Archives: Sermons

The Refuge of Questions

Given at the Questions of Jesus Clergy Retreat for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota

What are you looking for?

This is the question Jesus asks us in our gospel lesson today.

In the gospels, Jesus asks 307 questions and only answers 3.

That tells us that asking questions is a core practice of his leadership, of his ministry, of the way he shepherds us as disciples.

We’ll spend time together throughout this retreat listening to Jesus ask us questions, and discovering what answers rise within us—or maybe no answers at all.

Maybe we’ll leave our time together with more questions than we started with. That might be a very good thing.

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Paying the Light Bill and Jesus the Thief

Today’s sermon will be focused on two things: the light bill, and theft.

I mean, good morning, congratulations to our ordinands, etc., etc.  But what I really want to talk about is what Jesus is doing in these scriptures, because it’s honestly pretty weird.

In our gospel, Jesus illustrates himself in two different ways: the master coming from his wedding, and a thief who breaks into a house.  This is very strange, especially the second one. 

Images of Jesus as the bridegroom are strewn all over scripture, we’re familiar with those.  We know that we as Christ’s Beloved are constantly being invited by him to the Heavenly Banquet, often described as a wedding feast. 

But oddly enough, that’s not what’s happening in this text. 

The master is not inviting anyone to the wedding.  He’s coming home from it: “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet,” the gospel says. 

And we’d better have our lamps lit when he gets here. 

Then Jesus tells us he’s coming at an unexpected hour just like a thief. 

So not only do we not get to go to the wedding, we’re also waiting for a burglar to break into our house.  Great! What an encouraging scripture for an ordination day!

But let’s take a second look.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” 

That is a fantastic word to take into ordained life. 

It fully describes the readiness for anything that you need to have to serve God’s people as a deacon or a priest. 

Being a clergyperson is one of the last true renaissance occupations in the world, in the sense that you have to be a true jack of all trades. You will be called upon for anything from toilet repair to systematic theology and everything in between.

Flexibility, openness, both taking one for the team and being ready to ask for help are some of the qualities it takes to be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.

But I want to point out something that lies behind Jesus’ commandment to keep our lamps lit. 

In the story, it means having enough oil for the entire night, keeping the flame burning no matter how long it takes for the master to arrive. 

For us, both as lay and ordained leaders, it means keeping the lamp lit for our whole lives. 

You have to keep your house lit up 24 hours a day, all light switches on, all lamps plugged in, lightbulbs freshly replaced. 

And that, as any budget-conscious dad will tell you, is expensive. 

When you become a leader in the church, dear ordinands, you are looking at a significant light bill. And it doesn’t come due just once a month, it comes due every day.

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Want to Defend Trans Kids? Become an Evangelist

I am on a one-woman quest to help every person in the Episcopal Church become a confident evangelist.  This is my call, this is my mission. 

And if you just cringed internally when you heard the word “evangelism,” and thought, “don’t I have somewhere else to be?” you are not alone.

Episcopalians very rightfully feel squeamish about evangelism because almost all the associations they have with it are negative. 

When I work with congregations to rebuild their definition of evangelism from the ground up, I start by asking them what about it they don’t like.  I hear words like aggressive, intrusive, exploitative, coercive, scary, self-interested, and based on fear, guilt, and shame. 

That sounds awful.  I don’t want to be a part of anything like that, and if you don’t either, your spiritual instincts are spot-on. 

I’m also quite certain that there are folks sitting in this nave right now who have been wounded and shamed by churches who practice “evangelism” in these ways, threatening hell and damnation and positing Christianity as an exclusive club that only the “right” kind of people can get into.

The way evangelism has been practiced, particularly in the U.S. over the last hundred years, is not evangelism as scripture teaches it.  The coercive, “we’re right and you’re wrong, let us tell you how to get your life right” style of evangelism is what I call Christian malpractice or spiritual violence, and it is not of God.  It is based on fear, guilt, and shame, and it is not how evangelism shows up in the Bible.

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Jesus, The Beastie Boys, and Emily Post

When I was a teenager, I used to collect etiquette books. 

You could find me hunting them down in thrift shops and used book stores, and I scoured the library for more, books from the 1960s all the way back to the 1890s. 

All of them had rules, and I loved rules.  I’m probably letting you too far into my psyche by revealing this, but I am the original Goody Two-Shoes.  I never met a standard I didn’t love achieving or a rule I didn’t love following.  My older and younger sisters were the rebels and I was the good girl.  And when I finished following all the regular rules of home and school, I wanted more.  I didn’t just read Emily Post, I wanted to be her.

Of course, looking back, what I really wanted was a sense of security. 

As a teenager growing up in a conflicted environment, I wanted some way to make sense of it.  Those etiquette books spoke to me of a beautiful, refined world, where everyone always knew the right thing to say, where there was always an easily defined right thing to do, and people were kind and considerate. 

I imagined myself going to elegant parties in floor-length dresses and knowing the complex codes of when to drop a glove to catch a young man’s attention or flutter my fan to send a message across a crowded room.  When I got caught up in junior high mean girls scenarios, I could always go back to my etiquette books and imagine myself in a world where everyone was kind and everyone was polite.

So imagine my delight to find Jesus dedicating an entire set of teachings to etiquette at parties!  Jesus understands that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things in social interaction. 

But if Jesus wrote in to Emily Post, I’m not sure she would agree with his rules of etiquette. 

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There Is No Law Against Such Things

By now we have had about 48 hours to absorb the news that Roe vs. Wade has been overturned by the Supreme Court, effectively stripping women of the right to abortion in America.  This is very, very big news, even though after the leak from the court in early May, we knew it was probably coming. 

I had a rector who used to say about deaths, “even when it’s not a surprise, it’s still a shock,” and I think that applies here too.

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Think Inside the Box: Discipleship as Creativity By Constraint

In 2019, Harvard Business Review did a comprehensive survey and compilation of 145 empirical studies from academic journals on the conditions that support creativity and innovation.  And they discovered something very counterintuitive.

It turns out that we do our best inventive thinking when we think inside the box. 

The box itself spurs us on to come up with solutions we never would have considered if we had the complete freedom we think we want.  This is the phenomenon of “creative constraints,” and scientists have been finding very consistent results on the positive effects of creative constraints on human innovation.

Why do they work? 

Creative constraints take the focus of our thinking from wide to narrow, and the creative challenge increases our motivation to innovate.  Having endless options both increases our decision fatigue and makes us want to default to the most obvious, path-of-least-resistance answer. 

(Side note: the psychological peril of endless options doesn’t only refer to overwhelm when looking at 5000 Amazon choices for a can opener.  It’s also why online dating can increase alienation.  We do better with fewer choices in a lot of arenas in life.)

Creative constraints drive people to become remix artists, pulling in multiple unexpected sources, methods, and ideas to create solutions that remain within the confined boundaries. 

Now this isn’t an infinite phenomenon–too many or too harsh constraints start to limit creativity.  Companies such as Google and Apple deliberately orchestrate and carefully calibrate constraints to stimulate innovation. 

Think about the famous scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the NASA ground crew literally has to make a square peg fit into a round hole to create a carbon dioxide scrubber using only non-essential equipment already onboard the imperiled spaceship.  They thought they couldn’t do it, but knowing that their colleagues’ lives depended on it, they used those very strict constraints to spur their creativity, using what seemed like a few extra pieces of junk on the rocket to make a life-saving device.

People are more willing to accept and even enjoy working within constraints if they feel supported and feel like they have others to lean on and collaborate with.  There’s a lesson for Christian community in that last point that we probably want to keep in our back pocket as we explore this further.

For us post-modern thinkers, it can be difficult sometimes to understand the value of some if not many of the texts of the Bible. Why do we keep anchoring ourselves in this ancient, outdated text?

Because God has used it to spark creativity within restriction.

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