Grass | Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God will stand forever.IMG_1847 

Withering grass and fading flowers are a going going gone idea, lifted up by the Prophet Isaiah today on the Second Sunday of Advent. Puts me in mind of all the soap on a rope my grandmother used to give me for Christmas. It was cool at first: a technological marvel from out of my childhood. But in the end, it went the way of the drain. An early disappointment I should have noted.

Let’s all agree: the last thing Christmas means to be is a disappointment. I’ve always thought how awful it is to think Christmas is all about trying hard to please other people. Christmas has nothing to do with whether your gifts are good enough to give or whether your cooking is good enough to eat. Disappointment in yourself or anybody else deserves no shelf life in your heart on the day you celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Isaiah’s words today aim you away from disappointments every day of the week toward the more durable love of God. A love that lasts forever, a love that believes in your goodness and knows your frail limitations all at once. Read more

picture this | Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and do so by coming to lens.jpgthe Supper of the Lamb: the Eucharist. By another name, Holy Communion. Our gospel, though, today commends instead a kind of holy separation. In the words of Jesus, the day will come when he’ll separate [us] one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

This isn’t the language of photography, lining us up for a holiday group shot. This is the language of separation and judgment, lining us up for a final sentence said over the way we live.

While we can take those words to mean we’re the sheep among the goats, Jesus leaves open the possibility that we might also be goats among the sheep. You never know. And between those two distinct possibilities, I’m guessing most of us imagine we’re a little of both, good enough goats in the end to pass for sheep.

What strikes me, though, isn’t the stark separation Jesus draws among us today, but the way he suddenly changes his perspective. If you’ll notice, in today’s reading he begins as the king in glory set apart from us as judge from on high. But he ends as the suffering servant: hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, heartsick, imprisoned.

I was a stranger, he says, and you did not welcome me. Meaning, I was that stranger, the one you ignored, the one whose hunger did not move you at all. These are hard words to hear in the wake of Thanksgiving. Right as we set out to judge between one turkey and another, Jesus has to go and spoil it for us by naming the many who live outside the practice of our feasting.

I have a friend named June who called last week to say she was dreading the holidays. She’s a widow, has been for well over twenty years. For her, holidays are days of acute separation, days of longing for when no chair at her table was ever empty. June lives alone and lost her husband when their two boys were still in grade school. It took her years before she could look through her family photographs.

In a recent phone call, she told me, Whenever I look at those pictures, I notice what’s missing. I see the years just after Jim died when I never took a picture at all. It’s like, for a while, not only Jim went missing, but we did too. And then one day there we were, back in the album, going to ballgames and having holidays without him.

She went on to say, What’s interesting is how even in the pictures from our early years together, back when he was still living, there’s hardly a single picture of Jim and me together. When I first noticed this, it made me sad, as if there was no record of our how much we’d loved each other. But then I realized how I hardly made an appearance in any of the photographs. I had pictures of Jim holding our babies, but very few of me. And I know I held them.

 It’s because I took the pictures, she said. I was the one who saw the love that needed to be remembered. That’s our job: seeing the love that needs to be remembered. And you know what? I’m thinking next year I’ll invite somebody who lives alone to come sit in Jim’s chair. I’m thinking maybe our job is also being the love that needs to be remembered.

Generally speaking, there are at least two perspectives in every photograph you take. There’s the life in the picture, say a family you love lining up for the group shot looking back at you. And then there’s you, the one who stands outside the picture and snaps the photo.

Today when Jesus gives us a picture of sheep among goats that’ll one day be separated, one from the other, he’s telling us he’ll remember the way we love. Or don’t. But here’s the thing: it’s not where he ends up, is it? Somehow, as he moves toward the cross of his sacrificial love, he finds a way to land inside the picture, a way to land right next to you. And it’s not like he’s taking a selfie or photoshopping himself into your life.

No, it’s like he really was one of us all along. And still is. Like you can know him whenever we come together. Like he is hidden away in his given away life whenever you meet the stranger, or whenever you love like he loves, whenever you (in the words of Compline) tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, and shield the joyous, much as you can. And Jesus is telling you, You can.

Our Lord invites us every Sunday to the Supper of the Lamb. It’s our job to answer that invitation, remembering his precious death, mighty resurrection, and glorious ascension. Holy Communion is how we remember the love of Jesus. Holy Communion is also how we become the love of Christ sent out to do his will.

The god we imagine so far away from us, set apart on his glory throne, through Christ is always staring us in the face, standing right next to us, inseparable, one of us. In the end it’s not what God will do to us that matters so much as what we do to other people and to each other.

Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb. Blessed are you.

Lamplight |Matthew 25:1-13

Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

That’s another way of saying, Be ready. Any day now the Bridegroom is coming again. So keep your hearts open, and your lamps burning.

When you think about it, a lamp is an amazing vessel. Made to hold a saving piece of the sun before you when night Screen Shot 2017-11-15 at 4.54.38 PMfalls hard. Lamplight is a human endeavor, more ancient than the flashlight or the cellphone with its luminous rectangular face illuminating our faces. Moonlight reminds you the dark has always had a face. It’s God’s gift to us. Lamplight, though, is how we came up with a way to see when the moon and the stars weren’t bright enough. Lamplight is how we overcame our fear of the dark.

I have a lamp here. A friend gave it to to me. It’s an ancient little light found in southern Syria in an early Christian cemetery where it had been placed on All Saints Day. It was and is a sign of light in the darkness. A sign of readiness, too. A sign of human beings tending the flame of Christian hope.

It humbles me to imagine people tending lamps like this in days that were darker than our own. And I mean this literally, not figuratively, because this lamp was made before the invention of electricity, before we thought we could manage the mysteries of life. It humbles me to imagine this lamp set out in vigil among the dead like a candlelight proposal. Like communion with Jesus the Bridegroom. Like love you can’t explain. Like something miraculous. Read more

Howleluia | Matthew 5:1-2

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Riding through Old Towne the other day, I spied a skeleton on a bicycle. It was a life-size Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 8.39.00 PMplastic skeleton astride a large red bike, a figure straight out of the Mexican tradition of skeletons dressed up in street clothes, their skulls in fancy hats, ready to mark the Feast of All Souls Day, what Mexico names el Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

Though this particular skeleton was supposed to be halloween spooky, I found myself smiling. It seemed a happy sight, its very own beatitude, like saying, Blessed are the skeletal, for they shall ride bicycles. Read more

gentleness | Matthew 22:1-14

My brothers and sisters, in the words of St. Paul,  let your gentleness be known to everyone.

Last Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 6.01.50 PMweek a nearby restaurant hosted a fundraiser for SAFE Shelter, our local center for domestic violence. There was a gentleman passing the hat, moving from table to table, in a skirt made of purple tulle.

Tulle is worn by brides. Purple isn’t. Purple is the color of bruises. Of households falling apart.

I took the man’s skirt to mean he was wearing the color of domestic violence, a color naming the harm done to somebody by somebody they love or live with. Last month one of you sent me an email saying how October is Domestic Violence Month. It came with an invitation for preachers to lift up “the sacred worth of women” on this very day. So I opened my calendar, and under October 15th, I wrote down, The Sacred Worth of Women. It’s been on my mind a lot lately.

By coincidence today St. Paul commends the sacred worth of two women: Euodia and Synteche. He doesn’t waste a word on how young they are or what they look like. What he commends is what most of us hope is recommendation enough: our work. These women, he says, “have struggled beside [me] in the work of the gospel.”

These women, though, are not docile partners. These women think for themselves. You can tell because Paul wants them to be “of one mind”, which is to admit they often aren’t. But when they are, as Paul well knows, you better watch out. No telling what they can do. And will do. Read more

burdened | Feast of St. Francis, Matthew 11:25-30

Jesus said, Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh thee.

The first sermon I remember hearing was about those words, what we used to call the Comfortable Words. I was twelve years old IMG_2242.jpgstuck in church listening to a priest named Fr. Kennedy. He told us how he once served an urban parish, and how the chancel end of the church was backed up next to the bustling life of tenement housing. He said you could hear voices from the outside world breaking in now and then, and one day as he was reading aloud from the old prayer book, he came to the part where the priest says, Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith, and at that very moment, an angry mother was heard to shout, Get the hell in here.

I’d never heard a priest talk that way in church. He sounded so free, like something fresh from the world outside. And when the congregation laughed, Fr. Kennedy did a little jig in the pulpit.

Whenever I dance alone — which is never in a pulpit — I feel unburdened like something fresh from the world, too. But get me dancing with other people, and I start worrying about whether I know the right steps and the whole trouble with stepping on other people’s toes.

Ask my children, and they’ll tell you I dance like a chicken. Maybe you do, too. Whenever my kids want to imitate me dancing, they flap their arms like this.

[Imagine your hands lifted before you, your elbows out flapping like wings]

Thing is, the first time they ever saw me dancing, and for a long time thereafter, I was behind the wheel of a car on our way to somewhere. Back then I didn’t know I’d come to look like a dancing chicken. In my mind I was still the independent co-ed who knew how to throw her arms up on a crowded dance floor. But here’s the thing: when my children saw me dancing in the car, elbows out flapping like wings, I was holding on to the steering wheel.

I was holding on to them — to my family. And very likely, most days you dance funny, too, because you’re holding on to burdens you care about.

Church is where you come with burdens to dance funny with other people who also have burdens.

Read more

rain | Matthew 20:1-16

Rain falls on the good and the bad, on those who labor long and on those whoScreen Shot 2017-09-24 at 6.07.06 PM labor only for a while. It’s an idea Matthew alone lifts up: rain falling “on the just and the unjust” all at once, just as Matthew alone remembers Jesus telling the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Rain falls. Like manna from heaven. And sometimes what falls from heaven comes like flood nobody deserves or wants. And sometimes it falls not enough or not at all.

I have a friend in south Alabama with a big front yard full of centipede grass. She struggles to look after it. Has a good-enough sprinkler, one of those little twirling fountains on the end of a water hose, but mostly she forgets to use it.

In the heat of summer, wisdom tells her the grass needs water early in the morning, not late in the day when she comes home from work. She’s a working single parent, often too tired to drag a hose over dry grass. Even inside the house, an old peace lily has to wilt half dead for her to notice it. Dishes pile up. Laundry too. Read more

Street angels | Acts of the Apostles 1:6-14

All through the great fifty days of Easter, you’ve been hearing stories from the Acts of the Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 3.04.13 PMApostles. It’s what you do in Eastertide. You tune in to stories of how the Church began, as told by Luke. Today, on the feast of the Ascension, Jesus tells his disciples that time is not theirs to discern, and suggests they pay no attention to when things will happen in God’s good time. And then he’s gone: up, up, and away, leaving the disciples to stare after him in slack-jawed wonder. Which explains why the angels scold them for looking up. Men of Galilee, they ask, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? And go on to say, This Jesus, who’s been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.

Angels are the messengers of God. And while these two wear the usual white robes, Luke doesn’t call them angels. Instead he calls them men. They’re like street angels, the sort who meet us where the rubber meets the road. And that’s because Luke wants you to look for the message of God on the ground where you live. He isn’t focused on the second coming or apocalyptic endings.

His gospel was written around the time early believers began to accept that Jesus wasn’t coming again anytime soon, around the time believers miraculously began to discern an earthy vocation for the Church. In the meantime between our Lord’s ascension and his coming again, Luke sees what me might call the opportunity of a lifetime. He wants people to quit looking up and away, and start looking up and around. To his way of seeing, Jesus ascended to a kingdom that mysteriously unfolds in the midst of us every day. It’s there all around us: the goodness of God. Read more

gardener | John 20:1-18

The language of Spring is all over the Resurrection. It’s how ancient believers found a Screen Shot 2017-04-16 at 2.24.38 PMway to talk about eternal life, using the earthy talk of gardens and springtime: budding branches abiding in the eternal green-growing vine. Springtime is the poetry of Easter: flowers and birds, seeds and eggs. It’s why we have a memorial garden. Why we’re surrounded by lilies today: the church become a garden. It’s why the Easter Bunny hides eggs and why we go searching for them like little Mary Magdalenes on the hunt for life.

More than any other evangelist, John relies on the language of Creation. Only John begins his gospel by saying in the beginning, as if we’re starting all over. And only John tells us Jesus was buried in a garden. He’s the one says Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb in search of Jesus and thinks he’s a gardener.

And maybe he is. Maybe the Risen Lord is also a gardener. Read more

Remembering

St. Paul tells us nothing can separate us from the love of God. And yet, tuning in to the Gospel, it’s evident we often feel otherwise. Do not let your hearts be troubled, Jesus says. Believe in God, believe also in me. His words admit our hearts are often troubled, in some way separated from the hope of love.

This reading from the Gospel according to John, commended on the occasion of a burial, has a short title in some editions of memathe Bible: it’s called Jesus the Way. No verb at all. The idea is that the way to heaven isn’t finally ours to do or achieve; that none of us quite knows how or where that way aims us. Which is to say, we’re all a little lost: not sure where we are, where we’re headed, or what to do about either of those realities. We’re lost, and some of us happen to know it.

I think my mother knew she was lost. And I think her lost-ness made it hard for her to ever feel like she belonged. At the same time, I think being lost means she, of all people I’ve ever known, was entirely fit for heaven because she needed it. Heaven is for the lost, the utterly lost. As our gospel suggests, the disciples were also lost when Jesus opened the subject of his own death and dying. He tells them they know the way there, and the disciples speak for us when they ask, How can we? Read more