did that right, then you’ll have noticed that there was a kind of hanging on the edge of your seat and a mental filling in the blank of the space. You weren't just idly sitting by. There was something of an active quality to what was going on in the interval. And, when I completed the word, I’d be willing to bet that there was at least some sort of sense of satisfaction. I bring this up because I think that our waiting in this season is just as important as the arrival of what we’re waiting for. And on the grand scale of our lives as Christians, I think that what we do with our lives as we wait for that unknown time of Jesus’ return is just as important as that return itself. 

    I know that for most of us, waiting can often seem like lost time. Standing in line at the grocery store can seem like time wasted. Sitting in traffic, especially on 501, I know I am not usually convinced that there’s nothing better I could be doing. And if you’ve ever tried calling the bank to ask a question, I’d be willing to bet that you know that waiting is not always productive of virtuous thoughts.  

    But there are other times when waiting takes on a special quality that can be a window into our life with God. There are times when waiting itself can be as important as what we’re waiting for. 

    My father. His last few days with the family gathered. We kept vigil. We shared stories, laughed, and cried - and all that time was punctuated by keeping watch over my father’s few remaining breaths. And what I still find amazing is that, in that situation, time went out the window. Five minutes could seem like an hour AND an hour could seem like five minutes. 

    We sat by him and said “I love you” and “goodbye,” and each time we did that, it was almost like time stopped and even holding his hand for a few seconds did not seem to be a fleeting thing. Each moment was special. And I don’t think those moments were special only because of his approaching death. They were special because they were so true and real.   

    After my father died, I remember having conversations with my family members about their experience of keeping vigil, and I was taken with how specific the memories were; how the quality of that time affected us and sharpened our senses. We all remember the minutest of details. And it made me appreciate that sometimes, the time of our waiting can seem to be rarified. 

    Advent is a reminder to us that we are all in waiting and that the waiting itself is incredibly important. Because it’s what we do in the meantime that gives quality to what we’re waiting for. To put it in terms of how we will receive Jesus when he returns, if we spend the time of our lives merely pursuing selfish gain and ignoring the needs of others, then when he arrives, we will discover that we have done nothing but waste time. But if we spend the time of our lives putting into practice the things that Jesus taught - clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, praying for our enemies, striving for peace, giving hope to the hopeless; all of that - then we will be able to greet him with joy because by doing all of those things, we are spending the time of our lives looking for ways to cultivate joy.

    That’s how I understand Jesus’ admonition to keep awake. It’s not that Jesus wants us to be a bunch of insomniacs. It’s that, as we wait for his return, we ought always to be looking for ways in which we can make God’s kingdom a reality in our lives - so that when the day comes when God’s kingdom appears with unmistakable clarity, we will not be surprised by it. 

    And so, we enter the season of Advent. My prayer for us is that it will be a season of waiting and that we will all gain an appreciation for the waiting itself so that when the day comes that our waiting is at an end, we will be filled with a joyful satisfaction that we have spent our time well.