Sermons

What Do We Do While Waiting?

Below is the sermon I preached at Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Hamden, CT on May 28th, 2017, Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A. The texts were Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today is a strange day in the church calendar. It is the Sunday after Ascension Day. It is the Sunday before Pentecost. It is the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. It is the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is a day to honor those who have fought and died for us; those who have fought and died for us in the fields of battle, and He who died for us on the Cross.

It seems there’s been a lot of dying in the news recently. The terrorists attack on concert-goers in Manchester, England, and on Christians in Minya, Egypt, and the stabbing deaths on a train in Portland, Oregon are reminders to us of the dangerous world we live in and the importance of those who have given their lives in wars around the world to protect our freedom and safety.

Ascension Day was Thursday, which we celebrate during our service today. We celebrate Jesus’ ascension as we hold onto the promise of Pentecost for next week, that God will send the Holy Spirit to us. Today marks the final week of the Easter Season together with the waiting for the season Pentecost. It is a time liturgy wonks argue about. Should the Pascal candle, celebrating Jesus presence here with us on earth after his resurrection be extinguished on Ascension day, or should it remain lit until Pentecost?

We are living through something similar here at Grace and St. Peters right now. We finished celebrating a beloved priest who has been with us for many years and has now left, and we are waiting for the arrival of our next priest. What should we be doing in this time of many unknowns?

It seems to capture a feeling many of us have right now; especially, those celebrating the birth of a new child, or the graduation of loved ones, the strange mixture of celebrating, mingled with the anticipation of what is to come next. We celebrate the birth of a child as we wait to see what she will grow up to be like. We celebrate graduations as we wait for the new graduates to head off to college or their first job. It raises the question, “What do we do while waiting?”

When I was in college, I was in the play “Waiting for Godot”, and part of the answer was, “we could do our exercises”. What are the exercises we should be doing right now, while we wait?

Today’s Gospel lesson gives us a hint: “Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Here we see the celebration of Jesus’ ascension, as well as hints about what is to come next, of Pentecost and eternal life. God is to be glorified, but in the midst of the pain and suffering around us like the attacks in Manchester England, in Minya, Egypt, and in Portland Oregon, as well as in our own turmoil and suffering, it can be hard to glorify God.

These are the exercises we need to be doing, becoming more grateful and thankful for what we have around us, in spite of current suffering. Glorifying God and showing appreciation to people around us in spite of current struggles.

I must confess, I’m not so great at giving God, or anyone, for that matter, the glory that is deserved. The liturgy, the prayer book, and related reminders help us a bit with giving God glory, but I really suck at expressing appreciation to those around me. There is so much suffering, complacency, and frankly, I’m just out of practice at giving God, and those around me, the thanks they are due.

The Epistle says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.”

The ordeals around us may not be particularly fiery; let us hope they aren’t. We all have ordeals in our lives which are very painful, but we’re not getting shot at for going to church or stabbed for protecting another person. We read the news and posts from friends online, and we hear so much more suffering. Personally, at times it feels really hard to rejoice, let alone rejoice in any sort of suffering and I certainly pray we don’t get to a place where we might be shot at for going to church.

A second thing that gets in the way of properly giving glory, showing gratefulness or thanksgiving, is our complacency, the tendency to take for granted all the wonderful things that are around us all the time. Every week day morning, I get up, eat my oatmeal, take a shower, and head off to work.

If you eat oatmeal pretty much every morning for breakfast, like I do, it is fairly easy to forget how wonderful it is to be able to have a nourishing breakfast every morning. It seems like just the same old oatmeal. But for too many people who are food insecure, a nice warm bowl of oatmeal each morning would be a great blessing.

Presiding Bishop Curry of the Episcopal Church, together with Presiding Bishop Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has called us to fast on the 21st day of each month through the end of next year “because that is the day when 90% of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits run out for families”.

Bishop Curry says, “Perhaps we in the Episcopal Church, perhaps we in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, perhaps we who are Christians and people of faith and goodwill have come to the kingdom for such a time as this, to help our country make sure that no child goes to bed hungry.” It is a way to advocate for children that go hungry in America. It is a way to remember to be grateful.

The same applies to the daily shower. 783 million people in the world do not have access to clean water. 2.5 billion don’t have access to adequate sanitation. A warm daily shower is an incredible blessing. We should be thankful for access to clean water and adequate sanitation. We should be advocating to improve access to clean water and sanitation.

Likewise, having a good job to go to, and the means to get there is another wonderful blessing that it is so easy to take for granted, especially when work is challenging or tedious.

Personally, I am also particularly blessed to have a wife who is a wonderful cook. When we manage to find time to sit down to dinner together, I can be pretty sure that it is going to be a great meal. When it is a great meal, which is pretty much always, well, that’s expected, and I too easily forget to tell Kim what a wonderful meal it was.

Yet there is another reason I really suck at giving praise, whether it be to God, or to those who do wonderful things around me. It just isn’t the way I was brought up. It isn’t something I’m well practiced at. When I was a child, my father was a perfectionist. It felt like nothing I could do was ever good enough. It felt like I never got sufficient acclaim for my successes, so I never learned to give acclaim to others.

I know this is something I need to get a lot better at. Many of you are much better at it that I am, but I suspect we all could get a lot better at showing gratitude and being thankful. We should all practice being more thankful, showing more gratitude, not only for ourselves, but for those who could learn from our example.

What might it be like, if we were all more grateful, more thankful? The Epistle says a little bit about this, “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you”. The Gospel adds to it with this: Jesus, speaking about the disciples who would see the Ascension, and, indeed about all of us, says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

You know, when I hear people talking about “knowing God and Jesus Christ” it raises all kinds of concerns for me. It does seem like we all “know God” on some certain level. I know who the President of the United States is. He’s not a personal friend of mine, and there are plenty of things it seems we disagree on, but I know who he is. I suspect many people have similar relationships with God. Sure, they know of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. They might even make it to church regularly, but God might still feel like a bit of an abstract concept or a distant being, not a personal friend, but someone they disagree with.

At the other end of the spectrum, too often, I’ve heard people ask “Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” I have a lot of issues with this, too. It makes Jesus Christ sound like some sort of buddy, or BFF – best friend forever - which I don’t really have a big problem with in and of itself, but it often feels like it is used to separate the “cool kids who are Christian” from all of the other people who might not really be cool or Christian.

It also too often feels like takes away a little bit from the aspect of God as majestic, mysterious, transcendent; of God, the unknowable, surpassing human understanding; of Jesus Christ who died, rose again, and ascended in heaven.

So, what does it mean to know God, today, this Memorial Day Weekend, 2017, the beginning of Ramadan, the Sunday after the Ascension and before Pentecost?

There is an old saying that a good sermon should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Perhaps is a good way to look at the challenge of today’s lessons. Are you grieving? Know that God loves you, that amidst our pain and suffering God does in fact, bring hope and healing.

Do you have problems being grateful or thankful? A lot of us do. Let’s work on it together. Let’s do our exercises together. Let’s practice being aware of the simple blessings, even as simple as a nice bowl of oatmeal, or a warm shower. Let’s make an effort to show our thankfulness, not only to God, but also to those around us.

Is God a nice idea to you, but not someone you know, that you spend time with? Spend time in prayer, perhaps just quietly listening, waiting for God. Does your sense of God lack mystery and majesty? Spend time thinking about the Ascension.

Think about the end of today’s Psalm:

Ascribe power to God; his majesty is over Israel; his strength is in the skies. How wonderful is God in his holy places!

Today’s Gospel is part of a larger context. It is the longest prayer of Jesus in the Gospels; The “High Priestly Prayer”, part of the Farewell Discourse. The prayer ends with Jesus praying, “that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

Jesus is praying for our oneness with one another and with God, a oneness that is both personal and profound, a oneness that helps us get past our pain, suffering, fear, complacency, or even lack of practice of showing love to God and one another. Let us pray this ourselves.

Ascribe power to God; his majesty is over Israel; his strength is in the skies. How wonderful is God in his holy places! the God of Israel giving strength and power to his people! Blessed be God!

Amen.

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Sermon for Chapel on the Green, Mother’s Day, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2017

Below is the prepared text for a sermon I preached at Chapel on the Green in New Haven, CT on May 14th, 2017, Mother's Day, Fifth Sunday of Easter Year A. The texts were Acts 7:55-60,Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, or Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Happy Mother’s Day. I was undecided about whether to talk about Mother’s day today. It is a hard day for many of us. My mother died in a car accident during Hurricane Sandy four and a half years ago. Friends of mine have struggled to become mothers or have lost their children. Mother’s day is hard for many of us. Yet the ideal of motherhood, of unconditional love, is something we hear about in the lessons today.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we here the phrase, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”. It’s a lovely thought, but what does this say to us, here, today? Usually, when people talk about this, they are talking about some future time, a time when Jesus returns. Jesus goes on to say, “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Yeah, it’s a lovely thought, but for some of us, hearing that “things will be better sometime in the future” can feel pretty empty.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”. What does this really have to say to us, here, today? What does this say to those of us who have been dwelling on a friend’s couch, a park bench, or under a bridge? What does it say to those of us who are living with turmoil and strife?

Perhaps we can get some ideas about this by thinking about what Jesus says a little later on: “so that where I am, there you may be also.” How much of the time do we really feel that we are where Jesus is? What does that feel like anyway? Later on, Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me”. Do we feel this sort of closeness with God?

Again, when we are living with turmoil and strife, God often doesn’t feel that close. When we are distracted by all that is going on around us. God doesn’t often feel that close.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”. Even when God doesn’t feel that close, the invitation remains. We are invited to dwell with God. We are invited to let our minds dwell on God’s loving kindness towards us.

The Psalm is a good example of how we can accept this invitation. “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge”. A refuge is a special type of dwelling. It is a place of safety, of shelter from danger. We all face dangers daily. Beside physical dangers, we face the danger of being distracted by all that is around us. We face the danger of forgetting that what really makes us safe is God. We face the danger of forgetting what it is like to dwell in God.

So, what is it like to dwell in God? This isn’t something we tend to think or talk about much these days. Perhaps some of it is when we look to people who seem to dwell in God, they seem somehow different from the rest of us.

Look at St. Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. His love for God appears unconditional. Even as Stephen gets killed he prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. Really? I don’t want to be a martyr. I have a hard enough time asking the God forgive someone who has simply been unkind to me. St. Stephen seems to do more than I could ever dream of. Yet in old Christian texts, you find people talking about how they want to become martyrs for Christ, to win the martyr’s crown of gold.

So, what is it like to dwell in God? God just doesn’t seem to be a big part of many people’s lives these days. It’s sad really, because dwelling with God can be wonderful. Feeling God’s peace, love, and joy can be wonderful.

Recently, I heard a great poem by Raymond Carver:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Dwelling in God is to feel oneself beloved. It is feeling too few of us feel very often. It is a feeling all of us long for. So let me pause for a moment for each of you to hear this. Listen closely. You are beloved. You are special. God created you to do something very special. You are beloved. You are special. God created you to do something very special.

What are we created to do? Mother Theresa says, “We have been created in order to love and to be loved.”

This ability to love those around us, even when they might seem unlovable is something truly amazing. It is how we dwell in God. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these”

Greater works than the works of Jesus? That seems really hard to imagine, but it is part of the promise Jesus makes to us. The works Jesus did were based on him showing God’s love to us. He showed that love to us in healing those around him. He showed that love to us by feeding those around him. He showed that love to us by accepting those around him.

But that area around him was limited. He was just one person, after all. He didn’t have the modern means of travel or communications that we have. We are called to do the works he did around us, to feed, to heal, to love. And part of what can make our works greater is our ability to do these works, not only in Israel, but here in New Haven, here in Connecticut, across the country and around the globe.

True, we may not love as perfectly as Jesus loved us. We may not ever heal a leper or raise a person from the dead, but the vastness of this ability to love is truly amazing if we allow ourselves to love, and if we allow ourselves to be loved.

And this presents another challenge, not only must we choose to love, we must choose to let others love us. The song Desperado comes to mind.

Desperado, why don't you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate
It may be rainin', but there's a rainbow above you
You better let somebody love you (let somebody love you)
You better let somebody love you before it's too late

Can we let those around us love us, in spite of our own brokenness? In spite of having been told, too often, that we are not good enough? Can we let Jesus love us, in spite of our own brokenness? In spite of knowing all the things we’ve done wrong in the past?
“You better let somebody love you.”

Perhaps this helps better understand the verse we started with. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”. We can enter the dwelling place of the heart of Jesus. We can let Jesus love us and we need to respond with love. We can let God change our hearts to also be dwelling places of love. We can hold those around us in our hearts and allow those around us to hold us in their hearts. We can let somebody love us.

Because God does love us. There are people around us that love us. And even though it might not always feel that way, we can know, that along with Raymond Carver, we are beloved on the earth.

God loves you. It isn’t just a nice phrase to say to try and cheer someone up. It is a way of life we are all called to. God loves you. I love you. Now go forth and love one another, even as God has loved us. Amen.

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Speaking What The Lord Commands

Below is the prepared text for the sermon I preached at Grace and St. Peter's in Hamden, CT, August 21, 2016, Proper 16, Year C, Track 1. The texts were Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

Last Sunday, Amanda left us with the question: what does Jesus’ challenge to the status quo mean for us today? a status quo where some people do not have the same opportunities to enjoy God’s creation as others do, because of the family they were born into, the job they have, their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or many other things that the powers of this world use to disadvantage others.

This week’s lesson provides us an opportunity to explore this more deeply, on a personal level. When we look at systemic racism, sexism, and all the other forms of oppression, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, to feel as if we can’t make a difference, to say with Jeremiah, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy”. Perhaps, to bring this a little closer to our own lives, we can replace the word ‘boy’ with whatever describes our lack of confidence, our feelings of inadequacy or being disempowered.

The Lord doesn’t buy it. The Lord responds,

"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,

True, we are not called to the same calling as Jeremiah, but we are called to show God’s love to our neighbors. It reminds me of an old quote from Maggie Kuhn, often seen on bumper stickers today, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes”.

As a writer, how we put words together is very important to me. It is important for me to think about the words we use regularly, words we often don’t think enough about.

How do we communicate that it is time to sit down and listen to the sermon? Amanda uses a simple gesture. Paul talks about seeking to speak now in the name of the Living God. How often do we stop and think about what it means to talk of God as a Living God. God’s not just a concept, or something that created the world and then sat back to see what happens. God is a Living God who can put The Lord’s words in our mouths.

Others like to emphasize the inclusive aspect of God being a Living God, speaking in terms of what God does, creator, redeemer, and sustainer, instead of using words that might make it harder for some of us to relate to God because issues in our own lives, words like Father, Son, or Ghost.

I like to use the words of Psalm 19 like I did this morning. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, o Lord, my strength and my redeemer. I remember when I was running for political office, and that verse came to mind. Would that all politicians would say Psalm 19 verse 14 to themselves before they speak.

Others like to ask for God’s inspiration with the words, “Come Holy Spirit”.

Come, Holy Spirit – What makes you want to speak up? What inspires your words?

It is easy to think that Jeremiah was different. He had a special calling in a special time. He was called to proclaim great words. What does that have to do with us today? In asking this, we are, perhaps being more like Jeremiah than we would like to admit. “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am not like Jeremiah”, or “I don’t have important things to say.”

We do have important things to say, and today, as much as any day, we need God’s love proclaimed. Before the Gospel, we sang,

Be thou our great deliverer still,
thou Lord of life and death;
restore and quicken, soothe and bless,
with thine almighty breath:

We need God to be our great deliverer still. We also need to let God restore, quicken, soothe and bless through us. Too often, we don’t recognizing the importance of the words we say or hear. “How are you?” “I care”. “You matter”. “Have a nice day”. “You’re beautiful”. “Peace”. “God loves you”. These simple words are key to empowering the disempowered, to helping end the status quo of oppression that Amanda spoke about last week, to restore, quicken, soothe and bless.

Robert Kennedy spoke about a “ripple of hope”

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, …:”

and here, I’d add “or simply says a kind word”.

“he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

With this as a starting point, let us approach the Gospel lesson for today. When I read stories in the Bible, I like to ask myself, who am I in this story. Often, I am simply the observer. I am watching this great preacher whom I’ve heard so much about heal someone and then get drawn into a power struggle with an opponent playing Gotcha politics.

The leader of the synagogue, instead of seeing something wonderful that has happened, accuses Jesus of not playing by the rules. He engages Jesus in Gotcha politics, and we sit back, watch, and look for favorite person to deliver a stunning rebuke. If you’re following any discussions about the U.S. Presidential election this year, and especially if you’ve participated in such discussions on Facebook, this may sound very familiar, but I also suspect that many of these words may not always be acceptable in the Lord’s sight.

If someone were healed from eighteen years of suffering, I suspect most of us would be elated, unless of course, it triggered our own feelings of inadequacy. Why couldn’t I have performed the healing? What was it like for the leader of the synagogue to have this itinerant preacher show up and address an issue that has been there for eighteen years, and probably seemed unsolvable to many?

Perhaps, we are more like the woman getting healed. What did she do? The lesson starts off with

And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment."

Notice, that unlike a different woman Jesus healed, we don’t find this one saying, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed”. This woman just shows up. I wonder if she even thought that healing was possible. She just showed up, day after day, year after year, with perhaps no hope of being healed, and then one day, unexpectedly Jesus came and healed her. Sometimes, just showing up is what we need to do and our ailments will be unexpectedly healed.

Also notice that this woman had a very visible infirmity. “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over” In the story of the other woman that Jesus healed, we read “He turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’… Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it.” Her infirmities were not obvious. The brokenness of those around us are also not often obvious. There are invisible disabilities. We are often unaware of the chronic illness and chronic pain around us. There is mental illness. Nearly one in five people in America suffer from mental illness. This doesn’t even include the daily struggles each of us face, the griefs so many of us carry. The odds are that you, or someone sitting near you right now is struggling. There is a lot of healing to be done.

Perhaps, sometimes, we can even be a little bit like Jesus, bringing unexpected healing. The feast of St. Clare of Assisi was a few weeks ago and various people were sharing a great quote from her,

“We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God´s compassionate love for others.”

We are called to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others, to be more Christ like, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to heal those who have been suffering for a long time, perhaps with very simple words of healing that the Lord gives us, words like, “How are you?” “I care”. “You matter”. “Have a nice day”. “You’re beautiful”. “Peace”. “God loves you”.

The story in the Gospel illustrates that every day is a day to show God’s love, to heal people, to set them free from bondage. It seems like too often in these current times, we only look for healing, or look to heal others on Sunday, one day out of seven, which is probably worse than what the leader of the synagogue was suggesting of looking for healing on six days out of the week.

How do we stand with Jesus challenging a status quo where some people do not have the same opportunities to enjoy God’s creation as others do? We do it by letting God give us words of love to those around us. We do it by letting God give us the courage to speak, even when our voice is shaking.

After the sermon, we will pray for all people, we will confess that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, we will share the peace. We will sing about coming in joy to meet our Lord. We will celebrate the Eucharist. At the end of the service, we will sing “O for a thousand tongues to sing”

My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim
and spread through all the earth abroad
the honors of thy Name.

Let our voices be part of those thousand voices.

He speaks, and listening to his voice,
new life the dead receive;
the mournful broken hearts rejoice,
the humble poor believe.

May our voices be those that the Lord speaks through, bringing words of hope and healing.

We will then be dismissed with the words “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord”.

These words, like the other words we’ve been talking about, are not just simple words that we say to mark the conclusion the service. These words relate directly back to Jeremiah.

"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,

As we go in peace to love and serve the Lord, may seek to show God’s love to all around us, every day.

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Pray Without Ceasing

Our Rector at Grace and St. Peter's is out on maternity leave, and various members of the congregation are filling in as guest preachers. Today was my turn. For my text, I used the Gospel lesson of the day, Luke 11:1-13, where Jesus give the disciples The Lord's Prayer. Below is the sermon I preached.

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