Palms and Pies

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont, on April 14, 2019

There is a movement within Christian worship in the last couple of decades to observe this day of the Christian year as Passion Sunday, or Palm/Passion Sunday, instead of just Palm Sunday. In other words, on this Sunday we observe in worship the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, but in the deliberate context of the rest of Holy Week. That often means including Scripture not only about the entry but also about the Passion of Christ, and to have the movement of our hymns go from “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” at the beginning of the hour to “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” at the end. This tendency toward observing Passion Sunday has historical connections, but the main concern that motivates it is to ensure that churchgoers get the whole picture. The reality is that most Protestants don’t come to church between Sundays, so if we observe only the triumphal entry today, most churchgoers will go from happy day (Palm Sunday) to happy day (Easter) with no opportunity to reflect on the all-important moment of Christ on the cross. And without the cross, however we interpret it, we do not understand the significance of Christ.

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the move toward Passion Sunday and the concerns that motivate it. And yet there is cost. The cost is that in our movement toward the cross we do only a quick run past the spectacle of Palm Sunday. In our effort to encapsulate the full meaning of Holy Week in a Sunday service, we risk spending very little time on the beginning. The triumphal entry disappears in the shadow of the cross, and we leave church wondering, “Why did we pass out those palms?”

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The Joy of Vipers

A sermon preached the third Sunday in Advent 2018

Texts: Luke 3:1-18; Philippians 4:4-9

I’m going out on a limb here, I know, but I bet John the Baptist didn’t have many friends. I mean, c’mon, the guy doesn’t sound like a fun person to hang around with. Let’s start with the way that he greets the throngs of people who come out to see him: “You brood of vipers!” Now the term “brood of vipers” will be my first choice if ever I make good on my dream of forming a motorcycle club, but it’s not a very pleasant greeting for a crowd of people who have come to the outskirts of town seeking the Messiah, a Deliverer from God. And it doesn’t get any better from there. The theme of John’s proclamation is divine judgment and repentance, not hope and salvation. He sounds like he’s basically threatening them, with all the wielding axes and impaling forks and the burning of unquenchable fire. He tells the people that they’re basically replaceable—“I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.” And he’s not much more flattering to himself, telling the crowd, who thinks he may be the chosen one of God, “I’m nothing. I’m doing magic tricks here. The guy coming down the pike is so good, I couldn’t even take off his shoes.”

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Mothering as Resistance

Last month Tammy Duckworth made history, becoming the first U.S. senator to cast a vote on the Senate floor with a baby in her arms. It took some doing; the Senate first had to change a longstanding rule that prohibited babies on the floor of the Senate, and changing Senate rules doesn’t happen easily. Duckworth and others worked for months to change the rule, answering questions like whether this would mean diapers could be changed on the Senate floor, or whether the baby would have to adhere to the Senate dress code. Ultimately, though, the rule was changed to allow senators to bring their newborns onto the floor and even to breastfeed them if needed. And so Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Senator and mom, cast a vote with her child right there with her.

 
Of course, the news media covered the moment with enthusiasm for its rarity. It was a rare moment in large part because of the limited number of women who have exercised privileges on the floor of the United States Senate. In the history of the body, only fifty-two women have been members; twenty-three of them serve today, an all-time high. So the sight of Senator Duckworth bringing her baby into the Senate was a symbol of the way tradition has been forced to evolve under the pressures of gender equity. But beyond the celebration of justice and progress, I was struck by the power in the juxtaposition—one individual holding together in a single moment four distinct identities: woman, veteran, political leader, mother. And the infiltration of mothering, with all of the connotations it brings—nurture, protection, love, sacrifice—into a body that frankly is regarded by many Americans as mired in futility, impotence, and destructiveness, spoke a word of prophetic protest to politics as usual. Insisting on bringing her young child to the halls of government, Duckworth did more than demand workplace accommodations. She offered a display of mothering as an act of resistance to disordered power.

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Witnesses of These Things

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont

April 15, 2018 (Third Sunday of Easter)
Text: Luke 24: 36-49

I was having breakfast with a friend of mine this week, a colleague at the college, and the subject of church came up. My friend grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but he doesn’t associate with his religion anymore. “Someday you and I need to have a conversation about this church thing,” he said to me. “I have to admit that I’ve distanced myself from that stuff in my middle age. I guess I’m too much of a scientist; I need things to be empirically validated to believe them. I’d love to talk to you about how you keep religion and the life of the mind together.”

Many of us have had similar conversations; some of us have had them with ourselves. We’re not always sure we buy all of the things read and mentioned and claimed here at church. What do we do with the disconnect between the assertions of the faith and the requirements of the critical mind?

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Prayers Not Our Own

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont

February 18, 2018
Text: Matthew 6: 7-13

My Pentecostal-leaning grandmother knew a good preacher when she saw one. Modeled after the televangelists with whom she spent much of her time, her standard for a good preacher was one who just “preached the Word,” spontaneously and extemporaneously, not with a sermon crafted in the week before but in a heartfelt connection with the Bible that lived from the moment. Good preachers, she would say, prayed the same way. A good prayer isn’t written out; it comes from the heart—spontaneously, with words that come directly from the Spirit in that moment.

When I was in college, the campus chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship was my main community of friends, and there too the evangelical model of prayer was consistently lifted up and practiced. Good prayer was heartfelt, personal, spoken in the moment, with a generous use of the word “just” that I never quite understood—as in “Jesus, we just thank you for your love.” Good prayer finds its expression in the moment and from the heart.

Then I went to seminary and discovered a number of things, including that on the topic of prayer and worship, I was a closet Catholic. Or so it seemed, because I fell in love with another kind of liturgy and prayer. In seminary I discovered prayers that are old, standardized, and passed down from one generation to another. I discovered the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, chock-full of prepared prayers that were used in common in many different places and many different times. I learned the art of crafting prayers carefully, ahead of time, with attention to language more like poetry than conversation. Prepared, shared, standardized prayer became authentic and good to me.

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Reformation and Revolution

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont on October 29, 2017

Five hundred years ago this week, Martin Luther is purported to have reached his limit in his frustration over abusive practices in the Roman church, nailing his 95 Theses—his 95 points of contention—to the church door in Wittenberg, prompting the public debate that would eventually lead to his break from the Roman church and the birth of Protestant Christianity. The Reformation was a game changer in the church, remaking the face of global Christianity. But the Reformation was not only a force in the church; it represented a cultural revolution. It transformed art and music by spurring the development of secular traditions of aesthetic expression. It transformed German national identity and literacy by contributing to the maturation of German language. It led to a revolution in science by helping to usher Europe into the modern period of knowledge acquisition. It led to a revolution in politics by directly contributing to the emergence of democratic principles and ideas like freedom of conscience and human rights.

The Reformation was a revolutionary force, not just for religion but for many other aspects of human culture and society. And this morning I want to suggest that recapturing the spirit of the Reformation just may be a catalyst for the cultural revolution we so desperately need in our moment. In this mire of injustice, incivility, and mutual suspicion in which we find ourselves, faced with the dual temptations of aggressive tribalism or cynical paralysis, we need a reformation of the American character. The church can help lead that reformation. But to do so, we must mobilize around a couple of enduring truths, convictions we inherit from that great revolution of five hundred years ago.

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