2010 Sermons

Christmas Eve (late service) December 24, 2010

Isaiah 9:2-7                                                                          

Titus 2:11-14                                                                       

Luke 2:1-20

St. Matthew’s Church in Evanston, which I served before coming here, used to take Christmas Communion to residents of a local nursing home. We got lists from all the North Shore Episcopal parishes of their people in the home and we’d split the names up between me, the assistant priest, some associate priests, and our deacon. So that was how, one Christmas Eve, Fr. Michael Johnston, my assistant, found himself in the room of a gentleman in the Alzheimer’s unit of the home.

2010 Sermons

Christmas Eve (Family Service) December 24, 2010

Each year for the family service on Christmas Eve, it is our custom at Holy Cross for the vicar to read the children a story written for the occasion. This year’s story follows.


It had all the makings of a really terrible bad Christmas. First of all, it hadn’t snowed. How could Santa Claus come if there were no snow for his sleigh? Second of all, Dad was working construction down in Connecticut and didn’t see how he could drive all the way back up to New Hampshire for Christmas, what with the price of gas and the shape his old truck was in. Third of all, Mom had to work a shift at the hospital on Christmas because they were short on nurses. So old Mrs. Blatchett from down the road was going to come in to watch Ginny and Roger. Mrs. Blatchett smelled bad and was crabby and insisted on watching only her dumb programs on the television. So Mrs. Blatchett was the fourth-of-all reason it was going to be a really terrible bad Christmas.

2010 Sermons

Advent 4 December 19, 2010

Isaiah 7:10-16                                                                      

Romans 1:1-7                                                                      

Matthew 1:18-25

Some book I read once on preaching advised that you should always look for the thing in the readings that made you most uncomfortable, or seemed most puzzling, and preach on that: the good news in the bad news, I think the author called it. Today’s readings seemed like a pretty good candidate for that. They all deal in one way or another with obedience.

2010 Sermons

Advent 3 December 12, 2010

Isaiah 35:1-10                                                                      

James 5:7-10                                                                       

Matthew 11:2-11

These four beautiful banners hang against the east wall of our worship space during Advent: WATCH, WAIT, HOPE, PRAY they remind us. The mantra of this season of expectation, this season when we await the coming of Christ. And on the back of each of the banners is another word, the same word on each. It’s written in invisible ink, but it’s there. That word is FEAR.

2010 Sermons

Advent 2 December 5, 2010

Isaiah 11:1-10                                                                      

Romans 15:4-13                                                                  

Matthew 3:1-12

Once a month I go down to Massachusetts to see my spiritual director. He’s one of the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a quiet, cheerful man who always exudes a great sense of centeredness and peace. We sit together for an hour or so while I talk about what’s on my soul. Br. James listens. When I have laid myself bare before him he is silent for a long time, and then he’ll come out with a question – a deceptively simple question usually, but one which unlocks a new door, gives a new insight, invites me to consider a new possibility.

This last week I went down to Emery House perplexed about a problem I faced, not knowing what I should do. It had me waking up in the middle of the night fretting about the alternatives, none of which seemed good. So I laid it out for Br. James and then there was the usual long silence, followed by the question: “Where do you feel free in this? And where do you feel unfree, bound?” See what I mean by a new perspective: I hadn’t thought at all about my dilemma in terms of feeling free. And that’s what I told him. In fact, I told him that his question made me realize that I felt very little freedom in my life. I felt as though I were constantly serving others, trying to fulfill their expectations, and usually coming up short.

2010 Sermons

Advent 1 November 28, 2010

Darkness and Light:

A Response to the Readings for Advent 1

 (This was one of our periodic intergenerational “Come With Joy” Sundays, which feature the use of drama and art, and participation by the congregation in the response to the Scripture readings.)

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44


Imagine the unimaginable. Perhaps it will be helpful if you close your eyes for a few moments. Be with the silence, the darkness. Now imagine the unimaginable. Imagine that in these next four weeks, these weeks of Advent, you do not put up a Christmas tree or decorations; you do not make lists or shop for Christmas presents; you do not give or go to Christmas parties; you do not listen to Christmas songs; you do not busy yourself with errands and organizing; especially, imagine that you do not feel you have to be “jolly” or “in the mood” or “get with the holiday spirit.” Imagine that for these four weeks, you only watch and wait, hope and pray. In other words, imagine that you keep the holy season of Advent as it’s meant to be kept, free from the pre-Christmas pressures of the world around us.

In the darkness as you sit there, you begin to hear things:

 (Roll of drums)

(Readers come forth one by one and stand before the Altar. After they read their headline, they cover their faces with a newspaper and remain standing as others join them.)

First News Headline

Irish Debt Crisis Forces Collapse of Government: New Fears of Political Instability for Allies in Europe

(Roll of drums)

Second News Headline

Iraq’s Troubles Drive Out Refugees Who Came Back: Iraqis who fled the height of the war and then returned are leaving in a second exodus, fueled by violence and unemployment that show how far Iraq remains from stability and security

(Roll of drums)

Third News Headline

North Koreans Unveil New Plant for Nuclear Use: South Korea Strengthens Military Defenses

(Roll of drums)

Fourth News Headline

Front-Line City Starts Tackling Rise in the Sea: Global Warming Means Tough Decisions Ahead for Norfolk, Virginia

(Roll of drums)

Fifth News Headline

South Korea at Forefront of Worldwide Dementia Epidemic: Estimated 100 Million Cases by 2050 

(Roll of drums)

Sixth News Headline

South Africa Fears Millions More AIDS Infections: Health Crisis Threatens to Overwhelm Country’s Future

(Roll of drums)

Seventh News Headline

Consumer Risks Feared as Health Law Spurs Mergers: Consolidation May Drive Up Costs, Impair Care

(Roll of drums)

Eighth News Headline

NATO Sees Long-Term Role After Afghan Combat: Tens of Thousands of Troops to Remain After 2014

(The readers return to their seats.)


And on and on it goes. You’d like to distract yourself. Go shopping. Get something to eat, maybe have a drink. Listen to “Jingle Bells” or “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus.” Watch something light on television. Maybe browse the Internet. Why not? What would be the hurt? But you discipline yourself. This is Advent. You watch and wait, hope and pray. And now through the darkness comes another sort of sound:

(Sound of chimes)

This time, as the readers come forward they each bring a candle which they light and hold before them.

First Prophecy

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

(Sound of chimes)

Second Prophecy

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; Authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

(Sound of chimes)

Third Prophecy

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

(Sound of chimes)

Fourth Prophecy

But you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.

(Sound of chimes)

Fifth Prophecy

A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.

(Sound of chimes)

Sixth Prophecy

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

(Sound of chimes)

Seventh Prophecy

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

(Sound of chimes)

Eighth Prophecy

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

(The readers extinguish their candles and return to their seats.)


We live in a world where imagining Advent is difficult. The darkness part, the news headlines and the crises and struggles in our own lives, is easy enough. What’s hard is imagining that the prophetic voices have any power against the darkness. We’re used to trying to combat the darkness all through our own efforts. Things are going badly in Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance, and we throw more troops or more money at the problem. Banks collapse in Ireland or on Wall Street and we bail them out. And of course we do live in a different world from biblical times. We have more power over darkness than people did 2000 years ago – or at least we think we do.

We think we do, but there’s a limit to our power. So often the law of unintended consequences operates so that what we try to do only makes the darkness worse.  We take out a mortgage to buy a beautiful new home and we lose our job or the interest rate jumps; now the house is a problem, not a solution. We overthrow a dictator and end up plunging a nation into chaos and provoking terrorist reprisals on our own shores. The Advent prophets would have pointed out that we act without consulting God. We act with insufficient imagination about what could be possible in God’s coming Kingdom.

The Advent prophecies invite us to entertain a deeper level of faith and hope. The prophets who voiced them so long ago knew something that we forget: that the Lord is always there, working in history and in our own lives, even in the darkest moments. That we often cannot set things right by ourselves, but God is always there, offering a flame of hope, new light, an alternative  way forward, comfort and courage in the struggle. This God is not Santa Claus. He does not always give us what we want.  His word is not always a jolly “ho, ho, ho.” He was born in poverty and neglect in a stable. He died an apparent failure on a Cross. But that was not the end, for God is a greater God than we can imagine. The old dies, but the new is born. The chaos that we read as darkness may be the birth pangs of the Babe who is Messiah.

Advent is about watching, waiting, hoping, praying for the coming of this God, our Lord Jesus the Christ.

2010 Sermons

Christ the King November 21, 2010

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

One of the most valuable spiritual gifts, it seems to me, is a sense of irony. Irony is defined as “a state of affairs or events that is the reverse of what was to be expected”; it’s when someone says one thing but then does something that contradicts their words. You won’t find irony among the classic lists of virtues. It’s kind of an outlier, a bastard virtue, if you will. Having a sense of irony protects us from taking others – or ourselves – too seriously. It punctures our tendency to create idols. It brings us back to earth, where we belong. And yet, even as it does so, it can raise up for us new and more genuine hope.

Our celebration of Christ the King on this last Sunday of the Church Year is a perfect example of irony.

2010 Sermons

Pentecost 25 November 14, 2010

Malachi 4:1-2a                                                                   

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13                                                    

Luke 21:5-19

In the news this week: gold hit an all-time high of fourteen hundred and something dollars an ounce. Actually, adjusted for inflation, it wasn’t an all-time high, but the fact remains that lots of people are apparently buying gold. People do that as a hedge against uncertainty, out of fear about what the future may bring: inflation, deflation, the fall of the dollar, the rise of China . . . whatever. Lots of uncertainty around us in the world today.

There’s biblical precedent for this flight to gold. In the Book of Exodus we learn that when Moses went up on Mount Sinai to talk with God and get the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel became anxious because he was gone so long. He’d led them out into the wilderness on this faith journey to some sort of promised land, but what if it didn’t work out? What if Moses abandoned them? What if this whole God of promise thing was an illusion? So they took all their jewelry and melted it down and made a golden calf to worship. A god they could get their hands around. A god who wouldn’t go away or ask them to journey on faith. Gold: the god of certainty. The Bible has another word for it: idolatry.

2010 Sermons

All Saints’ Sunday November 7, 2010

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18                                                            

Ephesians 1:11-23                                                             

Luke 6:20-31

For the last three weeks or so, I’ve been dragging around with a cold. Nothing serious enough to ground me, but enough to make me feel tired and subpar. I was almost back to health last weekend, but then the runny nose and achy muscles and exhausted feeling returned with a vengeance. The reason: standing out in the cold and wind at the Weare polling place all day Tuesday on behalf of a couple of candidates I cared about.

Why does anyone do this? Well, maybe because the “other side” does it and you don’t want them to be the only ones out there – and, of course, they do it because you do it. There was some talk on “the line” as the day wore on and we got colder and colder that we make a pact and next year no one would stand out there! But we stand because we believe in what we stand for. We’re witnesses to something we believe in – passionately enough to risk our health. Moreover, as I discover anew every time I do this, it’s also fun to see and greet all the people in town you know. You end up feeling a sense of solidarity and community: despite differences of opinion, we’re all out there exercising our responsibility as citizens and when it’s all over and the votes counted, we come together as one country, one people.

Finally, and to me most rewarding, it’s a time to talk with people you disagree with – discover what is motivating them, what their vision is, and at a deeper level who they are. Early in the day at the polls, the Republicans were at one end of the line by the door, the Democrats at the other. The Republicans were talking with one another about their beliefs: there were people who believed that roads and highways should be privatized, that churches should take care of all the welfare needs of society, that Obama was born in Nigeria and was bent on making America socialist.

The Democrats listening to this were rolling their eyes. But of course the Democrats were sharing their vision – an income tax, more aid to education and social services – and talking about how awful Andy Sanborn and John Stephen were, while the Republicans rolled their eyes. But late in the day, when the sun was going down and the cold getting more intense, when most of the line-standers had gone home, those of us who remained began to talk with each other, across party lines. What we discovered, of course, was that we shared many of the same concerns. Moreover, there was much we could agree on about how to approach problems, how to work together. And we learned that the “other side” were really decent human beings, with good hearts and minds, who cared just as intensely as we did about our country, our state and our community. So when the day was finally over, we went home – winners and losers – feeling somehow more deeply connected to one another.

I share all this because today we celebrate the feast of All Saints’, and this annual ritual of “working the polls” is very much a celebration of what it means when we say each week in the Creed that we believe in the communion of saints.

2010 Sermons

Pentecost 23 October 31, 2010

Isaiah 1:10-20                                                                      

2 Thessalonians 1:1-12                                                      

Luke 19:1-10

 This is God’s Message: “If you’ll willingly obey, you’ll feast like kings. But if you’re willful and stubborn, you’ll die like dogs.” That’s right. God says so.

Isaiah 1:20 (The Message paraphrase)

I was tempted, thinking about this sermon, to start out by asking for you to define salvation. This congregation has become pretty good at talking together in response to the readings – as you demonstrated last week. I thought as a follow-up question, I’d ask how many of you believe you’re “saved” – and how many of you have doubts. But then I thought, no, that’s being a little too “frontal” with you. Salvation isn’t something most of us think much about.