Pay Attention, Be Astonished, Tell About It

We learn as much from children as we teach them. Last week, my son drove home from school, got out of the car, and rather than coming inside our home right away, he made his way over to the maple tree in our yard, got out his phone, and took a photo of the tree, which was on fire with fall color.

The maple leaves were a mixture of red and yellow, and the afternoon sunlight was making the whole tree glow. It was like a work of art, a masterpiece alive with God’s grandeur, to quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But as he took the photo, I realized how many times I had driven right by that tree and its foliage without even taking notice of it. For days, the leaves had been changing, and while I saw the tree, I didn’t really see it. Do you know what I mean?

front yard
“The bush was burning but not consumed.” A photo by Danny Killeen

My son inspired me. Later that day, I studied the tree and paused to really look at the leaves, the delicate veins and serrated edges. I looked at the leaves that had fallen to the ground. They hadn’t dried and withered yet; yet their ephemeral nature made them even more beautiful.

My son knew what he was doing when he took the photo. There was something about that tree that made you want to preserve its beauty by taking a photo, painting a picture or writing a poem.

That something is glory, a word we hear in our Scripture today and throughout the Bible. Glory, and here I follow the writer, C. S. Lewis, means two things:

First, glory means fame or appreciation. We glorify athletes who have won a championship, artists who display virtuosity, and saints who witness to the love and compassion of God. At our best moments, we give glory to God, appreciating the One who made the tree aflame with fall color.

Second, glory means luminosity, as in a thing or creature that the light of God streams through. The stained glass windows in this church are luminous. So is that maple tree in my front yard. My son, stopping for a moment to appreciate the beauty of the tree, was luminous.

When the light and love of God flow through people and things, we know that we are on holy ground. We’re like Moses when he pauses at the burning bush. It’s the pausing, looking and listening that matter most.

Go with me for a moment out to the wilderness where Moses is shepherding his father-in-law’s livestock. Amidst the busyness of his ordinary work, he takes a moment, just like my son, to pause and notice beauty in an ordinary and seemingly insignificant part of God’s creation. That bush that Moses paused to look at was no different than any other bush. That tree that my son admired is an ordinary tree.

The difference is in how we look at things and people. Do we slow down enough to appreciate the luminosity of the camellias in full bloom? Do we listen for the arias of birdsong at sunrise? Are we open to the light of God shining through each other’s eyes?

Moses turns aside to see. He pauses long enough to notice God’s glory burning in an ordinary bush. He’s astonished that the bush burns and isn’t consumed, just like that tree in my front yard burned with God’s grandeur but wasn’t consumed.

This reminds me of something that the poet, Mary Oliver, once wrote. Oliver, who now lives in South Florida, lived for most of her life in Provincetown, an artist’s colony at the very end of Cape Cod.

Mary Oliver in Provincetown

Most of her poems are careful studies of the natural world written during her daily walks through woods and coastal landscapes. You might think that Oliver would have gotten bored with the same old trees, bushes and flowers, the same expansive views of dunes and water.

Just the opposite. For Oliver, every day is like the first day of creation. She never approaches things and people as if she’s seen it all. Instead, we hear words like these in her work: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

That is what this season of Advent is all about: paying attention, being astonished, telling about it. We see this in our first reading today from Baruch.

The scribe Baruch was an assistant to the prophet Jeremiah, who we heard from last Sunday. Like Jeremiah, Baruch has a word of consolation for us. He envisions the people of Israel returning to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon.

They can leave their grief and pain behind like old clothing and “put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.”

The scribe then envisions God’s people pausing to pay attention. They are to look and be astonished that God is gathering people from east and west, all of them summoned by the unifying Word of God. No one is left out. Every single person can burn with God’s glory.

Baruch, inspired by Isaiah, another prophetic artist, goes on to say that God is shaping the land like a master sculptor: every high mountain and the everlasting hills will be made low; every valley shall be filled up so that God’s people will be able to make their way safely home.

Baruch, like Mary Oliver, not only pays attention and is astonished. He tells us about what it will be like to come home to God in vivid terms:

“The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.”

Over and over, Baruch sings of God’s glory, that burning and beautiful light that attracts us to God, draws us to love and serve each other, and shines out to every dark place where God’s people live in exile.

We witness this same theme in the Gospel reading. Luke, ever the historian, begins by going through a laundry list of luminaries in the ancient world: Roman emperors and governors, religious authorities and officials.

The most interesting thing is that the Word of God sidesteps these power brokers and goes out instead to the wilderness, where John the Baptist dwells.

It’s no accident that so much creativity happens on the margins of human society rather than the center: think of Railroad Square in our own community, Mary Oliver in Provincetown, the artists in Key West, and the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.

Perhaps those at the center of things, luminaries without any true luminosity, are too busy, too distracted to pay attention, to be astonished and tell others. Perhaps they, like we all do, just take ordinary people and things for granted. Today, I want you to look at John the Baptist differently. Rather than seeing him as a cranky prophet or a zealous messenger, I want you to see John as an artist.

He’s grown up in the wilderness, a place of solitude that makes one pay attention, be astonished by the beauty of God’s creation, and tell others about the glory and beauty of God.

Astonished by God’s grace and forgiving spirit, John takes a page out of Baruch’s playbook and pays attention to God’s people who stream to him from east and west. John is a voice crying out in the wilderness, and like Baruch, he sings of a God who is a master sculptor.

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John the Artist is inviting us this Advent to pay attention, to be astonished, to tell others of the glory and beauty of God.

But first we will need to slow down and step aside and see like Moses, to study the leaves on a tree, to treasure a painting, to commit a poem to memory, to listen to music that touches our soul, to look for the beauty of God in the light of each other’s eyes.

“There are no ordinary people,” C.S. Lewis reminds us in his sermon The Weight of Glory. “You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

Earlier in the sermon, he proclaims, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it . . . It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship . . . It is in the light of [this] overwhelming [possibility], it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.”

Along with Baruch, John the Artist, Mary Oliver and C.S. Lewis, you and I aren’t ordinary people. We’ve never spoken with a mere mortal. Luminous with God’s light, we bear each other’s glory daily on our backs. In our readings today, God has given us instructions for living life: pay attention, be astonished, tell others of the beauty and glory of God.

Listen to sermon audio.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL on December 9, 2018.

Stand Up and Raise Your Heads!

Management banned him for life. He was never, under any circumstances, ever to step foot in the hotel again. The offender is Nick Burchill, and when he stayed at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, 17 years ago, he was a young salesman trying to make his mark on the world.

Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia

He checked into the elegant hotel on a cool April day and unpacked his bags. NY Times story here. In his suitcase, he had brought with him precious cargo: Chris Brothers’ TNT Salami, a local delicacy from his hometown, as a gift for friends in the area. Since he wasn’t going to visit those friends for a few days, he wondered how he would keep the meat fresh.

There was no mini-fridge in his room, but he recalled that it was a cool day. Why not just place the salami, he wondered, on the desk, open the window up and let in the cool air? With everything now unpacked, he decided to go out for a walk.

A few hours later, he returned. When he opened the door of his hotel room, he saw that a flock of seagulls had invaded, drawn in by the scent of the Chris Brothers’ TNT Salami, underline TNT. The room was completely covered in feathers, seagull saliva and . . . let’s just say that the salami was explosively spicy.

When we face situations like this in life, we have choices. We can run and get help. We can walk away from it and pretend like it never happened. Or, we can do what we usually do: we can try to fix it ourselves.

Mr. Burchill charged into the room, waving the seagulls out the window. He was successful in getting most of the gulls of his room. But one stubborn bird wouldn’t let go of what was left of the salami, and so he threw his shoe at it, and both the bird and shoe went sailing out the window, perilously close to the people below who were enjoying the hotel’s High Tea at an outdoor café.

It gets better. He retrieved his shoe, brought it back inside, and washed it off. Then he stuck a hairdryer into it. The hair dryer vibrated and made the shoe fall into a sink full of water, knocking out power for several floors of the hotel. That’s when he decided to call housekeeping.

Interviewed on the radio after the incident, Mr. Burchill confessed: “To tell you the truth, I thought I could handle it.” At home, in school, at work, in church, we have all said: “To tell you the truth, I thought I could handle it.”

We make this statement as individuals and as a society and it’s now literally putting our lives in danger.

I can’t be the only one troubled by the recent report issued by scientists on climate change. Many of the threats—sea level rise and flooding, super storms, destructive algae blooms—will devastate Florida disproportionately.

Climate change will lead also to increased human migration, as the world’s poorest people will flee not just fallen states, but fields that can no longer produce crops and rivers drained dry. The caravans that we witness in Central America and Mexico will seem like small compared to what is to come.

In our society and throughout the world, we’ve seen an epidemic of the abuse of power, particularly against women and children. The Center for Disease Control’s data on child abuse in our country is staggering. Many experts think that the official estimates are far too low, as so many incidents go unreported.

And to all of these heartbreaking problems, we so often respond: “We’ve got this under control. We’re good. With enough know-how, research, technology, money, public policy and hard work, we can manage the situation.”

Advent, brothers and sisters, is when we come clean. We stand before God and admit that we can’t solve our problems on our own. We confess that when we try to manage the situation, we’re left with what amounts to a hotel room turned upside down.

We see reminders of this in the Bible over and over, especially in the books by prophets like Jeremiah. Biblical prophets remind us of our best traditions and better angels: care of God’s creation, binding the wounds of the broken, serving the poor, administering justice, honoring the dignity of every human person.

Prophets warn and console people. Today, Jeremiah is in consolation mode because God’s people have made a mess of it. Israel divided itself into North and South, and within those geographic areas, tribalism further divided society. The Babylonians took advantage of the weakened and divided Israel and invaded—surely this is a cautionary tale for us today.

The Temple in Jerusalem, the meeting place between heaven and earth, the site of God’s presence among the people, was destroyed by the invaders. God’s people were exiled and scattered over the face of the earth. And time and time again, the response of the people is to say: “Don’t worry. We’ve got this. We’re going to charge into the hotel room and clean up this mess. We can handle it.”

Except they couldn’t. Not on their own. They needed to open themselves fully to the saving love and mercy of God. That’s Jeremiah’s message today. He consoles the people and tells them that even though they have made a complete mess of it, God hasn’t given up on them.

The prophet declares on God’s behalf: “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

In Jeremiah’s words, we meet a God who loves us tenderly, who yearns to be in relationship with every human being, who goes out and brings all the exiles of the world into God’s own arms.

I’m reminded of a story told by Dale Cooper, a college chaplain. After spending some time away from his family overseas, Cooper was on his way home. He missed his family desperately, and they missed him. During a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, he called his wife to update her on his journey and their four-year-old son reached for the phone.

As Cooper relates, “His only words to me—a sigh, really: ‘Daddy, when am I going to be where you are?’”In the four-year-old’s question, we grasp everything we need to know about this season of Advent, during which we stand squarely between God’s “already” and “not yet.”

The “already” is that we have, like that four-year-old, been created in love in God’s own image. We have been drawn into the arms of God through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, an event marked by our baptisms and remembered every Sunday during the Eucharist. Everything that threatens creation’s flourishing on earth has been defeated by God once and for all.

But there is a part of us that knows that we are slipping from God’s arms. We continue to exploit God’s creation and live unsustainably. We respond to human migration by launching tear gas unto civilians. We persist in misusing power and perpetuating systems and communities in which women and children are routinely abused.

That’s why Jesus uses such apocalyptic language in our Gospel today. He’s saying: Wake up. Look around you. The world is falling part, and I have come to put it back together. Be alert and look for all of those “not yets.” When I come again at the end of the ages, when I open the hotel room door and see you sitting on the bed with your face in your hands, I’m not coming to ban you for life. I’ve come to bring you back from exile. To heal and forgive. You can join me in my work of bringing “already” and “not yet” closer together.

“Stand up and raise your heads,” Jesus says to us as we begin this season of Advent, “because your redemption is drawing near.”

Our Savior, who is the branch mentioned in our first reading, a descendant of David, will come on Christmas Day and will return at the right time, which may be tomorrow, or it may be 17 years from now, which brings us back to our friend Nick Burchill.

That seagull episode weighed heavy on his conscience through the years. He could have kicked himself for not asking for help right away and making a bad situation worse. 17 years later, he decided to write a letter to the hotel asking for forgiveness. He wondered if they would ever see clear to welcoming him back to the hotel?

In his own way, he was asking the four-year-old’s question: “When am I going to be where you are?” When will already and not yet come together? When will I be reconciled with God and my neighbors?

Management responded with good news: the ban was over. He was welcome to come back to the hotel. When he visited for the second time, he brought with him a peace offering: Chris Brothers TNT Salami, which the staff immediately secured in a refrigerator.

The ban is over: Nick Burchill brings a peace offering of Chris Brothers’ TNT Salami to Empress Hotel Staff in Victoria, British Columbia

“Stand up and raise your heads,” Jesus assures us. “Your redemption is drawing near.”

Listen to sermon audio.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on December 2, 2018.

Love Decides Everything

“Fall in love with God, stay in love, and it will decide everything.” This past summer, the Killeen family embarked on our first college tour. One of the schools that we visited was Holy Cross, a Jesuit college up in Worchester, Massachusetts. During the tour, when I should have been listening to our guide talk about teacher-student ratios and studying abroad, I found myself Googling a saint of the church who was new to me.

Outside the science building at Holy Cross is a bronze statue of Pedro Arrupe. The artist sculpted Arrupe humbly kneeling in prayer, a serene expression on his face. It’s appropriate that Arrupe’s statue was outside the science building, as he trained to become a doctor before becoming a Jesuit priest.


Fr. Predo Arrupe statue, Holy Cross College, Worchester, MA

Arrupe was born in the Basque region of Spain. As a young man, he studied medicine in Madrid. His life changed direction when he and his sisters made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the French shrine to which people come from around the world to be healed. He witnessed miraculous healings at Lourdes, and that experience drew him to a religious vocation. After his ordination to the priesthood, Arrupe was sent as a missionary to Japan.

There, his faith was put to the test. At one point, suspected of espionage, he was imprisoned for a month during the season of Advent. On Christmas Eve, he heard noise outside his cell, and he assumed that it was his executioners coming to take him away. Instead, it was a group of Christians who had visited him, at great risk to themselves, to sing Christmas carols.

The true test came later, in August of 1945, when Arrupe and his fellow Jesuits lived on a hill on the outskirts of Hiroshima. On the morning of August 6, Arrupe was talking with one of his fellow Jesuits when the blast knocked him to the ground. Blinded by the unreal light, ears ringing, he got up and looked down on a city engulfed in fire. Survivors of the atomic bombing soon began to arrive at the Jesuit house, and Arrupe immediately put his medical training to work. For six months, the home became a makeshift hospital where the people of Hiroshima were cared for with compassion.

You might think that Arrupe’s life experiences would have hardened his heart and made him cynical about God and human nature, but the opposite was true. The violence and suffering he witnessed opened his heart to become even more gentle and joyful.

He would go on to lead the worldwide Jesuit order through the exciting but tumultuous years of Vatican II, when he often found himself trying to mediate between reformers and conservatives. He ended up making no one happy, and yet, through it all, he shone with God’s love.

He is known for a simple prayer that goes like this: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Arrupe knew that as human beings we are hard-wired to fall in love. The problem is that we so often fall in love with everything but God. We fall for power and prestige, money and possessions, knowledge and security, to name just a few of the idols to which we bow.

Which brings us to our readings, beginning with Job. The main theological question asked in Job is whether or not you and I will love and praise God even if there is nothing in it for us. You’ve heard of the prosperity Gospel. The Book of Job is the austerity Gospel that wonders if we will still love God even when we’re stripped of power and prestige, money and possessions, knowledge and security.

In the beginning of Job, we learn that this leading citizen has it made in the shade. Plenty of money in the bank, beautiful homes, a loving wife, all of his children, like the children in Lake Wobegon, are above average. And here’s the thing: Job has come by his wealth and success in life honestly. No accounting tricks or offshore accounts. He is a good and ethical man who loves his family and community.

But then he loses everything in a day. A Cat 5 hurricane roars in and strips him of everything that he has worked for, everything that he has loved in this world. His family perishes. His home is reduced to rubble. His body is racked with disease and pain. And just at the time he needs God most . . . silence. Utter silence, utter absence for 37 chapters of Scripture.

We can’t hear this reading and not think of our brothers and sisters west of us. These are God’s people who have lost loved ones, whose homes have been reduced to rubble, who are re-building their lives piece-by-piece. Like Job, they have been stripped of everything but gratitude. That’s the amazing thing when you listen to those recovering from the hurricane: they’ll tell you that they are so thankful to God for their life, for the kindness of others, for love.

In today’s reading, God finally break’s God’s silence. And you know what? God is anything but warm and fuzzy. Instead, God speaks from the storm, out of the whirlwind and tells Job to man-up, to gird up his loins, to step back and see the world from God’s perspective.

God wonders: “Were you there when I created the world, when I first poured the foundations and made sure the walls were level? Were you there when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings sang with joy?”

“Where were you, Job, when the morning stars sang together?” Photo credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jenny Hottle

Here’s what’s happening: God is inviting Job to fall in love in a quite absolute, final way, to enter into a relationship that will decide everything. With this cosmic language, God is seizing his imagination, a move that will affect everything. It will decide what will make Job get out of bed in the morning, what he will do with his evenings, how he will spend his weekends, what he reads, whom he knows, what breaks his heart, and what amazes him with joy and gratitude.

Fall in love with God, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

Jesus’ disciples arrive at the same truth today, and like Job, they arrive at this truth the hard way. In the beginning of our reading, we witness James and John angling for power and prestige. Recall that Jesus nicknames these brothers the “Sons of Thunder.” They’re Sons of Thunder because they’re impulsive, reckless and ambitious to a fault. They know how the world works: nice guys finish last. You have to take care of yourself and look out for your own.

Fisherman by trade, they know that those who get up the earliest, work the hardest and guard their fishing waters with their lives do well. Life is a zero-sum game: there are only so many fish in the sea—you need to stake your claim or someone else will. When Jesus calls them to follow him, the Sons of Thunder are busy at work mending their nets.

Yet, they give it all up to follow Jesus, to become fishers of people and menders of our broken world. The only way that we can make sense of their decision is love. In Jesus, they meet a human being so fully alive, so filled with God’s love, that they are drawn by that light into his inner circle.

But as they journey with Jesus, they begin to fall back into old patterns, into other loves. They bow down to idols of their own making: little gods of power and prestige. They have hitched their wagon to a star who will free them from their Roman oppressors. Jesus will be a new King David, a political and military leader who will rule with strength and justice. And they will sit at his right and left hand in glory. A new administration is coming to town, and their cabinet positions are assured.

To which Jesus says: “Not so fast.” That’s not how God’s kingdom works. Remember what I said: I will go to Jerusalem, be arrested, die and on the third day be raised. You want to sit to my right and left, but soon, two criminals will be on my right and left as I hang on the cross. Is that what you signed up for? You see, in this world, greatness means command and control of others. That’s what the Romans do—they lead through intimidation. But in God’s kingdom, greatness comes through self-giving love.

Jesus is speaking to us out of the whirlwind, through all of the hurricanes of our world’s violence and hunger for power. In our readings today, Jesus is inviting us to fall in love with God in a quite absolute, final way.

For what we are in love with, what seizes our imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get us out of bed in the morning, what we do with our evenings, how we spend our weekends, what we read, whom we know, what breaks our hearts, and what amazes us with joy and gratitude.

This brings us back to Pedro Arrupe, who once was amazed with joy and gratitude in a very poor village in Latin America. After a Eucharist, one of the men in the congregation invited Arrupe to his home. With joy and a sense of urgency, he told the priest that he had a present for him there. They hurried and arrived just in time at the man’s home, which was literally falling over. One of the walls was broken and missing several bricks, which formed the perfect frame for the setting sun outside.

This was the man’s gift to Arrupe: a sunset that they could savor together in prayerful silence.

My brothers and sisters, God is finally and absolutely in love with you and all of creation. Fall in love with God, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

Listen to audio of sermon.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL on October 21, 2018.

First Steps

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” On Friday night, I saw the movie “First Man,” which tells the story of Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts who landed on the moon. It felt good, if only for a couple of hours, to be transported away from power outages, cold showers, downed trees, mountains of yard debris and the drone of generators.

My brothers and sisters, this has been a long week. Several of you are still without power. Many of our homes are damaged. Our nerves are frayed, our bodies are tired and our minds are burdened with many thoughts.

Yet as we gather today for worship, our hearts are also filled with gratitude. Let’s start with the cool weather. It didn’t have to be cool and dry. How many tropical storms and hurricanes have you been after which it’s hot and humid? Sleeping at night with the windows open has been wonderful.

We’re thankful for neighbors who love and care for us: the informal block parties that have taken shape, the way we’ve gotten to know people better. Meals around the grill, guitars and singing, the music of children’s laughter as they play in the backyard.

We’re grateful for those who have reached out to us from around the country to offer assistance and prayers. Rob Radtke, the head of Episcopal Relief and Development, got in touch with me all the way from the Philippines to check on us. Katie Mears, Episcopal Relief and Development’s U.S. Disaster Response leader, has been in touch with Mtr. Abi.

Our Diocese and St. John’s will be partnering with Episcopal Relief and Development in the coming weeks and months as we recover in Tallahassee and the region. As much as we’ve been through here, our hearts are breaking for people west of our city who bore the full brunt of Michael. The clergy and our Outreach team will be listening carefully to our neighbors in the area for the ways that we as a congregation can best respond.

Now is the time for first steps, which is my theme today. In reflecting on first steps, I keep returning to the courage of Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts who stepped off the lunar lander onto the surface of the moon.


There is a wonderful moment in the movie when Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, holds on to the ladder of the spaceship like a child who is learning to swim holds onto a pool ladder. One part of him wants to take that first step and let go, the other wants to hold fast to what is safe and known.

To be the first man or woman at anything is not easy. In the movie, we witness footage of President Kennedy’s “Moonshot” speech, when he declares to the world: “We will go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.”

The reading you heard today from Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’ “Moonshot” speech. He tells his disciples that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it will be for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. This is Jesus’ way of saying that following him as a disciple will be hard, not easy. Entering the kingdom of God is like a spiritual moon landing. Today, we are all first men and women called by God to have the courage to take a small step into the unknown.

This summons from small steps to a great leap for humankind comes to us through the story of the wealthy man who encounters Jesus. This man genuinely wants to make it all the way to the moon. With great humility, he acknowledges Jesus’ authority and power as he kneels and asks: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Let’s begin with his question, which is heartfelt, but wrong from the start, like someone trying to get to the moon on a bicycle. It’s just not going to happen. So much of the spiritual life is beginning with the right questions.

An inheritance, by definition, is something that we receive. It’s not the result of what we do. A better question that he and all of us might ask of Jesus is this: “Who must we be to inherit eternal life?”

Being leads us to questions of relationship with God and neighbor, questions of character and our essence as human beings.

Jesus begins his answer by reinforcing the place of Moses’ law. He hasn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. “You know the commandments,” he tells the man and us. You have all the information you need.

Like Neil Armstrong and the astronauts, you’ve studied the physics of spaceflight in the classroom and you’ve practiced your mission over and over in the field. You’ve cared for others with kindness. You’ve been faithful to your spouse. You’ve resisted stealing from others and been honest in your business dealings. You’ve honored your parents. You’ve followed the right path since your youth, you tell Jesus.

Jesus looks at us today and loves us. Did you notice that little detail in our Gospel? He doesn’t stare down at the man with judgement or condemnation. Jesus, looking at us, loves us enough to say: “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”

The man goes away grieving, for he has many possessions . . . I’m a little embarrassed to tell you that the first of my material objects that I protected before the hurricane were my bicycles. If I had to part with them, it would cause me grief.

Which of your possessions would it be hard for you to let go of?

Here’s the interesting thing: if you’re like me, you’ve read this story in the past and just assumed that the man’s grief as he exits the scene indicates that he is unwilling to give up his possessions.

But what if his grief is instead a sign that he is going to give up everything to follow Jesus? He’s suffering because he knows that it will be hard to let go of his possessions, that it will require courage to take that first step off the lunar lander and walk on the moon of God’s kingdom.

It’s the same for you and me when it comes to spiritual transformation. Jesus, as the writer David Howell reminds, us, is the one who looks at us with love and invites us to take those tentative first steps into a new future with God.

The Christian life is never static. God never lets us settle for the status quo. We’re always being summoned to grow in maturity, to stretch in compassion, to deepen our love, to change our minds and stay open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ invitation is issued on the good days, when is going well, and on the bad days, when we say along with Job: “Today . . . my complaint is bitter.” Or as the writer of the 22nd Psalm laments: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

As we hear those words, we can picture our brothers and sisters not far from here whom are taking those first steps and beginning to re-build their lives.

We can imagine a toddler taking her first tentative steps into her father’s arms, the freshman in college struggling to make new friends and keep up with all his classes, the executive walking into her first Twelve-Step meeting, and the man beginning life over after a divorce.


Those initial, sometimes tentative steps, all of which require great courage, can lead to giant steps of spiritual growth. And here’s the best part: it’s not all up to us. Grace is the wind at our backs.

After Jesus tells the disciples that it will easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter into God’s kingdom, they rightly wonder: “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus, still looking at them in love, replies, “Humankind can’t make those first steps or giant leaps alone. If it was up to you, then making it to the moon would be impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”

Jesus is inviting us to have the courage today to let go of the easy and familiar and take hold of what may be hard or unknown. Each small step that you take with God can become a giant leap into the kingdom of heaven.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on October 14, 2018.


There Is Only Us

“Lord, make our lives clear spaces where children can see light and meaning, and through which they can enter into your love. Amen.” That prayer comes to us from the late Bill Greenlaw, a beloved Episcopal priest who served for many years in our community as a pastor and counselor. I’m told that he lived these words—his life was indeed a clear space where many children, youth and adults saw light and meaning.

I was going to preach on Proverbs today, but then I ran that idea by my wife, Carol. According to Carol, a more fitting opening line for our reading, at least in our family, might go like this: “A capable husband who can find?”

I’m sticking with our Gospel reading, which is just too good to pass up. Today, I want you to hear the good news that in Christ, there is no longer us and them. There is only us in radical kinship with each other. I borrow these words about the power of kinship from Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who for decades has ministered with the poor of Los Angeles.

Fr. Greg Boyle, center, surrounded by staff members and friends of Homeboy Industries

Back in the eighties, as a newly-minted priest serving a small mission parish, Fr. Greg knew exactly what do to on Sundays: celebrate Mass, preach the Gospel, visit folks in the hospital or their homes.

But during the week, no one came to his tiny church. He decided not to wait for people to come to him. He began to ride his bike through the neighborhood in order to get to know his neighbors.

During this time, gang violence in Los Angeles was endemic. Police would stop Fr. Greg on his bike and tell him to go back home—it was too dangerous for him to be out there on the streets on his bike. Over time, Fr. Greg got to know the people around his parish, especially the youth, who were being murdered by gang-related violence in astonishing numbers. Fr. Greg officiated at hundreds of funerals for young men and women.

At a time when law enforcement took a no-holds-barred, military-style approach to curb the violence, Fr. Greg tried a different tact, the way of self-giving love. He came to understand that young people joined gangs because they were traumatized and hopeless. As he puts it, nothing stops a bullet better than a job.

So, he founded Homeboy Industries, which provides jobs, counseling, and tattoo removal. That last service may seem kind of strange until you remember that gang identity and membership are often signified by tattoos. Erase those tattoos and you are helping the young men and women re-identify themselves as children of God, marked as Christ’s own forever.

During a college commencement address, Fr. Greg tells the story of two men named Manuel and Snoopy. They were once members of rival gangs who tried to kill each other. But at Homeboy Industries, the only thing they shoot at each other are text messages of mutual support. Through the reconciling power of God, they’ve become kin.

But Fr. Greg isn’t addressing gang members during his commencement address. He’s speaking to young adults who are preparing to go out into what is so often called the “real world,” which is short-hand for a dog-eat-dog, market-centered life that has surprising parallels with the world of gangs.

The way to advance in this highly-competitive system is through ambition, hard-work, climbing one’s way up the ladder one promotion at a time until one has finally arrived at top of the heap.

This is what Fr. Greg had to say to those ambitious and bright graduates of Occidental College: “There is no longer us and them, only us. The measure of your compassion is not serving those on the margins, but in your willingness to see yourself in kinship with them. [Occidental] is not the place you go to, it’s the place you go from, and you go from here to create a community of kinship such that God may recognize it.”

Jesus is creating a community of kinship today, a group such that God may recognize them. Let’s imagine this scene together. Jesus and his friends are back on their old stomping grounds in the region of Galilee after a foray into a rival gang’s territory, the region of the Gentiles.

There, a Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, has just insisted that she is kin to Jesus and his followers. She begs Jesus to heal her daughter. When he witnesses her faith and fierce love for her daughter, he heals the young woman and accepts her as a member of God’s family.

Then he meets a deaf and mute man. He, too, as a Gentile, is from a rival gang. But Jesus says to him: “Ephphatha—be opened.” And he is: the man can suddenly hear and speak. All the while, it’s like Jesus is teaching a senior seminar to the twelve, who are learning that in Christ, there is no us and them. There is just us. Those old tribal divisions of Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, young and old are falling away, only to be replaced with a new identity in Jesus’s kinship with God.

The students are beginning to truly get it. Peter even goes so far as to exclaim: “Jesus, you are the Messiah!” That’s it! The students are now ready to graduate and go out into the world on their own.

On the way to commencement exercises back in Galilee, the students begin to talk among themselves. “I’m graduating cum laude.” “Oh, yeah, I’m graduating summa cum laude.” “I just got a job at a Big-Six accounting firm.” “Good for you―did I mention that I was just admitted to Yale Law?” You get the idea.

The disciples have bought into the worldview of us and them, disregarding their kinship as God’s beloved children. Jesus takes them aside and delivers his version of a commencement address:

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, he takes a little child in his arms and declares, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Words like these could conjure up sentimental images we all have of Jesus gathering children into his arms. In fact, in my front hallway, we have a plate with that image on it, saccharine sweet. It’s a heartwarming picture, but the warmth obscures a cold fact: Jesus calls children because they are utterly powerless vis-à-vis the powers of this world.

Compared to Herod and Pontius Pilate and the religious authorities, relative to the wealthy people and citizens of high social standing, the children have no power. They are completely vulnerable.

In this, they are as powerless and vulnerable as children in our own time, a time marked by a return to a tribal and dog-eat-dog worldview, us and them.

How many times have you heard someone say recently: “’I’ve found my tribe,’ which is another way of saying our party, our race, our religion, our talking points, our border, our little kingdom of mutual admiration.”

Which brings us back to Manuel, Snoopy and Fr. Greg, who remind us: “there is no longer us and them, only us. The measure of our compassion is not serving those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in in kinship with them. [St. John’s] is not the place you go to, it’s the place you go from, and you go from here to create a community of kinship such that God may recognize it.”

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, Jesus took a little child in his arms and declared, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

May God, the one who sent Jesus, make our lives clear spaces where children and youth can see light and meaning, and through which they can enter into God’s love.

Listen to sermon audio.

A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen on September 23, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL.

Home By Another Road

A friend reminded me recently that the object of the game of baseball is to make it home. When runners are left on base at the end of an inning, we call them stranded. Home. Stranded. Telling words. Now, I know it’s football season, but we have another month or so of baseball, so bear with me here.

I wonder if baseball is our pastime because it’s all about making it home to a place where you belong, back to the dugout side-by-side with your teammates. We’re not meant to be stranded by ourselves. We’re made for home.


Today, in our Gospel reading, we witness two runners stranded on base, two souls in need of Jesus’ invitation to come home to God.

The first is a mother whose daughter is possessed by demons. The second is a deaf and mute man. We’re going to focus our attention on the mother, but we can imagine that both individuals are cut-off from the people around them, shoved to the margins of society because of their maladies.

In our reading, Jesus himself is stranded on base, far from home. He, a Jewish man, is in a non-Jewish region. Remember that Jesus said of his own mission: “I have come to save the lost sheep of Israel.”

Meaning: it’s not my job to save these Gentiles. I’m here to bring my fellow Jews back home to God. I’m in this Gentile area to get away for a while, to take a break in a place where nobody knows me.

Mark tells us that Jesus enters a house and didn’t want anybody to know that he was there. Jesus is tired from preaching and teaching and healing and caring for his people, so he’s up in Gentile territory for a little vacation.

My favorite line in today’s story: we’re told that try as he might to get away from the crowds, “yet he could not escape notice.” There is something about Jesus that commands our attention, whether we’re in first-century Palestine or 21st-century Florida. In our world of endless busyness and distractions, there is still something about Jesus that makes us wonder.

The Gentile mother in our story is wondering if this wandering rabbi can help her daughter. She boldly comes and bows down at Jesus’ feet. In this time, women would not just come up and talk with a strange man—what she’s doing is scandalous.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus isn’t so nice to this woman. I’m sure you noticed that Jesus seems kind of grumpy today. After the woman implores him to come and heal her daughter, Jesus responds with an old folk saying about not giving the children’s food to the dogs.

Translation: Helping you isn’t part of my job description. God has called me to bring my own people home.  If I helped you, that wouldn’t be fair to the people of Israel.

But this mother is persistent. She won’t take no for an answer. She fiercely loves her daughter and will do or say whatever it takes to heal her child.

She answers Jesus: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” This mother has faith that just a few words from Jesus, little crumbs of his compassion, will make her daughter well. And she’s right.

Jesus tells her that for saying that—for not giving up and showing persistence—her daughter has been made well.

It’s the next part of the story that I’d really like for us focus on. As the scholar Matt Skinner points out, this mother had to walk all the way home not knowing if her daughter had actually been healed.

Stay with me for a moment in this scene. Put yourself in the mother’s shoes. You have come to Jesus for help, leaving your daughter behind at home. You’re at the end of your rope.

At first, it doesn’t seem like Jesus really wants to help you, but you persist, and he gives in, telling you that your daughter is now well.

Yet, you still have that long walk home. You’re not sure if Jesus told you the truth or just wanted to get rid of you. You want to believe that your daughter is well, but what if you get home and she is no better than when you left?

All of this is to say that the mother we meet today in our reading had to have faith that Jesus was telling her the truth. We could say that she traveled home on a different road than the one on which she came, the road of faith.

She came to Jesus out of curiosity, out of desperation, out of fierce love for her daughter. But she left with her heart filled with faith.

Faith that Jesus has indeed restored her daughter’s life. Faith that her families’ suffering has now come to an end. Faith that Jesus has invited them to come home to God.

This mother goes home by another road. If that phrase sounds familiar it’s because it comes to us from the Bible, from the Christmas story to be exact. Recall the magi who come from afar to visit the Holy Family. The magi, like the mother we meet today, are Gentiles.

They, too, are stranded on base. Far from home, they follow the stars first to Jerusalem, where they meet with King Herod, who instructs them to go to Bethlehem, find Jesus and then report back to him with the infant’s whereabouts.

Herod tells them that he wants to come and pay homage to the child himself, but we know that this isn’t true. The leader is threatened by Jesus and wants to kill the one whom he perceives is a threat to his authority.

In Bethlehem, the magi find Jesus and offer him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Later, they sleep and in a dream, they’re warned by God not to go back to Herod, but to return home by another road.

Like the Gentile mother who bows down at Jesus’ feet, they come to Jesus out of curiosity. When they leave, their hearts are filled with faith that Jesus is the One who can bring all people home to God.

We all come to this church today having tried to get home by the way of Herod. We thought that power, wealth, knowledge, and human effort could save us and bring us home. But we discovered that when we bow down and pay homage to Herod and what Herod represents, we destroy life and ourselves.

We strand each other on base and yearn for home, a place where we can belong and experience abundant life, a haven where we can live fully with purpose and meaning.

The good news is that we get little glimpses of that home even while we are here on this earth, both inside and outside the church.

Perhaps you heard the story this week about Julie and Michael Lisi, who raised their family in Willoughby, Ohio. They are now retired and living a 1,000 miles away in Jupiter, FL.

They enjoy shopping in local thrift stores. Recently, they were browsing in a shop when Mrs. Lisi looked up and saw something that didn’t quite register. The item stopped her in her tracks. She took it down from the shelf and held it in her hands as her eyes filled with tears.

Mr. Lisi found her shaking in the middle of the aisle holding a baseball mitt. He looked at his wife, and then he looked down at the mitt, which, clear as day, had his son, Christopher’s, name on it,  in black Sharpie marker.

baseball mitt
Julie and Michael Lisi

The mitt and the name were weathered with time, but there it was, their son’s baseball mitt, 1,000 miles and 40 years from Willoughby. It turns out that Christopher still lives in Willoughby, where he teaches math and coaches football.

He lost the mitt back in 1978, when his Little League team won the championship, a game during which Christopher hit two home runs. After the game, his teammates ran out of the dugout and mobbed him. He never saw the mitt again. He lost it in the confusion.

In the thrift store, Mrs. Lisi took a photo of the mitt with her phone and sent it to her son, who replied: “Buy it and bring it home!” She bought back their own mitt for $1.79.

Mrs. Lisi was emotional because that mitt reminded her of home, of looking out the window and seeing her husband and son having a catch in the yard. It wasn’t just a mitt; it was holy, an object that made real the love that brought her family together over time and distance.

It could seem at times, with her family living all over the country, that they were all stranded on base, living separate lives. But as she held that mitt, she was home.

That’s what church is all about. It can seem sometimes, when we’re traveling on Herod’s road, that we’re not all on the same team, that we’ve all been left stranded on base, that we’re in a land far away from God and each other.

That’s why we come to this place where we can discover God’s dream for us. We listen to God’s Word that reassures us that we are part of God’s story. We receive the Sacrament that is a foretaste of the banquet to come in our eternal home.

We look into each other’s eyes and see Jesus, not strangers. With faith in Jesus, we walk home with him and each other by another road.

Listen to sermon audio.

A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on September 9, 2018.


It’s so good to see you on this Bluegrass Mass Sunday, a day on which we are also celebrating the beginning of preservation work on the historic church. Soon, you will see scaffolding and contractors and dust and hear the noise of tools and machinery. The good news is that through it all we will still get to worship in this space during construction.

I will never forget the first time I saw this church. Carol, the boys and I visited shortly before I interviewed at St. John’s. We booked rooms at the Aloft Hotel across the street without knowing how close it is to the church.

We checked in, went up to the rooms with all of our bags, opened the shades, and lo and behold, our rooms were directly opposite the church looking down on the bell tower. I turned to Carol and said: “Honey, I don’t want to make too much of this, but this seems like a sign from God.” We had a good laugh together.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and I could see people heading into the church for the 5:30 p.m. service. I instantly fell in love with the building and later, during interviews, I fell in love with you, the people of St. John’s.

I’m not the only one. Recently, we hosted a consultant from Charleston named Craig Bennett. When it comes to structural engineering on historic properties, he’s the best of the best.

I had lunch with Mr. Bennett and Charley Redding, the chair of our Building Committee, and delighted in hearing how much Mr. Bennett—who has visited his fair share of landmark churches—loved our church: the building and the people.

This is the way that he put it to me, and I’m paraphrasing here: “Dave, St. John’s is built on a human scale. It’s not so big that you feel lost in it, but not so small that you forget that it’s a place of awe and worship. It’s the just the right size.”

Or, to quote from a poem written about this holy place: “This architectural sacrament / is more than an antique monument, / not grandiose in Grecian style, but rustic with a Gothic smile. / Its buttressed walls gabled high / Grow naturally into the sky, / Reminding resident and passerby / Of certain things that do not die.”

st john historic
“Rustic with a Gothic smile.”

Or certain people, people like you and me who share in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. “Human scale;” “rustic with a Gothic smile.” Here’s one more quote that comes to us from the writer David Brooks: “We build buildings and then buildings build us.”

Buildings built Jesus and his disciples. We witness such construction in the story we heard today. John tells us that Jesus said these things about his Body and Blood “while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.”

I have stood on the stone floor of that synagogue in Capernaum. The roof and parts of the walls have been lost to time; only the stone floor remains. It’s a building in a fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Just like our church, it was neither an immense or small structure—it’s just right to gather a good-sized group of people for worship.

We build buildings and then buildings build us: so how did this building form Jesus and his disciples? Think about this for a moment: the primary place of worship for the Jewish people was the temple in Jerusalem, a complex about the size of three of our football stadiums. It truly was a wonder of the ancient world.

For faithful Jews, the Temple was―and still is―the place where heaven and earth meet, the holiest place on earth. Yet, in the shift that took place in Jesus’ time, we move from one central temple to a network of local synagogues. After the destruction of the Temple by Romans in 70 A.D. synagogue-based Judaism becomes the norm.

Jesus was a part of this new normal in Judaism. He certainly taught and worshipped and protested in the Temple in Jerusalem, but he also teaches in local synagogues like the one in Capernaum.

We can imagine that local places of worship aren’t controlled by religious and Roman authorities to the same degree as the Temple. There is freedom for a preacher like Jesus to visit and deliver what amounts to a challenging sermon.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

This message troubles some of Jesus’ followers, so much so that they decide to part ways with him. They throw up their hands and exclaim, “All right, that’s enough. You’ve lost me there, Jesus. You’ve gone too far.”

You might be wondering what’s so challenging or difficult about Jesus’ comments about his body and blood.

Jesus’ words to his disciples are challenging because they contain a bold claim: If God is Jesus’ Father, then that must mean that Jesus is God’s son, and to claim to be God’s son is blasphemous.

It’s for this reason that we still introduce the Lord’s prayer here at St. John’s with these words: And now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say, “Our Father, who are in heaven . . .” It’s bold to claim that God is our Father, that we share in that intimate relationship about which Jesus proclaims in the synagogue.

We build buildings and then buildings build us. In that synagogue, ordinary people like us are being built into God’s people, sons and daughters of the Living God.

Some of those sons and daughters are turned off by Jesus’s bold message. They head for the exits and decide to stop following him. It’s like they can’t conceive of a God who would relate to them as members of God’s own family.

Jesus spots those who are heading for the exits, looks at the twelve and inquires, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter speaks up: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus is building up the twelve to trust that he is the temple of God, that he is the place where heaven meets earth, that he is the Holy of Holies. But not just Jesus: by extension, the twelve are beginning to comprehend that Jesus is including them in this renovation of humanity. Through him, they will be adopted into God’s own family and reconciled to God through his life, death and resurrection.

Which brings us back to our church, to this holy ground on which the people of St. John’s have worshipped since 1829. One of the questions that we might ask ourselves today is this: “In what form, in what shape has this building built us?”

The answer is before our eyes: St. John’s, like many churches, is built in the shape of the cross. Right here in the center aisle we can see the vertical line of the cross, and right here in the transept, we can discern the horizontal axis.

As we congregate in this space, we are literally formed into the shape of our crucified Lord. In this building we learn that our Christian journey is one of ongoing cruciformity; that is, we live most abundantly by freely and generously offering ourselves to God and to each other.

This vertical part of the cross reminds us of our deep and abiding relationship with God. We experience this vertical relationship as we offer up our hymns and prayers to God during worship.

The transepts of the church, the horizontal axis, symbolizes our vocation to serve each other and the world with Christ-like humility. The Peace, during which we shake hands and embrace, reminds us of our common humanity, our horizontal relationships with each other.

st john cross

In the Eucharist, the picture of our crucified Lord is complete. We come to this table to be nourished vertically by the Living God, yet we also come forward horizontally, side-by-side, equally in need of forgiveness and God’s sustaining love.

Vertical and horizontal: God and neighbor come together in the Body of our Crucified Lord. As members of the Body of Christ, we are crucified with our Lord. This is what Jesus means when he says: “In order to find your life, you must first lose it.”

At the foot of the cross, we can summon the courage to let go, as Cynthia Bourgeault reminds us, of all our inordinate need for power and control, affection and esteem, security and survival. God knows we need those things, but they will never save us.

Only Jesus can do that, his crucified arms on the hard wood of the cross open to embrace every child of God.

Like Peter and the other disciples, we’re presented with a choice today: we can either head for the exits and grasp after worldly power, esteem or security or we can turn to Jesus and proclaim along with Peter: “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.”

Here’s the best news: if we are built in this church into the shape of the cross, if we are crucified with Jesus by letting go of our obsessive need for control, esteem and security, then we will be raised with Christ, too.

Here at St. John’s, we’ve experienced crucifixion and resurrection many times in our history. After this church burnt down in 1879—one week after the vestry decided not to renew the insurance policy—the congregation didn’t lose heart. Instead, we learned anew to trust fully in the power of God to raise up what had been cast down.

In 2005, when a substantial group of St. John’s members left to form a new church, many of you experienced pain, confusion and grief. Strangers weren’t leaving—these were friends, siblings, colleagues, and neighbors. These are brothers and sisters in Christ.

In the wake of that crucifying experience, you responded not with despair, but with faith and hope. Through the hurt that still hurts, Jesus took us by the hand, raised us up to new life and ministry and invited many new members into St. John’s. And we know that God isn’t done with us yet.

That’s why we’re going through all this trouble to put on a new roof, to protect our stained glass windows, and to fix our masonry and foundation. In the coming months, we will discern together other areas of our campus that we can enhance and improve.

We build buildings and then buildings build us. Thanks be to God for this building in which we can journey together vertically and horizontally into cruciformity.

This is where we meet Jesus, our crucified Lord, and say to him together: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Listen to sermon audio.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on August 26, 2018.


Terra Incognita

“My grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord declares to the apostle Paul, “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” These words make me think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At the age of 39, FDR was a rising star in the Democratic party. He ran for vice president unsuccessfully, but the campaign increased his national stature.

He came from a famous and wealthy family, went to the right schools, and knew the right people. From the start, he had been given a blueprint for a successful life, an existence revolving around power and privilege. And then, in his prime, suddenly while on summer vacation with his family, he contracted polio, and in that moment, the blueprint he was holding in his hands went right out the window.

The disease robbed FDR of the ability to walk. Most of his body was paralyzed. For a man known for his vigor and independence, imagine how difficult it must have been for him to be bedridden and completely dependent on others.

FDR was on unfamiliar ground. In old maps, areas that hadn’t been charted or explored were called terra incognita. Sometimes, in these remote areas, the cartographer would even draw a picture of mythical beasts under the words: “Dragons are here.”


That’s what FDR found on terra incognita: dragons of physical suffering, beasts of mental anguish, leviathans of spiritual desertion. He was a stranger in a strange new land, a pilgrim wandering far in a place that seemed like a wasteland.

Yet, he didn’t give up. Like the jazz musicians so popular in his day, FDR improvised. He tried new forms of physical therapy and treatment. He was always willing to try something new, to see if it would improve his condition.

For example, he traveled to Warm Springs, Georgia, where soaking in the thermal mineral waters helped him regain mobility. His time there also lifted his spirits. When the word got out that FDR’s treatments in Warm Springs were effective, people with polio came from all over the country to see what the waters could do for them.

In Warm Springs, the future president of the Unites States, the blue-blooded patrician with a Harvard accent, got to know children, youth and adults from all walks of life. He delighted in playing games in the pool with the children and then inspiring them with words of encouragement. He was a like a camp director for them.

fdr with children
FDR at Warm Springs, Georgia

Polio changed FDR. I think it make him a better man and president. As a leader guiding a nation through the terra incognita of a severe economic Depression and the Second World War, he led with a steady hand and compassion for the vulnerable.

Every person who came to Warm Springs found themselves on unfamiliar ground, contending with the dragons of suffering, depression and loneliness. But there, surrounded by others with the disease, they found compassion, comradery and the power that comes from relying on each other for support and encouragement.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Which brings us back to Paul, who also finds himself on terra incognita. In the beginning of our reading today, Paul has been transported by God to what he calls the third heaven, a land that hasn’t been mapped or explored. There, he hears things that no mortal can repeat.

Paul feels the need to mention this extraordinary vision because he’s not the only missionary in Corinth. He has some competition, a group of missionaries he mockingly labels the “super-apostles.” The “super apostles” are eloquent, unlike Paul. They’re packing the pews while Paul’s little churches struggle. He’s frustrated, and it’s beginning to show. He begins by boasting about how he won’t stoop to boasting about his visionary experience.

But then he makes a fascinating theological move: he begins to brag about his imperfections and how they, more than anything, make it possible for the power of God to move in and through him. He won’t try to compete with the “super-apostles” at their own game. He knows that he will never match their charisma or eloquence.

And to make matters worse, God has given him a thorn in the flesh to bring him back to earth after being carried up to the third heaven. We don’t know what the thorn was—some scholars think it might have been an eye ailment—but whatever it was, it helped Paul grasp something very important: his so-called weakness was actually a strength.

It was a strength because he could never pretend that he was perfect, that he had everything figured out, that he could get close to God by virtue of his knowledge, wealth, relationships or abilities.

Like FDR, Paul’s thorn made him more compassionate with others who were contending with dragons of their own. As Paul preached the Gospel on the terra incognita of Corinth and other remote places, he learned to rely on the power of our crucified Lord alone.

By conventional standards, Jesus was anything but a success story: he had no wealth or connections. He died like a common criminal on the cross. He chose not to fight back or rally his followers; instead, he meekly went to his death.

And yet his apparent weakness was a source of the greatest strength imaginable: the power of self-giving love, the might of laying down one’s life for one’s friends.

“My grace is sufficient for you because my power is made perfect in weakness.”

These words connect to our Gospel reading. Today, when we meet Jesus, he’s on the most familiar ground possible. He would have known every inch of his hometown of Nazareth. Yet, even there he finds dragons of contempt.

You know the saying: familiarity breeds contempt. The people of Nazareth are familiar with Jesus. They know him as the carpenter, Joseph and Mary’s boy, brother to many siblings.

They cannot conceive that someone they know so well is capable of speaking with such wisdom or acting with such power. They have a blueprint for what is possible when you come from Nazareth, and Jesus is throwing those plans out the window.

The people’s disbelief is like a thorn in Jesus’ flesh; their rejection seems to weaken him. And so he decides to go out to terra incognita, to new places to proclaim the Gospel.

In a moment of apparent weakness, Jesus—think of FDR at Warm Springs—reaches out for assistance. He sends the twelve apostles out to join him in his ministry of teaching and healing. Notice how the vulnerability of the disciples becomes their strength.

Jesus tells them to take nothing for their journey except a staff. “Leave food behind,” Jesus instructs. “Don’t worry about extra clothes or any money. Your strength will be in the grace that you receive from perfect strangers.”

Yes, there will be some dragons out there, but shake the dust off your feet as you leave their lairs. Your vulnerability, your imperfection, your weakness will be a way that you can connect with others in relationships of true mutuality.

It’s in that exchange, the giving and receiving of grace and love, that you will discover true power.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

These are good words to take to heart in our own time and place because we’re standing on unfamiliar ground. We’re contending with many dragons as a country and as individuals. It’s like all of our blueprints have been thrown out of the window.

I’m wondering if this is a time for jazz, for improvisation, for having the courage and the faith to explore new lands with hope in our hearts.

Explorer and jazz musician, John Coltrane. Check out his recent release: Both Directions at Once

From every strange land where we find ourselves, the old hymn reminds us, God’s grace—God’s sufficient grace, God’s amazing grace—will lead us home.

Listen to sermon audio.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, Florida on July 7, 2018.





God’s Enough

Let’s go together to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As you drive into town, you can still see flocks of sheep on the hills, shepherds walking by their side. But you also see an imposing security wall that vivisects the landscape, dividing Palestinian territories from Israel.

church nativity
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Millions of pilgrims from around the world come to visit the site where Mary gave birth to God’s son and placed him in a manger, and they all must enter the church through the strangest doorway you’ve ever seen.

door humility
The Doorway of Humility

You’d think a site like this would have well-planned and easily-accessible entrance area with a lobby, restrooms, and gift shop, but instead you are met with the most awkward entrance imaginable. It’s known simply as the “Door of Humility.”

As you approach the entrance, you are struck by the height of the building. Stone blocks bleached white by the sun reach towards the heavens, lending the church the appearance of a castle.

Off-center, over to your left, you spot the Doorway of Humility, which is so low that adults must bend over when they’re going through so that they don’t bang their heads. Someone my height must bend over double to make it through unscathed—it would be more comfortable to go though on your knees, hence the name.

Back in the Middle Ages, when the doorway was built, it wasn’t designed to make a theological statement. It was made that size during the Crusades so that soldiers on horseback couldn’t invade the space. In that era, the building truly was a fortress.

But now, the doorway remains for theological reasons. The point is this: if our God can be so humble as to be born to an ordinary family in an ordinary town in an ordinary time, then the least we can do when approaching that ordinary ground made holy by the birth of our Savior is to approach with awe and humility.

The doorway, like God’s kingdom, isn’t conventionally beautiful. It’s asymmetric lines aren’t anyone’s idea of architectural perfection. In fact, the Church of the Nativity hardly impresses until you go through that low doorway into the nave.

There, you are struck by dazzling gold lamps and fixtures, vibrant paintings and icons, stone floors worn smooth from the tread of pilgrim’s feet, and the scent of incense. When you go in, every one of your senses is engaged.

church interior nativity
Interior of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

On the outside: a cold austerity, an imposing façade, an awkward doorway. But on the inside, a warmth, a beauty, a fullness that takes your breath away.

This is how God’s kingdom tends to work: through awkwardness, asymmetry, and the appearance of scarcity. But the message that we can hear in our readings is that God’s enough is always greater than our scarcity.

Let’s stay in Bethlehem, where we meet the prophet Samuel, who is now an old man who’s heard and seen it all. He’s heard the people of Israel calling out for a king during the time of the judges—you remember Deborah, Gideon, Samson and others. The judges were more like tribal leaders. The refrain that we hear over and over in the time of the judges is that God’s people are “doing what is right in their own eyes.”

In Tallahassee, God’s people follow one set of rules, but there are completely different rules in Tampa and Orlando. This leads to confusion, division and warfare, and so God’s people call out for a unifying authority, a monarch that calls all the shots. One law; one court; one army to defend the people from their enemies.

Samuel hears the people call out for a king, just like they cry out for relief in Egypt as slaves or when they wander in the wilderness. But God, speaking now through the prophet, Samuel, warns the people.

Samuel reminds the people that kings take. That’s the key verb: they take from the people’s abundance and often leave them in a place of scarcity. Kings tax the people, conscript sons into armies, and compel daughters to work. Kings take, take, take from their people, Samuel declares, depriving them of life and liberty.

They ignore him and cry out: “We still want a king.” Very well, he responds. He goes out and anoints Saul the first king over Israel. Remember what made Saul fit for the office of king: he was tall and handsome. Not his wisdom, experience or depth of character: he stands heads and shoulders over all the other people of Israel.

We might consider this kind of foolish, but we do the same thing today: we say that a certain candidate does or does not look “presidential.”

Saul looked like a king, and Samuel anoints him. But Saul, like all the kings of Israel, turns out to be a mess. He’s makes several poor decisions that result in suffering for his people. But Saul is also undeniably charismatic—at times, he’s filled with the Spirit of God and capable of sound leadership.

But it’s time now for a new king, a leader after God’s own heart, someone who will truly follow God’s lead. That brings us to today’s reading. Samuel is on mission: God instructs the prophet to travel to Bethlehem and go to Jesse’s home. One of Jesse’s sons is to become the next king of Israel.

When the prophet gets to town, the people are trembling because they fear that he might be there to issue a judgment against them. Visits from prophets were rarely happy occasions. But Samuel assures them that he has come in peace.

He finds Jesse’s home and asks to see his sons. The oldest, Eliab, is brought before Samuel. He looks very kingly, very presidential, and so Samuel concludes: “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands before me.”

God replies with words that get to the heart of the whole reading: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”

Son after son is brought before Samuel, but none of them are destined to serve as king. Samuel then asks: “Are there any others?” Almost as an afterthought, Jesse replies: “I have one more son, the youngest. He’s keeping the sheep.”

And it’s in this moment that we witness the way that God works in our world: the asymmetric line, the humble doorway into unexpected beauty and strength: David coming in from the fields, smelling of sheep, himself the runt of the litter. He may have beautiful eyes and good looks, but he’s still the smallest and least impressive of the lot.

In that, David has a lot in common with a mustard seed. When it’s sown in the ground, Jesus, a descendant of David, tells us, it’s the smallest of seeds. Yet, when it grows up, it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Like David, Jesus is a Good Shepherd born in Bethlehem. As if to drive this point home, the angels first announce the Good News of Jesus’ birth to shepherds who run from the fields to visit the Christ-child.

Jesus is born in the city of David, Bet-lehem, or house of bread. Jesus, who calls himself the Bread of Life in John’s Gospel, also tells his friends in John: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Or as Paul says today in our reading: “He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

“From now on”—think of Samuel looking into the heart of David—“we regard no one from a human point of view . . . if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”

Through the waters of baptism, you and I are a part of that new creation, and we’re to regard no one now from a human point of view. From that human point of view, we can only see scarcity. A scarcity of love in the world, a lack of compassion, a deficiency of hope, a dearth of faith.

We examine our own lives and hearts and realize that on our own, we’re never enough. We can’t love enough, give enough, think enough, work enough . . . it always seems like no matter how hard we try, we fall short. We make mistakes. We fail to get it right.

But what if we viewed all those imperfections as if they were like doorways of humility through which God is able to enter into our lives? What if our faults and frailties are asymetric lines that make it possible for us to be transformed by God’s mercy?

We may look on the outward appearance of people and things, but God looks at our hearts, which are filled to overflowing with God-given faith, hope and love.

God’s enough is always greater than our scarcity, so in the coming week, regard no one from a human point of view. If we are in Christ, we are a new creation. Everything and everyone has become new!

Listen to sermon audio here.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, FL, on June 17, 2018.



The Life of Phi

You’ve heard of the number pi—how about the number phi? Last year this time my father and I were in Rome touring the Vatican. We went with the crowds to go and see the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

But our guide also brought us to a lesser-known masterpiece, a spiral staircase designed by Donato Bramante in the early 16th century using the Divine Proportion, also know as the Golden Ratio, or in mathematics, the number phi.

The Bramante Staircase in the Vatican

This English major isn’t going to try to do the math for you. Euclid, the father of geometry, already took care of that. Imagine a line divided into two sections: a and b. The Divine Proportion is a + b is to a as a is to b. Is that clear?

You don’t have to puzzle it out. Picture a spiral staircase or the swirling pattern of a mollusk shell. The petals on a rose. The Milky Way galaxy. All of them are fashioned according to the number phi, or 1.61. There is a sacred geometry in God’s creation. The world that God created isn’t just good, it’s very good, a masterpiece that takes our breath away.

The Divine Proportion Evident in a Mollusk Shell

Remember a moment this week when your breath was taken away by the beauty of this world. Now, imagine the wonder and love that God experienced in creating you. This is something that we lose sight of every day. You take God’s breath away because you’re one of God’s masterpieces.

The psalmist reminds us of our sacred geometry: “Lord . . . you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.”

This is the message we hear today in our Scripture: you are a masterpiece, marvelously made in divine proportion as you were knit together just like Samuel was knit together in his mother’s womb.

When we meet the prophet this morning, he’s ministering to the Lord under Eli, the priest. You might be wondering why Samuel, a boy, is living and serving in the temple in the first place.

Recall Samuel’s mother, Hannah. She wanted a child more than anything, but she couldn’t conceive. She prayed incessantly to God. She was so filled with the Spirit of God as she prayed in the temple that Eli thought she was drunk.

Go back a couple of weeks ago to the Day of Pentecost: the apostles are so filled with the Holy Spirit  that those witnessing the scene make the mistake of thinking that the apostles have been drinking. “No,” Peter explains, “They are filled with the Spirit of God.”

Filled to overflowing with the Spirit in a time when God’s Word and Spirit were precious—it wouldn’t be wrong to compare our own time to that of Hannah and Samuel—Hannah prays deeply and tells God, “If you give me a child, I will dedicate the child to serving you.”

God knits Samuel together in his mother’s womb and beholds his limbs, all of them written in God’s book. And after the child is weaned, Hannah makes good on her vow. She brings Samuel to the temple, where he becomes Eli’s assistant.

The temple, the place of God’s presence among the people, becomes like an artist’s studio. God stretches out the canvas on a frame and begins to paint a masterpiece through speech.

It’s just like how God creates the world in the first place. God speaks the world into existence. God says: let there be light. God says: let there be form and meaning and purpose to life. Life isn’t just good, it’s very good.

God speaks to Samuel. He calls out to the boy, who would become the prophet who would anoint David king over Israel. It’s God’s call that gives divine proportion and direction to Samuel’s life.

We move now to a different temple and artist’s studio. Jesus is in a synagogue with his disciples, a group of religious authorities and a man with a withered hand. It’s the Sabbath day, a day when God’s people are to rest.

But Jesus the artist is called to create. He asks the man with the withered hand to come forward. He calls out to him just like God calls out to Samuel. Step out from the crowd, he tells him. You are marvelously made. God beholds your limbs. All of them are written in God’s book.

And then he asks the religious authorities, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or kill?” Jesus gets angry at them for remaining silent.

Here’s why he’s so upset: the authorities can only see the frame, not the painting. The law is there to give boundaries, to frame the scene, but it should never be mistaken for the masterpiece itself, which is a human being filled with the healing light and love of God. Or to paraphrase St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Jesus, in healing the man with the withered hand, is restoring a masterpiece. The man’s disability is difficult enough. Imagine what it must have been like for him to sit there in the temple, pitied by others. In this man, Jesus doesn’t see a pitiful reproduction—he spots a masterpiece fashioned by God, a child of the light marvelously made in God’s image.

Now, all of this sounds very beautiful, but life isn’t always very poetic, is it? So, how do we discern the divine proportion in our daily, prosaic lives? How can we hear and respond to God’s call? How do we even know that it’s God calling out to us in the first place?

Howard Thurman can help us here. (Thank you to Valerie Bridgman for this insight.)

He’s a theologian who thought long and hard about questions like these. A spiritual father to Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurman is the key teacher who introduced King to the power of non-violence and how all social action must be grounded in prayer and a deep relationship with God.

Dr. Howard Thurman

Thirty years King’s senior, Thurman was the Dean of the Chapel at Boston University, where King once studied.

When King was wounded during an earlier assassination attempt, it was Thurman who visited him in the hospital and encouraged King to use the time of his recuperation as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Thurman was like Eli, the older priest. At this point in his life, King was like Samuel, saying “Here I am” to every voice calling in the night.

King was being pressured from so many directions during the Civil Rights movement and responding “Here I am” to so many different voices that Thurman worried that King was at risk of becoming a reproduction of other people rather than an original masterpiece.

Thurman taught King and many other students that “there is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself.

It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

The first three times that God calls out to Samuel, he responds, “Here I am.” But after Eli’s counsel, the boy replies: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

As King rested in his hospital bed for two weeks, he listened for the genuine in himself: the authentic prophet of non-violence.

Samuel becomes the prophet Samuel when he slows down and listens to God rather than reacting through a flurry of activity. This holds true for us as well.

In the coming week, slow down and listen for sound of the genuine in yourself. Have the courage to be still and listen silently for the voice of God.

By listening, you will discover the genuine in yourself, that sacred geometry, and become a masterpiece painted by the hand of God.

Listen to sermon audio here.

A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee on June 3, 2018.