Saturday, November 19, 2016

What is Power? (Sermon for Christ the King Sunday)

What is Power?
Luke 23:33-43
St. John's Episcopal Church, New Haven
Christ the King Sunday

I’m gonna come right out of the gate and ask you to put up with a little bit of foolishness with me. I’m going to share with you a lyric from the rapper, producer, fashion designer, and now 2020 presidential candidate, Kanye West. Now I know that many of you may be tempted to roll your eyes or glare, but the takeaway of this sermon (or if you’re a note taker what you’re going to want to write down) is stolen from the very end of his 2010 hit single POWER (all caps). And it goes like this, “Have you got the power to let power go?” Have you got the power to let power go?

Mmmm… Kanye not so ridiculous after all... This same idea is found in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust masterpiece, “Schindler’s List.” If you’ve seen the movie you’ll remember there’s that powerful scene where Oskar Schindler is having a conversation with an SS officer. It’s Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes talking about the nature of power. The very drunk officer turns to Oskar and tells him that he’s on to him. That he knows why he never gets drunk. “That’s your control,” he says. “Control is power. That’s your power.” To this Oskar goes a step further. “True power, Amon, is when we have every justification to kill and we don’t. A man steals something, he’s brought in before the emperor, he throws himself down on the ground, he begs for his life, he knows that he is going to die, and the emperor pardons him. This worthless man, the emperor lets him go… That’s power, Amon. That is power.”...

In today’s gospel lesson this kind of power is taken even further. In it we read about the crucifixion of Jesus. Yes, on Christ the King Sunday we read about the utter humiliation of our Lord. You might be tempted to think that this is further evidence that the assemblers of our lectionary were totally crazy, but you’d be wrong. For once you know the literary strategy of the synoptic gospels this ironic pairing should come as no surprise. For while all four gospels are trying to get you to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?”, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do so in a very unlikely way.

Friday, August 5, 2016


Luke 12:32-40
Calvary - St. George's Church

When I was a kid I had friends who were huge Harry Potter fans. They’d talk about the books all the time. When a new one was announced they’d anticipate it for months. And on the midnight of its release they’d dress as their favorite characters and wait in line for hours all to get their hands on the first available copies. Even for a non-Potterite it was exciting: there was a palpable energy in the air. These kids were passionate, disciplined, alert.

Last Sunday was the release of the newest and (allegedly) final Harry Potter story. Once again, lines were long, costumes donned, and the books gone. It had been ten years since the release of book seven, but when the long hoped for day had finally come, fans had not been caught unprepared.

In this morning’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus calls for his disciples to be ready. Luke tells us to be alert in anticipation of Jesus’ return. We are to be like those on watch late into the night; like those who’ve been tipped off that someone is about to try and steal our stuff. But what do these similes even mean for you and me? It’s one thing to be expectant when you have a release date or know the day and time of the master’s return, but what about when you don’t? What about when you have no idea when he's coming? How can we honestly be expected to be alert and ready when he’s already taken two thousand years? 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cosmic Vending Machine?

"Cosmic Vending Machine?"
Luke 11:1-13
Calvary - St. George's Church

A couple years ago I played in a co-ed flag football tournament on the Gettysburg battlefield. Me and seminarians from all over the East Coast came together at Gettysburg Lutheran to compete in the ‘Luther Bowl.’ Over the course of that day, I caught the eye of cute seminarian from Princeton Theological Seminary. (Well, not really. It was the other way around, but whatever!) Having played her team in the championship game, I worked myself up to ask for her number. I knew that at the end of the tournament all of the teams would gather for drinks. This would be my chance. It’d be time to cash in. Time to deliver. Only, when it was time to come together the Princeton Seminary kids never showed up. They’d peaced out early. My opportunity stripped away. 

But that did little to deter my younger self. Arriving back in Pittsburgh it was midterms week, but instead of studying I was on the internet trying to find the girl whose name I’d never asked for. My friend said it would be impossible. That only strengthened my resolve. And after hours and hours of stalking, I mean searching, I found her. (Don’t ask me how. I remember being ready to give up only moments earlier, but I had done the impossible.) I had to send her a message now. So I put something together. Tried to follow all the rules: be funny, brief, and direct-ish. And pressed send. And then waited. And waited. And waited... What was I expecting? This girl hadn’t even noticed me, and this was all so creepy. 

But then, days later, lo and behold, a red notification box appeared at the top right of my Facebook window. It was a message. It was from her. My shameless persistence had paid off!

In this morning’s Gospel Lesson, we see another picture of shameless persistence. (Yes, that is my transition. Shameless, get it?) But, no really, in today’s reading, we see another instance of troublesome persistence. Jesus is inviting his disciples to petition God with boldness. The author of Luke is encouraging us to pray unrelentingly. Why? Because--as this text makes clear--God indeed responds to the prayers of his children. 

Now, this is not the first time I’ve read this passage. It’s not even the first time I’ve preached on it. So I’ve known about it’s message for quite some time now. Nevertheless, I still don’t pray as often as I should. And never mind should. I still don't even pray as much as I’d like to. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

In Memoriam: John Neely

In Memoriam: John WM Neely
John 14:1-6
St. Bartholomew’s Church, Manhattan

“O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron's beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men and women - to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us - with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.”*

I was once told that it’s a pretty bad idea to say a sermon at a friend's or family member’s funeral, but when my grandmother died my family, being made up of lapsed Catholics, had nothing. There was going to be no service, no sermon, no eulogy; nothing. When I heard this, I said, ‘Well, okay... I’ll do this. It’s better for me to step in then for there to be nothing.’ It was a mess.** And I hope that today is not a mess, but it might be because John Neely was for me, like for so many of you, my friend, and contrary to death-denying "celebration of life" ceremonies, so in fashion today, you and I are here together to mourn the loss of our friend.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Who Will Open Our Closed Lips? (Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost)

A Sermon for the Sunday of Pentecost
Genesis 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-21
Calvary - St. George's Church

When I was a hospital chaplain I’d visit a lot of very lonely people. Many who I’d see had no other guests. Some of these patients would regularly apologize for talking without breaking the whole time I was with them. I’d often feel bad having to tell them it was time for me to see the next person.

At the end of one visitation, one woman suddenly interrupted her train of thought mid-sentence and told me, “I feel so lost, so cut off, so alone,” and then she apologized. I told her not to. Then she said something unexpected: ‘I'm not apologizing to you, I'm apologizing to myself. Hospice is horrific, to be sure, but what I've realized being here is that I've felt disconnected for decades; even when I was surrounded by family and friends. I’m sorry to myself for not noticing this when I was young. Sorry that I never did anything about it.’

And when I got home that night, I laid in my bed and stared at the ceiling, and wondered if I didn't feel the same.

Why are we so alone? So unable to share with one another what moves us?

We see other people coming and going each in their own way, and it saddens us that we are so cut off from each other. That there are so many different worlds -- you in your house and me in my house, you with your thoughts and me with mine. We feel this is simply not the way life is meant to be: this separate life we all lead. And we know that with a single change we could have infinitely more joy and connection, if only we could open our hearts and talk with each other.

But then we experience the fact that we are mute. Our lips bound. Yes, we certainly talk with each other, we find words all right, but never the right words; never the words that would really do justice to what actually moves us; never the words that would really lead us out of our loneliness and into community.*

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Let Your Hair Down Kind of Love (Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent)

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 12:1-8
Calvary - St. George's Church

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ ministry begins with an overflow of an expensive wine. In today’s Gospel lesson, just days before his death, his ministry is confirmed with the outpouring of a costly perfume.

Now many of you are familiar with Jesus’s first miracle. Jesus and his mother Mary are at a wedding feast. A party designed to last a week. Only the wine runs out far too soon. While this may not be the biggest deal for us today (something we might at most roll our eyes at), in this honor-and-shame culture this is a great disgrace.

Jesus, seeing this, decides to act. And he makes a way where there is no way. And when he’s finished what was about to be shame is replaced with honor. For not only is there wine enough to spare, but the best wine has been saved for last.

Now John does not call this act a miracle. He calls it a sign. And he calls it a sign to get us to look beyond the event itself to what it points to. To the overflowing love and grace of God for people so prone to shaming themselves. People like me and you.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Opiate or Good News

Luke 4:14-21
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan

At the beginning of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment we meet Marmeladov, a hopeless drunk who’s just squandered his family’s wealth. Surrounded by men of vice and low esteem in a rowdy tavern, he grieves his character and misdeeds aloud before finally crying out:

“At the last Judgment Christ will say to us, “Come, you also! Come, drunkards! Come, weaklings! Come, children of shame!” And he will say to us: “Vile beings, you who are in the image of the beast and bear his mark, but come all the same, you as well.” And the wise and prudent will say, “Lord, why do you welcome them?” And he will say: “If I welcome them, you wise men, it is because not one of them has ever been judged worthy.” And he will stretch out his arms, and we will fall at his feet, and we will cry out sobbing, and then we will understand all, we will understand the Gospel of grace! Lord, your Kingdom come!”

And for a just a moment, with all eyes on him, silence reigned in that noisy, lowlife tavern.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson all eyes are on Jesus. There’s a palpable excitement in the air. He who had been publicly ministering for about a year in Judea was returning to his hometown. Poor and out-of-the-way, Nazareth was nothing like New York City. Jesus’s own disciple Nathanael was at first reluctant to follow because of this. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”, he'd asked? 

The people from this town had probably internalized their outlier status. Whether or not you’ve heard Jimmy Eat World’s song “A New Jersey Success Story,” you know what it means by the title. (When I go back to Trenton they roll out the red carpet. The New York City celebrity preacher is back. Everybody wants to shake my hand. But in all seriousness,) one of Nazareth’s own has made it. This backwater town had someone they could claim. Of course the leader of his boyhood synagogue is asking him to preach.

Having been called upon to give the final reading, he unrolled the scroll of Isaiah, found his place, read the lesson, and sat down to preach. (This is like when last year Marilynne Robinson got ready to give a public reading at McNally Jackson, silence reigned and all eyes were on her.) Then, in what is probably the shortest homily of all time, Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And much like a rapper or stand-up comic at the end of his set, he ‘dropped the mic’ and the crowd was left amazed.

But what was it Jesus had read? What did he mean? And what was he saying about himself?

Well, the lesson Jesus had read was Isaiah 61. It was a very important passage for Israel. It speaks of the deliverance of the exiled people of God by an anointed figure empowered by the Spirit of the Lord. This person would bring good news to the poor -- to Israel. Along with the poor as a broad group, this deliverer would proclaim the gospel to specific groups of people: to prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. All of whom might also be described as “poor.” (2) The good news this messianic figure would proclaim to the poor was “the year of the Lord’s favor,” the year of Jubilee, when all debts would be cancelled, prisoners released, and slaves freed. Redemption indeed.

While the prophet Isaiah, who wrote hundreds of years earlier, may have had a contemporary prophetic figure in mind, Jesus declares that the passage’s ultimate fulfillment was happening right then, in their midst, in his very life. The Spirit of the Lord mentioned by Isaiah being the same Spirit who overshadowed Jesus’s mother, descended upon him at his baptism, and was empowering his public ministry. So in saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus is making a radical claim. He is claiming to be the Messiah, the rescuer, the one who would deliver his people from oppression of every kind.

Now it may be surprising to some of you that in this passage Jesus sounds a lot like a revolutionary. Not that the other Gospels are unconcerned with the poor, but Luke consistently highlights Jesus’s deliverance of the materially disadvantaged. We see this first in the Magnificat, or the song of Mary, earlier in this Gospel, and again here as Jesus echoes his mother’s “regard [for] the lowly,” by “filling the hungry with good things” and “sending the rich away empty.”

For in Luke, as in every Gospel, Jesus unlike Caesar, or any politician that you and I have ever known, is not so interested in trying to win the allegiance of the wealthy and powerful, or those with inside connections, or even the religious, but instead gives preferential treatment to those at the bottom rung of society; to those neither Hillary Clinton nor Ted Cruz needs in their back pocket. Those Jesus is interested in are the ones who need good news the most.

Now if we imagine ourselves back in that first century synagogue we might wonder how this sermon would have landed. The people sitting in the first few rows were the rich and powerful of Nazareth -- the who’s who of the town. They can pay for their seats. The poor, the infirm, and the slave are together with the women. They're in the back behind a curtain. They can’t even see Jesus.

This isn’t so very different from the way things were here at Calvary Church in the late nineteenth century. Maybe you noticed as you took your seat the names etched on the end. These were rented pews, and the rich and powerful had the best seats. For all of the wonderful things this church has done and stood for over the centuries, this practice ran contrary to the good news that Jesus preached all those years ago about making insiders out of outsiders. About bringing the people from behind the curtain into the inner room.

But the good news was not just for the economically disadvantaged and oppressed. Interacting with Luke, the Gospel of Matthew extends the recipients of the gospel beyond the materially poor to those who are “poor in spirit.” And like Matthew, the fifth century Egyptian Church Father Cyril of Alexandria wrote that the Gospels ultimately agree that the good news of Jesus is also for those who are “spiritually poor”: to those realistic enough to know that they need rescue just as much as the materially poor.

So Jesus offers good news to all, but will the wealthy and powerful, those with connections, and especially the pious be offended by his preferential option for the poor, the infirm, and the criminal? Will those accustomed to exclusive favor and meritocracy, who are here not even offered preferential treatment, receive this deliverer?

Interestingly enough, despite the fact that his homily appears more directed to the outsiders than the insiders, it’s actually the other way around. If we take another look at the reading and we imagine ourselves again in the synagogue, we notice that as he gives his sermon Jesus’s eyes are on the ‘have’s.’ He’s looking out on the ones in the first few rows, on the people who can actually hear him, on those in front of the curtain. And he’s telling them, contrary to all appearances, that they’re poor. He’s telling them that if they think they’re self-sufficient and autonomous, then they are not recipients of the gospel. He’s proclaiming to the people in front of the curtain that when it comes to their standing before God it’s they who are the ones behind the curtain.

How will the rich and powerful; the insiders and the religious respond? Will they get their backs up and storm out? Will you? Will I?

You see for too long we’ve internalized the superstitious myth that “God helps those who help themselves.” We, either consciously or unconsciously, believe that the evidence of divine favor is prosperity and health or the fact that things are going our way.

I still believe this today, and I get mad and upset when I don’t get what I really want. I mean I’m a priest for crying out loud. I’ve given you everything, Lord. Don’t I deserve the good things that I see the less worthy enjoy?

But the message of this text is that we are owed nothing, no matter how successful, hardworking, or good we may be. Nevertheless, we are promised everything in the good news of Jesus Christ. And when I say everything I don’t mean that things are going to work out the way we want them to, or that your next big break is just around the corner, or that you’ll be #blessed. When I say everything I mean Jesus’s promise that in the midst of the realities and pain of this life he’ll be right there in the midst of it. The author Brené Brown puts it this way, “I thought Christ would say, ‘I’ll end the pain and discomfort.’ Instead he says, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’ I never thought until I found it that that would be enough. But it’s perfect. I don’t feel alone in the pain and discomfort anymore.” (3)

And once we internalize this truth--that God doesn’t promise good fortune but instead promises himself--we can forever set aside the magical-thinking cliches that run around in our brain. Truisms like “everything happens for a reason,” or “it wasn’t supposed to happen” when something doesn’t go your way, or “it’s not the time for grief but for celebration” when someone that you loved has died. The good news of the gospel is that when the depression won’t leave, or things suck, or when tragedies occur we can be assured that God is right there with us and that he is grieving too.

And it is here, when we realize that we are beggars and are in need of a rescuer, that we are in a position to be recipients of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news that despite our neediness and pain we have a deliverer in Christ our Lord who has torn down dividing curtains of every kind and will one day, and even now, set everything to rights.

Maybe you’re here this morning and like Dostoevsky's helpless drunk this good news is the balm of your life. You know you need rescue and here it is. Or maybe you're here and you find this news offensive. You're not a loser and you know it. And this kind of news strikes you as a mere opiate for the Marmeladov’s of the world who just won't get their acts together. There’s nothing I can do to blunt the offensive aspect of the gospel. It was a scandal two thousand years ago in a synagogue in Nazareth, and it’s the same at Calvary Church today. And while for some of us it might take us landing on the wrong side of the curtain before we wake up to our need, it need not for all. It need not for those two thousand years ago, and it need not for you and me who hear this word today.

This is the kind of news that runs the risk of sending the “worthy” home packing, but it’s also the balm that silences rowdy, lowlife taverns. And by the power of the Holy Spirit I pray that it might just soften your defenses and be revealed to you as the greatest news of all.

(1) The song is actually called "Big Casino" but I fudged it because "a New Jersey success story" is part of the chorus.
(2) Ruth Anne Reese, "Commentary on Luke 4:14-21,"
(3) Brené Brown, "Jesus Wept,"
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