Trust and see

23rd Sunday after Pentecost – October 28, 2018 – Psalm 34:8 – Trinity Church, Winchester, TN

Psalm 34 verse eight says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him.” 

These are comforting words, but they are also hard words to hear after recent events. After yesterday’s shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburg, PA the only thing I can taste is our country’s steady diet of hate speech and blood.

The King James Version puts it like this, “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is: blest is the man that trusteth in him.” Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote a choral anthem using this version. It’s often sung at churches during communion.

I’ve had that anthem stuck in my head all week. That’s the good thing about preparing sermons, sometimes the good stuff gets stuck in your head, and you can’t let it go. I’m not talking about an errant Billy Joel tune or a Cranberries single from 1993; I mean the really good stuff, the stuff that makes you ask, “Where is God in all of this?” The stuff like, “O taste and see…”

It makes me wonder: how do we taste God’s goodness? What does grace taste like? 

The eucharist is the one part of our common life when tasting seems the most relevant metaphor for our relationship with God. We put the bread and the wine in our mouths, literally tasting the body and blood of our Lord. But can you really taste God’s grace via wafer and port wine? And can you taste the grace even better if instead of a wafer you use homemade communion bread, the kind with honey mixed in the batter? 

For that matter, is God’s graciousness found in bread alone? Or is it also in grandma’s homemade cookies? The ones we look forward to when we spend the weekend with her, the ones many of us will never taste again? Maybe. 

Or perhaps divine goodness is the taste of street tacos made by a Mexican vender who you’re not quite sure is in this country illegally, but he has that look. Nonetheless he sells you food because he needs to feed his family. I do wonder.

Maybe God’s goodness is like eating an orange. When you peel it, it releases that fresh scent that lingers under your fingernails for hours, even days, reminding you that God is always near. It could be. 

The second half of this verse gives us a clue about what it means to taste God’s goodness. It says, “happy are they that trust in him.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they that trust in him.” 

This verse implies that you really have to trust in something before you taste it. That’s true, isn’t it? Taste and trust are certainly related. You do have to trust something in order to taste it, even if it’s implicit trust.

When I was growing up and one of my older sisters took a bite of something that didn’t taste so good, often she would recoil in disgust and then look at me, smile, and say, “Hey Warren, try this.” Heck no! I wasn’t going to try something she thought was disgusting. I wasn’t going to taste it because I no longer trusted that it would be good. If you don’t trust that something is going to taste good, you don’t eat it. 

When you buy a bag of salad at the grocery store you blindly trust that it doesn’t contain dangerous bacteria like E. coli. Maybe trusting God is like the trust you place in a bag of lettuce. You don’t see the faceless company that packed it; you don’t know exactly where it came from, but you take it home and eat it anyway. You assume that it’s purpose it to provide nourishment for your body. You don’t often consider what might be wrong with it. You just trust it, so you taste it. 

There is beauty in that trust. There is beauty in the trust that allows you to taste the lettuce, the trust that allows you to nourish your body, the trust that keeps you from becoming a paranoid mess. That trust is beautiful, and it’s not unlike the trust that allows us to taste God’s goodness. 

Sometimes we go around worrying so much about the possibility of the bad, that we never experience the good. If you live in fear, you’ll never be able to recognize all the ways that God’s grace is already working in your life and in the world around you. When you live in fear–and not trust–everything tastes bitter. 

I’m afraid. I’m afraid for the welfare of our nation. As the military marches to meet thousands of peaceful immigrants, I’m afraid of what will happen.

I’m afraid when terrorists send pipe bombs through the mail to kill the people they disagree with. I’m afraid of what that will lead to.

I’m afraid in an era when politicians say they would rather put their opponents in jail than have reasonable debates with them.

Yes, I’m am filled with fear, and the only taste that fear leaves in my mouth is bitterness.

Over lunch on Friday a friend (who is much older than me) said, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen this country. I thought all that Nixon stuff was bad. It was nothing like this.” That left a sour taste in my mouth, so I took another bite of my food, but it was bland and unsatisfying. Nothing could get the bitter taste of fear out of my mouth. 

When I get a bad taste in my mouth I want to rinse it out immediately. When I swallowed cough syrup as a kid I always wanted to chase it with Sprite or fruit juice to overpower that gross cherry flavor, but I find it hard these days to get the disgusting taste out of my mouth. Day after day I look for something to eliminate the bitterness, but I don’t succeed. There are of course cheeseburgers and large pizzas, but those only help temporarily. They only quell the taste of fear for a few hours. I need sometime more permanent than that. 

When news comes that eleven Jewish worshipers were gunned down in their temple, all I can taste is fear, and I need something really strong to wash that taste away. 

I need that beautiful trust that allows me to experience God, and I think that late yesterday afternoon, I just may have found it. I was listening to Bishop Gene Robinson’s sermon at the internment of Matthew Shepard’s physical remains in the Washington National Cathedral. Bishop Robinson gave me a powerful reminder. He gave us all a powerful reminder: we are not alone. And Matt, said Bishop Robinson, was never alone. Even on the night he lay dying, tied to a fence post, his God was with him. It’s too easy to forget in days like these that God is with us. 

Bishop Robinson told the story of the first police officer to arrive at the scene of Matt’s death. The police offer reports that as she approached Matt’s body she didn’t notice it at first, but there was a deer laying beside him, and it looked as though the deer had been there all night long. When the deer noticed her, it looked her straight in eyes before running away. Recounting the event the officer said, “That was the good Lord, no doubt in my mind.” 

Matt was never alone. Even amidst the horrible tragedy of his own death, God was with him. God is with us always. That’s something we can trust. We can trust that even on a freezing-cold Wyoming prairie, tied to a fence post, God was there. Even on the floor of a synagogue, amidst blood and dead bodies, God was there. 

Nothing can separate us from the love of God. God will always be right beside you, even if it’s to welcome you home. You can trust that.

If you live like you believe that God is always with you, and if you let yourself trust God, then you will get a taste of God’s goodness; you will experience God’s grace. And that grace will wash the taste of fear right out of your mouth. 

Really. You’ll see. 

Redefining relationships

20th Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2018 – Mark 10:2-16 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching on divorce may make us a bit uncomfortable. Divorce is a hard topic even without the lectionary rubbing our noses in Jesus’ thoughts about it. 

In public Jesus answers the Pharisees, “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

You may recognize that last part from the Prayer Book. (We got it from the Bible, not the other way around.)

What are we Episcopalians to make of this? We allow people to get divorced. Have we completely forgotten what Jesus told us? A marriage should last forever! 

If I were a pessimist, I’d say we got this one wrong. But lucky for me, I’m not. Rest assured, we still belong to a faithful church. Christians have never exactly been clear on divorce, even dating back to Paul and the first gospel accounts. 

In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul gives some conflicting advice about marriage between believers and nonbelievers and who is allowed to divorce whom. Matthew’s account of the same story we read today includes an exception for adultery to Jesus’ no divorce rule. 

Our understanding of divorce still varies widely today. In some traditions divorce is forbidden. In others annulment is required before remarriage is permitted. It’s important to understand what Jesus is telling us when he condemns divorce so that we know what to make of it. In order to figure it out, how about some context? 

In Old Testament times marriages were all about money. Marriages were largely arranged between the groom-to-be and the father of the bride. They were business transactions, and women had no say in the whole thing because they were treated as property. Divorce happened when a man wanted it. 

When Jesus quoted Genesis to the Pharisees I bet he surprised them. Jesus is doing what he always does, he’s turning expectations upside down. The Pharisees ask him if he agrees with the law of Moses, and he quotes back a different part of the scripture to prove a different point.

When a couple is joined together they become one flesh, says Jesus. This is not about money or property, this is about relationship. Marriages are about two becoming one flesh; marriages last for a lifetime, not just until the husband decides write a certificate of divorce. Marriage is about mutuality and respect, not obedience and inheritance. 

Sometimes when I read this passage and hear Jesus say, “No divorce allowed!” I hear him being unfair and close-minded. I hear Jesus prohibiting something that is occasionally necessary for healthy people in unhealthy relationships. I immediately think of the woman abused by her husband or the child that can’t escape the rage of an unfit or dangerous parent. Wouldn’t divorce be acceptable then? 

In my haste to prove how progressive I am, I list all the reasons why divorce is, at least sometimes, OK. Well, it may be. After all, Jesus is sensitive to those with irregular or damaging relationships. For proof of this we need look no further that his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. 

This much is clear: Jesus cares about our relationships and our unique circumstances as much as we do. He is not prohibiting divorce in order to force someone to stay in an abusive relationship. That’s a whole different situation and one that has its own tragic struggles a hard choices. Jesus doesn’t make these comments to prohibit people from getting out of bad relationships. Jesus makes these comments to redefine what marriage should be in the first place. It’s kind of ironic: through his comments on divorce, Jesus redefines marriage. 

Sure, the ancient Israelites had laws about marriage and divorce, just like we do. But Jesus says that those laws stem from hardness of heart, not desire for healthy relationships. 

Laws that formally govern legal relationships are necessary. We don’t want people entering and leaving marriages or business partnerships willy-nilly. Relationships are important to society, and we need to protect them for the very sake of the relationship itself, not for the sake of the selfish and the greedy who are only interested in an escape clause.

You can’t get divorced just because you find someone more appealing. You can’t abandon a commitment, just because you’re “over it.” The unity and mutuality that are the cornerstones of marriage mirror God’s relationship with humanity. You just can’t give up on that for any old reason.

Sometimes, even given the laws that exist, human relationships fail, and that’s OK. God’s grace can handle that, but that grace should not obscure our knowledge of God’s desire for our relationships in the first place.

How do you handle your relationships? That’s the question Jesus is asking us. How do we deal with honoring them, with nurturing them, with blessing them. How do we deal with them when they are broken? Do you just give up, or do you do the hard work of trying to fix them?

You’ve been part of a broken relationship, no doubt? It doesn’t’ have to be a marriage. We all get cross with people. Rumors spread, promises are broken. “I’m never talking to him again!” God asks for more from us. God asks us to view everyone as sacred. God asks us to recognize that people are not disposable. God asks us to act like relationships are two-way streets, because they are.

I have a confession to make, on Friday night I backed my truck into Walker’s car right in our driveway. I still feel bad. When I walked back in the house the first thing he said to me was, “I love you.” He wasn’t happy about it, but that’s what he said.

Can you imagine? I’m telling you this, not to put my own relationship up on a pedestal, but to illustrate a little piece of the kingdom of God, a piece that I didn’t necessarily deserve, but that Walker freely offered out of his commitment to me and to our relationship. 

That’s what the kingdom of God is like. That’s what Jesus is asking of us. 

Now, don’t get confused. Walker is not God—far from it! Neither am I, and neither are you. But when it comes to our relationships, we can all act like we know Jesus, because we do.

One such child

18th Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2018 – Mark 9:30-37 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

After hearing today’s Gospel passage we may be tempted to dwell on the image of the child. Young, sweet, innocent. Imagine the little ringlets of hair, the brilliant blue eyes, and the curious little fingers. The image of the child sticks with us for good reason. There is a lot to admire about childhood. It’s largely carefree. 

In one of my favorite TV shows, 30 Rock, Pete says to his cranky coworker Liz Lemon, “I hope you’re happy!” “Not since I was a child,” she replies.

Adults often long for the simplicity of childhood. No bills to pay. No working day. No headaches or office cubes under buzzing florescent lights.

Bring a child into the hustle and bustle of everyday life and everything gets better, even if just for a moment. A mother brings her newborn the the office to visit her daddy and it provides a nice break for everyone. “Oh my gosh she is so cute.” 

Take a baby into a nursing home, stand back and soak in the smiles and the memories cast on the faces of the elderly residents.

Whenever we see a child we get that beautiful feeling. Their energy is rejuvenating. Something in their rosy cheeks offers us a an escape. 

We’ve all seen the woman in the grocery store pushing her cart down the aisle. When she see a young father pushing his baby she stops to smile and wave, lost in infant’s gaze.

Maybe this is why so many stained-glass windows depict Jesus with children. They add freshness to our mundane lives. (At least as long as we’re not with the all the time.)

I really do think we idealize childhood. But—make no mistake about it—Jesus does not. Don’t let yourself get caught up in childhood sentiments. Pay attention to the rest of the story. Jesus is lifting up the virtues of childhood for a very different reason than sentimentality. 

His disciples argue about who is the greatest, and he gives them a reality check. The greatest is not the biggest or the strongest or the smartest. The greatest is the one who welcomes a child such as this. Jesus does not show off the kid because the kid is adorable. Jesus redefines the cultural hierarchy of his day by dramatically elevating the status of the child. 

“If you welcome a child you welcome me.” These words turn the value system of the day upside down. In ancient Palestine children didn’t have rights. A father could sell or trade his own child with no repercussion. 

This is not to say that parents didn’t love their children. I’m sure the opposite was true, but there were different economic realities. People didn’t have kids simply for procreation, they also needed people to work on the family farm or in the family trade. Jesus turns this child, much more than a helping hand, into someone who is honored and revered.

Today we may be more sentimental when it comes to kids, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we still have a tendency to devalue childhood. As far as our culture is concerned children exists to grow up. They are simply biding their time until they can function as productive members of society. They are in training for the “real world.” 

When someone fails to mature fast enough we criticize them. “Oh grow up!” “Get your head out of the clouds!” “I’m not always going to be here to clean up your mess!” “If you can’t even put your name on your paper how are you going to get a job?”

However, Jesus helps us reimagine the value of childhood.He doesn’t do it by highlighting their adorable characteristics or exploiting our emotions. Instead, Jesus illuminates the virtues of childhood. Jesus shows us that children are the receivers in life. They receive their life from others. Literally. 

They exist because others make it possible for them to exist. I new mom once who told me, “All I remember about the ride home from the hospital is how nervous I was.” The child completely depends on them. Sure, the parents create the child together but they also continue to give it life after it is born: fresh milk, clean diapers, loving touch. 

Adults are the givers life. They are the ones in control. They change the diapers and warm the milk. Adults earn the money, keep the lights on, make the beds, and drive the carpool. Parents offer punishment: Time out. No dessert. “Go to your room.” The grown ups are in control. But the children do what they are told. They can’t even walk for almost a year. 

Jesus reminds us in the presence of a child what it truly means to be child-like. It’s not about being cute and naive; it’s about facing the reality of our dependence.  To be child-like is to depend on others. 

We all depend on others. The farmers that grow our food, the teachers who teach us how to think, the friends who support us when we are alone. Even the water treatment plant workers, the electrical linemen, and most of all, God. 

If you want to be at the top the hierarchy, if you want to rank first in the kingdom of God, then you have to remember that you depend on others.

My mother has had the rare experience of her own mother becoming like her child. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and can’t care for herself like she used to. My mom to prepare her meals, dresses her, and combs her hair. 

Do you remember what it was like to depend on others? To really rely on others and be completely at their mercy? It may be a time when you were extremely sick or broke your leg and you couldn’t do anything for yourself. 

Jesus is urging us to remember what it was like to receive help from others so that we will will in turn be quick to serve others in return. 

Jesus says, “If you want to be greatest, don’t focus on yourself, focus on those in need. You need to recognize the holiness of the people on the bottom rung of society. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to serve others because people depend on you.”

A really good way to remember that is to remind yourself that you depend on others. “If you really want to welcome me, you’ve got to welcome this child. Not because the child is innocent, not because he child is cute or sweet, but because the child depends on you.”

A child of God is anyone who depends on others for survival. When you serve those who depend on you, you serve God. Serve all of God’s children in need. Anyone who is hungry, or thirsty, or naked. Serve anyone on the receiving end of life. Serve all who are controlled by others. Serve the powerless and manipulated. Serve the slaves. The widows. The orphans. The oppressed. The poor. The outcast. The refugee. The criminal. It is in the prison cell, the refugee camp, and the Social Security line that you will meet the God who himself ended up completely at the mercy of others.

So make haste! We don’t have much time. Even now we are passing away. We are people of a servant Lord who stooped to wash the feet of his disciples and in so doing taught us that whenever we wash someone’s clothes or buy someone’s lunch or help someone change a flat tire that we are serving Him who first served us. The One who taught us that by feeding our 88-year-old mother we might glimpse the One who gave himself to be food for others.

This is our loving God: the one we meet these beautiful moments of self-sacrifice. The very God that they disciples could not yet recognize, but that we have known all our lives. The very One who gives us greater joy than even the cutest little baby.

… and be grateful

42309044_235514037130229_6190254780821012480_nEmber Day – September 22, 2018 – Exodus 19:3-8; 1 Peter 4:7-11; Matthew 16:24-27 – St. Mary’s Convent

I was delighted to preside at the Eucharist at St. Mary’s Convent in Sewanee this morning. Below is my sermon. To learn more about the Community of Saint Mary visit their website here

Today’s lessons come with a lot of instructions. In each of them God tells his people what they should do. 

In Exodus, God gives Moses a message for the Israelites. “Tell my people that if they obey my voice and keep my covenant, then they shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” If you obey me then you will be my people. 

The author of 1 Peter gives us some suggestions about community living. “Therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Maintain constant love for one another. Be hospitable to one another (without complaining). Use your God-given gifts to serve one another.” 

And in Matthew’s account Jesus himself tells his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, take up your cross and follow me.” 

It’s a lot to take in on a Saturday morning. Obey me. Keep my covenant. Love each other. Be hospitable. Serve. Pray. Take up your cross. Follow me. 

These things can read like a to-do list, and that makes me a little uncomfortable.  We are Episcopalians, products—whether we like it or not—of a blessed reformation. A reformation that told us, it’s not about what we do; it’s about what is done for us on the cross and the promise of resurrection. 

So why all these instructions? Can God just not help himself? 

Maybe God, like my own father, in an effort to show me how much he cares about me, and how much he loves me ends up…sometimes…kinda sorta…telling me how to live my life. 

Sometimes it feels like my father’s well-intentioned advice, is his way of piling on to my work load. “You might consider calling your mother more.” “When was the last time you talked to you grandfather.” “Have you mailed those insurance papers yet?”

My husband does it, too. “That was really nice of them; you should write a thank-you note.” “Have you considered inviting her for coffee.”

OK. Whatever. Great. Wonderful. All good ideas, but I’m a little busy here.  

“Well, I’m not trying to make your more difficult,” they say,  “I’m just trying to help!”

And then it dawns on me! Obey my commandments. See my covenant for instructions. Love each other. Be hospitable. Serve each other. Pray. Take up your cross. God’s just trying to help. 

God doesn’t make lists of tasks for us because God needs us to prove something. God provides examples so we don’t have to figure it out all by ourselves. God knows exactly what he’s doing. I’m the one turning it into a to-do list. 

All of these things: love, service, hospitality, scripture reading, and prayer are appropriate ways not to earn our salvation, but to respond to it with gratitude. 

Isn’t that liberating? You don’t have to do anything to earn God’s favor. So cross it all off your to-do list, and be grateful.

Our partiality problem

16th Sunday after Pentecost – September 9, 2018 – Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

Today the lectionary provides us with an embarrassment of riches. Today’s lessons at first feel and seem quite different from one another but upon closer examination, they work together to offer us a very important lesson about distinctions (or lack thereof) between God’s people. 

From James we hear, “If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say,  “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 

Proverbs is, perhaps blessedly, more brief. “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”

These two passages reveal a truth that we often forget. The distinctions that we make between people who are rich and people who are poor are our distinctions, not God’s. God created all of us. In America we sometimes hear it as, “All [men] are created equal.” 

Today we also have the Gospel according to Mark, from which we hear two healing stories—two miracles. 

One is about a Syrophoenician woman who goes to Jesus to ask for help for her sick daughter. This woman is a Gentile. In Jesus’ world, a world of Jews, she does not belong.  She takes the chance because she is desperate. He heals her daughter. 

In the next scene some folks bring Jesus a deaf man with a speech impediment. Because this takes place in the Decapolis, it’s likely that he is also a Gentile. They beg Jesus to lay hands on him. Jesus takes the man aside, puts his fingers into his ears, spits, and touches his tongue. “Ephphatha,” he says, and the man is healed. 

Jesus performs these saving acts on two people who do not belong to his community, two people who should never have belonged to his community. 

Knowledge of this, combined with what we have already heard from Proverbs and James reinforces what we are told again and again: God shows no partiality. God made both rich and poor. God loves all people equally, no matter what side of the tracks they’re from, no matter what community they belong to. 

You can’t believe in Jesus and give special treatment to the rich, or privilege members your own community. The Bible tells us and shows us that Jesus shows mercy to people who are *supposed* to be excluded. 

Jesus goes out of his way to help people that the religious leaders of his day are not to keen on. Even when he is tired, or wants to be alone, he makes time for people that the world has forgotten. 

Imagine that. It really was radical. And, unfortunately, it still is. I’ve heard people tell themselves, “Oh, I don’t see color” or  “I don’t judge,” but there truth is, they do. 

And worse than the stigmas, stereotypes, and snap judgments that we make, is pretending that we don’t make them at all. Instead of facing up to the realities of our participation in systematic oppression we find it easier to ignore any sense of guilt. 

The truth is, we still exclude— not just women, gays, and racial minorities. We exclude all kinds of people who are different than us. I know a student who is on the autism spectrum. He is not able to communicate clearly and confidently with others. He cannot interact socially to the same degree that his peers can. His peers struggle to relate to him precisely because he struggles to relate to them. 

It’s easier to give up or crack a joke to with your friends when he takes the whole class off on a tangent than it is to try to be supportive. 

The same is true when people get sick. Congregations often jump into overdrive When a member is diagnosed with a serious illness. Members bring mounds and mounds of cut up fruit, vegetables, lasagna, and cookies. 

But would you believe that sometimes after a person receives a bad diagnoses, that some people say nothing at all? Some people are afraid they will make a mistake or will not be able to relate. Some people fear that they won’t say the right thing, so they choose to say nothing at all. 

Typical. We all do it. 

Those are the rules of this world, but as Christinas we are called to be different. We know that God’s kingdom is not a kingdom of this world. We are called to live by the rules of God’s reign. No matter who wears what, or says what, or does what, we remember that God is the father and mother of us all. 

That’s hard work. It’s hard because we haven’t all been women, or queer, or a minorities. It’s hard because we don’t always understand difference—of any kind.

We haven’t all had direct experience with autism. We haven’t all been diagnosed with Leukemia or Parkinsons. When faced with differences fear gets ahold of us. Even around people we know and love, we don’t know what might help and what might make things worse.

We just refuse to treat people differently because we don’t want to give those who are different from us “special privileges.” In this country we think that if some people get special privileges then we might lose some of ours. We assume that there has to be inequality. But Jesus showed us that’s not the case when he died for us all. 

God shows no partiality. God’s saving acts are for everyone. Salvation is God’s work among all people. Jesus shows us that it belongs not only to Jews but to Gentiles, too. Even a Syrophoenician. Even a deaf man. Even poor people. Even rich people. 

We don’t obtain our salvation by ourselves. It comes from the one who loved us so much that he gave himself for us. The very same one who stands alongside those who are different from us and shows us that when we love them we love him. That’s salvation. 

James says, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” Yes, and the autistic, and the sick, and the queer, and the women, and the men, and the blacks, and the whites, and the Mexicans, and the Muslims.

God created us all, and he loves us more than we could ever ask or imagine.

A different kind of song

15th Sunday after Pentecost – September 2, 2018 – Song of Solomon 2:8-13 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

I regret not recording this sermon in some way. As a relatively new preacher, I’m still learning how sermons take shape in the unique moments of their unfolding. This one was prone to several additions and adaptations. As the living word of God, a sermon is meant to be absorbed by the ear. It is an event in time and not–as it appears here as text on a page–an object in space. Alas, this is what remains.


The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stand behind our wall gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

I’m not sure it’s a good idea, but I’m going to preach on the Song of Solomon today. I’m not sure it’s a good idea because some of the content here is kind of . . . sensitive. It’s about. . . passionate love. You know—sex. 

I don’t know if we’ve reached the point in our relationship where we can talk about such things. In fact, I’m not even sure what the proper stage is in the relationship between a pastor and his congregation when such talk is acceptable. Technically, I’m not even a priest yet, and I won’t be for a couple more weeks. 

But, here it goes . . . 

Today’s passage from the Song of Solomon is one of the only excerpts we get from this entire book in the three-year rotation of the Revised Common Lectionary. It appears today, in Proper 17B, but it also lands a second-string role in Proper 9A. 

If it sounded familiar to you it might be because the second half of this passage is often read during weddings. That makes sense. It is about two loving companions. Or, more explicitly, two lovers. 

We often use metaphors to define our relationship with God, but they don’t typically involve young lovers. The metaphor of a parent and child  is probably the most common. God is father or a mother hen gathering her brood. 

The Bible also speaks of the relationship between Christ and the Church as a marriage between husband and wife. A familiar hymn says, “From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride.” These are images of family, comfort, protection, and warmth.

These metaphors depict a God who wants to be in relationship with us, like a parent or a spouse. But other relationships in our lives may prove to be useful metaphors for our relationship with God.

Lucky for us the Song of Solomon does tend to stretch us out of our comfort zone in this regard. 

On his blog this week my priest-friend Evan wrote that a member of his parish staff, who grew up in the Baptist tradition, said that as a young person he was not allowed to read the Song of Solomon. The book was simply off-limits to children and young adults. “As an adolescent, I was told not to read it,” he said.

Some Christians think it should be off limits to adults, too. It is just too out there. It contains stories involving giving in to one’s passions which some see as much too erotic: sex before marriage; hiding from people during outdoor escapades. 

The author’s images are certainly beautiful and poetic. While they may not be too terribly explicit, what they represent definitely is. 

They can make us uncomfortable. Hands being thrust into cracks, channels blossoming with orchids and pomegranates, one’s beloved pasturing his flock among the lilies.

I bet just hearing that made some of you uncomfortable. Our discomfort with this topic and these images is precisely that—ours. The problem is not with the biblical text; it’s with us.

We are not comfortable talking about physical intimacy between two people, so why should we be comfortable talking about God that way? Even if it is a metaphor.  

We are created to be passionate, loving, sexual beings. Intimacy is part of our very identity. But for some reason we forget that God is a part of that. And we don’t talk about it, especially not in church. 

Instead we stick to what’s comfortable. We talk about God as a parent because Jesus did. We also know what it means to have, or need, a relationship with a mother and father. 

Even if we don’t have a spouse, most of us have probably at least been to a wedding so we talk about God as a spouse because we are familiar with the concept of marriage and the mutual support that comes with it. 

We even talk about God as sustenance, the very food and drink of life, because we need nourishment. 

But we don’t talk about God as a passionate companion or a lover. But when you think about it, it’s really quite apt. God will stop at nothing to be in a relationship with us. 

We’ve been there. And it goes far beyond our first kiss–a peck on the cheek in grade school. 

Most of us can remember that first time we really fell for someone. The way it felt to be around them. Butterflies in our stomach. Nervous babbling, sweaty palms, and shaking knees when we asked them to dance. In the afternoon we tried to study but we couldn’t. All we could think of was our love. 

Can remember your first love? Or the day you first met your spouse? You didn’t want your first date to end. You spent countless hours on the phone. You would have “leapt upon the mountains and bounded over the hills” just to see them. 

My sister Leslie was introduced to her husband Andrew on a trip to Austin, TX with some college friends. She met him at a New Year’s Eve and didn’t leave his side for rest of the trip. She was just a poor college student, but she later confessed to me that she would have gladly drained her entire bank account just to push her flight back one more day. 

That’s the way it is sometimes. We are so captivated with another person that nothing else matters. It is enough to stare into their eyes for hours. 

The author of Solomon’s song is reminding us that that’s also the way it is with God. No matter how uncomfortable certain subject matter makes us, God is a part of even our most intimate moments. 

In fact, God is the source of them. 

Perhaps it’s not so out of bounds for us to read today’s narrative and think of God. The narrator hears her beloved and she stirs. There he is, peeking through the lattice, beckoning her to come out. 

What if God came to us like that? What if our relationship with God was as special as a relationship with a new love? What if our relationship with God made our insides tingle and our stomach sink. 

Could we ever allow that? I think so. 

God does not just comfort us like a parent or love us like a spouse. God also pursues us with the voracity of young love.

God tells you, “You are mine.” I think of you all the time. God is so captivated with you that nothing is a distraction. Not all the money in your bank account. 

“I always want to be with you,” God says. And he will be.

The rhythm of prayer

Thursday in the First Week of Lent – February 22, 2018 – Matthew 7:7-12

It is a joy to be asked to preach for the students, faculty, staff, and families of my alma mater. Thank you to the recording crew at the Chapel of the Apostles for this audio.

Ask. Search. Knock.

Ask— and it will be given you; search— and you will find; knock— and the door will be opened for you. 

Everyone who asks receives, everyone who searches finds, and everyone who knocks finds an open door.

Ask. Search. Knock. — Receive. Find. Open.

Jesus’ words sound out for us the rhythm of prayer like the beat—beat—beat of a drum. [1]

Ask. Search. Knock.

This is the pattern of our prayer.

In prayer we ask God for things. We know—or think we know—what we want from God so we name our needs and our desires. We ask. [2]

Bless us, O Lord. Deliver us, O Lord. Save us, O Lord.

“Dear God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

“Dear God, Give me a little brother for Christmas.”

“Dear God, Keep my little brother safe.”

“Dear God, Make my little brother disappear.”

When we don’t know what to ask, we search. We randomly name our thoughts before God. [3] Like in the space between the light switch and the bed, we grope around in the dark—having forgotten where even the most familiar things are.

As seekers we go to prayer not knowing what we want but relying on God to point it out.

“I’m unhappy, in a bad mood, I don’t know what I want. Mad at myself, Mad at you. Show me the way, Jesus. Show me the way.”

And sometimes no words come. All we find is a door. In that case, we can only knock. Sometimes we knock softly and patiently, opening the prayer book and reciting its well-worn words. Other times we pound erratically, shouting so loud that we expect our sorrow to separate the clouds and God to reach down and pick us up.

Sometimes all we can do is knock. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Ask. Search. Knock.—These are the beats in the rhythm of our prayer.

In drought we pray for rain. In war we pray for peace. In frustration we pray for guidance. In turmoil we cry out.

Jesus taught us the rhythm of prayer. But he didn’t just use his words; he also used his life.

“And he withdrew to a quiet place to pray.”

“And he withdrew to a mountain to pray.”

“And he left them there and went up to pray.”

Jesus shows us constantly to punctuate our life with prayer. We are not strangers to this rhythm.

Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline. And that’s just a minimum!

For centuries there have been monastic prayer offices: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline. Such is the rhythm of Christian life.

The daily office offers time to sink into the psalms, whisper familiar collects, and bid our personal petitions to God.

“We pray for Michael our Presiding Bishop, John our Chancellor, and for all our bishops.”

This is what we do as Christians. We pray.

Even right now we are engaged common prayer. The red book gives us the slow and steady beat of our lives. Even the prayers within the rites of the Prayer Book have standard rhythms.

The the collects, for example. They are fashioned—mostly—according to a pattern:

Address. Attribution. Petition. Reason. Doxology.

Address—Dear God

Attribution—Almighty and ever-living father

Petition—Give us strength

Reason—So that we may more perfectly serve you

Doxology—In the name of your son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

The rhythm pulsates inside of us; it becomes part of who we are. We pray when we are thankful—before meals and when we gather with old friends.

When we are nervous—while the professor is passing out the midterm or just before we meet our beloved’s parents for the first time. When we have work to do—at board meetings and bible studies. When we are at the bedside—for healing or for a peaceful death.

Jesus taught us to pattern our lives with prayer. And so we do.

It’s a simple concept, easy to understand. But you don’t always do it very well. And I don’t always do it very well. I doubt, I wander, I fidget.

If you’re like me, sometimes the rhythm of your prayer is interrupted because you get distracted. What is appropriate to include? [4]

The things I need? The things I want? The things I think others need?

No matter what I have to offer, it seems inadequate. “Please God, I need to pass this exam.” Nope, too self-serving.

“I pray that I am not like them, Lord.” Hmmm…seems judgmental.

“Please God, Cure my flu.” But other people have it, too.

“I thank you Lord, that the sermon was a success.” Way too self-congratulatory!

In the silence at the daily office I list names of friends and family rapid fire, only to find myself worrying about who I did not name.

“Oh no! I prayed for Susan this morning, but I just talked to her. Nanette probably needed it more. And then there’s Diego. And my grandma! How could I forget her again??”

Do you do that? Edit your prayers?

“No, I won’t ask God for anything this evening. I’ve been asking for too much lately.”

I sure do.

Do your prayers feel inadequate sometimes?

“How many more child must die?”

“How many more women must be groped?”

I cannot stand the feeling of failing in prayer. But here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: There’s no reason to censor your prayer. I think a lot of us spend a great deal of time and energy trying to perfect the rhythm of our prayers, but that is not the point.

Jesus tells us to pray to God however we need to—by asking or searching or knocking. Maybe it’s all those things at once.

As long as you are praying you are participating in God’s rhythm for your life.

We pray to communicate with God. We do not have to be in touch with God. God already knows us better than we know ourselves, but we talk to God because we have a relationship with God, and that’s what you do when you’re in a relationship—you talk.

You talk to each other. It’s not always perfect, but it’s part of the rhythm of life together.

“Hi, Honey, how was your day?”

“Oh fine, and yours?”

“Not bad.”

“That’s all?

Why don’t you ever tell me anything anymore?”

“I’m not telling you every detail of every day.

I’m tired!

I just got home from work!”

What we say is rarely perfect, but we have the conversations because they are important to us, and they are important to God.

God understands when you don’t understand. God handles the onslaught of your disorganized thoughts even better than our professors!

God doesn’t require you to cite any sources or tag any friends. God just wants to hear from you.

I think it must be a most pleasing sound—the rhythm of God’s people in prayer. There is no better time than Lent to settle into a new discipline—a new rhythm—of prayer.

If you do, you might be surprised by what happens.

You will not be surprised because your attitude changes, or because you feel peaceful, or because you are more connected, or because you’re called to action.

No—I think you can anticipate all of that.

But if you settle into a rhythm of prayer I think you will be surprised to find that you are not the one in control. [5]

And that’s okay.

You didn’t start the beat; it belongs to the one from whom all blessings flow.

So…feel the divine rhythm.

Snap you fingers, clap your hands, tap your toes…

And pray.


[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 79.

[2] Ibid, 80.

[3] Ibid.

[4] cf. Long, 80.

[5] Ibid.

God had heard me, too

Friday after Proper 29 – December 1, 2017 – Psalm 142

Listen to me preach the sermon here.

I don’t need to tell you all that God can handle your anger. If you’re mad, tell God about it. You want to keep the lines of communication open.

The psalmist gets it—

I cry to the Lord with my voice; to the Lord I make loud my supplication. I pour out my complaint before him and tell him all my trouble.


Sometimes we also get a sense of it—without even thinking about it.

On Tuesday morning I hustled to Becky Wright’s office after Morning Prayer, I did that thing where I kind of presumptively open the door as I knock on it and stopped dead in front of her chair. She looked up at me from her laptop and, in that way she does, which I’m sure I don’t need to explain, she said, “Hello.”

And I said, “I’m frustrated, and I need to tell someone. I woke up this morning and read the news. Now I’ve got all these horrible things whirling around in my head, and I’m fed up with this country and with the people in it and with the stuff they say. I guess I just need a safe space to say that.”

She immediately nodded in solidarity, and when I got a little more specific in my complaints, she identified with me. Then, she assured me that I wasn’t alone.

When I was through I exhaled, and the mood of the conversation lightened. As I stared down at the pile grievances I had just dumped at her feet, a few of the great blessings of my life flashed before my eyes, and I began to relax.

As I left she said, “Come back anytime.”

And as I walked down the hall I felt that wonderful sense of relief that comes from being freed from the isolation of your distress.

That’s called grace.

Suddenly in dawned on me. I thought I was just talking to Becky, but God had heard me, too.

Doing something

Tuesday of Proper 28 – November 28, 2017 – Luke 19:1-10

Listen to me preach the sermon here.

I love the story of Zacchaeus. What’s not to like? It’s one of the first Bible stories children learn and remember. There’s a catchy song about it. A grown man climbs a tree.

But, above all, it is a story about repentance and salvation.

Zacchaeus is a sinner. He’s deeply implicated in the oppressive powers of the Roman government. He is complicit in a corrupt tax system. He is hated by people around him.

But this sinner does something incredible. he risks public humiliation to try and see Jesus. He offers hospitality to Jesus. He repents of his sins.

His repentance doesn’t take the form of a quiet prayer to God. It’s not an afterthought or a quick soundbite of an apology. His repentance is profound, public, and, most important of all, it bears fruit.

Repentance isn’t just a “transaction of the heart.” [1] True repentance also involves doing something.

John the Baptist is one of the first people to teach us about this. In Luke 3 John baptizes crowds of people. He exhorts them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance . . . every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Then they ask, “What should we do?”And does he ever have an answer! “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Tax collectors, “Do not to collet more than is due to you.” Soldiers, “Do not extort people for money or make false accusations about them. Be satisfied with you wages.”

John makes it pretty clear that repentance isn’t just something that happens in your heart or in your mind. It’s something you act out. Repentance is more than an idea or a prayer. It’s a lifestyle.

Luke’s account tells us this over and over again.

When a son asks for his share of the inheritance and then runs off and squanders it, he doesn’t just say, “OK, I made a mistake. Sorry, dad. Sorry, God.” No. He goes back home with rags on his body and shame in your heart and says, “Please, give me whatever job you have.”

When a notorious sinner sees that Jesus is in town, she doesn’t hide in her room saying, “I’m sorry, everybody. I’m sorry, God.” No. She takes an alabaster jar of ointment and she washes the feet of the Lord with her tears and dries them with her hair.

When one of the flock goes astray, the shepherd doesn’t look at the rest of the sheep and say, “Sorry guys, I let one slip past me.” No. He goes looking for it. And when he finds it he celebrates.

When a tax collector is reviled by his entire community, he doesn’t just stay at home and say, “I’ve sinned against my brothers and my sisters and against God, and I repent.” No. He goes out and does whatever he can to catch a glimpse of Jesus himself. And when Jesus asks to come to his house, he shows him great hospitality.  And when the crowd is closing in on you, de doesn’t just say, “My bad. I won’t do it again.” No. He offers to pay them back with even more than their fair share.

Repentance isn’t just something we say, it’s something we do. We act it out. We do something because the joy of our salvation isn’t just something in my heart or in your heart.

Salvation isn’t a private matter. It’s not about personal conversion. It’s not even about getting a personal ticket to heaven. It’s not something we keep to ourselves.

It’s something we share.

But let’s be clear. We don’t go back home because God requires it. We don’t break open our finest oil because God demands it. We don’t pay back more than we owe just to get the crowds off your back. And we don’t do these things to earn our salvation.

We do these things because we are grateful for the abundant grace that God has given us.

We do these things because when we realize that God is calling us to wholeness we are so overjoyed that words alone will not suffice.

[1] Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 219.


Feast of William Temple – November 6, 2017 – Exodus 22:21-27; John 1:9-18

Today I preached at the noon Eucharist for the Feast of William Temple in The Chapel of the Apostles. This sermon originally began as a poem, which I briefly considered reading during the liturgy, but as I adapted it I knew its essence had changed to a more traditional sermon. The preaching event you’ll see in the video is slightly different than the words on the page below. Watching or listening to a sermon is, in my opinion, always preferable to reading it because it keeps you closer to the spirit of the sermon as an event in time and not an object in space. If you chose to do that in this case, you might experience a *slightly* different piece of work.

You can watch me preach the sermon here. 

God took on flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

According to William Temple, because of the incarnation, “the personality of every man and woman is sacred.”

I beg to differ.

He obviously never went to diocesan convention. Or to a shopping mall on Black Friday. I guess he never walked down the halls of a seminary during midterms.

But he lived through World War, colonial expansion, and social tension. And surely crazed gunmen existed in his day.

So why didn’t he, like me, see that some of God’s people are barely tolerable?

I know people who check their phones while you’re in the middle of a conversation with them. I know people who commit and then don’t follow through. I know people who come to class unprepared.

As an arrogant, know-it-all seminarian, I’m sure that Temple would agree with me if he were here now. I wish that I could ask him about it.

I know just how it would go: I’d ask,“What annoys you most about other people?” And he’d answer, “They exist.” And I say, “Aha! Then what’s all this stuff about everyone having a sacred personality?”

And he’d reply, “Well, the truth is our common life together can be…exasperating.” And because that’s a word that I used last week to describe a crowded room of clergy, I’d feel really proud.

But then he’d say, “Sure, people are exasperating, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sacred.”

No one has ever seen God—it is God the only son—who has made him known. The Son was known in human form. Because of that our humanity is sacred. Our very beings and those of others are means by which God reveals himself to us. Even though they do things that are quirky, irritating, disagreeable, infuriating, and yes, even evil.

At this point in our conversation, I’d read the first chapter of John again, and realize what Temple is trying to tell me. And what he’s trying to tell you: Focus on Jesus.

But know this: You. Can’t. Live. Up. To. That. Because you’re not God.

But the good news is: You’re still sacred. Sacred doesn’t mean perfect. And sacred doesn’t mean best. Sacred doesn’t even mean good.

But Sacred does mean redeemed.