Sermon for December 27th, 2020


I was ordained priest at a church on the upper east side of Manhattan, and we had a delightful parishioner in that parish, who despite living in one of the country’s richest zip codes, was not particularly wealthy. She always referred to her home decor as “trouvé” the French word for “found” meaning that her home was furnished and decorated with stuff that she found on the side of the road. 

Now I have since discovered that this is quite a thing, especially in NYC, because the difficulty and expense of moving things often leads people to abandon some very fine furniture pieces to the garbage collector. If you keep your eyes peeled and actually pay attention to what others are discarding, you can find some real treasures mixed in with the trash. That was this parishioner’s firm conviction, so her house was filled with “trouvés.”

I was thinking of her this past week as I was setting the table for Christmas dinner. If you know the character Hyacinth Bucket from the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, you will recall how famous she was for her candlelight suppers. Well, I must admit, I channel Hyacinth sometimes. I too want people to stagger back in admiration when they enter my dining room. But as I was polishing silver and setting out china, I realized that quite a lot of my treasured, beautiful things are trouvés, things I found. Sure, I have a number of lovely gifts that have been given to me by friends and family and parishioners, and there are some quality items that I have purchased myself, but a great number of my treasures, were at some point, in someone else’s eyes, trash…not worth keeping. 

Growing up, I used to spend hours and hours scouring thrift stores with my Grandmother, maybe that is where my own love for trouvés started, but I have since discovered that there is more to this than just collecting milk glass and used furniture. It is a way of looking at the world. It is a realization that we humans have this tendency to cast aside things that are really of great beauty and value. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. And we all had our reasons.

Maybe we thought the leg on that chair couldn’t be fixed. Silver has to be polished. Fine china can’t go in the dishwasher. As things get older, they frequently require a bit of work and maintenance, and let’s face it, a lot of the time we just can’t be bothered. And then there are other times when we no longer see the beauty in something because we are bored with it, disinterested or distracted. We don’t just do this with furniture and Nic-nacs, we do it with houses and buildings, whole neighborhoods and cities; the church has at times done it with her prayers and rituals, casting aside things of great beauty in favor of that which is simply new or convenient. We throw treasures away; we do it with things, we do it with thoughts and ideas, and we do it with cities and we do it with people. 

In the Book of Isaiah this morning we hear the prophet proclaiming “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” Why all this rejoicing? Why the exultation? Because he can see Jerusalem and the glorious temple of God being rebuilt. The temple had been destroyed and the entire city laid waste by the Babylonians. After Babylon had taken what they wanted out of the city, it and its inhabitants were rubbish as far as they were concerned. Jerusalem, the treasure of the Jewish people and the place where God dwelled, had been trashed and cast aside. Thrown away. And now, it was being redeemed. God was taking her and picking her up, dusting her off, and putting a new garment on her, a garment of salvation. God was fixing that which was broken; God was polishing that which was tarnished. In God’s hands, that which was cast aside as worthless and of no value, was now shining like a jewel: a crown, a royal diadem. But it isn’t just the walls of Jerusalem that are being redeemed; it is her people. God was saving people that the world had thrown away. 

If God behaved like we do, this world would have been consigned to the dust bin long ago. The moment we humans lost our ability to shine, the moment we became broken or a little old, God could have just tossed us all out and started over. But that is not the story of our faith and that is not the God we believe in. God does not behave like us. God is in the business of redemption. The Christian story is a redemption story. From the beginning of time, God has always been looking for trouvés, treasure among the trash. God’s mission is to find the broken and the forgotten and the obsolete and to make it shine and sparkle again. That is what the mission of Christ was all about: redemption. In this world, that by human standards should have been thrown away, God still sees great beauty; enough at least to jump down into this dumpster with us, confident that there are still treasures here that with a bit of love and polish, just might be fit for his heavenly banquet. 

The answer to all of our longing


Sermon for Christmas Eve 2020


In 1942 Bing Crosby recorded a single album of a song that was featured in one of his recent films. He didn’t think much of it at the time and he had no reason to. As songs go it didn’t seem very special to him. The lyrics weren’t profound or clever. The melody was sweet, humable, but not really remarkable. 

It became the best-selling single album of all time, and it set a record that to this day has never been broken, and no one has even come close. That one little song has sold over 50 million copies. 50 million copies.

The song was White Christmas by Irving Berlin. Maybe you already knew that. It is still the best-selling single of all time. 

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

Just like the ones I used to know

Where the tree tops glisten

And children listen

To hear sleigh bells in the snow,

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

With every Christmas card I write

May your days be merry and bright

And may all your Christmases be white

This is a secular Christmas song. It mentions Christmas over and over, but doesn’t actually talk about the birth of Christ. The lyrics are simple; they might even feel saccharine or overly sentimental to you, but try to imagine the song for a moment in the context of those that first heard it:

It is 1942 and all across the world families are separated and the future seems very uncertain. For several years Europe has been in the midst of a cataclysmic war and now America is coming to the end of its first-year fighting in that war and there is no end in sight, not yet. Thousands and thousands of troops know that they won’t be with their families for Christmas, and many of them probably know that there is a chance they will never be with them again. And in the midst of all that fear and uncertainty and longing, deep longing, a voice comes across the radio inviting them to dream of a happier, simpler time. 

It hit a nerve, because in that moment when the future seemed so uncertain, this little song was offering people a moment of connection. A moment of connection with the past; and a moment of connection with all those that the listeners longed to be with, but couldn’t. I think this song hit a nerve, because it is a song about deep longing; and deep, deep longing, is really at the heart of what Christmas is all about. 

We long to feel connected. We long for peace and happiness and stability. We long for our world to be other than the way it is. These emotions aren’t new to us in 2020. They weren’t new to the troops in 1942 either. Where does all of this longing lead us? Well longing to feel connected; longing for hope, joy and peace can lead people in all sorts of different directions, sometimes down very dangerous paths, but the Christian answer, and the story we tell tonight, is that the longing leads us here: to a simple birth in the backcountry of a Roman province 2000 years ago. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight, O little town of Bethlehem. 

Here at the stable we find the connection we have been longing for. Here is our past and here is our future. Here we gather with loved ones near and far. Here, the departed gather with those that are yet to be born. Here we find the hope and courage to face an uncertain future. The answer to all of our longing is a holy child, Jesus, and he, in truth offers us more than a warm and fuzzy feeling. He offers us a new life, and a new world. Jesus offers us a connection, a communion, that is the answer to all of our longings. 

Later in his life, one of Bing’s nephews asked him what was the most difficult thing he ever had to do in his career. He said in December 1944 he was doing a USO tour with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters and at the end of the show one night, in snowy Northern France, he had to stand on stage and sing White Christmas while 100,000 troops stared back at him with tears streaming down their faces. Bing said that getting through that song without breaking down was the hardest thing he ever had to do. 

The notorious Battle of the Bulge was just a few days later.

Those troops weren’t wishing for snow, they had that in abundance. That isn’t really what that song is about, not really. So many of the things we associate with Christmas, things like sleigh bells, and snow and Christmas cards, aren’t really the point of Christmas at all; they are just symbols that point us to something greater. They point us to this longing that we all share: the longing to be connected. Connected to the past, connected to the future, connected to each other and connected to God. It is the longing for connection that led those troops to sing alone with Bing through their tears. It is the longing for connection that draws us together tonight. 

May you find the answer to all that longing in the same place a few shepherds did 2,000 years ago: wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

The Four Last Things: Hell


Sermon for December 20th, 2020


And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

Be it unto me according to thy word.

Let it be with me according to your word.

May your word to me be fulfilled.

When our Lady responds to the Angel Gabriel she says “yes, Lord!”

I don’t understand how this is possible. I don’t know where this is going. This doesn’t make any sense; but, yes Lord. May your will for me be done. Mary said “yes.”

It could have been otherwise you know. 

When that angel came to Mary and explained to her how God was going to use her for the salvation of his people, she could have said “No.”

Not me Lord.

I’m too busy. This is too dangerous. This really isn’t a part of my five-year plan. It’s not a good time for me. I’m not interested. This will be too hard. What’s in it for me? Choose someone else.

No. Mary could have said no. God didn’t create little drones or robots. God created free human beings. And free human beings, with free-will, have the power to say “No” even to their creator. Yes, we believe that God is all powerful, but we also believe that our God is a god of love. God created us out of love; God wants us to love him in return. But in order for love to be real and meaningful, it must be freely given. God doesn’t take, and God doesn’t want prisoners. Mary is not God’s prisoner. She can turn away. She can refuse God’s offer. She can refuse God’s grace. She can say no.

But she didn’t. Thank God she didn’t. But can you imagine if she had? If Mary had refused God’s offer of salvation, where would we be? What would our hope look like? 

We owe so much to a brave little girl that had the courage and the faith to say yes to God. She is worthy of our utmost admiration and respect for her role in our salvation.

And yet, each and every one of us is faced with a similar dilemma to the one Mary was faced with. No, we don’t all encounter angels in quite the same way, and we haven’t all been asked to bear our Lord into the world in the way she did. Her role in that is unique. But we are all faced with the choice of whether to say “yes” or “no” to God’s salvation. There are so many moments in our lives when God offers us grace and forgiveness. Sometimes they are big moments; sometimes they may seem completely insignificant; but time and time again God offers us grace and we have the choice to say yes to it…or no.

Those who hunger and thirst for God’s grace; those who long for salvation, are unlikely to say no to it when it is offered. Those that are self-satisfied and filled with their own conceit, those that are mighty in their own eyes, the self-righteous and those who don’t long for God, well it is quite possible that they won’t recognize what is being offered them and turn away. We all have the power to turn away from God.

The popular image of hell, is of a place where God sends you for being bad. Lakes of fire and devils with pitchforks and pointy tails. Like popular images of heaven, this is far too simplistic and based on very little scripture and actual church teaching. In our scriptures, when Jesus uses the word “hell” the word he is really using is an Aramaic word “Gehenna.” Gehenna means the valley of Hinom, which is a valley just outside of Jerusalem, where scripture tells us that long before the time of Jesus, children were sacrificed and slaughtered. People, even kings, were worshipping other Gods, and this worship led them to sacrifice their own children. Jesus uses Gehenna, whenever he wants to talk about the opposite of God’s kingdom. And yes, he uses the images of fires in Gehenna, because that is how those children were sacrificed, by fire. But here is the question: who started those fires in Gehenna? It wasn’t God that lit those fires in Gehenna, it was man. Hell is something we created by trying to worship false Gods. Hell was the work of our own hands. Hell was a choice that we made.

Maybe you think it is unlikely that people would actually choose hell. I’m not so sure. When I look at history, and when I look around even now, I see plenty of evidence of people choosing their own destruction. It seems hard to believe that people would actually say No to God, but the evidence would indicate that they do. I don’t want to believe in hell, but much like heaven, I see glimpses of it all the time. The hell that I see though, is not something that God has imposed upon us; it isn’t God being vengeful towards us; it is simply the natural result of our turning away from the source of all life. If you choose to walk away from the light, you can’t be angry at the darkness. 

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and in conclusion of my series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, we come to the subject that nobody wants to talk about: hell. We really don’t like talking about or thinking about hell. People will say that they don’t believe in a God that would allow hell to exist, but you see without at least the possibility of hell, without the possibility of turning away or saying NO to God, then a YES to God could have no meaning. Love is meaningless unless it is freely given. The truth is, what I think disturbs us the most about hell, is that deep down we know that it isn’t God’s choice, it’s ours. Hell is a choice that we make. 

There was a very famous French Jesuit priest in the 20th century named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote in the conclusion to his book the Divine Milieu:

You have told me, O God, to believe in hell. But you have forbidden me to hold with absolute certainty that any single man has been damned. I shall therefore make no attempt to consider the damned here, nor even to discover-by whatsoever means-whether there are any. 

The words of scripture, the words of our Lord and a faith in the free-will of God’s created children, bind us to a belief in the existence of hell, but we needn’t speculate upon its population. Nor should we speculate on who walks its lonely streets. The population could be zero for all that we know. People aren’t bound to say no to God any more than they are bound to say yes. Perhaps when the true light of God is revealed, no one will choose to walk away from it. Time will tell. 

Our concern, must be to simply show the world what “Yes” looks like. What does it look like to seek God above all things? What does it look like to be humble and lowly? What does it look like to follow God even when you don’t know where he is leading you? What does it look like to invite and allow God’s grace to transform you and your life? Well, we have seen what it looks like. It looks like a little girl talking to a mighty angel and saying “be it unto me according to thy word.” That is what not looks like to say yes to God. 

Very often you will see the Virgin Mary depicted slamming her foot down on the head of a serpent. That is the power of saying yes to God: it casts the powers of hell right down under your feet.

The Four Last Things: Heaven


Sermon for December 13th, 2020


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Perhaps you may be tempted to ask the Apostle Paul why. Why should we rejoice? Why should we pray? Why should we give thanks? Why is this God’s will for us?

When there is so much darkness right now, both literally and figuratively; when so many are sick and suffering; after so many have died; when there is so much division and hatred; when we cannot gather with or see many of our loved ones…how can we rejoice and give thanks?

In the Northern hemisphere, it is getting darker and colder. This time in the church’s year, Advent, is traditionally a time of penitence. It is a time when we talk about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ, and in the midst of this season, in the middle of all this darkness the church tells us to rejoice. Gaudete! The Latin word for rejoice. The word that Paul uses in his epistle this morning. December can be such a difficult month. There is so much stress. There are so many demands placed upon our time and our resources. We have so many emotions to contend with: anticipation, joy, fear, sadness, anger, loneliness, love, disappointment. This time of the year brings out the best and the worst in people, and in the midst of the cold and darkness, the church by tradition puts on splendid apparel, decks the altar with roses and proclaims in the words of Paul: rejoice!

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.


As we sit in darkness and contemplate the end of all things, even the end of our own lives. We are told to rejoice. 

Why do we rejoice? We rejoice because we believe something marvelous is coming. No matter how dark it may seem, we believe that something better is coming. We have seen a glimpse of it. We have seen a light and We rejoice to proclaim to the world that darkness doesn’t win. 

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, which is traditionally Rose Sunday. The vestments are a bit brighter, we have flowers on the altar again, and on this day in the midst of a season of repentance we are told to rejoice. We rejoice because we know something wonderful is coming, but here is the thing you may not know: the wonderful thing that is coming is NOT Christmas. 

The thing that Christians are told to rejoice over, to pray and prepare for and to live in hope and expectation of, is not a commercial holiday. We aren’t told to long for the presents under the tree. Our joy is not based on a party held on December the 25th. We are not here to celebrate one day that comes and goes every year. We are here to celebrate, and to long for, eternity with God. We are here to proclaim an end to suffering and pain and death. We are here to say that there is a light that the darkness cannot overcome or destroy, and it’s not the light from your Christmas tree or your front lawn light display; it is the light that comes from God. 

We long to stand and live in the light of God. At Christmas we celebrate the vision, the glimpse we were given of that light in Jesus Christ. His life and more importantly his resurrection was a foretaste of the life and the light that awaits all of us. On December the 25th we celebrate our Lord being born among us, because in that moment we were allowed to see our eternal destiny: life with our God. We got to see the face of God and it was glorious. Can you imagine Christmas with all of the joy and none of the stress? Can you imagine a day of beauty and love and excitement and wonder that you didn’t have to create or pay for or make, but was just given to you as a free gift? The beauty and joy of Christmas may give us a glimpse into heaven, but what God has in store for us, is bound to be so much better than the holidays we create.

That is why we rejoice. We rejoice because we have heard the good news of the glorious feast that God has prepared for us. 

We have been discussing the four last things this advent: death, judgement, heaven and hell. No doubt you have figured out by now, that today I am talking about heaven. Now popular piety has given us many images of heaven: clouds and pearly gates and angels as little fat babies with harps. Most of these images have nothing to do with scripture or actual Christian teachings. The truth is, there is much mystery for us surrounding what happens when we die, but our conviction, as Christians, is that it can be a glorious mystery and not a sorrowful one. No we don’t have a perfectly clear picture of heaven, but we have been given glimpses of it. We saw it in the face of a tiny child born on a Bethlehem hillside. We saw it again in the life of that young man as he taught the power of truth and love. We saw it once more, gloriously, after his broken body rose from the dead. Saints have seen it. Prophets have seen it. And maybe from time to time, you and I have seen it. Maybe you have had a glimpse of heaven and you didn’t even know it. 

Maybe heaven surrounds us as a mystery that is begging to be seen and recognized, only we are usually too distracted by the darkness to notice. In the midst of darkness, we need something or someone to grab us and shake us, to cry out to us saying: rejoice! Something wonderful is coming! Heaven is on its way and you really don’t want to miss it.

The Four Last Things: Judgement


Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

December, 6th, 2020


In 1941, in the middle of the Second World War, C. S. Lewis did a number of radio broadcasts for the BBC. In one of his broadcasts, entitled: “Right and Wrong: a clue to the meaning of the universe” Lewis begins by giving the example of two men quarreling. 

Quarreling, not two men just trying to overpower one another, but two men engaged in an argument. Two individuals, each trying to prove that he was right and the other person wrong. Lewis says we can learn something from listening to people quarrel. Lewis said, that if you listen to people quarrel you will hear something interesting. People will say things like:

I was here first.

That is my seat.

How would you like it if someone did that to you?

You promised.

That’s not fair.

People say things like this every day. Educated people and uneducated people. Children and adults. 

What Lewis says is fascinating about these statements is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior doesn’t happen to please him, he’s appealing to an external standard of behavior that he expects the other man to know about. He appeals to the idea of right and wrong. And he expects that the other person must have some basic understanding of right and wrong as well, otherwise the quarrel would be pointless. How does the other man respond? Well he either tries to appeal to right and wrong himself, in order to show that he in fact does uphold the standard, or he tries to provide some reason why he should be exempt from the standard, but he pretty much never argues that right and wrong don’t exist.

Or I will give you my own example: think about the Supreme Court. You have some justices that argue that the constitution should be interpreted this way; you have other justices that argue that the constitution should be interpreted that way. But NO justice ever argues that the constitution doesn’t even exist. That is a given.

Why do we take it as a given that some actions are right and others wrong? Why do humans even have this notion of right and wrong at all? Where does this idea of an external standard come from? Well, Lewis’s argument is that this is where we begin to see God breaking into the human world. For Lewis, the very fact that we humans believe in right actions and wrong actions is evidence for the existence of God.

Now, you may have some objections and questions about this argument, and Lewis has already anticipated you and answered them. I won’t go into his entire argument here, but I will send you all the link so that you can listen to someone read his essay. If, by chance, you have read his book Mere Christianity, then you have already read Lewis’s argument as his radio broadcasts were the foundation of that book. Give it a listen, because the objective existence of right and wrong is, as Lewis says, a clue to the meaning of the universe.

As I said in a sermon a couple weeks ago, we believe that the power at the center of the universe is not just a creative force but is also a judge. Think about the book of Genesis and the creation story: God creates and then God judges. God creates the heavens and the earth and the seas, and all the animals and even human beings and after creating each one, he looks at it and says “This is good.” God creates and God determines what is good. This God is a judge.

Now the words judge and judgement have gotten a bad rap in recent years. When I say judgement, you may think of individuals you know that are judgmental. You may think of self-righteous people that sit in judgement over others. You may think of all those people casting stones on the internet, filling everyone’s comments section with their virtue signaling and their pious opinions. You may think of people who rush to judgement without having all the facts. When I say judge, you may think of Judge Wapner, or Judge Judy, Judge Harry Stone, or Judge Joe Brown. You may think of the Supreme Court Justices that you like, or you may think of the Supreme Court Justices that you don’t like. The words judge and judgement get a bad rap because whenever we think of those words, we think of human beings making judgements and we are reminded whenever we do that of how prone we are to making bad judgements. Even the wisest, most benevolent person can make bad judgments because we never have all the facts. We know that our judgments are clouded by things like emotions and prejudices. We all know that human beings make pretty lousy judges and judgements.

How do we know that? How do we know when a judgement is bad? How is it that we can recognize a bad judgement or an unjust judge? Well maybe, it is because deep in our soul, way down in our being, there is this imprint or image of a higher standard. Something tells us that right and wrong are real things, and faith tells us that that something is God. Faith tells us that the author of right and wrong is a force in our lives. It is such a powerful force that even when we try to run from judgement we usually end up running to the ideas of righteousness, justice and fairness that this force, this judge, created in the first place. When the creator of the universe is also a judge, you cannot escape judgement, nor would you want to. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom mentions in his book Morality, that “there is no justice without a judge.” Our vision of the world is of a place where right and wrong, good and evil objectively exist, the evidence for that is in our daily language, but we also recognize that we are not the best arbiters over which is which. We love justice, or we say we do, but we act unjustly. We want people to be fair with us, but we also know that we treat others unfairly. We have the power to recognize the existence of good, we know the standard exists, but we also know that we don’t always conform to it. There is only one judge that really knows how closely we conform to the standard, and that judge is not us…it is God.

Today is the second Sunday in Advent, and as this Advent I am discussing the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell, today I am discussing the second of those things: judgment. Just as we believe that there truly is a standard in the universe of right and wrong, so we also believe that one of the questions that all humans must face is where we stand in relationship to that standard. When the author of good and evil, right and wrong, examines our life, how will we be judged? 

We are not capable of accurately judging where other people stand in relationship to their creator; we know that we are not qualified to do that, because we don’t have a complete window into the lives and the thoughts and the hearts of others. But hopefully we do have a bit more insight into our own lives. What is our relationship with God? Where do we stand with our creator? That is a question we all must ask. 

Yes, we believe in forgiveness. Yes, we believe that Christ suffered and died for us, even while we were still sinners. There may be, as Paul says, “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” My sins may not have the power to damn me so long as I am a part of the body of Christ, but that doesn’t mean that my actions here and now don’t matter. Our actions in this world matter a lot, because our actions are either drawing us closer to the eternal judge, or they are drawing us farther away. Where do we want to be, which direction do we want to be headed in, when our actions can take us no farther? Yes, we cannot save ourselves, but if we have judged ourselves rightly and recognized that on that day of judgement that there will be much in our lives that will be in need of forgiveness, and if we have confidence that through the mercy of Jesus Christ that forgiveness will be offered, then what sort of lives ought we to lead in the meantime, or as Peter says, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness? We may not be called to judge someone else’s walk with God, but we are called to judge our own. We are called to constantly judge for ourselves, whether we are moving closer to the author of right and wrong, or whether we are moving further away.

One of the things that Lewis says in his broadcast is that “we all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.

I guess that is what repentance is all about. Who would have guessed that John the Baptist was such a progressive?

C. S. Lewis Essay Recordings:

Right and Wrong: A clue to the meaning of the Universe Part I

Right and Wrong: A clue to the meaning of the Universe Part II