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Summum Bonum

September 08, 2019

In retrospect, it was on Easter Sunday 1974 that I became a disciple.

It was my freshman year at Amherst College. You may have heard me say that the stupidest creature on planet earth is a college freshman. I was speaking on evidence of my own experience. On Easter Eve, I lost badly at beer pong and from there my night went south. Sunday morning, I stumbled out of bed to go to church for Easter service at Grace Episcopal on the town common. I arrived late. Sounds of brass, timpani, and “Welcome Happy Morning” floated towards me through the open door. When I heard them my heart filled up and tears poured out. Music does that to me. It opens the floodgates. This was an emotional epiphany, that I wasn’t being true to things I knew and felt to be important, that were in those sounds floating through the door. I was mad at my stupidity. It had been months since I had been to church. No one else I knew was going. We freshman had other fish to fry. But I decided that day to start. Grace Church offered a Eucharist late Sunday afternoons, in its small chapel, usually just four or five people with an old priest. From that Easter forward through the next three years I always went alone and almost never missed. I believed the music and I followed.

Jesus turned to them and said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Do I hate my father, God rest his soul? Quite the opposite. The worst pain I’ve felt in sixty-four years of life was watching his slow decline into dementia. I love my father. I love my mother and my sisters too. (Today is my late sister Neil’s birthday, I pray in heaven.) My most difficult night as Dean was the night before my mother died on our farm in Louisiana. It was a Saturday night and I had a wedding. I was scheduled to preach the next morning. The call came that mother was very sick. “How sick?” It was hard to say, but it might not be long. “How long?” No one knows. So do I go or do I stay?  I had gone another time and it had been a false alarm. I decided to stay for the wedding and Sunday morning church, then drove fast to Louisiana.

Weighing options, choosing as best one can—such is the life of a disciple. Mother waited until I got there, then, surrounded by her children, died. There is no hate in any part of that—just love.

Do I hate my wife? Obviously not. That would be a broken promise and unanswered prayer. Right on these steps I promised Julie I would love, comfort, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others be faithful to her as long as we both would live. At the rail our promises were blessed: Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts. Forty-one years later we are going strong.

Do we hate our children? Are we nuts? They are our pride and joy. We love their spouses too. We adore our grandchild Rosie. In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a father tells his son his love for him is like the grace of God: “Your existence is a delight to me.” Our love for our children is God-like. We know this as disciples.

Balm in Gilead

August 25, 2019

[We] have come . . . to the city of the living God, . . . to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.1

The sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.  The blood of Abel takes us back to the Genesis story about the conflict between two brothers.  It speaks of division and injustice and violence and revenge and death. We are still hearing stories like this; every day we hear stories like this.     

Our Scripture this morning points us toward the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word—a word from our wounded and resurrected Jesus who draws us into kinship through expressions of grace and compassion and faith and hope and healing and Love and Life.  And this kind of kingdom, the letter of Hebrews says, cannot be shaken.

When we walk into a Church—a capital “C” Church which is the living body of Christ, there should be a balm in that Gilead.  We have come to the balm of Gilead, which is healing, Divine Love. And that healing balm of Gilead makes communion with our living, loving God possible.  That should move our hearts to thanks and praise, with reverence and awe for the grace we have received.  To worship is to encounter God, to hear God's voice, to be transformed by it. True worship does not leave us as we are, rather, it makes us into a conduit for the grace we have received, so that we can carry that healing balm into our world, connecting one another to God’s Love.  

St. Luke gives us an example:    

While Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath, a woman appears who has a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was unable to stand up straight. Jesus sees her, calls her over and tells her she is free from her ailment. And when Jesus lays his hands on her, immediately she stands up straight and began praising God.

This woman, this unnamed daughter of Abraham, hadn’t even asked for healing, but she experienced the compassionate touch of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the touch that upheld her, that filled her with grace, that healed her with the power of his Love.  2And she began praising God.  

There is conflict and tension in this story—a certain religious leader thought the healing was at the wrong time, in the wrong place.  Jesus counters with a Golden Rule kind of logic. Perhaps that Golden Rule logic helped the crowd to recognize their own face in the face of the woman, or in the voice of the synagogue leader’s objections.  Because, then, the entire group of witnesses echoed the woman’s praise by rejoicing themselves. We don’t know the rest of the woman’s story, but in that moment, she becomes a conduit for that same grace.  She offers praise for God’s good grace, and now, others rejoice, too. Love is contagious.  

Interpreting the Present Time

August 18, 2019

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Forty years ago I entered seminary, after a year at Harvard preparing, I thought, for a career in academia. “The History of American Civilization” was the name of my department, which sounds a little puffed up. Everywhere else they called it American Studies, which is what I had majored in at Amherst College. I took courses like “The History of the South Since the Civil War,” and “Race and Ethnicity.” I wrote papers on immigration and assimilation. My college honors thesis was on busing. I had lived it and was for it academically.

I left all that to be a priest.

At SUMMA last month I was lecturing about our faith as an intellectual tradition. Traditions, by definition, have core beliefs and practices. To illustrate the concept, I asked the class, “What might we say is the core of the American tradition?” I was thinking along lines of some truths we have held to be self-evident. With something else in mind, a bright student raised her hand. “Racism,” she declared. There was a murmur in the room.

There was a wonderful movie out last year called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It was a documentary about Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers’s word to children was “I love you as you are.” He knew that children often feel unlovable. As we all do, in his lower moments Mr. Rogers felt that way himself sometimes. One of his sock puppets was a tiger named Daniel. Daniel, in a low mood, sang of his own un-lovability. But the song was a duet. In a soothing and insistent voice, Lady Aberlin sang back with reassurance. You are lovable, I know because I love you. Back and forth they sang, insecurity/assurance, unbelief, and gospel. The larger truth was clearly in the voice of reassurance but this greater truth was gentle with the insecurity, careful not to drown it out. The whole truth was in that interplay of unbelief and love.

“The History of American Civilization” is a duet. 400 years ago next week a boat with twenty slaves aboard arrived in Jamestown. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, invites us to remember and honor “those who came as enslaved, who came to a country that one day would proclaim liberty.” Slavery and liberty: those two counter ideologies shaped our history.

Martin Luther King called them “the two dominant and contradictory strains in the American psyche.” In colonial America, slavery had the head start, as Dr. King points out. “Our democratic heritage was the later devolvement. . . .Democracy, born in the 18th century, took from John Locke . . . the theory of natural rights . . . and imbued it with the ideal of a society governed by the people.” King quotes Thomas Paine: “We have the power to begin the world over again.”[i] Now we were singing a duet.

Worship in Church & Mass Shootings Outside

August 11, 2019

We’ve had quite a week in our country. The aftermath of two mass shootings took place just last weekend. CBS news presented this definition of a mass shooting: a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms. In 2019 in America so far, we have had 219 mass shootings according to this definition. As of last Monday, this averages out to one a day – an average of one time each day this year four or more people have been murdered with a gun in one-time incidents.

Notice I used the word “we” when I described this – “we” have had this. It can feel a bit frayed in this time, but our nation is a “we.” There is a corporate identity. We mostly see this in tragedy, but also, in celebration. Last week there were tragedies - we saw two mass shootings within 13 hours. Two young men. Two cities. One: Hate. Hatred of Hispanics. Another: speculation of bitterness toward women. Does that mean the worst thing to be today is a Hispanic woman?

Ethnicity. Gender. People grocery shopping, people relaxing and having fun with friends. Places that are supposed to be safe: a Walmart and an entertainment district in the mid-west.

This “we” identity is what we have been hearing about in our Sunday readings – it’s more attention-getting through the Old Testament lately. We have been hearing of hard times in Israel. In today’s reading, we’re at a time where Israel is split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Judah. This was a time of decay in character, behavior, and religious commitment. It was a time of hardship and fear where self-preservation informed decisions. Isaiah’s audience we hear in verse one is Judah and Jerusalem – both kingdoms, but it’s not too far to stretch to see some comparisons of culture in our own nation today.

In the time of Isaiah, through the words of the prophet, God is giving some bad news. We hear of the emotional life of God in this passage and God sounds angry and hurt. God says: “I have had enough of your burnt-offerings,” “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.” “Your appointed festivals my soul hates, they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.”

Keller versus Keller

August 04, 2019

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

That was Paul preaching to the baptized in Colossae. If he were preaching to the baptized here, he might quote our Prayer Book: “We were buried with Christ in his death. By it, we share in his resurrection.”[i] Set your minds on that.

Then Paul lists some earthly things we need to bury, beginning with “fornication” and ending with greed. Fornication is a mean old word that once was abused and now is mocked. The word in biblical Greek is porneia, from which we get “pornography.” Off-screen, porneia is sex unconstrained by love. Bury that, says Paul.

Greed is our thirst for more, which could mean more power and attention, or most anything. Money is the main attraction, as Jesus warns in Luke. A man asks him for help in an inheritance dispute. According to the law (Deuteronomy 21:7), the oldest son receives a double portion. This man, presumably a younger son, asks Jesus to overrule that statute, which seems unfair. “An unjust law is no law at all,” he might have said, anticipating Augustine. Jesus keeps the dispute at arm’s length: “Who made me your judge?” Now Jesus tells the sad story—at least, I find it sad— of the wealthy farmer who dies on the day of his retirement. “I will say to my soul . . . you have everything you need. Eat, drink, be merry!” daydreams the gentleman, just before he croaks.

Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

Thus says the Lord.

Porneia and greed are on the old list of seven deadly sins. (Sloth, anger, pride, gluttony, and envy are the other five.) Sins are passions unconstrained by habits of mind and spirit, called virtues. Virtue is a good old word that now is often mocked. It shouldn’t be. Virtues are to sin what healthy habits are to sickness, the ounce of prevention that can save the pound or more for a cure. Thomas Aquinas listed seven virtues. Four are philosophical, three are theological––“philosophical,” from Aristotle: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage, and “theological,” from scripture: faith, hope, and love; philosophical for the mind and theological for the spirit.

Prudence is forethought. “If I do this, I will probably get that.” Prudence is our first defense against the dark arts of porneia. Without prudence in sex, people get hurt.

Temperance is what Goldilocks was looking for in bowls of porridge—the mean between too little and too much, too cold and too hot. Greed is an intemperate regard for money.

The cultivation of the virtues has been called the cure of souls. They cure like both medicine and salt. Passions are the fuel that power us through life, while mind and spirit are the scouts who climb the tall tree to see what lies over the horizon and plot our course. Our lives do consist in an abundance of these emotional, mental and spiritual possessions—and they don’t croak when we do.

 

The Good Samaritan

July 14, 2019

There is a sweet little movie out I liked so much I saw it twice. It’s called “Yesterday” and it is a love letter to the music of the Beatles. It goes like this. Some cosmic wires get crossed and all the world’s lights go out for twelve seconds. On a pitch-black street our hero Jack, a young musician, is knocked from his bicycle by a bus and sent flying through the air—a shock that throws him out of phase with the rest of the world for those twelve seconds. When the lights come back on after Jack comes to, the whole universe has changed except for him, it seems. He is going to learn that for the world it now is as though the Beatles hadn’t happened. Jack finds this out when his friends give him a new guitar to replace the one that got busted in his accident. He unwraps the guitar and they ask for a song. “A great guitar deserves a great song,” Jack says. He sings “Yesterday.” Moved to tears, his friends think he wrote it. So we are given to imagine a world that hasn’t heard the Beatles. Jack will show the world what it's been missing. 

Approaching Jesus, a lawyer asks him:

Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

John, the Beatle, wrote a song inviting us to imagine life without that question.

“Imagine there’s no heaven, its easy if you try.”

John was right about that. It is easy to imagine there’s no heaven, “above us only sky.” Oblivion is easy for us to wrap our minds around. For a few seconds, we empty them and think of nothing. Conceptually, heaven is a tougher nut to crack. Our brains were made in time for use in time, not to grasp eternity. About the best we can manage is thinking of eternity as a very, very long time. But, as St. Augustine pointed out, time itself is one of the Eternal God’s creations. Eternity somehow transcends before and after. God sees tomorrow just as clearly as he sees yesterday. It is hard to imagine our life in that—our hope is mind-blowing.

Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

The question seems audacious. Who are we to inherit eternal life from God?

But Jesus doesn’t treat the lawyer’s question as ridiculous. He engages in a little back and forth that culminates in his story of the Good Samaritan. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was set upon by thieves, who beat him, stripped him, robbed him, leaving him half-dead. Of all the stories ever sung or told, this one is high on the list of the world’s most cherished. What “Yesterday” was to Lennon and McCartney, the Good Samaritan is to scripture. Its had a little longer ride atop the charts.

Let’s play for a moment with John’s imagined world without religion. The cosmic accident occurs again, the lights around the world go out, the bus hits Jack, who wakes up in a hospital. His friends come by and ask him how he’s doing.  He says: “I’m all right, I think, thank God.” The friends are puzzled. “Thank who?” they say. “God,” Jack says perplexed. “Who dat?” Later, Jack googles God and nothing comes up. It autocorrects to Cod and the screen fills up with North Atlantic fishing scenes and old pictures of Kennedys sailing boats on the Cape. So we imagine no Jesus, Moses, Buddha or Muhammad, or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. As it was in Narnia, winter always comes but never Christmas. Imagine our world where we had never heard the story of the Good Samaritan. That would certainly have changed my monthly drive to Little Rock many years ago.

Freedom

June 30, 2019

For freedom, Christ has set us free.

St. Paul’s declaration rings loud like bells on Independence Day. Then, in Luke, we face the fact that freedom is no holiday. Christ turns toward Jerusalem, warning would-be followers of emotional pain and physical distress.

For freedom, I use Walker Percy’s definition in his fifth novel, The Second Coming. Will Barrett, the protagonist, remembers the moment a light came on inside his head.

What was my discovery? That I could act. I was free to act . . . to turn right or turn left or sit down on the culvert.[i]

Freedom is power to do either one thing or another. Go right, go left, sit down: your call. Laws are constraints on freedom. To the Galatians, Paul was emphasizing their religious freedom. Faithful Jews had been constrained by divine law to circumcise their newborn males and to abstain from foods including pork and shellfish. Paul declares that life in Christ is free from those particular constraints.

As Americans today we float on a historic rising tide of freedom. In 1689, John Locke’s First Treatise on Government undermined the belief that our natural condition is servitude to kings. Using expert logic step by step, Locke led readers to understand freedom as a birthright. According to Locke, we give it up only to a limited extent when people voluntarily join with others in society, to the benefit of all who join and their descendants. In America, that idea would spark a revolution.

Since then, freedom has by fits and starts expanded over time. At the start, only property-holding white men had the vote. Now, voting is a birthright. A civil war, and the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments to the Constitution, plus the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, accomplished that expansion. After his success in 1965, Martin Luther King kept pushing, now for expanded economic freedom. Dr. King remarked that a black man had finally won the legal right to buy a hamburger in a southern restaurant––now King wanted to make sure that man had some money in his pocket he could buy it with. Fifty years ago this past week, the Stonewall rebellion in New York opened another front in freedom’s expansion.  The world is better now because of it. By “better” I mean more happy and fair. We have pushed, tested, and debated freedom’s limits through our American experiment, with good results.

The great HBO series, John Adams, ends with Adam’s admonition to Americans:

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.



Wounded Healers

June 23, 2019

Today’s story is in all the synoptic Gospels, but we are reading it today through Saint Luke’s eyes—compassionate, healing, inclusive eyes.  For Luke, it is the LOVE of God that heals us. For Luke, humility and hope are central characteristics of Christian living.  

Jesus steps into Gentile territory and is met by a man of the city who lived in the tombs, among the dead and had demons.  Demons. The man’s name, Legion, suggests thousands of demons as if the demons here represent the epitome of all that can be wrong, all that can come between God and God’s good creation.

Focus on the result of this man’s coming face to face with the LOVE of God and God’s MERCY.  With one command from Jesus, the demons come out of the man—they exit out of this story. The demons leave and the man now sits at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind.  Saint Paul would say, clothed with Christ and he would call him a child of God. Henri Nouwen would call him a wounded healer. Note: the man, himself, is NOT a demon. The demons left.  This man, now representing the very core of our common humanity, is NOT a demon. The demons left. 

Demons like violence, hatred, extreme anger, revenge, fear, anxiety—they left.  Demons like abuse of power, greed, lust, addiction—they left. Demons like projections onto others, blaming others, intolerance, extremism, excessive pride, self-deprecation—they left.  Demons like apathy, they left. Apathy—I remember where I was kneeling the day that I said our corporate confession, and for the first time, heard, really heard the part about confessing the “things left undone.”  Many, many times I knowingly confessed: “things done.” And then, suddenly taken aback as “things left undone” came into focus.

Brilliant theologians for a very long time have struggled to answer the question about the origin of evil.  We are still asking the same question. It seems to me, though, that our Scripture points more toward the practical problems of evil and God’s response to it.  So, my questions focus on God’s response. The Good News, after all, is all about God’s response to evil. I trust God’s response.

Evil is real and serious and comes in many forms.  Some forms I’ve experienced myself, some I know only from paying attention to the experiences of others.  It’s complicated. I’ve seen bad things happen to good people; I’ve seen good people do bad things; I’ve seen seemingly bad people turn out to be better people than I thought possible; I’ve seen seemingly good actions create a secondary-type-evil; I’ve seen the potential for evil rip through my own heart and soul.  

But this child of God in Luke’s story is a holy scene that points to God’s response to evil.  And the response, we see through Jesus, involves compassion and mercy. Somehow, Jesus sees past the demons, sees the core of this man’s humanity, sees our common human condition and isn’t ashamed to be in relationship with him.

Always Something

June 16, 2019

The boss said, ‘Well, Jackie, it looks like you got a job cut out for you.’ And I said, ‘Callahan?’ And he said, “nope, Irwin.’ And I said, ‘I don’t reckon you’ll find anything on Irwin.’ And he said, ‘You’ll find it.’ . . . We clocked off five miles more, and I said, “But suppose there isn’t anything to find?’ And the boss said, ‘There is always something.’ And I said ‘Maybe not on the Judge.’ And he said, ‘Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.’ Two miles more, and he said, ‘And make it stick.[i]

My college roommate’s father wrote those lines. Robert Penn Warren was his name. All the King’s Men was the title of the novel. The “boss” was a fictional facsimile of Huey Long. In 1947, All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Now a second quote, non-fictional.

Five years earlier, King had come to Montgomery in search of a quiet but socially relevant pastorship. Then, through no initiative of his own, he had been caught up in something larger than he had ever imagined. The vision in the kitchen had given him the courage and faith to accept that, but even when the protest ended, he realized that he was not free, that he could not and would not escape from the responsibility of the larger role into which had been cast. After almost three years of struggling against himself, he realized that this decision . . . was not really his to make. It was made for him, whether he wanted it or not.[ii] 

David Garrow wrote those lines in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1987, Bearing the Cross won the Pulitzer Prize for history. I spent last year reading Martin Luther King, including Garrow’s book, where Garrow’s admiration for King shone from cover to cover. In my year of reading King, I spoke of him often in Sunday sermons and I am sure my admiration for him shone through too. I think that without Martin Luther King the United States might have been split irreparably. More than anyone outside the bible, it was he who taught us not to judge by the color of skin, but by the content of a person’s character. By no means is that the only thing he taught or did, but it alone would have merited his Nobel Prize.

About fault-lines in the content of Dr. King’s character I haven’t said much. I did say once that his weakness was marital infidelity and his was a severe case. That was not a secret.

I bring it up now because while we were in England last month newspapers there were covering a story that the press back home was mostly kept under wraps. David Garrow has published new research that shows Dr. King in harsh light. As a recognized authority on King, he said, he felt duty-bound to report it. On a local scale, I feel the same. As often as I’ve praised King from this pulpit, I now feel obliged to reckon with ugly information Garrow brings to light concerning Dr. King’s promiscuous, and frequently inebriate, entanglements with women, not his wife.


Pentecost: Why Celebrate It?

June 09, 2019

Pentecost is here. The great 50 days of Easter are completed today. Our narrative from Acts gives us plenty to chew on as we ponder the significance of this day.

There is wide revelation of God’s heart going on in the midst of much action.

The outpouring of the Spirit in this passage involves most senses for those present: sound – like a rushing wind. Touch – they seemed to be aware of this wind filling the entire place they were in. Sight – they saw divided tongues as of fire that rested on each of them.

Sound, sight, touch…did they think they were losing their minds? Or were their expectations of God’s abilities for things to happen with a power that was experiential normal?

This was a crazy and chaotic day for the church. And today we celebrate it.

But why? Why should it matter to us that the Holy Spirit was poured out this way?

Jesus had told them, before the Ascension, to “wait here for the promise of the Father…John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

As the disciples interact with Jesus in that passage over this order to stay, they clearly show that they don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. But they stay. But it may have had to do not only with Jesus’ order to them but that they were afraid. After Jesus death and resurrection, they were often gathering together to support each other while the Jews and Romans were running around trying to tame this resurrection story.

Additionally, what has become our Christian Pentecost was also the name of an Old Testament Feast that was going on at that time: Shavuot in Hebrew, Pentecost in ancient Greek or the Feast of Weeks in English – a celebration of the Harvest. In the Jewish calendar, this Feast is still celebrated and began last night at sundown.

So, they’re there. Waiting. Likely also participating in this celebration of the harvest. As are so many others – people already living in Jerusalem and immigrants. We hear today: “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” This feast was an opportunity to express gratitude to God for the harvest. How beautiful is that?

Here is where we see more of God’s extravagant power.

Everyone in this stew of people groups at the chaos of sound gathered and began to hear their native languages being spoken.

In our contemporary American culture – and really in many cultures in the world – what’s so amazing and perhaps challenging about this, is the graphic example of God’s embracing of diversity. Of otherness. Of people who are different than us.

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