Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Two collections of my sermons are on

Thanks to everyone who reads the sermons on my blog. I thought you might like to know that two collections of my sermons are available on The first is entitled As One Unknown and the second is We Would See Jesus. Each one is $20.

As One Unknown

Table of contents

He comes to us
Introduction 7
Hymn tune: Bluff Park 9
On a day when men were numbered 13
What the wind said to the shepherds 19
In the beginning was the word 25
The toils, the conflicts, the sufferings
In a new light 35
Cleave the wood and I am there 41
Loaf bread and jug wine 49
Strong at the broken places 57
Worthily lamenting our sins 63
All washed up 69
One unknown
The bad news of Easter 77
An idle tale 83
But we had hoped… 91
A tall tale 95
Seeing Jesus again 99

Our own experience
Taking big steps 109
Enemies: A love story 117
Candles against the darkness 123
If the Lord is with us, Why? 129
Under the sign of the question mark 135
Between “Once upon a time”… 141
Nostalgia and remembrance 147
His fellowship
Saints and sinners 155
Has God rejected his people? 161
Outside agitator 169
A more excellent way 175
The Pharisee and the Prostitute 183
Weaving community 189
The impossible possibility 195

We Would See Jesus

Table of Contents

Introduction 9

Invocation 11

Waiting for Jesus

Waiting for God 15
Remembering the future 19
Songs of exile 23
Let the skies pour down righteousness 27
New lamps for old 31
The kingdom of love 35
It’s good to be king! 39
Amid tears and great laughter 43

Seeing and hearing Jesus

We would see Jesus 49
Guess who’s coming to dinner? 53
Practice resurrection 57
Keeping secrets 61
The enduring word 65
Words, words, words 69
Named, not numbered 73
The sound of silence 77
The language of heaven 81
God is in the details 85
St. Paul’s Christmas story 87
Hearts and voices heavenward raise 91

Following Jesus

Dancing with God 97
Bread alone? 101
Errand into the wilderness 103
Carry-on baggage 107
Why is this night different? 111
The foolish farmer 115
Taking the plunge 119
Final Jeopardy 123
Mind your manners 127
Dr. King remembered 131
The view from Mt. Nebo 137

Other sermons

What does love taste like? 143
You are what you eat 147
O brave new world 151
Family values 155
The devil made me do it 161
Crossing boundaries 165
Life before and after the comma 169

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Very good or very nice?

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… God saw everything that he had made and, indeed, it was very good.”

In the aftermath of the magnitude 7 earthquake that struck Haiti recently, we may want to question God’s judgment that the world he created is not only good but very good. Or we may want to question God: How can you create such a world and then declare it to be good?

Part of the problem lies with the word “good.” Being southerners we assume that “good” means “nice,” but that is not what God said.

We want a nice world but instead God gave us a good world. We want a world, a universe, created by Disney, an amusement park world. We want a world with manageable risks, a world in which we can have carefully managed adventures, a world over which God presides as a kind of benevolent, cosmic policeman or nanny. But God gave us a world in which there is real risk and real adventure, a world in which the stakes are high, a world in which our lives and eternal destinies are at risk.

Look around at this good world which God has given us. Think not only of “this fragile earth, our island home” but think cosmically. The universe began with an unimaginable act of violence – the Big Bang. The Big Bang hurled into motion a violent universe. Stars are born, grow old, and die long, protracted deaths, ending as black holes, dense balls of matter whose gravity is so strong that not even light can escape from them.

Life on earth is no less violent. Most species do not survive the long evolutionary climb up from the primordial protein soup. God gave us a dangerous, violent, and beautiful world which is not nice but is good.

So in what sense can this world be said to be good? How can it be good if life for most creatures is “nasty, brutish, and short”?

In Genesis 1 God not only said that the world was good, God also charged us with stewardship of the world. A world that produces earthquakes and hurricanes plainly needs a great deal of stewardship.

Scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne said that God made the world so that the world makes itself, and a world that is always making itself is a dangerous, violent, and unstable place. The Haiti earthquake shows us how true this is. Our task of stewardship is to mitigate what happens when the world makes itself.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction.” We all know intuitively that creation often requires destruction. It took the deaths of thousands of young men in the Civil War to bring an end to American slavery. The price we paid for the fall of the Soviet Union was the creation of a more dangerous and unstable world. The renewal of our inner cities requires the destruction of blocks of slums.

However, our faith, our hope is that destruction yields creation, new life, resurrection. At the very heart of the Christian faith is a powerful symbol of death and destruction – the Cross. But it is a symbol of death that has become the symbol of ultimate hope.

I believe that God’s heart broke when the earthquake struck Haiti. But I also believe that God’s heart had been breaking for Haiti long before the earthquake. God’s heart was broken with Haiti’s poverty, disease, and corrupt government. And I believe that what really breaks God’s heart is our failure to be stewards of creation, our failure to care for and love our sisters and brothers in places such as Haiti.

Where was God, we wonder, when the earthquake struck Haiti or the planes struck the World Trade center or when Katrina hit New Orleans? It’s a fair question and God is a very big God and doesn’t mind our questions, even our angry questions. But the more important question, the question that should really matter to us is Where were we when the earthquake hit Haiti? And where had we been for decades before that when Haiti and its people were suffering?

May our prayer today and always be that our hearts will break when God’s heart breaks, that we will be stewards of this world that is good but not always nice, that we will be there for our sisters and brothers in Haiti and wherever suffering holds sway, and that from every terrible destructive event God will bring creation, new life, and resurrection.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

When water becomes wine

Today’s sermon is part 2 of the sermon I started last week. The thread that connects them is water. Life on earth is very wet. Now Dr. Vaughn will give a pop quiz. How much of the earth’s surface is covered with water? (This is the audience participation segment, so don’t be afraid to shout it out!) The answer: about 75%. And how much of the human body is water? About 60%.

Water is easy to define: it’s two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen. But what do we mean by “miracle”? Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? A miracle is supernatural intervention in the normal order of things. A miracle is when we pray for rain in the midst of drought and get a downpour. A miracle is when someone with an advanced case of cancer goes into remission and is still healthy years later. How do you define miracle?

Probably all of us have personal stories or stories that have been handed on to us of events that seem miraculous. But I’m equally certain that we have as many or more stories of times when miracles did NOT occur: prayers unanswered… cures that did not happen…

Skeptics can raise many objections to miracles. They rightly point out that the universe is a finely calibrated mechanism. Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, no more, no less. I’m told that if water froze just one or two degrees above 32 Fahrenheit or boiled one or two degrees below 212 that life on earth would be impossible. Either earth would be a frozen wasteland or all the water on earth would boil away, and our world would look like Mars or the moon. How can God intervene in this system without creating havoc?

My point is that it’s easy to find arguments against miracles. But we’ve all had moments when the odds have been stacked against us and somehow the miracle occurred: the rain came, the cancer went into remission, the check really was in the mail.

Maybe there is another way to explain miracles that preserves the integrity of the natural world and also allows for divine intervention. Perhaps a miracle is not something that happens OUT there but something that happens IN here, inside us. A miracle is less a change in the world, an intervention in the natural order; a miracle may instead be a change in us. Perhaps the real miracle is when our eyes are open to see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

And that brings me back to Jesus and the wedding feast at the Episcopal Church in Cana. I know they were Episcopalians because they drank all the wine and asked for more! On the face of it, this appears to be a simple story. A wedding party ran out of wine; Jesus took six enormous clay pots of water and turned every drop of it into the finest wine. That’s a miracle by any definition.

But let’s change our perception just a bit. Isn’t water always turning into wine? Wine, like the surface of the earth and our bodies, is mostly water, and water is always becoming wine. It falls to earth as the rain in Napa or Sonoma counties in California or in the Burgundy region of France. The roots of the grape vines draw it up from deep in the earth, and it fills the clusters of grapes. The juice of the grapes is squeezed into vats and aged in barrels. Then it is decanted into bottles, shipped all over the world, and we buy it at Publix or the Pig. Water has become wine again, just as it has for thousands of years.

Is that a miracle? It can be a miracle when God opens our eyes to see it as one.

What I’m going to say next is especially for Ben and Vera whom we’re about to baptize. The rest of you may listen in but this part of my sermon is for our special guests.

Ben and Vera, in a moment I will take water, the very same water that covers much of earth’s surface, the same water that makes up 60% of our bodies, the same water in which Jesus was baptized, the water that becomes wine in the vineyards of California and France, the same water that he turned into wine at Cana, and I will pour a little of this water three times on your heads, and a miracle will take place.

I doubt that there will be any thunder or lightning; you are unlikely to feel or look different, but everything will be changed. In the water of baptism God claims you as his own forever; you became an inheritor of the kingdom of God; you will be numbered among the saints on earth. In baptism God makes a promise never to forsake you. You may forget your baptism; you not only may, you will break your baptismal promises. But God will never forget that you are his beloved son or daughter.

Today you begin a journey, a voyage across life’s sea. There is water all around you and within you. Water is a very good thing. We cannot live without it. But I think we need more than water; I think we also need wine.

There are moments when the water of life becomes wine, when life suddenly becomes intoxicating, when friendship blossoms into romance, when words are no longer enough and we simply must burst into song, when we stand on top of Shades Mountain and watch the colors of dawn or sunset transform it into a magical kingdom.

Ben and Vera, tomorrow is the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew a thing or two about miracles. He watched as injustice was turned into justice and suffering was redeemed. He watched as power yielded to love.

Ben and Vera, my prayer for you is that there may be many moments when the water of your life becomes wine, when your eyes are open to see God’s hand at work in the world around us. But I also pray that you will be a part of that transformation, that you will seek out those who are less fortunate – the hungry, the homeless, the sad and weary – and be a part of the transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

To help you on your baptismal journey, I have several gifts I want to give you on behalf of St. Alban’s.

The first gift is this t shirt. In the early church, newly baptized persons wore white robes to symbolize their new lives in Christ. This t shirt will help remind you of what happened today. On the back it has the word “Christian” surrounded by several synonyms for Christian: saint, child of God, and so on… The second gift I have for you is a small container that I want you to fill with water from the baptismal font and take with you. Baptism is powerful. The story is told of the great German Reformer Martin Luther that once when the devil tempted him, Luther shouted at him, “Be gone, devil; I am baptized!” When temptation comes, remember that you are baptized.

And the third gift is a small cross. The cross may be the ultimate symbol of how God turns water into wine because the cross shows us that God can turn defeat into victory, darkness into light, and death into life eternal.

Welcome to St. Alban’s, Ben and Vera. And bon voyage!