Pentecost 2020

Pentecost – May 31, 2020 – Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

You can watch/listen to me preach this sermon here.

As most of you know, I’ve been out for the past couple of weeks recuperating from a tonsillectomy. It was not pleasant, but it was necessary. I’m happy now to be restored to health, and to join the land of the living, such as it is.

Thank you for your well-wishes, your prayers, cards, and text messages. While post-operative pain is most unwelcome, your caring words served as constant reminders of this generous and thoughtful community, of which I am lucky to be a part.

While I was recovering, I had occasion to do lots of things.

First, of course, I had occasion to do some heavy sleeping, some painful swallowing, and some pretty serious scowling every time I was awakened to take my medication.

I also had the occasion to watch several episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, to play games on the iPad, to read an old mystery novel or two, and, yes, to say my prayers.

But, finally, I had the chance to do some thinking.

It wasn’t necessarily the kind of deep thinking intended to result in profound insights. It was rather the sort of meandering thought process that stems from a casual observation here, an unexpected noticing there.

This is the kind of train of thought that you don’t even know you’ve had until you arrive somewhere. It’s the mental equivalent to getting lost in a random internet rabbit hole.

Have you ever Googled something and ended up somewhere completely different? If you’re anything like me, after searching for, say, the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” you inevitably end up on Judy Garland’s Wikipedia page.

Before you know it, somehow, you’re reading about Mickey Rooney, Ethel Kennedy and the 1968 presidential election, having traversed some internet maze that could never be replicated. I digress.

As I said, circuitous though it may have been, I had the chance to do some thinking.

Most of it occurred as I sat at home on a loveseat by a large picture window. It was there that a pair of cardinals would visit me each day. They would land on the air-conditioning unit just outside.

The male would walk along the unit’s surface, chewing up small leaves and chirping at the ground below. Not long after he arrived, a female would join him, singing her own unique version of their song.

As I watched them, I remembered learning that cardinals mate for life, and so I couldn’t help but think of them as husband and wife, even though I know that no such categories exist in the animal kingdom.

Nevertheless, I began to wonder more about them. How do cardinals meet anyway? Where exactly is their nest? Perhaps their daily jaunts to my air conditioner are the equivalent of the daily walks that so many of us are taking as we shelter at home.

Needless to say, I grew accustomed to their stopping by. It was by no means like clockwork, but it did happen with stunning regularity.

These cardinals weren’t the only things I thought about. As it happens, when you sit for hours on end, sometimes anxieties creep into your mind, both personal and societal.

My lease, for instance, which the landlord has failed to renew—or terminate—is now three months past the deadline. I sure hope I have a place to live!

I also thought about the University of the South, at which I teach, in this season of transition and uncertainty. What will new leadership bring? Will my students be able to return in person? Will life as I know it be virtual until the end of the year?

I thought about my sister, Leslie, who has been mandated to return to work along with a host of other employees. Will she be able to stay safe?

I thought about my sister, Erika, who is not mandated to return to work, and remains at home all day long, with a full-time job, a toddler, and—perhaps scariest of all—a husband.

Once my renewal notice came, and after I’d had some conversations with friends and family, I began to worry about other things. Some might even call them more important things.

Has the racism so long accepted in this country finally reached a tipping point? How many more of God’s children must die in order to secure equality, not simply under the law, but in our hearts of minds?

It’s amazing how anxieties seem never to be in short supply, especially when the mind is left to wander.

But, what’s even more amazing, I would venture to say, even amidst life’s anxieties, is the calming effect of those visiting cardinals.

A funny thing happened as a sat by the window, hour after hour, greeting the cardinals when they came. I realized that their presence was not only their own, but it was, in fact, the very presence of God.

Here is God, I trained myself to think, as the cardinals came by each day. Here is God, checking in, showing himself, reminding me, as I soothe my throat and hug my stomach, that I am not alone.

I already knew that, of course. I have a loving spouse, several dear friends, and, as I mentioned before, all of you.

But there is something about the presence of God that charms our fears, our earthly anxieties, like nothing else can. And somedays there is nothing like a couple of brilliant red birds to give you a sense of just what that presence means.

You see, life is more than the thoughts in your head. Life is, in fact, more than you.

Life is the Word that was in the beginning, before the beginning. Life is the Father, who ordained the sun to rule the day. Life is the Holy Spirit, given to us on this day, on Pentecost, so that we might be agents of God’s grace in the world.

And Life is a cardinal, singing its sweet song on a dormant air conditioner.

There are many other things that might call to mind God’s Spirit among us. Perhaps you have seen it in the flames rising from Minneapolis or Nashville. Perhaps you have glimpsed it in the tear gas wafting over Kansas City and Philadelphia.

Perhaps you have heard it on the tongues of those who mourn the dead. Perhaps you have glimpsed it in the fiery tail of the rocket ship as it takes to flight.

But so long as we’re speaking of birds, it’s worth mentioning that the dove is the bird we ordinarily think of as a sign of the Spirit, and for good reason. It is a dove that descends on Jesus after his baptism in the Jordan river, and a dove brings an olive branch to Noah after the Flood.

But today, Pentecost 2020, perhaps a cardinal will do. After all, its wings are indeed like flames, tongues of fire all their own, alighting in the fullness of spring.

Yes, I think we would all do well to notice the cardinals. And when we do, to sit with them a little while. They just might bring us news that will change our lives forever.

God is here. His Spirit is with us. And it will never, ever go away.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019 – Trinity, Winchester

Today is Trinity Sunday, a principal feast of the church and the titular feast of Trinity Episcopal Church in Winchester. It is a deep joy to be a part of a congregation so steadfast in faithful witness to God’s work in the world. 

I’m not sure that a sermon is the best place to expound upon complicated doctrinal teaching, even on Trinity Sunday. In-depth exploration of the doctrine of the Trinity is probably best suited for adult formation, Bible study, and late-night conversations with nerdy friends. 

We can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Trinity in next 10 minutes. The Trinity was yesterday, is today, and will remain tomorrow a great mystery. 

Even scholars who devote their lives to studying Christian theology will never quite grasp it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t ask questions about it, study it, or discuss it. In fact, we should!

Labeling this core component of our faith a “mystery” should not be an excuse not to think about it, wrestle with it, or intelligently argue about it. Quite the contrary, our beliefs are strongest when they are joined with knowledge. Learning and holiness must be linked. Prayer and study. Faith and reason. 

But look who I’m telling… You know what it means to critically engage your faith. During the program year we meet weekly for both Sunday School and Bible study. A couple of weeks ago, when Amy and I suggested taking a summer hiatus, you told us you didn’t want to.

You said you wanted to keep meeting each Tuesday afternoon to talk about God and explore your faith. What’s more, you chose to forgo our typical lectionary-based Bible study in favor of a more challenging course that involved reading a scholarly book about biblical narrative. 

Trinity Sunday may be the only day on the liturgical calendar that focuses on a complex theological doctrine, but at Trinity Church in Winchester we have challenging, mind-bending, faith-fueled conversations all year long. 

When you think about it, it’s fitting that we are called “Trinity.” To be named for this inexplicable doctrinal mystery says something about us. It says that we are ready and willing to have challenging conversations.

This is not new to Trinity. Some of you remember that more than a decade ago you had one of the hardest conversations of all. When some members of the parish walked away to start a new venture outside of the Episcopal Church you made sure that Trinity parish remained steadfast in faithful witness. You remained committed to one another and committed to exploring your faith. 

Today is about more than making sense of a complicated theological doctrine. Today is about remembering who we are together and why you—as members of Trinity Episcopal Church— are in relationship with one another. 

The Trinity—one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is in itself a divine model for relationship. God is three, constantly relating to each other, in one. We are constantly reminded of this divine relationship in our liturgy, from “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” all the way to “The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The Trinity reminds us that Christianity, before it is anything else, is a relationship. Before it is faith, or belief, or creed, or doctrine, or catechism, or morality, it is first and foremost a relationship with God who knew us and loved us before time and who knows and loves us still. 

Christianity is a relationship with God who came as the Son in flesh to sanctify our human nature and who lives among us still. Christianity is a relationship with God who as the Spirit fell in tongues of fire on the disciples and who sustains the church still.  

Christianity is a relationship with God who teaches us what it’s like to be in a relationship with each other, and the rest of creation. Without God we couldn’t live this life together. We couldn’t tolerate each other’s quirks or deal with each others’ personalities. 

Without God we couldn’t have kept this little ship afloat. Without God we wouldn’t be greeting new faces at the door or welcoming back old friends. Without God we wouldn’t be able to gather in the Parish Hall for heady conversations and faith exploration. 

No, without God we would not have this wonderful parish. 

And without God we would not be equipped for the ministry of the future. We would not be equipped for our growing food pantry, or our renewed commitment to evangelism, or our close relationships with our fellow STEM congregations. 

Without God we would scarcely have the courage to walk into each new day, calling this community’s attention to the signs of God all around. 

I guess it’s a good thing we have God, then—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—because I, for one, would hate to miss this. 

“Prisoner of hope”

Saturday after Proper 23 – October 20, 2018 – Mark 12:8-12 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

When I first read the final lines of this passage I was relieved. “Do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

I guess I don’t have to prepare a sermon, I thought, the Holy Spirit will take care of it when the time comes. Alas, that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. Jesus is actually talking about coming times of persecution. The full quote goes like this:  When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

He’s telling them that God will be with them, even when the evil days come. The Holy Spirit will aid them even when they think they have no hope. That’s precisely why blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is such a grave sin. 

The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells his disciples, is what will give them the power to stay faithful. These words are just as applicable to us as they were to Jesus’ disciples. In fact, they may be even more applicable on this side of the resurrection.

The Holy Spirit gives the Church the guidance to say what it needs to say and the power to say it. This is especially important to us during personal or corporate times of trial. If we denounce the Holy Spirit, or blaspheme against it, then we curse the source of the Church’s lifeblood. If we run around profaning the Spirit, then that will be fatal for the Body of Christ. 

The Holy Spirit is our hope, and hope is not to be mocked. If you give in to blaspheming the very life-giving Spirit of the Church then what other life will there be? What other hope will you have? 

This Holy Spirit stuff is serious business. It’s not just this thing that grabs ahold of the preacher when he preaches. It’s not just this thing that swoops down on the priest when she is ordained.

It is God, the holy and life-giving one, who sustains the Church on earth. His disciples didn’t know it that day, but we know it today; we know how the story ends. There will be persecution. But there will also be victory. There will be death, but there will also be glorious resurrection. 

I have a friend who wears a t-shirt that says, “Prisoner of Hope.” Prisoner of Hope. That pretty much says it all. It tell us that he knows the whole story.  You may be held hostage by the things of this world, but not me. The only thing that controls me is hope. That’s profound and hard. 

If you really know your bible, then you might recognize that phrase from the ninth chapter of Zechariah. “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” It speaks of God’s people who await a king who will speak peace to the nations. 

What if you heard that same word from God today? Could you claim that moniker for yourself? Are you a prisoner of hope?

Might as well be. What better option do you have?

Born From Above

B1DBA3A1-2D13-4894-83A4-18D8B1D7FDAFLent II—March 12, 2017—John 3:1-17

I preached this sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Decatur, Alabama where I am doing my field education. I am blessed in having the opportunity to spend time with and learn from them every week. I am especially grateful for them recording my sermon which can be found by clicking here

         It’s fitting that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. The image of darkness creates a mysterious atmosphere, especially in our Lenten setting, one that hints at a time of uncertainty, a search for meaning, and further discernment.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus for a reason. Maybe because Jesus recently took the Passover festivities by surprise, angrily driving out the moneychangers from the temple with a whip and performing miracles.

Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus responds, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

That kind of language is familiar to us; we’ve heard it all our lives. There’s a type of American revivalistic Christianity that attaches itself staunchly to this image as a way to describe the personal commitment of the believer. You have to be born again.

For many Christians, this statement implies a kind of conscious choice. “Are you saved?” is a question that implies that any Christian could make that decision for themselves.

But to Nicodemus it just sounds like a bad joke.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

As Nicodemus becomes overly involved pondering the physical implications of Jesus’ statement (“one cannot enter a second time his mother’s womb”) Jesus begins to reassure him.

“Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

All of the sudden Nicodemus’ whole theological worldview has been completely upended, his spiritual world shaken.

To be born “from above” or of the “Spirit”…It’s not tangible.

It’s elusive—think of the wind in the trees.

You can’t see a gust of air, you know it only by the results of its presence. So it is with being born from the Spirit. You can’t see the Spirit itself, but if you pay attention you can see evidence of its work over time.

Jesus helps us identify the Spirit, not by giving us a strait-forward glimpse of it, but by offering an invitation for us to discern how it is at work in our lives.

Often, unless we pay really close attention, we don’t notice changes in ourselves or in the world around us until we look back and find the evidence.

We don’t see those changes occurring in ourselves each day, we only notice them when we reach for a photo album.

“Did my stomach really used to be that flat?!”

God’s creation might be evaporating right in front of our eyes. Our bodies might be subtly changing everyday. But we don’t recognize the change until we take time to look for the evidence.

Jesus invites us to see an unexpected perspective.

During this season of self-denial and repentance we are called to accept Jesus’s invitation to discern the work of the Holy Spirit in our own lives.

We are called to examine ourselves and our lives so that we too might recognize the moments of grace that open our eyes to Jesus—God’s saving gift to us—sent not to condemn us but to reveal in our likeness the promise of new birth.

It’s time to take stock of that grace.

Some people are really good at it, including my friend Pam. Each time I hear from her she tells me about how God has been working in her life.

It’s almost instinctive.

She tells me about her deliverance from health struggles. She talks to me about her daughter’s new job. It really is a spiritual gift I think, to be able to recognize God at work in your life like that.

Everyone should be so lucky as to have the ability to reflect in that way.

Nicodemus first visited Jesus because he was curious about Jesus’ teachings, and his spiritual outlook ended up drastically changing from a set of well-organized beliefs once he learned about this mysterious birth by the “Spirit.”

But it didn’t stop there.

He appears again a few months later (in chapter seven of John’s gospel) during the Jewish Festival of Booths.

The chief priests and pharisees are plotting to arrest Jesus, and as they argue with the temple police about the best method for doing so, Nicodemus speaks in Jesus’ defense.

“Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”

He stands up for Jesus.

Give the man a fair hearing. It’s our custom. He at least deserves that.

And then several months later we meet Nicodemus again.

He accompanies Joseph of Arimathea to embalm Jesus’s body after it has been taken off the cross.

The scripture says, “Nicodemus came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.”

He arrives to tend to the limp and broken body of the Lord.

Give the man a proper burial. It’s our custom. He at least deserves that.

Is this the same skeptical pharisee that appeared in the middle of the night? It would seem that his first visit to Jesus had quite an affect—a lot’s happened to Nicodemus since then.

I wonder if, the day Nicodemus laid Jesus in the tomb, he thought back on that first time he met with him.

I wonder if he’d recognize himself?

I wonder if he’d recognize the Spirit’s work in his life.

I wonder if, as he laid Jesus in the tomb that day, he’d hear the wind rustle the treetops and think of a birth, his birth, from above.