The Measure of Our Ministry

As we come together in worship today, this is the first time I’m speaking to you from the pulpit since I announced that I am leaving St. Francis In-The-Fields and my associate position here. 

And I think we should talk about it. 

It’s not so much about me and the fact that I’m leaving—I’m only one of a long line of priests who have served this congregation, and you will have many more capable priests serving you in the future. 

No, what matters is that we take time to acknowledge that we’re experiencing a season of change in our common life.

We need to mark and signify the reality of what we have meant to each other as associate and congregation, and seek wisdom from our scriptures to help us make sense of what our common call to ministry has been in these last three years.

What have we done together with the time that God has given us as partners in ministry?

How have we enriched one another’s spiritual growth?

And how do we give thanks for our time together, grieve our parting, and take the influence we’ve had on each other into a new season of ministry with new people?

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Fishing Beneath Futility

The message of all of our scriptures today is: “I’m not very good at this.  I don’t think this is working.”

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah says. 

“Do not abandon the works of your hands,” the Psalmist pleads to God. 

“I am the least of the apostles,” Paul says, “Unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing,” Peter says.

“I’m not very good at this.  I don’t think this is working.”

Have you ever felt like that in life?  In ministry?  I certainly have.

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Shoving Jesus Over a Cliff and Other Bad Habits

Here’s a heads up for all you aspiring preachers out there. Don’t ever be snotty about a scripture passage or someone will challenge you to preach on it.

That’s what happened to me.

I arrived at 4 Epiphany and the 1 Corinthians 13 passage came up.

I immediately groaned, visions dancing through my head of skimpily dressed bridesmaids and questionably sober groomsmen staring off into space while this text was read at weddings I’ve officiated and attended.

My inner cynic popped up—overdone! Trite! Boring!

A friend immediately called me on it.

“1 Corinthians 13 is a beloved scripture. If you think it’s so dumb, why don’t you preach on it?”

Well, I couldn’t let a challenge like that pass me by.

And he’s right. It is a beautiful scripture, that’s the reason it has been so used so many times that it has become clichéd.

It’s theologically sound, and considering many of St. Paul’s works, quite pastorally sensitive.

I just have such a hard time stepping back and appreciating it for what it’s worth.

Even in my mind when I think of it, I recite it like a bored teenager: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful, blah, blah, this is dumb, I’m going to update my facebook.”

This is exactly the moment when visitors to our congregation could rightfully ask, “And this woman is a priest?”

Yes, I am, and clergy are not immune to being unable to value the treasures that are right in front of them.

We have a perfect example of the phenomenon in our gospel today, when Jesus’ hometown friends and family try to throw him off a cliff. Continue reading

Binding Up The Brokenhearted: Tag, You’re It

          Today in our gospel we read of Jesus beginning his public ministry.  It reminds me of one of my own new beginnings in ministry: my first day of seminary. 

I remember showing up at the registration table the first morning of orientation and seeing all these extremely well put together people and thinking, “Um, I’m not sure I belong here.  I wonder if McDonald’s is still hiring.”

Intimidated though I was as I looked around at my new classmates, I got my nametag and folder and tromped determinedly upstairs to the very crowded Common Room. 

The tables were all full of these important looking people and I lost my nerve a little bit.  

So I went over and sat in a chair next to the wall, thinking here’s a nice inconspicuous place where I’ll only have to talk to one or two terrifyingly overqualified people at a time, not a whole table full. 

Not too long afterward, a petite brunette woman in a red suit came and sat next to me.  Her nametag read, “Anna Ramirez, Dean of Admissions.” 

I thought, “How nice of her to come and mingle with the students during breakfast.”

Well, the room got more and more crowded and the chairs around me in the row next to the wall started filling up. 

I noticed that everyone sitting around me was wearing a suit and seemed somewhat older than I was, but I didn’t think much of it. 

I didn’t think much of it, that is, until someone set up a lectern and a microphone two seats away from me. 

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Jesus’ Mom Embarrasses Him At a Party

Today in our gospel reading we celebrate Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine at the Wedding at Cana.

I’ve always wondered how our beloved Protestant brethren who believe in the virtue of teetotaling deal with this text. Moderation with alcohol is indeed a virtue, and alcohol can be so destructive at times that many good clergy have preached that it’s a sin to touch it.

But Episcopalians like wine at the altar and wine at the dinner table, so luckily it’s one of Jesus’ miracles that I can openly celebrate.

This Gospel text has everything I love about good Bible stories—complex character interactions, people making non sequiturs, important Bible personalities doing things that make you work to understand them.

Why does Mary care that they’re out of wine?

Did she tell Jesus hoping he would run to the corner store and pick some more up?

Why does Jesus speak to his mother in a way that seems uncomfortably rude to our modern ears? Was he embarrassed that she expected him to solve the problem?

This is great stuff, thick and juicy with conflict and possibility.

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Forty Ways to Be Baptized, Forty Ways to Die

Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday after the Epiphany.

And the first thing I have to tell you is that I can take very little credit for the ideas in this sermon.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the retreat conference of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program, and the presenter was The Reverend Alan Storey.

Alan Storey is a Methodist pastor from South Africa.

His father is Peter Storey, the famous anti-apartheid faith leader who began his pastoral career as Nelson Mandela’s chaplain during Mandela’s 27-year prison term.

On our trip to South Africa, we had the opportunity to meet and spend time in conversation with both Peter Storey and his son Alan, and it was immediately obvious that Alan had inherited a double share of his father’s prophetic spirit.

So of course I was excited to see and spend time with Alan again at that retreat, but I wasn’t expecting to be presented with remarkable new theological ideas that galvanized my imagination. That retreat has continued to significantly influence my thinking and my prayer life.

One of the ideas that Alan expanded on was a rethinking of the nature of baptism, and those are the ideas I want to share with you now.

Baptism is our entry into the church, it is how we become members of the Body of Christ.

And so Alan began by asking us: this community that we join at baptism, what is it?

What is the purpose of the church?

To answer that question, we have to ask what problem the church is trying to solve.

If we go back to the Garden of Eden, we see Eve in conversation with the serpent, and the serpent introduces the voice that will forevermore drive our grasping after power and things and control.

That is the voice that says, “You are not enough.”

Our sin is driven by the falsehood: “You are not enough.”

We hear that voice and we do anything to hush it up, to somehow augment our faltering self-image so we can drown out the words: “You are not enough.”

And so we sin. That is what that voice forces us to.

And we have talked about this before here at St. Francis: sin is an addiction.

We are addicted to a way of life that kills us, kills our planet, kills our future.

We as Western Christians cannot seem to do anything that is systemically constructive to end the poverty and suffering that plagues the rest of the world.

And so our addiction traps us and everyone around the world in a planet and a society hurtling toward death.

So what is the purpose of church? Continue reading

We Need To Stop Sending Private Investigators After Jesus: A Manifesto

Every year we celebrate the season of Epiphany, but most of the time, the actual day of Epiphany falls on a weekday.

Big deal, anyway, right?

It’s a strange little holiday that we don’t celebrate very much.

We don’t get each other Epiphany presents.

We don’t hang up Epiphany lights or set up an Epiphany tree.

There are no Epiphany turkey dinners or Epiphany fireworks.

What is the point of this holiday?

Well, first of all, Christmas is ending. Yesterday was the twelfth day of Christmas.

Jesus was born on December 25, and today, Epiphany, marks the day he is revealed to the world for who he really is, the Son of God.

Mary had twelve precious days to hoard him to herself.

Only Joseph and the shepherds knew he was alive.

But then the Wise Men arrive, and that is the first century equivalent of giving a press release. They witness his glory, and go out to spread the good news.

The word Epiphany means appearance or manifestation. Another word for what’s happening is Theophany—the appearance of God.

It’s remarkable that God is already allowing Jesus out onto the public stage at not even two weeks old.

Surely it would have been possible to keep Jesus’ identity hidden until he was a sturdier year old, or better yet, twelve years old, or better yet, twenty years old.

He’s going to be a target for curiosity seekers and fans and lovers and assassins, give the kid a chance.

Two weeks old and already the word is out? Continue reading

And Every Stone Shall Cry

Merry Christmas!

The rest of the world may be moving on to the New Year, but we Christians are still deep in the season of Christmas. 12 days is really not long enough to celebrate Christmas, but we’ll make do.

So in most of our Christmas worship, we want to sing the most obvious hymns possible.

It’s not Christmas if we don’t sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World.”

These are gorgeous hymns, rich with meaning, and layered in our hearts with year after year of beautiful memories.

When we sing them, we sort of turn our minds off. Our hearts rise up and shine through our voices, and we experience full, unmediated grace through the words and notes we know so well.

That aspect of Christmas worship—the words and songs that flow off our tongues so easily and joyfully—is so important.

But we also need something else in our Christmas worship.

We need something to make us think. Continue reading

Who Counts At Christmas?

We begin the story of Christmas with a sentence from scripture that’s not quite true.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

Well, almost all the world.

Everyone who had some kind of position in society, even a working class one, like Mary and Joseph, went to be registered.

Anyone who could conceivably pay taxes was on the Emperor’s list, and had to report in and be accounted for.

It was sort of the first century equivalent of Big Brother/Big Data.

You’re not getting anywhere in America without a social security card, and you couldn’t get anywhere in first century Palestine without being on the Emperor’s list.

If you were taxable, you would be counted.

“All went to their own towns to be registered,” Luke says.

Well, again, not quite all.

Luke himself tells us that in the next paragraph: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

The shepherds did not return to their hometown to be registered. They were on the very bottom rung of society.

They couldn’t pay taxes, and had fallen so far between the cracks of the Roman Empire that they weren’t even expected to.

They were nobodies.

When it came time for the registration, to show up and present your name and your papers to the government, no one looked for them.

They quite literally didn’t count.

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God The Unrequited Lover

What are you like when you’re in love?

Have you ever been in love? Especially that first flush of new love?

Everything is beautiful all around you.

You can’t stop thinking about that special someone.

Everything reminds you of him or her.

When you’re with that person, time seems to stop. You can’t imagine how you lived before you met him or her.

You know what else you do when you’re in love?

You sing.

You sing all the time.

You sing in the shower, you sing while you’re driving, you sing while you’re cooking.

You sing about your loved one, you sing to your loved one, every love song on the radio is about you and your relationship.

That’s usually how you learn someone is in love in a musical or an opera, too. They burst into radiant song and you know—they have fallen, and they have fallen hard.

But what happens when your love is not returned?

Have you ever experienced unrequited love?

Oh, it hurts.

Whenever you’re in a room with that person, no matter how crowded, you’re constantly aware of where he or she is.

You replay every conversation you’ve ever had, straining it for deeper meaning than is really there.

If you’re technologically minded, you might do a bit of light Facebook stalking, hoping that they’re happy and in love with someone, no matter how sad you are that you’re not that person. Continue reading

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