Sunday, January 23, 2011

Foolish Cross

Sermon from January 23, 2011
(Epiphany 3 – Year A)
1 Corinthians 1: 10-18
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

As a preacher, it is always nice when the biblical passage for the appointed Sunday includes one of his favorite verses in Holy Scripture.
In the selection from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul is chastising the people of Corinth for dividing themselves into factions.
The Apostle Paul tells the people of Corinth that they are to be united, united around one, single unifying purpose.

Now I believe that many people erroneously interpret Paul as saying that we need to be united around issues, issues such as abortion or gun control or politics.
However, I don’t believe that Paul wants us to be united around issues.
I believe that Paul wants us to be united around one single, foolish purpose:
We are to be united around the powerful Cross of Christ.
And the Apostle Paul concludes his argument with one of my favorite verses from scripture:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Last Sunday at St. Alban’s, we started our brand new, weekly, 5:00 PM Sunday Eucharist.
This new 5:00 o’clock service is now being held every Sunday in the Mahan Commons, in the St. Alban’s Outreach Center.
Jimmy and I spent a lot of time to find a song leader for this service who can lead us in both traditional and contemporary music on the guitar.
Jimmy and I spent a lot of time thinking about the Commons, which was formerly the school library, re-imagining it as a regular worship space, re-arranging the chairs and the altar to give it just the right feel of being casual, yet intimate and dignified.

Claudia Bachofen led the creative effort to make 12 beautiful quilts that depict scriptural scenes, quilts that now hang in the Commons and look classic.
The altar was set up in the midst of the people with a simple white linen cloth and candles.

Last Sunday, Jimmy and I had the Commons looking just the way we wanted it to for our inaugural 5 o’clock service.
Afterward, the reviews of the worship were wonderful.
The Holy Spirit had been tangibly present in that room.
Yet I have received one comment that I have found extremely interesting.
Several people who attended last week’s 5 o’clock service have noted the sublime beauty of the Commons, but they have also asked this powerful question:
But where in that room is the Cross?

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

For to the world, the Word on the Cross is foolish and stupid.
But to us, to us who are being saved from this world, the Cross is our one, single, unifying purpose.

When I was growing up as a kid in the Episcopal Church, I served as an acolyte, carrying a torch or the cross in Sunday worship.
One Sunday afternoon when I was 16 years old, Mr. Mitchell, who was the adult in charge of the acolytes, called me at home on the telephone.
He inquired:
“Jeff, you know Rodney Wilson, don’t you?
He is another one of the acolytes.”
I replied.
“Yes, I know Rodney, but not very well.
He usually likes to acolyte at the early service.”
Mr. Mitchell then continued:
“Well, Jeff, I don’t know how to say this, but Rodney Wilson is dead.
Rodney was cleaning his gun with his father and the gun accidently went off, killing him.”

I was silent on the other end of the phone.
I had never known of another kid to die before.
Mr. Mitchell then continued:
“I have spoken with Rodney’s mother and she told me how much Rodney loved being an acolyte.
Therefore, Mrs. Wilson has requested that the pallbearers for Rodney’s funeral are to be his fellow acolytes.
And she wanted you to be one of Rodney’s pallbearers and to carry his casket.
Can you please get out of school at go to the church, then to Forest Lawn Cemetery, at 2 o’clock on Tuesday?”
I quietly replied:
“Yes, Mr. Mitchell.
I will be there.”

I will never forget that Tuesday afternoon.
I remember that I got out of my chemistry class early in order to leave school and go to Rodney Wilson’s funeral.
After the church service, as Rodney’s body was carried out of the church, the processional cross, carried by one of acolytes, led us out.
Then I witnessed something at that funeral that was quite different, something I have not seen very often at all, even in all the many funerals that I have officiated at since I have been a priest.
And the unusual thing was this:
Mrs. Wilson, Rodney’s mother, insisted that the brass processional cross be placed into the casket coach, next to the coffin, to make the journey to the cemetery with the body.
And at the cemetery, Mrs. Wilson insisted that the Cross lead Rodney’s body to the grave and that the Cross remain with his body until the end.

In those days, acolytes were mainly all boys.
And 8 of us teenaged boys served as pallbearers, dressed in navy blazers and clip-on ties, struggling to carry our brother, Rodney, to his grave.
I am sure that we looked foolish, trying to act like brave men.
Yet we were really just scared and weak boys, struggling under the weight of the coffin in the soft grass.
However, to the world, the most foolish thing of all was seeing that powerful and unifying cross, bravely lifted up, as we proclaimed “Alleluia” at the edge of the grave of a teen-aged boy who accidently shot himself while cleaning his gun.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

You see, to the world, the cross means stupid foolishness and a blind faith in a God whom cannot be seen.
But to us who are being saved, the Cross of Jesus is the unifying power of resurrection and forgiveness and love.

To the world, the cross is the sign of a stupid failure, the total failure of Jesus’ work and ministry.
But to us who are being saved, the Cross of Jesus gives us power, power to overcome when we get broken or when we get laid off or when we mess up or when we accidentally shoot ourselves in the foot.

To the world, this piece of wood that hangs over the altar at St. Alban’s is an instrument of death and capital punishment, much like an electric chair or a noose.
But to us who are being saved, this carved piece of wood that hangs over the altar is the greatest sign of God’s unifying, loving purpose for us, showing us that nothing will ever, ever, ever, separate us from God’s power of love.

You see, Camille Webb Ward, a founder of this church, carved that cross that hangs over the altar here.
And, did you know, that Mrs. Ward also carved a smaller cross, a cross that used to hang over in St. Alban’s School?
I have listened to the voices of those who are being saved.
So next week, Mrs. Ward’s smaller carved wooden cross will be hung above the altar in the Mahan Commons, the site of our new 5 o’clock service.

And when I die, I want you all to remind Susan that I want that brass processional cross to be put in the casket coach with my body,
And I want that Cross of Jesus to stand powerfully and foolishly at the edge of my grave.
For even at the grave, we make our unifying song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
But to us who are being saved
It is the power of God.


Friday, January 21, 2011

I Can't Say That!

In preparation for Sundays, I do quite a bit of reading and research on the biblical lessons that will be read for that Sunday. The book “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” is a resource that I use every week. In that book, in the entry for this week’s scriptures, Greg Garrett writes about the Gospel for today. Greg was educated at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, yet teaches English here in Waco at Baylor.

Greg writes to preachers, instructing me and others who will be in the pulpit today: “Do not be afraid to use Jesus’ radical call – and the radical response of the first disciples – to call your own congregation to give all that they have for something worth infinitely more.”

Upon reading the above sentence, my first thought was fearful, saying to myself: “I can’t say those kinds of things to my congregation!” Yet, on second thought, maybe I should.

So give up a night this week to come to the Gospel of John study; give up your time to our partners in the Outreach Center; give up everything in your wallet this Sunday and put it in the offering plate.

Give up all that you have for something worth infinitely more.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Something Better

Sermon from January 16, 2011
(Epiphany 2 – Year A)
John 1: 29-41
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

What are you looking for?

In the Gospel of John, the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth, the very first words that are uttered by Jesus in this whole Gospel, is this question:
What are you looking for?

John the Baptist glances at Jesus walking by and John tells two of his own followers:
“Look! Here is the Lamb of God!”
And those disciples then follow Jesus.
To which Jesus turns around and asks:
“What are you looking for?”

The disciples of John the Baptist now seem ready to switch their allegiance to Jesus, and these new disciples ask Jesus an odd little question:
“Rabbi, Teacher, where are you staying?”
And then Jesus answers:
“Come and see.”

So the first two disciples do come and see what they have been looking for, something better than they could ever imagine.
The writer of the Gospel of John tells us a seemingly unimportant detail, a detail that it is four o’clock in the afternoon.
This means that it was far too late in the day to begin the journey on to the next town.
So Andrew and the other new disciple stay with Jesus through the night, sitting down to a long meal over a bottle of wine, telling jokes with Jesus late into the night and waking up to a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and warm maple syrup with the Lamb of God, the Messiah.

Jesus asks his first followers:
What are you looking for?
And after a day and a night with Jesus, they discover what they are looking for.
They discover something better.
They discover the Word of God made flesh.

So Andrew runs to tell his brother, Simon:
“We have found the Messiah.”
We have found something better.

What are you looking for?
I know that I am always looking for something better.

For starters, I am looking for better weather on Sunday mornings!

I also know that when I am at my house and lying on the couch watching TV in the den, Susan just hates it when I am in-charge of the remote control.
She and I will settle in to watch a good movie that we are both enjoying.
Then a commercial comes on the screen, and I immediately begin to flip through channels using the remote.
Susan chastises me for this behavior, yelling:
“What are you doing?
I thought you were liking that show!”
To which I respond:
“I’m liking the movie.
But I just thought I’d see if there was something better.”

What am I looking for?
I am looking for something better.

In 1863, in the depths of the American Civil War, the people of the United States were killing each other in the deadliest war ever fought on American soil.
People with black skin were held in slavery.
Years of sectarian thought and violence had ripped this country into shreds.
We were looking for something better.
So in the midst of dead bodies on the Pennsylvanian fields of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln rose up to give us a vision of something better.
Abraham Lincoln preached about a vision, a vision of a better people, a nation that “shall have a new birth of freedom,
[Where] government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

One hundred years later, in 1963, the people of the United States were still treated unequally, based upon the color of their skin.
Violent terrorism and fearful prejudice reared its ugly head.
We were looking for something better.
So on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. rose up to give us a vision of something better, a vision of a better people, “a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Last week, the city of Tucson, Arizona was devastated by the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords and by the killing and wounding of 19 by-standers.
Partisan rhetoric quickly filled the airwaves.
We were looking for something better.
And in response, last Wednesday night, our current President Barack Obama rose up to give us a vision that we can be better, a challenge “to sharpen our instincts for empathy” and to not be driven by reactionary politics on both the extreme left and the extreme right, but to be a better people who are driven by kindness and love.

What are we looking for?
The people on the battlefield of Gettysburg were looking for something better, a better world where people are not divided into slave and free and Yankee and Confederate.
The people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were looking for something better, a better world where people are not labeled as blacks and whites.
The people in Tucson and across this great land are looking for something better, a better and healthier world that is not molded by extremists or Rachel Maddow or Glenn Beck or the relentless news cycle.
And the people who followed John the Baptist’s message of repentance from sins were looking for something better,
A better world that is not centered on sin and the law, but is centered on love and forgiveness and grace.

Why are you here this morning?
What are you looking for?
You must be looking for something better - or else you wouldn’t be here today.

As for me, I here this morning because I am looking for something better.
I am here this morning because I am looking for an abundant life that is greater than my sins and shortcomings.
I am here this morning because I am looking for inspiration to sharpen my instincts for empathy and love toward others.
I am here this morning because I want to encounter this man named Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
I am here this morning to worship and pray and learn and stay and abide with Jesus, the Messiah, the loving Word made flesh.
I am here today because my family and my friends and you – all of you – have told me:
We have found the Messiah.
Come and see.

Yes, my friends, I am here this morning because I am looking for something better - and his name is Jesus.

And each and every day, we find and are found by him whose first question to us is this:
What are you looking for?
Each and every day, we find and are found by Jesus, who gives us life, an abundant life that is so much better than a life of violence and discrimination and political posturing and addiction and loneliness and materialism.
And each and every day Jesus invites us to stay with him, to abide with him, to sit up at night with him over a beverage and to receive a vision of something better, a vision of a better world filled with grace and truth and love.

What are you looking for?
We have found the Messiah, the loving Word made flesh.
So come and see
Something better.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Written on the back of the worship leaflet for Sunday, January 16, 2011:

Change. The word that strikes fear into the hearts of so many of us, especially in the church. People will sometimes chuckle at jokes about how people in the church are resistant to change. I no longer find those jokes to be funny because I have found that people and churches and organizations who refuse to change are refusing to grow and live the abundant life that God calls us to. Adamant resistance to change is the hammer that nails us into our coffins of fear and sameness and death.

I no longer find “jokes” about change to be funny because my reading of Holy Scripture shows me that change and transformation are absolutely at the core of the message that Jesus preaches! The first followers of Jesus, whom we hear about in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, embrace change. The church was born, not in fear of change, but out of a full embrace of the transformation of lives!

Today is a day of huge change at St. Alban’s; we are offering a new weekly worship service here at 5:00 PM each and every Sunday. Today is the day when we refuse to laugh at jokes about our fear of change, as we give the gift of worship to more and more people in our city. Today is the day when we are transformed! Today, I love change!

Monday, January 10, 2011


Sermon from January 9, 2011
(Epiphany 1 – Year A)
Matthew 3: 13-17
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

The first movie I ever saw in my life in a movie theater was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
I must have been about three or four years old when I first saw Snow White.
Snow White is the story of a beautiful woman who takes refuge in a tiny little cabin with seven little dwarfs.
The names of the seven dwarfs are:
Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Grumpy, and Bashful.
And the names of each of the seven dwarfs correlate with what each of the dwarfs do.
Sneezy is always sneezing all the time.
Sleepy can never keep his eyes open.
And Grumpy is scowling in the corner.

People and characters are often named because of what they do.

My mother went to an all-girls school for high school.
At this all-girls school, my mother, whose real name is Nancy, was given a nickname.
At school, my mother was named Peppy, because it was descriptive of the girl who was the ringleader for most of the fun and lively shenanigans on campus.
For many, many years, my mother went by Peppy, until finally, as a young married woman, she retook her given name of Nancy back.

What we name ourselves – and what others name us – has a lot to do with how we are perceived by others and how we think of ourselves.

At the very beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus goes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist.
After Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, the heavens are opened, the Spirit of God descends on Jesus, and a voice from heaven says:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

At the very beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus receives a name, a name that describes who Jesus is – and not what Jesus does.
Jesus receives a name, as the voice from heaven says:
“This is my Son, the Beloved.”

The voice from heaven, if you notice, does not give Jesus a name that describes what he does.
The voice from heaven does not say:
This is my Son, the Teacher or the Healer.
No, instead, the voice from heaven proclaims:
“This is my Beloved.”

Because at the very beginning, at the foundation, we are loved for who we are, rather than what we do.

Today, we are baptizing Victoria Margaret Davis.
Victoria will be baptized in water just as Jesus was.
Victoria will be united with Christ in his death, so that she will be united with Christ in his resurrection.
And in her baptism, Victoria will receive a name.

Certainly, she will be named by her parents as Victoria Margaret.
Yet I also believe that a voice will come from heaven, giving her a different name.

The voice from heaven will name her, saying:
“This is my daughter, the Beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.”
At the very beginning of her earthly ministry, Victoria is named for who she is, as God’s beloved child, long before she has a chance to be named something else based on what she does.
Because long before Victoria goes off to school and the kids on the playground give her a nickname,
She is named Beloved.
Long before she brings boys home and her father, Jesse, cross-examines them,
She is named Beloved.
Long before she messes up and falls short of the glory of God,
She is named Beloved.

Because at the very beginning, at the foundation, we are loved by God for who we are, rather than what we do.

When I was in my mid-30s, I read a book that had a huge impact on my life.
The book is called “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and it is written by Henri Nouwen.
Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest who died in 1996.
In this book, Nouwen meditates on a Rembrandt painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son.

The Return of the Prodigal Son is a story that is told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.
It is a story about two different sons.
The younger son goes away and lives a foolish life, squandering all of his father’s inheritance.
The younger son therefore receives the nicknames:
“Bad Boy” and “Irresponsible.”

The older son, instead, stays at home with his father to manage the family business.
The older son receives the nicknames:
“Good Boy” and “Dutiful.”

Yet, when the younger son returns home repentant into his father’s embrace, both sons have an epiphany.
The two boys then realize that their Father does not care so much about what his sons do.

Instead they realize that their father loves both of his boys equally,
Because their father has given each of them a name.
The father has named both of his sons:

I suppose that the book “The Return of the Prodigal Son” has spoken to me so deeply, because the words of Henri Nouwen call me to hear the voice of my heavenly Father, calling me his beloved son.
You see, when I first read this book, I had believed that I was named:
“Conservative Accountant” and “Suburban Dad” and “Fearful of Change.”
Yet, in my own life since that time, I have constantly tried to reorient my thinking and my heart, to hear the father’s voice from heaven telling me that I am loved, not because of what I do, but because of who I am as God’s son.

And for me, when I try to experience times of silent prayer, I try to not get caught up in the mechanics of ‘doing prayer’ –
But instead, in prayer, I try to simply ‘be’ –
To simply rest in God’s presence, to simply listen for God’s voice, calling me his beloved.
For prayer can be as simple as recalling the voice of your Father that was spoken at your baptism, saying,
“This is my son, this is my daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Therefore, your name is not based on what you do,
But your name is based on whose you are.

Your name is not Grumpy or Sleepy or Dopey or Peppy.
Your name is not Lazy or Stupid or Messy or Drunk.
Your name is not even Skinny or Smart or Stylish or Successful.

Your name…is Beloved.


Monday, January 3, 2011


Sermon from December 24, 2010
(Christmas Eve – Year A)
John 1: 1-14
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Last Monday, I became aware that a lunar eclipse was going to occur that night.
From news reports and from facebook updates that I read, I discovered that the lunar eclipse would be fully visible in Waco sometime after 1:30 in the morning.
So I decided that setting my alarm clock to wake up and see this eclipse was just not a very good option.

However, last Monday night, our dog woke up, scratching at our bedroom door, wanting to go out to the bathroom.
On a usual night, getting out of bed to take the dog out is not a task that I relish.
However, on Monday night, as I heard our dog scratching to get out, I looked at the clock beside the bed and the time read 2:15.
I suddenly thought.
The eclipse is happening!
So I sprang out of bed, opened the back sliding door, and let the dog run out.
I then walked out into the backyard to search the sky for the moon.
And as I looked up into the heavens, I saw that the light of the moon was no longer a brilliant white.
The moon was a disc, illuminated in a mysterious orange glow.

As I was standing in the backyard after 2:15 in the morning, I then heard the front door of our house open.
A shadow then began to approach me, the shadow of our 19-year old son, Scott, who was obviously just now arriving home from a night of partying.
Scott came up next to my side, and he turned his eyes to the heavens.

I turned and questioned him:
“Scott, what are you doing out so late?”
To which he deadpans:
“Looking at the eclipse with you.”

I tell you what, that boy of mine is learning something at that school up in Lubbock!

My college-aged son and I then stared up at the moon.
The light of the moon had been eclipsed by the shadow of the earth.
Yet there is really no such thing as a total eclipse.
Because in a solar eclipse of the sun, as the shadow of the earth passes between the sun and the moon, the very edges of the sun peek through in a blazing corona of light.
In a lunar eclipse of the moon, as the shadow of the earth blocks out the light of the moon, the light at the edges of the earth, the orange lights of thousands of sunrises and sunsets on earth, cast an orange glow onto the moon.
You see, there is no such thing as a total eclipse, a total darkness in the heavens,
Because the light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it.

In the good news that is proclaimed in the Gospel of John,
The Christmas event is not described in terms of a baby in a manger or of sheep in the stable.
In the Gospel of John, the Christmas event is described theologically, explaining why the Word became flesh and lived among us.
Jesus was born to bring life.
Jesus was born to be the light that shines in the darkness.
Jesus was born to show us that there is never, ever a total eclipse of God’s love for us.
For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.

On this holy night, the darkness in the country of Iraq is very real.
St. George’s Anglican Church is the only Anglican church in Iraq.
In this last year, St. George’s has been bombed 4 times by insurgents, the explosions blowing all the windows out of the church.
The priest at St. George’s is named the Rev. Andrew White.
Andrew White travels to work at the church with bodyguards.
Church members receive death threats.
Yet even in the midst of darkness and persecution, Andrew White proclaims tonight that his parishioners will stand firm in love, despite the horrific escalation of sectarian violence that is aimed at driving Christians out of Iraq.
The priest at St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad is a witness to us on this Christmas Eve night that the light of love will not be eclipsed by the darkness.
For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

In this church of St. Alban’s, we have just completed a very busy and meaningful season of Advent.
Yet during the last four weeks of Advent, I have certainly seen and felt your darkness.
In just these last few weeks,
At least one of you has lost your job.
One of you has a niece who is dying of cancer and you are pondering how to handle her impending death.
One of you is unsure if you will have enough money to make it through the end of the year.
One of you underwent surgery with some scary complications that landed you in ICU.

On first glance, it would seem that the darkness is so thick and gloomy that the bad news of humanity will totally eclipse the light of life.
Yet anyone who has been a part of the church of Jesus Christ on this corner of Waco Drive and 30th Street would see, tangibly, that the light does shine in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
For at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, there is no such thing as a total eclipse.
Because every person in darkness that I have just pointed out to you has been bathed in the light and the love of Jesus Christ, as Jesus is known in this community that we call St. Alban’s.

Tonight, after we take Communion, the electric lights in this church will be turned down.
Candles will be lit to pierce the darkness.
And we will sing “Silent Night” on our knees.
It is probably one of my most favorite moments of the whole year.

Because as I sing that song about that dark, dark, silent night two thousand years ago, I gaze at the candles at the altar, casting a glow upon all those beautiful, red poinsettias.
And I remember that it is because of Jesus, and his birth into my life, that I am convinced that no matter how dark my life might become, that I am loved.
As tonight’s candles pierce the thick darkness, I am convinced that nothing will ever separate me from the light of love.

My brothers and sisters, on this most holy night, the light of love shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Because Jesus was born to show us that there is never, ever, ever - a total eclipse of God’s love.