Don’t Forget to Show Love

I’d like to begin today with a prayer that comes to us from Pope John Paul II, who offered these words up to God on the night before Pentecost in 1979. He has returned to his homeland in Poland, and a million people have gathered to worship in Victory Square in Warsaw. Many historians point to this occasion as the moment when the Iron Curtain began to come down:

Let your Spirit descend. Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of earth, the face of this land. Amen.

pope in waraw
Pope John Paul II in Warsaw in 1979 on the Eve of Pentecost

Have you noticed lately that the top-grossing movies all involve superheroes? We never tire of valiant men and women, all with special powers and abilities, who courageously fight against villains who seek to destroy us and the world. I don’t think it’s any accident that we’re attracted to stories about superheroes in a time when our real-life leaders, those whom we expect to protect and guide us, are failing us left and right.

It’s hard to think of a sector of society—politics, business, education, science, communications and technology, religion, the arts—that hasn’t been marred by misconduct, dishonesty, selfishness and fear.

It makes sense that we would turn to entertainment like movies to look for heroes who won’t let us down. But what if that wasn’t necessary? What if, on this Day of Pentecost, we look for examples of ordinary people like you and me who are capable of extraordinary things through the power of the Holy Spirit?

We may not be able to fly or be invincible, but we can open ourselves to God’s power. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians: “Glory to God, working in us, who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” That “infinite more” is the work of the Holy Spirit, who works in unlikely places through ordinary people.

I’m thinking this morning of Austin Perine, a four-year-old who lives in Birmingham. One day, he and his dad were watching a nature show on TV about pandas.

The mother panda on the show abandoned her baby, which caused little Austin to ask his father: “What’s going to happen to the baby?” Mr. Perine replied: “He will be homeless.” Austin thought a while and then replied: “Are there any people who are homeless?” His father explained to him that some people are homeless, even in their city. The little boy pondered that a while and then declared: “I want to use my allowance to help the homeless. I don’t want any more toys. Let’s go and buy them some food and bring it to them.”

austin perine
Austin Perine, superhero

And so that’s what Austin and his father do once a week. They go to a local restaurant, buy a bag full of sandwiches, and hand-deliver them to homeless men and women on the streets of Birmingham. Here’s the best part: like a superhero, Austin wears a red cape when he goes out on his missions. He says the same thing to each person as he shares the food: “Don’t forget to show love.” Watch Austin’s story here.

I could write an 80,000-word dissertation on pneumatology, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I could describe for you the perichoretic indwelling of the Spirit with the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity. I could trace for you the movement of the Holy Spirit through 2,000 years of Christian history.

Or I could just point you to 4-year-old Austin Perine in Birmingham, Alabama. If you want to understand and open yourself to the Holy Spirit, look no further than this little boy and his mission to feed the hungry. A child came to terms with a world in which pandas and human beings abandon and hurt each other. He felt a tug to respond with compassion, to do something that involved letting go of his personal comfort and security. Then, he acted, enlisting others to join him.

Don’t forget to show love. Good words for us to hold unto this Pentecost Sunday.

The Holy Spirit is all about remembering to show love to God and each other. “Come down, O Love Divine,” goes the old hymn. “Seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardor glowing.”

Come down, O love divine, because we live in a country in which a 17-year-old boy wearing a “Born to Kill” t-shirt takes the lives of 10 of his fellow students. Come down, O Love Divine, because so many people in our world are seeking to heal after experiencing violence, abuse and oppression.

Come Down, O Love Divine and remind us to show love just like you do at the creation of the world, when the morning stars sing together and all the heavenly beings shout for joy.

At the creation, you brood over the chaotic waters like a dove. A mighty wind sweeps across the face of the waters, and you animate the world with meaning and purpose. Later, when your people are in bondage in Egypt, you blow against the Red Sea waters so that God’s people go through on dry land. You remember to show love and liberate your people from slavery.

When God’s people are exiled to a strange land, you speak through the prophet Ezekiel who imagines a desert landscape littered with human bones bleached by an unblinking sun.

God’s people are confused, divided, angry. They take care of their own and abandon the poor and vulnerable. They don’t know whom they can count on to tell them the truth. Their minds narrow, their hearts grow cold, their souls dry up and they stagger and fall to the dust.

And then, just when all seems lost, you sweep across their dry bones and “suddenly there is a noise, a rattling, and the bones come together, bone to its bone. There are sinews on them, and flesh has come upon them, and skin has covered them . . . you breathe life into them, and they come alive, and stand up on their feet, a vast multitude.”

In the New Testament, at the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to the Savior of the world, and Mary, like little Austin in Birmingham, takes some time to ponder the news that Gabriel shares. She wonders: “How can these things be?”

Gabriel tells her that you will overshadow her just like you brooded over the waters at the creation of the world, that you will give Mary, an ordinary person, the ability to do something “infinitely more than she could ask or imagine.” You call her to bear God’s own Son for “nothing is too wonderful for God.”

You remember to show love for Mary and for her son, Jesus, at his baptism. He wades into the waters of the Jordan River with his cousin, John, who baptizes him.

When Jesus comes up from the water, you descend on him like a dove, and the Father’s first words from heaven are about love: “You are my beloved Son, and with you, I am well pleased.” Don’t forget to show love.

On the Day of Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples are all gathered together in one place. After his ascension to heaven, they are grieving his loss yet again and wondering what’s next. Their bones are getting dryer by the minute.

And then you rush over them like the waters of creation, the Red Sea and the Jordan River. You move at gale force to topple the Tower of Babel built on the shaky foundation of our hubris. You undo the estrangement that divides us one from another and call us together in unity.

Suddenly, everyone understands each other speaking of God’s deeds of power. You inspire Peter to recall the inspired words of the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh . . . everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Love Divine has come down, and there are no superheroes to be found, just ordinary people like you and me: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”

All of God’s children see visions, dream dreams, speak of God’s deeds of power and remember to show love.

I’m going to guess that when our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, graduated from seminary, he never thought that he might one day preach at an English royal wedding in front of millions of people. Remember what I said before about the Holy Spirit moving in unlikely places through ordinary people.

Unlikely, because let’s face it, the English royalty aren’t exactly known for spontaneity and Pentecostal fire. You can count on them for tradition, and the setting for Saturday’s wedding in Windsor couldn’t have been more traditional: a grey Gothic chapel. Soaring stained glass windows, burnished wood choir stalls decorated with ancient symbols, horse-drawn carriages. Not exactly the type of place where we anticipate the rush of the Holy Ghost.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaching at the Royal Wedding

And then there is Bishop Curry, who would be the first to tell you that he’s no superhero. He’s just an ordinary man who has opened himself to the extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the Spirit, I believe Bishop Curry was invited to give the sermon in the first place. He was invited because he’s a gifted preacher who also happens to be the first African-American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Meghan Markle is biracial. Her mother, who attended the wedding and sat across from the Queen, is a descendant of American slaves. It was lost on no one that this wedding was a historic moment for England and the United States, two countries that profited enormously from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

In Bishop Curry’s sermon, he spoke of the experience of American slaves who sang of a balm in Gilead, of the love of God that can heal the deepest wounds. His sermon moved many people because it was true.

In a world torn apart by division, hatred and lies, Bishop Curry shared the truth of the Good News that God pours out God’s Spirit upon all flesh and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Or in Bishops Curry’s own words: “When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.

When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down, down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of God’s children.” Transcript of Bishop Curry’s sermon.

Come down, O Love Divine on us all. Comfort the mourning. Shield the joyous. We have so much to celebrate right now at St. John’s: during the 9 a.m. service, we will thank God for our high school graduates. During the 11:15 a.m. service, we will baptize new members of Christ’s Body. On this joyful day, we pray to the Holy Spirit to take our ordinary minds, hearts and souls and do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine.

My brothers and sisters: on this Day of Pentecost, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and remember to show love to every child of God.

Listen to audio of sermon.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on May 20, 2018.


Sing to the Lord a New Song

When I was a child, my great-grandmother—we called her Nana—taught me to play the song “Stardust.” Nana grew up near Manchester, England. As a child, she showed natural musical talent. She could hear a melody and begin to play it on the piano instantly. She grew up and married a soccer player who played in the semi-pro leagues. After he died suddenly, she married my great-grandfather, and they emigrated to the Unites States.

On one of the last visits to our home before her death, she asked to see me in our living room, where we had a piano. She told me to go and get my saxophone.

She never said hello—she always said, “Hiya.” When I went into a store in England a few years ago and the young woman at the cash register greeted me with a “Hiya,” I stopped in my tracks and thought of Nana—it’s was like she was right there with me.

“Hiya, David,” she said that day. “I’m going to teach you a new song.”

Then she began to sing this song, composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish in 1927: “And now the purple dusk of twilight time steals across the meadows of my heart / High up in the sky the little stars climb / Always reminding me that we’re apart / You wander down the lane and far away / Leaving me a song that will not die / Love is now the stardust of yesterday / The music of the years gone by . . .” Listen to NPR story about origins of Stardust

Hoagy Carmichael

Then, she played the melody on the piano over and over and said, “OK, now your turn.” My first efforts were pitiful. I wasn’t even close and got more and more frustrated each time I attempted to play the tune.

I told her that I needed for her to write down the notes for me, that I couldn’t play unless I had the music in front of me. But she replied, “I never learned how to do that. Play by ear. Listen again.” And again. By the end of our lesson, I had sort of learned how to play “Stardust.” It wasn’t great, but we had made music together. And that melody, that new song that’s really an old, old song is still in my heart.

Did you hear the psalmist singing today? These are her first words: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Sing to the Lord a new song—that’s the message that we can hear today during this time of worship. Jesus is calling out to you and me to learn a new love song by ear and share that song with others.

The Good News of which we are stewards is just like a song that we’re invited to sing for others until they can play the melody on their own. And this is a time when we as people of faith can help others learn a new song about a God who can do marvelous things in our world.

Many people are giving into cynicism or despair about the state of the world. They’re saying: “What can I do, just one person? What can my church do? Is there anything that we could do together to make a real difference for good?”

We look out there and see poverty and an increasing divide between the poor and the wealthy. A resurgence in hate crimes worldwide. Environmental degradation. Widespread addiction and disease. A coarse culture in which people routinely tear each other apart. Political inertia and divisiveness. Loneliness fraying our social fabric.

We need to pay careful attention to the music we’re listening to right now. Are the musicians offering up the same old songs of cynicism, rage or despair or are they open to learning a new song, a song that speaks of love, healing and hope?

That’s why we’re here today. We’re trying to learn a new song by ear. A song about the beginnings of a diverse and inclusive community in the early church made up of ordinary people like us who sing of a God who can do marvelous things in the world.

In our reading from Acts, we’ve entered the story near the end. We need some background. Recall this morning that Jesus is a Jewish rabbi. All of his disciples are Jewish. The Christian faith is rooted in Judaism, which is why we’re so passionate about Jewish Christian dialogue and friendship here at St. John’s. We neglect our roots at our own peril.

So, the early church is exclusively Jewish. But then the Holy Spirit begins to move. Do you remember the story of the Ethiopian eunuch last week? Philip interprets the Scriptures for this Gentile man and baptizes him into the church.

He teaches him a new song, a song that the eunuch would take back to his people. The church is still going strong in Ethiopia—that song of the Gospel is learned anew each generation.

But now we’re back in Palestine. Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, a faithful Jew who keeps kosher, has a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven. Projected unto that sheet are images of animals, many of which Peter wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed to eat as a faithful Jew. But he hears a new song that it’s now permissible for him to eat those animals.

We then meet a Roman military officer by the name of Cornelius. He has a vision to send for a stranger named Peter who will share something important with him. Cornelius is known to all as a good man who cares for his family and troops, as well as the poor and those in need.

Cornelius sends for Peter, who visits his home, and we wonder if this is the first time that Peter has ever stepped foot into a Gentile home. Peter begins to share the Gospel with Cornelius and his household, who listen intently to Peter’s song. They’re all learning by ear.

And Peter is learning a new song, too. He exclaims: “Oh . . . now I get it. 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—he is Lord of all.”

Lord of all. Not Lord of either/or. Not Lord of a chosen few. Not Lord of a particular tribe, nation or political party. Lord of all, equally available to everyone who seeks to learn God’s love song.

As Peter shares the message, the Holy Spirit falls on everyone in the room, and he orders Cornelius and his whole household to be baptized in Jesus’ name. The Holy Spirit moves, and the church is filled with a new Spirit of inclusion and welcome. God’s people, Jews and Gentiles, are invited to sing a new song together as one.

Jesus is singing a new song in our Gospel reading today. He’s in the upper room with his disciples and saying farewell to them during the Last Supper. Jesus wants them to learn to play this love song by ear:

“As the Father as loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love . . . this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you . . . I am giving you these commands so that you will love one another.” Like a music teacher, Jesus repeats the melody and then shows them what true love looks like.

True love is the Lord of all who kneels down to wash his disciples’ feet and calls them friends. It’s the mother who just spent two hours shuttling her children to doctor’s appointments, sports and after school activities. It’s the retiree volunteering his time to mentor a high school student. It’s the vestry member praying with someone in the hospital or the deacon who ministers with prisoners.

“You did not choose me. I chose you.” Come, sit down next to me on the piano bench. Be still. Abide. Pray without ceasing. Listen to the tune, and in time, you’ll know it by heart.

If we listen carefully, we can hear God’s new song everywhere, we can witness God doing tremendous things every day.

Here’s one that comes to us from Harlem in New York City. Vy Higginsen is sharing God’s love song with others. A former radio DJ, Ms. Higginsen’s mission is to now preserve African-American music and culture by encouraging men and women who are in what she calls the “second half of life” to sing on stage for the first time.

Vy Higginsen

The show is called “Alive and Kickin’.” The cast is made up of talented people, age 55 and older, who for whatever reason never made it to the big time. On stage, they sing and share their story. Read full 60 Minutes Story

We meet Renee Walker, who took what she thought would be a temporary job with the local school district. She thought the job would support her until she got her break. But as she puts it, “I’ve been there 31 temporary years.”

Or Matthew Burke, who spent many years in prison for robbery. During the show, he shares that his parents abandoned him in a hallway when he was two weeks old. The state assigned him a number as an infant: he was known as “Abandoned #2360.” A priest in an orphanage named him Matthew.

As an adult in prison, he became #00A6432. “That’s been my life, a number,” he explains. But when he sings the song “Georgia” on stage, Mr. Burke is not a number. He’s a child of God.

He admits that he thinks of the mother he never knew when he sings these words: “Other arms reach out to me. / Other eyes smile tenderly / Still in peaceful dreams I see / The road leads back to you.”

All of the performers will tell you that the show has been like a miracle for them. They have come alive in a way that they didn’t think was possible by learning and singing these new songs.

Ms. Higginsen has brought the 55+ singers together with teenagers so that the young people can learn to sing Gospel music. One generation is helping the next learn a new song that is actually an old, old song that we can learn by ear.

Peter sang the song of the Gospel to Cornelius and his household. Jesus sings it to his disciples whom he calls friends. You and I are Jesus’ friends. Think about that for a moment. We didn’t choose him—he chose us to learn the song, play it by ear, and share it with others.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” We’re bearers of a love song that will never die.

Listen to audio of sermon.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee on May 6, 2018.



The Longest Table

When he got up to speak at the lectern in the hotel conference room in Memphis, he was introduced as the “leading light” of the movement. At the time, he was 19-years-old, a student at a community college in Florida. Although he was the youngest person in the room, he was already the host of his own radio show. He had created a website to introduce children to the movement.

The movement was everything to him. From childhood, his father taught him what he needed to know. There was clarity. The world was a place of absolutes. Black and white. Right and wrong. Pure and impure. True and False. Us and Them.

Derek Black brought the movement some youthful energy. But he was also cagey: he understood, unlike his father, that there were certain words you could say in public, and some that you couldn’t. Better to speak in code, to send messages under the radar, to work through conventional channels.

As be stepped up to the lectern, this was his message: “The way ahead is through politics. We can infiltrate. We can take our country back.”

Derek Black was one of the leading lights of the white nationalist movement. He’s the son of Don Black, the creator of of a white supremacist website with over 300,000 subscribers.

His godfather—it pains me to say that title in connection with this name—is none other than David Duke.

As white nationalists go, Derek had impeccable credentials. This “leading light” had nowhere to go but up as a leader of the movement to take back the country.

But then he went off to college. At first, no one knew about his past. It was like Derek was leading two lives: the white nationalist Derek keeping in touch with the movement through technology. And then there was college student Derek, studying medieval history, going to parties, eating pizza at 3 a.m. with his friends.

Eventually, his classmates found out about his past. They couldn’t believe that one of the “leading lights” of the white nationalist movement was a student at their school, someone that they actually liked hanging out with.

When they found out, he was done. His friends treated him like a leper. But there was one student who responded in a different way. Matthew Stevenson sent Derek a text: “What are doing Friday night?”

derek black matthew stevenson
Matthew Stevenson, second from left and Derek Black, far right.

Matthew is an orthodox Jew. When he invited Derek to Shabbat dinner on Friday night, his friends thought he was crazy. Exasperated, they cried out, “Why would you invite a white supremacist, someone who has publicly made anti-Semitic remarks, into your home?”

Derek accepted the invitation and brought a bottle of wine like a good guest. He made polite conversation with the other guests, none of whom brought up the controversy out of respect for Matthew. Mostly, as Matthew remembers it, Derek just listened.

After that first Shabbat observance, Derek was invited back, and he came back, week after week. He seemed interested in the prayers offered over the bread and wine. He clearly enjoyed the company and conversation.

In time, as trust grew between the group, members asked pointed questions of Derek about his past. They listened to his answers, gave him space to share. The conversations often got heated, but everyone stayed around the table.

Then a surprising thing happened: in time, after many Shabbat meals, Derek’s perspective began to change. He started to openly question what he had been taught as a child by his parents and the adults around him.

Tentatively, he wrote social media posts that seemed to suggest that he was changing his mind. And then he finally came out with an unequivocal public statement denouncing the white nationalist movement and his past involvement in it.

Education was and is a big part of Derek’s transformation; but for me, the turning point was the invitation from Matthew Stevenson to break bread on a Friday night, to take part in the prayers welcoming the Sabbath. The breaking of bread broke down fear and dividing walls, and it all started with an invitation: “What are you doing Friday night?” Read Washington Post article.

I wonder how many times Jesus was asked the same question: “Jesus, what are doing Friday night? Can you come over to our home and welcome the Sabbath with us? Will you take part as we bless the bread and wine, sing hymns and pray together? Will you enjoy the food and conversation and listen thoughtfully as we share about our week?”

Jesus spent more time eating with the people around him than anything else. Yes, he taught and preached. He healed people and cast out demons. He went off by himself to pray.

But he spent most of his time eating with people, and I mean everyone: family, friends, disciples, tax collectors, sinners, religious authorities, seekers struggling to have faith, rich and poor alike.

He gathered in the comfort of homes with people like Mary, Martha and Lazarus and fed thousands of strangers in open fields.

On the night before he died, Jesus met with his inner circle for a meal. He was distressed. He could tell that his disciples were fearful—they knew that something big was about to happen.

And so he took bread and blessed it, just like he and his people would have on many a Friday night. He took the cup and blessed it. And he told his friends: when you share in this meal together in the future, do so in remembrance of me.

As profound as this meal must have been, we have to imagine that the disciples quickly forgot about it as their world fell apart. The very next day, the one who fed them was nailed to a cross. He died like a common criminal in a dump on the edge of town.

The world won, God lost. Any questions? That what’s it felt like for Jesus’ disciples. Two of them, Cleopas and another disciple, leave Jerusalem filled with despair. It’s Easter Eve, but they don’t know that it’s Easter yet.

When a stranger meets them on the road to a village called Emmaus and asks them why they have such a long face, they reply: “What, do you live under a rock? Don’t you know what just happened in the city? Our teacher, Jesus: we thought he was the One, the Messiah who would save us. We had hoped he was the one, we had hoped . . .”

We’ve all been on that road paved with despair. We had hoped that God would hear our prayer. We had hoped that we would get that job, that our friend would get better, that this political leader or party would solve our problems, that we would live in a world of peace rather than violence. We had hoped . . .

The stranger stays by their side on the road and begins to explain the Scriptures. The disciples’ hearts begin to burn with faith as this stranger interprets God’s Word. As night begins to fall, they decide to go to an inn for supper and invite the stranger to join them.

As they sit down for dinner, they break bread, and suddenly the disciples recognize that Jesus is sitting with them. He’s been on the road with them the whole time. He is alive, risen from the dead!

Filled with joy and excitement, they run back to Jerusalem, uphill the whole way, risking life and limb on a dangerous road―thieves could be lurking in the shadows. They run back to Jerusalem to a locked safehouse where the 11 disciples huddle in fear, all of them terrified that they’ll meet the same fate as Jesus.

Which brings us to the beginning of the reading you just heard. Cleopas and the other disciple have just shared the good news that Jesus appeared to them as they broke bread and ate together.

As if on cue, Jesus then appears to everyone in that locked room. We wonder if it’s the very same room where Jesus met his friends for their Last Supper.

“Peace be with you,” he declares. I know that you’re fearful. I know that you’re confused. I know that this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, that this mystery is bigger than your minds can comprehend.

It’s me. I’m not a ghost that has come back with rattling chains of unfinished business. I don’t have any scores to settle. I’m not here to judge you for failing to have the courage to stand at the foot of the cross. I won’t hold it against you that you denied even knowing me.

Those wounds are real. You can see the scars right here on my body because the body always tells the truth. The body remembers the suffering and pain we’ve endured.

But the wounds are not why I’m here. I’ve been raised to forgive you. To show you compassion. To share with you the wholeness that can only come from God. Peace be with you.

And not only that: I’m hungry. Share with me a piece of fish. Feed me, and in this meal, recognize me. Remember me and know that I am with you on the road to Emmaus. On Thomasville Road.

On the road to lifegiving work, on the road to a deeper faith, on the road to reconciling with a loved one whom you’ve fought with for way too many years, on the road to giving joyfully rather than out of a sense of obligation, on the road to recovering from depression. I am with you always, especially when you break bread with others.

So, let me close by asking you this question: What are you doing next Sunday night? Matthew Stevenson wondered about Friday night, but I’m asking what you are up to next Sunday evening, April 22?

I’ll hope you’ll join Carol, the boys and me at the Longest Table. For the past few years, the people of Tallahassee have come together at one long, symbolic table in the heart of our city, to break bread and talk with people whom they may not have a chance to meet otherwise.

longest table

Organized by the city of Tallahassee and The Village Square, the Longest Table is an opportunity for us to come together to build relationships and break down community divisions.

Every meal is an opportunity to see Jesus, who knows that food is our great common denominator. We all hunger and thirst, whether you’re Derek Black or Matthew Stevenson.

We hunger and thirst on Friday night as the sun goes down and Shabbat begins, during the week at the Lively Café, and around this altar to recognize Jesus and be fed by his Body and Blood.

At this banquet table, Jesus is both our guest and our host. This meal gives us the courage to move from fear to faith and then to go out into the world in witness to our Risen Lord.

Listen to the audio of this sermon.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, Florida on April 15, 2018.


Go Forth and Set the World on Fire

“Good and gracious God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you.”

Happy Easter! It’s good to look out from this pulpit and see so many familiar faces. I also love looking out and seeing many visitors—we’re glad you’re here this morning and hope that you connect with God in a powerful way.

We have a saying here at St. John’s that we really mean: wherever you are your spiritual journey, you’re welcome here.

We’ve had some strange confluences between the sacred and secular calendars this year: Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. Easter falls on April Fool’s Day. I’m not exactly sure what to do with that other than to say perhaps we’re called, as St. Paul writes, to be “fools for Christ” this Easter.

We make a bold claim today that many in our world still find foolish: as Christians, we trust that God raised his only Son from the dead on the third day. We trust that we will one day share in Christ’s resurrection and live eternally with God and each other.

Notice I didn’t say believe. When we say “believe” nowadays we mean that we’re making a rational decision based on empirical evidence, that we’re offering intellectual assent to a concept or idea that makes sense. Which isn’t to say that we lack evidence for Christ’s resurrection.

We have eyewitness testimony recorded in Scripture. We notice that a rag-tag band of disciples, a group of ordinary men and women, changed the world through their witness and ministry.

Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene: the trio who have the courage to go to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. Paul, who reminds us today that he’s the least of the apostles.

Their hearts on fire with the Spirit of God, they lived as instruments of the Good News, as instruments of God’s light and love, as instruments of the peace that passes all understanding. You and I can be like them. Our hearts can be set on fire this Easter Day.

Resurrection has never been about ideas—it’s about a relationship with a Living God who won’t let us go. It offers us a vision of a God who will stop at nothing to defeat everything that destroys life.

When we have faith, when we trust that God loves us that much, it’s the wisest move we can make in this life.

I want us to begin this morning in the windy city of Chicago at Loyola University. If you’ve been following college basketball, you know that the story of the season is Loyola University, an 11th seed, making the Final Four.

Last night, Michigan put a stop to Loyola’s storybook run, but that doesn’t take away from what the team was able to accomplish.

The interesting thing is that much of the media attention hasn’t been on the Loyola players or their coach, Porter Moser. It’s been on Sister Jean Delores-Schmidt, the team’s 98-year-old chaplain. Sister Jean has served in that role since 1994.

sister jean
Sister Jean Delores-Schmidt

On Coach Moser’s first day on the job, he found a folder on his desk with a detailed scouting report drafted by none other than Sister Jean. She knows the sport of basketball and isn’t afraid to offer her opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of players.

But her primary role is spiritual support for the team. She prays before each game, always beginning with the same words: “Good and gracious God . . .”

After each game, she writes a message to the players. While most of her words apply to the whole team, she also takes the time to send individual messages to players.

Here’s what senior Donte Ingram has to say about her ministry: “There’s been days throughout my last four years when I had a bad game, a down game. We might have won. We might have lost. But at the end of the message, she always found a way to make me feel better.”

Loyola is a Jesuit University. The founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, is St. Ignatius of Loyola. If you were to stand outside the Loyola basketball arena, you would see St. Ignatius’s words emblazoned on the wall: “Go forth and set the world on fire.”

Meaning: be so filled with the light and love of the risen Christ, that you make a real difference in the world.

According to Coach Moser, Sister Jean is one of those people: “She lights up every room she goes into,” he explains. “She’s always smiling. She has an energy about herself. I connect with that.”

The message that I hear in our Scriptures today is that the risen Christ is calling you and me to go forth this Easter Day and set the world on fire.

On this joyful day, we’re so filled with the light and love of God that we can light up every room and have that same energy that Sister Jean has. When we have that energy, people connect with that.

Easter is a celebration of Christ’s victory over the powers of sin, death and everything that prevents us from fully becoming God’s children. It’s not a commemoration of an event that took place in the past.

It’s the recognition that Christ is alive, Christ is with us, Christ is as present to us as he was to his disciples.

A recognition like that changes everything. It sets our hearts on fire. It makes us want to go forth from here and make a difference in the world for good.

That’s exactly what the disciples begin to do today. The Gospels don’t agree on every little detail about Jesus’ resurrection, but they do all agree that Mary Magdalene, a female disciple of Jesus, is the first person to visit the empty tomb.

The church has in the past and still has a very mixed record regarding the status and role of women. For far too long, the church has often been a part of the problem rather than the solution to gender inequality.

But if we stay focused on how Jesus himself related to women, we witness the best way forward. He saw women like Mary Magdalene as disciples just like men, as partners in ministry, as friends.

It’s no surprise, then, that Mary and the other women have the courage to stand by the foot of the cross during Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s no surprise that Mary is the very first one there at dawn that first Easter morning.

When she discovers that the stone covering Jesus’ tomb has been rolled away, she runs to tell the other disciples like John and Peter, who then have a footrace to see who can get there first. John, the younger disciple, wins the race, but out of deference lets Peter go into the tomb first.

Yet, it’s John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, whose heart is first set on fire. He sees the empty tomb and immediately gets it. Peter and John return home, but Mary stays and grieves by the tomb.

When a man appears, she thinks he’s the cemetery gardener . . . it’s like her imagination can’t even begin to fathom the possibility of news this good . . . that Jesus is alive, not dead. And so she exclaims, “Sir, where have you put his body? Tell me, and I will come and get it.”

And then, as soon as he calls her by name, Mary gets it: it’s Jesus, her rabbi, the one who treated her as a partner in ministry, a friend, an apostle. That’s what Mary becomes in this moment: an apostle, which means “sent one.”

Mary is sent by Jesus to deliver the very first Easter sermon to the other disciples, a message of five words: “I have seen the Lord!”

Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, and Paul: when they meet the risen Christ for themselves, they go forth and set the world on fire. We know this because we wouldn’t be here if not for their courage to go forth and proclaim the Good News through word and deed.

I trust in Jesus’ resurrection for many reasons. One of them is that ordinary people like you and me met the Risen Christ and made a real difference in the world.

Ordinary people like St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was born into a wealthy and powerful family in Spain at the end of the 15th century. Like many young men, he had romantic notions of war. By taking up arms and fighting as a soldier, he thought he could win glory for himself and his people.

St. Ignatius of Loyola

During a battle in Pamplona, Ignatius was seriously wounded and spent months convalescing in Loyola. During that time of healing, God turned his world upside down.

Day by day, his heart was set on fire with love for God, and his desire for violence and human acclamation was replaced with peace and a hunger for God.

The Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius developed during this time and throughout his life have transformed countless lives, including the life of Sister Jean Delores-Schmidt, who reminds her players to “go forth and set the world on fire.”

And not only the basketball players. Sister Jean lives in a residence hall at Loyola, where she lights up many students’ lives.

She leads a prayer group and a program called S.M.I.L.E., which stands for Students Moving Into the Lives of Elderly, a ministry that brings college students and older adults together in meaningful ways.

And so whether you’re a college student or 98-years-of-age like Sister Jean, know this: it’s never too early or too late to trust in Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, to trust that we will live eternally with Christ and each other, to trust in a God who sets our hearts ablaze with love.

With Mary Magdalene, I can say: “I have seen the Lord!” I’ve seen the Risen Lord in God’s Word. I will see the Lord as we share in Christ’s Body and Blood around this altar. I see the Lord today in your faces filled with joy.

Alleluia. He is Risen! Go forth and set the world on fire.

Listen to audio of sermon, which begins at 4:00 min. of recording.

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

Will the Dust Praise You?

Two days after September 11, 2001, like many Americans, I wanted to do something other than just sit there on the couch and watch TV all day. I wanted to do something helpful, no matter how small.

I had just started seminary in New York City. The school sent out an email saying that volunteers were needed to clean up an Episcopal Church next to Ground Zero: St. Paul’s, the little chapel in which George Washington used to worship.

St. Paul’s would go on become a relief center for first responders who slept, ate, and prayed around-the-clock in the church for months after the attacks. It’s now a worldwide pilgrimage site.

When our group of volunteers arrived at St. Paul’s, we were met by a friend and mentor of mine, Fr. Lyndon Harris, the church’s priest. He embraced everyone and asked us to help him clean up the church kitchen. We needed to make sure it was ready to go when the power went back on. Lyndon had a feeling that St. Paul’s would be feeding the souls and stomachs of people immediately.

After we finished the kitchen, I had a moment to go out behind the church to the graveyard.

Half-way up the grave markers was a layer of dust and paper which had drifted down from the towers. Office memos, spreadsheets, work which had once seemed so important.

A rescue worker in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel, Manhattan, after September 11, 2001.

On the way back to the seminary, I couldn’t get the words of the thirtieth psalm of out my mind “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?”

“Will the dust praise you?” We’ve all asked God that question. In a hospital room. During a moment of fear or anxiety. After witnessing a scene of violence or suffering. At the graveside of someone it’s hard to imagine living without.

This question echoes throughout the Bible, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve, when God proclaims to Adam and us all, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

When you come forward to receive ashes today, you will hear those same words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

In the past, monks kept human skulls on their desks to remind them that life is short. Now, we have apps for our mobile devices.

St. Jerome translating the Bible

One is called “WeCroak.” I kid you not. On your device, you’ll receive heartwarming messages like this: “Don’t forget that you’re going to die.” Or: “The grave has no sunny corners.”

I don’t think we need skulls on our desks or apps on our phones: the words from Scripture that we remember this Ash Wednesday are enough: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Death, the Bible teaches us, is a radical equalizer. We witness this theme especially in the Wisdom books such as Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job.

In Ecclesiastes, death is accepted as a part of what it means to be human: “For everything there is a season,” the sage writes, “and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.”

But in the book of Job, we meet a man, as the poet says, who “rages against the dying of the light.” He isn’t at all happy about his fate and the way God is treating him. Job cries, “God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two. He seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces . . . I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin, and laid my strength in the dust. My face is red with weeping and deep darkness is on my eyelids, though there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure.”

You know what he’s saying: “God, this isn’t fair. I’ve said my prayers. I’ve helped others and done my part. Why are you doing this to me? Will the dust praise you?”

Cynical resignation or a raging against the dying of the light, “for everything there is a season” or “my face is red with weeping.” If you’re at all like me, you’ve dealt with the painful reality of death both ways.

But what if there’s a third way, an approach to death that takes the psalmist’s question seriously and seeks to answer it in faith?

If the question is, “will the dust praise you,” then our answer this day as we gather for worship and prayer is a humble “yes.”

We answer “yes” as we sing hymns, listen to Scripture, receive ashes on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and penitence, offer up our prayers, and gather around God’s table to be fed.

We answer “yes” as we study the Bible during these 40 days of Lent and seek to apply God’s Word to our lives.

We answer “yes” as we fast or take on spiritual disciplines. We answer “yes” when we care for the poor and vulnerable through the giving of our time or money.

Count it all as praise of God. “All we go down to the dust,” we pray in the Episcopal Burial service, “yet even at the grave we make our song.”

Through faith, Job was able to move from rage to praise. He affirms: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see and my eyes behold him, who is my friend and not a stranger.”

Through faith, the psalmist who asked God if “the dust will praise you,” answers her own question with these words that close the thirtieth psalm:

“Hear, O Lord and have mercy upon me; O Lord, be my helper. You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”

Through faith, you and I can join in this song. We can go from wailing to dancing, from sack-cloth and ashes to joy.

It all comes down to faith in God’s eternal promise to us that we’ll never be separated from God’s love. Nothing can separate us from God, not even death.

We can make this bold claim because we have placed our faith in Jesus, who faced the reality of death with obedience rather than cynical resignation or rage.

He was obedient—that is, he listened prayerfully to God’s call—until the end. Like any human being, he feared death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before he was crucified, he asked God to take away this cup. Surely, Jesus hoped, there must be some other way to reconcile God and God’s people.

Like all who face death, Jesus experienced fear and anguish. He cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten about me?”

Jesus cries out in words that he knew by heart from the twenty-second psalm, a song that ends with these words: “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever.”

Will the dust praise you? Yes, even the dust will praise you. We will praise God with Jesus because we’re known as the Lord’s forever.

As you receive the cross on your forehead today, may it be more than a reminder of your mortality and penitence. May it also be a moment when you remember that in baptism, you were marked as Christ’s own forever. No one, or nothing in this life can take away the dignity that we have in Christ.  And so even at the grave, even on a solemn day like this, we can sing.

We can sing along with the poet, Anya Silver, who lives up in Macon, Georgia, where she’s a member of St. Francis Episcopal Church. She’s also a mother who has faced life-threatening illness with courage.

anya silver
Anya Silver

In this poem, she recounts going to church on Ash Wednesday. As any parent will tell you, sometimes you’re so busy caring for your children and working that you don’t even have time to bathe.

The poem is entitled “Ash Wednesday, Unshowered.”

“My hair’s pulled back to disguise the grime, though maybe it’s well that I’m unclean, since from dust you came, to dust you will return, the priest recites, smearing my forehead. Once, twice, and I’m marked, a lintel in plague years. I’m invited to kneel and read the fifty-first Psalm, recalling how David watched Bathsheba bathe. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Merciful one, save me from slight repentance.”

This season of Lent before us is no time for slight repentance. Allow God to transform you over the 40 days and 40 nights of this season.

Like Silver, approach God just as you are right now, conscious of the grime of sin and death that covers us all.

In a moment, once, twice, and you will be marked by ash, a lintel in plague years, a sign that you have been marked as Christ’s own forever.

We are the Lord’s forever. We know that our Redeemer lives and that in our mortal and immortal bodies we will see God. Even at the grave, our strength laid in the dust, we make our song of praise to the Living God.

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

Listen for the Heartbeat of God

It’s so good to look out from here and see everyone together at one service. For those of you who may be attending our Annual Meeting Sunday for the first time, my sermon is kind of a hybrid: think of it as a State of the Church address filtered through the prism of God’s Word.

A few years ago, one of our members gifted with discernment made an incisive comment. Her words got to the heart of something that I had been thinking about for a while, but couldn’t quite get a handle on.

Here’s what she said: “Fr. Dave, St. John’s is a lot like a spiritual buffet. There are so many different service times and ministries and programs. No matter who you are, you can find something here that you will feed you.”

Over the past six years, as we’ve implemented our Visioning the Vineyard Strategic Plan, it’s amazing to think about the buffet of ministries and programs that have come to life:

Lenten Prayer Partners. S.A.L.T. (Senior Adults Living Triumphantly). Youth B.E.A.T. (Being Extraordinary Around Tallahasee), our summer community service camp. The Advent Luncheon. The Jewish Christian Teaching Series in partnership with Temple Israel. The choir tour and parish pilgrimage to England. Living Waters in Cuba. Student mentoring at Riley Elementary, Leon High and other schools.

Do Justice, a new social justice group. Growing in Grace, our adult confirmation and faith renewal class. Invite.Welcome.Connect, our evangelism and new member ministries. Men’s Grill and Chills. The construction of the Memorial Garden and Columbarium. The Master Plan for our Campus. Our For All the Saints capital campaign.

This is just a partial listing of the many dishes in the buffet. I think we can all agree that’s it’s a good thing to have options. We love that there is something for everyone and freedom to choose, but there’s always a shadow side to good things.

I don’t know about you, but after I eat at a buffet, I’m hungry again in about two hours. Buffets may dazzle us with options, but rarely do they deeply satisfy our hunger.

Think about Jesus and his friends at the Last Supper. There could have been cheese, olives, hummus or other Middle Eastern staples.

But Scripture tells us that Jesus was primarily focused on two signature items: bread and wine. He took the bread and blessed it. He held the cup of wine and blessed it. Then, he shared that meal with his friends, his own Body and Blood, a meal that deeply satisfied his disciples just like it feeds us today.

I’m thinking of my friends, John and Margie, from a prior parish. John and Margie helped Carol and me lead a marriage enrichment course. During one of the talks that they gave, they shared about the best meal that they have ever enjoyed together as a couple.

It was in Paris, of course. For the first few days they were there, John and Margie wined and dined at the best restaurants in Paris, the ones with Michelin stars and famous chefs. They loved the variety of food. It surpassed even their highest expectations.

But by day four, after all that rich food, they were ready for a change of pace, something simpler. And so for dinner one night, rather than going to a restaurant, they found a bakery and bought a right-out-of-the-oven baguette. They purchased an inexpensive bottle of wine.

They spread out a blanket in a park, sat down and broke the bread. They uncorked the wine and shared it. They asked for Jesus’ blessing over the meal and their journey. To this very day, they say that that picnic in the park is the very best meal that they’ve ever had together as a couple.

Bread. Wine. Jesus. Each other. What else could they need to be deeply fed by God?

Which brings us back to the Last Supper. There is a wonderful tradition in the church concerning the disciple John at the Last Supper, the same John after whom this church is named. He is our patron saint. John’s way of following Jesus is part of our spiritual DNA.

John, along with his brother, James, is one of the sons of Zebedee who drop their nets and follow Jesus. He’s mentioned in our Gospel today as one who witnesses Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law.

John, also known as the Beloved Disciple, is the one who sits next to Jesus at the Last Supper. Here is the writer John Philip Newell reflecting on this tradition:

“One of the most precious teachings in the Celtic Christian world is the memory of John the Beloved leaning against Jesus at the Last Supper. It was said of him that he therefore heard the heartbeat of God.”

John Philip Newell

This next sentence is key for our church now and in the coming years: “He became a symbol of the practice of listening—listening deep within ourselves, listening deep within one another, listening deep within the body of the earth for the beat of the Holy.

Do we know, each one us, that we are bearers of the sacred beat of life? Do we know that we can honor that beat in one another and in all things? And do we know that it is this combination—of knowing that we are bearers of Presence and of choosing to honor the Presence in one another—that holds the key to transformation in our lives and the world?”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, what would it be like for us to listen deeply for the heartbeat of Jesus? Rather than adding more dishes to the buffet, what it be like for us to hone in on some signature dishes that will deeply satisfy our souls? What would it be like for us in the coming years to go deeper and connect more profoundly with God and one another?

These are the questions that our Fruits of the Vineyard strategic planning team asked as they set out on the journey of leading our parish on a year-long journey of discernment. The team, chaired by Sarah Ball Miller and Nancy Mattimore, is made up of about 20 parish members of all ages, including two senior high youth and two college students.

In the fall, the team focused on research, during which the entire parish was invited to fill out a survey and offer their insights, dreams and concerns. Everyone was also invited to take part in our parish-wide Visioning Day on January 6. With our grassroots, Holy-Spirit led approach, every voice counts.

More than 100 people came together on Visioning Day to discern God’s dream for our future. I shouldn’t be amazed by this, but I’m always struck by the creativity of our congregation. Your enthusiasm and joy are contagious!

The other amazing thing is that we immediately began to hear common visions, goals and practical ways forward. The strategic planning team is still working on getting these visions and goals in final form, but I can share three general ways that our church will seek to listen deeply for the heartbeat of Jesus in the future.

The first is that we desire to grow into an even more vibrant congregation that connects Tallahassee’s diverse population with God and one another. Another way to say this is that we want to sing with strangers.

I borrow this phrase from Brené Brown, a bestselling author and social researcher who’s a member of the Episcopal Cathedral in Houston. Recently, she preached at Washington National Cathedral (Video of sermon here) and shared her own faith journey.

Brené Brown

After years of being both attracted to and repelled by the church, she and her family finally made the decision to get more involved in a church and become official members. While there are many aspects of “organized religion” that still give her pause, she appreciates how the church encourages us, Sunday after Sunday, to sing with strangers.

Or to paraphrase her own words: “In church, I’m invited to sing and pass the peace with people the other six days of the week I want to punch in the face. People I don’t vote like, think like, or speak like. In church, I reach out and hold their hands and pass the peace and receive God’s peace back.”

Brown believes that we’ve sorted ourselves behind barricades of belief. More and more in the U.S., she maintains, we tend to live and work and socialize with those who believe like us.

You would think that behind these barricades of belief that we would feel closer to each other. The opposite is true. According to Brown, the only thing that really unites us behind these barriers are common enemies. She calls it “common enemy intimacy”—we’re united because we hate all those people on the other side of the wall.

Common enemies don’t make for true belonging and intimacy and so, as a result, we’ve become lonelier.  Brown maintains that loneliness is more dangerous to our health than smoking or obesity. It’s literally killing us.

The United Kingdom, Brown mentions, just appointed its first Minister of Loneliness. We’re not the only country struggling with corrosive social division and isolation.

Think about this for a moment: church may be the last place on earth in which we can regularly sing with strangers and pass the peace with those who think and live very differently than we do.

I’ve been at St. John’s long enough to know that we’re a big tent. While we may not vote, think, speak, or act in lockstep with each other, we can agree on one thing: we want to stay close to Jesus together and listen for his heartbeat. That’s what we mean when we say in our core values that we’re firm at the core and open at the edges.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re firm in our faith in Christ. Faith means trust, not just intellectual assent. We’re firm in our desire to praise God in unity. Any yet we’re a church of open doors. “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you’re welcome here,” we read in our worship bulletins. We really mean that.

Frankly, it would be easier to be a church that walks and thinks in lockstep. “Sign this statement of belief, toe the line, and you’re in.” We’d probably have fewer difficult conversations.

But if we found our unity in belief statements or common enemies outside the walls of this church—and they are plenty of churches on both sides of the conservative and liberal spectrum that have fallen into this trap—than we’d also be lonelier, and loneliness impoverishes our souls.

All of this to say: St. John’s will continue to be a church of strangers that sing together, finding our unity in Jesus Christ. Strangers that sing together soon become friends who care for one another as Christ cares for us.

In the coming years, we also desire to grow in spiritual depth and outreach. In this goal, we can discern the connection between contemplation and action in the Christian life, being still before the Lord and acting boldly in God’s name.

The connection between contemplation and action is found in Jesus’ own ministry. In our Gospel today, we witness Jesus first as a man of action. After casting demons out of a man in a synagogue, he goes with his disciples to Peter’s home.

Peter’s mother-in-law is ill. Jesus takes her by the hand and raises her up. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is a resurrection of sorts. Jesus isn’t just restoring her health—he’s restoring meaning to her life.

Don’t be thrown off by Peter’s mother-in-law serving Jesus and his disciples. She isn’t healed so that she can do women’s work in the household. The word for serve in the original is the same word from which we get the office of deacons in the church. We could say that Peter’s mother-in-law is the first deacon in the church.

She’s healed and then begins to care for Jesus and those in her home. By responding immediately through humble service, she’s showing us what true discipleship looks like.

But the Christian life isn’t just a path of constant activity and service. It’s also a contemplative road on which we learn the importance of being still before the Lord and resting in God’s loving embrace. Contemplation allows us to come home to our Living God who isn’t somewhere out there, distant from us, but as close to us as our next breath.

Notice what Jesus does in our story today. After the crowd gathers around the house and Jesus heals many people, everyone turns in for the night. Before sunrise, Jesus goes out to a deserted place by himself to pray. The rhythm of his life and ministry is one of action and contemplation, doing and just being with God in a place of solitude.

For the past 20 years, like many Episcopalians, my prayer life revolved around the Daily Office, Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. But about two years ago, I heard God calling me to pay more attention to the contemplative path.

The prayer book services are beautiful but they’re also wordy and busy. As I prayed, I could hear God clearly saying to me: “Dave, thanks for sharing. You love these services with all their words and images. You know them by heart. It’s now time for you to be still and come home. Just be silent and trust that I’m with you.”

Nowadays, my prayer life revolves around Centering Prayer, an ancient form of Christian meditation. Groups here at St. John’s meet for Centering and Contemplative prayer every week, and I’m excited about the possibility of deepening our contemplative worship and prayer offerings in the years to come.

As many of you know, last summer, during my sabbatical, I learned that many of my clergy colleagues from many different denominations are hearing a similar call from God. I’m now part of a program offered by the Shalem Institute in Washington D.C. called: “Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership.” (Link to program here)

Clergy18 class photo1
Shalem Clergy Life and Leadership Class #18

We met for a week last summer, and we’ll meet again this summer for another residency. In between these gatherings, I meet by teleconference with a small group of clergy from all over the country.

We are brought together by a desire to enter into a deeper relationship with God and share that depth with our congregations.

The leader of our program is a retired Episcopal priest named Winston Charles. Most recently, he served as the rector of Christ Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, a church that it similar in many ways to St. John’s.

Next Sunday, Winston will preach here at St. John’s at all services. He’ll lead a forum in the morning on Contemplative Prayer. My hope is that you will join us next Sunday and have a chance to meet Winston, who is a wise and compassionate soul.

He’s also leading our vestry retreat next weekend. Your vestry is going to model contemplative leadership. In the past, our agenda for the vestry retreat has been full of business and activity. We’ve focused on vestry norms and best practices, budgets and strategic planning—topics like that.

This year, our vestry will gather for a more quiet experience. The agenda will leave time for silence and the prayerful reading of Scripture. We will open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and rest in the presence of God. We will listen deeply for the heartbeat of Jesus.

In the coming years, I could see every one of our meetings, vestry or otherwise, beginning with a devotional element and time for stillness, even if only for few minutes. Deepening our relationship with God through listening will lead us to even more faithful and bold outreach and action.

As we listen together for the heartbeat of Jesus, the third and last goal that we’re beginning to discern in our strategic plan for the future has to do with growing in resources. As a congregation, we’ll seek to give joyfully and use resources effectively.

At our parish-wide Visioning Day, I heard many of you say that St. John’s needs to work on balancing our budget year-to-year. Amen. I couldn’t agree more.

I have some good news this morning: the budget approved by your vestry for 2018 is not only a balanced budget; it calls for a small surplus. More on that during the Annual Meeting.

We’ll continue to balance the budget every year when we embrace stewardship as a spiritual practice. Stewardship isn’t just giving to the church; it’s a way of life.

It means that we give of our financial resources not to balance a budget but to balance our souls. By giving generously, we begin to understand God’s generosity to us in a whole new way. We hear the heartbeat of Jesus, who gives of himself without counting the cost.

We learn Biblical stewardship best by practicing it. Think about Peter and Andrew, James and John. They learned how to fish in a boat rather than a classroom. As children, they would have first learned to swim and be comfortable around water; then they would have been taught to handle a boat, cast and mend nets, where to fish and how and how to haul in the catch.

They learned by watching their elders and then practicing it themselves. How many of you learned about stewardship by witnessing the generosity of your parents or elders?

I know I did. I grew up in a home in which worship and prayer were of first importance. I observed my mother teaching Sunday School and offering up her spiritual gifts; my father would let my siblings and I place the offering in the basins each week.

Generosity is learned as it’s practiced. As we step out in faith, going out a little further from shore year-by-year to the deep water of fully trusting in God’s abundance, we discover how stewardship is truly a way of life.

Kate Kile, our Director of Finance, has just become of Director of Stewardship and Finance. For the first time since I’ve served as rector, we’re blessed to have a staff member who will focus our attention on how stewardship is a spiritual practice.

After Kate was with us for a few months, we realized that she had a passion for Biblical stewardship. A person of deep faith and contagious enthusiasm who listens carefully for the heartbeat of Jesus, Kate will encourage us to give joyfully and mentor the generations who will follow us in the future.

Before Jesus’ disciples lowered their nets into the deep water, they began as children playing and splashing in the shallows. Generosity is something learned best over time from those who love and care for us.

The coming year is going to be Spirit-filled, exhilarating, and, God-willing, dusty, noisy and inconvenient. Construction is never easy. It usually takes longer than scheduled and costs more than we thought it would. But all of the inconvenience, all of our hard work will be will be worth it in the end.

As many of you are aware, we’re going to lovingly care for the historic church building and construct a new Welcome Center that will open doors to our members and the people of our community.

In another city, I passed a church that was undergoing a major construction project. The church building was completely wrapped in scaffolding, but there was a large banner near the church entrance that contained an arrow and these words: “Jesus is this way.”

That’s why we we’re stepping out in faith to undertake this project. Children, youth and adults will meet Jesus in the historic church and these new spaces.

Just because we’re getting ready for construction doesn’t mean that ministry will come to a standstill. In early March, St. John’s will host the spring Board Meeting of Episcopal Relief and Development. For two years, I’ve served on the Board of this organization which is truly the hands of feet of Jesus healing a hurting world.

I’m proud that Episcopal Relief and Development Board leaders from all over the country will meet here at St. John’s. Rob Radtke, president, and Josephine Hicks, vice president, will preach and teach here at St. John’s on Sunday, March 4.

In Holy Week, Frank Griswold, a former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, will preach at services and lead a community-wide Lunch-n-Learn in the Café.

This spring, Mtr. Abi, who was awarded a prestigious Lilly Endowment grant, will take a sabbatical which you will hear more about during the Annual Meeting. Please join me in congratulating Mtr. Abi. She will return to St. John’s brimming with new insights and vision.

Her grant proposal included funds for a priest to help us when she’s away. The Rev. Canon Don Woodrum, who served for more than 35 years at St. Luke’s in Live Oak, will join us on Sundays during Mtr. Abi’s sabbatical.

In October, we will gather again at Camp Weed for a Parish Weekend. Our speakers will be Kammy and George Young, longtime friends of St. John’s and Tallahassee.

These are just a few of the highlights that you can look forward to in the coming year.

Let me conclude by saying how much it means to me to serve as your rector. Every day, I see God at work in our midst. Personally, I’ve seen the impact of St. John’s on my own family. Your faithfulness and kindness has formed our children, as well as Carol and me.

By your side in the vineyard, I look forward to singing with strangers who will become friends; to growing in spiritual depth and outreach; and to giving joyfully of our life and labors. Together, let us continue to abide in Jesus and listen for his beating heart.

Listen to sermon audio.

A sermon preached the Rev. David C. Killeen on February 4, 2018, at St. John′s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee.

Join the Jesus Movement

I learned some new words this week, words that I don’t hope to hear again for a long time:  bomb cyclone. Or the even more Biblical-sounding: bombogenesis.bombogenesis_setup

For our mid-Atlantic and northeastern brothers and sisters, this collision of cold and warm air masses and sudden drop in atmospheric pressure resulted in a nightmare of cold, snow, and wind. For us, and most importantly, for the schoolchildren of Leon County, we got a snow day in Florida. Imagine that.

I know it only lasted a few minutes. But I can now say that I’ve seen snow falling in Florida. One family here at the church saved a snowball in their freezer.

There’s something like a spiritual bomb cyclone happening in our readings today. Let’s hone in on the story of Jesus’ baptism.

Now, remember, we’re in Mark’s Gospel. We’ll be traveling together through the Gospel of Mark throughout the coming year. Mark, the shortest of all the Gospels, is about speed. Jesus is a man of action and relatively few words.

The word that we hear a lot in Mark’s Gospel is “immediately.” Immediately, Jesus goes from village to village healing. Immediately, he casts out demons from the afflicted. Immediately, he goes to Jerusalem with his disciples.

Jesus’ ministry is like a weather system, an explosive movement that gets people’s attention from the very start.

The Jesus movement begins, though, with John the Baptist. He’s the forerunner, the one who prepares the way.

Imagine with me this scene: John is out in the wilderness. He’s left the crowded and noisy streets of the city for the solitude and quiet of the wilderness.

We’re meant to think of God’s people journeying through the wilderness after their slavery in Egypt. 40 long years of wilderness wandering. That’s what Mark wants us to envision as we follow John the Baptist out to this barren place.

In the Bible, the wilderness is a place of simplification. We can’t carry heavy loads there. We must learn how to let go of things that we’ve been carrying that we don’t really need.

What burdens have we been carrying lately that it’s time to let go of? What’s the difference between essential things in our lives and things that don’t really matter?

The wilderness is the place to ask these questions and learn how to simplify our lives. Free from distractions, we can see what clearly matters, beginning with our relationship with God.

So, we’re standing with John the Baptist and God’s people out there in the wilderness.midbar-yehuda-scenery-judean-desert

Through his words and deeds, we witness John pointing to Jesus, who’s standing by our side in this crowd. He’s come all the way from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by his cousin.

John walks with Jesus down into the Jordan River, immerses him in the water, and when Jesus is raised up, he hears a voice from heaven say to him: “You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism isn’t just a rite of passage. It’s not just a powerful religious ceremony. It’s the beginning of a movement, the Jesus Movement, a whole new thing that God is doing in our world to renew of all of creation.

As baptized children of God, you and I are part of the Jesus Movement. God’s people are always on the move, being transformed on the way by the Living God, whether they’re wandering through the wilderness or following Jesus on the road.

Some of you might remember Chuck Robertson. He preached and taught here at St. John’s about six years ago. He’s on the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry′s staff in New York City.

We had a phone conversation scheduled for this week, but I got an email from him saying that he needed to postpone, as he was shoveling mountains of snow at home. There are some things about the northeast that I don’t miss.

When Chuck and I connected, he wanted to talk with me about how St. John’s can get involved in the Jesus Movement. Bishop Curry has called on all Episcopalians to get on board and do their part. The Jesus movement is Curry’s phrase for the healing and reconciling ministry of Jesus in which we share.jesus movement

Chuck reached out to me because he’s heard about St. John’s. He’s heard about what God is up to here and how we are growing and coming together for events like our parish-wide Visioning Day.

He reminded me that there are three particular ways that Bishop Curry would like to see Episcopalians join in the Jesus Movement.

They are evangelism, care of God’s creation, and reconciliation, especially racial reconciliation. All of these themes are good to keep in mind as we begin the new year.

Let’s start with evangelism. When you think of the Episcopal church, evangelism probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

Believe it or not, evangelism is part of our DNA. We were founded as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church. According to our official name, we’re a church made up of missionaries.

St. John’s as its founding was a mission of the whole Episcopal Church—we were of one of the few missions in the early 19th century that took root and grew strong.

Bishop Curry loves the word evangelism, and so can we. What if we thought of evangelism like John the Baptist does: as a pointing away from ourselves to Jesus, as living out the good news in word and deed?

Here at St. John’s, we have a new name for evangelism. We call it invitation, as in our Invite.Welcome.Connect ministry of welcoming newcomers. Our Invite team has helped us all grow more comfortable in extending invitations to others to connect with Jesus and our community of faith.

In the coming year, let us all seek to invite just one person to a deeper relationship with God. Every Sunday can be an Invitation Sunday, as one of our team members likes to say.

St. John’s has about 1500 members. Imagine the power of more than a thousand invitations to know Jesus and be fed spiritually by this community. You could change somebody’s life through an invitation.

The Jesus Movement also includes care of God’s creation. This is another good theme for us to focus on in the new year.

Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. From my travels to the Holy Land, I know that the Jordan River is heavily polluted. Sometimes, authorities even discourage people from getting baptizing there because it’s so dirty.

jordan river
The Jordan River

Our faith teaches us this truth: our health as human beings is totally connected to the health of God’s creation. When we pollute and exploit creation, we poison our own bodies and souls.

As members of the Jesus Movement, you and I can make a big difference even through small actions. Consider making the care of God’s creation one of your priorities in this new year.

And finally, as members of the Jesus Movement, we can also serve as ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation. Bishop Curry is the first African-American Presiding Bishop and he’s made racial reconciliation one of his top priorities.

Bp. Curry is the son of an Episcopalian mother and a Baptist father. His father decided to join the Episcopal Church after the welcome he received during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation.

The first time Bishop Curry’s mother brought his father to church with her, the elder Curry was amazed that he was invited to the Communion rail.

In a world outside the church filled with so many dividing walls and obstacles, the Curry’s found the Episcopal Church to be a place of welcome and reconciling love.

I was excited yesterday during our Visioning Day to hear many members speak from the heart about how they desire St. John’s to be even more diverse, our welcome even broader. “Open arms and open doors” were common phrases.

The best way to accomplish that goal will be through our friendships and relationships in the greater community. A simple invitation can be a source not just of welcome, but also of reconciliation.

On this day, when we’re mindful of the baptism of Jesus and the meaning of our own baptisms, take these words to heart: you are part of the Jesus Movement.

On the road with Jesus, we’re always changing, always being transformed by the Holy Spirit into a new creation. May this New Year be a time for you to become a new creation in God.

Listen to sermon audio.

A sermon preached on January 7, 2018 by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John′s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee.

Houses of the Holy

Merry Christmas! It fills my heart with joy to look at you from this pulpit and see your faces shining with the light of Christ. This is a happy night, and I thank for you choosing to worship here in this church.

At the core of our faith is a bold claim: if you and I want to stand on holy ground, if we want to go to a thin place where heaven meets earth, then we don’t have to travel anywhere.

In fact, all you need to do is take your hand and place it over your own beating heart. You are God’s holy temple. You are the place where heaven meets earth. You are the living nativity scene in which Jesus is born.

The Kingdom of God isn’t “out there.” It’s not located in some distant land. Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, tells us something new: the Kingdom is near to you, as near as your beating heart. God’s Kingdom is in your mind. Your hands. Your spirit. Your voice as you kneel and sing “Silent Night.”

Isn’t that amazing? It’s what Christmas is all about. The birth of Jesus means that you and I are houses of the holy, tabernacles of God’s presence, temples of the Spirit.

Imagine how our families would change, our city would be different, our country and world would be transformed if we lived as if every single person was God’s home.

I live in a home with five other houses of the holy. As my wife, Carol, and four sons would readily admit to you, I am far from a perfect husband and father.

But in my better moments, I’m able to stay alert and witness how Jesus has been born in each of my family members in unique ways, how the light of Christ shines through their words and deeds.

These little God-moments are gifts that help us to see that this life is just a warm-up for what it to come. That doesn’t minimize this life—in fact, it raises the stakes and makes our time on this earth even more precious.

This year, as we decorated our Christmas tree, I had one of those God-moments as I held each of our boys’ “First Christmas” ornaments, all of them given to us as gifts soon after the births of our sons.

Those ornaments were just like a song, scent or taste that take you back to another time in life. Instantly, I recalled those days when family and friends came to visit us after the births of our children.

As we witness in the Christmas story, one of the best parts of having a baby is that people come to visit you.

If your child is born in a hospital, your first visitors will be doctors and nurses. They will process the birth of your child very rationally. Your baby weighs this many pounds and ounces. There will be instructions on feeding, the monitoring of vital signs, explanations and various tests and observations.

I still thank God for the medical staff that took care of Carol and me and our children, especially Carol’s OBGYN, Dr. Anna Rhee, a diminutive, mild-mannered doctor who became a very different person in the Labor and Delivery room.

dr anna rhee
Dr. Anna Rhee

Let’s just say that she had what the military calls command presence. She issued orders to other doctors and nurses in staccato bursts. Everyone moved fast and did exactly what she said.

In time, Carol and I got to know Dr. Rhee personally. We learned over sushi with her one night that she was a devoted Christian and that her church was very important to her. But in the hospital, Dr. Rhee was all business. Along with the other medical folks, she looked at our children’s births through a mostly rational, scientific lens.

Friends and family were the next to visit, and we noticed that each person responds to babies differently.

Some folks just want to hold the baby. They would knock on the door in the hospital or at home, give you quick kiss, and then head right for the baby. They could have sat there the whole day with the baby in their arms, just adoring them and holding them close.

Others will hold the baby for a while, but then want to roll up their sleeves and get busy. They’re the ones who will look at you and ask: “What can I do? Can I go downstairs and get you some food from the cafeteria or some magazines from the giftshop?”

At home, these are the ones who will clean the house, cook enough meals for three weeks, run out for diapers or assemble a crib. Thank God for the worker bees—what would we do without them?

Lastly—and usually this group is made up of older siblings—are the ones who come to visit kicking and screaming. They want nothing to do with this little competitor who has invaded their turf.

And yes, there are some adults who will be honest and tell you that they are just not “baby people.” “I do much better,” they’ll tell you, when the child “can walk and talk.”

So many different responses to the same baby. We could say the same about Jesus’ nativity.

What I want you to remember on this Christmas Eve is that there are many paths to the Christ-child, whose birth means that we are all houses of the holy.

Let’s shift gears for a moment. I need for you to let your imagination be like a canvas on which God can paint.

The following is based on some of the most ancient depictions of the Nativity that exist in Christian art, and here I follow the interpretation of Carole Crumley, an Episcopal priest and wise soul whom I met last summer.

Icon of the Nativity

In your mind’s eye, see a rocky, craggy, mountainside. The mountain is bathed in a luminous, gold light. In the middle of the mountain, though, is a dark cave-like gap. It’s like there’s been an earthquake that’s ripped a seam open in the mountain, in the very fabric of God’s creation.

In that dark cave, Jesus lies in a manger. The artist is showing us that Jesus is born not in a sanitary hospital room, but amidst the world’s darkness and brokenness.

He’s wrapped tightly, like a little mummy, in swaddling bands of cloth. Very close to Jesus are two animals: an ox and a donkey. These creatures are mentioned in the first chapter of book of Isaiah.

The ox and the donkey are so close to the Christ-child that we can imagine that the warmth of their breath is the first-century version of an incubator. Their ministry is to help keep the baby Jesus warm in his makeshift crib.

Opposite the animals, on the other side of Jesus, is his mother, Mary. She reclines on the ground, clearly exhausted after giving birth. The surprising thing is that Mary looks away from the Christ-child.

We can wonder if it’s hard for her to look at Jesus in those swaddling bands of cloth. Does she somehow see the future: the cross, the tomb, Jesus wrapped in burial shrouds?

Jesus remains in the center of the picture like a Son around which all the other figures orbit. To his right, and on top of the canvas, are shepherds and angels.

A shepherd plays a joyful song on a pipe; the angels, those messengers of God, praise and adore him.

They all approach the manger by the path of beauty, which includes the senses, the creative arts, the appreciation of God’s creation, the qualities of astonishment and awe. These are the ones who visit and want to hold the baby all day long.

To the left are the magi who have followed the star to the manger. They follow the way of Truth with a capital T.

They exercise their intellect and draw on their rational abilities to chart a course and find their way to the manger. In them, we meet the precursors to the scientists and theologians who approach the Savior through the gifts of the mind and critical analysis.

On the bottom of the canvas, in the right corner, are two midwives. We don’t read about them in Luke’s Gospel, but in an ancient church tradition, Joseph hires midwives to assist with the birth. They are there to roll up their sleeves and help the Holy Family.

They find their way to the Christ-child through the path of the good: faith in action and works of mercy and justice. These are the ones who will do 20 loads of laundry, assemble a crib, change dirty diapers and fight for public policy that helps mothers and vulnerable children.

Don’t forget about Joseph. In this painting, he’s on the bottom left of the canvas. In early Christian art, Joseph is often presented as a rather sad figure.

He sits and mopes, looking at the ground and kicking the dust in frustration. Next to him is the figure of an old man, who represents the devil.

Satan is tempting Joseph to believe that he has wasted his life, that he has played the fool by sticking with Mary. The whole Nativity scene, in that moment of temptation, seems like a cleverly devised myth, a false projection that says more about human frailty than reality.

Joseph is the one who takes the path of kicking and screaming all the way to the manger. One day, he desires to have faith, to believe that God made a home in our flesh and blood, that God loved us enough to send his only Son to bring us back home to God.

But the next day, it all seems like an illusion, a story we tell ourselves to make it through this difficult life.

In this painting, Joseph stands for all those who come to Jesus kicking and screaming the whole way.

My hope tonight is that you can find yourself in this painting. There is space for us all within the frame, no matter which path we tend to favor. This is a generous canvas on which there is room for every single person.

There’s room because every person here tonight is a house of the holy. Whether you meet Jesus with your adoration and praise, your intellect, your faith in action, or you come to him kicking and screaming, you have a place in the manger scene.

So, come, let us adore him on the way of beauty as we stand in awe of God’s creation, let us know him on the way of truth through learning and study, let us roll up our sleeves on the way of the good and do justice and love mercy, and let us stay close to the manger even when we are plagued by temptation and doubt.

There’s room enough for us all to gather around the Christ-child, who fills us on this holy night with his light, love and joy.

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


Be Swift to Love

Now is the time to live the life God intends for you. Not tomorrow. Not yesterday. Right now. “The door was shut.” These are the words that should really get our attention in our Gospel reading. The foolish bridesmaids go out at midnight to try to find an open store where they can buy some oil. Somehow, they find a place selling oil at that hour, but by the time they arrive at the wedding reception, their lamps burning brightly, the door is shut. They cry out, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But the bridegroom answers from behind the closed door: “I don’t know you.”

Wow, where’s the good news here?

I’m sure many of you have had the experience of just missing a flight. A while back, I was flying from New York to Tallahassee, with a stop in Atlanta. My flight from New York was delayed. I knew that my connection in Atlanta was going to be tight, and so as soon as I got off the first plane, I ran like the wind. I was one of those crazy people you see sprinting through the terminal.

I was so happy to arrive in the next concourse with what I thought would be a few minutes to spare, but I was wrong. As I screeched to a halt, huffing and puffing at the gate, the agent pulled the door shut. We all know that once they close that door, you’re done. There’s no hope.

I cried out: “Lord, lord! The plane is right there. I can see people still boarding.” And she replied: “I don’t know you.” Actually, she said: “Sir, I’m really sorry, maybe we can get you on the next flight, but I can’t open the door. It’s against the rules.”

missed flight

It’s no fun to have doors shut in our faces. It hurts to knock on the door, only to be turned away from the party.

Jesus is trying to get our attention today with this parable. He’s saying that we don’t have forever to follow him as a disciple and live the life that God intends for us.

This makes me think of a blessing that we use here at St. John’s from time to time at the end of the service: “Life is short, and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us, so be swift to love, make haste to be kind . . .”

That’s the same urgency that we find in our readings today from Joshua, First Thessalonians and Matthew.

God’s Word is clear: now is the time to respond to Jesus’ invitation to the wedding banquet and wait for the coming of God’s kingdom. Today is the day to fill up our lamps with the oil of trust, encouragement and hope.

In the reading from Joshua, we witness how the oil of trust can help God’s people burn brightly from generation to generation.

Towards the end of his life, Joshua gathers God’s people who are now, at long last, in the Promised Land. It took them hundreds of years, but they’ve finally made it.

Joshua reminds them of their ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and how God promised the patriarch and matriarch of Israel that they would be parents of a great nation, their children more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky, and that one day, their children would inhabit a good land where they could be free, a land flowing with milk and honey.

But the dream is deferred. [Note: this phrase comes from the poem Harlem, by Langston Hughes. The poem influenced Dr. Martin Luther King and his I Have a Dream speech.] God’s promise isn’t fulfilled in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel. God’s promise still isn’t fulfilled in the lives of Joseph or Moses. But all the while, through thick and thin, God’s people lean on God and trust in God’s faithfulness.

They learn on the good days when all is going well, and they also learn on the difficult days when the true measure of God’s love is taken. Over and over, on more occasions than they can count, God is faithful to God’s people and they come to trust God with their lives.

When Joshua addresses the people in our reading today, they’ve arrived in the Promised Land. God has made good on God’s promise, but even then, God’s people are beginning to drift, and Joshua senses that even though they are running down the concourse, they are not going to make it to the gate on time. At some point, the door will shut, and God’s people will be shut out.

Joshua warns: “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” But the people just squeeze through the door: “No, we will serve the Lord . . . and him we will obey.”

We witness urgency here. God’s people need to make a decision: either to take their relationship with God seriously or not. This is good for us to keep in mind, particularly those of us, such as priests like me, who have grown comfortable with God and the church.

We can recall the words of Annie Dilliard, writing in a time when it was still common for women to wear hats to church: “On the whole,” she cautions, “I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (from Teaching a Stone to Talk, “Expedition to the Pole”)


annie dilliard
Annie Dilliard


I think this is what Joshua and Jesus are getting at today. Stay awake. We’re not kidding around here. Today is the day to live the life God intends for you. Remember the faithfulness of God from generation to generation.

Trust in God, but put on a crash helmet, because this is a relationship that can take unpredictable turns. This is a covenant bond that will transform every aspect of your life. Once you accept an invitation to the wedding banquet, there’s no going back.

Given the seriousness of our faith, we all need the oil of encouragement. This is Paul’s message for us today. He’s writing a letter to the church in Thessalonika in present-day Greece. This letter is the oldest document in the New Testament, predating even the Gospels.

The early Christians expected Jesus’s Second Coming any day. That urgency impacted every aspect of their lives: how they gave their time to unceasing prayer, their talents for the building up of the church and their money to relieve the needs of the poor.

When Jesus is coming back this Tuesday, your life is charged with meaning. You wear a crash helmet. Every word and action counts.

The Thessalonians are wondering what will become of their friends and family who died in the past, long before the Second Coming of Christ. Will they be shut out of the wedding reception?

Paul reassures them and promises: “The dead in Christ will rise first.” He’s sharing with them and us the good news that we will see our loved ones at the wedding feast. Thank be to God, we will all be together.

Paul concludes his letter by telling the Thessalonians to encourage one another with these words. And so I’m wondering: what would it look like for us, in the coming week, to commit to using our words to encourage others?

We live in a time in which so many people are using words to shut doors, to exclude others from the party, to break each other down.

Powerful men harassing women in word and deed. People saying things on social media to each other that they would never say in person. Pundits clashing on the news. An endless litany of words used as weapons.

We can use words differently as followers of Christ: a prayer offered for a friend. A social media post encouraging a grandchild. A male mentoring female co-workers through words of support and commendation. The oil of encouragement can make a big difference in a world running low on this lifegiving fuel.

Which brings us now to the oil of hope. With all of this talk of foolish bridesmaids and closed doors, we might conclude that there isn’t much hope in today’s Gospel story from Matthew. After all, the door is shut and the Lord says, “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.”

But don’t forget that all ten of the bridesmaids are invited to the wedding reception. The door is wide open to all who prepare themselves by filling their lamps with the oil of hope, a hope that isn’t conditioned on the circumstances of our lives, but founded on God’s goodness.

The early Christians paid attention to the economy, politics, the news, and the ups and downs of their personal lives, but they didn’t let those events rob them of hope. With the kingdom of God so close to them, they were filled with hope for what God had in store for them and patiently endured whatever trials came their way.

Christians today also live in hope. I think of the recent story of Jeni Stepien, married recently to her husband, Paul Manenner, in Swissvale, Pennsylvania. Watch video

When she was in her early 20s, Jeni’s father was killed during a robbery as he walked home from work. As her father lay dying in the hospital, the family decided to donate his organs so that others could live. It was a decision made in faith and hope for the future.

The recipient of her father’s heart is a man named Arthur Thomas, the father of four children. Suffering from advanced cardiac disease, he was near death when he received Jeni’s father’s heart.

After he recovered from the transplant, Mr. Thomas reached out to thank Jeni’s family. Through the years, he exchanged letters with the family, but never had a chance to meet them in person.

Ten years later that all changed when Jeni got engaged. After Paul proposed to her, she wondered whom would walk her down the aisle. Filled with hope, the couple talked and then came up with this idea: what if Arthur walked Jeni down the aisle? They reached out to him and invited him to be a part of the wedding.

After Arthur got permission from his own family, he agreed and told Jeni that nothing would make him happier than to stand in for her father. When the two met for the very first time, Jeni held Arthur’s hand and felt his pulse.

“I thought that would be the best way for her to feel close to her dad,” Mr. Thomas said. “That’s her father’s heart beating.” Read full article

In our readings today, Jesus invites us all to the wedding banquet. But as Jeni Stepien and Arthur Thomas know all too well, life is short, and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us. So be swift to love, make haste to be kind, and fill up your lamps with the oil of trust, encouragement and hope.

In Jesus’ words to us today, we can hear our Father’s heart beating in the kingdom of heaven. Now is the time to accept Jesus’ invitation and live the life that God intends for you. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Right now.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on November 12, 2017

Tikkun olam

Tikkun olam: two Hebrew words that mean repair of the world, healing the universe, mending the earth. The saints of the church are called to tikkun olam, and every one of us is a saint. You’re a saint if you go to church every Sunday or if you go once-a-year. You’re a saint if you can sing beautifully or if you sing off-key. You’re a saint if your faith has been strong your whole life or if you’ve come to come to God kicking and screaming the whole way.

The church isn’t a tent of the righteous, a club for those with all the answers, a preserve for the flawless. I like what Pope Francis had to say a while back: the church is more of a field hospital for those who know their need of God.

Recall the first of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Meaning: blessed are those who know their need of God.

The high school student enduring stress and strain from all sides. Keep up your grades. Join a sport or club. Run for student government. Log your community service hours. Prepare for the SATs and get those college applications ready. And, oh, by the way, make sure to get at least eight hours of sleep a night. He knows his need for God.

Beatitudes (1)
View from Mount of the Beatitudes to the Sea of Galilee

The new parents beginning to feel the weight of the world. The awesome responsibility of bringing up children. Long hours at work, mortgage due every month, family members on both sides wanting to see you at the holidays, sleep deprivation, missing the time that you shared as a couple. They know their need of God.

Or the widow after all the attention, phone calls and cards expressing condolences. The long silences. The bitter difference between solitude and loneliness. The pain of being forgotten, out of sight, out of mind. She knows her need of God.

All of them saints. All of us saints. In the early days of the church, the saints weren’t the spiritual A-team or those of heroic sanctity. They were people just like you and me who recognized their need of God and God’s power to heal them.

God’s people were sick and they knew it. Sick from empire and political discord. Sick from violence and greed. Sick from unhealthy attachments and addictions. Sick from illness and poverty. Sick from fear of death. They all came to the field hospital equally in need of God.

There, they met the One who could heal them. They heard the message that they were made in God’s image and that no one, or nothing could take away that dignity.

They heard that even though they had made some unwise choices and wandered far in a land that is waste, their Father forgave them of their sin and welcomed them to the banquet table.

They were immersed in the lifegiving and liberating waters of baptism, fed by Christ’s Body and Blood. Anointed by the salve of the Holy Spirit, they were released from the hospital and sent out into the broken world to share what they had first received: tikkun olam.

All of them saints. All of us are saints called to mend the torn fabric of the world.

Recently, I attended an Episcopal Relief and Development Board Meeting. Serving on the board of this organization—which truly acts as the hands and feet of Christ—has been a profound learning experience for me.

I’ve learned about how we can work together with God to repair our broken world. I think of the 15,000 children in Zambia, many of them impacted by HIV/AIDS, who will grow up in stronger, healthier families because of our efforts. More on Episcopal Relief and Development’s work in Zambia

When I say “our,” I mean you, as St. John’s has consistently supported Episcopal Relief and Development.

I’m mindful of the work we’ll continue to do in Puerto Rico to provide long-term relief after the hurricanes. Bishop Wilfrido, a former Bishop of Puerto Rico who still lives there, sat next to me during the board meeting. He shared from his heart what it had been like to weather the hurricanes and what it meant to him that Episcopal Relief and Development was there for him and his people during their time of need.

My colleague and fellow board member, Genevieve, is a priest on staff at the Cathedral in Houston. During Hurricane Harvey, she and her people were also heartened by the support of Episcopal Relief and Development.

During the board meeting, Robert Bank, the CEO of American Jewish World Service, addressed our group. It was he who reminded us of those two words: tikkun olam. He reminded us that Jews and Christians can come together, nurtured by the deep roots of faith, to mend the world’s brokenness.

Remember that Jesus was a rabbi. His mission was tikkun olam. He discovered his mission as he read from Scripture in his hometown synagogue. The reading that day was from the prophet Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted . . . to provide for those who mourn in Zion―to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (Isa. 61:1, 3a)

These words sound familiar, don’t they? In them, we can here echoes of the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, whose who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Blessed are you . . . tikkun olam.

When Jesus finished the reading, he boldly declared: “Today, these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.” He’s saying to them and us: “I’m the one who has come to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to mend a broken world.”

It’s that very same Jesus who goes up the mountain and sits down with his disciples. He teaches them what sainthood looks like in the real world: knowing our need of God. It means mourning with hope grounded in God’s comfort. It means meekness—not a word you here much anymore.

Don’t confuse meekness with weakness. To be meek is exercise power by pouring out our lives in humble service to others. The saints are meek ones who hunger for a right relationship with God and neighbor and thirst to live in a just world. They show mercy and possess a pure heart. They make peace and mend the earth. Tikkun olam.

It’s important that we learn these words right now and live them as saints of the church. It’s important because the social fabric of our nation and world is unraveling. We’re becoming strangers to each other.

In a recent column about our estrangement as Americans, the columnist, David Brooks, asks this question: “In a globalizing, diversifying world, how do we preserve individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity?” Full story here

He answers this question by exploring the work of Dr. Marcia Pally, a scholar who will speak at St. John’s and Temple Israel in January. She’s getting a lot of attention for her book entitled Commonwealth and Covenant.

Dr. Marcia Pally

Brooks summarizes her approach: “We want to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living. But we also want to be situated—embedded in loving families and enveloping communities, thriving within a healthy cultural infrastructure that provides us with values and goals.”

He continues: “Creating situatedness requires a different way of thinking. When we go out and do a deal, we make a contract. When we are situated within something it is because we have made a covenant. A contract protects interests . . . but a covenant protects relationships. A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love.”

As saints, marked as Christ’s own forever in baptism, we are situated in covenantal relationships sealed by love.

In our Baptismal Covenant, we vow to “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.”

Or in the words of our opening prayer on this All Saints’ Day: “We are knit together . . . in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.”

As Christians, we are given an amazing amount of freedom to “explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living.” The saints don’t move in lockstep—God gives us generous space for creative and unique responses to the Gospel.

One small example from our own community: about two years ago, a member of the parish came to me and asked if he could take on an unusual Lenten discipline.

Once a week during the season of Lent, he wanted to arrive at the church before daybreak so that he would be present as the sun began to fill the sanctuary with light.

As the sun rose, he wanted to accomplish a simple task: sharpening the little pencils in the pew racks right there in front of you. In all my years of ministry, no one had ever suggested sharpening pencils as a form of ministry. That’s what Dr. Pally means by separability.

But it was what came next that really moved me: this everyday saint of the church didn’t just sharpen the pew pencils. As he worked, he prayed for the person who would sit by that particular pencil the coming Sunday.

Now, look around this church. It’s a big space. Imagine how long it took for him to move from seat to seat, sharpening each pencil and praying for every person.

That’s what Pally means by situatedness and being embedded in loving families and enveloping communities.

Tikkun olam. As saints, we’re all knit together in this field hospital in which we can find healing and rest for our souls. Blessed are those who know their need of God and join in God’s work of mending our world. Amen.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on All Saints’ Sunday, November 5, 2017