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
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.
Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Doylestown, PA
The parables of Jesus are simple stories, but they can be perplexing. Like the one about that wedding feast, for example, where the king sends his servants out to the streets to bring everyone they can find back to the party, and then he has one of those last-minute guests tossed out again because the guy isn’t wearing a wedding garment. Well, so what did he expect?
But the parable we heard today isn’t like that. The message of today’s Gospel is clear: love of God and love of neighbor are connected, and love of neighbor can’t be just a feeling but has to be supported with action.
And who exactly is my neighbor? Well, the category of those we’re meant to love turns out to be much bigger and more inclusive than we might ever have imagined.
The story itself isn’t hard to understand. The message is simple and straightforward. The only thing that’s difficult about this one is actually doing it.
Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Doylestown, PA.
“After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”
There’s a wonderful sign posted at the exit to the parking lot at a church where I attend a meeting every month, and the sign says, “You are now entering the mission field.”
It doesn’t say, Goodbye, thanks for coming, have a nice week. It says, more or less, “Get ready, because you’re going out now to the place where the real work of Christian discipleship happens.”
It’s not the only church that has a sign like that, but it’s the only one I see regularly. And every time I do, I’m reminded that nowhere in the gospel does Jesus tell his people to make a church by putting up a pretty building and posting a sign outside that says, “All are welcome.”
In the Gospel, he sends them out. He sends them out into the mission field, out to do the same work that’s he himself has been doing. He sends them out as his representatives to bring his presence into the world. Out to be with the people they encounter. Out to heal all of those who are suffering, and out to proclaim the presence of God at work in the world.
In today’s Gospel, we hear something a little different from most of the stories we know about Jesus. He meets a poor soul who is possessed by demons, and he casts those demons out and sets the man free to live a normal life. And that part is nothing unusual, because so much of Jesus’ ministry was taken up with just that kind of healing.
But what’s different about this story is what happens next.
All through the Gospels, we hear about the crowds who follow Jesus wherever he goes. Sometimes the people press in so close that he can hardly move.
They follow him when he tries to go off to quiet places to pray, so it’s hard for him to ever be alone. They follow him into the wilderness by the thousands, without any concern for the fact that it’s getting late in the day and they’ve brought nothing to eat.
Earlier this spring, right after Easter, I went down South with my family to visit some of the sites that had been significant in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. So we were in Atlanta. We saw the house where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born. And just a little ways away we saw where he’s buried. We went to Montgomery and we saw the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which is where King was pastor while he was leading the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and ‘56. And we saw the famous Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, where law enforcement officers with clubs fell on and beat peaceful demonstrators who were beginning a march to Montgomery on behalf of voting rights.
It was both a heartbreaking and inspiring trip. It’s good to remember our heroes. It’s good to have heroes. Men and women like King, and like Rosa Parks, who triggered bus boycott by refusing to move to the back of the bus. Men like John Lewis, who is a congressman now. He was young man who stood firm at the head of that march in Selma, when the police fell on them and beat them, then took them to prison.
It’s good to be inspired by their courage and their moral conviction, and to remember their example, and to remember that there is still work to be done to fully accomplish their ideals. It’s good to have heroes to remind us what a righteous life looks like.
Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Doylestown, Pa.
Way back when I was in college there was a terrible tearjerker movie called Love Story,which was nominated—unbelievably, it seems now, for seven Academy Awards, and it won the award for best original music score. But what people remember about that movie now, almost 50 years later, it’s not the music. What turned out to be the lasting legacy of the movie Love Storyis the line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
That quote has entered into the popular culture. It’s got its own Wikipedia entry, but even if this is the first time you’ve ever heard it, I’m think you probably know that it isn’t true. It’s a perfect example to me—and this is the reason I mention it today—of the way our culture lifts up love. Our movies and music and novels lift up love as really important but gives us a really distorted view of what love is all about.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to love one another, because love is the single most important thing that will tell the world that you’re my followers. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he tells his friends.
Love is the core of our Christian identify, and we better know what it is, and what it’s not. It’s not affection. It’s not a sentiment. It’s not wishing someone well. It’s not something you fall into if you’re lucky. It’s not a feeling we have for our romantic partners, or for our families.
Little by little over these past weeks, I’ve been carrying away everything I brought into my office during the past five years. This morning there are just a few personal things left: My prayerbook. My laptop. My plastic Jesus that a vendor at our yard sale gave me for free a few years back. When I asked how much they wanted for him, she said it didn’t seem right to sell Jesus to a priest at a church. Fair enough.
And I still have the sign on the wall that says, This is the life.
I’ve left it up to the end on purpose, because even though it might seem sort of lighthearted, that phrase is the reason for everything that I’ve been and done here over the past five years.
I found it while I was on vacation in the Land O’Lakes region in Ontario. My great aunt used to spend her summers there, in a house on an island in a beautiful lake. She and my dad were close, and he visited her there many times.
Back in the 1930s, she was the leader of a community that founded a little Anglican church on the shore of that lake, Bob’s Lake. It’s a simple church that still stands, as beloved to its people as Good Shepherd Church is to us. It’s called the Church of St. Andrew the Fisherman.
“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who are excluded and reviled and defamed.”
They don’t sound much like blessings to me. If anything, I might be tempted to call them curses, or even maybe woes. But Jesus has his own list of woes: Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are well-fed. Woe to you who are happy and laughing and are spoken well of.
That’s backwards, right? It isn’t the first time that expectations for how things ought to be will be turned upside-down in Luke’s Gospel, starting with that prayer of praise that Mary spoke in Elizabeth’s presence,[i]that prayer about how the hungry will be filled, and the rich will be not so rich. This isn’t the prosperity gospel, for sure. Everything is sort of backwards in Luke.
And that wasn’t the common thinking at the time of Jesus. The common thinking was that material success in life was a sign of God’s favor. And we still have prosperity preachers, those preachers who will tell you that good health and wealth will be yours if only you have faith and live right—and maybe send them a contribution. But that certainly isn’t what Jesus is saying.
But if that isn’t what he’s saying, if that isn’t it, then what exactly does it mean to be blessed?