Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sermon Preached 4-3-2011 St. Dunstan's McLean, VA.

Lent 4. Text: Psalm 23.


Today is a day to rejoice![1] Although it’s odd to think of rejoicing in Lent, we have made it halfway through Lent and this Sunday is a day to find refreshment, restoration, and encouragement to push forward through the remaining weeks to Easter. In particular, the scripture we heard today helps us focus on opening our eyes and hearts to see where the light of refreshment and restoration comes from: the Lord.

With refreshment and restoration in mind, I’m going to preach Psalm 23. This Psalm is one of the better known psalms but I know the Lord has new things in it for us to reveal his glory in our lives. When we know something so well, it’s easy to just go through the motions and say, “I know everything about that because I’ve recited it so many times.” But whether you’ve prayed psalm 23 a million times, or heard it for the first time today, I pray that God will make it fresh and new for you.

So what new things can be said about Psalm 23? Well, this can be a tough psalm for us city dwellers to really understand. For ancient Israelites and those that live in rural settings, they looked over their land and saw flocks and flocks of sheep; for us, we look over our land and see flocks and flocks of cars. And so to really understand the metaphor, I’m going to use some help from a friend in seminary.

My friend’s name is Mary, and she’s from Kenya. She grew up in an environment where shepherding is still a major part of the culture. In shepherding, the job of the shepherd is utterly crucial to the lives of the sheep. Shepherding is a relationship that entails supply and care. Other than the shepherd, sheep have no way of protecting themselves from the elements, from the animals that prey on them, and from thieves. And so the sheep put all their trust in their shepherd. They are able to lie down and rest beside still waters because they lack or want nothing: they are satisfied, happy and healthy. The sheep are able to rest because even though it’s difficult to find food and water, the shepherd has fed them, the shepherd protects them at all times, and the shepherd will never leave them.

The sheep are utterly dependent on the shepherd. Because sheep aren’t able to discern the right paths, the shepherd shows them the way, and guides them along. They are comforted by a rod and a staff. The language used here is real: These two things are not just symbols of protection, but literally the rod and the staff protect the sheep from being eaten by wild beasts and once again, guide them to safety. Their lives are overflowing with the fullness of what the shepherd has given them and goodness and mercy pursues them instead of their enemies. And what’s even better, is that it’s in the shepherd’s very nature to love and care for the sheep.

In our culture, especially in our liturgical culture as Episcopalians, we use this psalm in worship: for praising God for getting us through those hard times. We see it particularly in our burial rites. But this isn’t a psalm about death: No, as our burial rites are rites about the resurrection, so this psalm is about living[2]- day in and day out. And most importantly, this psalm is about who we need to be focusing on in our lives. The bottom line is that as humans, we are utterly dependent on God. We are incapable of making good, godly decisions. We are incapable to choose the right path because of our sin and brokenness. We are incapable of righteous and merciful actions. And so the only way we can make good decisions is by the grace of God guiding us, just like the shepherd and his sheep. Lent gives us an intentional opportunity to truly examine how we’re living our lives: but more importantly: to focus on whom we’re living our lives for. For when we focus and put our trust in the Lord, we are truly taken care of.

And so how can this psalm speak to us in our daily lives and our culture? Maybe personally you’re going through a rough patch in your life right now. Maybe you’ve just gotten through a rough patch. Maybe you’ve lost hope because of everything that is happening around the world. World-wide, our brothers and sisters are experiencing horrible things: like the ravaging effects and aftermath of a tsunami in Japan, fear of violent governments in Libya and other countries, and global economies in question. And while we can’t understand why the darkness in the world and in our lives remains, our souls can still remain hopeful in Christ: the light of the Lord can come into our lives and the lives of whom we pray for, and there is hope. The theologian St. Augustine helps us understand this concept. He writes, “as long as you remain in this present life, you are walking in the midst of vices, of worldly pressures, which are the shadow of death. Let Christ shine in your heart, who lights the lamp of our minds with the love of God and neighbors; and you will not fear any evils, since he is with you.”[3] No matter how bad things get. No matter what valleys you walk through. Be utterly dependent on the Lord and you will be filled with light and joy. That light and joy might look different than you imagined, but it will be there. In these remaining days of Lent and all the days of your lives, fear not, be comforted by the goodness and mercy which pursue you, and rejoice because you will dwell in the Lord’s house forever.

[1] “Laetare Sunday.” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08737c.htm

[2] Craige, Peter C. Word Biblical Commentary. “Psalm 23.”

[3] Blaising, Craig A. Hardin, Carmen S. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. “Psalm 23.”

Sunday, March 6, 2011

This sermon was preached for St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Mclean, Virginia on March 6, 2011.

Text for the Last Sunday after Ephiphany. Year A. RCL.

Exodus 24:12-18. Psalm 2. 2 Peter 1:16-21. Matthew 17:1-9

Link for the text online:


Today is the last Sunday after Epiphany before we begin Lent. Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration. Today, Episcopal Preachers across the nation will be preaching on Mountain Top experiences. I am no different than the rest of those preachers. The text today leads us to reflect on experiences with the Divine God. But I want to take the mountain top experience a step further: what happens when we go down the mountain?

In 2006, the summer after my sophomore year in college, I was given the gift of a trip to Taize, France. Brother Roger and the monks, along with composer Jacques Berthier, birthed the worship and music of Taize in 1940. I did not know anything about Taize when I went. I also did not know that this would become one of the mountain top experiences in my spiritual life. Built on a foundation of community and daily worship, the community of Taize worships 3 times a day. As you’ve sung in some Taize songs at St. Dunstan’s, you know the songs are scripturally based, often in many different languages, and are simple verses that are repeated. Since 1940, Taize has become a community that welcomes people from all over the world for a time of worship and retreat. The week that I was there, there were around 3000 other people with me. Needless to say, I was nervous. I was away from home on my own for the first time in my life, and frankly, I had never even heard Taize music. I had no clue what to expect. But when that first beat of the music began, and the monks lead all of us in worship for the next 45 minutes, I was blown away. At times I could not even sing because of the glory of God that filled the space through song, prayer, and silence. I had been reflecting for years about a call to the priesthood, but at that moment, I knew for sure that priesthood was the life God was calling me to.

As we heard, today’s readings are all about experiences of seeing, experiencing, hearing the Divine God. And while your own mountain top experience may very well be located elsewhere, these two stories that we hear today are actually set on mountains. For Moses, he went up Mount Sinai, and on the mountain covered with clouds, he received the law and the commandment.

For Jesus and the disciples, six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. The text invites us into their experience. Imagine for a minute with me that you were with the disciples.

By the time they all climbed up the moment, the disciples had been following Jesus for a significant period of time. They had witnessed his healing power. They had seen him teach. They had heard the Sermon on the Mount. But among these wonderful attributes, they had also heard from Jesus that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed and then be raised again. At this point in the narrative, they had just learned that being a disciple means taking up that same cross that Jesus would. And that brings them to today: the mountain top experience. Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up a mountain. What would they experience? Why is Jesus leading them up this mountain? What would happen? In the midst of wondering, God gives them their answer. Jesus’ form is transfigured: metamorpothe[1]: Jesus is transfigured before them. The disciples received a glimpse of the glory of God. Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. But that’s not the end of the story! Moses and Elijah then appear, and Jesus talks with them. On this one holy and sacred mountain, the law and the prophets and the Divine God through Jesus Christ meet.

And then Peter says this: "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." As we look back at the text, we sometimes think, Silly Peter, you’re witnessing the divinity and glory of God and you want to make tents?! But think about it, would we have had anything better to say? As humans, it’s impossible to fully understand the blazing glory and power of God. But instead of Peter receiving a yes or no, a bright cloud covered the mountain: remember Moses: overshadowed them and says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" Being the last Sunday after Epiphany, we can remember that God spoke these words at Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of this season. And the disciples fall prostrate to the ground worshiping God.

Wow. Where to even begin to try to understand this! But Jesus helps us with this; we don’t have to figure it out on our own! Sometimes, we can be fearful in these moments of understanding. We can say silly things like Peter does. All of a sudden, what we always believed to be true is different now. Ordinary occurrences become extraordinary[2]. Life is transformed before us because of the revelation of God. Yet in these moments of newness, of excitement, of fear, Jesus tells the disciples and us to “not be afraid and to stand up.” Do not be afraid of what you’ve learned, experienced, seen. And now, stand up, and go back to the world, back down the mountain. Just like when my week at Taize was over, I had to return home. And I had to make a choice about what I was going to do in response to how God transformed me that week. Was I going to simply treasure this in my heart, or do something with it?

For the disciples, they would be asked to wait to talk about this moment until after the resurrection. Why? Because God knew that we would not be able to understand this momentous mountain top experience without the knowledge of the resurrection. Jesus could not fully embody the Glory of God before journeying through the cross. And that’s how it works with our mountain top experiences. Sometimes, we experience the divine, and we’re not sure what to do with it. But just like God was revealed in the transfigured Christ, so God reveals God’s purpose and will to us at the proper time. And each mountain top experience is a bit different. It is wonderful to prayerfully reflect on how God revealed himself to you in your life in the past.

But maybe you’re sitting there, thinking you’ve never had an experience like this. Or maybe you’re thinking, sure I’ve had mountain top experiences, but I feel like I’m in a valley now. If this is so, don’t be afraid or think there is something wrong with you. We all experience God differently. And whether you’ve had a huge mountain top experience with God or every day regular occurrences with God, God is always revealing God’s glory and love to each and every one of us. Concerning these past and future encounters with God, the lion Aslan, in the CS Lewis book The Silver Chair, says this: “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart, and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.’[3] And so as we enter into the 40 long days of Lent or into other valleys of dryness, remember the light bursting through Christ on the mountain, remember the glory of God and believe. For as Aslan said, nothing else matters.

[1] Greek Interlinear Bible. http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/NTpdf/mat17.pdf. Accessed 3.5.11.

[2] Douglas John Hall. Feasting on the Word.

[3] C.S. Lewis. The Silver Chair. (New York : HarperCollins, 1981), 25-26. Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz. Feasting on the Word.