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Homily Excerpts

"Knockin' on Heaven's Door"


Advent is time out of time. It is the four weeks set aside before the birth of Jesus to remember his coming in the future, in the past, and in the present.  It is the season of dreams. God used dreams to communicate with Mary and Joseph in the first Advent, and this continues to be the time to honor God’s voice in the mysterious places of our lives.  Advent calls us to believe God is not dead, revelation is alive and our lives are an incarnation of love.  We can believe in a mystical God that dwells in the fabric of creation still creating new life. We can believe in "deep calling to deep."  We can share Isaiah’s vision of swords beaten into plowshares and new paths cut through the desert.  It is the time to think about our beginnings and endings.  It stirs us to watch and wait upon the Lord.


"Mama, take this badge off of me I can't use it anymore.
It's gettin' dark, too dark to see, I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door.

Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door.  Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door."

I was walking on Venice beach.  That in itself is surreal.  In the distance you could see the smoke from fires in Malibu.  As the smoke billowed over the hills it was easy to imagine the mansions crumbling and exhausted firefighters battling against a wall of flames that look like the end of the world.  The news said 5,000 acres burned.  I was thinking about the fires when I passed an old hippy who had lived through the days of "flower power" singing Dylan’s song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."  The dream-like walk felt like a vision revealing the thin line between this crazy world and the deep well of eternity.  Not to see the vision would be like being a blind man walking.  We are knocking on heaven's door.  Everything between here and there is dust no matter how big and powerful it looks.  When we come knockin’ we are coming naked, no more or less than a child of God. We can't claim worth from mansions, from success or failure, from anything that we think is ours.  All that we have is ourselves.

"Mama, put my guns in the ground.  I can't shoot them anymore.
That long black cloud is comin' down.   I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door.

Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door. Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door. "

I went to a nursing home to give a man communion who was old when I was a child.  Walking down those halls, all your senses tell you to be afraid of death.  You see blank stares; you smell urine and hospital food; you hear nurses calling to one another from behind desks and doors; you taste a dread that this is death for all of us who are left standing in the field; and you touch cold metal as you reach to touch skin lying behind a bed railing.  The man has been in and out of consciousness and hooked up to oxygen.  He told me he loved God, but that he left the old church when they let a woman priest come.  There at the side of the bed, I felt a touch of panic.  I know in my head that I am a worthy child of God.  But, if my being is not good enough for him, even when he is knocking on heaven’s door, then maybe it’s partly true.  Sitting there I felt like a living embodiment of the fear that people harbor.  Maybe when people look at the end they fear they are not good enough.  Maybe people worry in their end time if anything is enough: the world, the life they have lived, or the faith they have carried.   Just as I let the fear sink in, the deep truth that lives in the quiet of this season pushed it aside.  Like a sweet early present, above the hum of the oxygen machine, beyond the fear of death, I felt close to God’s heart.  I swear we are enough for God.  I know that we can trust God’s love for us even if we doubt our love.  So I said, “Mr. Jones, I would like to give you communion, but I don’t want to offend you.” He said, wiping back a tear that I didn’t know had come, “I would love communion; I have been starving for it.  I am glad you came.”  That tear is my sign.  We are knocking on heaven’s door, but we are not knocking first or alone.  Beyond the worry and fear, there is tenderness and love. We can have courage in our faith, in our life, and in our death.  So it’s okay to come with just our hearts before our maker.  We can be sycamores in the world of faith, the ones standing tall and naked before God in a crowded forest of barked trees, looking strangely perfect.  

Glorious Late Fall


I believe the seasons change at night.  You can’t see a leaf change colors, so it is magical to wake up into the deep fall south.  At sunrise late fall becomes an impressionist vision with pink skies on an orange and crimson palate of sugar maples painted on yellow canvas framed in walnut.  Its stunning appearance allows you for a moment to forget where the earth ends and the heaven begins.  Banded clouds look like darker mountains and water looks like sky.   When it is that beautiful, you know the end of the year is near.  It is even more beautiful when you remember the trees endured a late frost and survived a harrowing draught. It is a tender vision knowing the leaves are hanging by a thread and in another night, the asters will bow their heads and call it a winter.  It is the moment when the fruits are their ripest, when we give thanks for everything and everyone, and when we reap.

The work of Magdalene, communities of women with criminal histories of drug abuse and prostitution, had its late fall moment last week at the Student Life Center at Vanderbilt University at our 10-year anniversary celebration. The night represented an ending and a beginning. When we began planning for the next ten years we said it is to walk deeper thinking locally and seeing how our actions are global.  We are just beginning to create a small global network of local communities of women that share the same war stories and need to work together in community to live safe and sober lives.  Next month, a woman who walked up to the front door at one of our houses from the neighborhood will graduate and is moving into her own home. Next week, two women from the Sudan who I talked about two weeks ago are flying out and beginning to form a not-for profit for other women there.  Next April, six women from this community and Magdalene will travel to Rwanda to work with the sisters of Rwanda to help them start working with natural body care products to create work.  After ten years of being about this work I can see that in being a part of restoring a life, we are restoring the world.
The late fall and Magdalene anniversary are beautiful and fleeting moments in time.  Jesus comments at the beginning of his time preaching in the temple that as beautiful as it all is, it is nothing compared to the kingdom within us.  He says that fall will pass, that he will pass, and that the temple will pass, but nothing will kill the kingdom being born in us.  It is the great message for us.  It is not about the end or beginning of times; it is not about our beginning or ending but the promise that in all our endings and beginnings God’s love and presence will not be lost.



Following the path of Jesus can drive you crazy.  I pray impatience with the Gospel is not a deadly sin!  While we may not necessarily want to skip the journey, and get to the destination, we at least would like to move ahead on our spiritual path.  Lord, each week, inch by inch, the church doles out only a tiny snippet of the story of Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.  Each week we preach and hear the Gospel a paragraph at a time.  Sometimes it is excruciatingly slow.  

This section of the Gospel of Luke is called, “The Journey”.  It begins in the 9th chapter after the transfiguration when Jesus has “his eyes set on Jerusalem”.  It continues until the 19th chapter of Luke with the triumphant entry into the Jerusalem.  These 10 chapters take months to read a paragraph at a time.  It took Jesus months as well, even though he could have traversed that amount of territory in a couple of weeks, easy.  Months after the transfiguration we find we are still wandering with Jesus right outside Jerusalem in Jericho. He may have had his eyes set on Jerusalem but his heart is sidetracked feeding, healing, teaching, and praying.  His disciples tried to keep him moving.  Right after the Gospel this morning they rebuke parents for bringing their infants to Jesus, but Jesus lets all the children come anyway.  He spends time visiting Pharisees, tax collectors, healing lepers, telling parables and debating in the synagogues and streets.  And those are just the events they recorded.  The image of a map with a hundred dotted lines going every which way indicating all the detours gives us a picture of what on the way may mean.

On the way he is slowly and patiently teaching his disciples.  At the beginning of the 12th Chapter the very first words to his little flock are, “meanwhile”.   That is the part that undoes me.  Meanwhile, while we preach a paragraph at a time, meanwhile, while we take up one more collection, meanwhile we eat a bite of bread and take a sip of wine.  Meanwhile, the world is burning for his message of radical love, the war is four and half years old, the number of people below the poverty level in America is on the rise, and the Nobel Prize has been given in recognition of the crisis of global warming.  Meanwhile, he is within fifty miles of Jerusalem in an occupied nation in which people are being persecuted.  Meanwhile he takes his own sweet time saying, don’t worry about tomorrow, give everything away, give thanks and watch and wait.

Meanwhile, two Sudanese women walked into my office.  I had scheduled forty-five minutes for their meeting.  They began the meeting by thanking me for my time, my precious time.  Then they told me the journey part of their story. 

They had been on a long and arduous journey from a long and bloody war that created an entire generation of refuges.  They told the story of the death of most of their family, their village being ruined, being separated from their siblings and friends since their childhood in the late 1980’s, fleeing to Egypt and the brutality they faced, the process of becoming refuges and arriving in Nashville in 2000.  Finally they are here and safe with their own children.  They are now feeling called to return to their hometown and build a school for the orphans of war.  They had their eyes set on freedom on a journey that took them 10 years; a journey that should only take a day by plane.  They get here and begin to get established.  But in their great humility, they were sitting in my office with beautiful thick accents saying they wanted to turn around and go back and help.  They said that God had been merciful to them and this was an expression of their gratitude. The Gospel message came flooding past my pharisaical mind and I could hear the words, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.  God forgive my arrogance and impatience.  God make hear the cry of others so that I don’t worry if I ever make it to Jerusalem.”   These two young women wanted to go back, register themselves as a new organization and get some land for their fellow pilgrims in need.  Having been given mercy from the war, they needed to make meaning out of all the suffering.  The scars on their legs are reminders we can’t walk fast enough to get away from the pain. We worked on their journey and how to begin to plan for a school when they return.

We can keep moving forward on the journey only to find out we have walked round and round and found ourselves right back where we started saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” I am not ready to go into Jerusalem yet.  I need to stand by the side of the road with the blind man, I need to climb a sycamore tree with Zaccheus, I need to stand in the temple with the tax collector and beg for mercy.  Dr. Buttrick, a Professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, taught us to proclaim the whole story of salvation and not be limited by the lectionary.  But sometimes studying a whole paragraph might be too much.  We may need to take it slower and stay at a verse long enough to feel it sink in, forgetting the journey and destination for awhile.  St. Paul says the Gospel is so rich we need to sip it.  Like communion, savored.  Digesting slowly what it means to be humble, until we feel it sink into our thick hearts.  It is enough to read, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”, be changed by the words, and the deeds these words provoke, so if we ever get to Jerusalem,  we are ready.

Familiar Woods


I was driving Moses when he told me he knew a more easier way to travel. “Moses,” I said in that correcting mother tone.  “Oh right, sorry,” he replied, “I mean it’s a very easier way to go.” I love his turn of the phrase and how innocent and tender those words sound rolling out of him. Taking this phrase as my own---the very easier way to travel in this world is to learn to see God in the details. For example, it’s one thing to love the woods and walk among them. It is a whole other thing to learn the details of a certain woods.  Then, out of nowhere, God’s voice and beauty spring up around corners you have turned for years.  Gratitude and thanksgiving wash over you anew as you celebrate a new appreciation for old trees and paths.  Right now in the woods of Tennessee you can see the sweet lavender asters bloom next to the golden rod as fall begins to make its appearance.  That color combination was mixed in Eden as beauty itself. The deer coats are turning just a shade darker into a rich roan color and the birds are growing so their songs sound confident and loud. You can hear hawks calling from deep woods and never see their faces.  The otter are cutting paths through thick duckweed on the lakes and the egrets are migrating.  It is enough to call a national holiday for me. But what makes it such an unbelievable gift to me is that I could miss it, and walk a less easier path, if I hadn’t learned the fine details of my familiar woods.



I walked in the woods and prayed at Radnor Lake in Nashville Tennessee. As I was walking I realized that my prayer was one of thanksgiving for the trees and hoping they would survive the drought.  The trees stand their ground.  Stoic and accepting, they took the late frost this past spring and then called upon their own reserves to grow new leaves.  They stand tall and peaceful in this windless summer and shed those leaves with equal grace.  They seem particularly tender at Radnor Lake because as I walked by I caught sight of the life-saving water in the same vision.  The tree and lake are within sight, but the tree can't move and is dying of thirst.  I wonder sometimes if that is how we look to God.  We are within sight of the kingdom, but we stand on what we claim is our ground, or our truth, or our life, and it looks like we are dying of thirst by the water.

The Gospel Heats Up


Things are heating up here in the south and it doesn’t take a great prophet to see it. Newspapers, meteorologists, and strangers on the street all tell us the south wind is blowing bringing scorching heat and drought. The grass is returning to dust, the creeks are warm, the pavement is getting soft, and fragile woods are shedding leaves. It’s so dry that shedding feels useless. This heat sets the mood not just for the weather, but for what we need in our faith. We need to feel the heat, take it in, and let it fan the flames of our passion. Such heat makes us divisive, like Jesus says. We feel undone that it is not peaceful when we face injustice in our world and in our selves. It makes us, like Jeremiah says, tire of talk of dreams and long to hear the truth of God. We don’t have patience in the heat. It makes us, like the prophet says, worry and pray for the widow and poor among us. If you are homeless or worrying if you have enough money to pay the electric bill, everyone is praying with you. It makes me uncomfortable.

Jesus keeps stepping up the heat until we can hear him and wake up to the suffering of our brothers and sisters, see our own suffering in it, and feel the real worth of love in the world. I dare us to come to our faith unchallenged in this heat. We do not have it right yet. There are still children in this world with no water in places hotter than this. There are still people who want to draw a circle and say these folks are in and these are out. There are still people who love with judgment. All of us need to feel the heat in our own hearts and where our faith is calling us to stir up the fire of passion in our hearts, for the sake of love.

Poets and Sunsets


If you look at a sunset anywhere in the world and let the beauty of the sun kissing the day goodbye sink into your memory, it gives you a poet’s mind. If you look at a sunset anywhere in the world and see with clarity the shade of orange and the state of the cloud as a shadow stretches taut, it gives you a prophet’s vision. If you look at a sunset anywhere in the world and hope in the sunrise coming, it gives you a disciple’s heart. Poets and prophets live in all of us. It is becoming faithful in loving God that makes poets and prophets disciples. Becoming a disciple means becoming a servant and trusting the spirit will come like the sunrise. All of us are born with everything we need to make the journey. Everyone can see visions: Visions are sight, filled with grace. Everyone can be a poet: Poets are people who see visions and are willing to bear witness to them. Everyone can be a Prophet: Prophets are people who are willing to speak the truth of their visions to the world. But to become a disciple, a hopeful servant of a loving God, takes us a lifetime of sunsets.

We could write poetry forever about the subtly of the pink in sunsets but if we are not caring for the creation, we are wasting precious paper. We could preach forever, railing against the injustices of the principalities, but if we are not acting to ease one another’s burdens, the words are hollow and self-serving. The story of becoming servants of God is unfolding in the great span of time before and after sunsets. It is the story of a practice of love lived out in our individual and communal life.