It’s the one that’s different that makes the picture.

Is there a lesson in this for us?

A sermon for All Saints Day

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In honor of All Saints’ Day, which we celebrate in the church this week, I thought I’d share with you a little story about what it means to be a saint. It goes like this: A Sunday School teacher was talking with her class about All Saints’ Day and she asked if anyone knew what a saint was. One little boy raised his hand, and he said, “A saint is someone the light shines through.” He was thinking, of course, of stained glass pictures of saints like St. John over there, and St. Mark. He was thinking about the light and how it comes through the colored glass in so many different colors, all of them radiantly beautiful. It’s also true that the saints are those whom God’s light shines through, and they show us something about what the love of God looks like embodied.

It’s sort of a corny story. A preacher friend of mine told me the story last week and I was sort of hesitating about whether to use it, because it’s not the kind of sermon example that I usually grab right on to, but then I saw that in his All Saints sermon on Friday the Pope had used a slight variation on the same story. I figured if it was good enough for the Pope, I’d go for it.

It’s kind of corny, right? But, it’s the kind of thing that the storyteller Megan McKenna, would say is true even if it never actually happened. McKenna is a perceptive interpreter of the New Testament, and she’s written some modern day parables like the portables Jesus used in his teaching to make the same kinds of points that he was making in thought-provoking ways.

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Sunrise. Feels like a miracle every time I see it happen. I don’t usually go for the overly obvious symbolism in my photography, but how could a beautiful sunrise like this one not suggest all of the little resurrections we experience in our day-to-day lives.

Intimations

Behind me in this picture, the meetinghouse where I was married 41 years ago as of October 28. It was a sunny day a week later in a different year and the trees were a brilliant mix of yellow, orange, and red. Across the road, the graveyard where I expect to be buried. Bookends of a sort. I had a coughing spell 20 minutes into meeting for worship and had to leave. Outside I took this photo and looked up Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

It lies about us still, I thought. Back inside after the coughing subsided, someone else stood to speak of immortality. Is there life after death, and what does it look like? Or do we just continue forward in a different sort of life? He said he liked to think of the trees around the meetinghouse when he thought about those questions.

A sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost

In our opening prayer today, we have a rather poetically worded petition for an increase of grace in our lives. It says, “Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works.”

Grace should go before us, and come after us—and honestly, I don’t know what that means, grace going before us and coming after us—because I think of grace as surrounding us all the time. Grace is one of those theological words that we talk about in church, and we very rarely talk about exactly what it is or why we would want more of it. We just sort of assume, I think, that everyone understands that grace is a good thing.

And partly, I think that lack of explanation comes about because it’s really hard to say exactly what it is. It’s one of those things that we experience but find difficult to explain. But that struggle to understand, to find words for it—which is, I guess, the work of the discipline of theology—it’s important because this struggle for understanding, for words, expresses our desire for God. It’s a reflection of our desire for God, and our desire for God is a reflection of God’s desire for us. It’s our response to that desire. You could say it’s the foundation of our faith. It’s the foundation of our experience of God. And so it matters to try to find ways to explain or talk about these concepts even if they are difficult.

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Funeral sermon for Nancy Wicklund Gray

Today is a day of mourning, and—paradoxically—also a day of joy. We’ve gathered to say farewell to someone we loved and admired. The deep sense of loss we feel, and the gladness that comes with remembering the person Nancy was—these are complementary aspects of our grief.

The first words of spoken prayer in our service acknowledge that truth. We begin by giving thanks for the gift of having had Nancy in our lives as colleague, friend, relative, partner in life. We know that we’ve lost someone who will never be replaced for us. We pray for encouragement as we go on without her, and we come together seeking consolation by honoring the person she was through the sharing of memories and the liturgy and music she loved so much.

And the memories are full of joy and delight.

So we begin by thanking God, in the words of that opening prayer, “for giving her to us, her family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage.”

Nancy’s life in this world was a gift.

She gave herself to several different communities: Westminster Choir College, the Hymn Society, the Bucks County Choral Society, local friends. As I prepared to preach here today, I realized that even though I knew Nancy from my own perspective, that didn’t mean I knew all there was to know about her as she moved in these other circles.

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Friends

Lots of ambivalent feelings on the way to school about whether it might not be better to turn around and go home. Then in the last block we met a friend, and they clasped hands and went through the gate without looking back, somewhat to the dismay of the adults who hoped at least for a wave goodbye and feared something more dramatic. We were all talking about the mercurial emotions of toddlers, but I wonder if we aren’t all that way. A kind word, an affectionate gesture – they make all the difference in the world. Nothing seems quite as hard when you know you’re not alone.

A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The homeless in Bucks County, they don’t often lie at the gates of the rich the way the homeless in the city do. In the city they sometimes lie huddled in doorways, the way Lazarus does in this gospel story. 

You don’t very often see our poor and homeless sitting with battered signs asking for help. A lot of the homeless people in our area—and there are homeless people—they sleep in the woods. Wherever there’s a little bit of undeveloped woodland, they sleep there, or if they have a car, they sleep in the car. 

They’re out there, but a lot of us aren’t even aware of them I don’t think, at least until the winter comes and the temperatures drop and the Code Blue program kicks in. I don’t know if you do that program here, but I know that a lot of people volunteer to work at the churches that host in Doylestown and Buckingham when it’s cold. 

In today’s gospel, we hear this story of Lazarus, the poor man who lay at a rich man’s gate.

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Homeless at our gates

So I’m getting ready to preach about poor Lazarus, the beggar covered in sores who lay at the gate of a rich man and longed to eat the crumbs that fell from his table, when I come across this story about the President of the United States deciding to tackle the problem of homelessness, and for a moment I was glad. Then I read on.

The problem with the homeless, it seems, is that they bother the rich who occupy prestigious buildings and are offended by their presence..

The President said, “We have people living in our … best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings … where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige … and all of a sudden they have tents. Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office buildings.”

Dirty, stinking homeless people lying at their gates.

And, Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be comforted in the bosom of Abraham. And in death, Jesus says, the rich man lay in agony in Hades and begged Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue. And Abraham called the rich man “child,” and he refused.