A Sermon for Advent 1, 2018 (Year C)

Advent, Sermon, Uncategorized

It is difficult to pay attention and stay alert with all the stimuli competing for our attention. There’s little wonder that we don’t have much left when it comes to being aware and present. I know this only too well as a parent—my biggest frustration and weakness is screaming coming from the backseat.

Much of what distracts us seems innocuous enough at first: media of whatever form, busy schedules, you know the noise I’m talking about.

We all need help learning how to negotiate, and ultimately minimize, these things.

But I wonder about those distractions that work on us at deeper, more existential level, like concerns about safety and well being, and the future. Or how about that underlying awareness, just at the edge of consciousness that death and destruction, both at home and abroad, is constant, pervasive, and inevitable. It’s so ubiquitous that we’re (almost) numb to it. And yet it eats at us. It’s a constant companion, the source of an underlying anxiety that colors our whole existence. And that anxiety, that ever present fear is a sign of our times.


A Sermon of the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Esther


queen_estherI wonder if you’ve ever felt threatened. I suppose all of us face significant danger in our lives at some point. But I wonder if you’ve ever felt threatened. Can you remember what it was like? What were you afraid of? Were you anxious about losing something or someone? Were you afraid that you or someone important would be harmed? Or were you afraid of what others might think of you? Were you trying to protect something. Maybe it was something valuable, perhaps property, or an heirloom, or a person. Or maybe it was your honor, your reputation, your status. 

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)


In the process of writing a sermon for a funeral this week I thought a lot about what it means to be remade in Christ’s image. The deceased’s family picked Matthew 18 as the first reading, an unusual but terrific decision. Jesus says there, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

This got me thinking about what we’re becoming. By we, I mean disciples of Jesus: people who have accepted that they stand as sinners in need of God’s forgiveness; people who recognize that they are powerless to bring about the kind of change in themselves that will truly matter; people who have heard and believe that God loves them regardless of their powerlessness. 

What happens to us when hear and believe this?

Transfiguration, Year A, 2017


A 15th Century Russian Icon, by Theophanes the Greek

Texts: Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Peter 1:13-21, Luke 9:28-36, Psalm 99

In her short story, the Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor symbolizes the glory of the transfiguration with a peacock. More precisely, her characters’ responses to that peacock show us how disruptive glory can be, and how easy it is to miss glory. For O’Connor, prejudice and hard-heartedness are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to perceiving glory.O’Connor depicts this in the character of Mrs. Shortly, whose blindness prevents her from truthfully beholding the glorious majesty of the peacock that lives on the farm. Mrs. Shortly has “unseeing eyes,” literally ignoring what’s immediately before her. Instead, Mrs Shortly prefers her delusional “inner visions,” daydreams in which her fantasies are fulfilled in grotesque and sociopathic ways. 

Another character, Mrs. MacIntyre, is also blind to the glory around her. But her blindness is of a more mundane and perhaps sympathetic sort, although we know that for O’Connor the mundane and relatable usually turn out to be the most destructive elements of her stories. Mrs. MacIntyre’s forgivable annoyance at the peacock and the remarkably efficient Polish immigrant who is resurrecting her declining farm becomes something nefarious, as Mrs. MacIntyre uses that annoyance to justify her complicity in the gruesome death of that immigrant. 

O’Connor wants us to see that glory is often perceived as disruption to the normal, efficient order of human affairs. It is a sad story to be sure, but a poignant demonstration about how our failure to perceive people and situations as they are — especially those that are right there in front of us — is not simply a failure of our eyes, but more importantly of our hearts. 
So too with the disciples in today’s gospel. Although the disciples aren’t quite the narcissistic and tragic characters of O’Connor’s story, there is nevertheless a moment, a subtle and mundane moment, when they come dangerously close to completely losing sight of what is taking place right before their eyes. Peter’s offer to build tiny houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah might be humorous, but it’s an example of the ways in which the heart, when overwhelmed, attempts to normalize and contain the overwhelming. 
In this case, Jesus appears in overpowering radiance, showing himself in divine splendor to the disciples. The disciples, in their awe, don’t know what to do, until Peter, making what appears to be a respectful gesture, offers to commemorate the moment with a memorial, a physical structure to symbolize the importance of the event. And yet, Peter’s offer serves another, unspoken purpose: Peter wants to block out the struggle with the mysterious and confusing thing taking place before his very eyes by institutionalizing it. Peter’s strategy is one that we’re familiar with: it’s one of avoidance. 
Just verses before today’s reading, Peter utters his famous confession that Jesus is the Christ. Now this confession comes after a series of vignette’s in which Jesus performs miracles and is confused for a resurrected John the Baptist. After asking the disciples who they think he is, and then hearing Peter’s confession, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be persecuted, executed, and then rise again after three days. We’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: this must have been disappointing and disruptive news, especially to the zealous among Jesus’ inner circle.
And yet, there, on the side of that mountain, in the presence of a transfigured Jesus, flanked by Moses and Elijah, Peter experiences something so overwhelming and perhaps quite confusing. Does Peter’s offer suggest that he doesn’t quite understand what it meant to say that Jesus is the Christ? 
It’s crucial to remember here that Peter, James, and John are on the side of the mountain in the first place because Jesus invited them there to pray, as he does with all of his disciples so often throughout Luke. For Jesus, Prayer is the key way he relates to and knows the Father, and the Father’s will. It’s how he is one with the Father. Through prayer, Jesus invites the Father to do his will in the World. And Jesus invites his disciples to be one with him and the Father through prayer. 
For Jesus, prayer shapes us; it shapes our desires, our habits of thinking, seeing, and hearing. Prayer, we might say, is how we see God, the world, and ourselves as we truly are.
So, It’s not surprising that Jesus would show himself truly to his disciples in this specific context, that is, in the context of prayer. For it is by, in, and through prayer that the Father and the Incarnate Son relate to one another, and likewise that God desires to deepen his relationship with his people. And of course, it shouldn’t be surprising to us that the disciples haven’t quite caught up with Jesus on this matter. Just as the disciples still have so much growing to do in their relationship with Jesus, they also have so much growing to do in the life of prayer. Prayer and relationship with Jesus work together, for it is only in prayer that the disciples will see Jesus in his glory. 
Going back to “The Displaced Person,” we see that O’Connor’s characters’ fundamental problem is their struggle to bend reality to their wills, to bend the servants and immigrants on the farm to their wills. And when that doesn’t work, they struggle to contain those people and events through more nefarious strategies. 
And of course, this is the human problem, isn’t it? We work so hard to domesticate life, to make things safe and secure that it’s easy in the midst of all this to confuse God for another one of these disruptions that we so detest, to add God and our neighbors to the list of things we need to domesticate, to contain. The disciples, in a seemingly innocuous gesture, are guilty of this very same posture. This is why the story of the Transfiguration is important, for God’s glory can not be contained.
Years later, we read that Peter is still contemplating this event. He recognizes now that the voice from heaven is not a disruption to his reality, but rather is the lamp, the light that shows him true reality. Peter challenges us, even today, to open ourselves up to this true light, the light of Christ, that is continues to reveal itself in the interior voice of the Spirit. Peter challenges us to be men and women moved by this Spirit. Indeed, to be transformed into such women and men, to be shaped by the Spirit in prayer, is to be transformed into the image of the transfigured Christ. Embrace this transformation, for doing so is the calling not of a select few, but is rather the true calling of all Christians.
Church of the Advent, Boston

Palm Sunday 2017 (Year A)


Readings: Phil 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11, and 26:14-27:66; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, and Psalm 31:9-16


Well, Christ has finally returned to Jerusalem, and what began with a disorganized reaction to Jesus in Matthew 12 has now become a serious plot. Temple authorities as high up as the High priest are leveling ridiculous charges, have a mole in Jesus’s inner circle, and apparently plan to push charges through the temple to the Roman governor even if they have to do it in the middle of the night.

There’s a reason we perform this story as a play. It’s high theatre. The characters are florid; there’s drama, tragedy, and even a touch of irony. And there’s the execution: Jesus’ body is put on public display in a grim display of Roman might over Israel. All of this needs time to unfold, so we begin with it today.

In memory of a mentor


My family moved to Arlington, VA from Montgomery, AL when I was 15. We’d been in Montgomery for a year and a half because my Dad’s job in Southern California had gone the way that so many of those engineering jobs had in the early 90’s. We scraped by for a couple years, but then he was offered a chance to go active duty again (in the Air Force), and so we moved. Montgomery was hard for me. I felt ostracized and weird, but it was there that I discovered the theological, spiritual, and intellectual sides of myself.

When we found out we were relocating again, this time to Arlington, I started to look for churches that were attending a youth event taking place in DC that I had heard about the previous year. I contacted the organizer to see if they knew of any churches in the Arlington area that were attending the conference. They gave me a list of two: a Baptist church in Arlington and an EV Free church in Annandale, VA. We tried both and eventually settled on the Baptist church. A big reason for this decision was my experience of the youth group.

This youth group met every wednesday night for small group meetings. The leader of the senior high boys’ small group was a guy named Dave Deforest. Dave had an uncanny ability to create a space of intense and focused discussion with boys that in any other situation would have been bouncing off the walls. Our group talked about theological doctrines, evaluated the roll of music in faith, and studied the Bible. Dave was confident enough in his role as teacher and mentor to open any issue up to conversation. I still remember listening to and then discussing musicians like Larry Norman with Dave.

It didn’t really strike me at the time how important this was for me… not because I didn’t enjoy it—I went every week. Rather, my intellect was being fed at the time. I think it felt so natural to me and I was soaking so much of it up that I didn’t have the time or interest to reflect on the second order aspect of it all. Looking back now, I see that the intentional community of intellect and faith that Dave fostered shaped so much of how I think about, feel about, and approach formation in faith.

Of course, there were dudes who were less fed by Dave’s approach, but looking back on it now, I’m grateful that he worked with me in the ways that he did. I remember Dave taking me to lunch while I was in college. We talked about what I was reading, we talked about Baptist ordinances vs. sacraments (a contentious topic!), we talked about ministry and the direction that the church was going. Dave respected my ideas and intellect, just as he had when I was in that high school small group. His respect and intentionality, both in high school and then later in college, made me want to rise to the occasion. Even though I didn’t do a great job staying in touch with Dave in later years, the relationship we had developed and his own model of integrating faith and understanding continues to make an impression on me, continues to influence the way that I thought about interacting with students of all ages.

Dave died last week. It was sudden to many of us. His memorial service was yesterday. I wasn’t able to attend, but I wanted to write this reflection on him as a way of honoring his memory and intellect, and as a way of saying good bye. Dave was a faith minister of Christ. He loved Jesus, and he loved the people of God. His witness to students throughout the years is evident from a quick glance at his facebook page—so many of the students that he worked with over the last couple decades wrote touching tributes to him. I would have expected nothing less. Dave helped so many of us find the substance and meat of the faith during vulnerable times in our lives. There’s a special calling for this, although we don’t always do the best job of recognizing these people in action. Sometimes they’re ordained. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re paid, and other times they’re volunteers. But the work they’re doing is of the utmost importance: they’re making disciples, and forming them in lasting ways.

So here’s to Dave.

Remember, O Lord, your good and faithful servant, Dave, who has gone before us with the sight of faith, and now rests in the sleep of peace. According to your promises, grant to him and to all who rest in Christ, refreshment, light, and peace; through the same Christ our Lord.

The Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)


John 4:5—42

John tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’”

I’d like to begin, if you’ll allow it, with a little history. The town of Sychar is in the region of Samaria that we just heard about. Sychar is the site of a well that John tells us is associated with Jacob. Accordingly, this site even in John’s and Jesus’ day was regarded as holy and significant. Sychar is near Shechem, which along with the city of Samaria, was one of the capitals of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. That kingdom, some of you might recall, was destroyed, and many of its inhabitants, dispersed, taken hostage, or killed. After the destruction of the northern kingdom, people in the southern kingdom, the capital of which was in Jerusalem, believed that they were the truly faith remnant of Abraham. Today, this well in Sychar lies within the town of Nablus in the West Bank, on the grounds of an Eastern Orthodox monastery.