Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

imgresA few weeks ago, George W. Bush offered the commencement address at Southern Methodist University. At one point, he offered these words of encouragement to the graduating class: “For those of you graduating with high honors and distinctions, I say well done. And as I like to tell the ‘C’ students, you too can be president.” With this quip, our former president was employing one of the well worn conventions of the genre. Self deprecating humor is just one of those things people tend to expect from commencement addresses. But the element that everyone expects from a commencement address is an affirmation of the boundless potential of the graduating class. During the months of May and June, countless speakers tell the young women and men gathered before them that if they follow their passions, they can make the world a better place. The cynical among us might say that commencement speakers say this in order to assure people that the time, money, and energy they spent earning their degree was worthwhile. But I suspect that this vote of confidence for the graduating class stems from a genuine hope that by excelling in their chosen field, the members of graduating class can make a difference and change the world.

Isaiah son of Amoz was a man who excelled in his chosen field. Now, when I say “chosen,” I should make it clear that he was chosen by birth to serve God as a priest in the Temple. And when I say that he “excelled,” I should make it clear that Isaiah did exactly what was expected of a priest in the Temple. Isaiah was one of those charged with the responsibility of maintaining the delicate balance between sin and righteousness. He made sacrifices and offerings to God on behalf of his people in order to negate the effects of their sins.

We can assume that this is what Isaiah was doing on that fateful day in the year King Uzziah died. As he went about his priestly business, Isaiah experienced a vision of the LORD. He saw the LORD he had been serving as a priest for many years, the LORD whom he encountered in the exercise of his duties, the LORD he was supposed to know intimately. But Isaiah’s vision is anything but familiar. Instead of sitting in the holy of holies, the LORD is sitting on a high and lofty throne far above the Temple with fiery serpents swirling around him. The smallest part of his robe fills the entire Temple; this place that is supposed to be the dwelling place of God can’t even accommodate the tiniest part of his garment. The angels that attend the LORD sing a seraphic song that calls the LORD “Holy” three separate times, as if to say, “You have no idea who you are dealing with.” To top it all off, an earthquake shakes the very foundations of the Temple as the building fills with smoke. It is a terrifying and majestic vision, and Isaiah could have viewed it as an affirmation of his priestly ministry; Isaiah could have surmised that God was being revealed to him as a reward for his dedication. Instead, Isaiah has the opposite reaction. When faced with a vision of the living God, Isaiah loses confidence in himself, in his vocation, and in his people: “Woe is me,” he cries, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah is bereft and humiliated because he realizes that the God he supposedly has been representing is far more powerful, far more expansive, far more than he had previously imagined. This realization leads Isaiah to change his vocation completely. No longer can he serve God in the Temple that can’t even contain the hem of God’s robe. Isaiah instead understands that his prophetic mission is to proclaim the ultimate sovereignty of God: the fact that God transcends all worldly concerns, the fact that in the end, God will be God. All at once, Isaiah comes to the profound and startling realization that the only thing interesting about religion is God. And so, at the commencement of his prophetic ministry, Isaiah is not told to go follow his passion and change the world like the graduates of today, he is instead reminded of how very small he is, of how very parochial his experience of the world and his experience of God has been, and then he is told to go change the world.

This morning, we observe Trinity Sunday, which is one of the stranger feasts of the church year. Most other observances in our calendar recall events in the life of Jesus or celebrate the lives of the saints. Trinity Sunday, however, is the celebration of the Christian doctrine that the one God is manifest in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only the doctrine of the Trinity has this unusual distinction. There’s no “Doctrine of the Divine and Human Natures of Jesus Christ Sunday” or “Filioque Clause Sunday.” Given it’s unique place in the calendar, it is easy to fall into the trap of using this Sunday as didactic opportunity to square the Trinitarian circle, to explain how 1+1+1 can equal 1. The greatest theologians of the Church, however, have argued persuasively that the Trinity is not meant to be understood in any human terms. The reason we celebrate the Trinity on an annual basis goes much deeper than mere instruction; in fact, it is the same reason that God appeared to Isaiah. Trinity Sunday is meant to remind us of how very small we are, to help us recognize how our understanding of God is limited by our prejudices, and to give us an opportunity to recognize the fact that God will be God.

Ten years ago, the great contemporary philosopher David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. Given the context, the most striking thing about his eloquent speech was that he never once told the graduating class to follow their passions. Instead, dfw-thumb-320x238he reminded them of how very small they are. The speech begins with Wallace giving voice to an assumption that the vast majority of people have: “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” This selfishness is our default setting as human beings, and Wallace argues that the task of education, the task of becoming part of society, is to deny this self-centered impulse. He suggests that the only way we can truly deny our selfish nature is by worshipping that which is life-giving. Whether we recognize it or not we all worship something. We are free to worship either that which encourages our self-centeredness or that which empowers us to deny our selfish nature and reach out in humility to others. True freedom, Wallace argues, involves making the correct choice and “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them.” This is the witness of David Foster Wallace, but it is also the witness of Isaiah son of Amoz, it is the witness of Trinity Sunday, and indeed, it is the witness of the gospel. It is only when we are humbled that we can begin to make a difference. It is only when we acknowledge that there is something greater than ourselves that we can truly change the world.


Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Every Christmas Eve, millions of people around the world tune in to listen to a Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England.  HDR tonemappedFor those of us who are passionate about choral music, it’s always one of the highlights of the year, an opportunity to hear one of the world’s great choirs singing some of the classics of choral literature as well as some new compositions.  As much as I love hearing new and old favorites, however, one of my favorite moments of the service comes at its very beginning.  After the choir and congregation have sung “Once in Royal David’s City,” building from a single treble voice to a majestic wash of sound, the Dean of the Chapel intones the words of the Bidding Prayer: “Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.”  I love this prayer, not only because of its beautiful language, but also because it implies that this is a story we have heard before and need to hear again, that the story of Jesus’ birth is indeed good news.

The term “good news” is used quite a bit in our culture.  There are whole websites dedicated to the sharing of good news.  For the most part, all of this “good news” is the stuff of feel-good human interest stories, the last three minutes of the 6:00 news.  A sampling of headlines makes this pretty clear: “At 82 years old, finally the ‘it’ girl on campus,” “Canadian Lottery Winner donates $40 million to charity,” “Girl donates her American Girl doll to raise money for the troops.”  You get the idea.  While I’m sure that all of these are wonderful stories of compassion and generosity, this is not the “good news” that the Angels proclaim in Luke’s gospel.  The “good news” proclaimed to the shepherds on that Middle Eastern hillside twenty centuries ago has much broader and more significant implications.

If you think about it, the gospel according to Luke presents the birth of Jesus is kind of an odd way.  You would think that the evangelist would want to focus exclusively on the baby and his family, on their joys and trials, their triumphs and hardships.  But instead, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics.  In particular, he focuses on a peculiar decree made by Caesar Augustus.  The emperor wanted to take a census of his diverse empire so the appropriate taxes could be levied.  This makes sense; this is part of the reason that our constitution mandates a decennial census.  It gets weird, however, when we hear that everyone was required to return to his hometown in order to be counted.  That’s just bizarre.  Why would you force someone return to a place he no longer lives in order to conduct a census?  If you do that, you’re not going to get an accurate count.  Scholars have wrestled with this, and some have come to the conclusion that there was no census, that it is a literary device used by the gospel to make sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem so that the prophecy of Micah could be fulfilled.  But I wonder if Luke mentions this decree from Caesar Augustus to show us what the exercise of worldly power looks like.  The emperor used his authority to command people where to go, even when those commands didn’t make any sense.  By mentioning this decree, Luke exposes the way the world is: people are subject the whims of tyrants and forced to do their bidding.

It is within this context that the angels make their announcement.  Even as the known world is being subjected to the whims of a capricious ruler, an angel appears to a group of shepherds and says, “Do not be afraid, for behold: I am bringing good news of great joy that will be for you and all people.”  The word that we translate as “good news” or “good tidings” is euaggelion.  While both of the familiar translations are accurate, they do not capture the full scope of the Greek.  You see, euaggelion was not used for everyday good news; euaggelion was used specifically to announce the birth of a new emperor.  The angels are not simply telling us that something good has happened in Bethlehem; the angels are telling us that a new king has arrived.  Even as the rulers of the present age are forcing their will upon the world, the angels announce that a new ruler has been born and that the world is going to change.  The message of the angels is that this world can be transformed.  The message of the angels is that the days of the powers of this world are numbered.  The message of the angels is that God has come to dwell among us and has promised new life to the world.  When we hear the good news of Christmas, we are called to reevaluate our lives, reorient our priorities, and make ourselves ready for a transformed world.

Even though the angels’ announcement is ultimately a political proclamation, we must remember that today we celebrate the arrival of a very different kind of king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome today was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through oppression and violence, the king we welcome today reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome today gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Today we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and demonstrated how we are meant to care for one another.  We are not meant to impose our will on others, we are not meant to presume that we know better than our neighbors, we are not meant to turn anyone away because of who they are or what they have done.  God has taken our human nature upon him; thus, we are called to welcome as a gift from God anyone who shares our humanity.  We are called to humble ourselves before the one who humbled himself as we reach out in love to the world Christ came to save.

choir-service-bigPerhaps the most dramatic moment of Lessons and Carols takes place silently and away from the eyes of the congregation.  As the organist plays the final notes of the prelude, the choir gathers in the rear of that beautiful chapel.  As they prepare to sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” sixteen young boy trebles huddle next to one another, uncertain about which one of them will sing the first verse.  It is not until the choirmaster sounds an opening pitch and points to one of them that they know who will sing an unaccompanied solo for the hundreds gathered in the chapel and the millions listening around the world (no pressure!).  It’s a powerful and dramatic moment, one that requires the boys to be ready for anything.  But more importantly, that nervous child singing about the birth of Jesus for millions upon millions of people is an icon of the Incarnation, a celebration of the fact that God shared our frail humanity and came to bring us good news.


urlThe other night, I watched James Lipton interview Tina Fey on Inside the Actor’s Studio.  Though Fey has had a dazzling career as a star of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, a published author, and an erstwhile movie star, she got her start at Second City, a comedy troupe based in Chicago.  During the course of their conversation, Lipton and Fey discussed some of the finer points of improvisational comedy, including the guidelines that govern it.

Perhaps the two most important “rules” of improv are 1) agree and 2) don’t say “yes,” say “yes and.”  The first rule ensures that every participant in a scene respects what her partner has created.  If my improv partner says, “Check out this apple,” the scene would not be particularly successful if I said, “That’s not an apple!”  At the same time, the scene will stagnate with mere agreement.  This is where the second rule comes into play; the agreement of the first rule presupposes a contribution on my part.  If you began a scene by saying, “It sure is hot in here,” and I simply said, “Yes it is,” there is not much room for development.  If, however, I responded by saying, “That can’t be good for all of these wax figures,” the scene now has direction.

As Lipton and Fey discussed the importance of these rules, Tina made an interesting point.  These improvisational guidelines permit an actor to be completely focused on the other person in the scene, allowing him to forget all about his own preoccupations.  These rules allow participants in improv to abandon self-consciousness and be entirely available to and totally focused on another person.

Yesterday, our epistle reading was taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In the passage that we read, Paul quotes an ancient Christian hymn extolling the humility of Jesus Christ: ”

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and was born in human likeness.  Being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.

These words describe the actions of someone who is utterly focused on other people, willing to sacrifice his own glory and abandon his self-consciousness for the sake of world.  Paul uses this hymn to illustrate the depth of Jesus’ self-giving love and also to encourage us to aspire to Jesus’ example of selflessness and humility.  If Jesus Christ did not exploit his equality with God, we cannot exploit the fact that we have been made in the image of God.  Rather, we must selflessly give to those who have need, focusing entirely on others, and by doing so abandoning our self-absorbed lives.

In many ways, this is what we are meant to do during Holy Week.  By focusing totally on the passion and death of our Lord, we leave behind any sense of self-interest or self-consciousness.  By focusing entirely on Jesus as he walks the way of the cross, we can give ourselves completely to our fellow human beings and to the God who loves to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Habemus Papam

urlFor the past two days, the eyes of the world have been watching a smokestack outside of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.  Many observers (including me) anticipated that we would be watching in vain for several days, that there would be significant wrangling as the cardinals struggled to elect a successor to the pope emeritus.  Instead, the conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, an Italian-born bishop from Argentina, on the fifth ballot.  Bergoglio is the first pontiff from South America and the first Jesuit.  Though he is known for his conservative stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage, Cardinal Bergoglio has exhibited an incredible devotion to the poor and downtrodden.  Apart from his public work on behalf of the poor, Bergoglio has also eschewed much of the pomp traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic episcopacy: sources say that he insists on cooking his own meals and resides in a simple cell rather than the sumptuous episcopal apartments in Buenos Aires.  Perhaps his attitude toward the powerless is best embodied in his selection of a papal name: Francis, the first in this history of the papacy.  A friend of mine summarized the new pope’s election well: “He’s a humble bishop who took the name Francis.  This could be interesting.”

Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant born in the twelfth century.  Though he spent the early part of his life reveling and vainly trying to attain military glory, he had an encounter with God that caused him to change the direction of his life.  While he was praying in the country chapel of San Damiano, Francis saw an icon of the crucified Christ say, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”  Though Francis initially took this to mean the building in which he sat, this charge to rebuild the Church eventually blossomed into a movement that transcended Francis and his hometown.  Though he has become known as “the guy who talked to animals,” Francis dedicated his life to living among and caring for the poor, and called the Church to do the same.  His love for animals, some of the most vulnerable creatures in this world, was symbolic of Jesus Christ’s call for us to care for “the least of these.”  A monastic order was eventually founded in his name to give a voice to the downtrodden, represent the needs of the world to the Church, and call the Church’s leadership to renewal.

While we can’t be sure that Francis I chose the friar from Assisi as his namesake, I hope that the new pope intended us to recall Francis’ message of renewal.  This is a challenging time for the Roman Catholic Church, but it is also a challenging time for the entire body of Christ.  We are all faced with questions about the truth and  relevancy of our proclamation of Christ crucified and risen.  We might be tempted to shrink back, to retreat into our church buildings out of a fear of being ostracized.  But I think we must remember that the Church serves an inescapably important purpose in this world.  Like Francis, the Church is called to give a voice to the downtrodden, to lift up those who have been bowed down by unjust and evil powers, and call the world to renewal.  During this season of Lent, I hope all of us can give thanks that the world’s most recognizable Christian leader has reminded Christians of their call to renewal.


“He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”  Philippians 3:21

world-series-ringSeveral years ago, one of the bishops of the Episcopal Church was on an airplane preparing to fly home after a conference.  It had been a productive event; he was growing to be more and more well-respected by his colleagues and he was solidifying his reputation as one of the church’s visionary leaders.  As he reflected on the immense privilege of serving God in the Church, the person sitting next to him tapped him on the shoulder.  The bishop’s seat mate had noticed his episcopal ring, a large ring worn by a bishop that usually features the seal of his diocese.  The episcopal ring is a symbol of the bishop’s office and is meant to remind her constantly of the people she is called to serve.  The bishop turned to address his seat mate, who pointed to the ring and asked excitedly, “Is that a World Series ring?!  Were you a professional baseball player?!”  Chuckling, the bishop shook his head and said, “No, as a matter of fact, I’m a bishop in the Episcopal Church.”  Looking far less excited, the bishop’s seat mate turned away, sighed, and said dejectedly, “Oh.  I thought you were someone important.”

In today’s epistle reading, we heard Paul warn the Philippians about those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.”  Paul may very well be referring to those people who have rejected the gospel in favor of an easier life.  One of the challenges faced by the Philippians was the constant threat of persecution by the Roman authorities.  Paul himself had been imprisoned because of his proclamation of the gospel, and part of the reason that he writes to the Philippians is to reassure the congregation that his work had not been in vain.  Earlier in the letter, he reminds the congregation that Christ himself experienced the depths of humiliation and persecution, but was exalted by God through the resurrection.  Paul insists that we are called to be imitators of this pattern set by Jesus Christ.  For Christians, humiliation is a temporary setback, a stop along the way that Jesus himself has already walked before us.  Paul laments that members of Christian community had fallen away from the Church because they were afraid of persecution and humiliation.

While our culture often affirms the value of humility, we very rarely hear people celebrate those who have been humiliated.  Humility is a noble virtue over which we have control, while humiliation is something brought on by those more powerful than we are.  Whether in our jobs, or our schools, or among our friends, many of us constantly strive to avoid humiliation by making ourselves emotionally unavailable or pretending we don’t care.  Yet, Paul suggests that the Christian life is about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and embracing humiliation.  We are not called to puff ourselves up with self-importance; we are called to be susceptible to humiliation by allowing others to have power over us.  Just like the bishop on the airplane, we are called to allow others to humble us, especially in those moments when we feel particularly important.  When we do this, we follow the trail that has been blazed by Jesus Christ, who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.  Jesus Christ’s humiliation led to his exaltation and became a means of grace for us.  During the season of Lent, I invite you to examine those places where you refuse to be vulnerable, and consider how you might be transformed by the God who allowed himself to be humiliated.