Transfiguration Sunday

The following sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Southington on February 14, 2021. At the time our worship service was pre-recorded and streamed on Sunday morning.

A Princess, A Makeover, and the Transfiguration


Mark 9:2-9

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.


Transfiguration. Maybe that word makes you think of Harry Potter and something magical taking place? In the Harry Potter books and movies, Professor McGonagall taught a class on Transfiguration at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The account from the Gospel of Mark does seem kind of magical. But the kind of Transfiguration we are celebrating today is not the magical Harry Potter kind. 

I know you don’t come to church each Sunday to learn a new vocabulary word, but I think it is important to ground ourselves in what it really means to be transfigured. Merriam-Webster defines transfigure as, “to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to; transform outwardly and usually for the better.” I think this definition might help us to understand what is taking place during the Transfiguration of Jesus. In the story of the Transfiguration in the Gospels, we read of Jesus who appears in a new way.

Jesus goes up on a mountaintop with three of his disciples: Peter, James, and John. Jesus was transfigured before them. This transfiguration can be seen as a miracle. It is a little different from the healing miracles or the feeding miracles Jesus performs. Instead, in the transfiguration, it almost seems like God performs the miracle for Jesus.

During the miraculous time when Jesus is brilliantly shining with a great light, he is visited by Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ disciples can also see Moses and Elijah with Jesus. Peter, recognizing the significance of what is taking place, tells Jesus that they should make three dwelling places on this mountaintop. Possibly to honor Moses and Elijah or maybe to try to preserve the amazing thing they are witnessing. It is likely that Moses and Elijah appear at Jesus’ transfiguration because they were the voices regularly calling Israel back to who they were meant to be as people of God. Moses and Elijah challenged authorities that were leading astray and meeting directly with God. Jesus also will continue to challenge the authorities and it will ultimately lead to his death on a cross. 

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Peter didn’t know what to say and that they were all terrified. The disciples were terrified even BEFORE a cloud overshadowed them and the voice of God calls out, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

The voice of God seems to mark the end the physical act of Transfiguration. The disciples are left standing with Jesus. As they make their way down the mountain, Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about what happened until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Our lectionary assigned reading ends there, but I think it is valuable to look at the next verse. Verse 10 reads, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.” 

I like how human the disciples are in this story. They are terrified, they say and do the wrong things, they have questions, but Jesus doesn’t get frustrated with them. Peter refers to Jesus as Rabbi, Teacher. A few weeks ago, Karlene asked the congregation in a Holy Surprise to think about the best teacher they ever had. Our Gospel reading today gives another example of Jesus as Great Teacher. Jesus doesn’t lecture the disciples about what is taking place. He recognizes that sometimes we learn best by sight and he gives the disciples time to process all they had seen.

Let’s go back to that definition I shared earlier for transfiguration. As I said before, according to Merriam Webster transfigure is “to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to; transform outwardly and usually for the better.” Some synonyms for transfigure are transform, metamorphose, or make over. There are many different movies and tv shows with makeover scenes.  I want to briefly reflect on one particular movie with a famous makeover scene that I think is worth examining because of some of the similar lessons we might draw from the Gospel story.

The 2001 movie, The Princess Diaries stars Anne Hathaway as high schooler Mia Thermopolis and Julie Andrews as Queen Clarisse Renaldi. Mia Thermopolis at the beginning of the movie is an awkward high school girl with glasses and wild curly hair. Although she has a good heart, she is severely lacking in refinement. Queen Clarisse Renaldi is Mia’s grandmother who informs Mia she is actually a princess and heir to a throne in Genovia. Julie Andrews is the perfect actress for this role with her posh British voice and seemingly natural poise and elegance. After the revelation that Mia is a princess, Queen Clarisse Renaldi instructs her granddaughter on etiquette with various lessons and also helps her get a makeover. Mia Thermopolis post-makeover is nearly unrecognizable. Her wild curls are tamed, contacts replace glasses, and other style enhancements transform the awkward teenage girl into someone who really LOOKS like a princess.

Similar to the disciples who are confused and terrified at Jesus’ transfiguration, Mia’s friends are very confused and maybe even a little frightened. What happened to their best friend? When her outside was changed, did her inner character remain the same?

As we see in most movies with a major makeover or transformation story, outside appearances only tell part of the story. What makes Mia a good princess at the end of the movie is not the fact that she looks the part, but her inner goodness, her sense of humor, and her character, which was always there. For the disciples, the transfiguration is a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus. The voice of God reminds them that Jesus is the Beloved Son of God and instructs them to listen to Jesus. The disciples saw the physical transfiguration of Jesus, but they also knew that there was more than meets the eye with Jesus. Jesus was their Teacher, Leader and Friend. And Jesus knows that when the disciples no longer have him physically present with them, they will need to rely on what lies within, their experiences and memories which are stronger than just physical representation.

Transfiguration Sunday is a transition point in our church year. This Wednesday we will begin the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is when we remember our mortality. The idea of remembering our mortality might not sit very well this year. We have all been constantly reminded of our mortality during this pandemic. 

During the Transfiguration, the voice from the cloud, the voice of God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” This instruction from God is very fitting for our Lenten series called “Listen” which will begin on Wednesday.  Each week during Lent Pastor Ron and I will invite you to Listen for God’s still small voice and listen to your own True Self. Listening through prayer as well as meditation on holy texts is an ancient Lenten practice. We will listen to the Scriptures as they lead us on the journey to the cross.

So before we get into the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we have the opportunity today to celebrate the transfiguration. To remember the glory and majesty of Jesus. Hopefully this mountaintop story can carry us through the valleys of the Lenten season ahead. 

When the disciples walked down from the mountaintop after the transfiguration, they were changed. Maybe not physically any different. But they had been changed by what they saw. May the glory of Jesus also be revealed to us and may we be open to the ways God will be at work among us. Amen.

Nothing Can Separate Us

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

It is an occupational hazard… when I visit a new town or city across the United States I often look to see if there is a UCC congregation nearby, even if I’m not going to be in town to attend Sunday worship. Last summer, I traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to celebrate a family member’s birthday and I knew that there was a historic UCC congregation in downtown Charleston. Circular Church is one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the South. They also have a historic burying ground surrounding their church building with gravestones dating back to 1729.

While New England is filled with Protestant and UCC history, it was interesting to see our shared church history in a different light in Charleston. There was a familiar “God is Still Speaking” banner hanging on a fence outside of the church. But there were also palm trees lining the church yard which made it clear that I was no longer in New England!

I was reminded of my visit to Circular Church and their historic burying ground when reading this Scripture passage from Romans. The Apostle Paul writes how death does not separate us from the love of God. As Christians we believe that death does not have the final word. We are invited to remember life after death through the words carved onto a headstone from 1741, “departed this life…” Christianity is about believing that death does not have the final word. We are Resurrection people!

While we cannot safely gather in church buildings, like the one pictured here in Charleston, or your own beloved sanctuary, we must remember that nothing can separate us from God’s love.

My question for you is: what separates you from feeling God’s love? I encourage you to reflect on your previous week or even just the past 24 hours. Is there a friendship or relationship nagging at you and causing you to feel separated from God’s love? Do you have a burden you are carrying which might be in the way of allowing you to feel God’s love? Or maybe you just woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. When we feel separate from God’s love, how can we unburden and reconnect with God who is already there waiting for us, ready to love us?

God’s love abounds throughout time and place. From Circular Church and the historic burying ground in Charleston, South Carolina, to First Congregational Church of Wareham, Massachusetts, and everywhere in between, we cannot be separated from God’s loving presence. Let us rejoice in the good news! Amen.

This devotional was originally published via email on July 21, 2020 and written for First Congregational Church of Wareham, MA.

Sermon at First Congregational Church of Hudson, February 2020

Note: I preached at all three services at First Congregational Church of Hudson in Hudson, Ohio on February 16, 2020. Recordings of the 10:30 AM and 11:59 AM service can be found on the church website by scrolling to the services recorded on that day. Below is the manuscript I used for the 10:30 AM service.

It is a pleasure to be here this morning and worship together. Thank you very much to Rev. Wiley for the invitation to preach here this morning. As he mentioned, I grew up in this congregation. My family moved to Hudson when I was in the 4th grade. We began attending church here about twenty years ago. First Congregational Church of Hudson has had a lasting impact on my faith journey.

When I read this Psalm, I think back to the ways that I learned about God’s commandments here in this church, through Sunday school lessons in the classrooms downstairs. This community is where I learned what it means to walk in the way of the Lord.

Our Psalm this morning, while we only heard 8 verses in our reading, is actually the longest Psalm in the book, it has 176 total verses. It is written in an acrostic style where each section begins with the same letter. Our 8 verses this morning all begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, alef.

As we read the Psalm, we hear a theme of following the commandments or laws of God. In the eight verses we heard, there are several different words mentioned for this same theme, in addition to laws and commandments, we also read of statutes, ordinances, and precepts. Another interesting thing about this Psalm though is that even if we read all 176 verses, the Psalm never specifically mentions what those laws of God are. One reason scholars speculate why no laws are specifically mentioned is because this is meant to be a teaching Psalm. In ancient times, like now, students learn best through example, rather than being told exactly what to do. This is another reason why this Psalm resonates with my faith development which took place here at First Congregational Church of Hudson. 

In Sunday School, we were not drilled on Bible verses, but instead were shown by example how to follow God. One particular way I believe I was formed as a Christian in this community was the peer mentorship that informally took place, in particular through the high school youth group. I learned what it means to walk in the way of the Lord by participating in the life of the church. 

When the Psalmist says, “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD,” they are not writing in judgment. The Psalmist is writing of the joy that has come into their life while they have been following God’s path. I stand before you this morning to share a similar message of the joy I have found through walking in the way of the Lord. 

How does one figure out how to follow the laws of the Lord? Where do we learn about God’s decrees or commandments? We learn by example and through community. My childhood memories of Sunday School here were being loved and valued. While I might not be able to recall a specific lesson on the ten commandments or divine law, I know deep in my heart that the roots of God’s loving message were planted here.

I learned what it means to be a faithful Christian through the examples of those adults who spent time with the children and youth of the church. Through the generous support of this church, I spent two summers in high school working as a Summer Missionary. We worked at different sites around downtown Akron each week, including OPEN M, Community AIDS Network, and Miller Avenue UCC. Working and learning about these organizations instilled in me the idea of a faith that does justice.

One of my favorite games to play as a member of the youth group here at the church was Sardines. Sardines is like hide and go seek, but in reverse. One person goes to hide and after a few minutes, the others go and try to find them and then hide with them. Learning the rules is an important part of having fun playing a game. Recently, I gathered with a few other seminary students to play a new board game. The game we were playing was called Commissioned. It was a very nerdy game well suited for a group of students preparing to become future ministers. The board game Commissioned is about the apostles and early church leaders who were “commissioned” to go out and spread the Gospel. Now this was a new game and none of us had ever played it before. It took us about thirty minutes into playing the game before we had an understanding of the rules and how we were supposed to play. We started to have fun with the various steps and actions involved in game play. But then after almost two hours of playing Commissioned, one of my friends realized that we had actually been playing the wrong way and we wouldn’t be able to finish the game.

Imagine our frustration! We had been playing a board game for two hours with the wrong rules. Now by sharing this story, I don’t mean to suggest that life is a game that you can win at. But instead to reflect that we try our best to follow the commandments God has set out for us. God created us and wants us to enjoy the game of life! I think that one other lesson that can come from the failed attempt at playing the Commissioned game is the importance of mentors and a supportive community. We were trying our best with only a rule book to guide us. But if we had someone with experience guiding us, we would have been more successful. Part of enjoying the game is the importance of the people on the journey with you.

Rules, laws and commandments: these are commonly understood words. But one word I’ve mentioned a few times is not as familiar as the others, precepts. I learned about precepts through a book club I was in a few years ago. This particular book group was determined to choose a different genre of book each month. One of the members of our book club was a fourth grade teacher and suggested that we try a children’s literature book called Wonder. Wonder by RJ Palacio is the story of August, aka Auggie, a fifth grade boy with a medical condition which left him with facial differences. It is an incredible book that I highly recommend reading. Also I recommend reading the book because the book is always better than the movie – even if the movie does star Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Jacob Tremblay.

In Wonder, Auggie’s fifth grade teacher is Mr. Browne. Mr. Browne teaches his class about precepts. He says that a precept is: “Like a motto! Like a famous quote. Like a line from a fortune cookie. Any saying or ground rule that can motivate you. Basically, a precept is anything that helps guide us when making decisions about really important things.”

Mr. Browne gives his class a new precept each month. For example, his precept for February is: “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” That quote comes from James Thurber, an American cartoonist.  When my book club gathered to discuss Wonder, we each created our own precepts. I spent a lot of time thinking about the one quote that I would share with my book club friends. In the end, my precept came from Winne the Pooh’s Grand Adventure, “Promise me you’ll always remember: you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

I wonder if you have a precept that you live by? Is there one quote or phrase that helps you to make important decisions? Whether it is scripture found in the Bible, or a quote from your favorite comedian, author, or person, I invite you to take a moment in the week ahead to think what your precept might be. And if you are willing, to share your precept with someone in the future. Like the Psalmist writing about their joy found in God’s commandments and precepts, part of each of our lifelong faith journey is learning from one another and sharing what helps us along the way.

If you leave here this morning with only one thing, let it be this: know that you are loved by God. Whether you are faithfully in the pews each Sunday, or this is your first time back at church in years, we are all trying our best each day to walk in the way of the Lord. No matter how far you stray, we remember our Savior Jesus Christ tells us that he will leave the 99 in order to ensure that the lost one is safe and found. When you walk through the doors on a Sunday morning, you are welcomed into a Christian community that is all striving to follow the path of Jesus and walk humbly with our God. This path is not only for those who are “blameless.” Walking in the way of the Lord is for those who have followed all of the commandments AND for those who have broken all of the commandments and precepts. Because God’s grace is overflowing. When you gather together each Sunday for worship, there is an opportunity to confess your sins and receive forgiveness. The ministers here say those words, you are forgiven.

As a child of God, who was raised in the faith in this congregation, it brings me joy to remind you that you, yes each of you, is a beloved child of God. Would you pray with me?

Dear God, I ask your blessing over First Congregational Church of Hudson. I ask you to be with each person here as they continue to walk in the way of the Lord. Help us to follow the path of those who guide us in the faith. Give us strength for the journey and help us to spread your love. Amen.

Sermon at Middlebury Congregational Church, February 2020

The following sermon was preached on February 23, 2020 at Middlebury Congregational Church, Middlebury, CT. Thank you to Rev. Katrina Manzi who invited me to preach.

We have two mystical readings as our texts this morning. First, in Exodus, Moses goes up to Mount Sinai and enters the cloud of the glory of the Lord. We are told that the “appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.” That is quite the imagery!

In our second reading, we learn of Jesus and three of his disciples also on top of a high mountain. On the top of this mountain, Jesus was transfigured before the three disciples. Again, there is a cloud and this time a voice comes from the cloud. We assume that it is the voice of God in the cloud and the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This voice scares the disciples and they fall to the ground. Jesus comes to them, comforts them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” As Jesus and the disciples go down from the mountain, Jesus warns them not to tell anyone about what has taken place.

In these two brief readings, we have the mountain of God, the glory of the Lord, something like devouring fire, someone entering a cloud, another high mountain (this one unnamed), visions of ancient biblical figures, and a voice from a cloud. These are a lot of mystical, unexplainable events. The transfiguration of Jesus leaves most of us with more questions than answers. I imagine that the disciples who witnessed those events probably had a lot of questions to ask Jesus. I wonder if they had a chance to ask him any questions as they were walking down the mountain. Or if Jesus left it at, “Now isn’t really the time to talk about what just happened.”

This idea of asking a question was what led me to reflect on the Transfiguration through the lens of the Scientific Method. Do you remember learning about the Scientific Method way back in elementary or middle school? The Scientific Method is how to conduct a proper experiment in order to prove something scientifically.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Scientific Method, let me provide the Cliff Notes version, by my reading of it. I am not a trained scientist, so this is just my interpretation of what I read online.

There are six important steps to the Scientific Method. Step one begins by asking a question. After you determine your question, step two is doing background research. Once you have completed your research, you move on to step three: construct a hypothesis. Now is the fun part, step four is a test with an experiment. As we conduct our experiment, we want to check in along the way, making sure the procedure is working, troubleshooting and checking our setup. After our experiment is completed, we move on to step five and analyze the data. As we analyze the data, we are drawing our conclusions and determining if the results prove our hypothesis. Our final step, step six, is to communicate the results. 

There are so many questions raised by today’s readings it would be hard to choose just one to examine with the scientific method. If we consider the Exodus reading and the reading from the Gospel of Matthew together, one question we could explore might be, “Where do we encounter God?” Moses was on Mt. Sinai when he met the glory of the Lord in a cloud. Jesus, Peter, James and John were on a high mountain when they encountered God. Peter, James, and John observed Jesus transfigured and a cloud spoke to them. In some ways, the passage in Exodus can serve as our background research. There is evidence of God visiting people in a cloud and experiences of meeting God on mountaintops. If we were conducting a proper science experiment, we could search for other places in the Bible where God has visited people, on a mountaintop or elsewhere.

So we have completed steps one and two, in our hypothetical experiment, we asked a question and we have done some background research. Now it is time to formulate our hypothesis. Based on our question, “where do we encounter God?”, and our research, I think our hypothesis should be, We can encounter God on a mountaintop. Let’s imagine I decide to test this hypothesis with an experiment. Normally, scientists shouldn’t include themselves in an experiment, but we are way beyond the scope of traditional science anyway. So for the sake of imagination, I decided to test out the hypothesis myself. I live in New Haven, so the first mountaintop I might try out could be East Rock or West Rock. There are so many factors to consider. Does time of day affect whether or not I will encounter God? What about the time of year? Maybe the “mountains” in New Haven aren’t tall enough, so I might travel to the highest mountain in the state of Connecticut, Bear Mountain. Or slightly further afield, Mount Katahdin in Maine or Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

It would be nearly impossible to determine if this experiment had been set up correctly. We can’t pinpoint God and we can’t force God into an experiment. So we probably won’t have good data to draw any conclusions from and we won’t be able to prove any hypothesis. However, the fact that our faith in God or our encounters with God can’t be proved scientifically doesn’t make them any less valid. This is the beautiful thing about God. We can have a genuine relationship with God that might be completely unexplainable.

The final step of the Scientific Method is to communicate results. Even though Jesus tells his disciples not to share what they witnessed until later, we are able to share about our experiences with Christ and God. In fact, I believe that we are called to share our encounters with Christ.

Today is the final Sunday in the church season of Epiphany. Epiphany (with a capital E) begins with the wise men paying homage to the Christ child. The wise men encountered the divine through the baby Jesus. Merriam Webster includes several different definitions of epiphany (with a lowercase e):

  • an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being
  • a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something
  • an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking
  • an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
  • a revealing scene or moment

These various definitions of epiphany point us toward the epiphany that took place alongside the Transfiguration. Moses encountered the divine on Mt. Sinai and in this encounter he was given the commandments on stone tablets, so there was discovery and disclosure as well in Moses’ epiphany.

We are told at the end of the reading for today that Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. We are on the cusp of our own forty day period, the season of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. Maybe you are beginning to contemplate whether you will adopt a Lenten practice? A Lenten practice of abstaining from something, like alcohol or social media, or a Lenten spiritual practice of daily prayer or meditation. 

A forty day Lenten practice can often be a time of experiment, similar to the steps we examined in the Scientific Method. Thoughtfully discerning what kind of Lenten practice God might be calling you towards can align with asking yourself a question and maybe even formulating a hypothesis.

For example, I am going to try to adopt a Lenten practice of daily prayer for ten minutes a day. Contrary to popular belief, seminary does not always automatically benefit your spiritual life. It can be challenging to find time for authentic one-on-one connection with God, even when attending worship several times a week. I know that I am very goal driven so attempting to pray for ten minutes every day during Lent will help me to stay focused. 

Unlike the Scientific Method, I won’t be able to calculate whether my experiment has been successful at the end of the Lent, but I anticipate that I will feel closer to God as Easter approaches. Remember the final step of the Scientific Method? Communicate results! I certainly don’t want to brag to all my friends about my prayer practice, but I do think that checking in with our community is an important part of a healthy Christian community. Whether we choose to adopt a Lenten practice or not, we will journey together through the season of darkness until we arrive at the glory of Easter.

As we enter the season of Lent, there is another lesson to be drawn from the epiphanies and the Transfiguration. Sometimes we may have an epiphany like a lightbulb moment and revelation happens immediately in the moment. But more often, epiphanies can come over time. Maybe you have “known moments of surprised illumination when, through some outwardly ordinary act, or fragment of conversation, someone who you thought you knew fairly well was suddenly revealed in a completely new light?” Epiphanies are rarely confined to the initial encounter. Extraordinary experiences of illumination often require time lapses of time for contemplation.

So as we enter the season of Lent, whether you choose a Lenten practice or not, whether you embark on a journey of experimentation or ignore the Scientific Method completely, let us find our comfort in the words of Jesus to his disciples, “Get up and do not be afraid.” We do not know what epiphanies may await us in our Lenten journey. But we must get up, and go out into the world, we cannot remain on the mountaintop. We will journey with Jesus through the challenging season of Lent. No matter how heavy the burden of the cross may seem, we wait with anticipation for the joy of Easter morning. And for now we celebrate the mystical experience of the Transfiguration. Amen.

“What is grace?” Sermon

This sermon was preached on October 27, 2019 at Bolton Congregational UCC in Bolton, CT. I am grateful to the loving and welcoming congregation in Bolton for opening their pulpit to me! Special thanks to First Congregational Church of Griswold, CT where I first considered this topic, “what is grace?” and to my Preaching section, led by Ned Parker, where I workshopped this sermon.

What is grace?

This question was brought to me at the church I was pastoring this summer. One week I invited the congregation to share questions with me for use in a future worship service. Now I certainly don’t presume to have all of the answers, but I believe that in asking questions together we can each grow in our faith. And I share this question with you this morning because I think the question, “What is grace?” is more common than the one individual who submitted it, or the one congregation that thought about it over the summer. When I read the news headlines or talk with friends in many different communities, I see a world that needs a reminder about God’s grace.

When we think about grace, maybe the first thing that comes to mind is a blessing before a meal. Like I shared with the children, when I was younger that was my understanding of grace – saying the words before dinner, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ Our Lord, Amen.” This type of grace is a way of saying or offering thanks to God before a meal.

Grace before a meal doesn’t have to be the formal version of a prayer, maybe you will try out one of those fun camp prayers that I shared with kids, “Rub a dub dub/ Thanks for the grub/ Yay God! Amen.” Saying a prayer before sharing a meal together is one simple way to pause and remind ourselves of God’s grace.

But what IS grace?

Grace can seem like a murky concept or a fluffy word. I think the core of grace is relationships: our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, and our relationship with others.

Grace is often hard to grasp because we can’t see it. And while we can’t see grace, I believe that we can sometimes feel it. For example, to be “held in God’s grace” might remind us of a time when we felt alone, but felt God’s comforting presence with us. Or to be “held in God’s grace” could mean a physical embrace of a friend supporting us in a time of mourning a loved one.

Grace is about relationships because grace is how God is in relationship with us. We have flaws, we make mistakes, we fail, and God still loves us and stays in relationship with us. God’s grace is unearned, undeserved, and even unexpected.

As Christians, we are called to be in community with one another. As humans, we struggle to have grace for ourselves and for each other. Maybe you even have an easier time showing grace for another person than you do for yourself?

My own lesson in understanding grace came while living in Christian community in Washington DC. I lived in a house with four other adults. Five adults in one house requires a bit of negotiation and, as I learned, having grace for one another. Five adults sharing one kitchen and two bathrooms requires coordination and grace. But let me tell you, GRACE doesn’t clean the kitchen!

We were five adults who had our own chore chart. Just like you might see on Pinterest. A laminated piece of paper that lived on our fridge and instructed who was responsible for which chore for the month. One person was in charge of garbage, making sure the bins were taken out of the backyard and into the alley on the correct day. One person was in charge of outside, sweeping the front porch, weeding as needed, or snow shoveling in the winter. Another person was in charge of floors, sweeping and dusting. And one person was responsible for the kitchen.

Granted each person was supposed to clean up after themselves when they cooked. But usually the kitchen was the center of all disasters. Five adults sharing one fridge – things had a habit of getting buried in the fridge and turning into what could have been science experiments. I often found myself growing frustrated by the sense of disorder and chaos that was lurking in the kitchen. I would become irritated when the roommate responsible for the kitchen did not perform what I deemed an adequate job keeping it clean. I expressed my frustration to another roommate. This roommate gently nudged me by asking me if I could consider extending grace to the roommate who had not been cleaning up the kitchen. Grace? Honestly this was a little bit of a foreign concept for me. In my family, I am the oldest child. I have a younger brother and younger sister. And growing up, my siblings jokingly would call me the “Fairness Police” because of the frequency that I claimed “That’s not fair!” to our parents.

So what would it mean for me to try out grace as a response to my roommate who was frustrating me? I remember sitting down and praying to God. At first I felt a little unsure. But I sat in my room listening for God’s still speaking voice. I asked God to help me find grace for my roommate.

Through my time of prayer, I was able to see my roommate in a new light. Rather than first growing frustrated over the mess in the kitchen, I instead remembered how stressed they had been lately at work. They were unhappy in their job and searching for a new one. They spent more time in their own room than in our common spaces because of their stress and job search. Through prayer and reflection, I was able to consider grace as a response.

Why do we struggle to understand grace? I believe that we often find grace challenging because our faith is counter-cultural. The grace that we experience through God is not supported by our surrounding culture. A counter-cultural faith is what the letter to the Ephesians is addressing as well. Our reading from Ephesians reminds us as Christians that we are called to new life through Christ. God’s grace offers us blessings, even when we feel unworthy, even when we make mistakes. God is faithful and God’s grace is freely given. We do not need to work for God’s grace.

How do we grapple with our own counter-cultural faith? Society tells us that there is no such thing as a free lunch, we have to work hard to get rewarded. American culture emphasizes bettering yourself and often idolizes independence, a can-do or do-it-yourself attitude.

Keep working at your job, keep working to make yourself more physically fit, keep working at your relationship with your spouse to make it better. Keep working, keep working, keep working.

BUT God tells us to rest. God tells us, You are enough.

God made you and you are loved. We do not need to earn God’s grace the same way you might earn money or negotiate a raise. This requires trust.

Extending grace in our relationships with others can be complicated. Grace is not an excuse for domestic violence or abuse. Divine grace does not allow for one person to hold power over another.

What is grace? Each of you gathered here today have your own story and experience of grace. After the service this morning, I encourage you to consider sharing a story about a time that you experience God’s grace or you were able to extend grace to yourself. During our musical meditation following the sermon, maybe think back to a time when you experienced God’s grace. Consider sharing this story with another person today or sometime in the week ahead. What is grace to you?

I’d like to close with a blessing of grace from Rev. Ellen Jennings, the pastor of my home church, Cleveland Park Congregational UCC in Washington DC. Hear now these words of blessing:

Grace. Is about second chances. And third and fourth and fifth… Grace comes when you don’t deserve it. Or maybe you do. But it’s not dependent on you. And you can mess up [again and again] and grace is still possible. […] Grace is possibility. Grace is redemption. Grace is what you get when you thought it couldn’t happen. […] Grace knows transformation is always happening. Grace tries to tell us we’re capable of being different even while being loved just as we are. […] Grace precedes us. Grace accompanies us. Grace surpasses us. Grace surprises us. Graces comes after us—both pursuing and completing us. […] Grace is what “it” is all about. Growth. Change. Transformation. Reconciliation. Love—of neighbor and of self. […][1]

To all of God’s beloved community gathered here this morning:

Grace to you and peace from God who is both Father and Mother and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] Link to church website where Rev. Ellen Jennings words on grace can be found:

June 16 Sermon: Meditation on the Trinity

This sermon was originally preached on June 16, 2019 at First Congregational Church of Griswold, Connecticut. I provide a brief introduction and then guide the congregation in a meditation on the Trinity.

Today is Trinity Sunday where we celebrate the gift and mystery of the Trinity. I shared one famous representation of the Trinity with the children through the icon created by Russian painter Andrei Rublev in 1425, nearly 600 years ago! I hope you are able to take a moment to look at these icons during coffee hour after worship, if you haven’t already seen them. Icons serve as portals to the Divine. By gazing on an icon, we can see God. This icon of the Trinity is especially powerful. It invites us to imagine ourselves at the table with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We might consider why they are gathered at this table? What are they calling our attention to with the gaze of their eyes or the pointing of their fingers?

The Trinity is another one of the mysteries of the Christian faith, just like the many mysteries in the Bible we talked about last Sunday. Just because something is a mystery does not mean that it is unknowable or impossible to understand. Sometimes a mystery just takes a different way of approaching it to discover what gifts are within. 

This morning, instead of a traditional sermon, I’d like to invite you to join in a time of guided meditation and prayer. Now I recognize that for some of you, this might seem a little “new age-y” or strange. Some of you might be thinking, “I can’t meditate, I can’t stay focused.” But trust me, you can’t do it wrong! Even if you get distracted, that is okay.

Feel free to stretch side to side in a seated position if you’d like. Now I know that normally the pastor might be concerned if you have your eyes closed during the sermon. To enter into a time of contemplative prayer, I invite you to close your eyes, if you feel comfortable, or feel free to focus your gaze, maybe even looking out the window or looking at your hands. Let’s prepare ourselves for this time of meditation and prayer by paying attention to our breathing. As I have said before, our breath is the most basic form of prayer. Even when we do not have any words to say, by paying attention to our inhales and exhales we can call out to God. Take a deep, life-giving breath. And maybe try counting your inhale and exhale. One, two, three. One, two, three. Find whatever pace is comfortable for you. At any time, if your mind wanders, you can always return to your breath to recenter yourself and focus your meditation and prayer.

Let us begin.

God we ask you to be present to us this morning as we enter into this time of guided meditation and prayer. We desire to more fully understand the mystery of the Trinity, God three-in-one. In this time of meditation, we will spend time prayerfully considering each of the ways you are made known to us through the Trinity: God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. 

We begin with you God, as you were in the beginning. Yahweh. Jehovah. Elohim. There are so many names for you God. We seek to know you and see your hand at work in our world. God you are both Father and Mother, you care for each human being on this planet. No matter our own relationship with our own mother and father, help us to feel your love God and to know that you love each one of us, just as we are. We remember how God the Creator worked in Genesis to create all of creation. On each day in the creation story in Genesis, God said that it was good. All of God’s creation is good, including each one of us. Sometimes God we might feel overwhelmed by how big you are or you may feel distant God. And so we offer thanks for your wisdom as shown in the Trinity. When we feel distant from God, we can turn to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. 

Let us focus our attention and prayer now on Jesus, the Messiah. Fully human and fully divine. God came down to Earth and took human form in Jesus. God you showed us how much you care for all of creation by living the human experience. Through Jesus, you knew what it was to be human, to have human physical limitations and needs. Jesus felt hungry and tired. Jesus loved and laughed with family and friends. Jesus walked and shared meals. Jesus was and is our teacher. Through the stories and parables Jesus offered his disciples, we continue to seek to follow the path of Christ in order to know you better God. Jesus who called out to you, Abba, Father God, as he suffered and died on the cross. Jesus revealed the miracle and mystery of resurrection. Jesus who we can turn to as our brother and sister in faith.

And the final piece of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost. We celebrated the gift of the Spirit last week at Pentecost. We thank you God for this gift of your presence made known to us through our every breath. We can hear the presence of the Spirit through the wind rustling the leaves or brushing against our face. The Holy Spirit is our sustainer.

Alpha and Omega. Beginning and End. As we come to the end of our guided meditation, I invite each of you to consider which part of the Trinity you feel most connected to in this moment and to remain in time of silent prayer for two minutes. Remember that if you feel your mind wandering, you can focus on your breath. Counting your inhale and exhale: one, two, three. Maybe one of the names of God is calling out to you:

Abba, Father, Jehovah, Yahweh, or Creator.

Or maybe you want to spend time in prayer with Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

Take the next two minutes for silent prayer and meditation on the Trinity as it is speaking to you this morning. I will ring this prayer bowl to signal the end of the two minutes.

April 7 Sermon from Spring Glen Church: “Faith Beyond Words”

This sermon was preached on April 7, 2019 at Spring Glen Church in Hamden, Connecticut. An audio recording is available online.

Faith Beyond Words 

Let me set the scene for you.

I am walking into a chapel in San Salvador. The doors are wide open. There are windchimes overhead made from seashells. I hear them jingle as a cool breeze comes through the sanctuary. The space is simple, but filled with light. There are windows all around. I see huge flowering rhododendrons outside. I walk farther into the chapel and I focus my attention on the chancel. There are almost a dozen fresh flower arrangements around the altar. Maybe this is because Oscar Romero’s feast day is only one week away?

As I approach the altar my eyes are drawn to a glass engraving on the floor. The glass depicts an outline of where Oscar Romero’s body fell after he was shot and killed while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. I am in the chapel at Hospitalito Divina Providencia in San Salvador. A few days earlier I hardly even knew of the existence of this exact place. However, as I walk around the chapel, soaking in the magnificent beauty of the nature that surrounds me, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I understand that I am walking on holy ground.

A few days before this encounter with the Spirit, I traveled over 2000 miles from New Haven, Connecticut to San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador with a group of ten other Yale Divinity School students and our two faculty leaders. We had been preparing for this trip for nearly seven months. We had read over 1500 pages across ten different books to educate ourselves intellectually on liberation theology, the stories of religious martyrs in El Salvador, experiences of global migration, and other academic topics. But this trip was not just an academic learning experience. Traveling to El Salvador was an immersion. An immersion into the Salvadoran culture, an immersion into a country that suffered from a horrific 12 year civil war, an immersion into a new place with sights, sounds, and smells that at times would overwhelm our senses.

In some ways, an immersion experience is meant to be sensory overload. We participate in such trips to shake up our sense of self and return home with a new and different way of thinking. New smells, new sounds, new tastes, new sights, and new feelings. New, new, new. Not only an abundance of new, but old too. While I was in El Salvador, I experienced many old memories rushing to the front of my mind. A taste of a pupusa, the national staple food in El Salvador, brought back memories of my time living in Washington DC and eating pupusas with friends after church. Most mornings I woke to the sounds of birds chirping much like what I hear when I wake up here in New Haven. We saw familiar chain restaurants, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut, Wendys, and others. The smell of fire where weeds were being burned in the countryside reminded me of the smell of campfires as a kid. When our senses our overloaded, the new is connected to the old, this is the way that our brains work. An immersion is an overwhelming experience but our brain protects us by reminding us that it is not all as new and jarring as it might first seem. 

Three days of feeling overwhelmed by sensory overload is what prepared me to stop and recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the chapel where Oscar Romero was killed. I had been searching for God in El Salvador. In our first two days of the immersion, we participated in two Catholic worship services entirely in Spanish. I do not speak Spanish and I struggled to connect with God during those worship services where I didn’t understand the prayers, I didn’t understand the songs, and I certainly didn’t understand the sermons! But those worship services weren’t meant for me. I was only an observer and just because I couldn’t  feel God’s presence does not mean that God was not there. God was certainly present in those worship services, in the people, and throughout El Salvador.

The scripture we heard this morning calls our attention to this sense of God’s presence. Here in our lived experiences, even when we might not initially recognize it: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands…” The letter writer in 1 John is reminding the reader of the tangible lived experiences they have had as followers of Jesus Christ. They have experienced the word made manifest through their senses, they heard, saw, and touched. A little bit of background about 1 John might help us understand the context of this passage. 1 John is an epistle written in such a similar style and with a similar vocabulary to the Gospel of John, that it leads biblical scholars to conclude that it was likely written by someone in the Johannine school, a follower of the writer of the Gospel of John. In ancient times, a letter was written to convey important information. Often the cost of visiting in person was very expensive. So it was more economical to send a letter. This particular letter was written because of a schism in the Christian community. In the church, letters were written to clarify and weigh in on debated topics. This background is important to recognize what is being emphasized. 1 John is reminding the reader of the importance of their fellowship as Christians and how they came to join this fellowship. They joined in fellowship because of what they experienced with their senses, “that which they heard, saw and touched.”

When I struggled to feel God’s immediate presence in El Salvador, it took a moment of reflection on what I had heard, seen, and touched. The reading that I had done to prepare for this immersion in El Salvador changed the way that I experienced everything. I was so much more aware of the history and the theology. There were many details that I might not have noticed if it wasn’t for the preparation that I had done. In particular, learning about Oscar Romero. The reading from 1 John says, “we saw it, and testify to it.” Romero, like Martin Luther King, Jr., saw that his life was under threat. But he testified anyway. He continued to preach the gospel even though he had foreseen that it would cost him his life. 

The final story I will share this morning from El Salvador is a new theology that I learned. This is the theology of cohetes. Cohetes is the Spanish word for rockets or firecrackers. We participated in a novena prayer walk with a rural Catholic community. A novena is 9 days of prayer leading up to celebrating a saint’s feast day. During this novena prayer walk, we joined about thirty local community members walking along about two miles of dusty half-paved road. The group was singing songs and saying prayers along the way. All of a sudden a firecracker when off and I almost jumped out of my skin. By the end of the novena prayer walk, around 12 fireworks had been shot off and we had learned about the theology of cohetes. This is a theology of place. When you shoot off a firecracker, you do so from the ground. You light it and it shoots up towards the sky. The crack sound catches your attention and you look up towards the sky. In a religious sense, by looking upward we might draw our attention towards the heavens, towards a sense of the mystery and our awareness of God’s presence. Shooting off the firecrackers not only draws our attention, but the attention of those around us. That particular community used the firecrackers as a way to evangelize, to show others what they were doing and invite them in. I was drawn to the theology of cohetes because so often my own faith experience is orderly, inside, and quiet. The firecrackers led me to wonder about ways that I can testify in a similar way?

Not everyone can go on an immersion trip. But each of us can reflect on what we have seen, what we have heard, and we testify to in our lived experience as Christians. Do you need a firecracker to shake up your faith life? Or maybe you are the one who is lighting the firecracker to call attention to those around you?

Let us each continually reflect on what we have seen, what we have heard, and what we have looked upon and touched with our hands, in order that we might testify to it. Amen.