Category: Dialog

Blog posts, op eds, articles, and anything else that contributes to our evolving understanding of ministry in Higher Ed.


There was a recent thread on a FB colleague group about sharing sermons. The consensus among this particular group was that SERMONS SHOULD NEVER BE SHARED, which….surprised me. I’ve known clergy who didn’t make public their manuscripts because they either didn’t have them (which is a feat I cannot pull off) or because they strongly […]

Dad Jokes & Xenophophia (Or ‘The Story that Giving Helps Us Remember’)

Per usual, this sermon was preached from lessons I did not choose. Here they are. If it’s a half-decent sermon, it will make only modest sense without them.

What are you up to today? I’d ask him. Five foot ten and a quarter, Dad would answer. Every. Single. Time. I asked him. He was lying about the quarter inch. But let me ask you, all dad jokes aside, what are you up to today?

Most of the time, we know what we’re up to. We know where to be, or where we want to be. We know where to go, or where we want to go. Societal norms direct us. Self-interest, too. If I want this, I’ll go there, if I want that, I’ll go here. Concerns about safety, rational concerns – and irrational ones, also – direct us. Expectations of benefit. Accrual of social capital. The desire for good reputations. When someone remarked to my friend one time the old cliche, “It’s a small world,” my friend answered, “Actually, it’s a rather large world, filled with strange things and wonder. But it’s easy,” he conceded, “to confine oneself to just a familiar cow path or two within the wonder and come to believe that it’s small.” My friend’s popularity at social gatherings and dinner parties is unclear.

But he’s right. 

Everywhere, the invisible calculus. Everywhere, a thousand considerations go into taking this step and not that one. Saying “yes” to one friendship and “no” to another. And as much as we’d like to think we’re up to the task of independently and accurately assessing each step on its own, we develop invisible patterns until without even knowing it we’re walking in only the thinnest slice of the pasture and the possibilities provided us. By the way, that’s what – among other things – therapists are really good for; helping us spot the invisible patterns. Of course, if your therapist shares your blind spots with you, good luck. You may both stay on the same cow path together, and not even know it.

This brief and disputable account of one part of our shared human nature is helpful for spotting the mischief of Jesus in the gospel today. Jesus is traveling through the region between Galilee and Samaria. He’s traveling along the border. The border, which is the edge of a cow path decided by peoples. And the invisible patterns that constitute borders are not the same everywhere, but here – between Jews and Samaritans, in the region between Galilee and Samaria – the invisible pattern is the familiar mutual disdain of people each side is certain they are better than. Think Texas/OU weekend at the fair. Or any group of people your family of origin taught you to count as less than, especially if it wasn’t clear to you when they spoke that they were joking.

The highlight of the story today is of course the healings, but also Jesus’s own astonishment that only one of the ten people Jesus heals of leprosy comes back with a thank you card. Guess what, the one who came back? He came from the wrong people. From the people despised by Jesus’s people. But hey, says Jesus, at least he came back. At least he said thanks. Where are the others? The silence that follows as Jesus’s question hangs in the air is a judgment of ingratitude for the people who thought of themselves as being on the side of the good, even on the side of God. As better than the one who came back. Where are the others? he asks. 

Will Willimon has observed that gratitude is not an emotion that comes easily to people, generally speaking. Life moves fast and there are temples to get to, religious or otherwise. The crisis resolves and it’s back to the rat race. Business as usual. No time to lose. But a friend of mine one time gave me sage advice I cherish. He said you’re never running too late to go to the bathroom. Because what good are you, really, if you show up on time but full of – stuff, or so urgently occupied that you are unable to be present to the people around you? It’s probably the same with gratitude. We’re never too busy or running too late to lift up our hearts, to give voice to our thanks, but sometimes we forget or tell ourselves otherwise. What was the healing for, we wonder, if not to help us get back on the hamster wheel of running ourselves into the ground? 

So we move on. Maybe we find ourselves incentivized to get on with things because the gift we were given and the dependence it reveals wound our pride. Maybe we view God’s help, when it finds us, through the lens of entitlement, as a possession we were owed, even a kind of personal achievement, because we’re, you know, really pretty swell. Self-righteousness kills gratitude, because it claims as its own what is really God’s gift. What we’re talking about is learning to speak truthfully about the world, about our lives.

When you catch a sniff of self-righteousness in yourself, if you’re quick, you can grab a hold of the frayed end of a single, sacred thread. It’s the thread that connects love of God and love of neighbor. They’re on the same thread because God is always giving for the benefit of others, for people like you and me. And for people unlike you and me. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).”

Love of God and neighbor are on the same thread because it’s hard to be thankful to God for the good gifts of God without becoming generous by extension. Theologian Miroslav Volf writes that the true God gives so we can become joyful givers.” But it’s hard to be thankful to God when I’m pretty sure what I have is because I am better or more deserving than you, whether you’re a Sooner or Samaritan. It’s hard to be thankful and take what was meant to be a continuing blessing for me as well as all those around and beyond me and instead dam the waters around myself, where the waters grow stagnant by my imagined superiority, deserving, and/or self-importance. The same walls that keep me at a lofty and self-satisfied distance from the other side also keep me from seeing the truth about my life. These walls keep me from knowing my life as a gracious gift of the living and generous God. 

So let’s cut to the chase. If you pull that thread tight, the one connecting love of God and love of neighbor, if you pull it tight, all the way, you end up with something truly terrifying. Something like what Dorothy Day, that great saint and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, realized. She put her realization this way, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” Ugh. Dorothy’s  popularity at social gatherings and dinner parties is similarly unclear.

Why does he do it? Why does Jesus insist on traveling in the land between regions? Along borders. Off familiar cow paths? Can’t we all just stay away and mind our own? But watch this, says Jesus. Follow me. And then, as they do, as we do, Willie James Jennings describes it, “The disciple of Jesus Christ (becomes) a surprise to the world, especially to the cultural and economic worlds where people live in…segregated spaces and sequestered living places…” We become a surprise to the world exactly as we follow the One who goes through the region between Galilee and Samaria.

The thread that connects love of God and love of neighbor is the same thread that connects generosity and gratitude. Nothing so much as generosity – giving and forgiving – reminds us that everything we enjoy is a gift for which we rightly give thanks to God. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Nothing so much as generosity – giving and forgiving – reminds us that the good gifts of God are meant for sharing even across borders, for the glory of God and the building up of God’s people. Generosity and gratitude are what humans do when we are, with God’s help, most fully alive. 

So what do you do when someone or something does something beautiful and humbling and you realize you are not yet as alive as you could be? What do you do when someone you have learned to despise – or simply not care about – becomes a sacred window through which you glimpse the abundance of life and, in order to grow closer to God, you find yourself with no choice but to draw close to the infidel? What happens when no one comes back, except for this foreigner?

In the reading from Jeremiah, God gives God’s people the unimaginable instruction to live out their faith in a foreign land. Among the oppressor. As foreigners. They will be the foreigner they have feared and despised. It will feel like the end. But God is evidently okay with this situation in the interim, an interim which will last for most of their lives. Even through they will find themselves involuntarily removed from their cow paths and comfort zones in ways that will test their faith to its limits, even there, God will repeat the blessing and instruction of Eden – “be fruitful and multiply” – and even in a strange land, as strangers, God will be with them.

So, it’s stewardship season, and you’ll hear a lot more about that from people other than me in days ahead, but did you know that the practice of tithing, of giving a percentage of one’s income away, finds its roots in Deuteronomy 26, where the people are entering the promised land for the first time in their history not as foreigners?

It’s an instruction that begins “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess,” in other words, “when you are no longer foreigners, either as your wandering ancestors or as slaves in Egypt, to keep you living and located in the story of God’s deliverance, at the heart of God’s promise and mission in the world, be generous, set aside a portion for the poor and those just traveling through.” It’s the same deliverance at the heart of the Easter Vigil, the exodus Christ completes by his death and resurrection, and so the word is true for us, also: in order to keep you living and located in the story of God’s deliverance, at the heart of God’s promise and mission in the world, to tend the flame of faith with your life, be generous. Give to the ones most unlike you, because they are like you. Remember that you were once them, that you are them, that though you have a place now, remember that you are still pilgrims on a journey, believers in a promise, remember that your true home is in God.

You don’t have to. Do you want to?

It is important for me to give because generosity does not come naturally to me and it is easy to lose sight of my place in the story of God. It is easy to trade the single, sacred thread of Christ’s love for acts of self-deception. But practicing generosity has given me a heart that is grateful for it. In other words, I have come to see that even what I regard as my generosity is really one of God’s gifts. I might have had a much smaller life. I might have declined opportunities to grow in trust of God. I might have continued fearing loss in the many forms it takes, declining border travels and fearing those whom God has made my friends. But, thanks be to God, I am learning to speak truthfully about the world and about my life. Thank God I didn’t wait to feel generous before I tried it. Mostly, thank God I married a woman more generous than me. 

And so I thank God for the gift of generosity. First God’s own, made known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Second, the generosity God gives the church to share, as the living God who makes God’s home in us works in us and through us for the blessing of others, for the restoration of all things in God. And finally, I pray that God will not stop emptying my hands of the things I would otherwise hold onto.

What else do you do, what else do you pray for, when you realize you are both wonderfully loved and yet not as alive as you could be? As alive as you will be.


Better vision

My brother got me hooked on a podcast recently called Behind the Bastards. (It uses, uh, not always suitable for work language. Clearly.). The premise of the podcast is one journalist who thoroughly researches various figures and ideas that contribute to our current morass of suffering, then tells that story to a Los Angeles comedian. […]

In which I fantasy-cast a teen drama with biblical prophets

I was very excited when I wrote this sermon. I had a week off preaching last week (aside from the funeral) and was so pumped to get back in the pulpit. I had the privilege of hearing the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak, and so my brain was all aflutter with new ideas […]

On Funerals, Patriarchs, and Ecumenism

On Saturday, we had a funeral for one of Ithaca’s major town figures. He shuffled off this mortal coil at the elegant age of 95, and spent his entire life serving his community. The church was packed. Because his entire family was Roman Catholic, few of the people who came were Episcopalian, but because Jerry […]

American Idols and How to Resist Them (Learning to Believe that the Treasure is Christ)

Before this sermon was preached, the church read these lessons and prayed this prayer:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As of this week, I’ve been a priest in the church for twelve years, the last seven of which I spent on the campus of a public university, at a missionary outpost of the Episcopal Church. Working among heathens, I mean, university students. Bright, young, minds. It was an incredible honor to walk with those students, to get close and see what God is up to with them, what God is showing them. To be a person of faith on campus, as a student, in a living and visible way in 2019, well, it’s something of a miracle, and one the church does well to come alongside, support, and to be interested in.
Of course, that doesn’t mean my only conversations on campus were with people of faith. Far from it. Across seven years I talked to a lot of folks who had either stopped or never started believing. “Fr. Jonathan, I don’t know how to tell you this, but…” 
My mechanic one time told me, talking about his own college-aged son who’d stopped going to church, he said, “I think a little bit of science can hurt a person’s faith, but a lot of science can make it stronger. It’s stopping at a little that presents some challenges.” Same with philosophy, I said. Universities, it turns out, have plenty of a little of both.
So I would find myself from time to time at coffee with a friend self-identifying as agnostic or atheistic and I would remind them, “You know, you atheists and we Christians have an awful lot in common. In fact, atheists have made some tremendous contributions to the Christian faith. No really, you are always reminding us how dangerous a thing it is to worship false gods. You and I both believe it’s a good thing to guard your loyalties from unworthy idols. True, we disagree on the gods we don’t believe in, but just think! In a world that will worship sports teams and Botox amidst all kinds of other things, you and I agree that our worship is worth reserving only for that which is holy and true. Thank you for that witness and reminder.”
The earliest Christians were accused of being atheists. In a marketplace full of gods, pluralist Rome, melting pot of deities, it wasn’t such a big deal to believe in a god, it was a big deal to believe in just one god, to say, as the Jews and Christians did, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God; the Lord is one.” This put Christians a half-step at odds with their culture, and especially with the Roman emperors, who liked to join the game of build-a-god and claim divine status for themselves. They’d print on the coins that got traded across the empire, next to their faces, “Caesar so and so, son of god.”
For Jews and Christians, it was bad enough that they lived in occupied territories ruled by blasphemous politicians claiming to be gods, but to be forced to carry the coins, the little pagan graven images in their pockets, in order to navigate the market and put food on the table added insult to injury. After all, the first Christians took to heart the commandment to “have no other gods before me.”
All of this is background for appreciating the truly shrewd, subversive instruction Paul gives Timothy in the epistle today. “I urge you to pray,” Paul says. I know, it sounds unremarkable, boring. I urge you to pray is just the kind of thing you’d expect a preacher to say. Don’t forget kids, brush your teeth and say your prayers! But in the immortal words of Rafiki, “Look harder…”
“First of all,” Paul writes, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone (so far so good), for kings and all who are in high positions (why not?), so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity (read, pray no one starts a war while we’re asleep). This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For (news to some, the truth is) there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus…”
Did you catch all that there? Pray for the kings. God pities their ignorance and desires that even they would come to know the truth about the world. Forget the coins and absurd inscriptions. Pray for the kings who think they are gods. Maybe nobody told them, but there’s only one God. So I urge you to pray. Pray for the politicians, bless their hearts, who think the cosmos revolves around them. Who think salvation comes from congress. Who believe the end is in their hands. Poor things. Lord, give them the good sense to let us live in peace and quiet. And, Lord, while you’re at it, help us to remember that, no matter how many robocalls from unknown area codes they throw at us in election years, no matter how earnestly they attempt to persuade us otherwise, to make us accomplices to their delusions of grandeur, help us remember that you are God and they are not.
I was sitting across a table at dinner from William Cavanaugh, a political theologian, hero of mine, who – to my shock and astonishment – had just suggested to our dinner party that we should consider unplugging from the news of the day in order to keep our sanity. Turn off your phones! He said. “But Dr. Cavanaugh,” I objected, “There are people who would call that a tremendous exercise in privilege, say it’s irresponsible. Sure, they’ll tell me, straight middle class white guy, you can plug your ears and pretend it’s not happening. No skin off your back. What would you say to that person?” Dr. Cavanaugh nodded. “It’s a fair point. I suppose it depends on how you understand unplugging.” I asked him, “Well, how do you do it?” He said, “I unplug from the media madness by going to church, where my family and I were recently assigned a refugee family, Muslims from Syria, to partner with. Once a week, we play games and take them to Target, so they can get what they need. Only our sons speak a common language, so it’s awkward and clumsy, but…”
“Wait, you unplug by spending time with your church-sponsored Syrian, Muslim refugee family? That’s crazy. Literally no means that when they say they’re unplugging…That’s – a kingdom not of this world.” “Yeah,” he shrugged. “It’s what our church invited us to do.”
Pray for the politicians, bless their hearts. They don’t know what to do with a creativity as defiant as church; one that invites us to be part of an alternative people who agree that our worship is worth reserving only for what is holy and true.
Speaking of things holy and true. I wonder if remembering that only God is God and worthy of our worship isn’t also a helpful key for unlocking the mess of a parable Jesus gives us today. I say mess of a parable because by the end Jesus is piling on explanations like spaghetti noodles on a dinner plate. Of course the final takeaway is “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” And because we Christians appreciate the danger of worshiping false gods, I find Jesus’s highlighting the story as a matter of God v. Wealth (idolatry) helpful. It saved me from my initial assumption stated nowhere in the story is that one of the lead parts, the part of the rich man, is played by God. Unlikely. 
In case you aren’t persuaded by Jesus’s one-liner at the end, consider that the story that follows this story is about a poor man, Lazarus, in heaven and a rich man whose name Jesus fails to mention being licked by flames in hell. So the likelihood is high that God is elsewhere in our story.
Maybe it’s obvious, but it’s still worth appreciating. The confession God is not the rich man is not always easy for us to see or believe all the way. We can tell we are being tempted to believe that the rich man is God when we, from time to time, take wealth to be a sign of God’s favor in our own lives and in the lives of others; when we regard people according to their dollar value or the position we think we stand to gain from them. The temptation is ingrained in us to the point of reflex, simple fact. But then God shows up elsewhere in the story, shouting “Not it!” as we try to pin God down, and just then we discover some of the other gods Christians don’t believe in.
If God is not the rich man, the manager is performing his life for an insidious something other than God, caught up in a system making false promises, extracting moral injuries, in exchange for a status, a position he’s betraying others to keep a hold of. Then the plot unfolds, he loses his job but, much more than that, he loses whatever it was he thought he was getting in exchange. In what will later be commended as our hero’s shrewdness, the manager cuts some deals, gives up what he’s already lost, and resigns himself to life lived with the poor, to life as the poor. Among friends. 
At the point Storyteller Jesus is content to close the book and call that the story’s happy ending. The manager having found eternal homes with the also-rans of society. No wonder they tried to shut him up and run him off. No wonder most folks said “No thanks” and opted for the other, shinier, more compelling, gods instead.
But not Christians. Taking our cue from the atheists, we believe it matters what you worship. We believe in one God, the creeds have taught us to say. And we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Monotheism, believing in just one God, doesn’t come naturally to human beings. That’s why, when a person desires to be baptized, the church says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’ve got some other gods to put down. Here, let us help you.” 
Cue the prayer book’s baptismal liturgy: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? I renounce them.
And then, after turning to Jesus and professing the faith, the earliest baptizands were stripped of their clothes, lest a false god touch the water, lest the symbols get confused, lest it not be clear that it’s just the one God claiming this life for God. The rest gets stripped away.
Knowing that the world is full of false gods to distract us, the desert fathers of the early church fled to the desert and prayed that God would meet them there. Occasionally, they reported visions. The risen Christ appearing with radiant skin, in beautiful, expensive robes. Seasonal inventory at Nieman Marcus. They’d flee these visions, convinced that they were impostor appearances of the devil, unconvinced that extravagant robes were the uniform of the same crucified and risen Christ who promises God’s kingdom to the poor. Perhaps not coincidentally, the prophets of scripture, like Jeremiah today, are continually looking to Israel’s care for the poor as the lead indicator of Israel’s faithfulness; that is, their belief in just the one God.
Believing in just the one God, being a Christian, doesn’t come naturally. We need God’s help and we need the church, that is, we need practice and practices, we need one another and others, the gift of holy friends. Friends whose friendships make us holier for having been made friends. Friends who will help us live more truthfully than we would have lived without them. Holy friends who will take our hands and pry our fingers loose of the idols when we fall for them. Friends who can be trusted to help open our hearts, help us put down our lies, and make us God’s generous people in the world. 
The Good News is that God has given us help, God’s own self, and plenty of holy friends who believe our worship is worth reserving only for that which is holy and true. Thank God that in Christ Jesus God has given us everything we need to be God’s generous, Spirited people in the world. What a treasure. Christ IS our treasure. What a gift.

Don’t Blame the Sheep

The usual approach to the one lost sheep/the one lost coin is that the lost sheep is the metaphorical sinner who repents, and the shepherd who chases it is Jesus. Likewise the coin is the sinner, the woman, Jesus. (That last one isn’t preached much, though.) However, I guess I’ve been reading too much AJ […]

And then that. Plus mugs

So, about two weeks ago, my husband was walking home from work and got hit a tad bit by a car. I realize this sounds very traumatic and awful, and really, it was not great at all–however, now that we are on the other side of a stitched-up ear, and an ankle surgery, things are […]