A sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Back when COVID arrived on the scene last year, you might remember that the first advice we heard for staying healthy was all about hand-washing. You were supposed to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds whenever you came home from being outside, and definitely before you ate anything.

It’s still good advice. My parents taught me to wash my hands before meals, I taught my kids, and they’re teaching the same thing to their kids. And we do the lavabo, the ritual hand-washing before communion here. But in these COVID times, I’ll also go out to the sink in the sacristy and wash my hands with soap and water to be sure they’re really clean before I touch something that will be put into your mouths.

So it seems basic, this hand cleanliness thing, and a bit puzzling that Jesus seems to be defending his disciples’ eating with dirty hands. But to make sense of this dialogue, you have to understand that this is really a debate about religious practices. It’s not so much about cleanliness as it is about holiness. This ritual hand-washing was what the priests did before they led worship, and eventually, it was extended to ordinary people.

But it was a tradition, not something that was commanded in Scripture. And, actually, Mark exaggerates a little when he says that all Jews do this because, in fact, all Jews did not do this, which is why Jesus and the Pharisees are having this discussion. And I think it’s actually a friendly discussion, not a debate, much like we have among ourselves today about how properly to live the faith.

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A sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Back in March of 2020, when it was clear that COVID had arrived among us but no one really knew what was going to happen next, my son and his family, who were living in Philadelphia at the time, decided they didn’t want to be in the city right then. So he and his wife and their two little girls, who are 2 and 4 now, came out to live with us in New Hope. And I have to say that for us, it was a great blessing because it really gave us a chance to grow close to those kids, and to my son and his wife.

But we did especially try to find things that would engage the kids while they were with us. So at one point we decided we were going to make homemade pizza, because what kid doesn’t like pizza? And it was a good thing, making the dough and all that. But what we found was, you couldn’t get flour or yeast. It had all disappeared from the shelves. I had a little flour and some yeast that was way past its expiration date. And a friend of mine who’d gotten extra yeast in advance to bake Easter bread gave me a little, and we made do so we had our pizza. But I still think back on that explosion of bread baking. All of a sudden, everybody was making bread. Why?

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A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Back in the days when I used to spend a lot of time in New York City–and this was way before COVID—I saw an art installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which really moved me and which has stayed with me ever since.

It was unusual. Basically, it was a large pile of candy, hard candies wrapped in very colorful foil wrappers, heaped up under a spotlight, which made the foil wrappers sparkle. And people who saw this were invited to take one of the candies. So, over the course of the day, this pile got smaller and smaller. But every morning it was replenished to total 175 pounds of candy, which supposedly is the typical weight of a healthy adult male.

The artist was a guy named Felix Gonzalez-Torres. And this piece of art didn’t have a title but it had an official subtitle, which was “A Portrait of Ross in L.A.” It was a tribute to his partner who had died of HIV-AIDS. And the diminishment of the pile was meant to suggest the diminishment of his partner’s own body as he moved through that illness.

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A sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost

There’s a lovely children’s story called The Velveteen Rabbit, about a little boy and his stuffed bunny. Maybe you remember it, maybe from your own childhood, or if you have kids, maybe you read it to them when they were little. It’s about how, when you love someone—and I’m talking about a love that is true, and deep, and enduring—everything about that person comes alive for you.

And I’ve been thinking about that this past week as I pondered what it is that Jesus is saying to us in this morning’s Gospel. But before I say more about that, I want to mention a few things to put this Gospel in context.

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A sermon for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost

In the name of the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.

I was sorely tempted during this pandemic to get myself a pandemic dog.

We had had a wonderful family dog who died about a dozen years ago. And I remember so well how good it was just to be sitting with her, to have her at your feet while you were reading, to have her jump up onto the couch—which wasn’t really allowed, but which we all permitted anyway—to have her sit next to you, and lean into you. To feel the comfort of the warmth of her body against yours.

And she had a knack for knowing when you especially needed to be comforted. And I really missed that and I thought about it, but in the end, I didn’t do it. I was looking ahead to a time when we might not be in isolation, and I wanted the freedom to be able to come and go without worrying about the dog. And I remember hearing someone say once—and this sounds terrible, but there’s some truth to it—that true freedom begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies.

But I at least was fortunate to have my family around me, my husband, my son and his wife, and my two little granddaughters. They were with us for weeks and months at a time. So that time together was really one of the blessings of the pandemic for me, to be close to them, to be in their presence, but not everyone was so lucky.

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A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Today we have the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. What a lovely story it is. One that we preachers just love to preach on. It makes an especially great children’s message, don’t you think? I think that the shock of this story, the absolute horror, is so overwhelming that it almost invites us not to take it seriously, not to pay attention to it. What’s the moral here? None of us are beheaders. None of us are at any risk, I don’t think, of doing something like this. So okay, the lesson is what? Don’t be mean? Okay. Move on. That’s it.

But I think that actually there is some meat here for us to consider, that’s worth dwelling on. Not the brutal details, but something deeper than that. And one way to approach a story like this and reflect on it is to imaginatively put yourself in the scene, in the story, and to think about, which character would you be if you were one of the players in this story? That’s what I’ve been reflecting on this past week—who would I be in this story—but before I talk about that, I want to talk a little about the backstory here.

The king is named Herod, but this is not the same Herod who tried to get the Wise Wen to tell him where they found the baby they had come to see. And when he failed, he decided to solve it by having all the children under two years old killed. This is not that Herod. That’s Herod the Great. This is his son, Herod Antipas. Herod the Great died not long after the birth of Jesus and his son took over. And his wife is named Herodias.

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A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost

When I was preparing to preach today I took down a book that I really like. It’s called Jesus Freak[i], by a woman named Sara Miles. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She’s a mid-life convert to Christian faith and she writes in a very contemporary style, but I think she has the ability to get right down to the essence of the Gospel message. Take the subtitle of this book: Feeding, healing, raising the dead. That pretty much sums up what Christ’s mission on earth was all about, and we get two out of the three in today’s Gospel: healing, and raising the dead.

This Gospel is the story of Jesus’ healing a young girl and an older woman, and it’s classic Mark. We get two stories in one, told very directly, but all of the details are so important. Jesus steps off the boat, he’s just crossed the sea of Galilee. The crowds are there waiting for him. They want to be in his presence. They want his healing touch.

Today’s crowd includes this synagogue leader, Jairus, who’s quite a prestigious person in this society, and the unknown woman with an illness that the doctors have not been able to help. In fact, she’s spent all her money on doctoring, and the only thing that’s been happening is it’s getting worse. Desperate, she comes to Jesus.

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A sermon for Trinity Sunday

Back when my son was little there was a special story he would ask us to tell him at bedtime. It wasn’t anything from a book. Maybe you told your children your own version of this story, if you have kids, or maybe someone told it to you when you were little, and if so, you were blessed.

The story begins like this:

Once upon a time, there were two people who loved each other very much …

You probably can figure out the rest. It’s a story about love, about how true love always wants to be shared. It begins with two individuals who become a couple, and they go on to make a family that includes the little person in footie pajamas who’s listening and slowly relaxing into sleep.

In order to thrive, our children need to know that they’re loved. And it might be a stretch—but not too big a stretch, I think–to say that this is the same story St. Paul is telling in this morning’s reading from the letter to the Romans, where he talks about the spirit of adoption that makes us children of God, makes us part of God’s family.

We all need to know that we’re loved, and that love is the very nature of our God—a love we can trust as children of God.

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A sermon for Pentecost

This morning I want to tell you a story that’s a little different from the usual because it’s about a place rather than a person. It’s a story from the New Testament, but it doesn’t stand alone. It runs like a thread through several other stories, but today I want to tell it straight through on its own. I want to think about how much this place meant to the people who sheltered there.

I’m talking about the Upper Room, which is also sometimes called the Cenacle, where the disciples were gathered on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to them in the form of rushing wind and tongues of fire.

This room had been so important to them. It had been a refuge—a place of safety—and also a place of prayer. It’s a place where they were changed, so they were never the same once they left it behind.

The first time we hear about the Upper Room is when Jesus tells his people to talk to a certain man in Jerusalem about using a large upstairs room at his house for the Passover meal. And the man lends them the space they ask for, and that’s where they have their last supper together.

So it’s where Jesus blesses bread and wine and tells his friends to keep doing this exact thing, in his memory.

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A sermon for the seventh week of Easter

Friends, we find ourselves today in an in-between time, a time between what was in the past, and what will be in the future. We’re between the world as we knew it, and the world as it’s going to be, and it’s like being poised on a threshold between two different places, but in this case we can’t turn back. We can’t go back to the way things were, and there’s nothing we can do to make the future come any faster.

All we can do is wait.

And I know you might think I’m talking about the pandemic, or the way things are in the world in general, and of course those things do come to mind.

But I’m also talking about our life in church. Today we find ourselves in an in-between time, the time on the calendar of the church year between Ascension Thursday, which was last week, and the Feast of Pentecost, which is next Sunday. On the Feast of the Ascension we remember the day when Jesus Christ departed this earth in his human body, and on Feast of Pentecost we celebrate the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire and rushing wind as the dispirited disciples waited in Jerusalem.

And in that time between, the disciples were waiting, not knowing what was coming next.

And I wonder how that must have felt for them. After the devastation of the crucifixion, and the unexpected joy of the resurrection, they must have hoped that Jesus would stay with them for a while. And that in-between time, the time before they became aware of the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit—the power of the Holy Spirit—that must have been a very sad and lonely time for them.

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