Archives: Epiphany

Being Challengers

Each generation has at least one event that marks it forever.

People never forget where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was shot, or when they first learned of the 9/11 attacks.

One of those pivotal historical events was the Challenger disaster in 1986.

I was only 4 years old and don’t remember it at all, but I have heard the stories of family and friends of the horror of watching the space shuttle lift off and only 73 seconds into the launch, explode and disintegrate.

Many American schoolchildren witnessed the horrific tragedy in real time.

Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher, was on the Challenger as the first civilian to travel into outer space, and so the launch was being broadcast into thousands of American classrooms that day for the students to watch.

What was intended to be a spectacle of scientific progress and brave new American frontiers in space turned into a heartbreaking catastrophe in an instant.

Seven astronauts died in the incident, and seeing America’s best and brightest go up in flames on national television had Americans asking for answers.

President Reagan created the Rogers Commission to investigate the tragedy. Its members included familiar names from the space program such as Sally Ride, Chuck Yeager, and Neil Armstrong, as well as Boeing engineers, a Nobel prize winner in physics, a CIA aerial surveillance expert, and several Air Force generals.

The sad findings were that the Challenger disaster was completely preventable.

The scientific proximate cause was the malfunction of something called the o-rings that connected parts of the spacecraft, which failed in the cold temperatures of the launch. The failure of the o-rings led to pressurized hot gasses escaping, which then ignited and caused the explosion.

But the literal scientific explanation did not answer the bigger question: why did this happen?

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Vocation: I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Today let’s talk about the nature of call.

When people use the word Vocation, you can practically hear the capital “V.”

There is an all-too-persistent notion in the church the vocation is strictly the realm of the ordained clergy.

That is not true! Why do people think that?

For one thing, it’s the legacy of a clericalism that created and reinforced a false specialness in the clergy and placed them above lay people.

I also suspect that for some lay folks, denying they have vocation can be a helpful way to escape discerning it.

When we do think about vocation as applying to all people, another trap we fall into is elevating it into some sweeping destiny that encompasses one’s whole life.

It’s a similar phenomenon to the One True Love™ school of thought in which there is One Perfect Person for you who will Make All Your Dreams Come True and you will live Happily Ever After. (This is a damaging and limiting paradigm for so many reasons, but that’s another sermon.)

So when we elevate vocation into a Sweeping Destiny of answering God’s call in a noble, heroic, world-saving way, a task that will remain constant and unchanging for an entire lifetime, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of problems.

First of all, it ignores the potential for vocation to change and evolve over time.

What you are called to do at eighteen may not be the same thing you’re called to do at eighty.

In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it probably shouldn’t be or we need to start asking if you have really opened yourself up to growth over the last six decades.

Next, the Sweeping Destiny model of vocation puts a heck of a lot of pressure on the individual to get it right.

You’d better make sure you don’t have a headache or aren’t too caught up in speculating on your favorite TV show’s plot on the day you commit to your Vocation.

What if you get it wrong? What if you choose the wrong path? Will the Earth crash into the sun?

And not only do you have to choose rightly, you have to act perfectly in the execution of the vocation. Because if you fail at doing it, maybe you failed in discerning it, and again, we’re back at the Earth crashing into the sun.

The consistent problem with this approach to vocation is that it takes us further from freedom and deeper into the prison of our need for security, control, and approval.

The Sweeping Destiny/One True Love approach to vocation can only create people—lay or ordained—ethically trapped on a path that often devolves into a job with tasks.

That does not create transformed people.

In fact, it often creates burned-out, bitter people who are phoning it in at whatever “vocation” seemed so noble and beautiful five or ten or fifty years ago.

(That doesn’t mean that every minute of living out vocation is sunshine and roses or it isn’t real. But when duty devolves into dread, something is wrong.)

So what can we say definitively about vocation? Continue reading

War And Baptism

Today we baptize three beautiful children. We enact the ancient rites and rituals of the church that we have practiced for thousands of years.

Their parents are entrusting them to this community to baptize them.

But a question remains. We baptize them–into what?

What do they become by being baptized that is different from who they are now?

Baptism induces a permanent and irrevocable change of state.

They were created in the image of God, but today they are baptized into a community, an identity, and a calling.

In a very real sense they are being ordained to do a job.

They, and you, are in the priesthood of all believers. Baptism marks the transition into this work.

As we read in 2 Peter, “You are…a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

So what does the work of the priesthood of all believers look like?

We get an important part of our commission in Peter’s sermon in Acts today.

Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ…”

“Every nation,” Peter says.

“Peace by Jesus Christ,” he says.

This text struck me to the heart as I read it this week as day after day we seemed to be marching toward a war with Iran.

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What to Do When You’re Squeamish About Miracles

The great twentieth century mystic, Thomas Merton, was standing at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville when he had a great revelation.

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Walking around shining like the sun.

That is apparently what Moses was doing after his encounters with God on the mountain.

And that is what Jesus was like in the Transfiguration.

Jesus put aside his glory because he had a lot of specific work left to do in the world and he couldn’t do it if people were so awestruck by him in his glorious form that they fell on their faces and trembled at the sight of him.

It was hard enough to avoid doing that when he healed people and multiplied loaves and fishes looking like a perfectly ordinary person.

Not twenty minutes after the Transfiguration Jesus was back down in the marketplace healing a young boy with epilepsy and going about his good work.

Jesus didn’t need the appearance of physical glory to get people’s attention. The goodness that flowed out of him nonstop did that all on its own.

But why did Moses hide the evidence of his encounter with God?

Why did he veil himself when his face was shining? Continue reading

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

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