But How Do We Pray?

This past Sunday, our Gospel reading was Luke 11:1-13, which includes Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

In this sermon, I explore the Lord’s Prayer not only to better understand what Jesus teaches us we ought to pray for, but also to better understand what role prayer can have in our lives—especially the relation between prayer and action.

Please feel free to share and let me know what you think.

Living the Dream with Pauli Murray

As anyone who has visited this page lately can plainly see, I haven’t been updating this blog in quite a while. My work in full-time ministry has left with me with little extra time—or creative energy—for regular writing here, unfortunately.

So, in lieu of new written pieces, I will begin to post my sermons here more-or-less weekly. Each post will link to the YouTube video of the sermon. I invite you to share any sermon you like, and please feel free to leave comments on my parish’s YouTube channel.

Today, I want to share the sermon I preached on July 3, 2022, celebrating the Feast of Pauli Murray:

Sermons Upon Sermons…

sermonWritingI haven’t written on this blog in a while, but I do have a reason. Back in April of 2018, I began work as an Assistant Rector at St. Mark’s Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Predictably, my free time has dwindled, and so my time on here has as well.

In the past, I had at least posted written versions of any sermons I gave on this blog. I haven’t done that in a while, but that’s because my sermons are now posted on my church’s site. I figured the least I could do was link that page here, so that if any folks who came across my personal blog wanted to check any of those sermons out, you could get to them easily.

So here are the links:

St. Mark’s – Scott’s Sermons

Scott’s Sermons at St. Augustine’s

I will also post a permanent link to that sermons page both up top on the pages bar and in the blogroll on the sidebar.

I do hope to also post some non-sermon content on here from time to time—but with my current schedule, I won’t make any promises!

God Acts Through the Inconsequential; God Arrives Unexpected: A Sermon for June 17, 2018.

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what follows below is a version written from notes and memory. I have made some changes for the sake of clarity and precision.
The readings for this sermon were 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34. They can be found on the lectionary page.

childrenSeparatedWe human beings, I think, tend to focus on the mighty, the powerful, and the triumphant. Those are the histories we like to read, the biographies we like to read: about the powerful, the rich, the mighty. So we tend to assume that those are the people getting things done, that those are the people we should be paying attention to; that if things are going to get better, it will be the powerful who do it.

But it’s a funny thing: if we look at Scripture, God rarely seems to call such people to action. Instead, God often seems to call people we wouldn’t expect: the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the inconsequential.

For example, consider our Hebrew Bible reading for this morning: the prophet Samuel is called to identify the next king of Israel. All he is told is that it will be one of the sons of a man named Jesse. So he goes to Jesse’s house, and Jesse lines up his sons. Samuel knows that when he stands in front of the right son, God will let him know. Samuel immediately makes a bee-line for the eldest son, assuming that he—the tallest, the strongest, the obvious choice—will be the next king.

And Samuel does hear a message from God, but not the one he expects. God corrects Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

So Samuel keeps walking down the line—but never hears the right message. Then he asks Jesse if all his sons are actually present—and Jesse answers that they left the youngest in the pasture to tend the sheep, assuming he wasn’t important enough for this meeting. Samuel has this young boy called in, and as he approaches, Samuel hears God’s message: this David will be the next king.

The very people we assume are so unimportant, so inconsequential, are the very people God so often calls to do God’s work in this world. But we are so easily distracted by the rich, the powerful, the mighty, the magnificent, the triumphant. We have to turn our gaze, and pay attention to other people, because the truth is that if we are waiting for the rich and the powerful to make the world a better place, we will probably be waiting a very long time…

It’s often said that “God doesn’t call the qualified; rather, God qualifies those who are called.” No matter how small or insignificant or weak someone may seem, we should be ready for God to act through them. This also means that no matter how small or insignificant or weak we think we are, we must always be ready to hear God’s call to action.

I think Jesus is making a similar point in our Gospel reading for this morning. He says that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—now, if there are any botanists in the house today, yes, it’s true that it’s not absolutely the smallest seed in the world, but it is quite tiny. If I scattered some on the floor right now, I don’t think any of you would be able to see it. And yet, as the gardeners here will attest, once it’s planted and it starts to grow, it flourishes and spreads rapidly, and can quickly take over a garden. (And Jesus goes on to say that it provides a home for the wandering and lost—a point we’ll come back to shortly.)

So the Kingdom of God starts out small—imperceptible—and yet the potential for it to erupt into our lives and utterly transform us is there, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus seems to be telling us that God always comes from an unexpected place. We may think we have God locked down and understood, but God is always ready to surprise us.

And this is so important for us to remember in this world where, again, we are so often distracted by the grand and the flashy, the rich and the powerful.

Today we are baptizing three young people: still small and vulnerable, still learning, seemingly inconsequential. But if we are paying attention to what the Spirit is saying through Scripture this morning, we should know better. It is in these small people that God is getting ready to act. If we are waiting for God, don’t first look at the folks with collars on, or the vestry members, or even our musicians—look to these children, so small and yet in whom the potential of God’s infinite love is stirring.

Now, baptism is one of the most important celebrations we ever hold in a church. But it’s important to be clear about what we are and are not doing in baptism. Baptism is not a magic trick. Baptism does not confer God’s love. Rather, baptism recognizes that God already loves the one being baptized—and everyone else.

But baptism does confer something: responsibility. The responsibility to receive God’s love, and then go live that love in the world. And that’s not always an easy job! When the parents and godparents of the baptizands stand around the font, they will be asked a series of questions, to make some public vows. And not them only—we will all be asked to reaffirm our baptismal vows. I encourage you to really listen, really pay attention to these promises we are responsible for.

Consider this one, for example: “Do you renounce all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God and all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” This is not an idle question, because there are people who seem to have compromised with wickedness, who seem to have allowed their sinful desires to exploit and oppress to lead them astray.

Some very public figures—I won’t name names, but if you know how to use a search engine, you can figure it out rather quickly—have been defending the current administration’s practice of separating migrant and refugee children from their parents for weeks, months, maybe longer. And they have tried to use Christianity as an excuse. Specifically, they have cited Scripture—Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 1, which reads as follows: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Citing this, these public leaders have argued that Christians must obey the law all the time, without question: so if the law says to strip children from their parents, so be it!

It must be said clearly and unequivocally that this interpretation of Christian faith has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is theological and historical nonsense. It is ethically bankrupt.

There are a number of reasons why, so let’s review them all briefly. First and foremost, we must recognize that the question of whether to obey the law and authorities is not the first question we should ask, is not the most important question to ask. To begin with this question of obedience is to put the cart miles in front of the horse. No, first we must ask some questions about the law and authorities themselves. Are the laws just? Are they legitimate? I think we can all agree that we should obey just and legitimate laws and the authorities enforcing them—even if they are inconvenient for us, even if they harm us. But that’s just it—if they are just and legitimate. This question must be resolved before we can know whether to obey a law or not.

To see why this question must be asked before we can talk about obeying or disobeying, consider some history:

  • Imagine you are a German Christian in the 1940’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt God called you to disobey?…
  • Or, imagine you are an American Christian in the 1850’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt called to disobey?…

And let’s remember that for the first 280 years of the Church’s history—nearly three centuries!—it was effectively illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Paul, just in writing this letter to the church at Rome, was committing a crime!

Indeed, this very same Paul was imprisoned for spreading the Gospel! He wrote many of his letters from jail, and tradition tells us he was executed by the government for engaging in what that government considered treason and sedition.

But you don’t have to be a theologian or a historian to see the ridiculousness of arguing that Christians must support the separation of children from their families. You could just open your Bible to the passage so many have been citing to defend this policy, and just keep reading. After a few more sentences, you’d come to verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Clearly, Paul’s whole point is that the law’s only purpose is to serve love. Indeed, Jesus, like many other Jewish rabbis of the time, summarized the whole of Jewish law by saying, “love God and love your neighbor.” These children, these families, are our neighbors. Trying to use Scripture to justify abusing them is outrageous nonsense.

As we baptize these young people today, we will celebrate that each one of them is made in the image of God. And in celebrating God’s presence in these inconsequential people, we might be surprised to find God moving in us in unexpected ways: we will simultaneously be celebrating that all of us in this church are made in the image of God—and, in fact, that every human being, whether American or not, Christian or not, is made in the image of God, and all are our neighbors. So, the only law we have to obey is the law of love. And that’s all I have to say about it.

Mary Junior: An (Advent) Sermon for Dec. 24, 2017

The readings for this sermon can be found here at the Lectionary Page. I focus on the Gospel reading and mention the OT reading as well.

maryAnnunciationGabrielWe’re just a few hours away from Christmas. Yet our Gospel reading for today does not place us hours before Jesus’s birth, but instead hours before his conception. We are stepping nine months back in time. If Christmas is the New Beginning for the world, then today, we hear about the beginning of the Beginning.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary with a strange–and ridiculous–message. She will give birth to a special child, despite the fact that she is a virgin. Now, Mary is a sharp young woman, and so she explains to this over-excited angel that this just isn’t how the world works, this isn’t how babies normally come into the world. What the angel is suggesting is impossible.

Then Gabriel responds to Mary: it may well be impossible for humans, but it’s not necessarily impossible for God. This is no normal situation, and her child will be no normal human being. Something truly new is about to happen. So Mary is left with a choice: having heard that impossibility is no barrier to God’s action, what will she do? I think this is the crux of our story today. It all comes down to this: how will Mary respond now? Well, she simply says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She signs on to God’s crazy, impossible, ridiculous mission.

Now, some people have speculated that perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman Gabriel approached that night. Maybe God had spoken to a dozen, two dozen women before her, but each had said “No!” to God’s crazy plan. Perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman visited that night, perhaps she was just the first woman to say “Yes!” to God, to agree to this ridiculous mission. Of course, such stories are not a part of our canon of Scripture. But I think they make something very important clear: Mary had to choose to take on this mission. God was calling her to an important work, but wasn’t going to force it on her. She had a decision to make.

This reminds me of some other stories from the Gospels. Over the coming weeks and months, as you listen to the Gospel proclaimed here in Church, or as you read the Gospels at home, I invite you to pay particular attention to the stories of Jesus healing people. Almost every time, after he has healed someone, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Jesus doesn’t say that he, Jesus, made them well, or that the Holy Spirit made them well. Their faith made them well. Even with the physical presence of God Incarnate standing before them, they could only be healed if they turned and chose to receive God’s gift of healing.

This means that we humans have an incredible power in in our choices. But of course, that power also means we have great responsibility: we have to have the faith and courage to hear God’s call, turn, and accept God’s mission for us. And that’s what we hear in our story about Mary today. Here was a woman with the faith and courage to accept God’s crazy and ridiculous mission. If the faith of those individuals allowed them to be healed by Jesus’s presence, then we can truly say that the whole world, the whole universe, is healed because of Mary’s faith. Through her faith, the Incarnate Word was able to enter the world. By her faith, we are made well.

Now, in our Old Testament story today, we hear about a very different divine-human encounter. King David has just united the twelve tribes of Israel, and he makes a public announcement that he will build a temple for God. The king is ashamed that while he sits in his palace, and his people are building home for themselves, God has no house. But through the prophet Nathan, God speaks to David, and tells him that he’s got it all wrong, he doesn’t understand: God has no more need for a house than God has need for food or water. In truth, wherever there are faithful people, God truly lives. Moving forward many centuries, Mary’s story is the culmination of Nathan’s prophecy. In her, God truly dwelt as the Incarnate Word.

Through the decision of one humble–but faithful and courageous–woman, God was able to act; through her faith and action, God came to heal and save the world. We Christians today have a lot to learn from Mary’s example. Like her, we should choose to become vessels of God’s love in the world. Like her, we should sign on to God’s crazy, ridiculous, impossible mission: a mission where, somehow, love defeats hate, and life defeats death.

So my hope and prayer for us, in these last few hours of Advent, with Christmas on the horizon, is that each one of us will choose to be little Mary Juniors, that we will choose to take on this mission, and bear the image of Incarnate Word in this world.

virgin-of-extreme-humility-orthodox-christian-icon-13

Forever Stewards: A Sermon for Thanksgiving, 2017

giftThe readings for this sermon (Thanksgiving Year A) can be found here. I focus on the passage from Deuteronomy.

What are we thankful for? This is a question some of us have been asking ourselves this week, and especially today. In some homes, families will ask each person at the table to say at least one thing they are thankful for. What will we say? Family: we are thankful for our families–at least most of the time. Those of us with work will be thankful for that, and for the money to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Those of us in good health are thankful for this, to be able to get up in the morning and go about our day without pain or difficulty. Those of us living in the US are probably thankful for the relative peace and security we enjoy here.

The truth is, of course, that whatever we have that is good or valuable, we should be thankful for. As Christians, we know that God created the world as a free gift–God did not have to create anything, but out of an abundance of love, God chose to. This means that not only everything we have–all our possessions–but even all of our skills and abilities, and indeed our very lives: it’s all a pure and free gift. This is why we hear God warning us in Deuteronomy today:

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth

Everything we have is a gift. So how can we give thanks? How can we thank God if everything we have that we might give in thanks, God already gave? If everything is a gift from God, then, in truth, everything already belongs to God. How do you thank the God who already has everything?

Those of us gathered in church might begin by saying: through prayer, worship, and praise. And this is certainly important. But our thankfulness cannot and should not end here. If we are thankful to God for God’s generosity, let us be generous with God’s gifts. Let us pass on God’s loving gifts to those in need.

Churches around the country are now wrapping up their stewardship seasons, a time when members of churches discern how much they can financially support their parish. And this is certainly important. But stewardship does not begin or end with our pledgecards. Stewardship is a way of life, it is our response to God’s love and gifts. To be a steward simply means to be responsible for what belongs to someone else. If everything we have, and everything we are, is a gift from God, then our whole lives are a time of stewardship. We are looking after what God has freely given. So what does this mean?

Well, it means that if I give food to a hungry person, if I clothe a naked person, if I help a homeless person find a home, if I help a sick person get the medical care they need–I am not giving away anything that belongs to me. I am simply passing the gifts God has given to me on to the next person. I am being generous because God has been generous. This is Christian stewardship.

We come to the altar to receive communion. Another word for this communion is the Eucharist. Now, “eucharist” is a Greek word that means–you guessed it–“thanksgiving”. In the Eucharist, we give thanks. We give thanks to God for creation and all the gifts of life, but especially for God’s work of healing and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. God didn’t have to do this. Just like in creation, God chose to freely give because of God’s infinite love for a broken world. And we come to the altar and eat and drink Christ’s body and blood–we receive the gift all over again. And for this, we give thanks.

My hope for us today is that we will not let our Eucharist, our thanksgiving, end at the altar. When our deacon dismisses us, and we extinguish the candles, and walk through those doors, let our Eucharist continue! Let us give thanks, not only on Sundays or on one day in November, but every day of our lives. And if we are thankful, let us be generous as God has been generous with us.

To conclude, I can think of nothing better than to repeat the collect our priest prayed just a few minutes ago:

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen.