Category: Sermons and Reflections

Sermon: Whose Kingdom?

Proper 22, Year B, RCL
7 October 2018

There’s a comedic fantasy series you may be aware of, commonly called the Discworld books, by the late and great Terry Pratchett. If you haven’t read any Pratchett and want to, you can google up whole flowcharts as to which of the many books in this series you want to start with, but personally, my favorites are the ones in which Granny Weatherwax appears. Granny Weatherwax is an old and cantankerous witch, who doesn’t hold with highfalutin educated language but is very powerful and dedicated to helping people in need — the salt of the earth but definitely not the sugar of the earth. In one of these books, she has a conversation with a young man about the nature of sin.

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin, for example,” says the young man.
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” answered Granny.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“Nope.”
“Pardon?”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that–“
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–“
“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

Today’s readings are all about the consequences of thinking about people as things. Let’s start with the gospel. When I was growing up, this gospel passage was one of the scary texts that people would use against others. “Don’t get divorced!” seemed to be the main thrust of it. “And if you do get divorced, you can’t remarry or you’ll have broken one of the Ten Commandments!” And nobody ever made a distinction between men and women in talking about these verses — the assumption was that this saying of Jesus applied in the same manner both to husbands and to wives. And given his talk with his disciples, it does seem like that. Continue reading “Sermon: Whose Kingdom?”

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Sermon: Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given

Proper 14, Year B, RCL
12 August 2018

I try not to look at Facebook too much these days — or at least, when I get on there, I scroll as quickly as possible through all the random photos and links and placards of outrage and shallow quotations and horrifying news, just looking for the basic updates of my friends’ lives. But even as I scroll past all of that, I can’t help some things just sticking with me.

One of those things was a picture. A small child, a refugee, who had been separated from her family, found herself with a piece of chalk. With the chalk, she drew an outline of her mother on the hard concrete. Then she curled up in a little ball over the chalk-mother’s heart and went to sleep.

Now, like a lot of you, I have been pretty exhausted of my capacity for galvanizing rage and compassion. So the reason why I keep returning to this image in my mind has less to do with a feeling of urgency to help that particular child and others like her, and more to do with how that child, that particular child, is bearing witness to something going on in all of our hearts.

A person can be provided for with all the basics necessary for physical life — food, clean water, safe shelter, warmth. But cut a person off from their source of blessing — from the gaze and the voice telling them that they are loved and claimed permanently — and they become lost and bewildered. The basic provisions become irrelevant, even useless. This is a wound that can follow us all of our lives, and so we find ourselves trying to get back to the source somehow, drawing in chalk a placeholder image that we can go to for our blessing.

Elijah found himself in a similar situation. He fled into the wilderness because the king of Israel was seeking out the prophets of God and putting them to death. He was trying to exterminate the very ones who were called to keep God’s people connected with their source of blessing. He was exhausted and heartsick. He said to God, “I am no better than my ancestors. Just kill me.”

Now why would Elijah say that, if he is the prophet trying to recall Israel to their best selves? His failure to speak an effective word was so devastating that it seemed to drag him down along with his people. His failure has cut him off from the same sense of blessing he was trying to bear witness to. He is exhausted and heartsick. So what does God do about this? Well, the first thing God does…is feed him. God doesn’t try to argue with Elijah, not yet. God feeds Elijah, and Elijah finds the strength to get up and walk to Mount Horeb. To Mount Horeb, the historical place where Israel was incorporated as a people. God gives Elijah what he needs so that he can get back to the source, where, in the next passage, he will discuss the problem with God and decide what to do about it.

And in today’s passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus makes explicit what is implied by Elijah’s story. Yes: it is important to feed the people of God with physical food — generously, abundantly, ungrudgingly. And what makes that feeding effective and worthwhile — the point of feeding people — is so that they will feel the contact between themselves and the source of their blessing. Jesus says baldly: “I am the bread of life. I am the source of your blessing. I am God’s Word spoken to you, to claim you and name you the Beloved. Believe. This physical food keeps your body going, but it’s the blessing that will give you the real life. And you can try to draw this blessing for yourself, but…it’s just chalk. The real Source draws you.”

We can see from these passages what it means to need our source of blessing. We can see that it’s a deeper and more fundamental need even than food and water. And we can see what it is to cut someone else off from that source, because all of us have some idea of what it’s like to be cut off ourselves. The monk and theologian Henri Nouwen says: “To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with such a reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this. Every time we hear about ‘chosen people’, ‘chosen talents’, or ‘chosen friends’, we almost automatically start thinking about elites and find ourselves not far from feelings of jealousy, anger, or resentment. Not seldom has the perception of others as being chosen led to aggression, violence, and war.” We cannot afford to be jealous of our blessing. To hoard the blessing is to kill it.

In today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians, we hear this: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, for that Spirit is the seal with which you were marked for the day of final liberation…. Be generous to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. In a word, as God’s dear children, you must be like him. Live in love as Christ loved you and gave himself up on your behalf, an offering and sacrifice whose fragrance is pleasing to God.”

Just like the bread that Jesus held up at the feeding of the multitude, just like the bread that we will watch the priest hold up in the Eucharist, God has taken us up: chosen us. God has pronounced a blessing over us. With our consent God breaks us; and then God gives us away. Just like Jesus. Not just chalk.

Our mission…should we choose to accept it…is to magnify, propagate, and channel the Source of blessing, through our very brokenness, through our very exhaustion, through our very complicity in the sins of our people. These are the conditions — there are no others — in which God sustains us, and draws us, and gives us what we need to keep going. Our very exhaustion, if we make an offering of it, is something God can use. After all, Jesus took a boy’s lunch and served it to five thousand people. And then he sent his disciples out with baskets to collect the leftovers, “so that nothing will be lost.”

Realize: God is paying attention to the broken pieces. Because those pieces have been personally blessed. God will not see one person lost. God will not see one person left unchosen. So when we give our alms today, let us make an offering of ourselves as we actually are. And when we take communion, let it give us the strength that we need. And when we share our lives together, let us remember that it is God who does the impossible stuff. Our jobs are bite-sized jobs. Let us taste and see that the Lord is good, and take joy in trusting him.

Let us pray again together today’s Collect.

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: The Hidden Kingdom

Proper 6, Year B, RCL
17 June 2018

When I was growing up my family used to have a subscription to the National Geographic magazine, and I always looked forward to seeing the maps and pictures of artifacts and amazing vistas from all over the world. I would pore over each new issue looking for glimpses of the world beyond what I could see by walking out my own front door.

But some of the articles were not simply fascinating; they gave me a frisson of sympathetic horror — underwater photos taken of debris from the Titanic, bones in ancient tombs, glyphs and monuments of civilizations destroyed long ago. One image has stuck with me: I can still call it vividly to mind. It was from one of the articles about the city of Pompeii, destroyed by an eruption of the volcano in whose shadow it lived. Archaeologists had not only uncovered the city interrupted in its daily life and preserved in all its detail like a fly in amber; they had also found the remains of people caught in their very attempt to save themselves. One such cluster of bones had been preserved so perfectly that you could see exactly what their last moments had been like: a large skeleton, curled shieldingly around a smaller skeleton, curved still more protectively over a tiny one.

Of these three people there is nothing for us to know, except this. Only their bones are left to testify to us about their lives and deaths. Their names, their occupations, their experiences, are all hidden in the flow of ash and time that exiled them from us living in the present.

Bones don’t seem like much of a testimony. But to the twentieth-century scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, bones and fossils built up in him a deep, unshakable conviction of the hidden presence of God in our material lives. Teilhard became a priest on the strength of this conviction, and testified in his prayers and writings of the blazing compassion and involvement of God in every detail of the world, whether we could observe it or not. And more than that, he believed that we as Christians are charged with the responsibility of not just testifying to, but helping to mediate the growth of the universe into what God desires for it.

The scriptures today are all about the hidden dimensions of our lives. In the story of David’s anointing we hear that Samuel has gone to Bethlehem in obedience to God’s secret command to identify a new king for Israel. Jesse shows all his sons to Samuel one by one, and though to Samuel’s eye they are all likely-looking men, God says to Samuel, “I can see what you can’t. I am looking at their hearts. And none of these will serve.” Samuel finally asks Jesse if he has any more sons to look at, and Jesse has the youngest pulled in from from his work watching the flocks. This is a recurring theme in the Hebrew scriptures: the unlikely younger son becomes God’s chosen, to further the divine plans for the world. The story tells us he was good-looking from the outside point of view, and more than that, God saw that he was ready and responsive to bear the charge of the Spirit. Continue reading “Sermon: The Hidden Kingdom”

Lisa’s Sermon: Intimacy

Lent 5, Year B, RCL
18 March 2018

Every year when my Community, the Rivendell Community, gets together for our annual meeting, we always make sure to carve out time in the agenda for telling stories. In part, we want to tell the stories of our twenty years of life together for the benefit of our new postulants who don’t yet know them. But also we want to tell the stories for our own benefit, not just to reaffirm our memories, but to reinterpret them. And not just to reinterpret them, but to let them reinterpret what is going on right here and right now. Because of that, the stories of our life together are as vastly important as any other business on the agenda — our lives are knitted together by these stories.

There’s something similar going on in today’s readings: there are at least three backstories going on in this passage from John’s Gospel, stories that knit together our understanding of what’s going on and interpret and reinterpret one another, past interpreting future and future interpreting past. Continue reading “Lisa’s Sermon: Intimacy”

Lisa’s Sermon: Surprise, Arizona

Lent 3, Year B, RCL
4 March 2018

About a week or so ago, I happened to look at my phone and saw a little baseball icon in the notifications ribbon. When I tapped it, I discovered that the Royals had won a Spring Training game against the LA Dodgers in Surprise, Arizona. I said, “It can’t be Spring Training already! It’s February!”

Well, it may have been February, but Spring Training has definitely arrived. Along with other signs of the change in season: a ponderous lift of the temperature, an appearance of the sun like a magnificent athlete yawning his way luxuriously out into the open morning…and, of course, for us in the church — Lent.

Every year when Lent arrives it catches me with an oh-wait-I-wasn’t-ready sort of feeling. Picking reading material, planning special disciplines — when it comes to the point I often have to hurry to get my Lenten game on, even if I’d given it some thought. And because there are infinite ways to approach the specific disciplines of Lent, it’s easy to get bewildered and lose sight of why we undertake prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for forty days before Easter. So, let’s talk about those three disciplines in the context of today’s readings. Continue reading “Lisa’s Sermon: Surprise, Arizona”

Lisa’s Sermon: Allegiance

Proper 29, Year A, RCL (Christ the King)
26 November 2017

Every so often, when I feel like I need a shot of energy for my day, I look up a good action movie scene on Youtube — like the parkour scene from Casino Royale, for example. Daniel Craig as James Bond is chasing this bomber guy through a construction site, jumping off cranes, plowing through drywall, swinging down scaffolding, spreading havoc in their wake. Can you imagine trying to work with James Bond in the vicinity? But explosions and chaos and flying bullets is James Bond’s job. My job, fortunately, does not involve any parkour or car chases or hails of bullets; but it is nice to live vicariously for about seven minutes while I’m answering emails.

It’s nice because, despite being so perilous and chaotic, an action chase scene seems simple, almost lighthearted. There’s a massive disruption of business as usual, but that disruption is for the greater good, and it doesn’t upset the ultimate balance of the world around. Indeed, disruptions like this are often meant to restore that balance in some way. Somebody is going to save the day. Continue reading “Lisa’s Sermon: Allegiance”

Sermon: The Instruments of Peace

Feast of Francis of Assisi
1 Oct 2017

So it turns out that Francis of Assisi didn’t actually write the “Prayer of Saint Francis.”

The prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” did not appear anywhere until shortly before World War I. At one point it was circulated on a prayer card with St. Francis on the front of it, and so it quickly grew to be associated with the saint. There’s a saying very similar to this prayer, collected from one of Francis’s close companions, Giles of Assisi:

Blessed is he who loves and does not therefore desire to be loved;
Blessed is he who fears and does not therefore desire to be feared;
Blessed is he who serves and does not therefore desire to be served;
Blessed is he who behaves well toward others and does not desire that others behave well toward him;
And because these are great things, the foolish do not rise to them.

(I checked Twitter to see if that would fit in 140 characters…alas, it doesn’t. But if you happen to be one of those whom Twitter has given the new experimental double-character limit, you’re in luck. It’s 233 characters and you can even fit in the author’s name. I’m just saying, if you happen to have this privilege, here’s an opportunity to use it for good.)

(As our Presiding Bishop likes to say, Oh, I’m gonna get in trouble now.) Continue reading “Sermon: The Instruments of Peace”

Sermon: The Quarry of Love

The Quarry of Love

27 August 2017

Proper 16, Year A, RCL

Not far from where I live is the Thomas Hart Benton house, which is now a curated state monument, his studio preserved exactly as he left it so that people may observe the last snapshot of a great artist at work. But although the neighborhood is full of signs pointing to the location, it’s hard to pick the house out from its surroundings, because its natural state is so similar to the nature of many other houses around it. “Built of native limestone,” the tour blurbs say, which, when you look at other houses in the neighborhood, seems like ironic understatement: you wonder if there’s any native material but limestone in Kansas City. Some houses are made of stones so undressed that they look as if they had been dug straight out of the ground and plastered into place; some even have retaining walls in front with stones studded along the top like crenellations. “Welp, we’ve got all these rocks, might as well make a front gate out of ‘em too,” you can imagine the masons saying.

These houses look sturdier than their brick neighbors, like extensions of the earth on which the whole city is planted; as if nothing could shake them. They look immovable, cemented permanently into place. Continue reading “Sermon: The Quarry of Love”