A sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany

So what are you doing here today, anyway? What are you looking for—as Jesus put it when he noticed two of John the Baptist’s people following him as he walked near where John had been baptizing.

What are you looking for?

I imagine the answer might be a little different for each one of us. Some of us made sure to be here because we have specific responsibilities this morning. Some might say that they enjoy the fellowship, or the singing. Deep down, we share a faith that’s best lived out in community, and this is an expression of that faith.

But sometimes we meet people in church who would have a hard time saying exactly why they came. They’re not sure exactly what they believe. They just felt some unexpected pull on their heart, and they responded.

And they’d be the ones who are most like the disciples in today’s Gospel. When Jesus sees Andrew and his comrade walking behind him, he turns and asks them what they’re looking for. We can imagine that ultimately they’re after some of the same things we seek here for ourselves: a connection with something bigger than themselves, something that will give their lives meaning.

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A sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas

Preached at St. James the Greater Church in Bristol and Grace Church in Hulmeville.

At Christmas time my dad used to decorate the house where I grew up very simply: wreath on the door, floodlight on the wreath, and a candle in every one of the five windows that faced the street. These were electric candles, of course, so in the beginning he had to go around and plug each one in individually when evening came. Later I gave him a set of Radio Shack remote plugs so he could make them all come on with the push of a single button, and that gave him more joy than you can possibly imagine. It was like being God: “Let there be light!” And at the push of a button, there was.

I loved those candles for their simple beauty. Loved coming home to that house at Christmas and knowing I’d find their light shining into the night.

I decorate my own house in New Hope pretty much the same way now, but the technology has advanced so all I have to do to turn my candles on is to plug them in once when I put them in the windows at the beginning of Advent. They’re light-sensitive, so they come on by themselves every evening at dusk. It’s convenient, but when I think about how happy it made my father to turn those lights on every night, I wonder if maybe I’ve lost something in letting go of the daily intention to make light shine out into the darkness of a December evening.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That’s the line that really stands out for me this morning in today’s Gospel, which is taken from the first chapter of the book of John. That’s the line I really need to hear today.

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A sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

It’s been more than 25 years now, since I saw the movie Schindler’s List, but there’s one scene in particular that still is very vivid in my memory. It’s the scene where the Nazi soldiers are carrying out the order to liquidate the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. It’s a chaotic scene. People are running back and forth, desperate to escape as the soldiers are rounding them up. You can hear the sound of sporadic gunfire.

The industrialist Oskar Schindler is watching this scene from a safe distance, and he’s horrified. As he watches, a little girl appears seemingly out of nowhere, and she moves with slow determination through this chaos. Your eye is drawn to her because although everything else in the movie was shot in black and white, you can see that she’s wearing a red coat. So you can follow her as she moves along. She slips unseen behind a group of people who are being herded into a truck. She goes into a building and climbs the stairs. She crawls under the furniture to hide.

It’s a dark scene of cruelty and fear and through the whole thing, that splash of color that is her red coat stands out as “the incarnation of hope.”

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A sermon for All Saints Day

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In honor of All Saints’ Day, which we celebrate in the church this week, I thought I’d share with you a little story about what it means to be a saint. It goes like this: A Sunday School teacher was talking with her class about All Saints’ Day and she asked if anyone knew what a saint was. One little boy raised his hand, and he said, “A saint is someone the light shines through.” He was thinking, of course, of stained glass pictures of saints like St. John over there, and St. Mark. He was thinking about the light and how it comes through the colored glass in so many different colors, all of them radiantly beautiful. It’s also true that the saints are those whom God’s light shines through, and they show us something about what the love of God looks like embodied.

It’s sort of a corny story. A preacher friend of mine told me the story last week and I was sort of hesitating about whether to use it, because it’s not the kind of sermon example that I usually grab right on to, but then I saw that in his All Saints sermon on Friday the Pope had used a slight variation on the same story. I figured if it was good enough for the Pope, I’d go for it.

It’s kind of corny, right? But, it’s the kind of thing that the storyteller Megan McKenna, would say is true even if it never actually happened. McKenna is a perceptive interpreter of the New Testament, and she’s written some modern day parables like the portables Jesus used in his teaching to make the same kinds of points that he was making in thought-provoking ways.

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A sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost

In our opening prayer today, we have a rather poetically worded petition for an increase of grace in our lives. It says, “Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works.”

Grace should go before us, and come after us—and honestly, I don’t know what that means, grace going before us and coming after us—because I think of grace as surrounding us all the time. Grace is one of those theological words that we talk about in church, and we very rarely talk about exactly what it is or why we would want more of it. We just sort of assume, I think, that everyone understands that grace is a good thing.

And partly, I think that lack of explanation comes about because it’s really hard to say exactly what it is. It’s one of those things that we experience but find difficult to explain. But that struggle to understand, to find words for it—which is, I guess, the work of the discipline of theology—it’s important because this struggle for understanding, for words, expresses our desire for God. It’s a reflection of our desire for God, and our desire for God is a reflection of God’s desire for us. It’s our response to that desire. You could say it’s the foundation of our faith. It’s the foundation of our experience of God. And so it matters to try to find ways to explain or talk about these concepts even if they are difficult.

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Funeral sermon for Nancy Wicklund Gray

Today is a day of mourning, and—paradoxically—also a day of joy. We’ve gathered to say farewell to someone we loved and admired. The deep sense of loss we feel, and the gladness that comes with remembering the person Nancy was—these are complementary aspects of our grief.

The first words of spoken prayer in our service acknowledge that truth. We begin by giving thanks for the gift of having had Nancy in our lives as colleague, friend, relative, partner in life. We know that we’ve lost someone who will never be replaced for us. We pray for encouragement as we go on without her, and we come together seeking consolation by honoring the person she was through the sharing of memories and the liturgy and music she loved so much.

And the memories are full of joy and delight.

So we begin by thanking God, in the words of that opening prayer, “for giving her to us, her family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage.”

Nancy’s life in this world was a gift.

She gave herself to several different communities: Westminster Choir College, the Hymn Society, the Bucks County Choral Society, local friends. As I prepared to preach here today, I realized that even though I knew Nancy from my own perspective, that didn’t mean I knew all there was to know about her as she moved in these other circles.

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A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The homeless in Bucks County, they don’t often lie at the gates of the rich the way the homeless in the city do. In the city they sometimes lie huddled in doorways, the way Lazarus does in this gospel story. 

You don’t very often see our poor and homeless sitting with battered signs asking for help. A lot of the homeless people in our area—and there are homeless people—they sleep in the woods. Wherever there’s a little bit of undeveloped woodland, they sleep there, or if they have a car, they sleep in the car. 

They’re out there, but a lot of us aren’t even aware of them I don’t think, at least until the winter comes and the temperatures drop and the Code Blue program kicks in. I don’t know if you do that program here, but I know that a lot of people volunteer to work at the churches that host in Doylestown and Buckingham when it’s cold. 

In today’s gospel, we hear this story of Lazarus, the poor man who lay at a rich man’s gate.

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A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Doylestown, PA.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I retired from the parish in Hilltown earlier this year, I had to consolidate my office at the church and my office at home; and that meant bringing home all my books and trying to find room for them.

It actually was a good thing. The church is in Hilltown, I live in New Hope, and whatever book I needed, it was always in the other place. So, in some ways I was glad to bring those books together. But I was a little bit surprised at how many of them there actually were. And not only that, but how many books I had about prayer—books of prayers, books about how to pray. Some were from seminary, some I had acquired in my time in parish ministry, some I’d owned as far back as my own school days.

I’ve spent a lifetime learning to pray, and I’m still learning how to pray. And the titles of the books, as I looked at them, putting them on the shelves, they reflect a hunger for God and a sense of incompleteness. Those are the things that I think have always drawn me to prayer, and the sheer number of books I have on the subject reflects my fear that I’m still not very good at it.

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A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Preached at the Christ Church and St. Michael’s Episcopal in Germantown, PA.

You love lying more than speaking the truth …
You love all words that hurt …
Oh, that God would demolish you utterly … 

These angry words from Psalm 52 are aimed at people in authority who will do anything to advance themselves, without regard for who else they might hurt in the process. The psalm refers to a power struggle that took place in Israel 3,000 years ago, but the feelings it expresses are timeless.

We need to know that backstory to make sense of the psalm, and it’s somewhat complicated, but here goes: 

Psalm 52 is written in the voice of David, the charming young shepherd boy who became the second king of ancient Israel. He’s one of King Saul’s favorites until Saul begins to feel threatened by his growing popularity and plots to kill him. Then David has to go into hiding to save himself, but he’s betrayed by a man named Doeg who wants to make himself look good in Saul’s eyes, and the betrayal is followed by the brutal slaughter of innocent men, women and children.

So the story is about a king who’s obsessed with protecting his own power, and a rising young leader who becomes the target of the king’s anger when the king feels threatened.

It isn’t a pretty story. It describes some ugly aspects of human nature. And sadly, 3,000 years later, it would seem that human nature really hasn’t changed all that much. 

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